In a ramshackle building in Community Q-16, just south of Emergency Bunker West Q-16, surrounded by bits of scrap metal and rusting screws and makeshift tools, Chanyeol looks at the dismantled blaster in front of him and says, “Well, shit.”
It’s not that his job as a Fixer is impossible, it’s just that—no, sometimes it’s impossible. Like right now, staring at the innards of a high-tech piece of weaponry, knowing that the problem lies within the, uh, the energy...part. The part that does the...the creating of energy. Chanyeol calls it the fusion reactor, partly because it sounds cool, but mostly because he has no idea what it is.
See, this is the problem. He has no idea what anything is. This is what happens when your only Fixer is a self-trained barely-adult, who learned everything he knows about mechanics by taking things apart and putting them back together without accidentally killing himself.
“See here,” he says to his deaf and mute audience of one, gesturing to what was once a working blaster. “The problem could be here, in the Magnety Section. The magnets are possibly no longer doing their job. See, see, the magnets alternate between positive and negative charges, and that does, uh, something. To the energy. When it passes through, obviously. But it appears that one of them is no longer magnety. Or at least that’s my best guess. But I don’t know which one, or whether it’s a negative or positive one. And even if I did, where would I find another magnet without ripping open someone else’s blaster? Also, do I dare tear out these magnets, which are probably very carefully placed, and then try to put them back in later and hope nothing explodes? Or do I just give it up as a lost cause and save these parts for a more fixable blaster?”
He stares at the blaster parts with a frown, then leans in to poke at the fusion reactor carefully, noticing a hairline crack. Something viciously shocks his grease-stained finger. “Fuck! Ow, shit, fucking fuck. Fuck.” He sticks his buzzing finger in his mouth, grimacing as sludgy oil touches his tongue. Then, guiltily, he glances up at his audience. “I’m sorry. I should watch my language around young leaves.”
On the other side of his work desk, lounging on his windowsill, a small, potted plant flutters a leaf at him in the breeze coming in through the window. Chanyeol assumes this is forgiveness.
“Well, maybe the problem isn’t in the magnets after all,” Chanyeol mutters, turning back to his work. “But now I’m too scared to touch anything in case it’s gonna shock me again.”
“Talking to plants again, Chanyeol?” an amused voice says from the doorway to Chanyeol’s workshop.
Chanyeol turns to see Yifan standing with his hip cocked against the doorframe, smirking. “Laugh all you want, but she’s a better roommate than you are,” Chanyeol quips.
Yifan snorts. “How’s the fixing going, Fixer?”
“Not as successfully as my other job,” Chanyeol sighs, stretching stiff limbs. “Think I could be transferred to full-time Defense instead? I’d rather take Sergeant’s yelling all day than face my failures in here.”
“We’ve got lots of soldiers. Only got one Fixer,” Yifan points out.
Chanyeol sighs again, more loudly. “This is the problem. People expect me to actually be good at my job when I’m the only one who does it. I’m shit at my own specialty.”
“You’re not shit,” Yifan says. “The community appreciates anything you can do to help. You’re just...undertrained.”
“You can say that again,” Chanyeol groans. He knows Q-16 is desperate to keep as many of their electronics and gadgets in working order as possible. Most of their machinery and weaponry is on the brink of failing every day. But it’s hard to keep things running when Chanyeol’s knowledge of electricity is rudimentary at best, he only knows how engines work in terms of this goes here and that goes there, and everything he does is trial and error. Yifan said undertrained, but what he really meant was untrained. Sure, Chanyeol has an instinctive way with mechanics; he’s intuitive and eager to learn; he’s picked up a fair bit of knowledge from his own curious exploration; he’s half-decent at finding out what the problem is and how to fix it. But he honestly has no idea what the fuck he’s doing at least 50% of the time. And besides that, he’s depressingly short on resources, including reliable, working tools.
“But I agree that you could use more time training with us lowly soldiers,” Yifan relents, palming the blaster attached to his hip. “We’re learning maneuvers that you’re going to have absolutely no clue about.”
