He opens his eyes to a blank room.
No wait; it isn't blank. There is a boy slumped in a corner next to him. The boy stirs, blinks and then meets his eyes.
"Hello," he says, and extends his hand.
The room disappears.
N amasses members at an unprecedented rate. He's got good dirt on them, they say: a close family member held hostage, or blackmail that could bring down a small business. At times like these, one envies those who grow up alone. Kinships and ties will only drag you down. Leo is the real danger, though. N's guard dog, they joke, with a temper that shifts like the changing of the weather. Leo was born for his weapons, or perhaps, more accurately, weapons were born for him. There is no object in the world he can't turn against his enemies. No one knows much else about them. They never survive to tell the tale.
Sanghyuk doesn't concern himself much with it. He just wants to stay alive. As long as their paths don't cross, he's perfectly content to scratch out a living in the underbelly of the slums, taking pickings off inattentive shopkeepers or lifting the occasional purse, learning where he can lie down and still have his limbs attached when he wakes up. He's growing, but not quickly enough; still an easy target for people who might not be as quick or bright but who make up for it in size. It's not an easy life, but nothing about his life has been easy anyway.
Right in the centre of the chaos, Yeongwon City stands tall, a white entity, untouched, unaffected. No one gets past its walls. Yeongwon is abundance. Eternity. Everything comes from Yeongwon. People are self-sufficient in there. There is no need for kith nor kin when everything springs unlimited around you. In contrast, the outer cities are beggars, lawlessness, humans making rules where there are none. The outer city merchants live off the crumbs they get from Yeongwon. Sanghyuk lives off the scraps he gets from them.
When he finally meets N, Sanghyuk is sixteen years old. It's another punishingly hot day and he's at the outdoor markets with his arm caught in the grip of a large, muscled shopkeeper.
"You're going to need to pay for that, boy. That's two thousand won." His arm is twisted behind his back, forcing him to drop his plastic cup with a yelp. It falls to the floor, scattering his precious rice cakes in the dirt. The man leans in so close he can smell the sweat and grime off his clothes and hair. "Does a rat like you have two thousand won? Doesn't look like it."
Sanghyuk pants through the pain. "Please, sir, I need that for my sister. She hasn't eaten in days."
"If I had a thousand won for every time someone tried that—"
"Maybe you'd be more sympathetic then," Sanghyuk mutters, then gasps as his arm is forced higher up his back.
"Let me show you what I think of your smart mouth." His wrist is slammed down onto the table, and he struggles fruitlessly in the iron hold. With his spare hand, the man snatches something from the tabletop. Light glints off the metal of the large chopping knife, and for the first time since getting caught, Sanghyuk feels a flash of fear. "There's only one way to deal with rats like you. I keep telling him that, but he never listens."
"Are you terrorising people again, Park-ssi?"
There's a beat. Park-ssi sounds decidedly disgruntled when he replies. "I've got this under control, N-nim." En-nim?
A boy not much older than himself steps up to the store. "I can pay for that. How much does he owe you?" He's dressed in a shirt that's no longer white, trousers a size too small and shoes that once were a shiny dark brown, but are now scuffed at the edges, worn. Nothing is entirely pristine these days, after all. Still, he doesn't seem like much, nothing to warrant this level of respect.
The man stiffens, draws himself up. "This isn't something you need to concern yourself with."
"This is part of my territory, and the outdoor market falls under my purview. You wouldn't be able to sell your wares without our protection, you know this." There's steel underlying the calm in his voice. He doesn't look much older than Sanghyuk but he speaks with authority.
The man makes a bald noise of exasperation. "So much for trying to safeguard your profits. You know he's the reason we haven't been able to increase our shipment from Yeongwon City. How can we, when people like him keep stealing whatever we have? We won't be able to pay the import tax if this goes on."
"I doubt this boy is the cause of all our falling sales," the boy says patiently.
"Not him alone, but—"
"I appreciate you looking out for us. We'll step up our patrols, but you can't go around chopping off people's hands just because you feel like it. What sort of reputation would we get?" The question is amused, ironic. The punishing grip on Sanghyuk loosens, just a fraction. "How is your wife doing, Park-ssi? It's been awhile since I've seen her around."
The subject change throws Sanghyuk, but the man's tone is reluctantly warmer when he replies. "She's well, she asks about you often."
"Please let her know I wish I could visit more often too, but business has been getting in the way. Is her leg better now?"
"We're short on some of the herbs we need for the poultice but Hosung's expecting a shipment from Yeongwon City next week. We should be able to replenish our stocks soon."
It's almost fascinating watching N, the most famous gang leader on this side of the cities, chat up a shopkeeper renting space on his territory like they're friendly neighbours. He doesn't look like Sanghyuk expected: someone colder, perhaps, dangerous like a snake, playing subterfuge with his words and hiding knives where they can't be seen. Instead, he lets a shopkeeper speak plainly to him, asks after his wife like he knows her, offers to pay Sanghyuk's debt.
Still, Sanghyuk hangs back, waits for the tables to turn. The iron grip on him has relaxed to the point where he has begun to entertain the thought of making a dash for it. With the element of surprise on his side, he might just be able to make it over the hedges before he gets caught or winds up with a knife in his back—
But then N is looking back at him, dark eyes fixed steadily on his. Sanghyuk returns his gaze in guilt, knowing his plans for escape are written all over his face. "Well, Park-ssi, let me take this boy off your hands and you can go back to your business. How much does he owe you?"
"Are you going to pay for every single rat which noses its way into my wares?" the man says, grumpy again. "This is not how profits are made."
N laughs, and Sanghyuk stares. There's nothing to laugh about nowadays. "Thank you for being concerned about my business. I'll find some way to manage."
"You do that," the man says gruffly. "My Minyeon would be upset if anything happened to you. And then who would buy all our expiring produce?"
"Don't speak so badly about yourself, Park-ssi. You let us have it cheap, and we have a lot of mouths to feed."
By the time the man releases Sanghyuk, he's lost all urge to run. He stands there awkwardly as N reaches into a creased money belt and pulls out a few crumpled notes for the rice cakes. There's something impolite about dashing off when someone has just saved your life—or at the very least, your hand.
"Here," N says, shoving something into his hands. Sanghyuk takes the cup automatically, then stares at it in surprise. There's more than twice the amount of rice cakes he'd tried to snitch. His eyes fly up to search N's face. "You looked hungry," comes the explanation. "That should be enough to feed both you and your sister." N looks amused.
"I don't have a sister," Sanghyuk admits, then as N smiles in understanding and turns to go, he blurts, "I don't have parents either. I'm an orphan." He doesn't know why that makes the other pause, but it does.
N regards him silently, then asks, "Would you like to come to dinner?"
It starts from there. N takes him under his wing, takes care of him. He stands between him and his bullies, teaches him to defend himself, and saves the best part of their food for Sanghyuk, because "our Hyukkie is still growing."
When they first meet, they're the same height, with Sanghyuk the scrawnier, paler one, wracked by the uncertainty of where his next meal is going to come from; unsure, when he lies down at night, if he will still be able to wake up the next day. Hakyeon gives him shelter, food, and most importantly, a place to belong.
"Sanghyuk! The water!"
"Hyuk, where are my shoes again?"
"Hyuk, we need someone to carry the rice."
"Hyukkie, make sure you eat more," Hakyeon orders, placing another helping of dried anchovies on top of his rice. Next to Hakyeon, Taekwoon glowers. (Well. Not all of it is bad.)
Sanghyuk learns things about his new life, too. He learns that Taekwoon isn't as fierce as he looks, that there are over twenty people in Hakyeon's ragtag 'family', that everyone likes the marinated beef strips but there's only enough to go around once a month.
"All the good stuff is in Yeongwon City," Jaehwan complains as they're hanging the clothes to dry. "They get all the food, all the fun stuff. We get clothes that are never clean, no matter how many times we wash them. You know, one day we should just tell Hakyeon-hyung we're not going to do the washing anymore. It doesn't make a difference anyway." He lets out a huge groan as he tries to lift one end of the heavy woollen blanket and drape it over the line. Sanghyuk steps in and takes some of the weight. "Thanks." Jaehwan looks at him approvingly. "You're growing well. Hakyeon-hyung would be glad."
