R + Ilhoon/Hyunsik + 12,000 words
warnings: post-apocalypse/zombie cliches galore, relatively mild gore, a plethora violence, and mentioned animal death for the purpose of sustenance (as in, hunting).
and, wouldn't you know it, he's the only hope they have left.
lots of elements of this (and the name of the fic) are shamelessly based off of the video game the last of us. a lot of the basic tenants of the plot of the game are pretty much intact here, but there are definitely changes.
this is for ani, who's interest in this fic made me want to finish it rather than abandon it. happy birthday and i hope you love it almost as much as i love you!
part one: 6903 words.
If you leave the Quarantine Zone you are effectively rescinding your rights to military protection. Stay in the Quarantine Zone to ensure your safety and the safety of others.
Hyunsik wakes up breathing hard, sound like ocean in his ears. An all-encompassing roar that only leaves when he shuts his eyes again and starts to breathe evenly. He rolls over on the mattress he's been sleeping on for the past week and a half and wishes that he was somewhere else, anywhere else.
It wouldn't be the first time.
Sitting up and looking around the room he sees that nothing has changed. The walls are still soaked with mildew and the wood floors are still rotting. There's still the sound of something (mice, probably) scurrying through the walls.
And there's still a black haired boy named Ilhoon sleeping restlessly on the worn armchair in the corner, folded in on himself with his eyelashes fluttering and one hand grabbing for something unseen.
Hyunsik turns away so he doesn't have to look at the other boy and takes a moment to himself, a moment with which to steel himself for the questions he has to ask and the things that have to be done. He still doesn't get why this is his job, why him, why couldn't anyone else carry this burden—but, at this point, trying to figure things out is futile.
He gets up and starts making noise carelessly. He opens his backpack and shakes things around, listens to tin hit plastic, to bullets rolling against each other, click clack, click clack. The wood floors are as creaky as they are rotted and once he's laced up his boots there's a cacophony of sounds under his feet.
It's not long before Ilhoon starts to stir, shaking his head side to side and shifting around like he's trying to get more comfortable.
"If you're up," Hyunsik says, voice soft, "there's no use in going back to bed. We need to get moving soon."
Ilhoon's eyes open and they're as wide and innocent as they were the day before, catching sunlight like amber.
"How soon?" he asks, with a content face that Hyunsik has only seen on cats and military brats before.
"As soon as possible," Hyunsik replies, not bothering to hesitate before throwing an empty backpack towards the other boy. "Stock up."
"So," he says, once they're far enough out of the zone that he feels like he can afford to ask this question, "where is it?"
Ilhoon sighs like he's had to repeat the same information too many times in the past few days. But, nevertheless, he stops and rolls back the right sleeve of his shirt and holds out his forearm for inspection. Hyunsik has to stop himself from whistling. It's a bite alright, but not angry and red like the ones he's seen on people who get shot down before they turned. Ilhoon's skin is pink and mottled—not quite healed, but neutralized. It's an ugly scar, but the alternative is certainly worse.
"Three weeks ago." Ilhoon interrupts him as they reach a chain link fence with weeds growing up and through the rusted out gate that they now have to climb to get over. "I was with a friend and we got ambushed. She changed, I didn't. And the Fireflies..." Here he pauses and Hyunsik glances at him as he takes his time to get to the other side of the fence. "They did all sorts of tests and...in the end, they decided that it was me."
"It?" Hyunsik asks.
"The cure," Ilhoon answers, stoically, dropping down to the ground and looking around. "You do know where you're going, right?"
Hyunsik has to laugh, a little wryly. "Yes, I do. They picked me for a reason, trust me."
It's not a complete lie, but—they didn't pick him first or even second. He's just barely their third choice, more of a last minute option than anything. He doesn't belong to the Fireflies and they're trusting him only because they have to. The whole thing is a gambit built on necessity and desperation, but it's not like there's much left to build with these days, anyway.
The closer they get towards the city, the more the sound of the infected comes towards them like a rolling wave of thunder.
It's the crying that bothers Hyunsik the most, and from Ilhoon's pale face he thinks he's not alone in that. Criers barely even fight back, but in some ways that makes them worse than the ones that run like there's fire underfoot as they snarl at you. It's easier to forget those ones were people once. Picking off criers in the distance with a pistol almost feels merciful.
"Let me," Ilhoon says, after an hour that's been silent but for gunshots and the gibbering of infected.
