Jaemin doesn’t like rules, ones established by lawful entities or otherwise, but he does have a few personal policies. They’re things he’s picked up over time and made in his own sort of code, and they go like this:
- Always sleep with your boots on and your hat near
- Anything that no one successfully stops you from taking, you can keep
- Never visit the outhouse right after Johnny
- Never turn down free food
- Hindsight is for fools; never look at anything retrospectively
It’s the last one that comes to mind now, as he refuses to consider whether his plan was in fact a bad idea.
“Not so fun pushing that all by yourself, is it?” Renjun jibes from where he’s sitting with his legs dangling off the side of the handcar trolley, enjoying the fruits of all Jaemin’s labors to keep the thing rumbling along down the track.
Jaemin sniffs. “I’m havin’ the time of my life, thank ye kindly.”
The mineshaft turns slightly and angles upward just the smallest degree, and Jaemin can’t help groaning at the effort that degree forces him to put into pumping the handlebar. He briefly considers just shoving Renjun off, lightening the load a little, but that wouldn’t help him much in the long run.
“You could just pause for a minute and untie me, and then I could help.”
The light from the singular lantern Jaemin brought bounces around Renjun’s face when Jaemin looks down at him, making it impossible to read whether he’s being trustworthy, or if he’d just attack Jaemin and run. Jaemin’s betting on the second, which is the main reason Renjun’s wrapped in a firmly-tied length of rope, his arms thereby lashed to his sides and keeping his pointy little fingers from doing Jaemin any harm.
“Don’t reckon I trust that ye would,” Jaemin replies, puffing a little at the exertion.
The track bumps, and Renjun wobbles dangerously for a moment, only managing to stay upright by leaning back away from the edge while Jaemin allows them to slow a little. When he steadies, safely still aboard the trolley, Renjun sighs with exasperation.
He huffs. “I still don’t see why you kidnapped me and brought me along on this...fool’s errand.”
“Why, because I need what’s inside that pretty little head of yers,” says Jaemin, shooting him a grin, “So I figured, better bring it with me.
“I don’t know anything.”
“Now see, I just don’t believe that’s quite true.”
Renjun narrows his eyes at Jaemin, the flickering lantern light turning his pretty, angular face into something more intimidating. It’s just the two of them in the old mine, along with the light breeze that followed them in through the entrance, and the occasional bat. The dirt that forms the tunnel around them keeps it cool and quiet, and Jaemin thinks that even if he didn’t think it was worth kidnapping Renjun for the secrets he’s sure he holds, it was worth it for not being alone in the abandoned shaft.
Even if Renjun probably wants to kill him.
“Do you even know where you’re going?” asks Renjun, turning his head to peer down into the darkness ahead as his voice echoes off the walls.
“Ain’t like there’s terribly many directions to choose from. Went left at the only turn so far, and that’s the one I know for sure. So, yep, thinkin’ I do.”
“Then how much further? And what are you looking for?”
“All in good time, sweetheart,” Jaemin assures, feeling grateful for the recent downward slope of the track and subsequent ease of his workout. Renjun hmphs, but Jaemin doesn’t mind if he doesn’t want to keep chatting, and lets the creaking metal on metal of the trolley wheels rolling along the tracks become a lull as he pushes them along.
He doesn’t actually know how far it is.
He doesn’t actually know how deep the mineshaft goes.
All in all, Jaemin knows very little about what he’s looking for, other than that the man whose hat he stole mentioned the mines, and that it was the shifty ones in the banks who knew just how to find their treasures.
So Jaemin’s got Renjun, and he’s taking him into the mine. He refuses to question the validity of this plan, a la rule number five.
He’s not sure how long they travel before he starts to hear it, the other creaking sound. At first, Jaemin just thinks it’s an echo of their handcar, which certainly squeaks enough for a fleet of the little buggers, but when he pauses his own pumping and listens, and the other creaking continues, there’s no denying that something else is making the sound.
Jaemin keeps his calm, but glances down at Renjun all the same, and is surprised to see the small young man looking back at him with wide eyes and a tremor on his lips.
“Do you hear that too?” Renjun whispers.
“Don’t reckon I hear anything,” Jaemin lies.
“Jaemin, don’t mess with me. I think something’s here.”
If perhaps Jaemin starts to pump the handlebar a little faster, he doesn’t mention it. Not that he thinks it will help, considering he doesn’t know which direction the other sound is coming from. But maybe if they can reach the end of the tracks and find the seat of the mine, there will be a place to disappear from sight of whatever else might be there with them.
They speed up, Renjun scooting himself as close to the center bar of the trolley and Jaemin’s boots as he can, huddling against the cool metal. But the other creaking only grows louder, more distinct from the rusted complaints of Jaemin’s cart, and Jaemin finds his heart is racing and his breath coming short.
It’s going to catch them. It’s too dark to see. They can’t even tell if it’s coming from behind or if they’re careening towards it.