Chanyeol groans. “When am I supposed to sleep? I can’t keep pulling double shifts like this.”
“You have two very important jobs,” Yifan says with a shrug. “We can’t afford to lose either.”
It’s the truth. Up until a few months ago, the people of Q-16 wouldn’t have considered fighting a job at all. It was something they just didn’t do. Couldn’t, when they were inside the bunkers. But a lot has changed since then. They need soldiers now. Military leaders. The community has risen to the task admirably, but it’s still strange for many of them.
“Anyway, Yeol. I came to fetch you for evening meal. If you don’t hurry, you’ll get stuck with scraps again. You may be forced to eat your precious plant.”
Chanyeol gasps, mock offended. “How dare you imply that I would ever do such a thing. Especially where she can hear you.”
Yifan rolls his eyes, amused. “I honestly don’t get why you’re so obsessed with that thing. It’s not even a pretty plant.”
Chanyeol turns to look at his little potted plant, reaching out to touch tender green leaves with a gentle, calloused fingertip. “She doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s a symbolic thing.” He bites his lip, then says, “When I’m stuck in here for hours, pulling my hair out over things I can’t fix and starting to get really hopeless, she reminds me that we’re moving forward. It’s slow going, but we’re regrowing. You know?”
When he turns around again, Yifan is shrugging. “Why this plant, though? There’s plenty of plants outside. Edible ones.”
Now it’s Chanyeol’s turn to roll his eyes. Yifan has never been known for his sensitivity. “I got this seed as a gift,” he says. “So it’s a special plant.”
“As a gift from who?”
Chanyeol is forced to shrug. “Some kid I knew back during the first Surfacing. He was from one of the other communities.”
“Oooo, forbidden romance?” Yifan grins.
Chanyeol snorts. “We were literally like 7. And besides, you know we weren’t fighting back then.”
Yifan hums. “Yeah. That’s sure changed.”
“We’re more desperate now. And more divided.” Chanyeol shrugs. “Anyway. I’ve saved it for this long and I wasn’t sure if it’d grow. So you better take care of her if anything ever happens to me.” He narrows his eyes at his best friend, threatening.
Yifan scoffs. “Yeah yeah. I’ll look after your delicate orphan child. Anyway, I’m serious, let’s go eat. I’m starving.”
“You go ahead,” Chanyeol says, swinging around to look at his work desk. “I’ll clean up here and then join you.”
“Your loss,” Yifan says, but turns without another word to head for the community center—a reimagining of their old bunker center, where people used to gather for meals and events.
Chanyeol immediately starts piecing the blaster in front of him back together, knowing he’ll never be able to do it if he waits until the next day and forgets how he took it apart. He pauses in the middle, though, gaze catching on his little plant, and reaches out to touch a pale green leaf again. He thinks hard about it, tries to remember the boy who gave him the seed, all those years ago. He can barely remember anything. Small hands. A scared smile. A whispered goodbye.
Well. It doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t recognize him now anyway.
In the same community, maybe a kilometer south of Chanyeol’s workshop, Baekhyun works away at a rocky patch of land, hacking at the weeds poking through the dry soil. God, he hates fieldwork. He hates it with every fiber of his being. There is no job he thinks he would like less than he likes weeding and planting and watering and pruning and harvesting. The sun beats down on his red, raw skin relentlessly, dry air scorches his throat, sweat cools and itches under his clothes, blisters burst on his palm, bugs bite at his skin—those fuckers survived the apocalypse, of course—and Baekhyun hasn’t seen or talked to anyone in hours. He wants to scream.
He’s been a Grower for three months, and he thinks he’ll go insane if he has to stay at this job any longer.
“Baekhyun!” a voice calls, and Baekhyun pauses that thought. “Mealtime!”
“Oh, thank god,” Baekhyun says, tossing his hoe onto the ground like it’s on fire.
“Pick up your tools, Grower! We can’t afford for it to rust!”