Hyunsik is not altogether convinced he should hand over his pistol, but Ilhoon's sleeve is still rolled up, so there's nothing he can do besides drop the weight of it into Ilhoon's palm and say, "Don't waste a bullet, I'm running low."
Ilhoon barely nods before raising his arm and leveling his sites on some pathetic crier that's stumbling through the weed-ridden parking lot of a convenience store not thirty feet away from them. He pulls the trigger. Blood arcs through the air and Hyunsik swears he hears it sing like unsheathed metal. The infected falls backwards unceremoniously, body still. Ilhoon pushes the pistol back into Hyunsik's hands and keeps on walking.
Hyunsik follows him.
CAUTION: Failing to allow yourself to be scanned for infection will result in immediate execution. Sit still and follow the orders you are given to make the process go as smoothly as possible..
Ilhoon is craning his head back, eyes wider than Hyunsik's seen them the past few days—and that's saying a lot.
"Were buildings always this big?" he asks, voice full of wonder.
"I'm not that old, you know," Hyunsik snaps, irritably. He's tired and covered in dirt and sweat and the sun is setting—he almost wishes they'd decided to make camp before they reached the city, but it seemed like a terrible waste of daylight at the time. Now he's not so sure.
"Okay, sorry," Ilhoon mumbles and Hyunsik only just catches the hurt look on his face before he looks away.
He sighs and stops where he is, looking upwards in the same direction Ilhoon was a minute ago. It towers overhead and the glass of the windows glints in the sunlight, the whole building leaning precariously to the side. It must have been displaced years ago. "No," he says, definitively. "Not all of them. But some of them were—we're going to have to go through this one to meet up with your friends."
"They aren't my friends," Ilhoon replies, voice quick and emphatic. "I'm not a member. I don't like them."
"That makes two of us." Hyunsik is pulling himself up onto the roof of a low-handing sedan, feeling rust under the palms of his hands. There's a seascape of abandoned cars that they'll have to cross in order to make it into one of the windows of the building. He hears Ilhoon following him. "But if you don't like them, then why—"
"Lesser of two evils," Ilhoon supplies, jumping out ahead of him, the frame of a car shaking under his weight. "I don't agree with them, but at least they're doing things. At least they're trying something. They listened to me when I told them what happened. And we both know that the military wouldn't have done that."
Hyunsik thinks of scanners and executions in the middle of the street.
"No," he agrees, "they wouldn't have."
They're moving up a flight of stairs when they hear the distinctive sound of a clicker in the distance. Ilhoon moves closer as the sound echoes down the stairwell.
"What's that?" he whispers, voice fearful. Hyunsik half expects him to grab at his arm.
"They don't teach you about this stuff at the Academies?" Hyunsik asks, because he's more than a little curious. He knows the military prep schools are little more than orphanages in disguise, but he still expected—well, he's not sure what. A comprehensive education funded by a government that's more concerned with martial law than it is the survival of its citizens? No, when he really thinks about it he's not that surprised to see Ilhoon shake his head in reply.
The raspy sound comes again, closer this time. It sounds a little like someone choking on their own blood.
"That," Hyunsik says, kneeling down to reload his pistol, "is a clicker. They can't see. So they use sound to locate things. Echolocation."
"Like bats," Ilhoon murmurs and Hyunsik can see the sick sort of fascination in his eyes. It's not hard to understand, but it is hard to relate to. Maybe years ago, maybe if he'd been born five years later than he was. Maybe.
But he just nods. "Like bats. They're fast, too, and they'll attack like hell. These aren't like the criers we've been dealing with. Those ones just stumble around aimlessly. These are the ones that will come at you. Are you ready?"
In answer, Ilhoon shrugs off his backpack and fumbles with the zipper on the front pocket before pulling out a switchblade that shines silver in his hand. It's not much, but it'll have to do for now.
They make their way up the stairs, pausing whenever Hyunsik hears noise near them. The door that leads out of the stairwell opens into darkness and Hyunsik shakes the batteries in his flashlight before turning it on just in time to hear a shriek as a clicker flies through the doorway at them.
He's saying, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," as he tries to push the thing off, grey skin peeling away under his hands, the ugly red gash of a mouth snarling open in front of his eyes. Teeth stained yellow and hungry, he can't believe he's going to die because of a rookie mistake—and then the thing is shrieking again, but this time it's because it's been stabbed in the neck, hot blood dripping onto Hyunsik's face.
