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Carthago

Chapter Text

But it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.
Ken Kesey, “One Flew Over Cokoo’s Nest”

Even as he loses all his memories along the way, Christopher will forever retain this scene.

Hyunjin, standing in the doorway of his bedroom, worrying something in his palm. He’s avoiding Christopher’s eyes, mumbling. A blush creeps up his cheeks, his temples, swallows his entire face.

Christopher, with his arms halfway in the sweatshirt sleeves. He's frozen by Hyunjin’s announcement.

They only woke up less than an hour ago, and the sun is still fresh and tastes like lemonade. The morning is a bunch of beautiful metaphors and happy expectations. Seungmin is coming in twenty minutes to do some planning with them. The rebellion is coming, a signal could come any minute now, they want to prepare.

Christopher’s voice gets stuck on his vocal cords when he says, “You want what?”

“I want to leave,” Hyunjin repeats; his hands are fists now. “I’m not doing this anymore. This is your rebellion and your revenge, Christopher, not mine.”

He’s still playing with something in his hand. The motion is driving Christopher mad. But Christopher is a good leader, so he takes a deep breath.

“Why now?” he asks. His voice sounds level but his heart might break through his ribs.

Hyunjin shrugs. A second later, he gasps and clenches his teeth. A drop of blood trails down his clenched fist. Whatever Hyunjin has in his hold must’ve cut him.

Thoughts run in Christopher’s head like a swarm of crazy bees. He has to stop Hyunjin. He has to do something, to not let Hyunjin leave but what can he do? Hyunjin’s mind is a complete mystery to him and he cannot even guess how to convince him. He doesn’t even know why Hyunjin is leaving. Or at least, he doesn’t remember.

Christopher has memory issues. That's what it says in his notebook that he flips through from time to time. He doesn't lose all his memories every morning or anything; an elderly lady that lives in the adjacent apartment has this issue. He just- doesn't keep things in his head.

The notebook has the names of all his rebellion mates. It reminds him regularly that he's the leader of a special rebellion group. The group has nine members, Christopher included. The group is rebelling against the current government. Because of the government's program, "specially talented" teenagers go to a special border school. Christopher is not sure what is wrong with the school, but the notebook says that nobody comes back. The notebook says that at the school, they are being experimented on. The government gives them special abilities to make them useful for humanity, and for the better future of the world. It's a cruel place and a strict institution that allows for no individuality or privacy. A side note on the notebook marks "personalities and skills implanted". Christopher doesn't know what it means.

He doesn't know a lot about the world he's so determined to change, and he certainly knows nothing about himself. He doesn't even know if the others know about his memory issues.
“The whole rebellion thing,” Hyunjin blurts, “it’s your ambition. Not mine. Definitely not mine.”

In the sunlight radiating through the window, Hyunjin looks almost ethereal. Christopher takes another deep breath to calm down, and his teeth stop grating. Lately, with the due day coming closer and closer, all of them were on edge. The group that Christopher had assembled over the years. The group that would help him change the ruling regime and destroy the school that ruined so many lives. They all were losing their minds.

“Why do you think it’s not your ambition?” Christopher asks, finally putting his shirt on.

“Because I feel like I should be doing something else,” Hyunjin replies. His lips are now a thin line – a telltale sign that he’s pissed. Christopher finds it interesting how his members always seem to share his emotions.

Hyunjin keeps playing with the thing in his left hand. He never shows it enough for Christopher to actually see. Yet, Cristopher’s heart flutters when he glimpses something shiny between Hyunjin's fingers.

For a few moments, they stand in silence, Christopher looking at Hyunjin’s hand. And then, he knows: Hyunjin has his key.

Christopher takes a step forward, quicker than he can think about it. Hyunjin steps back, but all Christopher cares about is his key in the other person’s hand.
How many others’ keys does he have? How did he get a hold of Christopher’s key?

Hyunjin gulps and steps back into the door.

“I said what I wanted you to know,” he mutters.

“Now, Hyunjin, listen-“

Hyunjin’s face contorts into a mask of what looks like pain. He darts away from the door, into the hallway, out of the apartment. Christopher sprints after him. He hates himself for wasting a second to put on his shoes. Hyunjin’s footsteps echo down the stairway. Christopher rushes after the sound, not bothering to lock the door. It’s one floor, to floors, three floors down. Hyunjin is panting. The entrance door slams shut.

*

Once Christopher is on the street, he’s immediately engulfed by the crowd of people rushing to work. He sees Hyunjin disappear between two women who giggle at him.

Christopher feels it know, the tugging in his chest as the key gets taken further and further away from him. It’s almost painful, makes him want to chase after it and curl up into a tight crying ball at the same time.

Next thing he knows, his head collides with someone’s shoulder, and it hurts. The man yells at him, says many bad things. For that short moment, Christopher feels his pain. He knows everything about this person: the man's daughter went missing, and his wife was completely taken over by guilt. For a second, Christopher knows everything about the man.

The man opens his mouth and yells, “You’re so useless!”

That’s right, Christopher thinks. He really is useless.

He hears a click in his head, and then he remembers nothing.

*

That’s not exactly correct. This time, he still remembers his name, and who he is, and where he is. He’s Christopher. He's the leader of a rebellion group. He's standing in the middle of District One, the most well-developed district. They're in the outer circle. He has memory issues, and finding himself completely lost in the middle of the street is normal. But – and this is most important – what is he doing here, in this exact spot?

He looks around. His shadow moves behind him, speechless. The building where he lives is a few minutes away. Through the big street full of people, to the right, into a smaller street.

Christopher turns around. He keeps looking and looking at them every day and nothing ever makes sense. They have huge banners with slogans, such as "save the humanity!" and "fight for a better cause!" and "do not let great talent go to waste!". They must've told him what these words mean but he doesn't remember. It has something to do with the rebellion, too. The banners are big, and red, with the lettering in white.

People walk past him. He’s pushed to the left. Pushed to the right. Someone mutters a profanity, most likely at him, for standing there.

Why is he here? Why is he on the sidewalk, his jacket wide open despite the chilly autumn air? What is he chasing after?

A pull in his chest tugs him to the left. He follows it, colliding with an elderly man. His head hurts, he feels like it might split in two halves from the pain. The man yells at him for being disrespectful, but Christopher doesn’t pay attention to him. The pull is now stronger, leading him into a narrow alleyway. He feels fear and adrenaline creeping up his spine, and he knows they don’t belong to him. He knows they aren’t his emotions.

For a second, he sees it. A group of men surrounding him, cornering him. His chest hurts and it’s hard to breathe, but he feels someone’s warm and steady presence right by his side. These aren't his visions, too.

Christopher shakes it off, physically shakes his head. His brain rattles around in his skull. These mirages, they happen sometimes. He can’t quite place a name to them. There’s only one thing he knows: the images help him find his members in dangerous situations. Now, he knows where he has to go.

*

Almost running, he turns around the corner. And again. And again. He passes tall buildings and serious people, all of them wearing neat clean clothes, almost like robots. He feels like a freak because he's not even dressed properly. They look at him but are careful to not stare. Staring is not accepted. Crossing the street without actually looking, he hears a few cars honk. He doesn’t care. The pain in his chest is now worse from more punches someone in his group took.
The city around him doesn’t end; it’s like an endless jungle. But, when he’s out of his breath from the running and anxiety and the pain, he sees them.