He perks up, trying not to look too pleased. "You think so?"
Jaehwan laughs. "It's cute how you try to impress him all the time. Have you been stealing all the meat so you can grow those muscles?" He makes a jab at Sanghyuk's arm. Sanghyuk swats him away.
"Shut up," he grumbles, because Jaehwan will let him get away with it. "Minhyuk-hyung is the one who's been stuffing his face. He's as greedy as you are."
Jaehwan ignores the jibe. "You keep at it, boy. One day you'll have a physique to rival Taekwoon-hyung's. And then Hakyeon-hyung won't be able to look away." He waggles his eyebrows significantly.
"Have you been peeking at Taekwoon-hyung at the wash basins again?"
A damp shirt comes flying at his face. "Don't be rude to your seniors. I can objectively appreciate Taekwoon-hyung's body, can't I? He's the best fighter on this side of the city, that's got to count for something. You should be glad he's personally overseeing your training."
At the mention of it, Sanghyuk's mood dampens. "Hakyeon-hyung probably made him do that."
"Taekwoon-hyung doesn't listen to everything he says. He wants to. You're our maknae now, you get the privileges of being the smallest." Offended, Sanghyuk shoves over into Jaehwan's space and makes a show of peering down on the top of his head. Jaehwan pushes him away with a grimace. "All right, all right, youngest. Overgrown barbarian."
"Taekwoon-hyung hates me," Sanghyuk declares. He drapes someone's threadbare trousers over the line, thinking of the lattice of bruises he's acquired from their sessions. "It's like an experiment: how much damage can one inflict onto Sanghyuk without causing permanent damage? I'm not sure I will live to see the next spring."
"Don't be so dramatic," Jaehwan says, dismissing his very real worries. "Don't you know that Hakyeon-hyung tells him off when he goes too hard on you? You're his precious baby Hyukkie after all." He pulls a cutesy face. Sanghyuk throws a sock at him. "There have been noises, though. Some gangs aren't happy about the territory we've secured. They're challenging our control. It's all talk now, but you have to be ready when that happens."
An image of Hakyeon, eyes crinkled and mouth upturned at something Sanghyuk has said. Be ready, Jaehwan said. Of course. He will be.
They continue hanging the clothes in silence until Jaehwan reaches his quota. "You ever been up there?" He tilts his head meaningfully.
Sanghyuk takes a moment to register the direction he's gesturing in. "Yeongwon City? Hyung, it's impossible to go in—those gates don't just open for anyone. And no one from Yeongwon ever comes down here." He stops, sudden ice in his heart. "What are you really asking?"
Jaehwan fidgets. "No, no—I just thought... well, you never ever talk about your past. I thought you might be from—you know." People from Yeongwon have no family.
"No," Sanghyuk says, throat burning. "I'm not." Gunshots, screaming, the scorching heat of flames—and that man, that man who stood on the corner, watching with detached interest, scribbling on the clipboard in his hand, immune to his cries for help.
As though in apology, Jaehwan attempts a clumsy save. "Rumour has it that Hakyeon-hyung is from Yeongwon City. He's got no family out here. All of us—we know our family. Even if they don't live long, we all remember. But he doesn't." He clears his throat uncomfortably when Sanghyuk doesn't respond. "Well, rumours also say that in Yeongwon City they're so bored they've got nothing to do but play with your mind. It's best to stay away. Whatever it is, we're safer out here, even if it's more dangerous."
"Isn't that a paradox?"
"Para-what?" Jaehwan asks. Sanghyuk regrets asking. Jaehwan snorts. "You and your fancy words—how did you get so fancy living out here in the slums?"
"Good company," he deadpans.
Jaehwan has an impressively long scar curving around the side of his face and down his neck, scar tissue from a messy heal. From a certain angle, it looks like a dragon from mythology. He sees Sanghyuk studying it and offers simply, "Hakyeon-hyung saved me." Hakyeon saved all of them, apparently.
Sanghyuk will always tease Hakyeon that he doesn't look capable of leading one of the largest gangs in the city. But for all he says that, he can see why people flock to Hakyeon: his charisma, his easy demeanour, his kindness that should have been a weakness but ends up being his greatest strength. People come to Hakyeon and stay with him. Even from far, Hakyeon shines. Sanghyuk is a flower under all that sunshine, and he blooms.
Hakyeon collects people who would sooner chop off their right hand than have his name tarnished. So when the betrayal comes, it comes out of left field.
There are tussles from time to time, when they run into another gang and things get ugly. One or two have the money for gunpowder, but it's never wasted at such altercations. Sanghyuk gets away most of the time with shallow injuries, if only because there are express orders to take care of the maknae. There was once he returned with a head wound that looked worse than it was and took an age to heal. Hakyeon's stony expression and tense nightly vigil by his bed put paid to any such future heroics. Sanghyuk will never let him worry again.
Minhyuk is especially handy with his double blades; even Hakyeon isn't a match for his agility. Once Taekwoon lets him graduate from the wimpy bamboo sticks they've been using for training, Minhyuk is the first person he's going to ask for extra lessons. (Some sort of weapons master Taekwoon is, anyway. Sanghyuk has never even seen him pick up anything besides bamboo.)
Today's is a simple run. Park-ssi from the market had come into fresh stocks from Yeongwon City and, as he does each time, set aside some of the produce for their family. As Park-ssi ("Ajusshi to you!") often stockpiles some of their favourite meat, it's an errand Sanghyuk is happy to run.
"What are you eating, boy, you've grown taller again!" is what he gets in lieu of a greeting.
Minyeon, grey hair pulled back into her customary bun, has carefully packed a tub full of biscuits she's baked. She presses it into his hands. "Make sure Hakyeonnie gets one. He loves the biscuits!"
"Don't eat all of that too!" Park-ssi shouts.
"I do things other than eat," Sanghyuk protests, wounded.
Park-ssi shrugs, unconcerned, as he pounds out the glutinous rice dough on the mortar. "You'll always be a greedy rascal to me."
Minyeon chuckles. "Go on, now. His bark is worse than his bite."
"I almost did get bitten," Sanghyuk can't resist pointing out, and flees before Park-ssi can throw anything at him. The meat is strapped securely to the basket on his back and the biscuits are clutched in his hands. It's nice to feel useful.
He returns to find Hakyeon bleeding from a chest wound, Taekwoon furious and Minhyuk nowhere to be seen. The biscuits scatter across the floor.
"We need to get out," Taekwoon says, voice low. "It isn't safe here." His fingers are stained red where they are pressing the cloth against Hakyeon's ribs, trying to staunch the flow.
Sanghyuk flings himself to the floor next to them. "It's superficial," Hakyeon says, with a ghastly smile aimed at Sanghyuk. It's a lousy attempt at reassurance. "Just a flesh wound."
"Sanghyuk, get the needles."
Sanghyuk chokes back the questions and dashes off to get the medical kit. His hands shake too much to light the flame to sterilise the needle, but Taekwoon takes over, clinical and efficient. Sanghyuk clasps Hakyeon's right hand in his, puts a fresh cloth between his teeth for him to clamp down on. Hakyeon clenches his hand through the pain. Sanghyuk wipes the sweat off Hakyeon's brow with his free hand and curses ever stepping out of the house.
The next day, they leave.
"I can't stay," he hears Wonshik tell Hakyeon.
"I have a sister."
"I know," Hakyeon repeats, and his eyes are soft. "Take care of yourself, Wonshikkie." He tugs Wonshik into a hug and pushes a money pouch into his hand. This is how Hakyeon says goodbye, one by one, to each person who has followed him. Sanghyuk presses himself against the wall and tries not to think of the family scattered.
When it's his turn, Sanghyuk knows the speech he's going to get, and preempts it with a hasty, "I'm coming with you."
