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.
i didn't want this to be two parts but...it ended up being pretty long! i guess that's a good thing? i hope you like the end!
part two: 5197 words.
Remember the three main signs of infection: 1. Aggressiveness, 2. Sensitivity to light, 3. Decreased motor skills. If you see someone displaying at least two of these signs, report them to your local authorities.
Ilhoon crouches behind the cover of the trunk of a fallen tree, one large enough to nearly keep him hidden from height even when he's standing.
He levels his shotgun and counts to himself, silently.
Three, two, one.
The butt of the shotgun hits him hard in the shoulder and he winces, still not used to the feeling of it. He prefers handguns and rifles. But there's red in the snow and, even from a distance, he can see that he hit his target. He feels a bad, hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach as he walks towards the dead rabbit.
"Sorry," he mumbles, like he always does, to the little thing. At least it looks peaceful. Sometimes things die with their eyes wide open, claws out, snarling. He prefers peaceful.
He strings the rabbit up next to his gear on Micheala's saddle and petting at her neck to soothe her. She still gets spooked by bullets pretty easily, but as long as he only takes a shot or two from a reasonable distance, she won't run. But he can still see the fear in her eyes and he understands that. He sees it in the mirror.
He ties Michaela up in the barn and is thankful, not for the first time, that he's able to do that at all. It's not exactly a big place, but it's enough for one horse and there was hay stored up by some previous owner, sitting unused. He's sure there's something wrong with it, it's probably rotten somehow, but he's used to making due with things that are well past their expiration date, and Michaela, for her part, nuzzles him with her nose and snuffles. It can't be that bad.
The rabbit goes on the island in the middle of the kitchen. He smooths down the fur of its side almost without thinking and stands there, staring it, until a cough from upstairs startles him out of his thoughts.
He leaves the rabbit there, after checking the make sure the front, back, and garage doors are all either locked or blocked.
The stairs groan under his weight. They're all eaten away by rot and sometimes he's scared they're going to crumble beneath him.
Taking Hyunsik upstairs was a calculated risk, one he chose to take because he decided it was better in the case of anyone breaking in. He has a fear that's like an open wound, a thought of what might happen if someone stumbled upon Hyunsik, out of it and in pain. Ilhoon knows he couldn't bear to come back here and find the aftermath of that. Nothing scares him more than the thought of Hyunsik being gone.
So hiding him upstairs—well, he'll get yelled at for it later. And he'll just be glad that Hyunsik's able to yell at him, when it comes to that.
Right now, Hyunsik lays, shifting in discomfort and gasping for breath, on the bottom of a bunk bed. It was the only bed with a mattress left in the house and Ilhoon spent a whole day getting the room ready. He had to clear it of dirty stuffed animals and broken plastic tiaras. Now it's just a room with dusty pink walls and a window covered with a garbage bag.
Ilhoon folds the garbage bag up, so half of the window is exposed, just for the sake of light.
He knows Hyunsik recognizes him, because he mumbles his name when he peels the blanket off of him and pushes up the hem of his shirt. Mostly, Ilhoon just tries to keep him out of it. He's surfaced a few times over the past month and a half, but he's never said much of use. He cries a lot and it's understandable. He's tired and it must hurt like hell, but his fever broke last week, which means he's getting better.
Ilhoon doesn't let himself dare hope that they're quite out of the woods yet, but sometimes (like right now) he lets himself feel a little proud at what he's been able to do for Hyunsik.
The hardest part is always getting him on his side. The entry wounds must still hurt something fierce, but as far as Ilhoon can tell nothing vital was hit. If he had to guess, he'd say the bullets got him right below the lungs and hit bone before anything else. Which, yeah, wouldn't be pleasant, but it meant Ilhoon was able to keep him afloat.
Ever since he found somewhere for them to stay it's been like this. He goes out to hunt and scavenge, he comes back with food and supplies, he does what he can for Hyunsik, and then he sleeps as much as he can.
When he sleeps he doesn't dream of much, just warm days with the sun up above. Someone's shoulder bumping against his.
He misses having someone to talk to.
That's probably the biggest thing, if he had to pick something.
He talks to Hyunsik, in a way, but it's more like talking at him. He tells him what he did for the day while he feeds him, while he cleans his wounds, while he waits for him to slip back into unconsciousness.