*

A group of men surrounds Changbin and Felix. These men hate the sheer fact of Felix’s existence and they already attacked him before. They always said it was obvious he was a foreigner, and foreigners weren’t welcome in District One.

It's a narrow alleyway, and something in this scene seems so cliché to him, Christopher almost laughs. The alley is between two respectable houses, but something must've gone wrong when they were being built. It's really an interesting case because the streets in District One are all lined up perfectly, everything is measured with great precision. This narrow patch of a street that exits into a bigger road a few meters away looks like it might be a door into another dimension for how out-of-place it is. A few trash bins, perfectly clean and organized, are there. No windows. Very little sunlight. The men are with their backs to Christopher, but even like that, he can see their perfect haircuts, perfect clothes, perfect postures. Everything about the attackers is so neat, it almost seems surreal they could hurt someone. Felix looks scared, and his nose is bleeding. Changbin looks angry and like he might actually kill someone without any remorse.

Christopher doesn't think about the key anymore, or about the girl who went missing. He doesn't even remember about them at this point. The pain in his head makes him nauseous, and it's getting a little bit scary. But now, all he cares about are those people, breathing heavily, summoning their strength for a new attack. He needs to stop this before his friends get hurt again. Before anyone else gets hurt ever again.

“Hey!” Christopher calls.

A few of the men turn to look at him. He sees it in their eyes and their posture; they’d fight for doing what they think is right. And in their opinion, killing Felix is right.

“Oh look, baby’s mommy is here,” one of the assaulters chuckles. “I was wondering if you’d show up. Did you hear your little whore cry and come to save her?”

There is a split second of electricity crackling in the air before Felix launches at the man with more force than Christopher ever expected him to have. He grabs the man’s neck in a sick hold and – Christopher holds his breath – gets stopped by Changbin.

"Stop it," Changbin hisses. "You'll get all of us in trouble. Felix, stop!"

Christopher's head hurts.

Felix fights back but stops after a few seconds. Now, he hears what Changbin heard. He hears the sirens.

Christopher didn’t expect a police patrol to show up. He still wants to fight. The pain is now unbearable, and it's making him angry. But he hears a voice, a familiar voice that cuts through the fog in his head. The voice orders them to stop.

The voice has a magical tone to it. Once it orders, any man obeys immediately.

Felix goes limp in Changbin's grip. Everyone freezes. They should make a run for it; it's so easy to get lost among the people who walk the streets daily. And yet, the men don't move a muscle.

Minho and Jisung, both wearing police uniforms, are in the opening of the alleyway. Jisung is more serious than even during the rebellion meetings. He has a shock gun pointed at the group of men, and he will fire once one of them moves an inch. Minho glances at Christopher briefly and then looks at Changbin and Felix. He reaches for his radio and calls for medical help. From behind their backs, Christopher can see a few strangers. These people must’ve called the patrol, and to his surprise, Christopher is so thankful to them. He's collapsing, the pull in his chest is so strong, and the pain in his head so sharp he's almost blinded. He wouldn't be able to protect Felix and Changbin from the attack.

He limps towards the wall but keeps a close eye on Felix and Changbin. Felix seems to be coming to his senses, and Changbin talks to him lowly. As Minho instructs the group of men to enter the police van, Jisung comes over to Christopher. He asks something, quietly, but the world is dimming for Christopher. He doesn't hear a word, and he can barely see Jisung. The fight is over, he failed to save his team members once again. And yet, there is an empty feeling in his chest, like he’d lost something important.

*

He must’ve passed out for a few minutes. In these minutes, he sees it again: an old ruined city, yellowish from dust and hard on his feet. He can’t breathe because there’s too much sand in the air, and the sun burns his skin. The city has something he needs, but all he can see around him are ruins. It’s his fault the city lays destroyed.

Keys jingle. There’s someone behind him, and Christopher turns around to look at the person. But instead of Hyunjin as he expects, he sees Minho.
Minho shakes his head and gives an order. He says, “Wake up.”

*

The alleyway is the same as Christopher left it, for a small exception. Instead of the men who always attack Felix, Christopher sees his entire group.

Changbin and Seungmin are talking to Felix a couple of centimeters away. Christopher feels like there’s a glass wall between them. Hyunjin is also here - why shouldn't he be here?

Woojin and Jeongin are right in front of Christopher, and it’s Woojin’s hand that keeps tapping his cheek. Like a broken vinyl, Woojin repeats the same two words. Wake up.

“We should call Hyunjin. He’d know what to do,” Jeongin mutters, his voice tight.

Woojin shakes his head. “It’s fine, don’t worry. See, he’s coming back to us. Christopher, can you hear me?”

Christopher hears him, but the feeling of an old scorched city is still fresh on his skin. He can’t quite decide if he’s in the alleyway or if he’s standing on the ruins of a city he’s never been to with a key on his chest.

The tapping on his cheek is persistent. Christopher blinks a few times, and the city disappears completely. It’s the alleyway now, and the sound of the police car taking off.

“There you go,” Woojin smiles. “You back with us?”

Christopher nods and sits upright. He winces as the same feeling pulls on his chest. He still can’t put a name on it, but this emptiness makes him want to chase after something. Anything. He wants to dig the ground with his bare fingernails if it will help him to fill this emptiness.

He hears Felix talking near him, and he knows the boy is alright. Could be a little concussed, but he'll heal.

“Felix is alright,” Hyunjin says, coming over to Christopher. “A few bruises. What about you though, huh?”

Woojin and Jeongin move to the side, giving Hyunjin some space. Christopher stares at him and feels dumb.

He looks around. Everyone seems normal. Changbin pulled Felix upright and is now brushing the dust off of him. Woojin, Jeongin, and Hyunjin are all in front of Christopher. He can see them as clearly as he saw the city a few moments prior. He remembers Hyunjin who left with the patrol van. Hyunjin had his left hand bandaged, and the fabric looks fresh. It’s normal for human beings to get hurt and to have their hands bandaged up to avoid infection. Yet, Christopher is worried about him.

"Christopher?" Woojin calls to get his attention. "Do you hear us?"

"Ah, yeah, sorry," he mumbles. "I'm fine. Are Changbin and Felix okay?"

Woojin nods and glances to where the two are now talking in hushed voices, clearly arguing.

"Hyunjin suggested to get Felix help, too, but he rejected," Seungmin mutters, coming to them. "I think he should. He looks, like- overwhelmed."

"He's orange," Jeongin mutters, almost inaudible. "He's in pain."

"Of course he's in pain, his nose must've been broken."

"No, in like, not the real pain."

Jeongin goes on to explain to Seungmin what Felix's emotions taste like. Jeongin can taste people's emotions. Not all of them, only the strongest ones. It's an incredible ability, but just like anything, it comes at a cost.

Christopher looks at Woojin, and for the first time in a while, he notices how tired the person in front of him is.

His eyes aren't the same dark brown anymore. The color is dimmed now, its hues graying out. His mouth is a constant line of concentration like he's desperately trying to pull himself together. Even his hair and his clothes look like they've been ashed over.