And Ilhoon stands above him, switchblade in hand and a calm look on his face.
"Come on," he says, pushing the corpse of the clicker off of Hyunsik and holding out his hand. "I bet there's a lot more where that came from."
Reminder: Ration cards exist to help keep food supply steady and fair to the population of the Quarantine Zone. Bartering or trading ration cards is illegal.
They spend the night barricaded in a supply closet on the fifth floor. There's a wealth of batteries in one box, so Hyunsik isn't too worried about keeping his flashlight on all night. There's also a stash of granola bars tucked in a corner, which tells Hyunsik they aren't the first people to stay here like this.
"So if you aren't a Firefly," Ilhoon is saying, from where he's laying on his side, using his backpack as a pillow, "and you aren't a member of the military...what do you do?"
Hyunsik settles back against the filing cabinets behind him and takes in the question. There was a time, he knows, when there were a lot more options than what there are now. Artists and actors, doctors and scientists, teachers and counselors. But now there are just rebels and members of the militia. Two sides. That's all Ilhoon really knows.
"I, uh, take things to places," he answers, carefully. Ilhoon raises an eyebrow at that. "Well. I smuggle things out of zones, or into them. I'm not picky."
"Oh," Ilhoon breathes out. No doubt he's learned about smugglers. About how to punish them. "Like...people?"
"Apparently," Hyunsik replies and his less than fond tone isn't lost on Ilhoon, who makes a face. "No...it's mostly things that are hard to get in QZs, like medicine, weapons, or food. It's not a bad job. I usually get paid in ration cards, so I get my fair share in return."
Ilhoon nods slowly and Hyunsik can tell he's trying to process the information. No doubt he's absorbed what he learned at the Academy, whether he agrees with it or not. It's likely that he has to confront his instincts that say what Hyunsik does is bad and wrong, that he should run all the way back to where they came from and report him.
There's a crying sound from outside the door, some pathetic infected making its way down the hallway, moaning to itself. Hyunsik's heard people say that's the sound of an infected lamenting its fate. He's never been able to pretend it's anything as poetic as that.
Ilhoon startles and squirms away from the door, watching it nervously.
"You don't like them?" Hyunsik asks.
"Who does?" Ilhoon fires back, but they both know that wasn't exactly what Hyunsik meant.
"You can kill 'em pretty well, though," Hyunsik shrugs and Ilhoon glances at him for half a second and there's something dark in his eyes.
"I don't like...remembering what they are," he says, finally, quietly, before rolling over to face the wall.
It's not the first time Hyunsik has worked with someone who sees killing the infected as a mercy.
He closes his eyes and waits for the sun to rise.
In short order, he dreams of: warning-red skies with planes flying across them, a sunset on the edge of the world, a meeting that doesn't go at all as planned, his neck being grazed by a bullet that was meant to kill, the grass under his feet and a city of glass unfolding in front of him, two people running with burning lungs in their chest and fear in their hearts.
He wakes up to a week later, to a maze of subway tunnels and a trail of shotgun shells behind them. To Ilhoon sleeping at his elbow now, because personal space is useless when you're the only two people for miles around.
He doesn't want to remember the last week, but he does anyway. It's hard not to.
Who were we supposed to meet? he'd asked Ilhoon once they were safe and Ilhoon had no answer for him, knew nothing besides the obvious fact that it wasn't supposed to be two heavily armed members of the militia. And he'd looked so scared that Hyunsik hadn't been able to get mad at him.
But—they're running out of food and making it far on foot requires sustenance. Hyunsik has a plan, but it requires a car with a working battery and more daring than he has in him at this point.
They sleep in the closed off rooms of office buildings and the basements of houses on the outskirts of towns. Ilhoon talks about how much he misses running water. Hyunsik thinks about how much he misses silence. They share cans of peaches between them and take delicate sips of water, careful to never take more than they need.
One morning when they're packing their things up and getting ready to move, Ilhoon asks, "Where are we going now?"
Now that their rendezvous has fallen through, now that they're on their own, now that it's possible that the military knows about Ilhoon and what is (or what isn't) crawling inside of him.
"I have a friend," is what Hyunsik replies, carefully. What he means is that he has a brother in arms and that he lost him. But what he says is, "I haven't seen him in a couple years, but he used to work with the Fireflies. I figure at best he'll tell us where we can find them and at worst he'll offer us some shelter."
