Summary: Down in the outer cities, gangs rage supreme. Sanghyuk doesn't concern himself much with them. He just wants to stay alive.
Word Count: 13,600 words
Notes: Thanks to naladot and darkyulate for the very thorough beta, alesserrain for encouraging me especially in the early stages of this fic, neko_90 for her #justicefor6vixx campaign and every single thing that kept me going to the end, and the amazing mods for their positivity and persistence in this entire fest. Also to everyone on tlist who ever heard me rant about it and still held my hand and cheered me on. This fic pushed me to places I hadn't gone before, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without all of you.
Written for Extrafictionary 2015. Also posted on AO3.
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.
Down in the outer cities, gangs rage supreme. The largest is led by N, with Leo, his second-in-command.
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.
It's easy to forget that he's enrolled himself into a hierarchical system of mafia. Being the youngest, he's also automatically at the bottom of the food chain.
"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.
Sanghyuk gets sent out on errands often. Most of the time, he goes with one or more of the family; usually someone who's used to speaking glibly and oiling relationships with equal parts threat and diplomacy. Sanghyuk's perfected the art of standing slightly off to the side, arms crossed and face stern. It gets more effective with every day he grows larger and stronger.
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.
Yeongwon City isn't far, as distances go. It's a shining entity right in the middle of the cities, a brilliant tower that rises up to the sky. You couldn't miss it. Sanghyuk has never had cause to go near to it before, except to peer past its large gates into its wide, manicured lawn and dream stories about the people who lived there.
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.
Sanghyuk isn't sure what he expects to find in Yeongwon City—lines of shopkeepers, perhaps, manning stalls littered with produce. Chains and chains of production lines, machines running on electricity like it's free. A long time ago, there were supermarkets in the cities: massive conglomerates of all the products the world had to offer. An abundance of food just spilling from the shelves, way before food shortages started to plague the cities. But there's nothing like that here.
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.
"Taekwoon, could you scout the surroundings today? I'm a little tired."
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.