Instead of asking what's wrong with him, Christopher says, "What will happen to those men?"

Woojin startles and moves a few millimeters closer to Christopher. His voice is tight when he asks, "You've had another blackout?"

For a second, Christopher stares at him. Right. He has memory issues. Blackouts.

He nods.

Woojin sighs and sits back on his heels. For a second, he considers Christopher with tired eyes. Christopher feels like a small boy under his gaze.

"Let's get out of here," Woojin says finally. "I hate this place."

Christopher feels like a small boy who’s done something wrong.

He calls Jeongin and Seungmin for help, and together, they haul Christopher to his feet. Felix is clearly trying to stay away from him, and Changbin rolls his eyes.

"He wanted to resolve this by himself, like an adult," Changbin says as they step out into the daylight. The headache comes back to attack Christopher. "Now he's pissed that you came to rescue him."

Christopher falls behind his friends to match Changbin's leveled pace. For a second, he considers everything he just heard.

"Next time, I'll just leave him to get beaten up," Christopher mutters finally. He looks at Felix's straight back as the boy walks in front of them. Of course, he doesn’t mean that, but Felix’s hostility hurts.

Changbin laughs because, apparently, it's a good joke.

*

District Nine doesn’t exist on maps. This is what they call themselves, the rebels of District One. Christopher formed the group, but he doesn’t remember how he chose them. They aren’t exactly centralized, with a base in his living room and one of the old factories in the outskirts. From the rooftop, they have a perfect overview of the first district. The rest of the city remains invisible.
In District One, people survive no matter what. They’re the ones who could be useful to society. The higher the district, the better the living conditions, the more useful the people. District Eight is the ugly thing that lies at the bottom of the city. They say it’s full of old drunkards, uneducated people, and criminals.

They would have to wait for a signal from the underground rebellion leaders before they started a fight against the district one leader and the mayor. They kept close contact with someone deeper in the city premises. These people managed a multi-leveled network of rebel camps. Once Cristopher got himself and the others from the outer layer, they’d be safe with the rebels.
The signal would come any day now. After that, their plan, the one they had planned with such care, will be in full work. There won’t be any going back then.

*

As he walks from his shitty job to the base, thoughts are running in his mind like a bunch of wild rabbits. The fight in the alleyway is still fresh in his memory. None of them were exactly hurt in the end. Felix got a mild concussion, and Changbin took him home. Christopher was more traumatized from yet another amnesia spell than anything. He spent the entire evening trying to remember what he forgot.

Hyunjin suggested he probably went out of the house to meet up with someone, and then something happened, and he forgot. It sounded like it could be true. Hyunjin wouldn't tell him what happened to his left hand though, and why he had it bandaged. It, in turn, looked suspicious.

Eventually, he gets to the base. Every evening for the past few days, they meet up there, everyone doing their thing. They’re waiting for the same message.

He likes to look around when he walks. Beautiful, perfectly organized high-rises and middle-sized buildings go up in the sky. District One is the only district that sees the sky, and the sky is reflected in the glass panels.

People in District One are always dressed neatly, and cleanly, and all the different things Christopher doesn’t feel exactly comfortable with. Making a good impression is the most important thing to them. If they could, they’d probably polish themselves with some kind of a device to have their skin shiny and pretty.

They’re polite and nice to each other. If someone expresses their anger, it’s usually not a good thing.

Someone yelled at him, Christopher remembers. He doesn’t remember who it was.

He’s useless.

The building is old and abandoned, but still completely functional. Christopher takes an elevator to the rooftop where they usually meet. The elevator feels old, and it has all sorts of scribbles inside. Christopher never bothers to see what they actually say.

The building is completely empty except for them. Christopher doesn’t remember why they chose to meet up there.

It’s the same as usual, on the roof. Everyone is busy. They don't pay too much mind to Christopher’s arrival, only greeting him shortly.

Christopher falls into a familiar routine. He checks up on everyone, looks at the city, makes sure their alarm systems were still in place.

The roof has a few couches, a random fence that is there for no reason, a table and an old, beaten up TV. Sometimes it comes alive and blabbers out some old show. Christopher doesn’t even know what year it is in the city. He feels like years are a concept but he’s not so sure anymore.

Of all the times when Jisung could yell, he chooses the moment when Christopher makes himself tea. He stands at the table, thinks about the rebellion, overlooks District One, waits for the shitty tea to prepare. He can’t shake off the feeling that he forgot something, but for the life of him, he has no idea what it can be.

Jisung busts through the roof door; startles Minho out of his bliss. He stands in the middle of the entrance for a second, panting, and announces, “We start tomorrow!”

Why isn't Jisung at the station? Doesn't he have a shift?

Christopher’s cup shatters. The tea spills all over the roof and his sneakers. Those are the only sneakers he owns and his last teabag. He didn’t plan for the instructions to take so long to arrive.

(He didn’t even plan to live for so long).

“Jisung, for heaven’s sake!” Minho yells back and shuts his laptop with a little more force than necessary. “Could you be a little less excited about overthrowing the government?”

“Could you please not yell about us planning to overthrow the government?” Changbin mutters; his own teacup in hands, Felix at his side on the couch. They look way too peaceful, both of them.
Seungmin seems enthusiastic though. He arrives right after Jisung, pushes him away from the door, and drags Hyujnin outside. Hyunjin tries to hold onto a doorframe (lame) and fails. He still has a screw in one hand and machine oil on his face, so he must’ve been working on something. Hopefully, it – whatever that thing is - doesn't develop a conscious mind and start a rebellion of its own.

(They don't need any competition. Or help).

For the record, Seungmin doesn’t look any more collected. He has green paint under his left eye and a brush between his teeth.

“This is so dumb,” Hyunjin complains for everyone to hear. “This is so, so dumb, our-“

The others are already here, on the rooftop of an old abandoned building.

As experienced rebels, in less than a minute, everyone takes a seat on the couch around the projector. Collected, prepared for their mission. Jeongin shivers though because the night is abnormally cold for this time of the year. They don't have any warm clothes yet, and if winter comes earlier this year, they’d be in great trouble.

Christopher looks at their thin complexions, tired faces, grayish skin. He feels it stronger than ever. He has to save them, to get them out.

Jisung sets the projector, a tiny cylinder, in the middle of a couch circle, and launches an image of a map. A few personal profiles and a long list of names, dates, and places appears on a second projection.

“A’ight, so, “ Jisung announces. He vibrates with excitement like a little puppy.

“We gonna die finally?” Minho remarks. “I’m kinda tired, and my head hurts like hell. Please shoot me.”

Cristopher coughs to cover up his laugh.

Jisung glares at Minho. He starts explaining while holding a staring contest with him. “The new instructions. In short, they state that we have to start with the mayor of the district. They believe he knows where the actual president is, and who runs the entire system. If we find out, if we actually find out like for real, we could finally stop them. All of them.”

“Nobody knows where the real president is. Nobody knows how to stop the system. That’s exactly why our group exists,” Hyunjin huffs. He motions to the huge photo of the current mayor. The man looks like a pig hybrid. “How could he know?”

