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off-course [Discontinued]

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There are five other people on the passenger train.

            They all look at him with varying degrees of curiosity. Two of them are seated rather closely together in one of the compartments: the first one looks at him with droopy eyes, his bright pink cotton candy hair bouncing slightly with the motion, while the second is more obvious in his staring—looks at him with his eyes wide and mouth agape, full lips and long eyelashes apparent. Another pair sit in an adjacent compartment, though not as close as the first pair: the older-looking one of the two has a curious but polite smile on his face, his brown-ish, blonde-ish hair in short, choppy bangs; the other has his hair toned in two colors, a dull pink and a bluish-gray, as he looks smile-ready to greet him. The last person sits alone in a compartment farther from the rest, in the corner of the train car closest to the entrance, the blue in his black hair only visible when he shifts his head slightly to look at him directly in the eye, and say:

            “You don’t remember your name, do you?”

            He blinks once. Then twice.

            And then slowly, he shakes his head.

            “I… I don’t know how I even got here,” he says, weighing his words. He scratches his head, not really sure of how to go with this. He can’t remember anything. Or maybe, he just doesn’t know what he’s supposed to remember. Either way, he is extremely confused at the moment. Especially since he’s surrounded by five people he isn’t familiar with. “Do, uh… do any of you know where—wherever this is?”

            They all shake their heads, save for the black-haired man, who just lays back down on the compartment seat and closes his eyes as if he plans to sleep for the whole duration of the conversation. He wishes he had the luxury to do the same.

            “We’re all in the same situation,” the one with the blonde-ish hair helpfully supplies, sending him a sympathetic smile. “We just appeared in this… well, it looks like a train, anyway. I was the second one to arrive. That man with the blue hair was already here before me.”

            “I was third,” the pink-haired man says, slightly raising his hand.

            “Fourth,” the man with the two-toned hair says, grinning.

            “Fifth!” the man with long eyelashes enthusiastically exclaims, bouncing in his seat. He figures the man is a bit too happy for a situation such as this. “And you’re the sixth one to arrive, right after me. By the way,” he immediately adds after, “it was actually my turn to say, ‘You don’t remember your name, do you?’ but Blueberry over there—” he points accusingly at the lying man— “beat me to it. He told me I could say it if someone else arrives!”

            ‘Blueberry’ doesn’t bother to respond.

            “W-wait a minute,” he says, putting a hand out in a futile attempt to pause everything that’s going on. “So, none of you know the reason why any of us are here? Or how we even got here in the first place?”

            “Nope,” answers the pink-haired man, popping the ‘P’ and pushing his cheeks up as he leans forward in his seat. “None of us know why we’re here, or where ‘here’ even is. Like this blonde hyung said before, we just sort of… appeared here. Like you. We just… happened.

            “None of us remember our own ages, where we live, not even the date today. And just like… um…” He eyes the black-haired man warily— “‘Blueberry’-hyung said, we can’t remember our own names.”

            “Well…” starts the man with the two-toned hair, eyeing the people around him, “we at least know that wherever this is must be a train, or something that looks like a train. Before this guy here—” he gestures to the guy with long eyelashes— “arrived, the three of us checked around for a bit, and this place is massive. It even has its own restaurant car, and its own sleeping cabin.”

            “It’s definitely not a train for short distances,” adds the guy with long eyelashes, earning a nod from the man with two-toned hair, “so wherever we’re going, it’s going to take a long time before we get there. If this train is even going to move in the first place.”

            “Also, all the exits are locked,” the pink-haired man informs him, like an afterthought. “None of the entrances open, either. We tried to break the windows, but it’s like the glass is bulletproof or something.” He shrugs. “Guess whoever put us here didn’t want us to be able to leave.”

            He looks at the five of them, too confused to be scared at this point.

            “You all seem… calm about this,” he observes, wondering how any of them could hold up a smile (or sleep, even).

            “Oh, don’t worry,” the man with the blonde-ish hair laughs softly, “we’d all been panicking before you arrived. We just… tried to accept the situation.” He shares a look with the others, who all nod in agreement. “There was no point in freaking out over a situation we were already in, so it was best to just swallow it all in.”

            “Well, it was me, blonde hyung, and smile-y hyung who panicked, anyway,” clarifies the pink-haired man, scratching his cheek with a finger and glancing at the blonde man and the two-toned hair man. “‘Blueberry’-hyung and… uh… V, right?” his voice falters as he asks the question, turning to the man with long eyelashes, who nods enthusiastically. “Uh, yeah. The both of them were completely unaffected. V-hyung was just happy to make friends.”

            “V?” he echoes, looking at the man with long eyelashes.

            “That’s me!” ‘V’ happily replies. “I was just discussing with Pinky here—by the way, I told you to stop calling me ‘hyung’— and since I can’t remember my own name, I thought it’d be cool if I had a code name. Like 999!”

             “If this situation is anything like that game, then we’re gonna have a wonderful time,” Blueberry suddenly speaks, voice in a sarcastically flat tone and muffled by the hat he had covered his face with.

            “Stop ruining my vibe!” V says, looking ready to leave his seat and give the man a piece of his mind.

            “But that’s a good idea, though,” suddenly says the blonde-haired man. He tilts his head to one side, looking deep in thought. The others turn to look at him at the same time, and he wonders if this man had done something to earn the others’ trust and recognition. “We’ve all been referring to each other using vague descriptions, up until now. I think we should all have a code name to refer to, so as to make it not as difficult. V already has his,” he adds, waving a hand in his general direction. V makes a silent fist bump.

            “I agree,” Pinky says, raising a hand. “It’ll definitely make things a lot easier.”

            “In that case!” says the two-toned haired man, smiling widely. “You can all refer to me as Hope!”

            “Hope?” they all echo, in varying tones.

            ‘Hope’ nods, serious. “In this situation, it’s vital that we stay positive. Any of us could easily break under pressure, and when one breaks, others follow. We may not know each other, but we’ve got to have each other’s backs. If we’re gonna find a way to solve this problem we’re in, we’ve got to rely on one another. So, whatever happens, if you start losing hope, just remember my name!”

            “Woahhh, that’s so cool, man!” V yells out, standing up from where he was sitting and giving Hope a high-five. He returns it with a grin of his own. “Wish I could have thought of that.”

            Pinky hides a giggle behind his blue jacket.

            “Then I’ll be Junseo,” the man with blonde-ish hair states, stretching his arms out. The others turn to him, looking curious as to why he chose that, but he says, “There’s no particular reason for it; it was just the first thing I thought of. Not too hard to remember, right?” The others nod in agreement. Satisfied, he then turns to Pinky. “How about you? Have you thought of a code name yet?”

            Pinky purses his lips, a furrow in his eyebrows.

            “Not sure…” he timidly says, shrugging a little. “Uh, you guys should decide instead. It might be easier for you to remember that way. It’s not like I’ll forget that I’m me, so…”

            “Then we’ll call you Mochi!” V happily says, reaching over to pinch the man’s cheeks. “Since you’re so cute and tiny, like a mochi!”

            ‘Mochi’ slaps V’s hand away from his face, an uncharacteristic annoyance painting his features.

            “Anything but that,” he says, glaring at V.

            “Aw, you’re still cute when mad.”

            Not-Mochi is already tackling V and wrestling him to the seats when Hope says,

            “What about ‘Sea?’”

            The two turn to the man sitting across Junseo, Not-Mochi one hand-in-the-air away from getting V back for pinching his cheeks.

            “‘Sea?’” Might-Be-Sea echoes, slowly letting go of V, who raises clasped hands to the sky. Hope nods his head, and Might-Be-Sea purses his lips, deep in thought.

            “Well… I don’t mind it,” Sea says, voice a little soft. The way he speaks makes him think that he has more to say, but Sea’s mouth doesn’t open again after that. He wonders why.

            “Alright,” Junseo prompts, clapping his hands once and getting everyone’s attention, “We’ve got Hope, Junseo, Sea, and V, so far. We’ve only got two names left.”