“I hate you for bringing me here, I hate you for doing this to me, you’re a scoundrel and fiend, Na Jaemin, if we don’t die I’ll kill you when you untie me, I hate you I hate you I hate yo—” Renjun continues to mutter curses at him with shaky breaths, and suddenly the tunnel is curving, making it impossible to see what’s ahead, and the sound just keeps getting louder and louder and Jaemin is so close to hopping to the other side of the handcar and taking them back the other way when the curve suddenly levels out.
And then there’s a short few minutes of nothing but screaming.
“Stop! Shut up! It’ll unsettle the mine!!” someone manages to break through the cacophony with some reason, and Jaemin pants deep breaths as he tries not to shout again. At his feet, Renjun has also quieted, and is pretending he didn’t just spend the last few minutes with his face buried against Jaemin’s shins like a scared child.
Blinking through the darkness, Jaemin squints at the where the straightening of the curve reveals a second tunnel and set of tracks merging into their own. The other handcar also has a lantern, and by the dim light from it he can just barely make out the gun that’s leveled at him in the hands of the Deputy Assistant Junior Sheriff.
He lets go of his breath, and grins. “Howdy, Jisung. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You can’t kidnap people, Jaemin,” Jisung tries to reason.
“Bein’ rightfully honest, little sheriff,” says Jaemin, “I was plannin’ on returnin’ him. God as my witness.”
Jisung bristles and there’s a twinkle of bright laughter from the end of the car opposite him, and Jaemin is just able to make out Chenle’s ever-present smile.
“That’s hilarious,” the pianoforte player chortles with apparently genuine amusement, “do you tie up everything you borrow?”
“Only if it takes some wrastlin’ to borrow ‘em.”
“As if I was going to come along with you willingly?!”
Chenle continues to laugh, with Jisung desperately trying to shush him, and Jaemin uses the opportunity to maneuver his handcar further along the track past the other, getting the front position while ignoring Renjun’s attempts to shuffle over the edge of the cart. They’re up fairly high, and the ground is unclear, and Renjun doesn’t seem as keen on jumping off when they begin to pick up speed again.
“Hey!” Jisung whisper shouts, “Where are you going?! I have a gun!”
Jaemin throws a glance back at him. “So? Ye gonna shoot that off in here and cause a cave-in? Best not.” He doesn’t mention that he also has a gun.
The lack of explosion and flying bullet is answer enough that Jaemin keeps going, Renjun sighing in defeat as they roll along. Shortly, the other handcar pulls up behind them, easily catching up with two people pumping the bar rather than Jaemin’s singular efforts.
Jisung snorts. “If I can’t shoot you, I at least have to follow you so I can arrest you once you stop.”
“Oh! That’s mighty nice of ye, it’s been a while since I saw Jeno after all.”
They rumble along down the track and Jisung scoffs. “It’s jail, not a play date!”
Jaemin just chuckles and leans down closer to Renjun, muttering, “That’s what he thinks.”
“Well he ought to be right!” Renjun rolls his eyes, wriggling inside his bonds and sighing. “Are you sure it’s much farther? This is really uncomfortable.”
“Oh...I reckon a bit further...y’know, this reminds me of a tune…” Putting a little more muscle into propelling them down the rails, Jaemin hums a note, then recalls the old childhood ditty and cheerily sings, “I’ve been working on the railroad—”
“Oh god. No.”
“—ALL the livelong day!”
The tunnel echoes the jaunty tune, the creak of the handcar wheels giving them a funky beat, and behind them Jaemin hears a delighted squeak before Chenle joins in. As Chenle carries the next line, Jaemin nudges Renjun’s hip with the toe of his boot.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s—”
“Just to pass the time away!” Chenle sings out, his pleasant voice carrying down into the darkness.
Renjun glares at Jaemin, his eyes brighter with their rage than either lantern, then flops over sideways on the handcar and whines. “Couldn’t you have just killed me?”
Jisung seems to be sharing the sentiment, periodically begging Chenle not to encourage Jaemin, yet they continue the song in a round as the track slides away below them, until suddenly the ceiling begins to rise and lift away, the tunnel widening in tandem. The notes echo even more as they enter the cavern, and Jaemin lets off singing about the same time Chenle does, the wonder of the space replacing their frivolity. The lantern light expands as much as it can, failing to fill the space enough for the full extent of it to be visible.
“W-wow…” comes a reverent whisper from Jisung, carrying forward to Jaemin’s ears.
Still on his back, Renjun twists around, trying to look but trapped staring upwards. “Where’d the ceiling go? What’s happening, Jaemin?”
“Reckon we found the mine.”
Except it doesn’t seem like a proper mine. Or, rather, it seems like perhaps once, at the very start, there may have been some mining—implied by the heaps of rock and abandoned pickaxes—taking place there, but the cavern itself gives off all the signs of being natural, as stalagmites hang threateningly from above where the ceiling is low enough to see them, and a cold wetness sits heavy in the air.
They’re all spellbound, silent in awe, except for Renjun continuing to wiggle around trying to shift an elbow underneath to where he can use it for enough leverage to sit up. It’s amid this that Jaemin notices a change in the sound the wheels are making, and glances down to see that the ground has fallen away, the track supported by a rickety looking wooden structure over an otherwise indistinguishable depth. He sucks in a sharp breath.