Hakyeon kind of half-laughs and half-sighs. Sanghyuk stands straight and tries to impress with sheer height and what is definitely not a belligerent sulk on his face. "Oh, Hyukkie. Don't you know why we were training you so much? You don't need to rely on us anymore; you can make it on your own. I believe in you."
"It's not that." His shoes are scuffed, sneakers that Hakyeon had traded for him to fit his rapidly growing feet. They have long started to absorb the dull grey dirt of the landscape, but if he squints, he can still make out the blue stars along the side of the shoes. It's the first present he's ever received. So Minhyuk won't tease you about your poor fashion choices anymore, Hakyeon had joked when he'd first presented him with them. For two weeks, Sanghyuk could do nothing more than stare at his new shoes until Wonshik had noticed. Now, Sanghyuk squares his shoulders and insists, "I just want to come with you."
Hakyeon studies him in silence. "It will be dangerous."
"I can take it."
"If you're with me, you're a dead man."
"If it weren't for you, I wouldn't even be alive." It's true in more than one way.
Hakyeon huffs out a laugh. "Taekwoon has trained you well, hasn't he?"
That draws an instant reaction. "He wouldn't be able to do much without a good student," he protests.
"That too." Hakyeon reaches out to ruffle Sanghyuk's hair but aborts the movement with a wince, hand in mid-air. Sanghyuk spins towards him but Hakyeon waves him off. "Go check that the bags are ready."
Taekwoon never says a word but sets his face when Sanghyuk asks. He packs everything into two duffel bags and carries them both when Hakyeon tries to reach down for one.
"Thanks, Taekwoonie," Hakyeon says, with a smile just for him. Sanghyuk sulks.
"Are we going somewhere?" Sanghyuk hates how young he sounds. He tries to draw himself up, make up for it.
"We can't stay here. With Minhyuk gone and half the family with him, it will only be a matter of time before they try to take the territory. We're in no shape to defend it from them."
"We won't fight?"
"I won't," Hakyeon says, and that's all he will say on the subject.
"Where are we going, then?"
"Inside," comes the reply. "Into Yeongwon City."
And Sanghyuk knows he will follow Hakyeon even to the far edges of the world if he wanted to go there, but he can't help the sudden drop in his stomach. In Yeongwon City, they play with your mind. Sanghyuk turns away, and that's when he sees him.
A man, standing on the corner of the roadside, watching them with something rectangular and flat propped in his arms. He's too far away for Sanghyuk to make out his face, but his hackles rise. He moves towards Taekwoon, opening his mouth to point it out, but when he glances back again, the man is gone.
It isn't a city the way the outer cities are, boundaries portioned out by the gangs, area markers shifting with the rise and fall of power and the splintering or merging of territories that occur as a result. Yeongwon City is marked out by neatly erected walls and gates that rise to the sky, immovable, impenetrable.
Hakyeon continues to walk in front, stiff and unbending. He hasn't said a word, but Sanghyuk can see him trembling slightly.
"How are your ribs doing?"
A quick smile flits across Hakyeon's face at his question. "Sore, but healing."
"Do you want me to carry you?" Sanghyuk asks, only half-joking.
"As if you could."
"I could," he argues, "I've carried Jaehwan-hyung before."
Hakyeon snorts. "Jaehwan is a stick."
"You're smaller than he is," Sanghyuk points out, deliberately teasing. He's pleased when some of the tension goes out of Hakyeon's frame.
"What have I said about respecting your elders?"
"You need to rebind your ribs soon," Taekwoon interrupts. He ignores Sanghyuk's glare.
Hakyeon sighs. "Better do it before we go in."
They stop by the side of the gates, where the trees grow more sparsely apart. Here the roads are wide and empty, busy only at dawn, for that one time a day when produce trucks trundle out of the City with their deliveries to the outer city merchants, operated by drivers no one ever catches a glimpse of. The tall tower of Yeongwon City stares down on them, still and silent. There are no windows or any sign of movement in the walls, but Sanghyuk can't shake the paranoia that someone is watching them.
Taekwoon sets the bags on the ground. He'd refused to let Sanghyuk share the load. Hakyeon sits down and unbuttons the shirt he's wearing. Taekwoon unravels the medical supplies.
Sanghyuk knows how to do this too; he was coached extensively by Wonshik. "Hakyeon-hyung gets hurt often; you have to learn how to bandage and dress any wound." But there is no need for his skills when Taekwoon is there. Sanghyuk would tell Wonshik as much, except he isn't here to hear it.
"I'll go get some water," Sanghyuk says unnecessarily. Hakyeon glances up at him in acknowledgement but shuts his eyes as Taekwoon gently pulls the soiled bandages away from his ribs. Underneath, the wound has turned yellow with pus.
Sanghyuk doesn't stay to watch Taekwoon murmur words of reassurance. He grabs the water canteens and flounces off to the stream. His hands shake as he fills their canteens. He doesn't know if it's anger that he wasn't there when the attack happened, or jealousy that he isn't there now, but he is calm by the time he returns. Hakyeon takes the canteen gratefully from him and draws a long sip.
"Have some more. I can go back and fill it again before we go," Sanghyuk says.
"We should be able to replenish our supplies once we're inside."
"Always better to be careful," Sanghyuk argues. "And the stream isn't far."
"Learned to talk back to your elders now, have you?" Hakyeon shakes his head, the faintest smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "What has Jaehwan been teaching you?"
Taekwoon interrupts. "It's almost time." He sinks down beside Hakyeon and snakes an arm around him so he can get to his feet. For the hundredth time, Sanghyuk wonders how long they've been like this: side by side, leader and second-in-command, leaning on each other and helping each other up. Something twists in his stomach.
"I'm not an invalid, Taekwoonie," Hakyeon chides. Taekwoon doesn't reply.
By the time they reach the gates, it's midday and the noon sun is high in the sky. The gates of Yeongwon City opens only once a day—in the morning, before the sun rises. Sanghyuk has never seen them open at midday before. They're made of some sort of metal alloy that glints in the sun, so large they seem to disappear in the clouds. There's no discernible lever that controls the gate; in fact, Sanghyuk can't even tell where they're supposed to enter. It's sealed shut, fused completely like it has never opened before and will never open again.
Hakyeon never hesitates. He places his palm on the gate, and there's something like a heavy shiver. They say Hakyeon-hyung is from Yeongwon City.
The gates open. They walk in.
For a moment, Sanghyuk feels like he's stepped into one of the office buildings of old. In the stories, they were massive, bustling affairs with thousands of people crammed into a small space, tapping away at even smaller screens. They're all now nothing more than decrepit buildings in the outer cities. It's been a long time since the corporations fell.
There's no one to greet them at the reception table, which is buried in a layer of dust, but there's an elevator they can enter. Its doors are wide open, a yawning space, suspended in time. It is the only discernable path to take in the large, empty hall. Hakyeon hesitates, then steels himself and strides towards it. Right as they enter, the doors creak shut behind them. There's a jolt, then the lift starts to move.
It opens out onto a long corridor with rows of doors on either side. Each door is identical to the other, a pale wooden rectangle adorned only with a bronze doorknob. It's impossible to tell one apart from the other.
They step out. A breath later, there's the whispery sound of doors sliding shut. Sanghyuk spins around. Nothing but the smooth unbroken surface of a wall. He casts a look at Hakyeon, but he's facing ahead, studying the line of doors like they're some sort of puzzle. Taekwoon stands at his shoulder, watching him until Sanghyuk wants to shift with impatience.
"Hakyeon," Taekwoon says softly. "I think you just need to make a choice."
Hakyeon makes a noise of frustration. "But I don't know what I'm looking for."
"Follow your instincts. They brought you here, didn't they?"
"I just wish I could remember."
A million questions form and die on Sanghyuk's tongue, and then they're moving.
The doors bring them into one massive room after another. Every room looks the same: dusty and dark, with three more doors leading to another dusty room and another three more doors. It's almost impossible to retrace their steps; every one looks as good a choice as the other. It takes a while before they think to mark the doors they've entered with chalk. Even with the chalk marks providing the illusion of progress, Sanghyuk just feels hopelessly lost. Taekwoon never complains, just carries the bags and walks steadily behind Hakyeon.
