The concrete walls he’s staring at are anything but welcoming. He looks up and all he can see is grey, a daunting building that seems to want to suffocate him before he can even set foot in it. In that moment, as he steps through the large gates, led by men wearing matching dark suits and matching somber expressions, he realizes that this place could never feel like home. Then again, home stopped feeling like home a long time ago.
At least he’s safe here.
It’s been months and the people in green suits are still running tests, observing and studying him as if he were a fascinating exhibit at the museum instead of a human being.
He’s not the only one, he knows this much. The doctors keep saying that there are others like him here – children, most of them. All around his age. But he hasn’t seen any of them. So far he’s only talked to grown-ups, and they’re always serious and intimidating, asking him so many questions that don’t make sense at all. He’s alone and afraid and he wishes he had a friend that could understand what he’s going through.
There’s a man named Randall who seems nicer than the rest of the WICKED employees. He plays chess with Thomas sometimes, usually in the evenings when he brings dinner, after the tests are finished for the day and Thomas is allowed to return to his bedroom. From what Thomas can tell, his kindness is genuine, which is exactly what makes Thomas call into question whether he can trust him or not. The people here are single-minded and focused; compassion has never been their main concern.
Randall tells Thomas about a girl at some point, a smart little girl who has been here for two years, feeling just as lonely as Thomas. She, too, dislikes being surrounded only by adults, Randall promises with a conspiratorial smile, and Thomas doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do with that information or why Randall suddenly decided to provide answers to questions Thomas didn’t ask.
“You’re going to meet her soon,” Randall explains, not harshly, but in a tone that makes it obvious he can’t tell Thomas anything else.
Thomas’s heart leaps into his throat and stays there for the following three days, stuck painfully between panic and joy.
Teresa calls him kid and sometimes treats him as if he were one, acting like an overbearing mother until Thomas glares and reminds her that she’s only a few months older than him. Nevertheless, she’s easy to talk to and it doesn’t take long for Thomas to open up and dare say something other than I’m glad to be here, glad to serve WICKED. Teresa lets him speak, listens to him, relates to him because she’s lost her family to the Flare too and she knows what it feels like, knows how it hurts.
She knows how terrifying it can be to realize you’re different.
They’re called the Elites, the four of them. He doesn’t entirely understand what that means or why he, Teresa, Aris and Rachel were chosen for this, but it isn’t – it isn’t terrible, he supposes. The headaches are still there, but they’re less severe now. Besides, it’s not like Thomas can’t handle a little pain and, by the looks of things, it’s not unbearable for the others either.
It’s for a good cause, he reminds himself. They are going to find a cure.
He can hear them sometimes. The kids that he’s seen only pictures of in their individual files, the ones he isn’t allowed to talk to or play with.
It’s for his own good, is what he’s told when he asks why he’s separated from the others, that he’s learning everything he would have learned in school at a much quicker pace, that being with other children would distract him and he has to stay focused. It can’t be a complete lie, he reasons, because somehow it doesn’t even feel like he’s straining to memorize and comprehend the heaps of information thrown at him on a daily basis. He’s very intelligent, his teachers keep telling him.
It’s what they tell Teresa, too. He knows because they’ve talked about it on more than one occasion, their little act of rebellion, spilling secrets they should keep to themselves whenever they’re both too bored with each other and too frustrated by WICKED’s policy to pretend they didn’t wish they could meet the others, at least once.
But the two of them – they’re special, apparently. Whatever that means.
Once he’s finally allowed to observe the subjects, after learning almost everything there was to learn about them, he isn’t interested in doing much else. He stares at the monitors for hours on end, enthralled by the little community the boys seem to have built already. They’re all clever children, curious and physically healthy, but Thomas can’t help noticing that some of them stand out, young as they may be.
“The future leaders,” Ms. McVoy says, standing behind Thomas and Teresa, making it clear that she’s carefully watching them study the group they were assigned. Thomas is confused as to why they would need more than one leader for the experiment but he doesn’t ask any questions, well aware of how pointless it would be. He never gets the answers he needs.
There is a part of him, however, that refuses to be fooled by complicated, emotionally detached terms, and for a moment all he sees are boys having fun together, playing sports, choosing teams, giving one another silly nicknames. Something inside him starts to ache with longing at the sight of them and when he risks a glance at Aris and Rachel, who are observing the girls in Group B on the other side of the room, he knows it’s not just his heart that clenches painfully. He exchanges a look with Aris, sharing a melancholic smile and an unspoken I know, but then Ms. McVoy clears her throat and the moment is gone.
Chancellor Anderson himself informs Thomas about the next step of the project. In hindsight, Thomas supposes he should have reacted a little less enthusiastically upon hearing the news, but that doesn’t matter anymore, he tells himself, taking a steadying breath as he watches the three boys stumble into the room.
He doesn’t know them per se, but he assumes that currently he knows more about them than they know themselves.
The dark-skinned boy is carrying the small blond on his back, both of them chuckling at their Asian friend who keeps waving his arms around and cackling uncontrollably. His eyes are closed, so it doesn’t surprise Thomas that the boy doesn’t see him sitting on one of the bottom bunks, but that doesn’t stop him from yelping when the boy almost lands in Thomas’s lap.
“Oh, whoopsie. Sorry, didn’t see you there,” he says, awkwardly scratching the back of his neck as he looks at Thomas, but his expression turns suspicious in an instant. “Wait a sec, what are you doing on Alby’s bed? And who are you, dude?”
Before Thomas can answer, the dark-skinned boy comes closer and cuffs the other one playfully around the head. “Min, seriously,” he says with a sigh, then turns to smile at Thomas. “Forgive Minho here, it’s not his fault that goldfish have a better memory than him. You’re Thomas, right? They told us about you last week, we just didn’t know when you’d show up and Hurricane Minho decided he could leave his crap lying around, but we’ll clean up the mess in a blink. I’m Alby, by the way. And that,” he points at the blond boy, who gives Thomas a little wave, “is Isaac.”
