at the end.
‘Look what I found,’ Luhan says, laughing. His jacket is singed and his hair is in a disarray. Yixing goes to him first, hands outstretched and glowing already, but Luhan waves him off. His one hand is in a fist and he jerks it through the air, jerking the body floating behind him.
‘Chen,’ says Minseok, recognizing him immediately beneath the bruised face. Luhan lowers his fist slowly, and Jongdae - trapped within Luhan’s telekinesis - floats downwards too, until he’s laying flat on the floor in the middle of an empty warehouse. Yixing redirects his attention from Luhan to Jongdae immediately.
‘You didn’t have to fight him so hard,’ Yixing scolds, cupping Jongdae’s face in his palm and healing the swelling around his cheek and eye.
‘Yes, I did,’ says Luhan, hands on his hips. ‘Are you kidding? That’s why it was me who had to drag the cat back home.’
‘’was good,’ slurs Jongdae from the floor, raising a hand with cut-up knuckles to give a thumbs-up. ‘Should see the building.’
A moment later, Yifan walks through the door, slamming it shut behind him. ‘They turned it into rubble.’ Minseok immediately ices the door back shut.
‘Over what?’ Zitao asks, curious, sitting on some stray shipping container and kicking his legs through the air. Luhan shrugs off his jacket and floats it over to Zitao.
‘Fix it,’ he says. ‘It was my favourite.’
Zitao pushes the floating jacket away from his face. ‘Not until you tell me why.’
‘Don’t play dumb, Tao.’
Grinning now, Zitao put his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands. ‘Chenchen got shy. Didn’t want to see dage again.’
‘Keep talking shit,’ warns Jongdae, the electricity suddenly crackling to life around him. ‘See where that gets you.’
‘Chen,’ says Yifan, brows furrowed. Jongdae clicks his jaw shut and looks away; the electricity dissipates.
‘How long as it been since we were all together again?’ Yixing asks, pulling a pocketknife from his back pocket and slicing through Jongdae’s shirt to place his palms over Jongdae’s bruised and broken ribs.
‘It’s been almost twenty years,’ Minseok answers, approaching Jongdae now. ‘We’ve decided.’
‘Without me, as usual,’ Jongdae says lowly.
‘Without me either, asshole,’ says Luhan, rolling his eyes. ‘We were the last ones to get here - but they have a lead and they’ve decided.’
‘I’m going to be leading us!’ Zitao says happily. He finally takes Luhan’s jacket still floating next to him and holds it in front of him, mouth thinning out as he focuses. The jacket’s fabric loses the burn marks and even begins to re-thread itself, going back to when it was new again. De-aged through time back to when Luhan first bought it.
Hopping off the shipping container, Zitao tosses the jacket towards Luhan and approaches them all. ‘I found him. My mirror image.’
Luhan dons his jacket and rolls his shoulders, clicking his tongue at the stiffness. Zitao had made it too new; he’d have to break it in again. ‘I don’t give a shit about mine, and neither do you, but if they’ve made contact, we need to stick together.’
Jongdae sighs loudly.
‘Chen-ah, we need you,’ says Minseok softly. He pauses. ‘We want you.’
That seems to break him. Luhan bites back his laugh as Jongdae’s expression softens as he slumps his shoulders, all the fight draining out of him almost immediately. Yixing is smiling to himself as he works, and Zitao does outright laugh at him.
‘But first, you’ll apologize to Minseok,’ says Yifan, squatting down next to Jongdae’s head.
‘Oh, so you learn to say sorry and now we all do too?’
Luhan kicks Jongdae’s thigh, making him yelp. ‘Yeah we fucking do. Do you know how hard it was making this dumb fuck do it?’
‘Don’t be mean,’ says Yixing without any conviction. A glance at Yifan has Yifan ducking his face in a burst of shame. ‘C’mon, Chenchen.’
Squeezing his eyes shut, Jongdae exhales loudly before he struggles to sit up. Once upright, he opens his eyes and sets his jaw, lifts his gaze at Minseok standing next to him. ‘I was wrong.’
‘Yes,’ says Minseok, his voice soft, without judgement. ‘We all were… over these past hundred years.’