"Okay," Ilhoon nods as he slings his backpack across his shoulders. "Where will we find him?"
Hundreds of miles away is the answer. By car is the answer. We won't is the answer, unless a miracle comes their way.
So for now, they stay moving. They make infected drop like flies. They wash their clothes in rivers and resist the urge to lay on the banks, to close their eyes and feel the sun on their skin.
They stay alive.
There's a little town with a church that's almost peaceful.
It was someone's stronghold once, a point which means it's safe, but not safe enough. Ilhoon argues that they could fix it up, his head crowned by stained-glass windows in the early evening. He watches Hyunsik push bookcases in front of broken down doors and wanders in-between rows of pews, gliding like some holy thing.
(And sometimes Hyunsik swears he sees wings at his back, sees something fierce within him. But mostly he sees a scared boy who's been told he owes the world something that he never promised it.)
This cannot be their tabernacle, their shrine, or their home, Hyunsik tells him. It can't be anything more than a stop on a longer journey. There's blood on the corner of a Bible that Ilhoon picks up. They can't stay here.
But, for what it's worth, there is a room with a mattress sitting ready for them to use for a night or two. Hyunsik tells Ilhoon to sleep on it and Ilhoon doesn't even bother pretending that he thinks Hyunsik should have it instead. He takes it, young and greedy.
"Hyunsik," he says, voice warm and soft with sleep, "can you tell me a story?"
It's a strange request and one that Hyunsik would have said no to two weeks ago. But by now Ilhoon has saved his life enough times for it to matter, enough times that Hyunsik owes him, enough times that Hyunsik doesn't even really think of it that way. One thing he knows is the bone deep fear of being alone and how the sound of someone else's voice can assuage it.
So he tells a story he thinks he heard before, one of those memories of the way things used to be. A story about a fish with scales of every color and how he gave them away to make others happy. It's silly and childish, but it's one of the only things he has to give, one of the only things he remembers.
Ilhoon asks, "Are these the kinds of stories they used to tell kids?"
Hyunsik answers that he guesses so, says, "What kind of stories did you get told?"
"I would sit on my bed and take apart my gun and clean it." Ilhoon is halfway asleep, curled up into a ball and reaching for something. "I didn't get stories, but I knew there were people who did."
His hand knocks against Hyunsik's back, fingers against the fabric of his shirt. Hyunsik sits with his back to the bed, with his eyes towards the windows that sit high on the wall (excepting, of course, when he turns to look at Ilhoon). He feels Ilhoon move closer and he feels something warm bloom inside him.
It's like how the world looks now. How people are dead and rotting in the last holdouts of humanity and yet flowers grow up from concrete and flourish on the sides of unused highways.
Having Ilhoon with him—it's a little like that.
Military Preparatory Academies provide the best possible education for our children. Support your local academy today by donating ration cards, weapons and ammo, and other goods.
They're running, running, running, muscles screaming in agony and the shrieks and cries of a horde of infected behind them, a stolen bus battery between them.
Ilhoon keeps saying, "No, no, no," like that's going to help, and there are tears streaking down his face. Neither of them can afford to take the time to aim a gun right now. They knew this would happen, they knew this was what was at risk, but that doesn't make it any easier. A high school with broken windows and a bus crashed into it, Ilhoon had stood in the doorway of a classroom for a few minutes before Hyunsik had noticed that he'd stopped.
In front of him had been a gymnasium with banners in tatters and rusted bleachers, a permeating silence in a large room that should have been filled to the brim with noise.
And Hyunsik knows Ilhoon wanted to ask something, but he never got the chance. They had to push their way past rows of lockers and crouch behind bookcases in the library. The whole place smelled faintly of glue and other, more terrible things. There were arrows spray-painted on the floors of the hallways, with CDC markings above them. Schools were evacuation centers in the early days of the outbreak. Hyunsik spent five days in a classroom waiting for men and women with guns to figure out what to do with him and—
And there's a car battery between him and Ilhoon, and nails ripping at his back, and a fence in front of them.
"You first, you first!" Hyunsik yells, and Ilhoon drops the battery without saying a word, scrambling to climb up chain links as Hyunsik turns and pulls the trigger on his gun before he can aim. Blood rinses over him, a shower of wet-warm on his face and arms. Again, again, again, and that's it for his bullets. Frantic reload, Ilhoon screaming behind him, back up against the fence and: again, again, again, it never ends.