“Newt,” the blond corrects with a pout that makes Thomas smile involuntarily. “No one calls me Isaac, I don’t like it.”
Alby rolls his eyes and lets out another sigh, but Thomas can see the corners of his mouth twitching up when he turns to look at Newt. “That’s what I was going to say next.”
Newt sticks his tongue out right before Minho jumps on his back and sends them both tumbling to the ground.
Thomas is pretty sure he’s never felt more like an outsider.
Forcing his voice to remain steady, Thomas introduces himself because it seems the right thing to do even if the boys apparently know his name already. He watches them grab the clothes scattered all over the other bottom bunk and throw them carelessly in the closet as he begins to explain that he’s going to be their roommate from now on, repeating the speech the Chancellor had given him almost word for word – isolation would affect the patterns, would influence the test results. In order to develop normally, Thomas needs to interact with the other subjects.
“Which is really just a fancy way of saying that this is another bloody test,” Newt points out in a soft voice tinted with a British accent, climbing onto the bunk above Thomas and quickly climbing back down with a pair of jeans around his neck and two hoodies thrown over his arms. Looking at Thomas with big, brown eyes, he shrugs his small shoulders and offers a smile that makes his nose scrunch up. “Doesn’t matter, though, does it? At least you’re not alone anymore. We’ll be your friends, Tommy.”
Thomas feels some of his initial enthusiasm cautiously coming back to him.
Knowing that there are over fifty boys at the headquarters is one thing, but actually seeing them, talking to them, living with them is something else entirely, Thomas realizes quickly, and for the first few days, as he tries to get used to having around so many other boys who are just like him, his head is an amalgam of Subject A-something, the names the boys had been given years ago and nicknames he has yet to memorize.
It feels like it’s all too much sometimes, like he can’t handle it, can’t handle them. He doesn’t really know who to be, how to act around them, how to show them that he likes them without coming across as a desperate, lonely kid. But inside his head, and that’s another thing he has to get used to, he can hear Teresa’s proud voice saying that he’s doing great. That she’s watching them, watching him slowly find his own place in the group.
They like you too, Tom, Teresa assures him, and Thomas knows that she could be lying to make him forget about his insecurities, because even now she can’t seem to shake the need to always look after him, but he can hear the smile in her voice.
Maybe he’s not that bad at making friends.
One morning, Minho wakes him up hours before their alarm is set to go off, dragging him out of bed with a manic grin and no explanation whatsoever. They put toothpaste in everyone’s shampoo bottles and glue on the door handles and try to keep a straight face whenever they hear someone yell and curse.
The next morning, they both find ketchup in their shoes.
Minho takes a deep breath through his nose and mumbles something about payback, but Thomas can’t stop laughing even as he stares at his ruined shoes.
So this is what having fun feels like.
He’s allowed to study with the rest of the boys and he couldn’t be more grateful that he doesn’t have to go through the daily lessons on his own. However, he supposes that he understands now what his teachers meant when they warned him about distractions.
It’s fine, though. He still pays attention to the giant blackboard, still takes notes like he knows he should. And if he has to stifle a laugh sometimes, because Newt grabs his arm and starts doodling on the inside of his wrist right when Thomas begins to feel that he’s getting too bored to keep listening, it’s still fine because it reminds him that he has to focus on the lesson.
It all goes to hell when the teacher notices that they keep smiling at each other like they share a secret and proceeds to admonish them, but still. It’s worth it.
“They’re called control subjects,” Ladena says, handing Thomas a list with familiar names. Next to him, Teresa huffs out an annoyed breath but doesn’t say anything and Thomas supposes it would be better if he kept his mouth shut too.
He keeps starting at the list as Ladena explains why some of the boys will play a major role in the experiment even though they are not immune, caught somewhere between anger and fear and despair. He can’t wrap his head around the fact that some of his new friends could turn into –
He clears his throat, giving the list to Teresa. This can’t be happening. “So, if we don’t find a cure –”
“No, Tom,” Teresa interrupts, shaking her head furiously, and the truth is he’s glad she didn’t let him continue this time. He doubts he could bring himself to utter the word. “We will find a cure. We have to,” she says fiercely, pointing to the list. “For people like them. We’ll find a way to save everybody, Tom. We will.”
From the corner of his eye, Thomas can see Ladena lower her head, a crestfallen look on her face. He tries not to read too much into that gesture.
They fill plastic bags with water and turn their bedroom into a warzone.
He and Alby decide they should make an attack plan, which would be the most reasonable idea if they weren’t going against two idiots. As it is, while they discuss techniques, arguing over distance and angles, Newt and Minho keep pelting bags of ice-cold water at them, leaving them completely soaked in less than three minutes.
On the bright side, that also means they run out of ammo ridiculously fast, which clears the way for Thomas and Alby to ambush them without hesitation or any hint of regret.
This will most probably get them in trouble, Thomas is pretty sure a couple of supervisors are going to show up any minute now to tell them to stop messing up their room, but he honestly couldn’t care less.
Newt tackles him to the ground, climbing onto his lap and straddling him before Thomas can fully grasp what is going on. His laughter turns into soft giggles, which then turn into a sharp intake of breath when Newt leans down, his lips brushing the shell of Thomas’s ear, and says, “We still win.”
“Uh. No, you don’t,” Thomas hears Alby protest, and then, without warning, another bag is dropped on his head.
Thomas screeches, blinking rapidly when the water reaches his eyes. “Dude, what the hell, I’m on your team!”
“I don’t know, man, it kinda looks like you’re fraternizing with the enemy.”