‘I get it. I shouldn’t have - ’ His voice cuts off; the shame setting in. He can’t even look at Yixing now, and Luhan can feel his chest lurch in pity. ‘Lu-ge is going to - keep me in check.’
Ever empathetic, Zitao leans over Jongdae, laying a warm hand over Jongdae’s shoulder. For a second, Jongdae leans his cheek into the touch, comforted, until Minseok laughs under his breath.
‘Is that why you both had to bring down a building?’
‘No,’ says Kris, long-suffering. ‘That was just them having fun.’
Luhan grins, unashamed, and rocks on his heels in glee at being surrounded by them all again.
in the beginning.
When they had come to this world, there were only the scantest memories. Something about life, about their Queen, about being chased across worlds, holding a power within themselves that only become stronger if they could find each other.
Yifan knows this voice more intimately than any of the others - even more so than Zitao who can sense anyone’s emotions with an ease and alacrity that bordered on creepy. He had started alone, tugged along by sheer instinct and guesswork through the patchwork network of towns and cities until he was able to catch rumours of a boy who lived alone amongst the mountains, dressed in summer’s clothing even during the most freezing cold snaps.
Ice. Cold. Boy. Hints of a memory, ever-shifting shadow at the back of his mind. Yifan could only follow, using his flight to scale the mountain until he found a shack and a firepit and a boy who murmured, ‘I know you.’
‘Kris.’ The name comes to him unbidden, different from what he’s adopted on this world. ‘No - Yifan.’
The boy’s gaze flickers with recognition. ‘Xiumin, but Minseok here.’
And a flicker of images slot into place within his memory - the last few moments before they were flung out into space as simply energy from their Queen. ‘There’s more of us, six of us. Somewhere here.’
‘You can find them,’ says Minseok, realizing now. ‘I have dreams but they lead nowhere, but you - can find them.’
Yifan’s mouth twists and his first instinct is to flee. To leave the responsibility behind because he didn’t expect this, didn’t ask for it. Yet Minseok watches him, and Yifan shouldn’t disappoint. He’s been chosen to - to lead.
‘I’ll come with you,’ says Minseok, laying a warm hand on his arm. ‘I’ll help you.’
‘Is this all of us?’ Luhan asks. It has taken a few years for them to all agree to travel together and gather in one place - a simple farmhouse amidst the countryside with no risk of surprise visitors.
Yixing takes stock. There is the man who found him: Yifan - sensitive yet restrained. The one he gets along with the most: Luhan - excitable yet clear-headed. Then the strangers: Minseok - disciplined and practical. Jongdae - powerful and volatile. Zitao - perceptive and playful.
‘All six,’ confirms Minseok. He looks at Yifan and there registers familiarity. Yixing understands now - they have criss-crossed paths before. Known each other and still chose different directions. It’s a startling realization - that even after all this work, they can walk away from each other now. A nebulous destiny with no clear instruction is not binding.
‘Out of twelve,’ says Yifan, rubbing his face with his hand. ‘There’s… six more.’
A surprise. Both Minseok and Luhan balk at the new information, but Jongdae and Zitao are still evaluating. Zitao had been charmed by Yifan when they first met, had warmed up to Yixing and the others quickly enough. Jongdae had been far more reticent - reaching out to Yixing first, understanding that the one with the healing couldn’t hurt him, unlike Minseok’s ice, Luhan’s telekinesis.
‘Our reflections, right?’ Jongdae says.
‘They see us and we see them,’ says Zitao.
Yifan looks up at them and nods.
Yixing teeters. There is Yifan, leader, who knows about it before. Then the youngest two, sensitive to changes, who know it as well.
The middle - him, Luhan, Minseok. Keeping score.
‘Before we even look for them,’ says Jongdae, ‘are they enemies or friends?’
‘Are we your enemies, idiot?’ Luhan sneers. Jongdae shows his teeth right back.
‘They must be friends,’ says Zitao confidently. ‘We’re friends. We can trust each other.’
‘How do you even know that!’ Jongdae complains.
‘I can’t sense them,’ interrupts Yifan, looking far more distressed than Yixing has seen him otherwise. ‘I don’t know where they are. If they’re even here. In this - world.’