“Renjun, quit yer strugglin’! It ain’t safe!”
“Ain’t no floor!”
Renjun turns his head sideways and gasps, finally noticing the lack of anything below the tracks. He shrieks, which echoes terribly, and jerks backward, which rocks the handcar in a way that jolts Jaemin with terror like white lightning in his veins. For a moment they both hold very still, willing the handcar to steady itself as it rolls along. It does, thankfully, and a minute later the ground returns and a bumper appears as the track comes to an end. Jaemin ceases pumping the handle, and they slide into the bumper, knocking into it with an echoing thunk.
Renjun rolls sideways off the wood of the car and hits the dusty ground hard, his breath leaving all in one audible whoosh followed by a groan.
“Hell n’ blazes, Renjun! Ye couldn’t wait for me to getcha down properly?!”
“I love...floor…” Renjun groans into the dirt while Jaemin hops off the little vehicle and crouches beside him. There’s a clunk as Jisung’s and Chenle’s car smacks into theirs, the two hopping off with equal relief, and Jisung stalks over with his gun and cuffs already free.
“Alright Jaemin, hold still, you’re under arrest—”
“Jisung, I ain’t even done anything wrong yet.”
“Kidnapping! Kidnapping is wrong!”
“I told ye, this is borrowing.”
Renjun rolls his eyes as Jaemin hoists him to his feet and gets to work fiddling to loosen the ropes. “I didn’t agree to it...but if he’s planning to take me back...it’s probably fine, Jisung.”
Jisung doesn’t look pleased, or even placated, but he does lower his gun and tuck his cuffs back into his belt. “You all should at least be calling me Sheriff…” he grumbles.
“Isn’t it Deputy Assistant Junior Sheriff?”
The look Jisung shoots Chenle is mournful, betrayed.
Jaemin squints at Chenle while they all calm their nerves from the ride in. Jisung being there makes sense, somehow catching onto Jaemin’s shenanigans and following him, but Chenle’s presence doesn’t.
“What in blazes are ye doing here anyway, pianoman?” Jaemin finally asks. “Last I checked, ye ain’t an enforcer of the good Law.”
“Oh! No, not technically, but tonight I’m Law Reinforcements, ” he says, smiling sunnily. “Get it? Jisung didn’t want to go into the mine alone. And he was right! This place sure is scary.”
There’s a beat, then Renjun groans for the sixtieth time or so. “Dear god, why are we all here.”
Figuring there’s not a lot of danger left, not when Jisung’s already agreed not to shoot him, Jaemin finishes loosening the tie and lets the rope drop from Renjun, freeing his arms. And anyway, they’re going to need the rope in a minute, if Jaemin’s hunch is correct. He glances up and around the space, scanning along the cave walls until he sees a prominent irregularity.
“We’re here,” he says, scuffing across the floor, his spurs clinking noisily as he walks, “to go up there.”
He holds the lantern aloft, which does next to nothing to indicate the place he’s looking at, and when Jaemin turns at the silence he finds the other three looking up with a mixed bag of confused looks. Jaemin sighs.
“The ledge. If my source ain’t wrong, it leads somewhere.”
“But why would...we follow it…” Renjun asks.
“That does seem illogical!”
Jaemin thinks of the man with the hat (or without it. Since...it’s Jaemin’s now), and the mystery, and the treasure. Well, he’s assuming it’s treasure, since that’s the conclusion of all good mysteries. And the man with the hat (without it) wouldn’t have given Jaemin details about things he wouldn’t care about, knowing Jaemin was mostly (only) interested in what he could steal.
Winding his rope, Jaemin shifts it over his shoulder. “Might that as it be, that’s where I’m a’headin’. And Renjun, a’course.” He beckons Renjun over, holding out a hand. “Giddy up!”
“I will push you off the edge of this place.”
“Right right, I know. Come on.”
Despite protests, Renjun steps forward and takes Jaemin’s hand, which Jaemin pretends not to be surprised at, since he really just meant for him to follow along like a good little bank teller, but he doesn’t mind the miscommunication. Renjun has the nicest, tiniest little hands, and Jaemin will happily hold one of them while hefting the lantern high with the other.
He’s not surprised that Jisung and Chenle follow. It’s that, or go back the way they came, and none of them seem to eager to cross that empty space too soon again. Plus, it’s the only way Jisung can ensure Jaemin doesn’t do anything too dastardly, like the outlaw he is. It’s sort of a compliment, that Jisung thinks him worthy of needing tailing.
At the edge of the wall, Jaemin peers upwards and searches for what he assumes must be there, and—
“Is something sticking out of the wall up there?” Renjun asks, just below Jaemin’s ear, looking up from close over his shoulder.
Jeamin shrugs the rope off his shoulder and loops it, fashioning a nice sliding knot and weighing the rest of the course line in his hand as he measures the angle and distance by sight. In the darkness, it’s not too easy, but he’s lassoed moving targets before, so it shouldn’t be too much trouble.