Baekhyun sneers. It’s not like it rains enough for their metal tools to start rusting, anyway. Regardless, he picks the hoe back up, cocking it over his shoulder and starting the trek back to the community center. He doesn’t bother rushing. The long walk means he’ll get the leftovers no matter how much he hurries.
Fifteen minutes later, Baekhyun is putting his hoe away in the storage shed, which threatens every day to give up and collapse, and then he makes his way through crumbling streets and alleys to the community center to get his meal tray. They hadn’t been able to salvage a whole lot from the bunkers, but they’d managed to bring a billion plastic trays, somehow.
He gets his food—cold and scraped from the bottoms of pots—and carries it to the table where his friends sit together, most of them already finished eating. “Comrades,” he says, nodding to Chanyeol and Yifan. “Builder,” he adds, pointing his spoon at Luhan.
“I think you can only call us comrades if you’re also a soldier,” Chanyeol says with a half grin. “Which you’re not.”
Baekhyun wrinkles his nose, spooning zucchini and cabbage stew into his mouth. “It’s not for lack of trying,” he huffs.
“Oh, god, is Baekhyun going to go on a job rant again?” Yifan asks dryly.
Baekhyun smacks his spoon against his tray. “It’s the worst job! You guys don’t understand, you got good jobs.”
“Just because you want to be fighting people all the time doesn’t mean everyone does. Or that it’s a ‘good job,’” Yifan says.
“But it is, though. It’s a useful job. You’re protecting our land. And our people.”
“And you’re cultivating the land they’re fighting to keep,” Luhan says. “Lots of people would say it’s the most useful job. You grew the food we’re eating right now. You’re feeding a starving community.”
“You’re bringing dead land back to life,” Chanyeol adds. What an idealist.
“I’m miserable,” Baekhyun grumps. “Look, I know Growing is an important job. But it’s not right for me. It’s too slow, and too boring, and too lonely. I can’t spend all day with nothing but plants for company. I can’t do it.” He stirs his cold stew and pouts. “I want to be fighting with you guys.”
“Chanyeol spends most of his time with plants, too, and he loves it,” Yifan points out teasingly. “And Luhan Builds.”
“Better than Growing,” Baekhyun mutters. “At least he gets to work with people, and see actual day-to-day progress.”
“Why don’t you ask Community Leader to transfer you to Defense Duty?” Luhan asks.
“He’s tried it. Several times,” Chanyeol says with a laugh. “Community Leader keeps saying he’s too weak. Wants him on Growing Duty, because he’s so delicate.”
“His exact words were fragile disposition, actually,” Baekhyun says, sniffing. “Not that that makes any more sense. Or that it’s true.”
“How do you even remember that?” Luhan says.
“It wounded my pride.” Baekhyun places a hand over his heart.
“Be grateful, Little Flower,” Yifan says, leaning back and stretching his arms. “You probably won’t die on your job.”
“Unfortunately,” Baekhyun sighs.
“None of us are having tons of fun,” Chanyeol says, frowning at Baekhyun. “You know that.”
Baekhyun does. It hasn’t been easy for any of them since Q-16’s second return to Earth’s surface. They’ve all had to learn a lot, quickly, desperate after being stuck in bunkers for so long with failing machinery and depleting food stocks. And no one really understands what’s left, because the plague that ripped through the communities after their first return to the surface had taken down the majority of their trained personnel. They’d been left with a lot of young people and no idea how anything worked.
Baekhyun doesn’t remember it that well—he was quite young, and so sheltered, but he remembers death, and fear, and a hasty retreat back underground once they realized they wouldn’t survive—but it’s affected his life so profoundly. It’s affected them all. He knows Chanyeol is constantly floundering and working too many hours. He knows Yifan fears for his life on a daily basis, unused to putting himself in danger. He knows Luhan works hard, straining muscles in unsafe working conditions, because they don’t have enough standing buildings to house everyone, and half of the ones they do have are on the brink of collapse. Everyone’s rations are too small, their jobs are too hard, their resources are too limited. Everyone is just doing what they can to survive.
