Hyunwoo nudged an elbow in Jooheon's ribcage. "Something wrong?" he asked.
Jooheon squinted. There was a deep sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he couldn't tell what it was supposed to mean. That was if it even had a meaning, considering his gut had been telling him some pretty crazy batshit these past few weeks, including the feeling that he wasn't meant to be there in the Glade. (When he voiced those words, he was met with glares and piercing words. WICKED didn't give anyone a chance, they said. They were all sent here to get through the shucking maze. And try not to die, but that wasn't a guarantee.)
The other feeling was that he had a purpose, he knew, but he didn't know what exactly. That landed him a spot with the Runners when he pulled off some outrageous stunts like hanging out in the maze at night when the gates closed. No big deal hanging out with the Grievers. No one had ever survived anyway... until he did. But the problem was that even after making it out of the maze through the night alive, it still didn't feel like he had found what he was supposed to be looking for. So all Jooheon could do was squint at the elevator that had just surfaced to the Glade today, only a week into the new month and several weeks too early to receive a new Greenie from WICKED. Maybe this was the answer. But everyone else glaring at Jooheon seemed to think otherwise.
"Another shank?" Hyungwon piped up nonchalantly from behind them. He was the big nosed slicker who everyone else called handsome but Jooheon didn't see what they saw. Jooheon had wondered if staying in the Glade destroyed their eyesight and their definition of "handsome." Or maybe it was a hint that in a life where he knew who he used to be, he had met someone that made his own face, chest and thighs warm; fingers clammy and mouth slippery and eyes glittering. Who knew? Only WICKED did. So he chalked it up to simply the idea that it was the eye of the beholder.
"Wait," Minhyuk spoke up. His careful voice seemed to have jerked the crowd of boys out of their thoughts and directed their attention to the fluffy-haired boy pushing through the rest of them from the back.
No one knew why Minhyuk had blond hair and the other guys were somehow impressed by it, but all Jooheon saw was a bird nest on Minhyuk's head that they called shucking nice hair, the strands sticking up and burning auburn gold in the sunlight. Okay, maybe it was a little impressive. Jooheon could have dyed his own hair just as easily, he thought, reaching up to run the palm of his hand across the crown of his head.
Minhyuk was getting jostled but the blondie didn't let that stop him as he finally got to the front. "Do you see that in..." Minhyuk paused, his forehead furrowing. It was like he wasn't sure what it was in that elevator. "Um... in the hand?"
Now, Hyunwoo was moving forward to where Minhyuk was standing. He didn't have that much of a problem with getting to the front since he was already pretty close, and when he moved, the others near him cleared a path for him. He was tall, skin tan from long hours under the sun, with curves of muscle that flexed with every graceful and yet awkwardly mechanical movements. It was almost as if Hyunwoo knew a life of dance, but that was all Jooheon could tell from the strides and the light, gliding gait. A guy who knew what the earth felt. If Jooheon could sense that from Hyunwoo, he noticed the others could too and that was why Hyunwoo was the one in charge, and not someone like Hyungwon or Minhyuk.
Once Hyunwoo reached where Minhyuk was standing (who was now teetering on his toes from leaning forward and taking a closer look), neither dared to take a step onto the metal elevator itself where the body was lying. Hyunwoo frowned at the sight but Jooheon wasn't sure if that was an actual frown or if it was Hyunwoo's usual resting face. Hyunwoo then gave a firm push on Minhyuk's back because leaning forward and not holding the rail was stupidly dangerous. Minhyuk could've lost balance from that and smashed his skull in through the railing. Had Hyunwoo not given him a helpful push. Minhyuk yelped, which was met with the subsequent snickering from the crowd, but nothing too boisterous that would break the stiff atmosphere.
Hoseok had quickly followed after Hyunwoo and once again, the rest of the boys cleared a path for him. Hoseok was much shorter than Hyunwoo and had a more boyish face, cheeks revealing that he used to smile a lot. Used to. The bags under his eyes said something else like stress, worry, genuine care for all of them and beyond, something that Jooheon couldn't see in Hyunwoo's face that often.
At the bonfires during dinner, shirtless Hoseok would tell them about the days he used to be baby skinned and untouched by the sun's wrath, and they'd all laugh at him. Hoseok didn't mind it if he could see their smiles and hear them laugh, and that was all that seemed to matter to him the most. He'd show them oddities about his body like rolling his stomach and some of the guys would be grossed out (usually the Greenies) but the others would've seen it enough times that they'd ask Hoseok to lie down on the ground and try to reenact the "sexy" ab rolling with pieces of beef jerky on his tummy. The thing was, Hoseok managed to even get Hyunwoo to smile and when Hyunwoo smiled, then everything in the Glade seemed to be okay. The kids were alright, and there was hope they'd get out of the maze.
"It looks like a piece of paper, maybe?" Hoseok suggested, rubbing down on the golden hair strands standing on Minhyuk's head. Hyunwoo and Hoseok looked at each other though, talking with their eyes, but Jooheon could tell there were more questions than there were answers, as usual. WICKED didn't give them much to start out with, and it'd be an infinite amount of years after the goddamn Armageddon that they'd start giving anything close to hints.