The only light in the place is a constant low-grade lighting which reminds them that the rooms they are going through are dull and grey. It's impossible to tell if it's afternoon, night, or early morning. Their breaks are determined only by Sanghyuk's stomach. When they stop, they munch on the dried food Taekwoon managed to pack—dates, bread and cheese. They still have water.
After what feels like two weeks of walking but is quite possibly just one very, very long day, Hakyeon stops them for the night. Taekwoon silently sets up the tents.
"Just two tents?" Sanghyuk can't help but ask.
"I packed for Hakyeon and myself," Taekwoon says, without the faintest hint of remorse.
"All right," Sanghyuk says agreeably, "I'll share with Hakyeon-hyung then." He makes to enter the tent closest to Hakyeon but is stopped by Taekwoon's long arm.
"You're too big, you can have a tent of your own. I'll share with Hakyeon."
Sanghyuk sticks out his chin. "I don't want to sleep alone. You can sleep alone, you look like you snore. You know Hakyeon-hyung doesn't sleep well with noise." Taekwoon glares at him. Sanghyuk refuses to look away.
A firm nudge to his back has him toppling into Taekwoon, who reaches automatically out to steady him. "You can both share," Hakyeon decides firmly, and shuts the tent flaps behind him.
They look at each other. "Pack up the dinner materials then come to sleep," Taekwoon orders, and disappears into the tent.
After a while, the large room is silent, with the exception of soft, rhythmic breathing. In one of the tents, the occupant shifts restlessly in slumber. Hakyeon screams and screams but there's no one to hear him, and all around him the spiders crawl.
Hakyeon's face is pale and there are dark circles under his eyes, like he hasn't slept in days. Yesterday he heard Hakyeon moaning something in his sleep.
"I'll do it," Sanghyuk volunteers immediately, and shoots off before Taekwoon has a chance to respond. He checks the doors they've tried so far, takes note of the general direction they had been heading in, and adds it to the rough grid he's drawn up on pieces of parchment.
When he comes back, Taekwoon has finished taking down the tents. He looks over at Sanghyuk when he approaches, but averts his eyes when Sanghyuk plops down next to Hakyeon to show him the fragments of his map.
There have been times over the years when Sanghyuk caught Taekwoon staring at him as Hakyeon draped himself over their youngest acquisition, hugging and protecting him as though he were something precious. Fearful at first, he'd started to look back at Taekwoon, increasingly over Hakyeon's head as Sanghyuk kept shooting up while Hakyeon remained as he'd been when they'd first met. Now Sanghyuk returns Taekwoon's gaze, unwavering. I can do it. I can take care of Hakyeon-hyung too.
In the end, it's Sanghyuk who finds it.
It's about two weeks since they entered Yeongwon City. They're low on food and they've long started to ration the water. Sanghyuk supposes he should feel worse about their situation, but something about the monotony has dulled him. There's something important he should remember about Yeongwon City, something Jaehwan said, but he can't for the life of him remember what it is.
Trailing behind, he's following somewhat absently when he notices a sudden light appearing under the door they'd just walked past.
"Wait!" His voice is loud in the enclosed room. Hakyeon half-turns to look at him. The light is still glowing dimly under the door. Almost afraid it will disappear before he sees what is causing it, he reaches for the doorknob and twists it.
It opens into a room. A large, fully furnished room, with beds in one corner, a cooking space in another, and a washing place in a third. The only exit is the one they've just walked in from, wide-eyed and staring.
There is a sink. Sanghyuk runs to it, turns the knobs and watches in amazement as running water gushes out from the tap. It's cold. He twists his head and gulps a bit of it into his mouth, to Taekwoon's grunt of dismay. It's fresher than he's ever tasted before. There is a refrigerator, powered almost extravagantly with electricity. The interior blows cold air at him. It is fully stocked, with pickled vegetables and meat in the freezer compartment. So are the cupboards in one neat line over the stove. There are more packets of ramyeon than he has ever seen in one place. There are pots and pans. There is hot water. There are real beds. They are soft.
Sanghyuk makes a noise that's closer to a groan and pitches himself onto the closest bed. Hakyeon clucks in disapproval but Sanghyuk is already burying himself into the pillows. "These are pillows. Real pillows."
"We had pillows back at the house, too," Hakyeon says defensively.
"Real pillows, Hakyeon-hyung. Not those deflated things you traded off the outdoor market. For our last jar of pickled radish."
"Still better than anything on the streets."
"You're right. But you know—real pillows."
"All right, Hyukkie."
The clinking of metal comes from the kitchen, accompanied by the hiss and click of a gas stove starting up. It sounds like Taekwoon has found his way into the kitchen, and is expertly making his way around. It's nice to have someone so domestic on the journey, someone who can actually cook something other than instant ramyeon...
He doesn't realise that he's fallen into a shallow doze until Hakyeon is shaking his shoulder, saying, "Wake up, Taekwoonie has prepared dinner for us."
Dinner is amazing. It's rice with pickled dishes on the side and more meat than he's ever eaten in one sitting. There is a lamp that glows with some of that unlimited electricity, casting the dining table into warm light. It almost feels cosy.
Taekwoon sits opposite him, reaching delicately for the food with his chopsticks and tolerating Sanghyuk's starry-eyed expression. He's feeling particularly kindly towards Taekwoon tonight. It's probably the hot food.
"We can stay here for a while," Hakyeon is saying. "Restock, get what we need, maybe eat a few decent meals before we move on."
"You just want to sleep on the beds, don't you? I don't blame you, they're comfortable."
"Are you sure?" Taekwoon asks, completely ignoring Sanghyuk. "We haven't run into anyone yet but it doesn't mean they won't come. It could be a trap."
"You're tired, too, don't think I haven't noticed. I think it'll do us good."
Taekwoon looks like he wants to argue, but doesn't. Sanghyuk sulkily shoves more of the meat into his mouth.
It isn't until he's almost asleep that Hakyeon says, "Good hunting, Hyukkie." Sanghyuk may have smiled, or maybe he smiles in his sleep. Hakyeon's words chase him into slumber; he sleeps well, and even Hakyeon doesn't dream.
In the morning, Taekwoon is gone.
"Good morning," Hakyeon says. He's already awake and fiddling with the stove.
"Good morning," he echoes, mind a puddle of happy feelings. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to turn this on." Hakyeon's hand slips and hits a corner of the stove. He pulls back with a muttered curse.
"That's what I'm saying, hyung. Let Taekwoon-hyung do it. You're going to cause an explosion or burn all the food or something."
"Taekwoonie isn't here."
"What?" Sanghyuk reaches up to cover a large yawn. He looks around the room properly. Taekwoon's brooding figure is nowhere to be seen. "Where did he go?"
"I don't know. He wasn't here when I woke up."
Sanghyuk is abruptly awake. "Did he leave a note?"
"No, he didn't. There's nothing." Hakyeon's shoulders are a tense line. Sanghyuk wants to knead them until he relaxes.
"The packs are still here," he observes. "He can't have gone far. We'll just have to wait for him to come back."
"He didn't bring the chalk," and it's the first hint.
As the hours wear on, it becomes more and more evident that something's wrong. Sanghyuk gives up trying to distract Hakyeon. "Should we try to find him?"
Hakyeon shakes his head, fingers worrying the bed linen. "Taekwoon might not know where to find us if we move."
It takes two days for Sanghyuk to finish all the rice snacks in the cupboard.
It takes a week for Hakyeon to acknowledge Taekwoon isn't coming back.
In the years he's known Hakyeon, he has seen Hakyeon go through different emotions. Hakyeon's face is expressive—there's very little he feels that doesn't also reflect on his face. Happiness, when he looks around at his family in contentment and a sort of wonder that they're in same place together. Fondness when his gang treasures him enough to tease him. Pain at Minhyuk's betrayal. But grief—this deep, soul-crushing grief—is something Sanghyuk doesn't know how to handle.