Thomas can’t even think of a good comeback because Newt chooses that moment to collapse on top of him, eyes turning into slits as he laughs heartily, and all Thomas can focus on are the warm puffs of breath brushing over his neck.
It’s weird. He feels cold, the wet shirt clinging to his torso, but at the same time he feels the heat coming off Newt’s small body, and it’s – unusual. Being assaulted by opposing sensations all at once. His confused senses are pulling him into two different directions and it’s overwhelming, he decides, suddenly hyperaware of his increased heart rate. But it’s not –
It’s not unpleasant.
Gally is the youngest in their group and by far the least happy to be part of the experiment. Or maybe he’s the only one who doesn’t even bother to hide how much he dislikes being here, doesn’t try to find a silver lining that doesn’t truly exist.
The worst part, Thomas thinks, is that he understands why Gally believes the methods WICKED uses are cruel and downright inhumane. But what Gally fails to see is that they have no other choice. What is happening here is bigger than them and, yes, sometimes sacrifices for the greater good cannot be avoided.
“It’s not right,” Gally insists, looking at Thomas with sad green eyes. “We don’t deserve this. We’re kids.”
Like the coward that he knows he sometimes is, Thomas averts his gaze. Silently, guiltily, a part of him recognizes that Gally is right.
“Phase Two is happening.”
Trent shows him the latest email that Chancellor Anderson sent, explaining why the time allotted for Phase One has to be cut back to two years.
“There’s no way we could collect all the patterns we need in two years, ergo we need to get serious about planning Phase Two.”
“But,” Thomas tries, unable to control his shaking voice, “we had five years for the Maze experiment, why –”
Trent tells him to read the email again and Thomas does, with tears welling in his eyes. The virus is spreading faster than expected. They can’t waste any more time.
He has to tell the others, too. The Chancellor wants to know that the four of them agree before informing the rest of the partners.
“I’m sorry, kid,” he hears Trent says, but he can’t –
He doesn’t need this. Doesn’t need anyone’s pity. Acknowledging the sympathy in Trent’s voice would make him vulnerable, weak, and he can’t –
He can’t –
He has to be strong.
“I have to find Teresa,” he says curtly and leaves the office with balled fists. His nails are digging painfully into his palms and he couldn’t be more thankful for the distraction the discomfort provides as he runs through the halls. Biting his lips hard enough to taste blood, he knocks on Teresa’s door and wills himself not to cry.
They’ve named him Chuck.
He’s only eight, so Thomas thinks it’s understandable that he worries about the kid, about whether he’ll get along with the rest of the boys. His worries turn out to be unfounded; it doesn’t take long until the older boys’ protective instincts kick in, Chuck becoming everyone’s little brother in a matter of hours.
He allows himself to wonder if any of them have –
And then he berates himself because that’s something he shouldn’t be thinking about. They don’t have a past anymore. Their lives began when they were brought to the headquarters. Whatever happened before that doesn’t matter.
He keeps looking at the screen, lips curving helplessly into a smile as he watches Gally lift Chuck onto his shoulders while Alby tells them to be careful.
“See,” Aris says suddenly, making Thomas flinch. He’d been quiet for so long, nodding to himself and writing down observations in a notebook that Thomas forgot he was there too. “It’s all going according to plan. Told you there was nothing to worry about.”
Thomas wants to scream.
Chuck is a sweet kid, friendly and eager to learn, and knowing what will happen to him eventually makes Thomas feel like the biggest piece of shit in history.
Ironically enough, Chuck seems to like him a lot.
He tries to spend as much time as possible with him, playing games, cracking jokes, doing anything he can to put a smile on Chuck’s face. He does it for Chuck, mostly, but he can’t deny that he does it for himself too. It’s the only way in which he can ask for forgiveness – for the things he’ll do once the Trials start. For everything he’s already doing.
So, when Newt says that he needs Chuck’s help to write an essay, all Thomas can do is smile goofily and agree to let Chuck stay and help them with their assignments. He knows they won’t get any work done, but the way Chuck’s face lights up when Newt promises he couldn’t do it without him matters more to Thomas than three thousand empty words on a piece of paper ever could.
He’s careless enough to admit it to Newt later that night. It’s past midnight and they’re meant to be sleeping; instead they’re sharing a bed that is getting too small to fit two growing boys, and Thomas lets his guard down for a couple of hours, something he can only do in the dark, when changing voices are reduced to whispers.
“You’re not a bad guy, Tommy,” Newt tells him, sounding like Thomas feels, small and vulnerable. “Of course you care about us. About Chuck. He’s – I mean. I get it, you know. I was – I know what it’s like, looking after someone. Like – like that.” He keeps stumbling over words, his voice uneven.
Thomas finds his hand under the pillow and grabs it, lacing their fingers together because he has no idea what else to do to calm him and he’s not even sure this will work, but he has to try. And then he’s the one who starts panicking when Newt says, “I had a sister.”
They don’t talk about it. None of them. Their lives before WICKED are that one topic that should never be brought up, but here Newt is, telling Thomas that he doesn’t know what happened to his little sister after he was taken, that he hopes she’s okay, wherever she is. That she isn’t suffering. And Thomas keeps holding his hand while Newt talks about the puppy his parents got him when he turned four, about his favorite holiday movies and his favorite foods, saying that he still loves cheese so much because it reminds him of his family and lazy Sunday mornings.
Something inside Thomas snaps and he allows himself to revisit memories he almost forgot he had, memories he wants to share before the sun comes up to remind him that he shouldn’t. His dad teaching him how to swim. To ride a bike. The good parts that were so easy to overlook because of how terrifying the bad parts were.