“Because he’s, like, the mayor of a capital?” Felix replies. “Isn’t the capital, like, a marionette of the state here?”

Jisung shuts his mouth and pouts. It was his question to answer.

Hyunjin stares at Felix like he grew a second head. “That’s exactly what they want us to believe, you moron, and even you-“

“So!” Jisung continues. Now, this is an appropriate time for him to yell, thank you very much. “I’ve sent a complete file to everyone with details about your legend, and who you are, and stuff. It’s gonna be simple, they did a cool job this time, and put a lot of effort into-“

"Someone escaped from the school?" Seungmin exclaims, reading from the screen.

“Yep!” Jisung announces, switching to another file. Names flash, too fast to read. “The school’s authorities try to hide it, but there’s like a huge breach in their dome now, the energy is all over the place. Nobody knows what effects it will take on the people, and nobody even knows for sure what actually was in there. So, citizens also don’t know yet. They won’t tell them unless it’s necessary.”
Jisung is having too much fun.

The last night’s nightmare came to Christopher’s mind. He saw the members dead right in front of his eyes. Every single one of them, murdered by a different thing. And there wasn’t anyone else. There wasn’t anyone else left in the world for Christopher, and it was terrifying.

“When’d they escape?” Woojin asks.

“A few days ago,” Jisung shrugs. “The file doesn’t state the exact date. Authorities responsible for the School are losing their minds."

“Who does the school belong to, again?” Changbin asks. “Is it affiliated with any city?”

“They don’t know.”

"How is school even relevant to us?"

Felix chuckles and whispers something to Changbin’s ear. Changbin smiles.

The night falls over them. Woojin and Jeongin get up to turn on the lamps and fairy lights.

Before they can leave, Jisung speaks again. “Also, they said- they said if we do everything well if we find the info, they will help us go home.”

Everyone freezes. Then, Minho’s voice speaks, distant like it's coming from underwater. “We can’t go home. Our home doesn’t even exist anymore.”

“They say it does,” Jisung shrugs again, still acting nonchalant. He, too, looks terrified. “Read the file, Minho, I sent it to you. They say it’s still there. They will take us there.”

Jeongin sways on his feet. Woojin sits him back on the couch. For a few moments, nobody moves. A promise to come back home is too cruel to turn into a lie. And if it is a lie, there would be nothing to hope for in this world anymore.

“But I don’t think we should be doing it,” Hyunjin says, biting on a screw handle, deep in thought. “It’s not our fight after all.”

Felix stares at him. “But we agreed to it, didn’t we? We swore and stuff.”

“We’re still working for someone we haven’t even seen,” Changbin adds. “He said he will help us with the revolution, he said everything will be better when he’s on the throne. But will it?”

“We can’t do anything but trust him,” Christopher reminds. “We tried it before, remember? We tried, and we failed. We’re too young to do something by ourselves, and something needs to be done now. We can’t wait until we grow up or whatever.”

“But it’s still not our fight,” Hyunjin stresses. He points the brush’s sharp end at the hologram like it offended him. “This is that guy’s battle for power. He might leave everything as it is, or even make stuff worse. We have no guarantees.”

“Hyunjin, we have been doing it for ages-“

“-and everything we’ve done before was much, much easier!” Hyunjin exclaims. “What have we done before? We’ve stopped a few arrests. Made some ruckus here and there, and we helped some people escape. We even arranged a demonstration but we never participated in it, did we? And that’s what the others told us we did! We are the leading group but none of us even remembered our names a few months ago, we had a complete wipeout! We don’t even know how this world works yet.”

“Hyunjin,” Seungmin calls softly. He always tried to mediate when Hyunjin got too passionate. “Hyunjin, listen-“

“Now, think about it,” Hyunjin continues, shaking Seungmin’s hand off his shoulder. “If we go against the current government, what will be left of us? It’s not playing around, this plan involves us taking the mayor hostage and threatening him! They will pulverize us if that’s what their soul will please and they will not feel remorse for a second! Do you think that mysterious guy who keeps sending us assignments, you think he’s gonna stand up for us? He’ll leave us to rot, find someone else, run the whole thing all over again!”

This was by far the longest Hyunjin has ever spoken during a meeting. His eyes shine, and the passion is almost suspicious. Even Seungmin eyes him worriedly.

“You seem way too invested in the idea of the rebellion being fake,” Changbin mutters. “Is there something you know that we’re not aware of?”

Hyunjin gasps. “You’re not even listening-“

Christopher’s patience snaps like a guitar chord. As he gets up, he hears Jeongin gasp. “If you don’t want to be doing it, fine,” he says. “You can leave. We’ll manage without you.”

The others sit still and quiet. Christopher immediately regrets his harsh tone, but it has the effect he needs. Hyunjin sighs, exasperated, and turns away.

He doesn't move to leave, and that’s what matters.

Christopher knows they're scared. Hyunjin is right, they don't have any memories about most of their life. They know they had a home somewhere and that they're not allowed to come back. Other district members told them about it. These members greeted them after an incident where they lost all their memories. They gave them all the information they needed to know about themselves.

“Does anyone else have any concerns?” Christopher asks. “Voice them now. We are doing this, whether you want it or not. This might be our only chance to do something meaningful in our entire life. I’m not losing it, and I’m not letting the current system to keep torturing people.”

For a few moments, there's silence. The wind carries sounds from the city, cars honking, trains leaving and arriving. The city's behind Christopher’s back, a wall of artificial lights and high-rises.

“I don’t want any of you to get hurt,” he continues. “All I want you to do is to have a good life. Nothing else.”

The others are silent.

When someone speaks, Christopher least expects it to be Seungmin.

“I sort of agree with Hyunjin," he says.

Out of the corner of his eye, Christopher sees Minho and Jisung exchange glances. The tension among them is palpable.

“I’m just saying,” Seungmin rushes, “that I’m the only one who has some kind of a family here. In this whole group, I’m the only one. And I- I don’t want them to do anything to her, okay?”

“Why do you think they would threaten your sister?” Woojin calls. Christopher feels worry emanating from him in waves.

Seungmin opens his mouth a few times, looking for words, before he speaks, eyes downcast. “I don’t know. I think they might. To, you know, make me shut up and convince you to drop the entire rebellion act.”

“I’m not an expert, but he might be right,” Jeongin says. “None of us have anything to lose here, at least nothing that we know of. But he,” Jeongin gestures towards Seungmin, “he does. We should let him sit this one out at least.”

Changbin laughs. “It’s a good thing you mention ‘not that we know of’. Can we please discuss a little bit the fact that none of us remembers a single thing? Didn’t we all, like, lose every single one of our memories in the last big assignment? We don’t even know if our names actually belong to us, it’s what the others in the district told us they were.”

“What, you think this is some huge conspiracy?” Minho says. He leans back on the couch, the laptop still in place. Now, when everyone is calm, he looks least bothered by his surroundings. Like a cat observing foolish humans running around. “The others in the district, are they some, what, marionettes? You by any chance happen to have evidence?”