He watches Ilhoon pull the battery under the fence, making quick work of a hole that's already there and nearly big enough. He climbs and there are hands at his ankles. He climbs and there are hands (alive, this time) at his wrists. He climbs, and Ilhoon is there to catch him.
And they run, with things that are powered by nothing but anger and hunger at their heels. And they run, their salvation held between them.
And they run.
Hyunsik knows how to piece together the parts of a car that matter and that's about it. He knows how to jump start a battery and make an engine roar to life. He knows how to drive a car down a road with next to no traffic, weaving in-between fallen telephone poles and rubble.
Ilhoon sleeps in the passengers seat, jacket draped over him because it gets cold at night and because any measure of comfort is welcome right now. Hyunsik almost wishes the radio worked, even if all they'd be able to hear would be military speak over the airwaves. It's too quiet.
They fly over potholes and weeds and past decrepit buildings and overgrown fields.
When Ilhoon's awake he unfolds a map he found in the glovebox, pressing his fingers against the names of towns and tracing the length of freeways with an odd sort of fascination.
"This is a map of the whole country," he says in the morning, when they've stopped to siphon gas from cars parked beneath an underpass, to eat handfuls of pistachios and half an apple each. "I've never seen a map of the whole country. Have you?"
Hyunsik shrugs. His stomach feels empty despite everything. "Once or twice. They don't make them en masse anymore, obviously, but you can find them like that. I've never had much use for one."
"Well—where we're headed, is it on here?" Ilhoon has the map spread out over the dashboard. He sounds like he thinks Hyunsik has all the answers.
The map is feather light under Hyunsik's apple-sticky fingertips and he breathes in deep as he takes a look.
"Ah, yeah, that'll be it, just about there." He taps his finger against a point on the map and then drags it backwards. "It's by a lake and—I'd say we're about here right now so. Another day or two and we'll be there, really."
"What is there?" Ilhoon asks, voice curious as he looks at the spot Hyunsik pointed out, like the map is going answer his question.
"Someone who can help us, hopefully."
The road stretches out before them, empty and daunting, but they move forward.
WARNING: ONCE INFECTED, A PERSON WILL CHANGE WITHIN 48 HOURS. TO ENSURE MAXIMUM SAFETY OF CITIZENS, MILITARY OFFICIALS ARE PERMITTED TO USE LETHAL FORCE TO TAKE DOWN ANYONE CONFIRMED TO BE A CARRIER.
They leave the car parked on the side of the road. It's Ilhoon's idea to leave them in the glove box. They're less likely to get lost that way and, as he points out, they aren't going to need them unless they come back to the car anyway.
There's nothing but trees and a stream to follow for a good two miles, with rabbits running underfoot and the sun sinking into mountains at the edge of the world.
Ilhoon stays close to the water, stays quiet. It's not unusual for him to fall silent, but there's still something about it that makes Hyunsik worry, like there's something he hasn't been told, something he needs to know. But—if everything goes how he expects it to, there won't be anything he needs to know. So he keeps quiet, too. There's only the sound of running water and the world around them.
The water gets louder just as it's starting to get dark, and as Ilhoon points out, it isn't as dark as it should be.
"Are those...lights?" he asks, with a twinge of hopefulness in his words that makes Hyunsik smile despite himself.
"Well, fuck. I never thought they'd be able to do it."
When they break through the woods they're greeted by walls fifteen feet tall and fluorescent spotlights, by guns trained on them and a booming voice over a speaker system, demanding they drop their weapons and identify themselves.
Hyunsik keeps his gun in his hands, but yells his name in response, tells them, "Get Minhyuk. He'll probably be tempted to tell you guys to shoot me, but he knows I'm not here to do any harm."
Ilhoon, with his hand shielding his eyes from the lights, is looking at him like he's crazy, but he hasn't dropped his knife, either.
And for good reason. It's barely a minute before a metal door is being swung open and Hyunsik is being pulled into a hug.
"Wasn't expecting this," he murmurs, letting his eyes close in relief and exhaustion.
"Wasn't expecting you," comes Minhyuk's response, the words curling like vines around him, always clinging and reaching. When he pulls away Hyunsik finds that he looks older than he should, like he's tired of the world. But who wouldn't be—it isn't as if the smile on his face isn't genuine, anyway. "And who's this, then?"