“My dad was a Crank,” he says, his voice barely a whisper, and he’s pathetically glad that Newt can’t see the tears in his eyes. “He was – he was seriously not okay, dude. I thought he was gonna kill me. Pretty sure he would’ve if my mom hadn’t been there to protect me. So that’s why it matters so much, you know. To find a cure. Because I’ve seen what the Flare does to people, and if I can find a way to –”
“Tommy,” Newt breathes, and he sounds like he’s close to tears too, “I told you, you’re not the bloody bad guy here. I know you just want to help. And so do the others, I promise, we all know that you’re trying to save people. So please stop doing this to yourself, okay?”
Thomas nods wordlessly, not trusting himself to speak just yet. He feels Newt’s fingers tighten around his own for a second, and he squeezes Newt’s hand back, a silent thank you and a promise he doesn’t fully understand at the moment. It’s stupid, it really is. The anger, the insecurities, the self-pity. He’s doing the right thing, Newt said so too. So it shouldn’t – it shouldn’t hurt this much. It shouldn’t make him feel like he’s breaking.
The kiss Newt presses to his cheek is a welcome distraction, even if it makes Thomas’s heart go into overdrive and his skin buzz pleasantly.
You’re so stupid, he tells himself, eyes closed to hide angry tears. Friends kiss sometimes. It’s nothing to make a fuss about.
“I’m just saying,” Minho manages between bouts of laughter, and whatever it is that he’s just saying, it has everyone at the table cackling.
Thomas takes the free seat on Chuck’s right, giving everyone a cautious look. Minho gets that shit-eating grin on his face only when he succeeds in embarrassing someone, but nobody seems to want to dig a hole to crawl in, all of the boys clutching their stomachs in laughter, which worries Thomas even more. He nudges Chuck with his shoulder, but the only answer he gets is another round of giggles.
“You’re pretty, you know. Like, pretty-pretty,” Minho says, making Thomas furrow his brows in confusion because – what? No, seriously, what? There might be a chance he said that out loud, he thinks to himself when Minho suddenly turns to look at him, eyes widening just a fraction, like he’s only now noticing Thomas sitting there. “Oh, good!” he says excitedly and his unnerving grin makes a reappearance. “Thomas, back me up here.”
“Tell me I’m right and tell him he’s pretty.”
“Who – who’s pretty?”
As if on cue, the boys start snickering again. Chuck tries to hide his giggles behind his chubby hands, Gally’s shoulders are shaking with silent laughter and, to Thomas’s surprise, Newt chuckles too, looking perfectly comfortable to have the others talk about him that way.
Thomas feels his cheeks flush, getting increasingly warmer with each passing second because Minho is still looking at him expectantly and he has no idea what he’s supposed to do. It’s a dumb joke, right? Boyish, good-natured teasing. He should – think of something funny to say. That’s probably what they’re all waiting to hear, a hilarious reply. And that’s what he wishes he could say, really, but what comes out instead is, “Don’t be stupid, Minho, nobody uses that word to describe boys.”
He wants the ground to open up and swallow him whole.
“Um, dude. I just did,” Minho points out at the same time Newt gasps in mock offence and says, “You don’t think I’m pretty, Tommy?” and Thomas is seriously considering getting up and running into one of the bathrooms to hide.
Again, he knows that he should say something witty. That he should keep the joke going, because they all expect him to, but he can’t, he simply can’t. It feels like his mouth is full of cotton balls and his heart is beating so fast he has to wonder if it’s trying to burst out of his chest.
He glances at Newt timidly. Dark brown eyes are looking back at him, but they’re still kind, sparkling as always, and that makes Thomas breathe out a sigh of relief. Newt isn’t mad at him and that’s all that matters. The others can laugh as much as they want.
Newt flashes a smiles and gives him a playful wink – it’s a warning, Thomas realizes a moment later, when Newt says, “Well, I think you’re pretty, Tommy.”
And because he feels comfortable enough to play this game if Newt is on his side, he groans dramatically, rolling his eyes and throwing a scrunched up paper napkin at Newt. He finally lets out a little chuckle, happily disregarding the fact that his hands are shaking.
Teresa tells him that he’s changed and his first reaction is to panic irrationally, insisting that he hasn’t, not at all, he’s still same ol’ Thomas.
“I meant your mannerisms,” she says amusedly, shaking her head at him. “Vocabulary and speech pattern too.”
Oh. That. Okay. That – yeah, alright, he can talk about that.
“S’normal, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is, you’re spending most of your time with them. Actually, it would have been a problem if you hadn’t, you know, become one of them.” She shrugs, a small smile playing on her lips. “You’re doing great, Tom, you really are. And –” she pauses, and Thomas is sure that if he hadn’t grown up with her he wouldn’t have noticed her smile turning a little sad. “I’m glad you’ve made friends.”
“Hey,” he says immediately, pulling her into his arms. He’s been neglecting her lately, he realizes, guilt coiling like an angry snake in the pit of his stomach. He has to make it up to her somehow. “You’re my friend too. My best friend. You know that, right?”
“Yeah – I. Of course I know, Tom,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh, shrugging again. “You’re my best friend, too.”
Impulsively, and probably stupidly, because he doesn’t know how to comfort Teresa but he feels that he has to do something, he gently presses his lips to hers.
He wonders if the teachers who kept telling him that he was oh so smart could have predicted that his teenage self would turn into an idiot.
He doesn’t pay attention to anything else when Newt takes his arm and starts drawing little stars on his wrist. The teacher’s words become background noise; the other boys might as well be in a different room. All Thomas can focus on are Newt’s fingers dancing lightly on his skin and the goose bumps rising all over his arms.
Newt blinks up at him, smiling shyly, and Thomas wants –
He doesn’t know what exactly, but he wants something.
They’ve been training the replacements for a couple of months now. As if it’s going to matter; as if they don’t already know that he and Teresa are the actual replacements. But everybody seems ill at ease admitting that the future of the human race lies in the hands of teenagers, so nobody mentions it, not to them at least, and they keep pretending that the adults are still in control. That it isn’t their fault that all of this is happening in the first place.