But Baekhyun’s not one to let the mood get all dark and broody, so he sighs gustily and says, “You know, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time working as a Grower if we had sorcerers to do the work for us.”
Luhan lifts his eyebrows at him, and Yifan mutters, “You’re gonna get yourself arrested for treason.”
“You know why we can’t do that, Baek,” Chanyeol says, frowning at him.
“We have no idea what those freaks can actually do,” Yifan adds. “Just because they say they can heal the earth doesn’t mean they actually can or will.”
“Yeah, or else why didn’t they do it earlier, when we were waiting for decades for the earth to heal on its own?” Luhan says.
“They could be lying about their powers, or they could be dangerous, or they could be trying to trick us, or—”
“Alright, alright,” Baekhyun cuts in, rolling his eyes. “Relax. I was kidding. I forgot we don’t do jokes around here anymore.”
“We’re just saying, Baek,” Yifan says. “Q-16 made the decision not to ally ourselves with paranormals—or with paranormal-allied communities—for a reason.”
“Our leader made the decision,” Baekhyun says. “And just because he says all those things doesn’t make them automatically true. Paranoid bastard.”
Luhan looks around furtively. “You really want to get arrested, don’t you.” He grins slightly; Luhan’s always been the most interesting friend.
Baekhyun scoffs bitterly. “Please, take me in! Maybe I’ll make some friends in there.”
“But really,” Chanyeol says. “If paranormals help so much, why are paranormal-allied communities still fighting us for arable land? You’d think fucking X-22 would just give up and let us have the Valley if they were so well off. But they’re still fighting us tooth and nail for it.”
“Suspicious,” Luhan agrees, still looking amused. “I love a good conspiracy theory.”
“You guys are seriously going to get us in trouble,” Yifan says with a frown.
“Plus you’re taking my joke way too seriously,” Baekhyun says. “What a bunch of downers.”
“War isn’t a joke,” Chanyeol says.
“Not when you have no sense of humour,” Baekhyun mutters. “Someone tell a funny story. I haven’t laughed in 24 hours.”
“Jongdae from Q-17 got caught imitating the Foreman and had to run laps during midday meal,” Luhan says, grinning. “And then got caught repeating the imitation to some of the other Builders and had to run more laps.”
Baekhyun snorts. He knows Community Leader had been worried about the small alliance group from Bunker West Q-17—a mere two kilometers north of Q-16—not fitting into the community well, being vastly outnumbered after the plague had killed all but 36 of the other bunker’s inhabitants. But from what Baekhyun has seen, the worry had been fruitless.
“I caught Chanyeol talking to his plant on the job again,” Yifan adds. “Did you know it’s a she?”
“Hey!” Chanyeol protests, and Baekhyun laughs. Chanyeol flails as he tries to hit Yifan with his dirty spoon, and ends up nearly falling out of his seat, and Baekhyun laughs harder. He laughs loud enough to draw stares, but he doesn’t care.
Q-16 could use a little more laughter in their lives. They have so little else to maintain their will to keep going.
Several kilometers west of Q-16, across the Dead Zone and past patches of struggling fields, in Community X-22 Delta, Jongin stands in front of Community Leader Boa’s home-slash-office, face red and hot.
“Why do you need me, though?” asks the man standing across from him, arms crossed. “Why can’t you do your...magic voodoo stuff, on your own?”
“It’s not voodoo,” Jongin says, scratching the rash on his wrist. It’s one of the few things he’d be able to heal on his own, if he wasn’t so stressed out all the time. “It’s just. I’m. I’m just a sorcerer. I can’t do anything by myself.”
His small audience stares back at him silently, and Jongin feels himself heat up again, wishing his mentors were here with him. But they’re not, so he has to do this himself.
Jongin sighs, tries to gather his thoughts. He’s already explained this several times, but he knows he’s not doing a good job of it. “As a sorcerer, I’m capable of, um, sensing the earth’s energy, right? I can just. I can feel it. Where there’s energy in the ground, and in plants, and stuff. There’s pockets of it all over the place. Well. In some places. That’s the, the earth’s life force. Right? That’s how it regrows. There’s energy there, and the energy goes into plants and soil and...yeah.” He takes a deep breath, sighs. “I can sense that. And I can...draw it into myself, and push it into something else. My body is a vessel for that energy. I can direct energy.”