Hyunsik turns his head to find that Ilhoon is practically hiding behind him, though it's obviously out of caution rather than fear. He doesn't really blame him. They just had at least three people ready to open fire on them. He'd be stupid not to be cautious about this.
"It's alright," Hyunsik assures him, quietly. Ilhoon's eyes catch his and his tension melts away, just like that. "This is Ilhoon. You'll have to forgive him if he's a bit shy at first."
"I'm not shy," Ilhoon grumbles, punching at Hyunsik's elbow and then staying close to it.
"Look, Minhyuk," Hyunsik starts, ready to explain everything with their backs to the woods, with night approaching.
Minhyuk stops him. "Whatever you have to say, you can say it tomorrow. I'm sure you'd both like to get some sleep and some food."
Hyunsik feels Ilhoon perk up against him at word food, and it's hard to hide that he feels the same. There are explanations and stories owed, on both sides, but for now—for now Hyunsik nods and accepts what he's being offered.
They sleep well with fifteen foot walls between them and the rest of the world.
Hyunsik finds Minhyuk in the early hours of the morning. They're sleeping in the same building, all of them. What probably used to be barracks, or maybe still are—sometimes Hyunsik thinks this life has made soldiers of them all. They eat breakfast in silence under lights that only flicker occasionally.
"You got the electricity to work," he says, like it's not obvious, pushing away from the table when his tray is clean. It's for a lack of anything better to stay, and it isn't like he's not curious.
"It wasn't me. There's a guy," Minhyuk shrugs. "Came here a few years back and actually knew about how a place like this worked. He's been, uh, helpful in that regard. Entertaining and annoying in every other."
"So you're dating someone new, huh?"
Minhyuk makes a face, but doesn't say anything, which is answer enough.
"What about you?" he asks, leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest. They're both trying to be casual, to avoid the things they really need to say. "He's a little young, isn't he? The kid you came here with?"
"As he likes to remind me constantly, he's twenty," Hyunsik says, and there's something teasing with his tone, something that would make Ilhoon smile if he were there. But Minhyuk just raises his eyebrows. "Uh, but no. It's—complicated."
"Yeah, isn't everything."
Hyunsik pauses at that, takes in the bags under Minhyuk's eyes and the sag of his shoulders. He hadn't been imagining it last night, then. Minhyuk is tired, and it's really no surprise. He's always pushed himself further than he needed to. When they were kids scavenging food, when they were teenage smugglers working together, when he disappeared to work with the Fireflies—and now, here, with his grand plans for creating something in a dead world.
"Look," Hyunsik says, scraping his chair across the floor and lowering his voice. "Ilhoon—that kid—he might be the best shot we all have at living to see things get better. You know I'm not good at this kind of stuff, but he's important. We just need to stay here for a few weeks. And I'm going to need to ask you some stuff."
"Oh, Hyunsik." Minhyuk's rubbing at his eyes with his fingers, shaking his head. "What kind of questions?"
Hyunsik opens his mouth, sighs out a heavy breath. "Firefly kind of questions."
"Yeah, yeah I figured." Minhyuk stands and his clothes hang off him like rags, like they used to fit him once, but now they don't. "It's fine, just—not today."
He leaves and Hyunsik is alone in the grey morning, with steel and brick at all sides.
Ilhoon is awake when he returns to their room.
It's tucked in a corner, and not very big. The beds are small and they creak with every move. The mattresses are stained and they both know better than to ask with what. Windows are high up on the walls and the floor is bare concrete. Everything is cold to the touch.
But after months of sleeping in dim supply closets and abandoned homes, it's a welcome change. There are working lights on the ceiling and blankets and places for them to put their things. More than that, there are showers and warm food and other people. All the things he knows they've both been starved for.
And he knows they both slept better last night than they have in over a month. He knows that Ilhoon feels safe here, because he's got a book open on his knees and he doesn't look up when the door opens. He's let himself get engrossed in something, let himself drift away from the constant state of awareness they've had to stay in since they met.
"Hey," Hyunsik says, making the word as soft as he can. Ilhoon still startles at his voice and blinks up at him in surprise. "Sorry. I wanted to let you know Minhyuk said we could stay here for a few weeks."
"A few weeks?" Ilhoon sounds disappointed, like he was expecting something more.
