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
Sanghyuk stirs from the best sleep he's ever remembered having. He stretches and gives a pleased sigh.
"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.
Hakyeon gets careless after Taekwoon's disappearance. He seems almost lost, drifting through the rooms with the same regular, unfaltering steps, but there's a new heaviness to his body, like he's forgotten why he's doing this. Like he's lost his purpose. He still smiles when Sanghyuk employs every last strategy he's learned from Jaehwan to lighten his mood, but there's a blankness behind his eyes Sanghyuk can't erase, no matter how he tries.
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.
The closer they get to the heart of Yeongwon City, the more things stop making sense. It's like the nexus from which the whole universe grows. The days bleed into each other, a constant cycle of waking, walking, eating, sleeping. Sanghyuk almost forgets he wasn't born here, trudging into eternity.
"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.
They come across another three of the large, furnished rooms in their time there. Each time Hakyeon pushes the beds together and forces Sanghyuk to sleep right next to him, hand loosely wrapped around his wrist. The first time Hakyeon slid his palm into his own, Sanghyuk thought he might have a heart attack.
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.
The day they come to the final door, Hakyeon is in the middle of telling him about how he and Wonshik met.
"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.
"Sanghyuk. Hyukkie! Wake up."
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.
Sanghyuk wakes first, to the inexplicable sound of water.
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.
Hakyeon is looking out over the railing, shifting restlessly on his feet and gripping the rails with his hands.
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."
Sanghyuk sees it before Hakyeon does. The glint of metal in the sunlight, and the barrel of the gun, aimed straight for Hakyeon.
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.
"We can't keep doing this. We're going to run out of options."
"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.
They appear in a blank room.
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.
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