But WICKED was good.
Hyunwoo now turned to Jooheon, and all eyes seemed to follow.
"You sure you don't know?" Hyunwoo questioned. There was something bitter and snappy in the syllables, and Jooheon tried to ignore the sting that came with it. It was as if everything depended on this though, on the answer Jooheon was about to give, but all he did was hold his hands up in surrender.
A frustrated sigh traveled up from the back of the crowd, but Jooheon dismissed it. Just because he was the last Greenie to come through the elevator, aside from this new one, didn't mean he knew everything. Jooheon felt a tap on his right shoulder. He didn't turn.
"You don't think this Greenie's dead, do you?" Changkyun whispered. He was one of the quietest ones around, the low-voiced Greenie who had arrived before Jooheon did. He was also one of the youngest, but most of the other gladers hadn’t warmed up to him at all. His breath tickled the back of Jooheon's neck, and Jooheon suppressed the urge to itch it violently with his hand. Instead, Jooheon shook his head.
"That'd be one hell of a message from WICKED," Jooheon muttered back.
Hoseok had gotten onto the elevator by now (Minhyuk had noticeably edged back into the crowd with arms crossing his chest in fear). Hyunwoo looked conflicted, with one heel entrenched in the Glade’s wet muddy grass and the other on the metal honeycomb grate of the elevator. Just as Hoseok bent down cautiously to retrieve the crumpled paper in the Greenie’s hand, the body jolted up with a scratchy wheeze coming from the throat.
"Jooheon!” They gasped with a choke, clutching at their neck before spitting out another, “Jooheon, Joo--"
Shit, was all that went through Jooheon's head. Hyunwoo and everyone else was staring at him with wide eyes.
"How about now?" Hyunwoo quipped, looking at the gasping Greenie on the floor of the elevator and back toward Jooheon.
Well. Jooheon took a good look at the Greenie, mud stained converse shoes, laces knotted excessively. Regular jeans with streaks of white powder crisscrossed on the thighs, and Jooheon couldn't help but think of coke. Jooheon's eyes traced over the crotch and he knew that the kid was biologically male, but scanning over the nondescript navy sweatshirt toward the face was something else. Sharp jawline, parted vulnerable lips, and royal shape of a nose. The heaving kid was searching the crowd while pushing their damp pink strands of hair from their cheeks and eyes. They settled to shoving the bubblegum locks messily behind their ears like they didn't care about looking pretty.
"It's a wig," Changkyun commented quietly, almost in disbelief. "A shucking pink wig."
"Shut up," Jooheon hissed. He didn't know why he felt so defensive, but the moment he said it, it felt right. And that was what got the Greenie sitting on the elevator floor staring at Jooheon.
"Jooheon," the Greenie breathed. His eyes shimmered jet gray in the same light that shined across the sheen of sweat covering his face.
That was Gunhee in the ping wig gazing back at him, Jooheon realized, and it was the worst thing in the world.
The sun had not yet risen over the walls of the maze and the cold, brittle air nipped at their skin through their tattered clothing.
"Hyunwoo-yah?" Hoseok whispered. His words floated into the air and didn't stir Hyunwoo to life at all. They stood next to each other gazing down at the wet grass, speckled dew drops resting in the cradle of each blade dusted by the twilight. It was all Hoseok could stare at. He couldn't bring himself to look further, where Hyunwoo's eyes were piercing lasers.
There were some things Hoseok couldn't understand about Hyunwoo. But he had always figured that because Hyunwoo had been at the Glade before anyone else, Hyunwoo must’ve seen and endured things that no one else had. He must’ve been accustomed to the idea of seeing life in the form of laughter, sharing plates at the bonfire one day and seeing it noosed away from him the next. Hoseok had always suspected that being used to something like that also meant Hyunwoo probably knew it would never end, unless they found a way out of the shucking maze. Hyunwoo was patient at the joints, but sometimes they creaked.
For Hoseok, every time it happened, he could never get used to it. He wanted to go down to the dirt on his hands and knees and weep over the body but if the others saw, then that'd mean they hit rock bottom.
A long time ago, it had happened. It was something imprinted on the darkness of his eyelids whenever he closed his eyes to sleep, and he'd remember it as if it had happened yesterday. Hoseok couldn't phrase the Greenie's name back then, but name or not didn't erase the boy's veins that had turned visibly bluish-purple at midnight and his lips pasty white. That was the only residue of life left on him. Hoseok had wept into the limp boy's chest loudly, startling the other gladers awake. They watched him in silence with red-rimmed eyes, twiddling at the loose strands of their clothing or picking at the grass with their bare toes. Worse yet, Hyunwoo refused to look or talk to Hoseok for several months after that. When they did speak again, Hyunwoo slammed Hoseok onto the maze wall and heaved into Hoseok's flushed lips, You can't cry in front of people like that. Otherwise, we can't get out of here. Do you understand?
Yes, okay, Hoseok had wheezed back, I understand.