            Junseo purses his lips, deep in thought. He eyes Blueberry, who’s been saving up his energy for the entire duration of this conversation.

            “Well… maybe we can keep calling Blueberry ‘Blueberry’ since we’ve already established that? V had been calling him that since he got here.” He turns to the man still lying down in his seat. “Is that alright with you?”

            “Do what you want,” Blueberry says, and his tone suggests that he doesn’t want any more part in this discussion than he already has.

            “Maybe we should call you ‘Salty’ instead,” Junseo mutters.

            “What about you?” Hope suddenly turns to him, a bright smile on his face. The others follow suit. “What should we call you?”

            It takes a while before he responds. It’s ridiculous, really, how calm and collected the others are. How easy it was for them to just come up with the idea of using nicknames and joining in, as if it was going to make the situation any better. Everything was just happening too fast, too much information flooding in at once, that he didn’t have time to panic about it. To panic about finding himself on a train with five strangers, to panic about not remembering his own name, to panic for the sake of panicking.

            But the others are looking at him with hopeful expressions on their faces, and it’s at that moment that he realizes that they all must have gone through the same thing as him. That they’re all just trying to make it easier for him.

            ‘Accept the situation,’ Junseo said. He’s going to have to try.

            So, he looks at each and every one of them: at pink-haired Sea, who stares at him with an innocent, curious gaze; at happy-go-lucky V, who just can’t be bothered to get worried by anything; at Junseo, whom he feels he can rely on like an older brother; at Hope, who, despite not knowing anyone here, decided he wanted to keep spirits high; and then finally, at Blueberry, who had spoken to him the least, but had also spoken to him first before anyone else did.

            “… Red,” he finally says. “It’s my favorite color.”

            Smiles start appearing on everyone’s faces—some wider, others a bit politer, and one hidden behind a wooly hat (if there even is a smile present in the first place).

            “Red-hyung.” Sea stands up, walks to him, and, before he knows it, grabs both of his hands in his own. Sea sends Red a bright, genuine smile, and Red feels that, whatever he’s going to say next, he’ll mean it.

            “Welcome to the group,” Sea says, a wide and bright and genuine smile on his face.

            A strong breeze suddenly comes crashing by, sending all light-weighted objects in the room flying in the air, the curtains swishing with the movement. Sea tightens his grip on Red’s hands. Junseo and Hope give each other a knowing look. Blueberry removes his hat from his face, opening his eyes. And V, for the first time since Red had come here, looks speechless.       

            “… Someone just got on the train,” V finally says, breathless, a smile slowly creeping up his face.

            The breeze dies down, and a figure appears by the entrance. No signs, no warnings, nothing. Just appeared there in the blink of an eye. Like they’d been here since the beginning, and had only been noticed just now. Red wonders if this is how it was like when he appeared on the train.

            It’s a man, a tall one with a round face that suggests a dimply smile. His hair is a dull shade of pink, just a bit darker than Sea’s cotton candy hair. He stands by the entrance in a humble but not out-of-place stance, hands in the pockets of his dark green jacket. His gaze fleets across the six pairs of eyes staring back at him, him looking confused but at the same time trying to analyze the situation.

            V suddenly stands up from where he was sitting to walk over to the newcomer, who looks at him oddly.

            “Let me guess: you don’t remember your name, do you?” he asks, and there’s a knowing smile on his face.

            The newcomer just furrows his eyebrows.

            “What are you talking about?” he asks. “My name is Kim Namjoon.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Before V even has time to react, a deep voice resonates throughout the entire train.

            “Greetings, passengers,” the voice announces, and all of them freeze in shock, except for Kim Namjoon, who merely flinches and furrows his eyebrows, trying to look for where the voice came from.

            V immediately looks for the eyes of his companions, and when their gazes meet, he knows they’re just as confused as he is. This is the first time this has happened, and none of them know what to do. He sees Pin—Moch—Sea cling to Muscl—Red, the new guy, who looks like he isn’t sure if he should be concerned about the voice or the man clinging to him, who is looking all-ready to jump out of the window (if they had been able to open in the first place). Browni—Junseo shares a look with Ice Cr—Hope, who tries to return it calmly but looks even more scared than Sea. Blueberry (there’s a name V doesn’t have to correct) sits up from where he lay before, putting his fluffy bonnet back on his head, eyes squinting.

            A deep chuckle comes, surprising everyone again.

            “I see you’re a bit… flustered,” the voice says. Now that V is hearing this again, it sounds like a middle-aged man. The voice is also a bit radio-like, as if whoever is speaking is talking through a microphone, sort of like an announcer. (Wow, how does V know all of this? Before he lost his memories, he must’ve been very smart.) “But do not be alarmed—I am merely here to guide you on your journey.”

            “Journey?” Red suddenly asks, and the others turn to him. “Journey to where, exactly?”

            “All in good time, my boy; all in good time,” the voice says, and V decides then that if this guy was going to retire, he should get his job. ‘All in good time,’ is such a good catchphrase. “First, let me introduce myself: My name is Bang Sihyuk, your guide to the next destination.”

            All of them give each other looks, and both Junseo and Red echo, “Next destination?” at the same time. It’s a little funny, actually.

            “I’m sure you’re all confused as to why I haven’t introduced myself sooner,” Bang Sihyuk says, “and I’m sure you must have noticed that none of you arrived at the same time. The first arrival, as you’ve previously mentioned, was Blueberry-gun. Then came Junseo-gun. Then Sea-gun. Then Hope-gun. Then V-gun. And finally, Red-gun. The reason for such…” Bang Sihyuk chuckles. “You’ll find out in good time. Though I’m sure you’ve all already been waiting long enough for some of your questions be answered. All of this time I’ve stayed quiet, waiting for the right time to answer your questions.

            “Finally, that time has arrived.”

            V can practically hear Bang Sihyuk’s smile.

            “… now that the final passenger has, as well.”

            They all turn to Kim Namjoon, who looks back at them with bewildered eyes. It’s like the temperature of the room dropped, a shivering tension filling in the room. All eyes are on Kim Namjoon, on the new arrival, and apparently, the last one.

            “Wait…” V suddenly speaks up, tearing his eyes off Kim Namjoon’s confused face and addressing Bang Sihyuk, “… so you’re saying… no one else will arrive after this?”

            “That is correct,” Bang Sihyuk answers.

            “Then that means…” V gasps. “I can’t believe this!”

            Everyone turns their attention to him. V looks back, face painted with shock at his realization.

            “All this time I’ve been trying to tell the new arrivals, ‘You don’t remember your name, do you?’, and when I finally got to say it, he actually remembers his name! Now you’re telling me that he’s the last one? I’m never gonna get the chance to say that line to anyone ever again!”

            It’s complete silence.

            Then, Sea snorts.

            “You have got to be kidding me,” he says, a smile creeping up his face.

            Slowly, the tension in the air starts to lift and everyone relaxes, some of them hiding laughs behind their hands. The only ones who still look a bit tense are Blueberry and Kim Namjoon, the latter looking even more confused, and the former’s eyes still on Kim Namjoon’s.

            A chuckle crackles in that radio-like sound again.

            “I see V-gun is a bit of a mood maker,” Bang Sihyuk laughs, and everyone’s attention goes back to him, though a lot less scared than before. “You’ll need someone like him on this journey, I’m sure.”

            “Cut the crap,” Blueberry spits, surprising both Red and Kim Namjoon, who turn to him, surprised. “You keep mentioning this ‘journey’ like a broken record. Just get to the point and tell us why we’re on this damn train so we can get the hell off of it.”

            “I was going to get to that, Blueberry-gun,” Bang Sihyuk says, and V can see the blue-haired man narrow his eyes. “Although I understand your impatience; you’ve been here the longest, and quite long enough.” Blueberry does roll his eyes this time.