“I’m not exactly with Changbin here,” Felix speaks, his words level and measured. Felix’s deep voice startles Jeongin on Christopher’s left. Without looking, Christopher puts a hand on the boy’s knee, and feels how on edge he is. “I’m not exactly with Changbin, but can we at least make a back-up plan? In case this all is a huge conspiracy, and we get caught between a rock and a hard place. Seungmin has his sister to lose, but we have our lives. I don’t know about you all, but I would like to keep mine for a bit longer.”

“Only when you reject your material life, can you transcend to a new level of being,” Minho sing-songs. Jisung muffles a laugh.

Hyunjin glares at both of them. “If you find everything a joke, you might as well say if there is anything that bothers you in the assignment. Just so that we’re clear. The both of you.”

Minho smiles at him so sweetly, Christopher’s teeth hurt. “The only thing that bothers me here is that I will have to work with you. I’d love to avoid that if I could. Other than that, everything is manageable.”

“Any other concerns?” Christopher calls before this escalates.

It's Jeongin this time. “I’m worried about, like- about, you know, us.”

“And what about us?” Woojin prompts.

“We’re not ready.”

To Christopher’s surprise, everyone keeps silent this time. The others avoid each other’s eyes now. They look everywhere, staring into the ink black night as if something waits there for them.

(It does, in fact. Death is waiting. Maybe not for all of them, though.)

“We’re not ready because we still don’t have our memories back,” Jeongin continues when no one interrupts him. “Hyunjin’s right, there isn’t much we remember of ourselves and of the world around us. But we remember nothing of ourselves, too. We don’t even remember if we could trust each other. And, okay, we know that Minho could order anyone around and the person would follow. We know that I can taste your emotions. But we know nothing more.”

The others keep silent. An entire army of shivers marches up and down Christopher’s back.

“Another group should take the assignment,” Jeongin concludes. “Someone who is certain of their strength, and someone who knows their limits.”

Even though Hyunjin nods and Felix stares at the hologram, Christopher feels their doubts. A failure would mean death, a painful kind of one. They heard stories on how the government has worked its way through any rebellion there was. And so, the boys sitting with him on the roof are scared.

Jisung speaks next. “We’re speaking too much of boundaries and not enough of how it is our last chance to do something. How long do we have to live in this secluded district where everything happens by the rules? Do you see what happens to the elders here?"

"So you're afraid to end up like them? You're afraid you'd end up being useless?" Minho asks, looking at him.

"Yes."

"And to avoid that, you'd do anything? Risk your life? Risk a warm roof over your head, give up a careless life?"

"Yes."

Without another word, Minho gets up and high fives him.

"I- I might agree with Jisung," Woojin muses.

"Me too," Felix blurts. "I'd rather not rot here without any attempts to get out."

"Well, if you say it like that-" Changbin mutters.

Hyunjin huffs and crosses his arms on his chest. Seungmin whispers something to his ear.

*

And so, after a quarrel and a lot of discussions, they start their final preparations. They don’t have much time; the ceremony is to be held in two days. There's a lot of coordination to complete.

The others were right, of course. The assignment is vague, with a lot of grey area, and way too many things left to chance.

Because they belong to District One, it won't be hard for them to access the mayor's greeting ceremony.

District Eight is for renegades, outcasts, exiles. It's for those who have done something wrong, but not wrong enough to execute them. Once you land in the district, it’s almost as if you never existed for the rest of the world. It’s at the bottom of the city, on level eight.

District One is exactly the opposite.

Christopher doesn't remember how he ended up here. None of them do. Their fellow rebellion mates told them something, but clearly not everything. And even when they did, it was all vague, questionable.

A few hours later after the meeting, Christopher finds himself on the roof once again.

Minho started typing away on his laptop, hacking into surveillance cameras. Jisung is overlooking the plan of the streets, memorizing every tiny turn. Jisung can remember anything to the smallest detail, and in this setting, his skill is incredibly valuable.

Hyunjin still looks weird to Christopher. For some reason, it's as if a very important memory has been lost, and it has something to do with Hyunjin personally.

*

After a few minutes spent inside his head, Christopher feels motion by his side. He turns his head, and he sees Woojin.

Looking over the city, Woojin asks, “Do you think we’re doing the right thing after all?”

Christopher, in turn, glances at Hyunjin and Seungmin, both planning for something. They should all go to sleep. He can’t change their minds and convince them to come with them, and now new questions wouldn’t leave him alone. Could they really trust each other? Would they not betray them?

“I think we’re doing what we have to do,” Christopher says, finally, not daring to look up and see the question in Woojin’s eyes. “I think we’re building a better future, and that’s what matters.”

Woojin hums quietly as if he doesn't really trust Christopher's word. Christopher hates this quality of his when he acts like he knows everyone's thoughts and feelings, but doesn't comment on it. Usually, he can deal with it pretty well, but this time, it's making him incredibly angry.

He has to take a deep breath and excuse himself. Good leaders don’t lash out.

As he moves to the exit, Jisung and Minho rush by him and disappear into the night. They must’ve once again forgotten they had a shift.

Christopher watches them hop onto their bikes and pedal away into the night. It makes him feel nostalgic. In a few days, there won’t be any more shifts.

*

Thoughts run around in his head as he walks home. They collide with each other, explode like supernovae and generally make an unpleasant mess. Christopher lets them. He thinks about the ways to solve the issue: Jeongin is completely horrible at acting. They need someone to be on the back-up; maybe Jeongin could do well there? But he's too young to live him all by himself, and even like that-

He's about to enter his apartment when he hears steps shuffle behind him. He freezes for a second, a thousand thoughts flashing through his mind. Is it a trap? Is the whole operation a trap? Did they come after him, to take him down, to get rid of him?

There hasn’t been much resistance or much rebellion before. And it couldn’t be for no reason.

When he turns around, ready to fight, there isn’t anyone but Eric, their local dummy. Nobody knows what exactly happened to Eric, and how he ended in district one. Someone said that he was born like that and his parents tried to cover him up so that the government wouldn’t take him away.

Eric has never harmed anyone. He's around fourteen years old, skinny like the death itself. Christopher heard that some lady has picked him up and started to take care of him. Eric tends to pop up in most unexpected places and most unexpected times, and speaks most unexpected words.

“I heard you were departing soon,” Eric says.

For a second, Christopher debates whether he should answer or leave. How did he find out? Should Christopher answer him? Eric could tell someone else, he could jeopardize everything. At the same time, when someone refuses to speak to him, he screams. Christopher doesn't need a fourteen-years-old screaming in front of his house.

“Yeah, it’s nothing big,” Christopher chuckles and rubs his neck. “We’ll come back real quick. You won’t even notice we were gone!”

“You won’t come back,” Eric says slowly, looking somewhere up at the sky. “The path will be long and exhausting. None of you is coming back.”

Christopher doesn’t answer. With Eric, it's easier to let him speak whatever he wants to say.

“You must make an effort. Don't lose yourselves in your journey,” Eric sing-songs. His face is yellowish under the street light. “You have to take good, good care of yourselves. Don’t lose yourselves. You lose yourself, and you get the chance to have the entire world on your palm. But then, you will never know what or who you are.”

“Okay,” Christopher smiles at him reassuringly. “We will take very good care of ourselves. Thank you.”