He misses the first attempt.
“Oh, no luck!” Chenle chirps. “Better give it another go!”
“Yes...that’s...thanks kindly, Chenle.”
Renjun giggles, and it’s quite a nice sound, and it must boost Jaemin’s spirits a little, just enough that his next attempt alights nicely over the piece of whatever is sticking out from the wall. The knot tightens snugly around it, and Jaemin tugs the rope a few times to be certain it’s secure. When he’s satisfied, he gestures to Renjun.
He gets a suspicious glare in return. “Why me first?”
“Why,” Jaemin grins, “so I can catch ye if ye fall, darlin’. Hurry up, now.”
Renjun huffs, and it’s quite dark but Jaemin does think he blushes a little before grasping the rope and starting to shimmy up the wall. It takes a bit of instructing on Jaemin’s part—”plant your foot there, now you’re gettin’ it, then push up like so,”—but Renjun makes it up the ten-or-fifteen feet and wiggles over the ledge on his stomach before sitting up. He pops his head over and looks down at the three of them, schooling away his pleased grin into his usual even expression.
“Not too hard,” he says, “hurry up!”
They pass the first lantern up next, tying it to the end of the rope and waiting for Renjun to pull it up, which casts a little more light on the wall.
Jaemin follows in short order, and it takes him significantly less time before he’s wedging the heel of his boot into a good crack and pushing himself up onto the ledge too, taking the hand Renjun offers gratefully to slide the last few inches. Once he’s settled he briefly contemplates unhooking the rope and pulling it up before Jisung and Chenle can wrangle their way up too, but he figures Jisung will just use the lasso that’s sitting against his hip to follow anyway, so there’s really no point.
It takes a while to get Chenle up, which the musician blames on the fact that he spends relatively little time away from the seat of his pianoforte, but with Jisung’s help and the two of them pulling from above, he eventually makes it. Jisung has no trouble, even with his lantern hooked to his belt.
Jisung has nearly finished dusting Chenle off when Renjun pipes up.
“There are footprints here.”
Bringing both lanterns to the damp ground, the four of them peer at the soil and the obvious boot prints littering it.
“How old do you think these are?” Chenle asks no one in particular.
Jaemin crouches and pokes his finger into one, learning absolutely nothing by it. “Welp, who knows. Probably not important,” he says, although there’s a suspicious part of him that wonders who else is after what he’s after. But he doesn’t want to voice that one. He nudges Renjun’s shoulder instead, and hands him the lantern. “Let’s move along.”
With a small glare, that Jaemin is starting to think is just Renjun’s way of showing affection, Renjun continues forward along the ledge, taking careful steps as he goes. The others follow—before long, the ledge has narrowed significantly, forcing single file, then narrows furthe, forcing them to slide along with their backs to the wall. Finally, Renjun stops.
“That’s it, I can’t go any further,” he states matter-of-factly, “this doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Hmmm,” Jaemin peers around, and reaches to scratch under his hat, careful not to dislodge it and send it tumbling into the darkness. “That don’t seem right.”
Jisung sniffs loudly. “Did you even know what you were doing, coming here?”
No retrospective thoughts. Hindsight not allowed, Jaemin reminds himself, as he searches the darkness in front of them for something to give him a clue. It’s too damned dark, though, too damned empty and quiet, just the occasional drip of water from somewhere far off to their left and that tiny, persistent whistle of wind, the bit that keeps fluttering specifically around his neck and making Jaemin think that, if he were having hindsight thoughts, he’d thank himself for thinking to wear his cozy sheepskin coat on this adventure. At the brush of another bit of breeze, Renjun shivers, and Jaemin realizes his crisp black pants, starched white collared shirt and accompanying black jacket probably aren’t keeping him very warm. But how could Jaemin have predicted there would be a breeze inside a mine?
“Wait a minute...where is this breeze coming from?” Renjun asks suddenly.
“Don’t know, but it’s annoying!” Chenle responds, huddling back against the wall and behind Jisung’s shoulder.
Jaemin nods. “Mighty bothersome, but it has to be coming from close by to be this chilling…” Pushing his arms to the wall behind, Jaemin feels around, testing to find cracks or crevices. Renjun follows suit with the hand not holding the lantern, and eventually Jisung catches on as well, until they’re all giving the rockface a good solid twice-over of fingers and eyes.
“Oh...oh! Here!” Renjun exclaims, and when Jaemin reaches for the same spot he feels it too: a tiny hiss of air that slips out and spreads, sneaking into the cavern with a thin whine. Renjun hands off the lantern to Jisung, then they both wiggle fingers into the crack, and Jaemin grunts in surprise when the wall gives way just a tiny bit. They both redouble efforts to pry at the opening, shoving until Jaemin’s angle doesn’t help anymore and Renjun has to do most of the work, pushing with his slim arms and scrabbling against the rock. It’s working, slowly, and then he hits a point and the loose slab of thinner rock slides fast and hard away from them to his right, sending Renjun stumbling with it. Jisung shouts at the sound, and it’s only the arm Jaemin throws out around his waist that keeps Renjun from flying over the side of the chasm into black depths.