After the third time Hakyeon tries to walk back into a room they've already been into, Sanghyuk stops him with a hand to his wrist. "Hyung, shall I lead the way instead?"
He sees Hakyeon register the pink chalk mark next to the doorknob he was about to turn. With a muttered curse, he scrubs his face with his hands. "Sorry, Hyukkie," he says, and Sanghyuk can tell he's about to blame himself for everything that has gone wrong since they started this journey. "You shouldn't have to put up with this useless hyung."
"Lean on me," Sanghyuk orders. "I'll take care of you."
When Hakyeon gives in with a small tremble, Sanghyuk feels like he's won a war.
"You're so tall," Hakyeon huffs one day, sitting on the bedroll beside him. "How did you grow so big, did you drink milk every day when you were growing up?"
"No, I just ate a lot of vegetables," Sanghyuk says, distracted by the pot he's cleaning. "My mum used to cook them all the time. I hated the bean sprouts but she made me eat them anyway."
Something changes in Hakyeon's face. "Your mother? Weren't you an orphan?"
Sanghyuk's hand freezes. "What did I say?"
"You were talking about your mother."
"I don't have a mother."
"So you've said."
"I grew up alone—you saw me, you took me in."
"No," Hakyeon says slowly. "I'm not sure I do."
There's a room Sanghyuk can remember. White, near the sea, curtains blowing in the wind. There's a cup on the table with pencils he'd been drawing with earlier. Now he's lying on his stomach, watching the sea enter and retreat down the shore. His mother is cooking in the kitchen and the spicy, sour smell of the pickled cabbage she favours permeates the room. His mouth waters.
But none of it makes sense, because the streets of the outer cities are nowhere near the sea, and he has never had a mother.
Hakyeon jerked guiltily in response but refused to release his hand. "I don't think I could bear it if you disappeared in the night."
"I won't," Sanghyuk had promised, but they still had no idea if Taekwoon had left of his own volition, and Sanghyuk would sleep with his entire body manacled to Hakyeon's if it meant the distressed look in his eyes would go away.
So he tucks himself against Hakyeon, so close he can feel the heat from his back and hear the little breaths he puffs when he's finally asleep, an odd staccato rhythm that should draw Sanghyuk into sleep but keeps him awake instead, entertaining thoughts that are dangerous. Hakyeon's body is like a furnace. He gets very little sleep on these nights.
And then there are moments like these: When Hakyeon wakes up in the middle of the night with his nightmares and Sanghyuk learns how to curl up around him, how to soothe and comfort, what words to say to bring him back down. When Hakyeon reaches almost instinctively for him as they walk, when they match each other's strides, when Hakyeon catches his eye in affection, fond exasperation, pretend annoyance. When Sanghyuk cracks a joke and he's the only one laughing until Hakyeon hits him. When he makes Hakyeon smile and their eyes meet and Sanghyuk's heart sort of stutters, to have all that attention focused on him for once, instead of split between twenty others. There are times when Sanghyuk catches himself wishing, selfishly, that it would never end.
"He has an absolutely adorable sister; you've seen her before, she came to visit—"
"—Jiwon, wasn't it. I thought he was going to throw a knife into my chest if I so much as looked at her wrong."
"Or sneezed in her direction."
Talking about them is like talking about another era. Sanghyuk feels like he's been wandering around Yeongwon City for years. Only Hakyeon's solid presence keeps him grounded, the stories he tells his only anchor to reality.
"So, Jiwon," Sanghyuk says. "Wonshik totally regretted bringing her, didn't he?"
"Especially when Jaehwan decided that he never wanted anything more than to impress her with his animal impersonations."
"He's good at them, though. I like the one with the mosquito."
"It's not quite the way people usually go about winning girls' hearts." Hakyeon hums. "Hongbin was almost better, in retrospect."
"And how do people usually go about winning girls' hearts, hyung?" Sanghyuk tries, aiming for casual.
"I don't know, with pretty butterfly clips or something." Hakyeon laughs self-consciously. "I haven't won a lot of hearts in my time."
Good, Sanghyuk thinks fiercely. He clears his throat, thinks cool thoughts, like Hongbin, suave and refreshing, putting a hand on the table as he leaned in to Jiwon. "And—how do people win yours?"
Hakyeon squints at him. "Very smooth." But he doesn't look offended.
Sanghyuk grins, and counts it as a win.
When they come to the door, Hakyeon's hand is familiarly tucked into the crook of his arm and he's pressing close. Sanghyuk is wetting his lips, wondering if he dares to wrap his arm around Hakyeon; he can pass it off as a joke if he's challenged, or he can leave it there and hope he never notices...
"Hyung, you're not answering my question—"
And then they see it. Right in front of them, in the room they've just stepped into. As if to taunt them, the door is a different colour from the rest. It's a pearly white, glimmering almost belligerently at them.
"I guess this is it."
"Could it be more obnoxious if it tried?"
They exchange laughter that is equal parts relief and anxiety. Sanghyuk regrets, momentarily, the things he wasn't brave enough to say, and then Hakyeon's left hand is on the doorknob, other hand gripping his arm tightly. Sanghyuk closes a hand around his reassuringly and they push the door open.
They walk out into sunlight.
After days—weeks? months?—of walking around in the low-grade light of the building, the sudden light is blinding. Sanghyuk had forgotten how it feels on his skin, like never-ending warmth they don't even need to pay for. It's so disorienting that he bends over for a moment, trying to steady himself as his head aches. It's insane. His head hurts in more than one way.
And then he hears the rumble, almost like a rush coming from a far-off distance, the crash and hiss of large structures falling onto the ground. It's encroaching onto their space at a speed they can't outrun. The seasick nausea never stops, and that's when he realises that it isn't just happening in his mind.
The ground starts to shake beneath them. Sanghyuk only has time to throw himself over Hakyeon when the building collapses.
He blinks heavy eyes open to see Hakyeon's face hovering over his, cast into shadow against the shocking blue of the sky. His head hurts and his body aches. It feels like he's gone into shock—the pain is there, but not enough to kill him. He tries to struggle into a sitting position and Hakyeon immediately shifts to brace him, supporting his body weight.
"Be careful, you took quite a hit—"
Sanghyuk runs his hands over himself. His hands come back grey with dust but there's no blood. No broken bones. Just a general ache throughout his body. "I'm whole," he observes in disbelief.
"How are you feeling?"
"Like a building fell on me." It had, hadn't it? The evidence of the rubble is to their left, a massive, crushed structure of twisted concrete and metal. A lucky miss?
Hakyeon cracks a wry smile, but his face is pale. "I was sure you'd died." His voice breaks. Sanghyuk wants to gather him into his arms but Hakyeon is brittle behind him, like he would flake into a million tiny pieces if Sanghyuk tries anything. So he does the next best thing: he goes limp against Hakyeon instead.
Hakyeon reacts as Sanghyuk expects, bracketing him more securely in his arms. "What is it? Are you feeling bad?"
"Just a bit faint," Sanghyuk lies, and tips his head back against Hakyeon's shoulder, who adjusts his support so that he's comfortable.
"Take your time, we don't know if that could have caused any lasting damage. Do you want some water? I still have some in my pack..." Hakyeon moves a little, arm extended towards his bag, trying not to jostle Sanghyuk.
Sanghyuk blames what happens next on the fact that his head is throbbing. It's hard to think straight when your head hurts. Also, in his defense, there's nothing like a near death experience to help you evaluate what's important.
In that moment where Hakyeon turns his face away, Sanghyuk lurches up and plants a dry kiss along Hakyeon's jaw. Not the smoothest of moves, perhaps, but Sanghyuk learned all his moves from watching Hongbin flirt with Jiwon, and if it doesn't work, it wouldn't be the first time Hongbin's bad ideas have led him astray, anyway.
What does happen is that Hakyeon freezes, water canteen in his hand, just as Sanghyuk truly does feel dizzy thanks to the sudden movement. He sinks heavily back; Hakyeon catches him and the canteen drops to the floor.
"You idiot!" Hakyeon yells, and this time he really punches him. Sanghyuk yelps and grabs his arm. It's easy to forget how strong Hakyeon really is. "Stop doing stupid things like that! Is almost dying not enough?"