Hyunsik hesitates before answering. He takes his time, sitting down on the edge of Ilhoon's bed, giving himself some time to think. "Yeah, well, it's either that or stay here for the winter, because, trust me, you don't want to have to travel between zones when there's a foot of snow outside."
Ilhoon closes his book next to him, frowning and fidgeting.
"If there's something you want to say or ask me," Hyunsik prompts him, "you can do that."
"It's just," Ilhoon blurts out, words like a waterfall out of his mouth, "you said that person—Minhyuk—would be able to help us. And it can't just be that he's letting us stay here. I'm really grateful that he is, don't get me wrong, but I know there's more to it than that."
"He used to work with the Fireflies," Hyunsik responds, easily. "He'll probably have a better idea of where to find their nearest holdout than I do, and how to get there. Honestly, he's a lot more capable than me in every way. You'll be safe with him."
Ilhoon is blinking at that, like he doesn't quite understand. There's an awkwardness and an unease in their interactions right now that Hyunsik wishes wasn't there. It's like without something to run from, they have to deal with just being near each other. It makes his skin itch with something hot. It makes him feel bad when realization dawns on Ilhoon's face.
"You're getting rid of me," he says quietly.
"No, I'm trying—I'm trying to make sure you're as safe as possible." It's not a lie, but Hyunsik finds that it tastes more like one than he wants to admit. "I'm trying to make sure you get to where you're supposed to be. You don't need me for that."
"You—you," Ilhoon spits out, like just saying that word is an insult. "You are so stupid."
He pushes himself off the bed and starts pulling on his jacket, grabbing his shoes.
Hyunsik doesn't ask where he's going. He knows he wouldn't get an answer, anyway.
If you suspect that someone is a member of a rebel faction, report it immediately. Rebel groups such as the Fireflies endanger the peace of the Quarantine Zones and the lives of all of our citizens.
Over the course of the next week, Ilhoon wakes up earlier than him every day. He makes a point to eat at different times. He goes to bed before Hyunsik comes back to the room at night. Whenever they're about to be in the same room, he leaves.
As far as Hyunsik can tell, he spends most of his time looking at maps and walking around outside. More than once, Hyunsik sees him by the horses that are tied up in one corner of the camp, but he's always gone before he can make his way towards him.
For his part, Hyunsik makes friends with people around the camp. He meets Eunkwang, who knows everything there is to know about hydroelectricity and next to nothing about everything else. Minhyuk was right: he's entertaining and annoying. He's not bad to be around, even if he balks at the sight of guns and shivers when the sound of cries echoes over the walls and reaches their ears.
Eunkwang asks him, "Why is he mad at you? Ilhoon, I mean."
Hyunsik shrugs, like he doesn't know. "He's just kind of shy," he says (and he wishes Ilhoon was at his side right now, digging an elbow into it, telling him he's wrong). "He grew up in one of the academies. I don't think he's used to meeting new people."
"You know, my mom taught me about all this stuff," Eunkwang says, with that voice people use when they talk about their parents: careful and cautious. And it makes sense, when there are so many people like Ilhoon around. "She worked at—well, not this place of course, but a place like this, before everything went to shit. And she figured, you know, I wasn't going to be able to actually learn anything at school, so she taught me everything I know."
Hyunsik nods. There's nothing you can say to that, not really. Just, "She must have been really amazing."
"Yeah," Eunkwang agrees. "Yeah. But kids like him, like Ilhoon, growing up in the academies? They don't learn anything like that. They don't learn anything like that from anyone like that, you know what I mean?"
"I know," Hyunsik says, quiet. Nervous. He knows, but he hasn't really wanted to think about it until now.
"They learn how to kill things and take care of their guns, but they don't learn how to handle people. Especially not people like you," Eunkwang says, his hands moving and gesturing towards Hyunsik, like there's a word to describe him, but he can't quite remember what it is. "He doesn't know how to ask people to stay. I don't think he's ever had someone to ask that of before."
It slips out of his mouth one day: "He's immune."
Minhyuk looks at him for a minute like he's just said something in another language, but then his confusion melts away.
"I have to get him to the Fireflies. We lost them once before. I was supposed to hand him over, but the military got there before we did. I wasn't supposed to be with him this long. It wasn't supposed to be like this."