After a moment of frightened panting, Renjun whispers, “Thanks…”
“Yer right welcome,” Jaemin whispers back, adrenaline still coursing hotly through his head. He pulls Renjun back to sound footing, and they both look into the opening, taking the lantern back and reaching it forward.
There’s nothing but pitch, unbreakable darkness.
Renjun shudders. “Jaemin,” he mutters lowly, glancing up at him with wide, shaking eyes, “I don’t like this...”
A nod. “Well...I can’t go turnin’ back now...I s’pose I won’t force ye to keep on with me, but it would be a right shame for ye to have to go back over that chasm ‘n through that dark tunnel all by yerself in the dark.” Jaemin presses his lips together, humming a little. “A’course, if ye stay, I’ll be right here with ye the whole time. That’s a promise.”
“...fine.” Renjun relents, very softly. “But I’m not happy. You better stay right behind me.”
Jaemin presses close and takes Renjun’s free hand as he steps into the tunnel. Renjun doesn’t shake him off, and Jaemin ducks in behind him as the breeze floats cooly around them.
“Is it really safe to just be wandering into dark tunnels? Maybe we shouldn’t,” Jisung suggests, following behind Jaemin all the same. Jaemin can’t see, but assumes that Chenle has followed as well when he hears him let out a nervous laugh.
“Ye could leave.”
“And let you just drag Renjun into a dark hole inside a cave? I don’t think so. What kind of Sheriff would that make me?”
“No no, it’s Deputy Assistant Junio—”
Jisung sighs. “Sheriff Jaehyun really didn’t put that all on the documents—...never mind. We’re not leaving.”
The tunnel fills with the scuffling of boots and the clink of spurs as they shuffle along, four young men keeping tightly to one another with the bare light of two lanterns to guide them. Renjun takes careful steps; he stumbles a bit once, and Jaemin tugs him back, waiting a moment before they push ahead.
Time seems to pass indeterminably, Jaemin starting to keep track of it only by how many times Chenle asks if they think they’re close to whatever they’re looking for yet. He’s at seven when he sees it, just over Renjun’s shoulder, the faint glow of light up ahead. Renjun slows suddenly, shushing them all when Jaemin bumps into him and Jisung into Jaemin and Chenle into Jisung, all in a row like dominos.
“We’re not alone,” Renjun whispers harshly, nodding ahead.
Jaemin hears the click of a gun being cocked, and feels the nose of the barrell press into his back.
“This is some kind of setup, isn’t it?” he accuses, “Is Johnny up there? What’re you no good outlaw scoundrels up to?”
Carefully, Jaemin shakes his head. “It ain’t Johnny. I dunno who it is, or how they beat me here. But I aim to find out.” He prods Renjun’s hip with one hand, cocking his own gun with the other and ignoring Jisung’s tiny shocked gasp. “Go on, keep moving. I’m a faster draw than whoever’s round yonder, don’t worry.”
Renjun gulps audibly but continues, taking tiny steps forward as the light grows and they reach a corner, which feels very familiar to earlier in the adventure, Jaemin thinks. They slow when they reach it, keeping very quiet, and when Renjun leans forward Jaemin does so with him.
There are voices.
“Well, there’s certainly no getting any further like this. Can’t we just leave?”
“We’ll leave after you stop pretending you don’t have a key.”
A deep sigh. “I honestly don’t have a key, I told you. Just the map.”
“None of my keys will work, don’t look at me!”
Jaemin sighs internally. He knows these voices, and they’re the last ones he expected to find here, but not the most surprising. He holsters his gun.
Renjun glances over his shoulder, coming nearly nose-to-nose with Jaemin, and rolls his eyes. He knows them too. He jerks his head in their direction and Jaemin nods in agreement. In two steps they round the corner, and are greeted with the image of two of the town’s excessive collection of unrelated Lee’s, Mark and Jeno, sitting with hands up and backs to the wall across from a black-clad, masked bandit that all of them know as Haechan (who when unmasked, most of them know as Donghyuck. Jaemin is uncertain whether they all know it, or if Mark, Chenle and Jisung are still in the dark).
“Fancy meetin’ y’all here!” Jaemin greets cheerily, and enjoys the surprised yelp from Mark and the way Jeno jumps. Donghyuck, to his credit, simply moves his gun to point at him instead of them.
“What are you doing here, Jaemin?...and company?” Donghyuck asks, voice cool but some hesitancy in his posture at the sudden appearance of four more people to his hold-up.
Jisung rounds the corner and grumbles, “I’d like to ask you the same thing, Haechan! Are you in...cahoots? You and Jaemin?”
“Nah, ain’t no cahooting betwixt me and the feisty bandit, despite my askin’ more’n once if he wouldn’t rather just join up with Johnny n’ me. Pity, he wants to work alone so terribly.”