But a lot was said superficially in the rushed, heated moment when he relished Hyunwoo's warmth near him more than the actual echo of Hyunwoo's brittle words. Hoseok didn't get close to Hyunwoo like that to hear him speak from the heart because Hyunwoo always masked something in his words when he spoke, even when there was no such thing as personal space. Ever since then, Hoseok watched Hyunwoo's movements more than his lips and in this bitter morning, the only thing Hoseok wanted more was for the ground to shake Hyunwoo like a puppet, and for it to swallow the body in front of them whole.
Instead, Hoseok could feel Hyunwoo shiver beside him, and he reached out hesitantly to comfort him, fingertips ghosting over Hyunwoo's forearm. Hoseok didn't know what things convinced Hyunwoo that they couldn't leave the maze, but if that included touching him, then maybe it wasn't a good idea. Hoseok retracted his fingers and shoved his fist into his pocket with a sniffle. He didn't bother to wipe his wet cheeks at all.
"Hyunwoo, we have to--" Hoseok began.
"I hate it when this happens," Hyunwoo cut in with mumble. He dropped the knife into the mud and curled his fingers into fists.
Hoseok stared at the side of Hyunwoo's face. He looked like he was in pain, but Hyunwoo always defaulted to something like the Sphinx at the face of any situation. Hoseok felt like he had known Hyunwoo for years, before the Glade perhaps (if only he could remember), but he still only had the faintest ideas of what the minute lines and twitches on Hyunwoo's face meant.
Hoseok had earlier been awaken by the sound of a dull thud hitting the earth, and when Hoseok stumbled onto Hyunwoo brandishing a knife in one hand and clutching a chopped rope attached to the body in the other, Hyunwoo's face was unreadable. Hyunwoo muttered an explanation that he had cut the noose line and it was the only thing he could think of when he found the-- Hyunwoo nodded sullenly at the body on the ground with a dry swallow. Hoseok could only gape, his mind trying to comprehend what just happened, but all he could think about was how Hyunwoo's face was pale and calm.
"We have to tell Jooheon," Hoseok tried again. If Hyunwoo turned at Hoseok now, Hoseok knew he'd meet a punishable glare for crying and for even uttering such an idea but--
"He'll ask why."
"And you'll tell him…” Hoseok paused uncertainly. It was suicide, right? “... Like you've always done before." Hoseok clenched on the fabric of his own shirt, near his chest and sniffled again.
Hyunwoo swallowed. "I don't want to."
Hoseok felt his stomach churning. He wanted to claw onto Hyunwoo's collar and snap at him, What do you mean you don't want to?! He desperately wanted to yell and watch his own spittle land onto Hyunwoo’s flinching face but under the circumstance, he had to resist the urge. Hoseok lifted his mouth to voice out the incredulity of such a notion, but Hyunwoo raised a calloused hand to stop him. Hoseok stared at Hyunwoo's lips. Were they trembling? Hyunwoo's hand looked unsteady, too. And red. Was Hyunwoo’s hand always this red? Or maybe just in this light, Hoseok was seeing things. Or maybe--
"I always have to do it alone," Hyunwoo implored, ducking his head. "And then I feel like a shucking traitor for doing it, but I know I have to. I don't need to be reminded."
The hair on Hoseok's neck rose but he sucked on his teeth to wait until Hyunwoo made a move. Hyunwoo didn't. (If Hyunwoo wanted to make a move, he would’ve used the knife on me, wouldn’t he? Hoseok socked himself internally. Quit thinking that, Jesus.)
Hoseok sighed miserably and clasped onto Hyunwoo's wrist, yanking hard. Hyunwoo protested with a, "What--" but Hoseok hushed him as they hustled down the Glade. They had to tell Jooheon, no matter what.
They gently woke up Jooheon as the sun finally came over the maze wall, and Hyunwoo led him to the tree on the outskirts of the forest. The whole time they walked there, Hoseok kept glancing at Jooheon, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. Jooheon didn’t understand what was going on until he saw the cut rope; then he crouched down to the grass with an aching cry and burst into tears. Hoseok attempted to console him. But, the pathetic sight of Hyunwoo leaning on a shovel as he waited for Jooheon made Hoseok want to snap, and storm off the Glade. He couldn’t even imagine how it must have felt for Jooheon.
"It's not your fault," Jooheon sobbed into his sleeve. Hyunwoo surprisingly met Jooheon’s devastated eyes without a flinch, which meant even if Hoseok had tried to yell at him earlier, it wouldn’t have done a thing. But even steel could bend, and Hoseok didn't forget the look on Hyunwoo's face while he shoveled dirt over the pink strands, over Gunhee's unclosed eyes.
Even in death, Gunhee always looked like he had something to say.
Jooheon remembered that time it had rained in the afternoon while he and Minho were out in the maze. When he came back, Gunhee had been waiting by the entrance, his shirt and shorts clinging to the curves of his body and the long strands of pink hair matted to his forehead and cheeks. Gunhee's eyes would gleam at the sight of the boys as they turned the corner of the maze wall and came into view. The great thing about wearing the pink wig and being the only one in the Glade to do so meant that he didn't have to do a thing to get noticed. Minho raised a hand to imitate shooting a gun. Gunhee broke into a wide grin and pretended to catch the bullet to his chest, palms over one another, staggering backward.