            “Let me explain why you are all here,” Bang Sihyuk starts, and everyone visibly tenses. “You were all… chosen.” He says it like he picked the word out of a glass bowl. “I won’t tell you how, because I’m sure you’ll discover it soon. You will all go on a journey to seven different locations, all of which are different from each other. You can choose to venture into the destination, or stay on the train—all of that is up to you. But be wary of your time should you choose to venture out.”

            Bang Sihyuk’s voice suddenly turns dark.

            “… The train will not wait for you.”

            No one speaks for a while.

            “But do not worry.” The cheery (though scary) tone to Bang Sihyuk’s voice comes back. “No matter how far you are from the train, you will be able to hear the train horn. No more than seven times, and the train will move on to its next destination. As long as you do not venture too far, you won’t have to worry about being left behind.”

            They all eye each other warily. Junseo speaks up.

            “So, these seven locations…” he starts, a bit unsure, “we won’t know what they are until we get there?”

            “I am afraid not, Junseo-gun,” Bang Sihyuk answers.

            “Why do we have to go to those places, anyway?” Red asks, skeptical. “You won’t tell us how we got chosen in the first place—okay, fine. Whatever. You tell us we’re going on a trip to seven unfamiliar places—okay, cool. But why are we going there? Why is there even a need to choose people to go on this crazy trip in the first place? Is this some sort of experiment?”

            “999,” V whispers to Red.

            “No—” Red starts, but then cuts himself off. He addresses Bang Sihyuk, questioning, “Is it?”

            Bang Sihyuk chuckles.

            “You’ll find out,” he says in a jesting tone, “all in good time.”

            “That is such a good catchphrase,” V mutters under his breath.

            “But for now,” Bang Sihyuk continues, “it is time for our journey to start.”

            The train starts moving suddenly, and everyone almost falls to the ground from the movement, except for Blueberry, who had been already seated.

            “It’s moving; oh my god, the train is moving,” Sea hurriedly says, slightly panicking.

            “Alright, everyone—stay calm,” Junseo says, sounding more alarmed than scared like everyone else is, “just sit down for the moment.”

            Everyone immediately follows his orders, Red seating on the compartment adjacent to Blueberry’s, Sea clinging to Red as if he was the compartment seat, Hope doing the same to Junseo, and V and Kim Namjoon finding themselves seated in the same compartment.

            “I will be here whenever you need me,” Bang Sihyuk announces. “And I’ll be waiting for your call.”

            With Bang Sihyuk’s leave, the train horn starts sounding, and the train itself starts moving forward, adding a constant tremor to the room that used to be as still as a statue before. As the train moves, so does the view outside the window, the one of a snowy field, of the trees that now move further and further away.

            “Huh,” V hears Junseo say quietly, almost whispering, “those trees were so still I was starting to think they were backdrops.”

            As the train moves on, no one speaks. It’s weird, really. Before, the only thing that any of them had done was speak. It was like none of them got tired of talking, maybe using words as a way to pass the time, or a form of therapy or comfort. But right now, as the train finally starts moving, after ages and ages of waiting for something to happen, now… there’s nothing to talk about.

            No. There is.

            “So,” V starts. Everyone stops looking out the window to look at him, but he only has one face he needs to look at right now.

            “Kim Namjoon.” The addressed man looks at him, eyebrows slightly furrowed, across V as the two of them sit in the same compartment.

            “How on Earth do you remember your name?”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Everyone visibly holds their breath as they wait on Namjoon-hyung’s response. It’s the question that had been hanging in the air ever since the man indirectly introduced himself, the question that everyone wanted to ask but wasn’t able to.

            But most importantly, it’s the question that could give the answer to so many others, and Sea has so many.

            Unfortunately, all Namjoon-hyung does is deepen the furrow in his eyebrows, either confused or suspicious or both.

            “Why would there be a reason to?” he asks, eyes scanning the gazes of the other passengers. “Don’t you remember any of your names?”

            Sea hears a sigh from the other side of the train.

            “That’s the thing,” Junseo-hyung says, visibly tired, “we don’t.”

            He must be exasperated, Sea thinks. He’d been trying to hold the group together and keeping everyone calm as they arrived on the train, being the second one to get on. When Sea had arrived after Junseo-hyung, he had immediately panicked over the fact that he didn’t remember anything, not even his name, or where he came from, nothing. He had burst into tears after finding himself in an unfamiliar place, not knowing what to do, not even noticing the two other passengers on the train. Junseo-hyung had approached him, a ball on the floor, and calmed him down, telling him that everything must have been confusing but that everything was also okay despite of it. He had patted his back until Sea no longer had any tears streaming down his face.

            Ever since the beginning Junseo-hyung had been the one everyone looked up to, having helped everyone who had come after Sea to their senses: Hope-hyung, who had been so afraid to approach the other three that he wouldn’t unstick his back from the wall; V-hyung, who was convinced that this was a real-life version of some game called 999 and almost tried to do something stupid to get off the train; Red-hyung, who was a lot calmer than the three of them but had both of his hands in fists at his sides, shaking as the others explained the situation; and now, Namjoon-hyung, who didn’t even have the chance to give a proper introduction.

            Sea almost misses Junseo-hyung’s words with the thought bubble that suddenly grew in his head.

            “—of us remember anything about ourselves,” Junseo-hyung says. “Not our backgrounds, not our families—if we even have one—and certainly not our names. So you can understand if all of us are a bit tense right now, Namjoon-ssi—is it alright if I call you that?”

            For a moment, Namjoon-hyung doesn’t say anything and just stares at Junseo-hyung, an unreadable expression on his face. Sea can see V-hyung hanging on to every word, Hope-hyung glancing between the two, unsure, Red-hyung tensed at the tension, and Blueberry-hyung not caring one bit, staring out the window.

            Then Namjoon opens his mouth to say,

            “Namjoon is fine.”

            A smile spreads across Junseo-hyung’s face.

            “Then, Namjoon, would it be alright to tell us why only you remember your name?” he asks.

            Namjoon-hyung shrugs.

            “It’s the only thing I do remember,” he says. “If what you’re saying is true, then I’m just like you. I don’t remember anything about myself, either, save for my name. I mean, I remember how the world works—countries, cities, restaurants, things like that. Seasons, flowers, dogs, people—but nothing related to who I am, what I do, the friends I have or don’t, a family, nothing.”

            Sea slumps his shoulders a bit, trying not to show his disappointment: he had hoped that Namjoon-hyung would offer something that could help the predicament they’re in, give a tiny piece of the puzzle they’re trying to form. He sees the others try to hide their disappointment as well, though two seem to be unbothered, one leaning forward with wide eyes and the other looking like he’s about to fall asleep.

            “There must be something special about you, though,” V-hyung says, leaning into Namjoon-hyung’s space as he leans forward, much to the latter’s obvious irritation. “Even if you’re just as clueless as us, you’re definitely not as memory-less. You actually remember something. So whoever put us here must have thought you were worth giving that memory to.”

            As V-hyung talked, he kept leaning closer to Namjoon-hyung, the furrow in the latter’s eyebrow deepening more and more with every inch. He looked as if V-hyung was his least favorite person in the world—and the last he was ever going to give answers to.

            Fortunately, Hope-hyung reaches over the seats to grab V-hyung firm on the shoulder and pull him so that his back hits straight against the back of the compartment seat with a thump.

            “V, I don’t think Namjoon likes that you’re getting into his personal space,” Hope-hyung informs him, almost laughing. He turns to Namjoon-hyung with an apologetic smile. “Sorry. V here’s just always curious about everything. He once tried to run into one of the windows so he could escape.”

            “Hope!” V-hyung protests. “We do not talk about that.”      

            Namjoon-hyung doesn’t say anything, the furrow in his eyebrow permanently embedded into his expression. Junseo-hyung takes the lead once again.

            “Namjoon, I know everything seems confusing, but I promise you we are not bad people,” Junseo-hyung says. “We’re all just a bunch of guys trying to find out why any of this is happening, and so far, you’re the only who’s come close to an answer.”