Eric continues as if he didn't hear him. “But if you want to know my opinion, it’s so much better to lose your tiny useless self, if you can exchange it for a world.”

“Okay,” Christopher says.

And like that, Eric vanishes. Christopher shrugs - there isn't anything he can say anyway.

His feet hurt. As he gets up to his apartment, he doesn't remember how he chased after Hyunjin. The only thing on his mind is the rebellion that starts so soon.

His apartment isn't anything fancy. It's standard: one room connected to the kitchen, white walls, a bed, a desk, a closet. He debates taking a shower, but today, the world is too heavy on his shoulders.

He collapses on his bed and falls asleep.

*

It's the same dream over and over again, and Christopher doesn't know why. He sees the city, the old ruined city, except this time it isn't ruined. It's on fire.

People's screams fill up his head. The heat on his heat should be leaving blisters. Fire licks on his clothes but leaves no traces.

But when he blinks, the fire is gone. The city is still in ruins, but there are no traces of fire. Only broken pieces of concrete.

A shadow lurks in this city, and he takes a step towards it. Another, another, and another. A second later, he is chasing after a shadow in the ruins.

*

Next evening, as they’re preparing for a big final party, he finds out the police visited his apartment at night.

Minho takes him by the elbow and talks to him in a low voice. Jisung hovers nearby, and both look nervous.

They don’t have any evidence, Minho tells him, they just wanted to ensure he was safe for the city. It was a short trip. They kept on banging on his door and Christopher never opened.

“I had to order them,” Minho whispers, more to himself than to Christopher. “I had to order them to leave. Told them you actually opened and they checked you and you were safe. If they find out-“

“Are you okay?” Christopher says to stop Minho’s anxious muttering. “You don’t like messing with people’s free will, I know that. Are you okay now?”

For a minute, there’s silence between them. Minho worries his lower lip and doesn’t say anything.

“Did you know we were coming?” he asks finally. “Did you know you were in danger?”

“In danger?” Christopher asks. “What danger?”

Minho’s lips turn into a thin line.

“Let’s just all sleep together tonight,” he says finally. “Like, here. On the roof. It’s harder to take us down when we’re all together.”

Christopher has questions. Christopher wants to know what’s going on. And yet, he doesn’t have a chance to ask properly; Minho gets dragged away by Jisung.

Chapter Text

The things that Minho knows about himself: he's the third oldest in their group. He works as a policeman, but he's not sure why. They said his family abandoned him because he was too violent as a child, and that he was put to a special school that helped him with that. Minho doesn't remember going to school. He doesn't remember anything before he woke up in a hospital in District One, with a nice lady telling him things about himself. He remembers everything she told him, word for word. "You are safe here, Minho. Safer than you'd ever be anywhere on Earth."

The countries, Minho, don't exist anymore, she said. The world, Minho, doesn't exist anymore. The only place left is this city, divided into districts. Out of which, district one is the best district to find yourself in, and it lies in the outer circle. It's the nicest district, she says. The further you go, the worse it gets.

Minho believes her, because what choice does he have here?

He remembers everything she told him. He knows the others remember what was told to them, too, and he doesn't know if their story was the same. He also knows that Christopher doesn't remember anything exactly, and lives with a constant jumbled mess for thoughts. He wouldn't want to find himself in Christopher's head one day.

The morning before the rebellion, they're all piled up on the roof after a party in the middle of the night. He woke up disoriented, Jisung’s warm breathes tickled the side of his neck, his arm thrown over Minho’s stomach. Carefully, Minho untangled himself from Jisung; a task that required a lot of precision. For a minute, he stood there, on the roof, looking at all his friends sleeping together. He could count it on the fingers of one hand, how many meetings they had without biting at each other’s throats. One time, Jisung set Hyunjin off with, apparently, the mere fact of his existence. And then, there was a time when Christopher was so tired, he started lashing out on people for no reason.

He still has a case on his desk back in the police office. He promised one of his co-workers to go out with her, and he said he’d host his elder’s cat while the elder takes a vacation. Minho loves cats, and cats love him back.

There’s still food in his fridge back home, a pile of laundry that he’s been meaning to do but never got to it. A present for Jisung that he bought long ago. He was meaning to buy a wrapping for it next time he goes grocery shopping.

He will finish all of this. When the rebellion is over and they succeed, he will come back to his old life.

His thoughts land on Woojin for some reason. He can never tell what Woojin is thinking and what his motives are. The others are clear as day. Christopher wants justice, Changbin is bored, Felix feels overwhelmed by the constant grief emanating from everyone around him. Seungmin and Hyunjin are somewhat similar: they still hope to find their families and make everything right. Jisung is mainly looking for an adventure and for a chance to make himself useful, as if being a policeman isn’t useful enough. Minho himself, too, has some motives – or at least, he used to, which he’s not so sure about anymore.

And then there’s Woojin. Woojin smiles and says nice things, Woojin’s eyes are warm and his presence steady. And yet, there is something underneath that façade, that scares Minho and makes Felix avoid him.

He thinks of the men he took to the police station a few days ago. He was supposed to put them to a temporary cell, and wait for clear instructions on how to proceed with them. He was also supposed to take Changbin, Felix and Christopher with him, as victims and witnesses. And yet, recently, they were given clear instructions to not let civilians inside the station, unless for arrest. Once the arrested stepped a foot inside the building, he was immediately met with a nice man with a badge who took him off Minho’s hands. Chatting idly, the nice man with a badge – a different man every time – would walk the arrested down the hallway, and the arrested would never be seen again.

They had an agreement with Jisung to never mention this to anyone because it could cause them a lot of distress. Jisung even suggested quitting their job because he knew that every time they came back from the station, they were drenched in anger and violence emanating from the very walls. Felix and Jeongin both always try to coax them into calmer mindsets every time, and it’s taking its toll on them.

And yet, Minho couldn’t quit. Too many times he redirected the attention away from his friends. They would’ve been caught by the anti-rebellion troops, and frankly, Minho was walking on a thin line between being a free man and being arrested for police crimes. Which was a million times more dangerous, come think of it.

Minho puts on his nonchalant mask and walks out of the room, into the hallway, where Jisung and Jeongin are waiting.

They have a rebellion to succeed in.

*

They are in Christopher’s living room. Some of them still nurse their cups in their hands. They still have a few hours before the procession begins, a few hours before everything starts. Jeongin has left already to prepare for his part.

Everyone looks on edge, and Felix is staring into the space like he’s trying to sort through everyone’s emotions. Minho still doesn’t quite understand how Felix functions, but Changbin once said Felix could feel people’s strong emotions. Kind of like an empath. It’s really funny, because Changbin himself is completely unbothered by anyone’s emotions, including his own.

The plan is simple, Christopher tells them. Jeongin will stay in his apartment, with screens that show surveillance cameras, gracefully hacked by Minho. Jeongin will command them when the procession is clear of danger and they can enter it freely, without attracting too much attention. There will probably be police, Christopher says. Please don’t aggravate them. We don’t want any trouble, and if one of you is caught by the police, you know what happens.

Minho and Jisung share a glance. They know what happens.