“So why do you need me?” the man asks again.
“Because I can’t do anything with the energy. All I can do is find it and move it around. But it’s not useful in its raw form. I mean, it is, it’s helping the earth regrow. But we’re trying to speed up that process. That’s what I’m here for. It’s like...think about it like it’s sunlight, right? It’s helpful enough, in its own right. It’s helping the plants grow. But if you wanted to start a fire, you’d need a magnifier. You need to change the form of the sunlight to make it do something that quickly. So the sun is, uh, me. It’s directing energy, er, sunlight, at the earth. But I need something, a magnifier, a conjurer, to transform the energy into something useful. Healing energy, usually. Its simplest form.” Jongin pauses, scratches his neck. “But this metaphor isn’t very good, because with conjurers and sorcerers...well, the conjurer just takes the energy and shapes it. Then I take it back, me being the sorcerer, and I redirect it into wherever we need it. Like plants, or soil. So. Sorcerer finds and directs, conjurer shapes.”
“So you’re saying I could be a conjurer,” the man says, looking like he might understand now, but still isn’t impressed. “And why do you think I could do that job?”
“I can...feel it?” Jongin says, wincing at the uncertainty in his voice. “It’s hard to explain. A sorcerer and conjurer have to be closely connected to turn energy into something useful and beneficial. It’s not an easy job. There has to be...compatibility. Like, um. It’s like our bodies have the same energy frequency. I guess. If I tried to push raw energy into someone’s body who wasn’t compatible...that would be bad.” Jongin chews on his lip. “We’re compatible. I can feel it.”
“You can feel my energy frequency?” the man asks, lifting one sharp eyebrow.
“I told you I can sense energy,” Jongin says, shrinking in on himself. “Every living thing has energy.”
“Could you drain my energy?”
Jongin’s eyes widen. “I wouldn’t do that! That’s murder!”
The man snorts, and Boa sighs at him. “Minseok, you’re being difficult.”
“I’m not! I just don’t want to get involved in this freaky magic stuff, and this kid’s trying to tell me I have to.”
“I need a conjurer,” Jongin says miserably, shoulders slumping. “I’m useless without one.”
“What makes you think I could be a conjurer, anyway?” Minseok asks. “Even if our freaky magical energy frequencies are compatible, I don’t know how to...shape energy, or whatever. I’m not magic.”
“You are, though,” Jongin insists. “Both abilities are something you’re born with. Sorcerers almost always have a paranormal parent, usually also a sorcerer. Conjurers can be anyone. It’s...most of it’s intuitive, and possible with practice. But you have to have that spark. And you do.” He lowers his voice, embarrassed. “I can sense it.”
“We’re pegging a whole lot on the fact that you can apparently sense things,” Minseok says wryly. “Funny how it’s something you can’t prove.”
“But I can sense them!” Jongin protests, aware that it sounds childish, that it makes him sound even younger than he is. “There’s a...a link. I can work with that. I just need you to agree.”
Minseok scoffs. “No way. I don’t want anything to do with this.”
Jongin sighs and slumps. It’s been this way ever since he joined this community. He’s been here for two months, and this is still the reaction he gets from everyone. The reaction they get. He joined X-22, leaving the safety and familiarity of Delta Group, with Joonmyun and Yixing, as helpers. They wanted to help people, and the Earth. That’s what paranormals are good for. Drawing out and transforming energy, directing it back into the earth, helping things to grow, to flourish. That’s what Joonmyun and Yixing do. But Jongin had no conjurer to partner with, unlike his mentor pair. He’d joined X-22 with the promise that he’d find one among the community’s people. And he had.