More often than not he’s half dead when he goes to sleep, too worn-out to pretend he doesn’t want a cuddle when Newt slips into his bed and wraps his wiry arms around him, too tired to worry because that isn’t something boys their age should do. And if they wake up tangled together most mornings, there are no reactions other than a smirk coming from Minho and an amused sigh that escapes Alby’s lips.
He hears them snickering when he gets in front of the door and all he can do is hope that they aren’t trying to blow something up again.
He takes a deep breath through his nose, opens the door and then stops in his tracks. Because. Well. He most definitely did not expect to see Newt sitting on a chair in the middle of the room while Minho gleefully snips away at his hair, soft-looking blonde strands falling without a sound on the floor.
Thomas blinks confusedly a couple of times. “I, uh, thought you wanted to grow it out?”
Startled, Minho drops the scissors and Newt lets out a cry of surprise. From the bed, Alby sighs deeply, and Chuck, sitting next to him, covers his face with a pillow and starts laughing. Thomas has to bite his bottom lip to suppress a grin. His closest friends are a bunch of idiots.
“Changed my mind,” Newt says, shaking his head excitedly. His hair is still long enough to fall over his forehead but not cover his eyes and Thomas suddenly wants to run his fingers through it. He’s clearly going crazy.
So maybe it’s becoming a thing. And maybe it’s not getting any better, as much as he’d hoped it would. He’s being weird, he knows. If he doesn’t a grip on himself one of these days he’s probably going to mess everything up. And that – he can’t let that happen.
He wonders sometimes if Newt notices. That Thomas is being – creepy. Inappropriate. Stupid. But Newt is still as friendly as ever, still there whenever Thomas needs someone to cheer him up with honest smiles and warm words. And if Thomas spends too much time thinking about how Newt’s fingers linger on his skin every now and then, it’s no one’s business but his own.
“This is when you congratulate me on doing a real kick-ass job, thank you very much,” Minho declares, looking at Newt with a proud grin.
Thomas can’t help rolling his eyes. And there isn’t much he can do about the goofy grin that spreads across his face, either.
“I’m not sure,” Newt says, folding his arms over his chest. He keeps looking right at Thomas, one eyebrow cocked mischievously. “What d’you say, Tommy? You like it?”
Thomas is getting dizzy.
His legs seem to have a mind of their own, carrying him to the middle of the room without a command from his brain. Before he can process what is happening, he finds himself standing in front of Newt, his outstretched hand hovering in mid-air.
“Well?” Newt prods, grinning up like he knows Thomas is trying to keep something from him.
But since he’s failing, apparently, Thomas decides to throw caution out the window. He lets his shaky fingers slip through the silky blonde strands, pushing Newt’s head back gently, exposing the slender column of his neck. He has the weirdest urge to press his lips against the pale skin, he realizes, terrified and embarrassed and endlessly confused. Still, those feeling don’t change a thing. The truth is he’s enjoying this.
“Yeah,” he says, swallowing thickly as he watches Newt’s eyes flutter shut. “I like it.”
He’s not asleep anymore but not fully awake either, his senses dimmed just enough that all he can perceive at the moment is that he’s feeling good. Warm and comfortable and relaxed. His arms are wrapped around – something. Something with a very pleasant scent, he notices, nuzzling at smooth skin, smiling unconsciously when he feels hair tickling his nose.
His eyes fly open and his heart starts thudding in his chest.
Newt is still sleeping peacefully, thin lips slightly parted as he exhales softly. Thomas slaps a hand over his own mouth, suddenly wide awake, his cheeks on fire. Apparently his body realized he was feeling good before his brain caught on, and just like that Thomas remembers why puberty sucks. He slips out of bed, careful to make as little noise as possible. Grabbing a pair of clean boxers, he flees from the room and runs to the showers.
The Maze is the main topic of discussion again. And he should be more involved in the conversation, he knows that, but all he can do is nod dumbly and agree with everything Teresa is saying.
“Tom, what the hell?” She’s waving her hand in front of his face, frowning like she’s disappointed. Thomas can’t exactly blame her.
“I just – bad day?” he tries, grabbing her hand and rubbing circles against the inside of her wrist because he’s a selfish asshole and he’s afraid of things he refuses to acknowledge. He scoots closer to her on the couch and she lets him. She’s still frowning, but she doesn’t push him away. But when tries to kiss her, she turns her head.
“Tom, what are you doing?”
And that, he thinks, is a very good question. One that he has no idea how to answer.
He starts wringing his hands, genuinely not knowing what to do with them. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, actually, and it’s been like that for quite some time now. “Are you mad at me?” His voice cracks. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
“I’m not – Tom, calm down, I’m not mad at you,” she says, taking both his hands between hers. She has tiny hands. Delicate. “I’m worried about you. Lately you’ve been really – twitchy. All the time. Like you’re always on edge, just waiting for someone to give you a reason to snap.”
“Teresa, that’s not –”
“No, listen to me first. Then you can do whatever you think it’s best, but please, listen.” He nods, letting out a resigned sigh, and she continues. “I kept waiting, you know. I thought you’d come to me, tell me what’s going with you. But you didn’t, and since I don’t know what exactly is wrong I can’t tell you how to fix that, but. Tom, whatever it is, you should stop freaking out about it. You should try to stop panicking, at least. Take a step back. Take some time to figure out what it is that bothers you.”
Thomas feels like crying. He knows what bothers him. He just doesn’t know how to deal with it.
For the time being, Thomas muses as he watches Newt and Minho get ready to race each other, running is still something they do because they enjoy it and not because their lives depend on how fast they are. It isn’t the happiest thought, he’s aware of that, so he keeps it to himself. There’s still a little over half a year left until the Trials begin and Thomas, selfishly, wants to just enjoy these last months with his boys and not think about what will happen once they all forget him.