There's Michaela, too. And he really thinks she understands him, because she'll stamp in approval or shake her mane in apparent disgust at certain things he says. Maybe he's a little crazy, but it's the closest he has to conversation these days. It's still not conversation, though.
In a way he almost likes it when Hyunsik is lucid, even though the few times it's happened were nightmarish. He knows how it will go every time, but it never makes it any better. Hyunsik will beg him to leave him here, will insist that Ilhoon is more important than he is. All the while he'll be shaking in pain, face pale and eyes wide.
He'll calm down eventually, he'll say it's fine if this is what Ilhoon wants.
"Alright," he'll say as he swallows down a handful of painkillers. "Alright."
Ilhoon likes Hyunsik's voice, so he remembers things like that. The way his tongue curls around consonants, that type of thing. He says words gently, even when everything else about him is anything but. When he yells it's more like his voice just carries, somehow. All in all, he's a quiet and careful person.
Wants to keep him safe.
And is scared of the fact that they're set to part ways once they make it to Incheon.
If they ever make it there at all.
Citizens are required to carry their ID card at all times. Failure to do so may result in termination, at the discretion of the officer encountered.
Ilhoon notices someone following him about a half an hour into his hunting trip the next day.
Whoever it is, they aren't making a vested effort to hide themselves, or at least it isn't their priority. Twigs snap underneath their feet and their breathing is labored in a way that makes Ilhoon, momentarily, think of ugly things with wounds for mouths, his hands tightening around his shotgun.
But he's never known one of the infected to stay hidden when he turns to face them, or to follow him for that matter. They give chase—this person is...shadowing him, however unskillfully.
So he raises the barrel of his shotgun and tries to keep his voice from shaking when he says, "If you're planning on killing me, I've been trained in combat since I developed fine motor skills, so I would advise against it."
It's a girl, pale and wide-eyed, who reveals herself, peering at him from around the trunk of a particularly wide tree.
"I wasn't," she says, shaking her head, "I wasn't going to try and hurt you, I mean it."
"Then why are you following me?" Ilhoon keeps his gun level, tries to tamper his feelings. It's so good to see another person here and so tempting to let his guard down completely for the sake of companionship. He's always been sick for friendship, he's always thirsted for conversation.
"I'm hurt," she whispers, and he sees it now: dark red against the grey of her shirt, her hand pressed flat against her stomach. "And scared. I just need some help."
Ilhoon falters and his hands shake. He has questions, a million questions as to how and why and who, who is she, but he also has sympathy and it tastes sick in his mouth like bile, like how wrong it would be to not help someone.
Slowly, he lowers his gun.
Her name is Sohyun and she looks considerably less pale once he's cleaned the cut on her stomach and covered it up, pressing a large bandage to the wound, one of the ones he's been saving in the first aid kit he found a few weeks ago.
She says yes to something to eat and he apologizes for having nothing besides cold cans of vegetables and fruit ready, but she swallows down what he gives her and is thankful for it.
"It wasn't that deep," he assures her. They're sitting at the dinner table, plastic utensils and opened cans of food sitting among their weapons, making indents in the dust. "I'm sure it hurt, but it won't do anything worse than scar. How did it happen?"
Sohyun closes her eyes and grips the fork in her hand firmly. "I was trying to get away—there's a town about a mile north of here, beyond the forest. I was trying to get away from some people there. We were in this—I guess it was a warehouse? There was bits of scrap metal and glass all around and I fell and..." She gestures to her stomach with her free hand, keeping her eyes downcast.
"What were they...I mean, what were you trying to..." Ilhoon tries to find the words to say and watches Sohyun avoid his eyes and shrink in on herself. "Never mind. I'm just—I'm glad you got away! It's been a while since I saw anyone around here, honestly."
"Really?" She almost immediately glances towards the ceiling. "Earlier I thought I heard sounds from upstairs. Sorry if it's rude for me to say, but I got the feeling you aren't alone here."
"Well, no, I'm not. My friend got pretty badly hurt not too long ago. He's upstairs, but he's not exactly conscious most of the time." Ilhoon feels the words spill out of him, wishes he could swallow them back up. It's too much information. It's more information than she gave him about her situation, which makes things unbalanced.