Minho himself, he never had to interrogate anyone. He helps to maintain order in the district, and he solves a riddle from time to time. There is a special group that receives anyone suspicious, anyone who is potentially a rebel. Minho had to put his police badge at risk so many times to get any suspicions off of his group, it became a routine. He already knows he’d risk his life for them, as much as he hates to admit it.

What happens at interrogation is that people die. Minho saw it a couple of times, when he was a young trainee and he did something so wrong they wanted to punish him. There was a lot of blood and he might have fainted. The person in front of him, the person they said was a rebel and danger to the society, didn’t look like a human anymore. The policemen around him, the interrogators, didn’t like human either.

After that, he’d wake up with nightmares. First, about being in the interrogation room himself. Then, he’d see every single member of District Nine strapped to that chair, with a red mess instead of a face. He couldn’t sleep for weeks.

Whatever happens, he would never let any of his friends be caught by the anti-rebellion troops. Even if it means he’d have to step into the interrogation room himself.

It really is funny how District One, for all its outward appearance of a clean and clear and tidy and safe space, is so rotten.

“You have to be very careful,” Christopher continues, and Minho, resurfacing from his memories, is so happy to see his face untouched. “Once the last of us enters the procession, we have to walk with the crowd for some time. After the speech, we hide in the warehouse and pick up our weapons. After that, we attack.”

“How, exactly?” Changbin asks. He’s still chewing on his sandwich. “How do we attack?”

Christopher sends him a glance and takes a deep breath. Only then does he speak. “Jeongin will start the recording we obtained last week. Of District Three. It’s supposed to scare them. Once that is done, we take up their place.”

The recording of District Three made Jisung, a policeman, puke in a trash bin. Minho doesn’t want to replay the details of the tape in his head, because he might puke his breakfast out, too.

“What do you think will happen afterwards?” Felix asks, very carefully. He’s playing with the sleeves of his shirt, probably sensing the anxiety in the room. “Once we attack?”

It takes a moment for Christopher to reply. When he does, Minho isn’t fooled by his fake confidence for a second. “After we attack and take him down, everything will be better. Everything will change.”

Changbin actually laughs but nobody hushes him.

*

People pass right by him. Men, women. Older, younger, of different body types and skin tones. Minho walks among them, invisible in the crowd. He couldn’t have found a better cover even if he used the best technology available. He’s just one of them, a neat person with neat thoughts. He’s thankful they don’t have the technology to read into people’s heads.

He can see the others out of the corner of his eye, slowly bleeding into the stream of people. They think they are being secretive, but really, a bunch of young men would be way too noticeable when gathered up together. Under any circumstances.

He notices Jisung to his right, his fingers fidgeting on his thigh, a nervous rhythm. It’s an adapted Morse code that they use to communicate during especially boring meetings and shifts. Jisung says “I just saw an adorable cat”, and Minho can’t help but smile.

Woojin and Christopher blend in on his left, with Christopher trying to look normal and trying way too hard. His posture is almost unnatural. If they attract any suspicion, it will be because of him.

Hyunjin enters last, probably on Jeongin’s signal. Jeongin is just around the corner, tucked in inside his own apartment, the one that oh-so-conveniently happened to be located on the route of the procession.

The people, screaming and cheering and ecstatic, follow the mayor’s car. No wonder they’re so happy to treck after him; nobody has seen him in ages. People must be furious with him for hiding away, and yet, they seem ready to cherish the very sand he walked.

Surrounded by other men in expensive clothing, the mayor sits in his car and litters the streets with money.

Forcing an amazed expression on his face, Minho glances at Christopher, waiting for his signal, or any kind of movement. Christopher’s face remains a stone, and he’s a walking statue.

And so they march, and march, and march, through the streets that Minho has roamed so often at night, feeding the stray cats and reconsidering his life. It seems almost surreal now, that he’s about to give up his fairly normal and pleasant life for some higher idea.

But before he can reconsider his participation, a movement from Christopher’s side catches his attention. Two police officers, wearing polite smiles and celebration caps, approach him from both sides, blocking off any ways for escape.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Something went wrong.

‘Please don’t fight,’ Minho begs mentally, smile not faltering. Knowing Christopher, their leader is infamous for picking fights in situations when it’s least appropriate.

Crouching down, Minho pretends like his shoe tie went loose. Woojin glances briefly at him, walking past. It’s as if they’re synchronized, knowing what the other will do.

Christopher smiles just as politely, his face lighting up with pleasure and joy. They ask him a couple of questions, but quietly. So quietly, Minho doesn’t catch on any words. Christopher replies, just as quietly, with the same damn smile.

And just like that, they let him pass.

None of the people in the crowd notice that something is amiss. They walk on, and on, and on, screaming the very same chants and praise poems. Minho knows the words to every single one of them, but he can’t force himself to say a word.

He gets up just as Christopher passes by him. His heart is beating somewhere in his throat now, strangling him.

Next thing he knows, policemen, same damned smiles on their faces, show up right in front of him.

He didn’t see them approach. It’s almost as if he blinked, and they grew in front of him like some weird magical trees.

A millimeter away from crashing into their chests, Minho stops in his tracks and stares at them. All words suddenly left his mind, and he’s not even sure if he would be able to speak if asked.

“Excuse me, sir,” one of the policeman says, the same damned smile on his face. “Would you mind telling me how you learned about this event?”

Minho opens his mouth. Then closes it. Opens and closes again. No words come out.

He might as well blurt out something like “yeah, a special organization that I’ve never talked to sent me the info. Otherwise, I would’ve been home now, because I have a first day off in like a month.” He doesn’t.

Just as he notices one of the policeman press a button on his radio and the other one reach out for a weapon, Jisung is at his side.

“Minho! There you are! I was so worried, you almost gave me a heart attack!”

Minho stares at him dumbly, Jisung’s fingers digging in his forearm so hard it actually hurts. He does his best not to pull away, kills the instinct to free himself.

“Is this your friend, sir?” the policeman asks, addressing Jisung.

“Yes, he is, officer!” Jisung beams. “I’m sorry, he’s mute. We weren’t supposed to get separated, but it’s pretty hard in this crowd-“

The crowd, despite its exaltation and sheer numbers, is horrifyingly organized. To lose someone here, you’d have to tie a scarf over your eyes and turn three times for good measure.

Jisung is so obviously lying, he could get both of them sent in for interrogation.

The policemen look at them, studying their clothes and face expressions. Finally, one of them says, “I shall repeat myself, then. How did you learn about this event?”

“We saw it happening,” Jisung lies. “And we figured out pretty quickly that this is our mayor visiting us. We thought we would come out, and support him!”

“And what’s the mayor’s name, huh?” the second policeman asks.

Minho’s blood runs cold. They don’t know.

“They have the trackers,” one of the policemen muses, looking somewhere on Minho’s neck.

Just as Jisung opens his mouth to probably blurt out another lie – they’re cornered now, and sooner or later, the policemen would find out that they couldn’t care less about the mayor – a voice spoke over the radio on the policeman’s belt. The voice orders everyone to come immediately and quietly to a building that Minho knows is three minutes away from where they’re standing right now, and where they have set up a distraction.

With a last look over Minho and Jisung, the policemen leave.

“Trackers?” Jisung mouthed at Minho, as if he thought Minho had any idea what the guards were talking about.