Donghyuck laughs. “Considering you’re being closely tailed by our own Deputy Assistant Junior Sheriff at this very moment, perhaps you can see why.”
Jaemin shrugs. “All goin’ to plan for me, so far.” This was more or less easily accomplished since there was, in fact, no actual plan.
“Excuse me,” interrupts Mark, who Jaemin realizes is wearing pajamas and a dressing gown, “but how did you get here? Isn’t there just a dead end that way?”
“No?” Renjun answers, confusion on his face and his voice befuddled. “There’s a whole cavern inside the mine. How did you get here?”
Jeno clears that one up in the same moment that Donghyuck tries to shush him.
“Oh there’s a secret tunnel in the floor of the abandoned cattle barn in the corner of the Lee Manor’s back acre. Mark and I just found it tonight! Leads straight here, totally exciting. Well. It was until Do—Haechan kinda showed up and...the gun…” he wiggles back against the wall, hands lifting back up as Donghyuck shifts the gun to point back at him. “Sorry! Anyway...uh. Hi, Jaemin.”
A little breath of air wafts through from the opposite end of the tunnel and flickers the lanterns, as if to prove his story, and Jaemin can’t help smiling at Jeno, all excited just because he’s not cooped up in the jailer’s keeping watch over some drunk...likely Jungwoo getting too liberal with his cooking sherry.
“Howdy, Jeno. What’s that?”
Jaemin gestures to the very obvious door in the wall they’d all been calmly ignoring. It’s rather small, but has a large window-type opening at the top which is open except for iron bars slotted through it, and if Renjun shifts the lantern toward it they can see the empty space inside. Chenle and Jisung shuffle forward in the cramped space, peering around Renjun and Jaemin, and Donghyuck groans.
“It’s nothing, everyone forget it, there definitely isn’t anything worth knowing about inside it. Can’t you all leave?”
“Oh no! I definitely won’t forget about this,” Chenle assures him. “I might even write a song about it! For Donghyuck to sing at the saloon, of course. I think he and Kun will love it.”
Donghyuck—well, Haechan—stares at Chenle blankly.
“Is that what you’re looking for, Jaemin?”
Glancing at Jisung, Jaemin nods seriously. “Darn tootin’.”
At least, it is now. No retrospect, as it were.
“You knew about this? Did you get a map from my uncle, too?” Mark asks, shifting forward on the dirt floor only to sink back at an annoyed huff from Donghyuck.
“What? No. I got other sources, y’see. Secretive-like ones.” A map would have been nice, though.
“Oh. I guess that makes sense, since we got here different ways.”
“Listen, this is all very nice, catching one another up on maps and such, but I’d like to get what I came for, if you don’t mind.”
Saying this, Donghyuck pulls out yet another gun, which just seems excessive, especially considering even he has to know what a silly idea it is to shoot in such close and sensitive quarters. But the threat holds its power, keeping Mark and Jeno pinned to the cold rock at their backs and preventing Jaemin or the ones behind him from coming any closer.
“Hand over the key, Mark,” Donghyuck demands.
“For the last time, Haechan, I haven’t got a key. The only way inside that room is crawling through the opening there and unbolting the door from the inside. I think we’ve pretty well established that at this point.”
Jaemin arches his brows, surprised. He glances down and notices the slim opening for the first time. He very nearly drops to his knees to start shimmying inside himself.
“Well there has to be a key, or some other way, because none of us are small enough to fit through!” Donghyuck complains, voice growing desperate.
Mark shrugs, Jeno silent next to him and just clicking the toes of his boots together, and says, “It is a pity, but unless we find someone smaller to get inside, there’s nothing we can do. Shooting us certainly won’t help.”
There’s mumbled agreement to that, and as Donghyuck sighs again in defeat, Jaemin takes another look at the opening, sizing it up. He’s bigger than Donghyuck, he knows that much, and if Donghyuck can’t fit through it then he has no hope either. And Jisung is skinny, but for sure his head’s too big. However…
“Just how small does a feller have to be to fit through, ye reckon? Perhaps...Renjun’s size?”
Six pairs of eyes turn to Jaemin, and then five turn to Renjun—Jaemin’s already looking at him, bearing most of the weight of his shocked and distressed glare.
“Won’t be nothin’, just a little squeeze and then ye can open the door.”
“I’m not doing it! I’ll get stuck!”
“Yer bein’ dramatic, it’ll be fine as flowers.”
“You don’t know that—”
A gun clicks. “Renjun, open the door for me.”
It’s just like Donghyuck, Jaemin thinks, to demand it at gunpoint and for himself specifically. He always puts on such a tough show when he’s got his eye on something, considering Jaemin knows for a fact that he’s never shot anyone. But he’s so serious when he threatens, no one seems to want to risk being the first.
Nor does Renjun, it seems. “O-oh, ok,” his voice shakes as he speaks, waving conciliating hands. “I’ll go.”
“Don’t threaten him like that!” Jisung says from behind, leveling his own gun at Donghyuck, and Jaemin pulls Renjun to flatten both of them against the wall and out of the range of fire.