"You punk," Minho panted, as he swung an arm to embrace Gunhee. "Why'd you wait in the rain?"
Gunhee made a gagging face and shoved a hand to cover his nose. "If I had known you were gonna smell like this, maybe I wouldn't have," he said through his pinched nose.
Jooheon pulled off his cap and shook the water droplets off. "It's 'cause he's convinced you're his cousin."
"Minho hyung is my cousin!" Gunhee exclaimed, his eyes wide and shiny.
Minho only laughed, patting a hand on the crown of Gunhee's head. "Whatever keeps you sane in the Glade," Minho said as he walked off. "Everyone has their own ways. Yours are just... different."
Gunhee was about to protest but Kihyun interrupted them with a stomping run and a declaratory, "Yah, Hyunwoo said--" and that was about when Jooheon dragged the bottom of his shirt and pulled it over his head so Kihyun couldn't look at Jooheon when he lectured. Gunhee put a hand to Kihyun's forehead to stop him from coming any closer with his noisy, snappy words.
"Yes, Jooheon knows and Minho isn't here, so go yell his ears off, shucker. And since I'm extra nice, I'll take care of this," Gunhee said, taking the full basket of drenched clothing out of Kihyun's hands. That seemed to satisfy Kihyun, but since he was rarely ever fully content, he squinted at Gunhee.
"Did you just call me shucker, Greenie?"
Jooheon glanced at Gunhee with a smirk, and Gunhee half grinned, half grimaced. "I said I'm taking care of this!" Gunhee cried out, shaking the laundry basket. Jooheon and Gunhee made their escape before Kihyun could reprimand them further.
The rain had caught them all by surprise. In the Glade, the rain was usually scheduled by WICKED at random intervals, thrice a month, but this spontaneous shower was the fifth of that month. The gladers weren't sure of what to make of this, and even Gunhee couldn't exactly pinpoint the source behind the excessive downpours either. He had a slight hunch that the crazy shower system was WICKED's intent to push the gladers to urgently find a way out of the maze. Gunhee had overheard Hoseok talking to Hyunwoo in hushed whispers that maybe they should be saving all this water-- if the rain schedule was erratic and unpredictable, they wouldn't know the next time it'd rain.
"Could be that somewhere outside of this shucking damn maze is a rainy paradise," Hyungwon fantasized as an explanation, as if that was a reasonable answer. Jooheon said that he couldn't believe the things that flew out of Hyungwon's mouth, and people still believed him. ("Why does him being handsome make everyone more gullible anyway?" Jooheon had questioned and Gunhee brushed his pink hair neatly and batted his eyelashes.
"Would you be gullible for me?" Gunhee cooed, pursing his lips in what he thought was an irresistible pout. Unfortunately, pink haired idiots seem to appeal to a very small population of humankind, as Gunhee began to learn.)
Some thought WICKED was being "nice," but nice is not the word for that organization. WICKED was good. But after some time, Gunhee began to theorize some scenarios, and a rainy paradise was far from it.
One mention of it would set Jooheon off, though. They'd been playing with their shadows that came from the sunlight filtering through the hanging clothing and sheets on the clothesline, until Gunhee said, "I can't believe it rained today."
"So?" Jooheon asked, halting in his tracks. He clipped the pin but completely missed the shoulder of the shirt he was trying to hang.
Gunhee glanced at Jooheon and then bent down to pick up another shirt from the basket. "It's not supposed to rain this much, y'know. WICKED--"
"Not this again," Jooheon muttered, shaking his head.
"No, hear me out," Gunhee pleaded. "I know you don't believe me when I say it but you and I used to work for WICKED, and that we actually built this maze--"
"No," Jooheon interrupted. "It rains when it rains."
"It rains when WICKED feels like--" Gunhee paused when he saw Jooheon shaking his head again. "Jooheon, I'm not the only one who knows this, alright? Hyunwoo knows this, too."
"Hyunwoo said the rain isn't the problem, it's about--"
"Getting out of the shucking maze," Gunhee filled in as if hearing it for the billionth time. "Yeah, I get that this is all that you care about, but--"
"It's all that matters."
Gunhee turned and faced Jooheon, his expression falling. His eyes shimmered vulnerably in the sunlight, but Jooheon ignored Gunhee's watery gaze as he continued to pin the shirts onto the line. "So... you really don't remember?" Gunhee asked slowly.
"I wish--" Jooheon began, but he tilted his head back and sighed. "I don't know. I don't remember, okay? We've been through this hundreds of times since you arrived here. You think I should know, but it's evident that I don't! You go on and on about some stupid shit, being in WICKED but dude, we shucking hate WICKED. They put us in this hell hole and expect us to get out some way. I don't know. All I know is that we need to get out of here. Maybe there's something better out there for us, or..." Jooheon snapped the clothespin down. "Maybe it's worse out there than it is here. We won't know till we try."