            Namjoon-hyung sighs, frustrated. “Answer or not, I don’t know why I remember my name—I just do. It was the first thing that popped up in my mind. And the way I see it, it doesn’t really do me—or any of you—much good as an actual memory probably would. Me remembering my name is as useful as you not remembering anything at all.”

             Sea feels Red-hyung tense up beside him, and he turns to see him with an annoyed expression on his face, as if something that Namjoon-hyung said offended him somehow. He’s about to ask what’s wrong when Junseo-hyung speaks again.

            “I understand.” He nods, a tiny smile on his face. “Sorry, it must be overwhelming to be questioned like this.”

            Namjoon-hyung huffs a breath. “I don’t need apologies; I need answers. And frankly, I think I have more questions than any of you.”

            Junseo-hyung nods again, patient. “Of course. Let’s start off with introductions, then.”

            They all introduce themselves, Junseo-hyung explaining that their names are all pseudonyms they just came up with before Namjoon-hyung arrived; he also had to introduce Blueberry-hyung himself because the man had actually fallen asleep (“But you can just call him ‘Salty’, if you want.”) After that, Junseo-hyung explains how they all appeared there out of nowhere and the order of appearance. He tells Namjoon-hyung that there are different sections to the train, and that there seems to be no way out of it.

            “There’s a restaurant car, a sleeping bunk, and even more cars with seats like these,” Junseo-hyung says, patting the one he’s sitting on across Hope-hyung. “There isn’t any food, though. Luckily, we haven’t starved yet.”

            Namjoon-hyung squints at that, the only movement he’s made since Junseo-hyung started explaining the situation, other than the quick glances at the other passengers when they introduced themselves.

            “… How long have you been here?” he asks.

            Junseo-hyung thinks for a moment. “Well, there aren’t any clocks or watches in this train, so I can’t give an accurate answer, but… maybe half a day? Just feels like we’ve been here for an eternity.”

            “But you’ve never felt hungry, not once?”

            Junseo-hyung stops at that, and so do the other passengers, Sea included. Now that he thinks about it, for as long as he’s been here, he’s never felt hungry or thirsty at all. In fact, physically, he felt like he’d slept for a thousand years, refreshed and ready to run a marathon. His mind is still a mess, but his body is as well as anyone’s. He looks around and sees the others look just as surprised and confused as he feels; it seems no one’s ever thought about it before.

            Namjoon-hyung scans the others’ expressions. “I’m guessing no.”

            “What about it?” Hope-hyung asks. “Do you think this could be a clue, or a sign, or… anything?”

            Namjoon-hyung looks at Hope-hyung with a kinder expression, though the only indication of which is how the furrow in his eyebrows lessened a little. Sea guesses that Namjoon-hyung probably thinks well of Hope-hyung because he had respected his personal space.

            “It’s just weird,” he says. “Who lives an eternity without ever getting hungry?”

            It seems no one knows the answer to that question.

            Junseo-hyung slaps his knees with both hands, prompting everyone to look at him.

            “Well, hungry or not, we still have no clue what’s happening. Up until when you came, Namjoon, this train has stayed perfectly still. But as everyone can see, it’s moving—to where, we don’t know either.”

            “There’s also that Bang Sihyuk guy,” Hope-hyung adds.

            “I almost forgot he existed!” V-hyung exclaims, smacking his face. “He had the best lines ever.”

            Sea also has to admit that he had forgotten briefly about this Bang Sihyuk.

            “Hey, Mr. Bang Sihyuk!” V-hyung starts calling out before anyone can stop him. “Are you there? You have to tell me how you thought up that catchphrase of yours. Ya know, ‘All in good time’?”

            Sea almost snorts at how ridiculous V-hyung is being. But he’s been like this ever since the start, so Sea isn’t really surprised anymore. Red-hyung and Namjoon-hyung both have their eyebrows raised at him, though.

            Despite V-hyung’s calling, no voice resounds in the room like it had earlier, like the walls of the train had speakers built into them. V-hyung slumps on his seat.

            “I thought he said he’d be here whenever we need him?” he asks no one in particular, saddened by the absence of his new friend(?).

            “Well, he did only appear after Namjoon arrived, so…” Hope-hyung shrugs. “Maybe he decides for himself whether or not we need him?”

            “Or maybe for him it’s too early,” Red-hyung whispers, inaudible if Sea wasn’t seated next to him. Sea turns to him, questioning, but Red-hyung doesn’t elaborate further, though he looks like he wants to.

            “Maybe. Maybe not,” Junseo-hyung says to Hope-hyung. “But if he does appear again, let’s hope it’s with more answers.”

            “He said something about destinations,” Red-hyung finally says out loud, drawing everyone’s attention to him. Sea sees him hesitate for a moment, overwhelmed by the sudden attention. But he eventually swallows his nervousness down, though his fingers are shaking. “Uh, something like… we’re going to have to pass six or seven destinations.”

            “I think it was seven,” Sea offers, trying to encourage him.

            “That’s true…” Junseo-hyung says, voice faltering as he looks deep in thought. “He said we wouldn’t be able to find out what those destinations are until we get there.”

            “He also said that we could choose to stay on the train or not,” Red-hyung adds.

            “Then what’s the point of sending us off to those destinations, then?” Hope-hyung asks, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “If we could just choose to stay here, why have the train stop at all? He said before that the train isn’t gonna wait for us, right? He expects us to come back. So that means that each destination isn’t a permanent one. It’s just a stop. We’re not supposed to stay there; we’re supposed to stay here. So why give us the opportunity to leave?”

            A silence hangs over them, everyone trying to come up with an answer to that. Or maybe they’re just wishing someone would give one for them. Sea knows that’s what he wants.

            “What if we’re supposed to find something?”

            Everyone turns to Red-hyung, who had started to look more confident with every word he spoke.

            “Find something?” Junseo-hyung asks. “What do you mean?”

            “Hope said that Bang Sihyuk wants us to come back to this train whenever we stop at a destination,” Red-hyung starts explaining. “That means that he expects for us to go out there. That means whatever is out there must be significant to us. That whatever is out there might help us, might be the key. And if we find enough, maybe we’ll be able to finally get out of here.

            “Hope also said that the seven destinations must be stops. What comes after that? What if there’s a final destination? What if—”

            “What if the final destination is home?” V-hyung finishes for him, voice quieter than Sea’s ever heard him.

            Sea saw it. It was brief in some, brighter in others, and an everlasting flame in one.

            A spark of hope that they could all finally get home.

            “So you’re saying,” Junseo-hyung starts; he had been bright, “that if we find whatever is out there—these keys—we’ll be able to get home?”

            “I’m not sure if they’re actually keys, or anything physical,” Red-hyung says, eyes still on fire. “I’m not even sure if we’re supposed to actually find anything. But what I am one hundred percent sure about is that we have to go out there. Maybe we’ll trigger something; maybe we’ll find clues—I don’t know. But nothing’s gonna happen if we just stick around here doing nothing. Bang Sihyuk expects us to come back because he expects us to go. That’s what we have to do.”

            “What if it’s a trap?” Namjoon-hyung asks suddenly. The spark had been brief for him. “That man said it before—the train won’t wait for us. What if the destinations are just a lure? Something sparkly that’ll get our attention so we won’t notice we’re already falling down a cliff? What if we’re supposed to stay here, that this is just some test about self-discipline, about not getting distracted or getting our hopes over something that isn’t real, and our reward is getting our asses back to wherever we came from?”

            “So you’re saying that we should all wait and do nothing?” Red-hyung counters, irritation settling between his eyebrows.

            “I’m saying that we shouldn’t get our hopes up finding some keys that probably don’t even exist,” Namjoon-hyung says, voice unsettlingly calm. “As much as I want to believe your theory, it’s too risky. We can’t just go walking into every single door that opens up in front of us. That’s how idiots die.”