Sohyun seems nice enough—she just smiles sadly at him and focuses on the food in front of her—but Ilhoon doesn't like people knowing more about him than he knows about them.
It's hard to find a balance between the unease that causes him and his tendency to talk to anyone who will listen.
He pulls down the sleeves of his shirt, shifting nervously when Sohyun looks up at the movement.
More than anything else, he can't let her see. He can't have her ask him about what's there. She can't know what he is, or what he isn't—he isn't sure which it is, anymore.
"Do you want to stay here tonight?" he asks, almost out of a lack of anything else to say.
Her smile sets him at ease, despite himself. "Oh, yes," she says, "that would be—that would be great, thank you."
He smiles in return and it almost feels genuine.
Ilhoon doesn't really sleep through the night, he never has.
He doesn't remember much about his childhood, it's all sort of a blur—but he does remember having trouble sleeping. He remembers alarms set for four in the morning and he remembers staring at unblinking red numbers until it was time to get up. He remembers getting in trouble because he was so tired and scared and weak, but it didn't matter.
Because whatever a sergeant did to him—ordering him to clean the bathrooms, making him stand at attention through dinner, telling him to run laps until he collapsed—none of it compared to what would happen if he slept at night.
They're not nightmares, exactly, or at least they aren't what nightmares are for other people. They're like creeping darkness, like something clawing at his shoulders. There's never anyone around to help him and they last for days. Even if he's only asleep for half an hour, they last so much longer than that. He'll reach out and there will be nothing for his hands to touch. He'll cry and there won't be anyone to hear him.
He had a psych eval when he was eleven, when his insomnia was starting to really mess with his learning curve. The lady behind the desk had peered at him over her clipboard. She'd looked ancient to him, older than anyone else he'd ever seen. She'd listened to him talk about cloying nothingness for fifteen minutes before she'd written him a script for some medication he never got.
Everyone knew you didn't take meds when you were at one of the academies.
She'd said to him that it was probably that his mind was acting out his fear of being alone and Ilhoon had found that confusing. He was always alone. No one liked him, not the other kids, not teachers, not anyone. He didn't remember his parents, but if he had to guess he wouldn't be surprised if they hadn't liked him very much either.
He'd said something like, "Maybe I should sleep then, it's not like being awake is much different."
He'd followed his own advice, to an extent, sleeping just enough, but never more than that.
Now he wakes up two or three hours into sleep, restless and empty inside, and he shifts around on the floor where he's laying, turning his head so he can see Hyunsik.
That makes him feel better.
Hyunsik only an arm's reach away, breathing heavy through his mouth, drooling a little against his own shoulder.
Ilhoon wonders if this is what normalcy is or, at least, if it's as close as he'll ever get to it. Laying on a dusty wooden floor in a bare room, using candles for light in the middle of winter, and keeping his eyes on the only person who's ever stuck around him despite having no obligation to.
If it is, then he thinks he wants to be normal forever. For this moment to stay suspended in time. For nothing to change.
He wakes up to warmth licking at his face and someone shaking his shoulder, saying his name.
He opens his eyes and sees smoke.
"Ilhoon," Sohyun is saying, her voice strangely calm. Ilhoon's head is spinning. "Help me move your friend outside."
It's not easy, but Ilhoon does it without question, almost instinctively. He's been trained to helped people get to safety and it's easier to do heavy lifting with two people. He only wishes Hyunsik weren't starting to stir as they take him out the front door, trails of smoke following them.
It's cold outside and Ilhoon sees now that the garage of the house is on fire, flames climbing skyward, just beginning to reach the second floor. Ilhoon doesn't know what to say. He stares at Sohyun blankly, Hyunsik between them in the snow.
"What did you do?" he asks, finally, his voice still heavy with sleep, his eyes still adjusting to the the darkness outside.
"I started a fire," Sohyun says quietly, almost like she thinks there's a chance he might not hear her, that he'll pretend she didn't say that.
"But...why?" Ilhoon says, because maybe he just asked the wrong question. Maybe this all makes sense somehow.
"If the house burns down, then the rest of my group won't know I'm lying about you two being dead," Sohyun says, as if that makes perfect sense. "They'll figure it out eventually but it will give you guys at least a day's head start. They won't come after you if you're that far ahead."