"Jooheon-ah," Gunhee murmured. "We made a promise, don't you remember?"
Jooheon's lips twitched, but he dismissed Gunhee's words. "You-- You tell me about the disease or whatever. Something about becoming monsters and that maybe our parents are dead but WICKED promised--" Jooheon faced Gunhee. "How could we put our parents in the hands of WICKED?" he whispered hoarsely. "How could we put these kids here? Why are we WICKED if they experiment on us? And if we're WICKED, don't we belong up there, or wherever they are that isn't the Glade? It doesn't make sense to me at all, Gun-ah."
Gunhee clasped hands with Jooheon and wetted his lips with his tongue. "People... do crazy shit when the world is about to end. It's not gonna make sense. Ever. Right now, you just gotta... trust me."
Jooheon stared at him. "How?"
Gunhee shrugged helplessly. "You know me."
Jooheon stepped away with an exasperated sigh. "I don't. The first time we met was when you came to the Glade. We've never met before that, but I just-- I only remembered your name, for some reason. WICKED, probably."
"But you and I were..." Gunhee's eyes were brimming with tears. He turned away, rubbing at his wrists, too choked up to finish. He crouched down with his back toward Jooheon as he covered his mouth and let the tears stream down his cheeks.
Nothing was going the way he had wanted. He had thought about the possibilities of Jooheon not remembering who he was or what they had meant to each other, or even their promise they had made, but he had figured that he'd be able to convince Jooheon anyway, just by gut-feeling. But now that this was reality, he could only pity himself for being so naive, for losing his best friend to WICKED's manipulation. But in the condition that they were in, WICKED was the only answer, the only good. Maybe the only good now was that Jooheon had no recollection of the horrors they went through.
Gunhee bit on his fingers to suppress the heaving sob. He wanted to curl down into the grass in a fetal position and cry away into a different reality, but that meant he'd keep lying to himself, and he didn't want to be like WICKED. They had escaped their dying world through WICKED, and now these kids were trying to escape the organization with nowhere to go. They wouldn't believe him if he told them about this. If Jooheon of all people wouldn't believe him, he wouldn't be able to convince anyone else.
Gunhee felt a warm hand resting on his shoulder. "Gun-ah, come on."
"I just,” Gunhee croaked. “I don't want to be alone."
"You're not," Jooheon said, tilting Gunhee's chin toward him.
Gunhee's vision was blurry when he faced Jooheon, and another million thoughts whirled in his mind. He wanted to tell Jooheon about his cousins, Minho and Dana, and why only Minho was here. He wanted to remind Jooheon how they saw their friends and family get taken away from them; half of those lost to an incurable wrath and the other half promised by WICKED that they'd be protected, but who knew what WICKED did with them if they tortured the "young adults of potential."
But instead, he latched onto Jooheon's forearm and breathed, "I'm going to kiss you."
It didn't feel the same. Gunhee closed in the gap for long enough before Jooheon resisted and jerked away, wiping his lips in disgust. Somehow, Gunhee found himself smiling, even though he felt the most alone and helpless he’d ever felt in his entire life. "I'd give you this wig but… you don't even remember our promise so it's no point," Gunhee said softly.
He rose up to his feet but Jooheon yanked him back down. "Dude, you just-- kissed me."
"Yeah," Gunhee said with a shy smile that didn't reach his eyes. Maybe Jooheon's cheeks pinked, but Gunhee didn't have it in himself to indulge the idea that Jooheon could be affected by it.
"Did we..." Jooheon let his sentence carry weight in silence as he glanced down at Gunhee's crotch. Gunhee grinned fleetingly.
"I know what you look like naked."
They stared at each other for the longest time, until Jooheon nudged at Gunhee to lie down with him instead of crouching on the grass. At least there, they could stare into the artificial dome WICKED wanted them to believe as the sky.
"Tell me about everything again," Jooheon said, when they got comfortable. It was almost like as if nothing had happened just now, yet suddenly when Jooheon did want to listen, Gunhee wanted to make a run for it. Maybe things were safer if Jooheon didn't know, but-- when would Gunhee have this chance again? He needed to stop thinking about it.
"You sure?" Gunhee asked hesitantly. Jooheon only nodded, as if he were afraid to say anything more, he might have changed his mind.
Gunhee took a deep breath. "You and I knew what WICKED was doing was wrong but… we went along with it because they'd protect us from The Flare, not that we'd need it because we're immune. Our parents weren't, but WICKED promised they'd keep them safe if only we cooperated. So, we signed the contract agreeing that we'd let WICKED experiment on us because they were trying to develop a cure. There's only a select few of the immune who can pass that genetic makeup to their offspring, so that's why they needed to keep us alive. But their practices were... wishy washy, and the world that we had known our entire lives had become so catastrophic beyond repair, you-- you told me maybe it was just better if we sent ourselves to the Glade. It's the securest place in the world. At least that's what WICKED tells us.