            Red-hyung shoots up from where he sat and Sea immediately grabs him by the torso, keeping him from going closer to Namjoon-hyung with difficulty; Red-hyung is stronger than he looks.

            Junseo-hyung claps sharply twice, gaining everyone’s attention.

            “Okay, okay, that’s enough,” he says, tone firm. “We all have our theories on how this will go, but I think it’s clear that no matter how much we think and analyze every single detail that Bang Sihyuk gave us—which isn’t a lot, really—we won’t be able to know how things are until this train gets to the first destination.”

            He turns to Red-hyung. “Red, I understand your frustration, but let’s not get into a fight—no matter which one started it. (He said this as soon as Red-hyung opened his mouth to say something.) Although it may be a little unbelievable, I believe your theory—it’s the only one that’s given me hope ever since I came here.”

            He turns to Namjoon-hyung, who’s looking out the window. “And Namjoon. I get that it’s not good to hold onto potential false hopes, and I have to admit that Red’s theory could hold a little too much hope in it. But don’t go insulting other people and calling them idiots. We’re all in the same boat here, and you’re with us now, whether you like it or not.”

            Namjoon-hyung doesn’t say anything for a while.

            “Fine,” he says, still not looking at any of them. “But just so you know, I still don’t trust any of you, so don’t expect that being all buddy-buddy with me is going to help you.”

            “I’m fine with that.” Junseo-hyung leans back into the compartment seat, looking at everyone with a smile on his lips. “So! Does anyone else have anything to say?”

            V-hyung raises a hand. Sea can see Junseo-hyung hold back a loud sigh.

            “Yes, V?” he says with a forced smile.

            “If I find any markers, can I draw a mustache on Blueberry’s face?” He points with an entire arm, twisting around his compartment, to his right at the sleeping man, his bonnet covering his face as he lies down with crossed arms.

            “Sure, you can,” Junseo-hyung says with a more genuine smile. “I’m sure Salty would greatly appreciate it.”

 

A few minutes later the seven of them are split into two groups: Namjoon-hyung, Hope-hyung, V-hyung, and Blueberry-hyung staying at the compartment area (with V-hyung opening and closing the drawers to see if there were any markers he had missed from the last time he had opened and closed the drawers repeatedly); and Sea and Junseo-hyung giving Red-hyung a tour of the other compartments of the train.

            “Are you sure we should have left Namjoon-hyung with V-hyung?” Sea asks Junseo-hyung, looking at the passageway behind him getting tinier and tinier with the distance. He swears he just saw V-hyung happily leap past one side of the doorway to the other. “I think he hates him.”

            “I think he hates everybody,” Red-hyung mutters under his breath.

            “It’s fine,” Junseo-hyung says, looking unbothered. “They have Hope. He’s practically a living ball of sunshine.”

            And fear, Sea says in his mind. Though I can’t say I can’t relate.

            They’re currently in the restaurant car, having passed by three other rooms identical to the first one they’d been in. Square tables stick to the walls of the train, each with two chairs tucked underneath. No plates, no utensils, no decorations—it looks the same as ever. Big windows identical to each car show the same winter scenery, except this time the trees are moving away.

            “I don’t like Kim Namjoon,” Red-hyung says, looking under each table (he had started doing that the moment they walked in). “He’s…”

            “Very outspoken,” Junseo-hyung finishes for him, trying to keep the peace.

            “He’s just so… I don’t know,” Red-hyung says with a frustrated sigh. He turns to a different table. “It’s like he was born to get on my nerves. He makes everything negative, he hasn’t smiled once, and he thinks we’re all criminals.”

            “I think that last one’s a bit too far-fetched,” Junseo-hyung admits.

            “He doesn’t trust us.” Red-hyung says it like it’s a conclusion. “And he’s a jerk. I don’t think I wanna be around him.”

            “Maybe you should give him a chance,” Junseo-hyung suggests, sitting on a table. “When we all appeared out of nowhere, we were all confused, scared—but at least we’d been given time to accept things, assess the situation. The guy literally just got here a few minutes ago, and he’d already been plunged into a big mess of ‘everything-is-not-okay’, especially with Bang Sihyuk and the train starting to move and all. He wasn’t given time to ask questions, wasn’t given time to trust us, wasn’t even given time to tell us his name. Not to mention we practically pulled him into a questioning. At least with you, you were able to have some background. Kim Namjoon had to learn on the field.”

            Red-hyung doesn’t say anything.

            “Am I right or am I right?” Junseo-hyung asks, and Sea hides a smile—he had used that one when he told V-hyung that in any given situation running out of a train was a big no-no.

            “… You’re right,” Red-hyung sighs. He stands up and half-heartedly pulls up a chair. “I’ll be more tolerable of him, but I still don’t like him.”

            “Funny, that’s the exact same thing I feel for Mr. Lazy-Butt,” Junseo-hyung comments, offhandedly.

            “Lazy-Butt?” Sea and Red-hyung echo.

            “Salty,” Junseo-hyung clarifies.

            “Ah.”

            Sea watches Red-hyung pull up an entire table over his head, almost hitting Junseo-hyung’s. When Red-hyung arrived, he had tried to put up an unbothered façade, to show the others that he wasn’t afraid.

            But Sea knew he was. He saw it in the tremor in his hands, the quick glances he sent the other passengers, the way he kept his back straight like he was afraid someone would scold him for bad posture. That’s why Sea had approached him then. Why he grabbed his hands and welcomed him to the group. Because Sea had been in his place before. For longer, but he had still him been just like him. Scared. Anxious. Nervous. Panicking. The world had been spinning too fast to tell him he should keep it together.

            Right now, the world is still spinning, but at least Sea can see what’s in front of him: Junseo-hyung, sitting on a table with two arms held up in protection. Red-hyung, pulling up two chairs up at once and looking back to see if he had hit anyone.

            Whatever happens, he would protect the both of them. The first, to give back to the security he had been offered. The second, to keep what little innocence the world still has.

            Sea just hopes the world won’t start to spin again to knock him out of balance.

            “Those trees just go on forever, don’t they?” Red-hyung suddenly asks, finally finished with investigating the restaurant car. Junseo-hyung lets out an inaudible relieved sigh.

            “Yeah,” Junseo-hyung says, turning to the windows. “When I first got here, I honestly thought they were just pictures. They had been perfectly still; not one branch on the trees moved at all. Seeing them moving now… It’s a little hard to get over.”

            Sea has to agree to that. Walking over to one of the windows, he can clearly see the snow-covered trees moving to the right, a seemingly endless supply of winter woods. The trees are close enough to the train that Sea can see each pine needle and bare branch (Sea isn’t sure what type of tree this one comes from). They stand so close to each other that Sea can’t see whatever is on the other side: a river, a road, a village, another train, or more trees—nothing. Despite the amount of frost covering the trees, Sea hasn’t seen a single snowflake drop from the sky, the scenery clear as day.

            “I wonder… why is it Winter?” Red-hyung asks. Sea turns to see him with a furrow in his eyebrows.

            “What do you mean?” Junseo-hyung asks.

            “I don’t know…” Red-hyung shrugs. “Just feels a bit… off.”

            “How?” Sea asks.

            Red-hyung glances at him for a moment, then quickly turns back to the window.

            “Just feels like it should be colder in here,” he says. “The AC isn’t working at all.”

            Junseo-hyung and Sea only have time to look at each other in realization when suddenly the train starts slowing down, and Sea has only a few seconds to feel his heart rate speeding up.

            “Itsslowingthetrainisslowing,” Sea says in a hurry, looking for something—anything to hold on to.

            He looks up with wild eyes at the trees in front of him, slowing down slowly, slowly, slowly, the vibrations of the train an earthquake to him, the voices coming from the far side of the train speaking under water.

            He feels someone grab his hands.