‘Great,’ Minseok mutters under his breath.
Yifan flinches before clenching his jaw. ‘If I can’t sense them - then…’
Yixing finishes the thought for him, ‘then they might not be on our side.’
After that, the conversation deteriorates. Trust is just as nebulous as this destiny that only Yifan seems to hold within himself. Yifan is stubbornly tight-lipped as well, and night comes down quickly, drinking their energy and will to argue along with it.
In the morning, they are short one. Jongdae cackles - loud and mean - that their fearless leader is gone. Zitao is quiet, deliberate. His anger is cool and seeping, and Yixing finds himself teetering on the edge of something again - between binding and breaking.
They keep going together, for better or worse.
They are like a bone that continues to break. Healing crooked, healing painfully.
From six to five to four to none and back again, purely by accident. It’s almost enough to make Jongdae to believe - that there is something beyond all of their understanding, that brings them together over and over again.
First, he travels with the four of them. Luhan announces he wants to look - and Zitao is too sharply bitter to follow. Minseok and Yixing continue with Jongdae and Zitao, using their level-headedness and quiet to keep the youngest two in check. At the end, Yixing and Zitao split off, and Minseok is left with Jongdae. Time passes, paths diverge. The world changes and industrializes and eventually even the most heartfelt contact becomes radio silence as they find the places they fit.
Second, he runs into them again. Luhan and Zitao together in Shanghai. Minseok alone in Jeju. Glimpses Yifan on a ferry ride along the Guangzhou coast. Meets Yixing amidst spring-blooming peach blossoms. The world is too vast and yet too small to contain the six of them; invisible tethers of destiny tugging them over the waves of change until Jongdae realizes that he may trust in them far more than anything he has seen yet - beyond what he ever expected.
Third, no matter how long he stays amongst the humans, he knows he’s not human himself. Neither are they. They do not age, they do not get sick, and their powers thrum under their skin, a constant blanket that Jongdae refuses to muffle his own (unlike Minseok, unlike Yifan).
Yixing doesn’t either - providing anyone and everyone his healing hands until his legend is passed beyond the town and region until it morphs into something that could be dangerous. Cursed powers. Whispers of demons. Superstitions
Fearful mortals come for Yixing in the night. Minseok and Luhan argue with them to keep out - but the rising hysteria paints the air with bloodthirst.
Jongdae knows the taste. He provides; he burns the mob alive.
Luhan uses his telekinesis to slam Jongdae’s head into the ground until he falls unconscious. When he finally comes to, Minseok is tending to third degree burns with his ice and Yixing’s cheeks are gaunt as he works tirelessly to save the same people that came to kill him.
‘What the fuck - what the fuck - !’ Luhan is yelling at him when Jongdae finally comes to, finding himself seated upright against the wall of the house.
‘They tried to hurt Yixing-ge,’ says Jongdae, a perfectly reasonable argument. ‘I put them in their place.’
‘You can fucking knock them out instead of burning them alive, you idiot,’ spits out Luhan.
‘You cannot hurt them at all,’ says Minseok now.
Jongdae looks up at him sharply. ‘Why the fuck not? They tried to hurt us and we’re more powerful than them.’
‘That’s not how we’re going to survive here, Chen.’
‘That’s exactly how I’ve been surviving until now.’
‘We’re not human,’ cuts in Yixing, sounding exhausted as he limps back to them. Luhan immediately catches him around the waist, holds him up. ‘We’re something different. And that means we have to be different.’
‘Humans with power over other humans are far crueler than I could ever be,’ sneers Jongdae, defensive.
‘Chen,’ snaps Minseok. He’s truly angry now - and the frost begins to envelop his hands in diamond patterns. It’s the first time Minseok has uses his power against any of them, against Jongdae, who has learnt to trust him - and -
He realizes now - if they are bone, then Jongdae has left the worst break.
‘Fine. See if you can stay protected. See if you can keep Yixing-ge safe like that.’ Struggling to his feet, Jongdae begins to limp away, ignoring the way Yixing calls out for him, the way Luhan lets out a string of curses.