“WICKED had intended to send us down here anyway. When things got so bad, they needed you and I to rush these kids out of the maze to save the remaining population untouched by The Flare. But going back out there-- there's nothing, Jooheon. It's not sustainable, even for us. The Glade is better, I swear, and back then, you had said this yourself. So, you and I made the promise that when we got sent to the Glade, we'd stay here. Convince the rest to stay here, too."
Jooheon gently touched Gunhee by the wrist. "But this place is run by WICKED. They want us to get out; how in the world could we stay here against their plans? What about the shucking Grievers roaming in the maze? And how long could we stay here depending on WICKED to give us rain and grass and shit before they realize we were taking advantage of it?"
Gunhee sighed and sat up. "We just... We'd stay here as long as we could. That's the best we could come up with when the world's ending."
Jooheon didn’t sit up, settling to stare at Gunhee’s back and reaching out to untangle the pink hair strands. "Why didn't WICKED take away your memory?"
"I let myself in. It got so bad that I had to. But they called you in first. At the time, we thought that if WICKED called either of us to go into the Glade, we wouldn’t have to go through the same memory extraction as the others. It's these memories that would help get these kids out of the maze."
"So you were-- we were wrong."
"Yeah," Gunhee murmured brokenly.
"But WICKED isn't that stupid."
"I know they aren't. But... if they have to stop me, they'll have to kill me." Gunhee stood up then, brushing the dirt off his shorts. "Sometimes, I thought with all of us together, we could fight against WICKED. But then I remember..." Gunhee paused. He was looking at Jooheon but his eyes seemed distant as if he were thinking about something else. Something that disturbed him.
Jooheon tapped Gunhee’s ankle with his toe. "Remember what?"
Gunhee bit his lip. "Does Hyunwoo ever seem really... off to you?"
Gunhee shrugged uncertainly. "Some kids, like Hyunwoo, got recruited before you and I did, so we don't know what kind of testing WICKED did to them. But I always suspected the earlier ones were WICKED's most special because if they survived this long, they're really something."
Jooheon nodded numbly. When he looked up again, he noticed Gunhee had begun to walk away. “Hey,” he called out. He lunged, caught onto Gunhee's shirt, and tugged him back. "You know that day you arrived to the Glade? You were unconscious for twenty minutes and the whole time, Hyunwoo thought I was supposed to know you."
Gunhee raised a brow. "Why did he think you'd know me?"
"I don't know,” Jooheon shrugged, “'Cause he's been around the longest, so he has instincts that none of us have?"
Gunhee frowned. But he turned around again, ready to walk away. This time, Jooheon stood up and caught up to Gunhee. "So, you’re really going to stay?"
"Yes," Gunhee answered. He looked straight into the horizon of the maze wall. "I'm going to stay as long as I can, and if they won't let me, then they'll have to kill me. I swear."
“Don’t keep saying that.” Jooheon stepped in front of Gunhee. "Why don't you want to come with me?"
Gunhee sighed in resignation. “I can tell you how to get out of the maze right now, you know.”
“Then tell me,” Jooheon whined, but Gunhee shouldered past him. “Gun-ah, maybe it's different out there now! Maybe it’s not as bad as you think."
Gunhee shook his head. "I can’t go back out there. I want... I wanted you to stay with me. But if you don't want to, I can't force you."
"So what are you going to do now?"
Gunhee didn’t turn back. "Talk to Hyunwoo."
That would be the last time Jooheon would see Gunhee walking down the Glade.
After Hyunwoo had buried Gunhee, Hoseok couldn't stop thinking about it for days. Usually, he'd try to busy himself out in the forest collecting herbs, tending livestock, or cooking food for the boys at the bonfires. He tried to do these things to take his mind off of it, but he found himself becoming so restless, Kihyun had to force Hoseok to take a rest.
He found himself wandering to the dungeon near the edge of the forest, where they punished any gladers who weren't behaving themselves for the night. Maybe he should spend the night here, he thought, feeling deserving of it since he couldn't do his work properly. He was supposed to be better than that, otherwise Hyunwoo would give him the silent treatment. (Hoseok wouldn’t mind getting slammed into the maze wall with Hyunwoo over him again. What, no. )
Hoseok sat on the dusty ground of the dungeon, cradling his knees to his chin. It was lulling to stare up at the roof of the dungeon, at the entwined sticks woven together carefully. They weren’t woven too tightly, so there was a little bit of light that came through from the lit torches nearby. While gazing up at the dim light seeping through the holes, he recognized that they almost looked like little stars, just like Gunhee’s eyes. It seemed so long ago but he remembered the first time Gunhee arrived on the elevator, how Gunhee sat up in a bolt, and the first thing that caught Hoseok's attention aside from the pink wig was Gunhee's piercing eyes. Hoseok remembered he wanted to be close enough to see what the crumpled paper said in Gunhee's hand.
Hoseok fished in his shorts pocket for it. It was the only thing he kept from Gunhee. And he never brought it up to anyone after that because they had been too preoccupied with the fact that Jooheon and Gunhee knew each other’s names. Even Hyunwoo had forgotten about the paper. Hoseok pulled it out and uncrumpled it. In the speckled light, he could see the dark, bold letters.