            “Everything’s fine; we’re all fine,” he says. Someone stands next to him. “It’s like when the train started moving. We’re all here. Junseo, Kim Namjoon, Blueberry, V, Hope, and me. We’re all here.”

            Gripping the hand holding his, Sea feels his heart rate slow down, bit by bit, and when it finally goes back to its normal pace, the train fully stops.

            “You guys!” Sea hears Hope shout from three cars away. “The train stopped! Get over here!”

            But the three of them don’t move. They’re all staring straight at something in front of them.

            The pine needles are a beautiful green, a few clusters of buds growing at the tips, yellow and red. The bare branches from before are now decorated with light green leaves, looking like they’ve only started growing and would continue months and months until you can’t see anything amidst the cluster of leaves.

            It’s beautiful. It really is. But Sea grips Red-hyung’s hand tighter because while a few moments ago the trees were covered in white frosty snow, now not one snowflake had been left on a leaf.

            When before it was Winter, now it’s Spring.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Namjoon runs a hand on a glass window, staring at the green scenery that seemed impossible to even exist.

            “This doesn’t make any sense,” he says, the furrow in his eyebrows like a permanent scar.

            “Man, tell me about it,” Hope says, leaning on the window Namjoon’s looking at.

            The four of them hadn’t noticed the drastic change in scenery until Sea came running over with Red’s hand in his (that kid is honestly so friendly; Hope wouldn’t be surprised if he was actually a ten-year-old boy in the body of a twenty-three-year-old) and Junseo following the two of them, telling Hope and the others to check on the pine and fir trees (Hope hadn’t even known they were fir; he thought they were all pine). V had been too busy searching for a marker (and when he couldn’t find any, settled on messing with Blueberry, who had awoken rather annoyed); Namjoon had been too busy looking around the room like he was searching for something; and Hope had been too busy trying to get to know Namjoon.

            He didn’t really talk much the entire duration, and every time he would look at Hope, his eyes read, “Don’t bother,” but Hope knew he was a good person. Guarded and should probably watch over the words he says, but a good person nonetheless. He wasn’t trying to be a jerk; he was just trying to be realistic about the situation. And to be honest, the only reason why the five of them probably survived up to this point was because none of them had any ill will. They all trusted too easily; if they were with a bunch of bad people, Hope expects that Namjoon would be the first to find them out.

            Hope had asked him how he felt being in this new place and environment, and (after probably a few moments of thinking, “Should I talk to this guy?”) Namjoon had told Hope that it wasn’t anything to be freaking out over yet.

            “The fact that we’re all stranded in this place is definitely something to worry about, but losing our own heads isn’t smart,” he had continued, still not looking at Hope. “Until we’re all in visible danger, nothing should get the best of us yet.”

            Hope grinned, a breath of laughter leaving his lips. Namjoon finally looked at him, furrowing his eyebrows.

             “What’s so funny?”

            “Nothing,” Hope said, still smiling. “Just glad to have someone smart on this train.”

            Namjoon stared at him for a few moments, before looking back out the window.

            “You people are smarter than you think.”

            Back in the present, Hope watches Namjoon look out the window with that same furrow in his eyebrows, the others looking out as well.

            “This is so cool! How come we never noticed it?” V asks with a muffled voice on the other side of the train, face planted against the window and seated on his knees next to Blueberry, who looks like he has a headache.

            “Probably because you were too busy being a little brat,” Blueberry says, sounding tired and already covering his head with his bonnet to fall asleep again.

            “I am not a little brat!” V protests, detaching his face from the window and glaring at Blueberry.

            “You’re only proving it more.”

            Hope shifts his attention away from them squabbling to look at Sea, Red, and Junseo on the adjacent compartment to Blueberry’s. They were talking amongst themselves for some reason, though Hope knows that Junseo would never let any important information be kept secret. If anything, he’s probably telling Red about some facts about pine trees like he did to Hope and Sea before V came over.

            Hope also notices the way Sea is still holding Red’s hand even after they came back. The last time Hope had seen Sea do that was when Hope had just arrived and was so shocked at the new environment that he didn’t let himself go near the other three passengers. Sea had been holding Junseo’s hand then, and had apparently arrived just a handle of hours before Hope.

            Namjoon’s voice brings Hope back to reality.

            “—like the trees just suddenly transformed in an instant,” he is saying, mostly to himself. “Like a hard video cut. It couldn’t have been a gradual change, or we all would have noticed it.” All four of them had been staring at the windows while the train slowed down.

            “Man, this is really weird,” Hope says, scratching the back of his neck. “It was already weird when everyone started popping up out of nowhere with all the wind and stuff, but now this?”

            Namjoon looks at him then. “What did you say?”

            Hope blinks once. “Um, ‘this is really weird’?”

            “No, the other thing.”

            “Oh, you mean about when everyone arrived?” Hope says, relaxing. He thought for a moment he must’ve said something to offend him. “Yeah, we all arrived the same way: wind everywhere, throwing up the curtains and stuff, and then suddenly, pup! Someone’s standing by the entrance, as if they’d been there since the beginning.”

            “You didn’t see them enter?” Namjoon asks. “They just appeared?”

            “Yeah. You appeared like that, too. Kind of like that video cut you mentioned,” Hope adds, recalling. He turns to see Namjoon furrowing his eyebrows, like he’s mulling over something. “Why? Do you think this could be another clue?”

            “It just seems that most things that happen on this train don’t make sense,” he says. “Five people stay on a train probably more than half a day but don’t feel hungry or thirsty. The season suddenly changes in a blink of an eye, but none of us notice. Not to mention, the AC isn’t working at all—considering it was just Winter, we all should be freezing right now.”

            “The AC isn’t working?” Hope asks, surprised. He sees someone on the other side jerk up at that. “How’d you find that out?”

            Namjoon points at the floor and Hope looks down to see a white contraption built into the wall of the train, buttons set to ‘Heater mode’.

            “There’s no heat coming out of it,” he says. “Noticed it when I was sitting at this corner earlier.”

            Hope crouches down and hovers a hand over the AC. Woah, he’s right. There’s no heat at all.

            “Wherever we are,” Namjoon continues as Hope stands back up, “natural laws don’t apply. So either someone had enough money to put us in some weird place that messes things up, or we’re all crazy.”

            “You mean like ‘The Maze Runner’?” V suddenly asks, and they both turn to him. The kid’s eyes are sparkling like… well, a kid.

            Namjoon visibly looks annoyed, narrowing his eyes. Before he replies (and possibly brings about another Red scenario), Junseo speaks up.

            “Whatever that is, let’s hope our situation is a lot better.” He walks over to the entrance, looking deep in thought. The others follow him with their eyes. “Since the train just stopped, we can assume that this is the first destination. Which means that we can probably open this door right now.”

            No one moves for a moment, a few giving each other hesitant glances, Hope included. As much as he wants to go, the idea is still crazy. Not to mention going out there would mean going into an entirely new environment. Hope probably wouldn’t know what to do if he’d been stuck on this train alone.

            “Well, if no one’s gonna go—” V jumps off of his seat and walks his way over.

            “Wait,” Junseo says, stopping him with a hand. “As much as I want to go as well, let’s plan first.”

            “Plan?” Sea asks. Junseo nods.

            “There are about seven of us. If something happens out there, we need to have a plan of action.” He glances in Namjoon’s direction. “If we’re all going, anyway.”

            Red and Hope both look at Namjoon, who looks back with a raised eyebrow.

            “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m staying here.”

            They all turn to Blueberry, who’s currently putting his bonnet back on the top of his head instead of on top of his face.

            “You’re staying?” Junseo asks, looking a little surprised.

            “Yes,” he says, stretching his arms. “Though I don’t know why you’re surprised.”

            “But… but why?”

            “I don’t see much point,” Blueberry replies. “Like Hope said, we’re all going to get back here after the stop is over, so why leave at all? Even if those keys this Red kid talked about were true, I’m the only one not going anyway. Six out of seven is enough to find whatever it is you think is there.”