"What," Ilhoon says, flinching as there's a loud crack and the sound of something shattering from the inside of the house, "are you talking about?"
"I wasn't running away from anyone," she says, and he supposes the words aren't a surprise now. "There's about twenty-five of us. We live a mile or so north. We try to move around, but it's hard during the winter, so we steal things. We take things from people and then we leave them to die. It's—it's the only way we stay alive."
Ilhoon nods. It makes sense, in a way. Like when he kills a rabbit for food. But, still, he feels sickness rising up his throat.
"Who stabbed you?" he asks, surprised the words don't come out as vomit.
"A girl," she replies, too easily. "My friend. You have to understand—it was my turn. I don't...like it, but these people are my family and we'd die, otherwise."
She goes silent at that and he knows that she's asked herself that same question before and that she's more unsure of the answer than she'd like to be—but he understands that love is sometimes a strange thing, that way.
"Never mind," he says, leaning down to pull Hyunsik upwards. He's starting to look almost comical on the ground, fitfully moving as he slips in and out of consciousness. "I don't want to know. I don't even want to know why you're doing this for us."
She goes to help him pick Hyunsik up and he stops her. Hyunsik is sitting up on his own, anyway, groggy and swaying from side to side, but no longer dead to the world.
"I know you got bitten," she says, softly. He doesn't look at her. "You tried to hide it, but I saw. And I've never seen someone stay sane with a bite, so—I figure wherever you're going, whoever this guy is, you're the first thing I've seen that looks like hope in my whole life."
The taste in Ilhoon's mouth is bitter and his eyes burn at the words. There's nothing he can say.
He manages to get Hyunsik standing and turns them both to look towards the barn. It's up in flames. Ilhoon grips at the back of Hyunsik's shirt tighter, his legs shaking.
Together, they walk away from the blaze, surrounded by softly falling snow.
And, Ilhoon thinks, he understands Sohyun's need to find something to latch onto in this world. He understands her place in it. He even thinks they could have been friends, if things were a little different.
But he's not a thing.
He's a person.
The Infected Classification System is divided into three subgroups. The first contains the initial stage of infection, properties including: poor motor skills, little to no interest in their surroundings, and high chance of self-termination. The second contains the final stage of infection, properties including: unpredictable movement patterns, loss of eyesight, and use of echolocation to navigate. The third contains those ruled immune to infection. The third subgroup is, as of yet, not known to occur.
They watch the last of the snow melt from the windows of second floor a motel room.
The place is surprisingly easy to defend and even easier to make look desolate. There are twenty-four rooms, twelve on each floor, and that's more rooms than a bandit is going to check, more rooms than an infected is going to bother with.
Besides, they cleared the area of infected over a month ago. Or, more accurately, Ilhoon cleared it. Hyunsik just barely remembers him going from room to room, taking headshots with a sort of tiredness that he'd wanted to wipe away. But he'd had enough trouble staying upright at the time, there wasn't much he could do for Ilhoon.
There still isn't much he can do for Ilhoon.
They scavenge at a strip mall about a half a mile down the road, ducking in and out of stores and trying to find things that don't expire. Big gallons of water and canned goods. There's not much left, but they eat that kind of stuff sparingly as it is.
Ilhoon got good at hunting during the winter. He's no expert but he can shoot rabbits and birds. One time he almost shot a deer, but he didn't. It wasn't like he missed or anything, he just didn't take the shot. Hyunsik watched him and didn't say anything.
He's seen deer out in the woods, or wandering through what's left of cities and he understands—they have big eyes and it's too easy to see that they're frightened.
It would have been nice to have a whole deer, but he understands it.
The room they share is small and it was covered in dust and grime when they first came here. They slept the first night without worrying about it, just happy for shelter from the cold, from the things lurking outside. But after that it had become obvious that no one, not even anyone like them, had stayed there in a long time.
Ilhoon had sneezed a lot and his eyes got watery and red.
Hyunsik spent three days using old cleaning products on every surface he could reach and, yeah there are still stains in the carpet and on the wallpaper in the bathroom, but it's not so bad.
They have beds with stiff mattresses and itchy, wool blankets that smell even though Hyunsik did his best to clean them, hanging them over the railing in the stairwell. But they're beds. Two beds with flat pillows and paper-thin sheets, two beds that are more theirs than anything else has been in the last year.