But for the moment all that matters is trying to outrun Minho for once.
Thomas takes his place between his two friends, not the least bit surprised to find both of them wearing matching grins that spell trouble. They’re fast, he can admit that. Not that Thomas isn’t fast too, but Minho’s and Newt’s running speed is nothing short of amazing. And no one knows that better than Thomas, since out of the three of them he’s the only one who hasn’t managed to win a race so far. He’s feeling lucky tonight, though, and he tries to focus on that.
“Ready to get crushed again?” Minho asks grinning from ear to ear and slapping his hands together.
Thomas scoffs. “Yeah, yeah, keep talking, sucker, I’ll see you at the finish line.”
“Damn right, I’ll be waiting for you there.”
“Not that your pissing contest isn’t – charming,” Newt says, amusement coloring his voice, “but how ‘bout we do the whole bragging thing after I win this, hm?”
Minho throws his head back, laughing like he’s never heard anything funnier in his life. Thomas wonders if he should remind Minho of all the races Newt has won over the past two years.
“Oh, we’ll see about that, pretty boy,” Minho says, winking, and Gally starts counting before either Newt or Thomas – rushing to Newt’s defense, yes, whatever – can come up with a retort.
Thomas gets off to a great start, stumbling over nothing and almost falling flat on his face. Luckily for him, he’s fast enough that he’s able to catch up with Newt and Minho quickly, managing to even leave Newt a foot or two behind at some point.
He actually has a chance to win this time, he thinks to himself, feeling a little prouder and more confident the closer he gets to the finish line. Of course, that’s when it all goes to hell.
He hears Newt laughing to his left, sounding carefree and so incredibly happy, and Thomas knows he shouldn’t look, knows he should just keep running but –
He’s an idiot.
He turns his head to find Newt looking at him with sparkling eyes and a teasing little smile on his lips, and that’s all Thomas needs to trip over his own feet like the clumsy moron that he is.
It’s the choir of almost sixty boys laughing at him that he hears first, soon followed by loud cheers and various voices calling out Minho’s name. He’s still on all fours, groaning in defeat and just a little bit of pain because he’s scraped his palms and most probably his knees as well. When he lifts his head, he sees Minho taking one bow after another as the rest of the boys gather around him to clap him on the back.
Next to him, Newt laughs. “Could’ve been much worse, Tommy, look how close we were!”
Thomas groans again.
Ten minutes later, when he’s in the bathroom taking care of his scrapes – with Newt’s help, more or less – he can’t hold it in anymore. And it’s not that he’s upset, because he isn’t, but. He doesn’t get it.
“You cheated,” he says calmly. It doesn’t sound like a question even to his own ears – which, good. It isn’t meant to be one.
Newt snorts. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” He shrugs nonchalantly, putting the band-aids back in the cabinet.
Thomas pretends not to hear him. “And you did it so that Minho could win? Really? I mean. Why?”
Newt looks genuinely surprised by the accusation, his eyes widening comically. “I didn’t – I didn’t do it for Minho! For fuck’s sake, Tommy, how oblivious can you be?”
Very, apparently, Thomas thinks to himself. What he also is at the moment is confused. Absolutely flummoxed.
Newt lets out a long, deep breath, his shoulders sagging like he’s – like he’s giving up. “I just. I don’t really know,” he says, wrapping his arms around himself. “I wanted to see something. And I know it wasn’t the best way to go about it, but I. Panicked a little. I guess.”
Thomas repeats the words over in his head, hoping that maybe they’ll start making sense. It doesn’t work, he still has no idea what Newt is trying to say. So he focuses on the small part he did understand. He crosses his arms over his chest and asks, “So you admit that you cheated?”
Newt gives him another wide-eyed look before throwing his arms up. “That’s what you took from what I said? Seriously? I – bloody hell. Okay. Alright, Tommy, please explain it to me. How exactly did I cheat?”
“You – you smiled. At, uh. At me,” Thomas stammers, watching Newt come closer, not stopping until he’s right in front of Thomas and their toes are touching.
“Brilliant observation, Tommy. What else?”
Thomas bites his lip nervously, so panicked that he feels like he has pins and needles in his fingertips. “I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. How is this even happening? Fighting was the last thing on his mind, why are they even doing this? Why does Newt have to be so – goddamn infuriating, the little – no, screw this. “You can’t just do that,” Thomas snaps, grabbing Newt’s shoulders to make sure that he stays there and actually pays attention. “You can’t just smile at me like – like that, and –”
“Like what, Tommy?”
“Like you know!” Thomas screams, not caring that he sounds desperate and afraid. He is afraid. He’s so afraid he’s shaking and can’t keep his eyes open. “Like you know that your smile does something to me, that you do something to me, and I don’t get it, Newt, I don’t, I can’t –”
“Tommy,” Newt pleads, pulling Thomas forward and resting their foreheads together. “Tommy, no.”
Warm hands are cupping his cheeks suddenly. Newt’s thumbs are tenderly stroking his skin and Thomas lets his hands fall to Newt’s hips, instinctively pulling him closer.
“Tommy,” Newt says again, his voice gentle, and he’s sososo close now, “Tommy, it’s okay.”
And Thomas nods. He doesn’t say a word but he nods, and that’s all the permission Newt needs to press their lips together.
It’s almost funny in a way. First they broke some rules by sharing secrets and memories that should have been forgotten and now they’re probably breaking a dozen more by having a secret that belongs to both of them equally.
It’s not about rebelling. It’s not about being defiant. It’s about the two of them, it’s for them, a little bubble in which they can hide for a while when reality becomes unbearable. It takes some time, but eventually Thomas’s heart stops racing uncomfortably when their lips touch. Irrational thoughts and insecurities stop eating away at him when Newt tilts his head to the side, slowly, tentatively, like he doesn’t want to scare him off. It takes some time, but they’re learning together and that’s all Thomas could ask for.