It’s impossible to name it betrayal if there’s nothing to keep them together. Still, Zitao sulks after Yifan leaves because Yifan is something beyond just a friend. He’s their duizhang, isn’t he? The one who keeps their secrets and understands them and makes the decisions for them as to how to move forward, always moving.
Time is hard to define when they are functionally immortal, unaging and healthy amongst the changing tides. Especially for Zitao, who knows the malleability of time intimately. He grasps its strings between his fingers and bends it to his will, knowing its power but keeping it streamlined and controlled unlike Jongdae, unlike Luhan.
He defines his time with them instead. A few years with Yixing. Running into Minseok and Jongdae. Spending a few seasons with Luhan and Yixing now. Then travelling alone until he finds them again, purely by accident, as if the universe magnetizes them to each other despite the lack of Yifan to point them towards each other.
Luhan finds Yifan first, of course. Zitao finds Luhan second. Yifan watches him warily, his heavy brows furrowed. He looks the same - but there’s a tiredness at the corners of his mouth, a suspicion in his gaze that hurts far more than Zitao expects.
If Zitao could, he’d use his time to surround the three of them in their bubble, fast-forward until the uncomfortable words are said, the motivations confronted and explained, until the comfort and intimacy they used to have seeps back in - but time does not pull at the same strings as emotions.
Instead, Zitao stands there, and waits, and wonders if Yifan will pull away again.
Then, Luhan, staring at Yifan: ‘Well? Aren’t you going to say hi?’
‘Tao,’ and his voice is still that low familiar warmth, tone careful like Zitao’s name is a precious thing. ‘I’m here.’
It’s the bare minimum, really, but it’s also enough. Yifan captures him in a hug and Zitao decides he can wait for the rest.
- until, of course, Yifan has to reconcile with everyone else and it becomes less heartwarming and more entertainment at the price of Yifan’s pride.
‘You’d think he likes it,’ cackles Zitao, watching as Yifan looks like he’s in physical pain trying to say sorry to Yixing’s face, as if Yixing is actually stabbing him in the ribs instead of standing there with his arms crossed, looking more amused than anything else.
They’re not always together, but they’re not always apart either. It’s a strange feeling to have as he travels alone - because Minseok has no idea where they are at any given point. He knows if he’s trapped by mortals, if he’s wounded and bleeding out, if he’s suddenly human and vulnerable - there will be no one to call out to, no one to ask for help or to warn.
And yet - the feeling persists. Cloaking him like his ice. And just like his ice, it never chills him to the bone, never leaves a stabbing pain the way ice affects others.
He hasn't been alone long for this stretch of time. Before he had been travelling with Zitao and Yifan, who had found a playful rhythm now that Yifan had finally realized there was no point in running from a responsibility they all wanted to help him carry. This time it was a long winter that separated them - amicably, of course. Minseok chose to travel up a mountain while Zitao whined for the comforts of warmth and good food in the bigger cities. Yifan has always been indulgent to the youngest. Somewhere, in another city, another country, Jongdae and Luhan and Yixing are together, according to Yifan.
'They're probably having a fight,' drawls Zitao, even as he smiles to himself, pleased that they haven't separated either.
'Probably,' agrees Minseok, even as he decides to leave himself. At least for this winter, until the universe tugs them back into place again.
Amidst this mountain range with no name, Minseok could die here, he thinks. No one would know, nor care. His body preserved by the cold, unaging like he is now.
But they would know - somehow. In a dream, or through rumours, or something even cataclysmic. Or maybe quietly, with the news coming to Yifan first, and his deep voice stuttering in grief over the sentences.
And if they vanished instead, if they died... Minseok exhales slowly, watching the fog of his breath dissipate in front of him as he walks through the blanketed silence of the mountain. Yes, somehow, he would know then too.
It's the only reason he's able to walk away from Zitao and Yifan. From Jongdae. From Yixing and Luhan too. The only reason he can go on a journey on a whim, lose himself amongst the pines, witnessing the cold yet never feeling it, never letting it touch him. He's protected with the unshakable belief that he's never alone, not really.
Yes, he thinks. Minseok could get lost in an unending winter, and still he would find them. They will always come back to each other, because they are each other's home.