Sometimes, at night, they lay there and one of them will say something—it's usually Ilhoon.
"Have you ever had candy?" Ilhoon asks one night, a quiet, innocuous question with no weight behind it.
"A few times," Hyunsik shrugs from where he's staring at the ceiling on his bed. "Mostly when me and Minhyuk would steal it from other people. It's not like you can get it with ration cards. You?"
Ilhoon's on his stomach, his cheek against his pillow. "Sometimes the ladies in the cafeteria would give us chocolates. They didn't have enough for everyone, but if you helped them and didn't get into trouble, you might get lucky enough that they'd give you some. I miss that."
"I'll get you chocolate," Hyunsik says, without thinking.
He turns to see Ilhoon smiling at him sleepily, and when he replies, "Yes," he finds that he's not exactly sure what he's saying yes to.
"It was my sister," Ilhoon says, one night. It's dark in the room. They have the heavy curtains pulled closed and Hyunsik can only just see the shape of Ilhoon on the other bed. "It was my sister who was with me when I got bit."
"Oh," Hyunsik says, softly.
"She was better at everything than me." Ilhoon gets quiet and Hyunsik doesn't say anything. He can almost feel Ilhoon thinking and he knows he's not done. "She was better and smarter and nicer and she was the only person who ever cared about me. And she died."
"Sometimes..." Hyunsik feels the sentence he was going to say shrivel into nothing at the end of his tongue. It's meaningless. Sometimes. "I'm sorry. I wish I could have met her."
"You would have liked her," Ilhoon assures him and his voice is shaky. "Everyone did. And she would have liked you, because—well, she liked everyone, but she would have liked you because of what you've done for me."
There's a silence between them, like something palpable, like something that separates them. Hyunsik breaches it.
"It's not your fault."
"I know. There was nothing I could do, there were too many of them. We killed them all, but it was inevitable that we'd get bitten."
"No," Hyunsik closes his eyes, almost glad that Ilhoon misunderstood. "It's not your fault that you were immune and she wasn't. And it's okay that you're alive and she died."
After that, Ilhoon doesn't say anything, but he cries and Hyunsik knows the sound of it. Relief and pain all at once, the guilt that comes with surviving. And if, the next morning, Ilhoon looks like he's had a weight lifted off of his shoulders, then Hyunsik doesn't say anything.
Ilhoon presses himself up against Hyunsik so that there's nothing between them. He has a hand on Hyunsik's arm, trailing up and down there, lightly. The bed they're on might as well be concrete, might as well be stone, might as well be silk and feathers and plush softness for all Hyunsik is paying attention to it right now.
"I'm taller than you," Ilhoon informs him, like he's never noticed it before.
"I'm a better shot," Hyunsik retaliates, knowing he sounds petulant. He likes when Ilhoon's fingers nearly catch on the curve of his elbow.
"I can learn to have better aim with my gun," Ilhoon smiles sweetly, "but you're not getting any taller."
They kiss and it's languid and slow, all the things they're never able to be when it comes to everything else. Hyunsik wishes for a lifetime of this. Of Ilhoon's mouth against his, of his own leg pushing inbetween Ilhoon's, of nothing but the sound of them breathing—soft and warm and living, living, living.
His heart is beating wildly in his chest and it hurts. Everything hangs heavy on him.
He wants to freely enjoy Ilhoon pushing him on his back and straddling him. He wants for his mind to go blissfully blank, for nothing to matter besides Ilhoon pressing kisses against his jaw and down his neck. He tries to steady his hands by putting them on Ilhoon's hips, by pushing up his shirt and feeling skin under his fingertips.
But even that—all of it reminds him of the inevitable.
He says, "Stop," so softly he's sure there's no way Ilhoon will hear him, but he does.
Ilhoon lifts his head up and the pupils of his eyes are blown out, his face is tinted pink, and Hyunsik wants to love him so badly.
"We're going to be there soon," he says, voice shaking, world shaking, faith shaking.
Ilhoon moves away and smooths down the front of his shirt, but he doesn't leave.