Renjun jumps forward again, however. “Don’t! This is ridiculous. Everyone put the guns away, and I’ll open the door, alright? Just...stop with the guns!” He waits until they both lower their weapons, then drops his head, mumbling, “This is just like the bank...I need to get out of this mad town…”
Donghyuck steps back to allow Renjun room to kneel down and peer through the opening, setting the lantern close to give as much light as possible. He sits up for a second and shrugs his jacket off, rolls up his sleeves, and then sticks an arm through the hole and ducks his head inside.
“Careful, Renjun,” Mark advises.
Renjun makes a rude gesture with his still-visible hand, which has Mark spluttering, then snakes that arm through the hole too, and shimmies forward until his shoulders disappear. His boots scuff against the ground as he struggles a little, and for a brief second they all hold their breath as his hips seem to catch and he lets out a muffled complaint, then his legs are sliding through and Renjun disappears completely.
“Someone hold a lantern up!” he says suddenly through the door, making Jaemin jump back and nearly collide with Jisung. Donghyuck picks up the one from the floor and lofts it next to the window, revealing Renjun with dirt smudged on his face right beside a scowl.
He fumbles for a few seconds, then the sound of a bolt sliding echoes and he tells them to stand back, before shouldering against the wood. It takes a try or two, but finally the jammed door gives way and opens into the tunnel.
“There, everyone happy? Now you can—oof,” Renjun stumbles aside as Donghyuck shoves past, beating Jaemin inside the small room to raid its contents. Jaemin settles for squeezing in after him, and it proves that three is about the limit of what the tiny space can handle.
“Got it!” Donghyuck shouts, grabbing whatever there was and shouldering Jaemin out of the way to get back out. With a shake of his head, Jaemin offers Renjun a hand to help him up again, and then gestures him out of the room, glancing around the empty space mournfully before leaving.
Back in the tunnel, Donghyuck crouches over a wooden crate, prying at the lid with his fingers while the others look on in interest, lanterns held close, and Jaemin mostly closes the door so that the tunnel isn’t quite so cramped. His attention shifts back to Donghyuck, and Jaemin notes that his boots look familiar...the tread and shape of the sole appear to be a perfect match for the prints out on the ledge in the cavern. So then, Donghyuck failed to get there once before. Interesting.
The lid loosens, and Donghyuck tosses it away to dig his hands inside.
He pulls out a half-empty bottle of whiskey, and a stack of bills.
Jeno glances between the items and Donghyuck, and the crate. “What else is there?” he asks.
The visible part of Donghyuck’s face not hidden by his mask looks blank, like he’s paused to accept this information.
“Well, how much money is it?”
Donghyuck thumbs through the notes then looks up at Chenle and says, “Thirty dollars.”
“Wow!...I thought it would be more. But that’s great! Should we split it?”
One glare from Donghyuck has Chenle laughing awkwardly. “No, what am I saying, of course you should keep it,” he says.
The notes disappear inside a small pouch at Donghyuck’s hip before he stands up again and dusts his hands off. “Well, that was mostly a waste of time,” he says.
“There’s nothing from my uncle? No note, or anything?” Mark asks, his face a confused pout that mirrors Jeno’s.
“No, crazy old man Leeteuk strikes again. All that, just to stash some liquor and some pocket change, and for what? Typical.”
It is disappointing, and Jaemin sags a little. He really expected more from the information provided by the man with (without) the hat, considering he came all the way to Mad Creek over it. So far, his series of little adventures has barely panned anything out, just continued teases that leave him running after another chance only to be left disappointed. And the mines had such promise.
“Perhaps we should leave this place,” Renjun suggests softly, picking up his jacket and sliding it back over his dirt-covered shirt with a tiny shake. Jaemin silently removes his own sheepskin coat and adds it overtop, saying nothing when Renjun shoots him a glance then accepts it.
“Yeah, I was bored earlier, but this has been a lot. I’m really tired now,” Jeno agrees.
They make an odd little parade traipsing up the remaining part of the tunnel, as it was unanimously decided not to return to the cave when there was a much easier route back to town available. The whole way, Jisung keeps whispering to Chenle, trying to figure out whether he should be trying to arrest anyone, and Chenle assuring him he doesn’t think even Haechan has technically committed an actual crime. Jaemin grins to hear them, and keeps close to Renjun, because he’s going to want that coat back once he’s done as promised and returned the teller to his lodgings.
Mark’s dressing gown swishes against the grass as they exit the tunnel and then the barn, fresh air filling their lungs as the night sky opens wide and the stars wink down at them. He keeps a low conversation with Donghyuck that has Jisung leaning forward to try and hear, but Jaemin is sure is out of his hearing range.
“Planning any other adventures soon?” Jeno drops back to Jaemin and asks.
“None as I’ve got in mind, ‘fraid,” Jaemin replies, honestly. He’s been running low on hat-man clues.
Jeno looks disappointed. “Oh. Well, if you do, and they’re not too illegal, and you’d like company...I get awful bored in the jailhouse. I’d tag along with Dejun, Yangyang and Hendery, but they’re always so busy . So just...let me know.”