"Slow down." Minhyuk has a calming effect, a way with people. It's why he makes a good leader. It's why people flock to him and it's why this place hasn't crumbled like just about every other stronghold Hyunsik's ever heard of. "Explain everything to me, from the beginning."
It's easier than Hyunsik would have thought.
"Ilhoon," he says, closing the door behind him. "I know you're awake."
There's no response. The room is dark and Ilhoon is in bed and, maybe, Hyunsik would believe he was asleep if they hadn't been with each other day and night since they met. He knows too much about him now. He knows that Ilhoon doesn't sleep still and on his side, he moves around and curls himself into a ball and he breathes hot air onto Hyunsik's skin, loud and heavy in every way.
"You can pretend to be asleep, I don't care." He sits on his own bed, shrugging off his coat, slipping off his shoes. "Minhyuk says their headquarters is in Incheon. It makes sense, really. Gyeonggi was one of the first provinces to be declared unsuitable for Quarantine Zones, so it's probably the most deserted province as far as survivors go."
He hears Ilhoon roll over. "Didn't it..." He stops, quiet for a minute. Hyunsik wants him to talk more, wants him to finish what he was saying, and he feels warm when that happens. "Didn't it used to be really beautiful?"
"I don't know if beautiful is the right word for it," Hyunsik answers, but he isn't sure what beauty is to Ilhoon. Perhaps beauty to him would have been big cities bustling with life, loud crowds full of people, places full of noise and clamor. "But a lot of people lived there."
"Yeah," Hyunsik says, as simply as he can. The word still catches in his throat. "Um, anyway. That's where we're going. To Incheon."
"We?" Ilhoon asks, the word a whisper that almost makes Hyunsik sick, like something too sweet will.
He can't hold back a small smile. "Yes, me and you."
There's a heavy silence, then movement, then Ilhoon is on him, fumbling in the dark. It's something like a hug. Hyunsik feels warm and enveloped and his hands come to rest on Ilhoon's back. Ilhoon who is half on his lap and not quite crying as he says, "Thank you."
Ilhoon who fits perfectly against him and falls asleep in his bed like he belongs there.
And maybe—but there's no time.
They're woken up by gunshots.
It's that whole 'get out while you can, get out alive,' bullshit, as far as Hyunsik can tell.
Fifteen foot walls will keep out the infected, but they won't keep out bandits with explosives and rifles and armfuls of rope, that's for sure. And, because it's every man for himself, they won't keep everyone in, either.
There ground is covered in patches of snow and splashes of blood. Hyunsik was going to tell Ilhoon tomorrow that they'd probably end up staying rather than risk the cold out on their own. The ground is hard, frozen under their feet and their footsteps echo off concrete walls, rapid fire, staccato, merciless.
The bandits are dressed in all black and have their faces covered. They don't quite blend in with shadows, it's not like they're trained assassins, but they are trained for this. Hyunsik has had run-ins with a few groups like this, people who live outside of zones and always have, moving from town to town and raising their kids to fight, thinking they're different, somehow, than the government in that respect.
Hyunsik doesn't have time for them.
He keeps Ilhoon behind him, both of them with hastily packed bags on their backs. And Hyunsik is sorry, but his goal isn't to take down everyone he sees or save the people who live here. It's to leave.
As far as he can figure, either the people here will rise to the occasion or they won't. He has bigger things to deal with.
It comes to him, suddenly, and he asks, "The horses—where are the horses?"
Ilhoon seems to snap awake at the words, like he finally understands the full gravity of the situation and he points to the building where the cafeteria is, says, "Behind there."
And Hyunsik doesn't think twice on it, he just grabs Ilhoon's hand and takes him there.
People are fighting and screaming and dropping like flies, so in a way it's perfect cover, to just run through the mess with abandon. It's not until they get to the horses that they find anything like trouble. Even then, it's just a guy who isn't expecting them, who probably thought he'd lay low and stay out of the action.
He drops his gun and puts his hands up in the air. The truth of the world is that, sometimes, people are just scared, and not everyone is a killer.
They ride horses out of the broken gates, and, really, Hyunsik is sorry. He would have liked to say goodbye. He even would have liked to have helped. The thought almost makes him turn around, but he doesn't.
Because Ilhoon is the one with the bite on his arm and Ilhoon is the one—
There's the sound of a gun being fired and it rings in Hyunsik's ears. There's that sound and then there's silence, darkness, pain—and nothing else.