Sanghyuk wheezes. "My head hurts. Try not to kill me."
"You're doing a great job of it yourself anyway," Hakyeon huffs. He's stiff and embarrassed but he isn't resisting, and when Sanghyuk slides his hand up against his jaw, against the short strands of stubble, a question, Hakyeon responds by letting himself be drawn down again.
The first time Sanghyuk kisses Hakyeon, it's after his first near-death experience, in a strange place far from home.
They go to sleep on a grassy knoll, under the stars.
They wake up to waves crashing at their feet.
He stirs groggily, as though something had occurred to him in the night and needed to write it down before he forgot. The tent flaps are being blown open and close by a strong wind, and he stares at them blankly.
Beside him, Hakyeon is still sleeping. His right hand is curled up near his face and there's a little bit of drool on his cheek. Sanghyuk watches him fondly for a while, before the persistent sound of water propels him to reach for the tent flaps and yank them open.
"What?" He stares in disbelief at the rocky descent to the sea and the waves crashing in to break on the rocks. How was this even happening?
Hakyeon stirs, and immediately tries to struggle into a sitting position. Automatically, Sanghyuk reaches out to prop him up, but he bats his hands away with a groan. "What's going on? Where are we?"
"I've no idea, but I don't think we're ready for this sort of terrain." He pulls back the tent flap.
Hakyeon's gaze sharpens. "Did someone move us in the night?"
"That's impossible. You of all people would have woken up."
Hakyeon looks troubled. "I haven't been sleeping that well lately. And you, as we all know, sleep like a log." Sanghyuk can't even take offense.
There's another violent rush, and this time the spray from the waves hits their faces. Hakyeon watches the progress warily. "The next one will come right up to the tent. We need to move."
"Our whole lives are about moving," Sanghyuk grumbles, then adds, "But I don't mind, of course, as long as I'm with you."
Hakyeon snorts and they clamber out of the tent. They're in a long corridor suspended over the sea—so long they can't see the beginning or the end of it. The section that they're at is broken on one side, the glass shattered and the concrete crumbling, which explained their unobstructed view of the rocky slope, and the sea, which is whipping itself up into a storm.
Hakyeon's lips are pursed in a line. "Choose a direction to run in."
The sudden paralysing weight of decision. "How do you want me to choose? I can't tell which is nearer!"
"The alternative is instant death, Sanghyuk. Pick a direction."
They start one way down the corridor but Sanghyuk knows it's not going to be fast enough to outrun the waves, given how fast they are rising. And he won't leave Hakyeon behind. They run until Hakyeon is doubling over to his knees, gasping, and the waves are almost upon them. It's the end.
"Take a deep breath."
"It's not going to help."
"It's better than if I lose you at once," Hakyeon retorts.
We'll lose each other eventually anyway, Sanghyuk thinks, and hates himself for it.
This is the end. He should be thankful he has time to prepare himself for its coming. And then it strikes him: this is the last time he will stand on this earth with Hakyeon beside him. Something lurches in his chest. "Hakyeon-hyung, I—"
"Deep breath!" Hakyeon snaps, and then the waves come.
It's a rush of water so violent that for a moment there's only the white of crashing foam and insane roaring in his ears. He is suspended; his body is weightless. He doesn't know how far up or down he is. He's lost sight of Hakyeon; it's all he can do to right himself and try to make for the surface—whichever direction that is in.
Sanghyuk's lungs burn. He needs to breathe. It doesn't matter if he'll just be inhaling water, he can't suppress the instinct to gasp any longer.
Later, he won't be able to say what caused the conviction, but for a moment, with waves crashing over his head, a murky blue-grey clouding his vision and his lungs feeling like they're on fire, the water takes on a different quality. For a moment, it's as though it isn't there, pressing against his body, urging him to give up his last breath. He still has a sense of the waves, but they are—transparent, somehow, like looking through a translucent glass. And in that moment, he gasps a breath—and it lets him. There is air in his lungs.
He can see clearly, too: the shape of Hakyeon floating in the water, the promise of land just beyond him—and he treads towards Hakyeon in a sort of daze, feet not quite touching the sandy floor. The strong currents don't stop him, and he doesn't let himself lose focus. He heads right for Hakyeon, grabs him and swims for shore.
He lays Hakyeon on the sand, hands shaking. Hakyeon is a still, unmoving body. He gets hurt very often, Wonshik told him, and trained him in the art of making poultices, stitching, bandaging and rebandaging wounds.
"But what do I do when he almost drowns?" he yells. Wonshik doesn't reply. Hakyeon doesn't take in a breath. Sanghyuk chokes on a sob.
A strange calm comes over Sanghyuk. The oddest of sense memories triggers: He's seen this before. He's been here before. He shifts Hakyeon carefully onto his back, sliding his palm onto the middle of his chest. He locks his left hand over his right and pushes down firmly. Thirty times, then tilt the head back. He leans down, places his ear near Hakyeon's mouth. Nothing.
Dimly, he pinches Hakyeon's nose and tilts his head back, then he takes a breath and bends to fasten his mouth over Hakyeon's. Breathe, breathe, breathe, he chants, a desperate mantra in his head. He pulls back; nothing. He's leaning in again when there's a slight movement under his hands.
Hakyeon takes in a stuttering breath, chokes and coughs out water. Sanghyuk could weep. He turns Hakyeon onto his side instead, helps brace him and soothes him as he coughs and tries to breathe.
"Take your time. You're safe. I'm here."
"What happened?" Hakyeon rasps, shivering in Sanghyuk's arms.
"It isn't real. None of this is real."
The floor is concrete. There's no sign of the beach, nor the sea that had tried to claim their lives.
Sanghyuk comes up against him, wonders if he dares to press close, decides he doesn't care. He slips his arms around Hakyeon. Hakyeon is still at first, then relaxes back against him. Tucked under his chin, Hakyeon is a warm weight. His hair tickles his neck. Sanghyuk breathes in time with him and thinks of how Hakyeon used to protect him. It's finally time for him to return the favour.
Hakyeon is the first to break the silence. "It's strange, isn't it. I don't think I remember this place, after all."
"Did you remember it before?"
"I thought—" Hakyeon breaks off. "I thought I did, but now I'm not so sure."
They stand quietly for a while. Sanghyuk waits. It's not something he's used to doing, but there's a weight in the atmosphere and in Hakyeon's words that makes him feel on the verge of something, like he's about to learn something new.
"Taekwoon found me, you know. Years ago, just outside the gates. He said I had one arm outstretched, like I was trying to climb back in. He brought me home to his family—he was still well-off, then. It was before the gangs took everything from him. He was still talkative, then." Hakyeon smiles fondly as Sanghyuk starts in surprise. "Oh, you can't imagine it now, but Taekwoonie used to have the sweetest smile. And maybe it was because he kept telling me about how he found me, but I started developing memories of it." He laughs, half-frightened. "I believed I had come from Yeongwon City. I believed I had family in there. And the worst thing is I don't know if it was true or if I wanted it badly enough to start imagining it."
Sanghyuk tightens his arms around him. "Some part of it must be true. You brought us here, didn't you? You got us through the gates."
"I guess I did." But Hakyeon sounds doubtful.
"What do you know about Yeongwon City?"
"Only as much as you do. All the food comes from here, and all the produce, and once a day the trucks come and make the delivery to the gates."
Like something from a distant memory, Sanghyuk says, "And in Yeongwon City, they play with your head."
Hakyeon stiffens. "Where did you hear that?"
"Jaehwan told me," Sanghyuk says uncertainly. "Why, is it wrong?"
"That's an old joke. Jaehwan must have heard it from his uncle." Hakyeon is pulling away.
"But what if it's true? What if they are messing with our minds? What if none of this is real?"
"It feels real enough to me," Hakyeon says, and he shivers.
"If none of this is real, who can say for certain where Taekwoon went? If we step off this building now, if it isn't real—"
"Don't," Hakyeon snaps, fingers tight on the sleeve of Sanghyuk's shirt. "I am not losing someone else."