“I’d be glad to.”
As Jeno catches back up to Mark, Renjun knocks Jaemin’s arm, taking hold of his elbow and slowing him just enough for the others to all get ahead. Jaemin quirks an eyebrow at him.
“What’s eatin’ ye, Injunnie?”
Renjun rolls his eyes. “Here, for you. Found it before I opened the door.” He presses a piece of dirty paper into Jaemin’s hand that seems to be wrapped around something.
That stops Jaemin up, and Renjun pauses alongside him as Jaemin opens the paper up. A gold coin slides out and the crinkled paper reads in messy scrawl:
Perhaps it’s more than a hat trick, if you’re clever. Ask the Moon, see if he knows, or his quiet murmuring crowd, in fields of grass and stars.
“That’s...cryptic,” Renjun says, peering at the note in the moonlight.
Jaemin glances up at it in the sky, then frowns, then glances down the hill to the west; in the distance, past the farm that Yukhei tends for Jungwoo, he can just make out the muted lines of Taeil’s ranch, where he knows Taeyong and Yuta are sleeping somewhere.
They both look forward, where Jisung stands with a hand on his hip and narrowed eyes. “No loitering in Mark’s dead uncle’s field!” he shouts.
Renjun laughs, and Jaemin pockets the coin and paper and cracks a grin as they hurry to catch up to the others wading through the long grass down towards Mark’s manor house. Past it, the town sleeps in mostly darkness, the spare candle or lantern flickering in a window here or there. Over the general store, one window casts a warm light over the street, and if Jaemin squints he thinks he can see a figure moving in silhouette past it...or maybe two?
“Wonder what’s keepin’ Doyoung up,” he wonders aloud. As he does so, a pair of tumbleweed appear from nowhere and roll across their paths, forcing them to wait as they tumble and bump into one another before rolling away.
Mark blinks. “That was weird.”
“Huh,” Jeno says, and points at the singular restaurant the town boasts, indicating the apartment above it, “usually Ten’s up at this hour. He’s like, nocturnal. But there’s no light tonight?”
As he points this out, another tumbleweed skitters into their path, shortly chased by another one that rolls at reckless speeds. All seven of them stop to stare at the scuffle, until the tumbleweeds bumble away.
Chenle shoots Jisung a look. “Is that normal?”
“Nothing is normal here.”
The walk back doesn’t take too long, and at some point no one quite notices Donghyuck disappears, sliding into some corner of the night that eludes them all until Jeno points out that he’s gone. Then it’s Jisung and Jeno’s turn to veer away, both headed towards the Sheriff’s station and escorting Chenle past the saloon—the same place Chenle will likely find Donghyuck, acting as though he’s been asleep the whole time. Mark waves goodbye to them all, nods at Jaemin and Renjun, and takes the steps up his back porch tiredly; the door swings shut behind him.
Renjun makes no complaint as Jaemin wordlessly walks him back to the small house beside the bank where Sicheng is assumedly sound asleep. At the door, he pauses.
Jaemin coughs, then delicately tips the brim of his hat (the hat he stole, from the man now without). “Thank ye, for the coin n’ such. Weren’t necessary.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. Donghyuck was so greedy, after all the effort you made...it felt like you deserved it.”
The wooden porch creaks under Renjun’s boots, shifting with the transfer of weight as Renjun takes a step back towards Jaemin. He’s a little above Jaemin’s eye level standing on it, and Jaemin has to look up a bit as Renjun’s fingers push his hat back from his face. He leans over just enough to plant a tiny kiss on Jaemin’s cheek before pulling away, and Jaemin can’t help reaching up to rub at a smudge of dirt on Renjun’s chin, one of many.
Renjun smiles and steps back, pushing the front door half open.
“Same time next week?”
Jaemin grins, feeling how goofy it must look on his own face. “I’ll bring my rope.”
With a chuckle, Renjun slips inside and closes the door.
Jaemin makes quick work of the walk back to his and Johnny’s camp. He can hear the snores coming from Johnny’s tent and shakes his head, pausing to remove his coat before entering his own...only to realize he never took it back from Renjun. Oh well, he’ll just...rob him of it, or something, later.
Removing his hat and hanging on it’s special hook, Jaemin flops onto the comfy pile of wool blankets inside his tent, fumbling for his box of matches and quickly lighting his small lantern. That done, he digs the items from his pocket, reading the note once more before turning to search in his rucksack. He eventually finds the small carved box hiding there, and opens it to add the note and coin to a small collection of similar ones that sit safely inside.
“Gettin’ closer,” he mutters, thumbing the papers, then carefully closing the box and tucking back form when it came.
He turns off the flame in the lantern, settles back against his blankets and stares up, a slow smile sliding over his lips as he thinks over the adventure of the night. The wind blows gently, toying with the canvas of his tent and writing a nice lullaby, and Jaemin falls asleep to it’s senseless melody; he keeps his boots on, and his hat near.