But Minseok wants nothing to do with him, of course. Everyone is so distrustful. Although some communities, like X-22, allowed paranormals in to help with the Growing and so on, most of them were still scared of anything to do with magic. Which Jongin can understand, he supposes. People don’t like what is new and different to them. They want to protect what they know and what is safe. Jongin knows all about finding comfort in what is familiar, even if it’s not what is good. And many people lash out in their fear, as he suspects Minseok is doing now. The energy coming off of him has that hint of sourness to it.
It doesn’t help that their timing seemed suspicious. They hadn’t joined the government-run bunkers that had been built in anticipation of the meteors that struck over a century ago. Paranormal groups had built their own, staying hidden as they always had, out of the sight of non-magic humans. But after the second return to the surface—the first return ending quickly after a plague struck, killing many of the older generation who were less equipped to fight off the virus—they’d come out of hiding, knowing the earth needed their abilities in order to regrow and thrive again.
But of course not everyone believed that. It was never that easy. Nothing had been easy. People could say all they wanted about working together to start anew and helping their neighbours, but reality is never so pretty. Communities had formed inside the bunkers, and community was family, and family protected their own. Resources were scarce aboveground as well as below. People were desperate to feed themselves, to find land that could support life. When they found it, they protected it, often to the death. The earth is rebuilding itself, but the people inhabiting it are struggling just to stay alive, and with desperation comes war, and grudges, and the shakiest of alliances, and suspicion.
But Jongin really wants to help. He wants to help heal the earth, and give people hope for a future. But he needs a conjurer if he’s going to be able to do so.
And Minseok is being such a dick.
“Minseok, reconsider,” says Boa, turning to the young man with a firm set to her mouth. Few people dare themselves to go against her ‘suggestions.’ “I know this is very new to you, but winter isn’t just a distant threat anymore. Our storerooms are practically bare.”
“I know we’re desperate, but if you’re so worried about our food situation that you’re telling me to spend the rest of my life with a 16-year-old, we should be seriously scared.”
“I’m 18, and it’s not like you have to marry me,” Jongin grinds out.
Minseok turns to him, looking genuinely surprised. “I don’t?”
Jongin blinks back at him. “No? When did I ever say that?”
“I don’t know. I thought this whole thing was like, getting magical-married or something. Aren’t the other two…?”
“Joonmyun and Yixing? No, definitely not.” Jongin almost laughs. “It’s not uncommon for a sorcerer-conjurer pair to get married, but it’s not a requirement.”
Minseok frowns, looking vaguely embarrassed. “But they’re always, you know. All over each other.”
Jongin frowns back. “That’s just the way we are. Physical contact is healing. We thought at first that all of you must hate each other, you touch so little.”
“...Oh. Well.” Minseok grimaces. “That still doesn’t mean I want to join your freaky magic crew. I’m perfectly happy as a Builder.”
Jongin wants to stomp his foot, but he’s too old for tantrums. He has to be. “We’re not freaky.”
“Minseok,” Boa says reproachfully.
“I need to pick up my sister from the Carers’. See you, Freak.” Minseok nods slightly in Jongin’s direction, then turns and walks down the overgrown path towards the community center.
Boa watches him go with a sigh. “He’s hard-headed,” she says.
“I don’t know what to do without a conjurer,” Jongin says, swallowing hard. “He’s the only match I’ve ever found.”
“We took you in on the agreement that we’d find you one,” Boa says, looking simultaneously intimidating and encouraging. She’s good at that. “And we will. Minseok might just take some time to come around.” She pauses, then says, “Have you tried his sister?”
“Isn’t she like...a baby?” Jongin asks, incredulous.
The community leader laughs softly. “No, his other sister. Seulgi. She’s a soldier.”
“Oh. No, she didn’t match. I don’t think it’s hereditary like that.”
Boa sighs. “Alright. Well. I’ll speak with his family. Perhaps they can talk some sense into him.”
Jongin nods, chewing on his lip. He doesn’t doubt that Boa will eventually be able to talk Minseok into agreeing—no one goes against the community leader for long. Not in a community where obedience is so important to survival.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll ever get along. It doesn’t mean Jongin will ever be able to help.
It doesn’t mean he’ll ever be accepted.