His shout dies before it really leaves his mouth, drowned out by the crack of a bullet. Hakyeon never stood a chance. He topples to his knees, a crimson blooming in his left shoulder, just missing his heart. Sanghyuk flings himself over and intercepts Hakyeon before he crashes to the ground, lowering him down with shaking hands.
"This isn't real," he babbles, as though repeating it would make Hakyeon believe. "It isn't real—none of this is real—Hakyeon-hyung!"
But Hakyeon's blood is bubbling crimson under his hands, taunting him with its reality, and for a moment Sanghyuk falters. But he remembers the impossible wave, and he tries to recall the sensation, that moment of wrongness. He calls it back into feeling, staring at the hole in Hakyeon's chest—and for a moment he sees right through it, the shimmer of complex lines swirling and twirling beyond it, and, oddly enough, the angular outline of a square room.
And then Hakyeon blinks back into being, solid lines and colours and the red still blossoming over his chest and he is still dying, eyes wide in terror, trying to gulp a breath of air that isn't coming.
"Hakyeon-hyung," Sanghyuk breathes. His hands are red and slippery with Hakyeon's blood as he blindly presses them to his chest, trying desperately to staunch the flow. Hakyeon is gasping, mouth opened in an "O". There's something dripping down onto Hakyeon's face—sweat, he thinks at first, swiping a brusque hand over his face, only to realise it's tears. His tears.
Why isn't it working? He can almost see where the bullet is lodged within Hakyeon, its outline blinking slightly when he loses concentration. It isn't real, why is it still killing Hakyeon?
It's not real. "Focus on my voice. Do you remember the beach? It wasn't real. This isn't real either, they're just messing with you. You have to believe me. Hakyeon-hyung! You can't leave me. How can you expect me to survive this on my own?"
Hakyeon's eyes are locked on his, but his gaze is slipping, fading in and out of focus. His lips are parted, trying to whisper something. Sanghyuk swallows a choked sob.
"Live for me. You said you'd do anything for me, didn't you? Live for me."
And then Hakyeon is breathing again, and wonderfully and blessedly whole.
"There was a reason—" Hakyeon frowns. "There was something important about Yeongwon City—"
Sanghyuk makes an impatient noise. "It's never going to end. We could end up wandering in here for centuries."
"If we live that long."
"There's something wrong here."
"This is giving up."
"This is the last stand. Remember, it isn't real."
Hakyeon is silent so long that Sanghyuk begins to despair. They're at the top of a building, so high they can see that Yeongwon City is a sprawling collection of buildings, each as tall and grey and deserted as the last, spanning further than their eyes can see. They have entered enough to realise that each building has the sole elevator in their lift lobby. They have not seen another soul. Unwilling to risk getting caught in another maze, they took the solitary stairs they found instead, which led to this large, flat plane of a roof, and the view of enough rectangular structures to rob them of their last hope of finding anything there.
"All right," Hakyeon says at last. "Let's do it then."
"Remember it isn't real," Sanghyuk repeats, suddenly afraid. He reaches for Hakyeon's hand. This, at least, this is real.
They fling themselves over the edge.
Sanghyuk registers the sudden shock on Hakyeon's face. "It's you. I've met you before."
"Here, in this room, before it began."
Congratulations. The words appear, but not as anything they can see or hear. It's more like something they feel.
What? Sanghyuk has the consciousness to think, and then they are surfacing.
He thought his eyes were open, but when he blinks his real, actual eyes, he realises they weren't. He's in a chair, reclining backwards and facing the ceiling. The sudden light is blinding to his disused eyes, and he shuts them again with a wince.
Beside him comes a soft groan. Hakyeon. His heart lurches with the need to go to him, to protect. But he can't move. He can't move. Why can't he move?
Around them, there is scattered applause. "Excellent work, as usual. It looks like this prototype is ready to go."
The chairs straighten, elevate. Across from where he is, a familiar face catches his eye. It's Jaehwan. But he isn't looking back at Sanghyuk with a smirk and a grin. His eyes are filmy and unfocused. He can't see, Sanghyuk realises with a jerk.
"Congratulations, gentlemen." The crisp click of shoes against a hard floor echoes through the room as its owner descends the flight of stairs in front of the group of chairs. Sanghyuk snaps his eyes up, but from this distance can only make out the neat pinstripe suit the man is wearing, and the clipboard in his hand—but there's something oddly recognisable about the frame of his body, as he languidly makes his way towards them, and his face—
Sanghyuk is not prepared for the sudden rage that floods him when he finally comes into view. It's that man, the one who had stood by the side as his house burned down, taking with it the only life he had ever known. Jotting notes with interest as Sanghyuk, covered with soot and choking from the smoke, had cried and begged him to rescue his family. Sanghyuk will never forget his face. But there's another memory now, superimposing itself on the previous one, its texture thicker, more substantial. A sharp smile, the edge of a document pushed towards him, its contents appearing on the screen. "Just blink once, if you consent." And Sanghyuk had.
The man is speaking. "You have just participated in the most cutting-edge research to be done on human resilience. You would be glad to know that the human desire to survive can trump anything, apparently, even poorly designed virtual realities." He chuckles. "I don't really mean that, of course. We've designed one of the most powerful and convincing ones to date, and you've had the privilege of testing it out for us. Was it up to your expectations?"
There's not a sound from the group, save the sound of ragged breathing. The man doesn't seem overly concerned.
"We tried for the full range of human experience in this one. Loneliness, betrayal, disaster, attack... Oh, but you two were interesting, interesting till the end." He gestures vaguely in Sanghyuk's direction. "It was hard to get you to go where we needed you to go. Thankfully one of your underlings—Minchul, was it?—helped you on your way. He's gone off already, by the way. Finished his section of the experiment." The man grins. "No second lives in this one. We don't believe in those. He still received full compensation, of course."
"Minhyuk," Hakyeon chokes out, voice hoarse from disuse. "Was he... Did you... make him betray us?"
"Oh, no, no, no. That would have affected the validity of our experiment. It was all him. We merely... nudged it along, a little. Suggested it might be nice to be leader of a gang instead of taking grunt orders all the time."
"Minhyuk is incapable of—"
"Don't presume to know what human nature is or isn't capable of doing. After all, we've studied it extensively. Every human is capable of the same terrible things. All they need is a little push in the right direction. It was interesting, though. Even humans with bodies as flawed as your own, it's... comforting... to know that certain drives remain the same. You two were particularly fascinating to watch. Besides getting all cosy with each other, which wasn't in the script." He laughs. Sanghyuk burns with anger and loss. Those moments had been theirs. "Oh yes, and you, in particular—" The man points an expectant finger at him and cocks his head to the side.
"Han Sanghyuk," one of the assistants provides in response.
"Yes. You were starting to recover some of your true memories towards the end, weren't you? Was the backstory we gave you not convincing enough? What helped you escape the virtual reality?" He studies Sanghyuk with bland curiosity on his face.
The retort is on the tip of Sanghyuk's tongue. He opens his mouth to reply—except his mouth doesn't open. There is the impression of the words in his throat, but they aren't coming out. It takes a while for Sanghyuk to realise he isn't going to be replying. Of course, he remembers thinking. What did he have to lose? He had already lost everything.
"He can't reply, seonsaengnim, the assistant murmurs in deference. "It's spinal cord injury. He hasn't reacquired sensation in his limbs yet."
The man frowns at this unexpected inconvenience, then snaps his fingers briskly. "Well, we'll just have to interview him another way. Maybe put him back into Yeongwon again." With a hearty laugh at his own joke, he dusts his hands on his coat and straightens up. "Kyungmin, I think we are ready to present our findings. Have the data processed and put it into the slides. The rest of you, please clean up here. The presentation is at one o'clock and I can't afford to be late. Seung-eun, could you see to the discharge procedures? Gentlemen," he says, addressing the group again, "thank you for your time. Your compensation for your participation will be credited into your bank accounts, as promised. Good day." He touches his pen to his forehead in casual salute. Then he moves out of Sanghyuk's line of sight, shoes clicking neatly across the floor.