His hand slips under Newt’s shirt, fingers skimming over the soft skin of his back, and he grins into the kiss when he feels Newt shiver in his arms. He doesn’t try to hide how much he likes it, knowing he can make Newt’s body respond to him like that. It’s something he never wants to hide. And if Newt’s retribution is to take Thomas’s bottom lip between his teeth and tug at it until he can’t help but moan, Thomas is more than okay with that.
Grinning proudly, Newt gives him another peck on the lips before he starts to press feather-light kisses along his jawline, down his throat, stopping to nibble and suck at his pulse point. Another embarrassing sound makes its way out of Thomas’s mouth and for a second he’s paralyzed with fear. If someone heard that – if anyone were to find out –
He doesn’t even want to imagine the trouble they’d get into if someone caught them. He pushes Newt onto the bed without much effort, mostly because Newt goes down willingly, and settles on top of him, pinning his bony wrists above his head.
“Didn’t we have a deal about keeping quiet?”
Newt doesn’t seem to hear the words. His gaze flicks down to Thomas’s mouth, eyes impossibly dark, and he licks his lips. Thomas lets out another whimper.
“Oh, I’m being quiet,” Newt pants, his breathing more ragged than it ever is after a race. He thrusts his hips up, just a little, but it’s enough to make Thomas’s eyes roll back in his head. “You, on the other hand –”
Thomas doesn’t let him finish, capturing his lips in another kiss, coaxing them open with the tip of his tongue. His fingers loosen their grip on Newt’s wrists and he moves his hands slowly, taking in how warm the sensitive skin feels under his fingertips, relishing the hiss Newt lets out when Thomas scrapes his nails against the inside of his forearm.
“You’re going to be the end of me,” he says breathlessly, feeling his lips curve into a smile when he sees the state Newt is in, his face flushed, blonde hair disheveled, the dilated pupils making his eyes seem even darker. He’s beautiful. He’s so beautiful that Thomas can barely believe this isn’t a dream.
Newt leans up and pecks his lips once more. He looks worryingly serious all of a sudden, but his touch is gentle, soothing, when he trails his fingers down Thomas’s cheek, his thumb brushing over Thomas’s spit-slick lips. “Pretty sure it’ll be the other way around, Tommy.”
It’s his fault. Newt is on the list because of him.
It’s unfortunate, Janson had said, that it’s affecting Thomas so strongly, but he should have known better than to form such an emotional attachment with the subjects.
This is their punishment, he’s sure of it. Of course they knew. They had probably known all along. And of course they waited until they found the cruelest way to crush the two of them, he thinks bitterly, tears running steadily down his cheeks as he empties the contents of his stomach into the toilet bowl. But the guilt stays deeply embedded inside of him. He will never get rid of it.
There’s nothing he can do anymore. It’s too late. Newt is one of the boys chosen for the first group that will be sent to the Maze and Thomas has no choice but to accept it.
They’re hiding in one of the offices – as much as they can hide in a place where they are constantly watched by countless pairs of eyes. Newt is sitting on the couch with a faraway look in his eyes, knotting and unknotting the strings of his pyjama pants over and over.
Absentmindedly, Thomas starts doing the same, but his fingers are useless, trembling incessantly, and he’s getting more nervous by the second.
All of a sudden Newt looks up, a solemn expression on his face. “It’s fine, Tommy,” he says firmly, but Thomas keeps shaking his head. No, it isn’t fine. It really isn’t. “Think about what matters. We’re saving the human race, remember?”
“I don’t care about the human race, I care about you!” Thomas snaps, pulling his own hair desperately. He can’t stop shaking.
Newt’s eyebrows scrunch together. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks, sounding as confused as he looks, and Thomas all but whimpers, his heart shattering into a million pieces.
It means that I’m willing to do anything to make sure you have a future, he thinks, climbing into Newt’s lap and crashing their lips together. It means that I have to find a cure for you. To save you. It means I’m sorry.
He pushes at Newt’s shoulders, gently prompting him to lower himself onto his back. The couch is fairly small, narrow, and Thomas couldn’t be more glad about it at the moment. He settles between Newt’s legs and buries his hands in blonde hair, eagerly parting Newt’s lips with his tongue, moaning softly when Newt wraps his legs around his waist and pulls him even closer somehow. He shivers helplessly, impatient sparks of pleasure running through his veins, through his entire body, from his fingertips to his toes. He’s getting dizzy, feeling numb and painfully alert at the same time, every nerve ending becoming hypersensitive. His heart is beating a mile a minute.
“It means that I won’t let anything happen to you. Ever,” he says, grinding his hips down instinctively, getting a little drunk on the small, needy sound Newt makes just then. Hesitantly, he pushes down again. “I promise.”
It means I love you.
Newt nods feverishly, eyes tightly shut, his white teeth digging into his lower lip. “I believe you, Tommy, I do, I believe you,” he keeps repeating, but Thomas doubts he’s aware of what he’s saying, his hips bucking beneath Thomas, making him inhale sharply.
He drops his head into Newt’s neck, rolling his hips in an unsteady rhythm and giving short, tight thrusts that knock the air out of him. He lets out a loud whine that he can’t be bothered to worry about, not now. It feels like he’s burning from the inside, like every little part of him is alight with sensations he doesn’t even have a name for. His breath comes out in short puffs, gasps falling from his lips relentlessly. Newt whimpers in his ear, pleading, asking for something, and Thomas – Thomas would give him the world if he could.