It's three days later when Ilhoon grabs his hand to pull him closer towards something he wants Hyunsik to look at from the window of one of the second story rooms. It's not quite anything—the hand holding, that is—but there's something about it that warms his skin and settles him into a more comfortable position.
The sight from the window is the tops of buildings peeking out over trees, a city on the horizon that's only just visible from where they're standing.
"Is it—?" Ilhoon starts to ask.
"No." Hyunsik shakes his head. "It's not Incheon, but we are close."
And they are.
Close enough to see the beginnings of the cracked asphalt of long forgotten highways, but still far enough away that there are streams and rivers running alongside roads and under bridges.
In some ways Hyunsik thinks these parts of the world are the saddest. The small, robust towns that never quite stood a chance. They have worn out signs above family restaurants and rows of empty houses. There are schools and community centers, movie theaters and bus depots. It's so obvious that there were people here once, that they had things to do and people that they cared about.
Cities are sprawling and home to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, but Hyunsik can pretend apartment buildings are office buildings, instead. He can let towering buildings blend together, but he can't miss the fact that he's walking through a neighborhood. The wound of a destroyed city stings, but these little towns fester and rot and there is infection deep in the bones of the buildings that decorate them.
Ilhoon asks him if he prefers the cities, then.
"You must be so excited to get there, if you do," he says, his voice quietly impetuous, his eyes on someone far away from them, something in the distance that Hyunsik can't quite see.
"I don't like either," Hyunsik answers. "I don't like anywhere."
"Not even right here? With me?"
"Those are two different questions. I don't like it here any more than I like where we were last week or where we'll be tomorrow. But I like being here with you."
"And you liked it last week?"
"And I'll like it tomorrow, yes."
They're in an abandoned hotel, an empty warehouse, a decrepit house, a supply closet in an office building, a town with a name no one remembers, a city with a name no one has managed to forget—but, it turns out, where they are doesn't matter.
Incheon is a week away, a night's sleep away, two hours away, and right in front of them.
It is buildings reaching up towards the sky, screaming to be saved. A pack of clickers every fifty feet and criers shuffling through parking structures and down alleyways. Broken glass glinting in early morning sunlight and spray-painted arrows on the side of buildings that point towards a hospital on the horizon.
And Ilhoon stops Hyunsik on the edge of it all and he says, "What if I don't want this?"
Hyunsik doesn't know what to say. All that comes out is, "What?" He knows what Ilhoon means, but he has to ask. He has to hear it.
Ilhoon's voice shakes when he says it.
"What if I don't want to die?"
The words make Hyunsik feel cold all over, like he hasn't since winter. The sun is warm on his skin, but that doesn't matter.
"I know I'm supposed to be glad to do this," Ilhoon's saying and Hyunsik isn't sure if Ilhoon's talking to him or to himself. "I'm just one person. If me being dead means they can fix this—if it means they can cure people—I shouldn't have any doubts about it. But I do."
"Maybe there's," Hyunsik swallows, "a way they can do it where—"
"No, don't—we both know that's not true." Ilhoon's smiling, but there's no humor in it. "They know it starts in the brain. That's all they know, but they do know it, and I know they told you that, too. So if they're going to find the cure—that's what they need from me."
"Then don't give it to them," Hyunsik says, before he can stop himself.
They're standing in the doorway of some apartment building, with the whole thing ready to collapse around them. Ilhoon pauses and Hyunsik thinks he's beautiful with shadows on his face and dried blood the collar of his shirt and grime and sweat so embedded in him that he'll never be able to wash it out.
Ilhoon says, "They never even asked if it was what I wanted."
Hyunsik nods. "But I am. I'm asking. What do you want, Ilhoon?"
Ilhoon answers him, with hope on the horizon and the wasteland of the world behind them.
Remember: The world is dangerous now, but it is even more dangerous when you travel it alone. Quarantine Zones are designed to keep you safe. Some may find our methods harsh, but please understand that what we do is necessary to ensure our survival, so that we may never be alone.
It's a very simple thing.
There are miles to travel and there is daylight that they cannot afford to waste. There are things to learn about each other and decisions to be made. Somehow, there are things to laugh about and quiet moments and the world is still beautiful, despite everything.
There are two young men who stand back-to-back with something as strong as electricity between them.
And there is what one of them said he wanted.
To live, to live, to live, it's a very simple thing.