            “Six?” Namjoon asks. “What makes you think I’m going?”

            Blueberry glances at Namjoon, and Hope swears the latter almost flinched.

            “Because unlike me,” he says, not breaking his stare, “you actually give a shit about all this.”

            Namjoon doesn’t say anything. Blueberry looks away and yawns into the palm of his hand.

            “Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to see if those bunk beds are more comfortable than these seats.”

            He leaves without another word.

            “God, I hate him so much,” Junseo says without a beat. Despite it all, Sea, Hope, and Red let out an amused snort. Junseo’s been badmouthing the dark-haired man since the beginning of time. Hope isn’t entirely sure why, though.

            “Is he always like that?” Red asks, eyes still looking at the direction Blueberry just left.

            “Yes,” Junseo says, not bothering to hide the annoyance in his face. “I couldn’t get anything out of him the first time I arrived here. Like he said, he just doesn’t give a single shit.”

            V gasps, scandalized at that.

            “Anyway!” Junseo claps his hands once, gaining everyone’s attention. “At least now that Mr. Good-for-Nothing is gone, we can finally discuss things a lot easier.” He looks around the room. “I guess it’s safe to assume that everyone will be going?”

            Junseo looks directly at Namjoon, and Hope turns to him, as well. Namjoon stares at Junseo for a few moments, everyone holding in their breaths.

            Then Namjoon glances at Hope for a split-second, before leaning on the wall and shrugging his shoulders, a silent “Do whatever you want.” Junseo’s face splits into a wide smile.

            “Well, then,” Junseo continues much brighter than before, “let’s get on with our plan of action.”

            They were to split into two groups: Hope, Red, and V; and Junseo, Namjoon, and Sea. Each group would head off into opposite directions, but not stray too far from the train that they wouldn’t be able to get back in time. If anything interesting pops up, they would immediately check on it. If someone suddenly gets into trouble, the others notify the other group so they’d all be able to help. As soon as the train sends its signal, which according to Bang Sihyuk is some kind of horn sound, they would all head back to the train as soon as possible and discuss their findings there.

            “So are we all good?” Junseo asks after explaining everything. Everyone else nods, except Namjoon, who hasn’t spoken a word since Blueberry left. “Since we don’t know what exactly is out there, let’s all be extra careful. Let’s hope we don’t actually need to.”

            “Man, we’re really going out, aren’t we?” Hope mutters to himself. He can feel his nerves kicking in; he’s almost as scared as he was when he first got here. He doesn’t know what’s out there—no one does, and that’s the scariest part. What if what awaits them is the mouth of volcano flooded with lava? Or a forest full of lions? What if Namjoon was right, and all of this is a trap?

            Remember your name.

            That’s right. His name. Hope. It’s not his real name, he knows. It’s just a nickname. But it’s one he gave himself. To remind himself and the others that hope is the one thing that’ll keep them moving forward. That if fear keeps you rooted to the ground, hope gives you wings to fly.

            Hope smiles to himself, feeling the eyes of someone staring at him.

            “Bring it.”

            With one final nod, Junseo turns around and slides the door open.

 

“Oh my god.”

            Hope finds himself in the middle of a field that looks like it crosses miles and miles away. Tall grasses primarily fill the area, with a forest surrounding part of it; he can see that the forest stops at some point in the distance, tall grasses resembling wheat the only thing he sees after that. But the main thing about this place is the tall, leafless tree at the center of it all, something hanging at one of the branches; Hope can’t see it well to make out what it is.

            The others stand still just like he does, taking in the surroundings either with wide eyes, open mouths, or by jumping up and down and making excited noises like V there, who has Junseo next to him, making sure he doesn’t do something stupid again. Red and Sea stand next to each other, Sea having already let go of his hand, both of them looking in different directions.

            “It’s beautiful,” Hope hears someone say, and he turns around to see Namjoon looking in front of him, an innocent look to his face, like a kid seeing their hero for the first time.

            Hope grins. “It is, isn’t it?”

            Namjoon just shakes his head, and that innocent look goes away. “We didn’t come here to sight-see, however. While I think that the plan that kid has is complete bull, it’s our only lead. Hopefully, us being here won’t prove to be a fatal mistake.”

            Hope just keeps smiling, and walks over towards Junseo, Namjoon trailing behind.

            “So what should we do, Leader?” he asks Junseo, who’s actually holding V’s hand so he won’t end up running off.

            “Well, firstly, we should stick to the plan and split up into the groups,” he says. Red and Sea join the group as soon as he starts talking. “I didn’t expect to be in such a widespread place like this, but this is what we got so we gotta deal with it. We should do our best to spread out and cover more ground—but not so much that we won’t be able to reach the train by the time the seventh horn sounds. Since we don’t know exactly how long and how frequent the train horns will be, let’s set the limit to up to that point.”

            He points to the edge of the forest, where all Hope can see is just wheat.

            “No one walks past that, to be safe,” he says, putting down his free hand and turning back to the group. “Does anyone object?”

            When no one does, he continues, “To cover more ground, let’s have one group check on one part of this prairie and the other check the second. And, looking at it now—” his eyes gaze upon something behind Hope— “seems like we can only check on this side.”

            Hope turns around as some of the others do, and he finds that the train car they came out of, where a new car should begin at either end, is blocked by forest, as if they’re the cement walls of a castle and the train car is the front gate. For some reason, the windows of the train are frosted; Hope can’t see anything behind them, which is odd, considering that they were able to see clearly beyond it before.     

            But, then—

            “Wait, wasn’t the scenery beyond the windows pine trees and fir trees?” Hope asks out loud, eyes still trained on the train windows.

            “Now that you mentioned it…” Junseo says, voice faltering.

            Hope sees something zoom past him, and he only has a few seconds to see V hopping on the train and disappearing behind the walls. A few seconds later, the boy pops his head out the door.

            “It’s still trees!” he announces, eyes sparkling in amazement. “And they’re still doing nothing!”

            “Wait, what?” Red says, already walking towards the train. V beckons for him to come quickly and they both disappear behind the walls.

            “Hiii, can you see us?” comes V’s distant voice from inside the train. “I’m waving! I can’t see you guys, though!”

            “We can’t see you!” Sea calls out helpfully, the angel.

            Seconds later, the two are back on the ground, V looking more pumped up than ever and Red looking deep in thought, poking a tongue against the inside of his cheek.

            “It really is like V said it was,” the latter is currently saying. “I checked the other windows and it’s the same for all of them—just the trees from before, still as still as ever.”

            Junseo hums deep in thought. Then, he shakes his head.

            “Well, that’s definitely something of notice, but let’s not make it our priority right now,” he concludes. “We’ve only got limited time on this prairie, so we should make the most of it and stick to the original plan.”

            “So can we start scavenging, then?” V excitedly asks. “Can our group start with that tree?” He asks this while pointing at said tree.

            “Hang on, V, don’t get too excited,” Junseo says, and V visibly pouts. “Just let me finish. Anyway—” he turns to the rest of the group— “one group will be searching the left side of this place, and the second the right. Like I said before, don’t cross that area—” he points at the border once more— “and don’t go in the forest, either.”

            “The forest?” Sea asks, sounding as puzzled as the others. “Junseo-hyung, why the forest?”

            Junseo looks like he expected this question. “I checked earlier, and the forest is filled with poisonous plants and lots of thorny shrubs. Not to mention, even without those, it’s much more difficult to find someone in a forest than in an open area like this. It’s just the safer that way.”

            Sea nods in agreement while V, and, surprisingly, Red, look disappointed. Hope doesn’t think of it as such a big a loss, however; he doesn’t think he can handle delving into a dark forest with all the dangers in the world living in the shadows.

            He turns to tell Namjoon this—

            And finds the man staring straight at something, eyes narrowed down almost closing. Hope’s never seen Namjoon look so suspicious before. Of what, he doesn’t know. He looks—it seems like Namjoon is staring at either V or Junseo, the previous more likely considering their little conflict from before.