He finds Newt’s hands and intertwines their fingers, squeezing tightly, taking a moment to just look at this boy who means so much more to Thomas than he should, to memorize how stunning he is when he’s falling apart. A second later, Newt’s eyes fly open and he arches his back, the moan tumbling past his lips getting lost in Thomas’s mouth. It’s not even a kiss; they’re just breathing together, sharing air, their lips brushing occasionally. And Thomas feels like he’s floating and sinking into light all at once. The heat pooling low in his stomach gets just a bit more intense, the only warning he gets before a white-hot fire explodes inside of him, and he comes with his lips parted on a silent cry.
“Promise you’ll wait for me,” he begs fearfully, completely out of breath. But he can’t wait any longer. There’s no time left.
Newt nods slowly. He takes one of Thomas’s hands and pulls it to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to each of his knuckles. And then, in a small voice that makes Thomas’s eyes fill with tears, he says, “Promise you’ll come and find me.”
As determined by a number of factors, including demonstrated abilities, physical condition, emotional stability and age, it has been decided that a group of thirty subjects from Group A will be sent to the arena in the morning. The candidates are going through the Swipe as we speak and will afterward undergo a medical examination. The examination will determine which of the subjects are still capable of participating in the experiment. Phase One, also known as The Maze Trials, begins at sunrise.
He watches them every day. It’s all he can do. He watches as the boys he’s known for years turn into strangers, slowly learn to trust one another and become friends again. And once more, he’s the outsider. He’s never really been one of them, after all. He’s the one who observes them from afar. He’s a ghost behind a screen. He’s the monster that decides who lives and who dies.
They are the reckless ones. The brave ones. Newt, Minho, and a few other boys, the daredevils who run straight into danger with fast legs and masks of fearlessness on their faces.
Foolishly, Thomas feels a tinge of pride poke at the tender parts inside his chest cavity when he sees them run, tendrils of hope wrapping themselves around his racing heart. He knows they will be fine as long as they hold onto their will to live. They are the ones who will survive the Maze.
The promise he’s made is always there in the back of his mind, even if he only rarely allows himself to think about it. But it’s there, giving him strength somehow, and he knows he’ll keep it, he will.
He’ll get Newt out, just like he promised he would. He’ll get all of them out.
The original Creators are – gone.
“We did the right thing, Tom. It’s what they wanted.”
Teresa’s words don’t even register at first, but Thomas still nods numbly; it’s all he’s been capable of doing lately.
“We have to focus on the patterns now. The patterns are all that matters.”
Reminding himself that salvation comes with a cost won’t help now. Not after what they’ve done. And Teresa can call it the right thing as many times as she wants and needs to convince herself that they aren’t murderers, but it won’t change the fact that murderers is exactly what they have become.
“The patterns are all that matters,” he agrees, feeling numb, feeling nothing, feeling dead.
He carries on as an emotionless machine, not letting the atrocities he’s in control of affect him in any way. He throws Variables at the boys he used to call his friends, well aware that some of them won’t make it, but that’s irrelevant, they’re irrelevant; important are only the strong ones, those who keep fighting, those who never give up.
Thomas observes their behavior, studies brain activity, analyzes results, obediently reporting to Chancellor Paige that they’re getting closer to the answers they seek with each passing day.
He still doesn’t feel a thing.
And then it all comes crashing down on him, on a quiet, ordinary afternoon.
He’s vaguely aware that somebody’s screaming – a desperate cry that chills him to the bone, followed by hopeless words that don’t make any sense. But the sound is muffled, coming from somewhere far away, and he doesn’t know if the other person is buried inside of mountains or if he’s the one trying to breathe underwater.
Slowly, he realizes that’s his voice. There is no one else, he’s the one that’s screaming. He’s on his knees on the floor, thin arms wrapped tightly around him. He could break out of their grip, he knows he’s stronger than the person to whom those arms belong, but he – can’t. He’s disconnected from his own body.
“Tom! Tom, please, calm down!”
That’s Teresa voice. And, oh – those arms are her arms. She’s pulling him back, but no, he’s still falling, and it hurts, it hurts so much, and the pain isn’t physical – but it is, there’s a deep ache in the pit of his stomach, and he can’t breathe, he can’t –
Without warning, the world goes black.
When he opens his eyes again, minutes or lifetimes later, he’s in his bed. His head is in Chuck’s lap and the boy is gently petting his hair. Thomas blinks up at him confusedly.
“Teresa told me to stay with you, said you’re not feeling well,” Chuck explains, his brown eyes wide, worried. But as he’s looking at Thomas his expression begins to change. With furrowed brows, he tilts his head to the side, big curls falling over his forehead. “You look sad, Thomas. Why are you so sad?”
Thomas starts to cry.
Newt gets better. He’s a lot less wild now, a bit more quiet, and he will always have a limp, but he’s – alive.
The other boys are looking after him, protective in a way that makes Thomas’s heart fill with love, because they are a family, but also makes him choke back uncontrollable sobs because he should be there too, helping Newt to get back on his feet.
Soon, he tells himself for the thousandth time that week, his anxious heart thundering in his chest while anticipation fills him to the brim. Soon.
“Name’s Newt, Greenie,” the tall blond says with an obvious accent, and it takes Thomas all of three seconds to decide that he likes him.
He seems kind. Nice. Nicer than the rest, as far as Thomas can tell. This boy isn’t going to hurt him. He can be trusted.
So Thomas looks once more at his extended hand and then shakes it without hesitation, taking in the lazy smile that graces the boy’s lips.
He still feels like he’s made of broken pieces, unable to remember anything other than his name, surrounded by boys he’s never seen before, terribly confused and a little scared for his life. But when the boy’s fingers brush against his own, somehow, strangely, all those broken pieces seem to fall into place, settling perfectly into previously empty spaces. With a hint of hope that is starting to bloom in his heart, Thomas allows himself to believe that his mind isn’t playing tricks on him; that there is, in fact, something familiar about the boy’s touch.
Something like a surreal memory – from a dream, from a wish, from a past lifetime.