Around them, the research assistants unbuckle the restraints holding them down. For your own safety, they had said with clinical smiles as they'd fastened them in. They slip out the IV tubes, remove the catheters, take off their electrode caps.
"We will be moving you to the recuperation room," one of them says. "You will be monitored for the next twenty-four hours, and then you are free to go."
Jaehwan has to be helped out of his chair. His cane is slipped into his hand, but he's helped into a wheelchair and just clutches it, a form of security in front of his chest. Wonshik manages to hobble out of his own, favouring his left leg and walking with a heavy limp. All of them, damaged in some way, given the chance to be invincible for a while, even though it was a lie.
And Hakyeon—what about his beautiful Hakyeon, always so strong and so determined? What would he find here?
"It's okay, Hyukkie," Hakyeon says, face filling his vision. His voice is thick. "I'll take care of you now."
Sanghyuk blinks twice. But I was supposed to take care of you.
It's only when he glances down that he realises Hakyeon has placed his hand on his arm. Sanghyuk senses none of the warmth that must be coming from his hand, nor the calluses on the top of his palm. He closes his eyes and tries to remember how it felt to hold Hakyeon against him.
It takes two weeks for Hakyeon to set up rehabilitative accommodations within his house—ramps, a closed circuit camera to monitor the room, a visual eye-tracking system so Sanghyuk can read his novels and communicate when he needs to. In that time, Sanghyuk experiences disorientation, when he wakes up in the hospital bed and tries to move but can't; shame, the first time Hakyeon has to clean out his bedpan and he does not—does not—look him in the eye, even though Hakyeon is clinical and efficient once the nurse shows him how to do it; and fear, that Hakyeon will leave him now that he isn't useful anymore, isn't the Sanghyuk he brought home the first time they met.
But Hakyeon stays by his side, insists on taking care of Sanghyuk himself.
"They've uploaded all the viewing material that was in your previous device," Hakyeon explains now, switching on the new widescreen. A quick press of buttons along the bed and it's moving, cranking to a higher angle so that Sanghyuk can see the screen. "This one is better though. It's much more sensitive to eye movements, compared to the older model you were using in the hospital." He rearranges the pillows so that Sanghyuk can be propped against them more comfortably. The motion sensors recalibrate to his new position. "Ji-eun will be in a bit later to check on you and monitor your vitals. In the meantime, though, you can entertain yourself with Naruto." He smirks. "I promise I didn't peek at the rest of your questionable viewing material."
What a lie. Sanghyuk doesn't have questionable viewing material.
"I ran into Taekwoon," Hakyeon says, and the mention of the old name sends a hollow pang through Sanghyuk. "He finished his experiment early. He couldn't stay to talk."
Sanghyuk blinks, three times for a question.
"It wasn't his fault. He got careless and then he couldn't find his way back. You know how tricky it is in there." There's a tone of doubt in Hakyeon's voice, but Sanghyuk won't push. It's been three weeks since they returned from Yeongwon—not Yeongwon, he reminds himself, the experiment—but in their heads they had lived years. Hakyeon and Taekwoon had been friends for most of their apparent lives. It's enough that Hakyeon is here with him today. He doesn't need to put Taekwoon down to secure his own position.
Hakyeon is dressed differently today, for the first time since they got back. He isn't wearing his usual worn-looking T-shirt and sweatpants that have long lost its elasticity, but he's neat in a pale blue button-up, carefully pressed, matched it with a buttermilk tie and dark slacks. Now that he's looking at Hakyeon properly, it even looks like he's put some gel into his hair. Sanghyuk blinks a question.
"Ah, is it my clothes?" Hakyeon scratches the back of his head self-consciously. "It's my first day back at work again. Guess there are only so many weeks of medical leave someone can take. How do I look?" He holds his arms out to each side, displaying the crisp lines of his outfit and the anxiety on his face that BB cream can't hide. There are dark circles under his eyes. He hasn't slept again, Sanghyuk realises, heart clenching. But he tilts his head very slightly in approval, hopes Hakyeon can read the support in his eyes.
It must work because his expression softens. "Work is nearby, I'm thinking I could sneak back during lunch break or something—"
Sanghyuk blinks twice, firmly, and Hakyeon's voice falters. He refuses to feel guilty. It doesn't matter. Hakyeon should be spending time with his colleagues. Getting to know them again. Finding new friends, not spending all his time talking to someone who can't respond.
Still, Hakyeon insists, "I'll be back early. We can have dinner together." He presses a kiss to his cheek that Sanghyuk can't feel, and then he's gone.
The room is silent. Sanghyuk stares at the screen with the comics he used to lose himself in. These are the comics he escaped into after the accident, something to take his mind off the fact that he couldn't move anything beyond his eyes. It hurt too much. Just moving a finger took a monstrous effort that left him exhausted and furious at his inability. It became easier to hide: from the doctors, the physiotherapists, his family that wasn't coming back.
On the screen, the chapter is open to Hinata's character arc. Hinata is blushing furiously as Naruto approaches her, black ink on a white background. At this point, she's still shy, uncertain, unconfident. Sanghyuk knows their endgame. He also knows that she doesn't get there by passively accepting her lot. Never give up, the Korean translation proclaims proudly, a slash of print next to Naruto's fist in the air.
Sanghyuk focuses on the small cross in the top right hand corner and closes the comics viewer. By the time the nurse comes in, he's lying calmly on the bed with just one icon blinking on the screen, requesting for a physiotherapist.
Hours later, he's being put through the paces, arduous and slow. His therapist never makes any jibe at his change of heart, just sets a thrice-weekly appointment and assigns him to exercises in the meantime.
When he'd first got into the accident, they tried to set up a keyboard for him to write out his thoughts. It was tedious. He'd flown into a rage at how useless it made him feel, and refused to use it. But now there's no other way to talk to Hakyeon, so he asks for it again. Letter by painful letter, he puts it all up on the screen. Hello, and how are you and I missed you, at the end of a day when Hakyeon returns from work. That last one never fails to make Hakyeon smile.
There's the most important sentence he hasn't typed yet. He wants to say it to him in person.
He never feels more useless than the night he learns what's wrong with Hakyeon. Nightmares, the sleeping pills say. A post-traumatic stress disorder so strong he continues to have insomnia, going for days, weeks without solid sleep. Even in Yeongwon, it never fully left him. It was in his head, after all.
He hates it, he hates it. And that's why he's determined to recover.
It's a slow, painful process with more bad days than good. There are days he's exhausted and aching from the therapy and wondering why he bothers. There's no certainty he can even move again, let alone walk. But Hakyeon reminds him, every time. And there are small successes. Reacquiring mobility in his fingers. Sensation returning to parts of his body. Being able to keep at his exercises for a longer and longer time each day.
"It's a miracle," the doctors say, when he takes his first steps.
"I'm proud of you," Hakyeon whispers, when he jerkily closes his arms around him again, years later.
Human drives, the man had said. Survival, the basest instinct which had driven the chaos in the outer cities. Loneliness, which had caused Hakyeon to amass an entire family of lost, searching people. Ambition, which had caused Minhyuk's betrayal. Fear, which caused the family to scatter.
But there was also trust, which led Sanghyuk to follow Hakyeon into the depths of Yeongwon City. Love, which kept him going when it seemed impossible, never leaving Hakyeon's side—and now, Hakyeon never leaving his, even when Sanghyuk can't shake that insecurity that he would be better off somewhere else, with someone else. Faith, Hakyeon believing that he has a future with him, no matter what Sanghyuk might say in his fits of self-pity; Sanghyuk learning to grow into someone who can support Hakyeon here, too, on this side of reality.
And hope, the most powerful drive of all. That if he never gives up, there's nowhere to go but up. The promise that it will get better.
And when he can finally curl up around Hakyeon again, feel his soft breaths and heartbeat slow and steady as he tucks himself against him, when he can bend down and press a kiss to the top of Hakyeon's hair, heart full and almost bursting, he can say it with certainty: it does.