            But before Hope can ask him about it, V is already shouting, “Okay, cool! No forests, but can our group check out the tree?”

            Junseo sighs, and turns to Red and Hope.

            “Do you want to check the tree?” he asks them, eyes tired.

            Hope and Red share one look at each other, and then nod at the same time. V practically jumps in the air before shooting off towards the tree, yelling out of joy.

            “So, that means we’ll be taking the left side, then,” Junseo says to his two groupmates, one nodding in affirmation and the other staring straight ahead. “Remember, don’t touch any of the shrubs near the trees, alright? Now, let’s g—”

            A loud yelp suddenly comes from the distance, one that tells everyone that the owner of the voice just fell down, if the patch of grass in the distance that is suddenly shorter than all the others is any indication.

            “Not even one minute—” Junseo looks like he’s about to hate V more than he hates Blueberry.

            “‘S okay, Junseo,” Hope says, smiling reassuringly and already walking towards the boy. “I got this.”

            “Thank you,” Junseo says with pure sincerity. He hears him say, “Alright, let’s start,” to the others as Hope walks over, Red following his lead.

            “V?” he calls out to the boy, pushing away the grass blocking his view. It’s a lot more crowded in here compared to the area just in front of the train station. “Did you get hurt?”

            “No, dude!” he hears V call out, and he sighs of relief. “But look at this!”

            Hope finally finds V after pushing his way through the grass, and he sees him on the ground, bent over something. V spots him and Red and widens his grin.

            He brings something up to their faces, and Hope realizes that it’s a bag. Specifically, a small brown backpack with leather straps at the front. The straps that are meant to be worn around the shoulders are long and thin; it’s obviously meant to hold only lightweight objects.

            “Woah,” Hope says, crouching down next to him as V shows the bag to the both of them. “You found this?”

            “Yeah,” V says, opening the bag. “I tripped over it when I was on my way to the tree. Had a pretty bad fall. But surprisingly no injuries.”

            “Is there anything inside?” Red suddenly asks, face weirdly close to Hope’s, surprising him briefly; he hadn’t noticed he had crouched so near to him as well.

            “Nope!” V happily exclaims, showing the two the inside of the bag. Like he just said, there’s nothing inside.

            “Can I see it?” Red asks, and V happily gives him the backpack, which he thoroughly starts searching through.

            “Huh,” Hope says, watching the boy attempt to flip the bag inside out. “What’s an empty bag doing in a place like this? Did someone drop it? This doesn’t look like the kind of place to be occupied by people.”

            “I’m not sure, but you have to admit it’s pretty cool,” V says, unable to wipe that grin off his face. “What if someone left it here as a clue? What if the bag is one of the keys? What if—”

            V suddenly gasps wide, and the sound makes Hope involuntarily flinch.

            “What if…” he starts, dramatically, looking into Hope’s eyes. “What if there are more?”

            V had already jumped up and started running off into the distance before Hope could identify that the look in his eyes meant bad news.

            “V, get back here!” Hope tries to call after him, but he fails in getting his attention. He sighs. Well, no matter, even though that kid’s the most reckless and impulsive human being Hope’s ever met, he knows that V’s at least smart enough to not go back on Junseo’s rules.

            “Come on, Red,” he says to the boy, standing up. “Let’s go after V; danger finds him before it can even think of finding anything else.”

            But when he turns he sees an empty patch of grass in the place where Red is supposed to be crouched down on.

            “What the—Red?” He turns around, alarmed, but then he sees the figure of the boy crouched down somewhere to the right. Woah, Hope didn’t even notice he moved. Kid’s surprisingly quiet.

            “What are you doing here?” Hope asks him, walking over. “God, you’re almost as bad as V.”

            “Hope,” Red says, ignoring Hope’s statement, “I think I found something.”

            He stands up, and shows him something tiny at the center of his palm: a dirty empty cork bottle. There’s a tiny crack by the bottom.

            “A bottle?” Hope says, blinking in surprise. “What’s a bottle doing he—”

            “Hooope! Reeed!”

            The two of them turn around just in time to see V running back towards them.

            “What? What is it? Did you find something else?” Hope asks, but when V reaches them, his hands are empty.

            The grin on his face says otherwise, however.

            “There are random objects everywhere,” he says, trying to catch his breath. “There were these papers, and then a set of marbles, and ooh—ooh—there was even a pair of gloves! They had like the coolest shade of purple.”

            Hope and Red share a knowing look at each other; no matter how you look at it, having so many seemingly random things lying about in a seemingly deserted area can’t be a coincidence. This is a clue, a sign.

            A key.

            “Let’s find as many things as we can,” Hope says, and Red nods, picking up the bag from before and placing the bottle inside.

            Let’s hope we’ll also find our way home.

 

V proved to be more helpful than Hope ever thought he could be.

            The kid was the first to spot something out of the ordinary, and come back with a new random object before Hope could even begin to tell him to be more careful. It was like he had the eyes of a hawk, finding even the smallest things and bringing them over to Red, whose bag was already a third of the way full.

            Adding to the bottle and the papers (Hope couldn’t decipher any of the words), marbles, and gloves (they really were a nice shade of purple) that V went back to get, they were able to find a broken phone case with “N.G.” written in marker, a shiny silver spoon, a comb embedded with jewels that shaped into a flower (Hope feels like Junseo would know what kind), and a tiny figurine of some white cartoon rabbit wearing a sundress (that one V yelled at Red for because he was about to step on it).

            Hope really doesn’t know what to make of all these “hidden treasures” that they’ve been finding. He really isn’t as smart as the other guys. He at least knows that all these objects must mean something; Hope just can’t figure out what. It just seems like a group of people just walked here and started throwing all of their belongings behind them like a bunch of anti-environmentalists.

            “Man, I just can’t think of anything that can connect all of these things together,” Hope is saying, mostly to himself though he knows Red can hear him. “It all just feels like someone bought the weirdest set of things at a thrift store just to throw them out the train window.”

            He hears Red hum beside him, and he sees the kid completely focused in searching the area, pushing away the grass and staring intensely at the ground, even feeling and digging a little at the dirt to see if another white bunny situation could pop up.

            Hope thinks Red is a good kid. And an extremely observant and smart one, too. Hope had noticed how determined the kid was when he explained his theory to the rest of the passengers. He had been shy at first, but as time went he seemed to get more comfortable with the rest of the group. Better than Hope was when he first went aboard, definitely.

            “I’m sure there must be some connection,” Red says finally, surprising Hope because he didn’t realize the kid was actually listening. “All of the objects so far feel… personal. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like these things were actually owned by someone.”

            “Well, most things do have an owner, right? Someone sells, someone buys. Not like anyone just makes all this stuff just to throw them away,” Hope says, searching around as well.

            “I guess… It’s just—something just tells me that it’s more than that.”

            Hope hears distant yelling, and he’s already standing up to see V waving something glittery and running towards the two of them.

            “I found a necklace!” V excitedly announces, placing the piece of jewelry in Hope’s palm. The beads are a pretty shade of pink and blue, and Hope can see some of them spell out “A-L-W-A-Y-S”. Always.

            “Can I see?” Red shoots up from the ground; he’s been doing that every time V finds something. Hope is already handing the found item to him.

            “Hey,” Hope says to V before he can turn around and disappear in the grass, “do you think there’s a connection to these objects?”

            “Of course, there is,” V says, an unsaid “duh” in the tone of his voice. “They’re all lying around in this weird place.”

            “No, I mean, like—is there a hidden meaning to all of these things just lying around? Maybe we’re supposed to put them together to make something?”

            V shrugs. “I think this place is more interesting than all these stuff, to be honest.”

            “But—”

            “Oh!” V suddenly exclaims, turning around abruptly. “I can’t believe I forgot about the tree!”

            “The tr—”

            Oh! Right! The tree!

 

[End. This was an unfinished chapter.]