I KNOW THE TRUTH
Hoseok kept staring at the text until he thought his vision grew blurry, and the black turned into a reddish hue. It reminded him of how Hyunwoo held up his hand to stop Hoseok from talking that morning when they had discovered Gunhee had hanged himself, the shakiness of Hyunwoo's fingers, and the red. Hyunwoo's hand was red, but Hoseok thought that the trauma of discovering death made him see things; he didn't believe it himself.
But why would Gunhee have a piece of paper in his hand stating, “I know the truth”? What did it mean? I know the truth. I know the truth. I know the truth. Hoseok kept repeating it in his mind like a mantra. Maybe Gunhee knew a way out of the maze? But he had showed no interest in becoming a Runner if that was the case. When asked, he almost shrugged, saying the maze was solvable. That made some of the gladers horribly upset, especially Hyunwoo, because they'd been stuck there for years trying to get out with no luck, and here came a Greenie who said it was possible to get out like he knew but didn't want to tell. Gunhee even said Jooheon was the right person to be looking for the exit, and so far Jooheon had found a clue that could lead them to an escape. But if Gunhee knew anything more than that, he sure didn't want to share. It was true though, that Gunhee looked like he was hiding something. But he had hung out with Jooheon often enough that Jooheon must’ve heard some of it. Hoseok decided he'd ask Jooheon later.
Maybe what Gunhee knew the truth about was WICKED. But if that was the case, wouldn't Gunhee try to tell everyone about it? Hoseok scratched his head. It couldn't be that.
But what if... Hoseok glanced at the roof again, this time feeling more chilled than ever. What if WICKED discovered Gunhee knew something that he wasn't supposed to know? And what if WICKED had some way to control them all, so they forced Gunhee to kill himself?
Hoseok stared at the crumpled piece of paper again, tugging at his hair. This was crazy. He was crazy. The idea itself was out of this world, he thought. If Hyunwoo knew, then--
If Hyunwoo knew. Hoseok's eyes widened. He stared at the paper, his fingers trembling, lips going dry, eyes growing blurry.
"Hoseok-ah?" A knock on the wooden frames echoed through the dungeon. It startled Hoseok enough for him to gasp loudly and fold the paper urgently into his fist.
This couldn’t be happening. Hoseok couldn't find his voice to answer at all.
"Hoseok-ah, you there?"
The only person Hoseok wanted to hear call his name more than anything in the world was Gunhee right then. He heard footsteps padding on the dirt. He could look up and see Gunhee again, or he could look up and meet a terrifying truth.
"Kihyun told me you'd be here. How are you feeling?"
Hoseok shut his eyes. Gunhee's dead. He was not alive anymore, he was gone, he was eliminated. "Did Kihyun really tell you that or do you just happen to know?" Hoseok asked evenly.
"Hey." Hoseok felt a hand on his cheek, coaxing him to face the truth. "What's wrong, Hoseok-ah?"
When Hoseok opened his eyes, that was it. His heart dropped heavily into his stomach and he felt like a cornered animal. "What else do you know, Hyunwoo?"
Hyunwoo leaned a little closer to Hoseok, rubbing his thumb on Hoseok's cheek. "I don't understand what you mean."
"Don't-- Don't lie to me!" Hoseok screeched. He shoved Hyunwoo's hand away, babbling incoherently about lies and WICKED. Hyunwoo grabbed Hoseok's wrists to stop him, but Hoseok screamed, resisting and kicking wildly. "You knew this!" Hoseok yelled, throwing the crumpled paper into Hyunwoo's face. "You knew whatever Gunhee knew and you had to--"
Hyunwoo shifted his weight forward, causing them to land on the dirt, Hoseok beneath him choking out a cry. "Quiet," Hyunwoo whispered sternly into his ear.
"No!" Hoseok wailed. "No, no, no. You won't shut me up like you did to Gunhee--"
Hyunwoo forced Hoseok's hands down onto his own throat and held them there, tightly. "You're having delusions, Hoseok-ah."
Hoseok whimpered in confusion as tears drenched his face.
"You've been stung by a Griever."
Hoseok shook his head adamantly. "That never--" he gasped out.
Hyunwoo exerted more force on Hoseok's hands. Hoseok kicked and flailed underneath him. "I don't want to do this to you, but no one can know the truth," he said gently.
Hoseok wheezed. "Plea--"
Hyunwoo looked away, his eyes watering. "I wish-- things were different. But I-- WICKED won't let me give you mercy. I want to but--"
Hoseok tried to breathe, tried to answer. More tears fled his eyes as he coughed hoarsely.
Hyunwoo leaned down and whispered into Hoseok's ear. "Forgive me, Hoseok-ah." He kept whispering as Hoseok thrashed about and wheezed.
Hyunwoo whispered the truth behind it all, the truth that he was WICKED and WICKED was good. He whispered about Gunhee and the other boys, like the one boy who got stung that Hoseok had wept on, named Yoonho. There was another boy who used to cook the food by the bonfires but got too close to the flames, Kwangji. And the two boys who drowned in the creek of the forest, Yoosu and Minkyun. By the time Hyunwoo whispered about the last boy, Seokwon, who also got stung, Hoseok was no longer kicking or gasping.
Hyunwoo kept confessing even after the last tear streamed down Hoseok's cheek. And then Hoseok was gone, and Hyunwoo had run out of secrets to tell.
A kiss to the crown of the deceased and everything was to be buried back in again. Rinse and repeat.
When they got out of the maze, they were too blinded by the scorching sunlight to really see the deserted wasteland that surrounded them. They were eventually blindfolded and taken to another facility.
Jooheon woke up to the noise of boys chattering frantically about something. They spoke too fast and too hushed for Jooheon to understand. He threw the covers off the bed and slipped out of his room to find them in a crowd, pulling the back of each other's shirts and peeking at something on their necks.
"Um, what's going on?" Jooheon asked dizzily, scratching his head with a frown.
Minho turned around and dragged Jooheon towards the crowd. "Hyunwoo found some tattoo on Kihyun's neck, and now they're all checking if we've all got tattoos." Minho turned around and pointed at his nape. "Tell me what mine says."
Jooheon leaned forward with a squint, pulling the shirt collar down to read it carefully. "Uh, it says "Property of WICKED. Group A. Subject A-thirteen. The Leader.”"
Minho turned back to Jooheon with raised brow. "The Leader?" he echoed back. Some of the other boys had overheard and were tugging on Minho's shirt to confirm. Soon enough, Jooheon joined the others, reading their tattoos for them. So far, all of them stated that they were all property of WICKED and group A. Some didn't have titles of their own, so their tattoos ended with a number.
Kihyun had "Subject A-eight" while Hyungwon had "Subject A-nine" on his neck. Minhyuk had "Subject A-ten." They suspected some of the missing numbers were meant for those who didn't make it.
Hyunwoo was shuffling through the boys, rereading the tattoos, his face fully concentrated on memorizing them, associating the numbers and names together. Soon enough, they were facing each other. Jooheon wasn't sure if he really wanted to know his own tattoo or not. Hyunwoo seemed to cut to the chase first though.
"Could you read mine?" Hyunwoo asked, adjusting the collar of his shirt.
Jooheon circled behind him and pulled the shirt lower to read the small bolded letters resting on the vertebrae of Hyunwoo's nape. He traced a fingertip over the line of print, reading slowly. "Same shit. Subject A-one."
Hyunwoo spun around with a face so stoic it made Jooheon want to shrink toward the wall. "That's it?"
"Well," Jooheon began, "WICKED named you the Glue."
Hyunwoo looked taken aback. "The Glue?"
Jooheon shrugged, wetting his lips. He squinted in thought. "Maybe it's like... you're kind of the glue that holds us all together?" he said unconvincingly.
Hyunwoo stared at him blankly.
Jooheon stared back at him, chewing on the inside of his lip. Somehow, from the way Hyunwoo looked at him, Jooheon had a feeling the explanation didn't satisfy Hyunwoo at all. It wasn't like he could come up with something more elegant or sophisticated for something like Glue. Besides, what else could it possibly mean? For some reason, Jooheon couldn't help but feel as if there was something misplaced. If there was another meaning, maybe he wasn't supposed to know it. He shook his head at the thought. It had been a wild week; he'd lost Gunhee, Hoseok, and several others, and there hadn't been time to mourn for them.
"Read mine," Jooheon said, jerking a thumb to the back of his neck.
"I already did--" Hyunwoo paused, his eyes averting.
"And?" Jooheon felt his shirt collar being pulled taut. He heard Minho mumbling behind him, and then silence. "What? Minho, what?" Jooheon elbowed at Minho behind him.
"It says... 'To be killed by the Glue.' What the hell is the Glue?" Minho asked incredulously.
Jooheon felt the blood rush up to his head as he turned to meet Hyunwoo's unflinching stare.
"Hyunwoo?" Jooheon whispered hoarsely. The other boys around them had quieted down to dead silence. Jooheon swallowed, taking a dizzy step toward him. "Hyunwoo, what..."
"Yeah, explain what the shuck is going on, man." Minho glared at Hyunwoo.
Hyunwoo tilted his head slowly, his lips twitching. Suddenly, the dozen of boys in the room were staring at a desensitized smile on his face. Hyunwoo's curling lips turned into a stuttering laugh.
"What's so funny?" Jooheon asked in a shrill voice.
"I love WICKED," Hyunwoo said with a sigh, "and I can't find it in myself to apologize to-- to what's going to happen to you but I can assure you… " Hyunwoo leaned forward to catch Jooheon in the arms as he teetered, his face pale and unconscious. "Hey, hey, it's okay," Hyunwoo murmured, patting on Jooheon’s back, "but I can assure you that WICKED is good."
He stepped back and let Jooheon slump to the floor. Moments later, Hyunwoo was met with a crowd of boys attacking him, shoving him to the wall, and throwing fists to his face.
WICKED is good, Hyunwoo thought faintly to himself with a smile. WICKED was so good.
It's not your fault
It's my own fault
I'm not human at all
I have no heart
We're not human at all
We have no heart