Minho breathes out, slowly, trying to make sure he doesn’t look too relieved and thankful for the existence of Jeongin.

“Sometimes I feel like Jeongin has been sent to us by the heaven itself, to look over us and protect us from everything that comes up on our way,” Jisung mutters, just as they pass by an elderly lady.

For a moment, Minho feels a pang in his chest – the lady looks familiar, and he almost twists his neck looking back at her as they walk. She returns the gaze and smiles at him, her mouth full of crooked teeth and her eyes watering. Minho turns away immediately and tunes in Jisung’s blabbering. Many people seem familiar to him ever since he woke up with no memories. The med students from their station said that it was a normal phenomenon, when you’re trying hard to recover the lost information. They said he shouldn’t worry if someone looks way too familiar because they’re probably strangers.

“-I swear to god this mission will get us killed someday,” Jisung is saying, his voice lower than a whisper. Somehow, Minho doesn’t exactly need to hear Jisung speaking; he just knows what he says. For as long as he can remember (which frankly isn’t very long), he knows every single thing Jisung says or feels. The heat emanating from Jisung’s body warms him up when they have shifts on chilly nights.

Finally, the procession stops in front of a stage. It’s higher than Minho, that’s for sure. The color is the same grayishly-blue, just like everything else in the city. Even the people. Even the people are the same graiyshly-blue color, if you look closely.

The crowd stills, and a hush falls over them. The mayor clears his throat, and starts speaking.

“I know you all feel betrayed by me,” he says. “You think I abandoned you in the time of need. When your children have been disappearing, and when you felt so sad you couldn’t explain it.”

He’s talking about the School, Minho realizes. The breach Jisung mentioned, after someone’s escape. Whatever energy they had stored in there must have reached District One all the way from District Five.

Mentally, Minho traces it all back to when they started receiving more calls of people trying to kill themselves – which was completely unheard of in District One. District One was supposed to be right. Suicide never fell under “the right thing to do” category. The latest call they received was on the same day of Felix’s fight, of a woman and a man who hung themselves. Apparently, their daughter went missing a few years ago, and they couldn’t bear.

He traces it back to street fights that seem to have multiplied by hundreds if not thousands in the past month. And to robberies. The others except for him and Jisung didn’t know about it, and the police officers were given specific orders to not mention it to anyone.

Everything seems to fall together now.

“You all want answers,” the mayor continues, completely oblivious to Minho’s thoughts. “And I am here to give them to you!”

“You okay?” Jisung whispers, almost inaudibly.

Minho nods, but his hands are fists.

“We have discovered,” the mayor continues, “that behind all your suffering were rebels.”

The crowd gasps like a single person.

“They have based themselves in District Two, close to us, because they wanted to take us down. You all know that District One only accepts the best people. Those who could help the human kind rise from the ashes we were left in by our ancestors. People with most brilliant talents are here; and the further from us, the more useless the people. You all know this, don’t you?!”

The crowd screeches in agreement. Minho’s ears start ringing from the high-pitched sound, and Jisung – probably unconsciously – grips his hand to the point where his bones cracks. The others, scattered within the few meters from them, look just as horrified as Minho himself feels.

The mayor rides the wave. “But we! We have discovered them! We have them captive, and we will deal with them! They will be punished severely for causing you discomfort. The underdogs from District Eight, they will pay for making you suffer when they should’ve been thankful to you for providing them with the food and technology!”

“What will happen to them?” someone asks from the crowd. Minho glances there to see a girl, maybe in her early twenties, pretty and neat. Her eyes are on fire with the want for punishment for those who dared to rebel against the world she holds dear.

The mayor considers her for a second. Then – it’s a split moment but Minho feels it in his very core – he looks directly at Minho. But within a breath, the sensation is gone.

“This city has been built to protect you!” the mayor calls, with so much adoration in his voice, it makes Minho sick. He clenches his palm around the radio, careful not to break it. All his doubts are gone now. He can’t wait for the day when the whole system goes down. He’d be the first one to stand on its remnants.

“Nobody wants to come face to face with what awaits for you when you leave our protection!” the second man hollers. He must be the mayor’s right hand. He sounds so convinced, for a moment Minho wonders if the man was brainwashed and thoughtless.

In a moment of complete helplessness, Minho just looks at them. Then, Christopher makes just the slightest movement with his hand, and Minho knows he has to move.

He tugs on Jisung’s sleeve, and together, pretending like one of them is feeling sick, they tiptoe their way out of the crowd. With everything Minho just heard, he thinks he might actually get sick.

For no apparent reason, the dream from this morning comes to his mind. He looks around just in case, but doesn’t see any danger.
They make their way to the warehouse safely, and slip inside through the ajar door. Inside is a lot of free space- really, a lot of free space; so much free space, Minho almost feels too small for it – and the others are already there.

They dig their weapons from piles of sand, and Minho silently follows their lead. Once the gun lays in his hand, he feels more confident, more in power. If a guard showed up right now, Minho would probably shoot him.

“This is our moment,” Christopher says, looking over them with intense eyes. “This is where we fight, and if the need be, die.”

“I’d prefer everyone to stay alive though,” Jisung laughs dryly. “Because really, burying a friend is something I’d like to never do.”

“You might have to,” Changbin laughs, and it sounds like a bark.

“Nobody dies,” Felix says with a grimace. “That would be a horrible lot of emotions. I’m not prepared.”

“We can do it,” Woojin says, with the same smile that’s now beginning to creep Minho out. “Our fight. We will win it.”

“Of course we will,” Hyunjin shrugs. “That’s what we were meant to do.”

Minho can almost see it in front of him, a world where they don’t have to think about how they could be disposed of one day if they don’t become useful. A world where children disappear and are allegedly being sent to some special kind of school. Minho wants to break it down.

“If any of you get killed, I’m gonna- kill you,” Jisung announces, and that actually makes Minho smile.

Hyunjin huffs, and Christopher rolls his eyes. They’re not scared, not as much as Minho is anyway.

Maybe he’s just being paranoid with his dreams.

Christopher stretches his hand out, and Minho knows immediately what he has to do. He places his own hand on Christopher’s, and within seconds, they’re all here, a stack of hands.

“This regime must be destroyed,” Christopher says gravely. “It must be destroyed.”

They break the stack, and Christopher throws a fist up.

For a second, Minho is blinded by a different image. He has already seen this somewhere and he can’t remember where.

He doesn’t have the time to think too much about it. Seungmin turns around so quickly, Minho almost shoots him he’s so wound up. Seungmin looks around frantically.

Christopher notices it, too. He comes closer, puts a hand on Seungmin’s shoulder and calls, “What’s wrong?”

“They’re here,” Seungmin says. “They’re here.”

“Who?” Hyunjin asks, looking around the warehouse. “There’s nobody else except us.”

And then, Minho hears it. The sound of footsteps, ever so noticeable. He looks to check if it’s one of his friends coming back. Maybe he didn’t notice it when someone left? But they’re all here, guns in their hands.

Who do the steps belong to, then?

They’re coming closer and closer, and Minho can tell now that they’re wearing heavy boots. He knows this sound because his own steps used to sound exactly like this just a few days ago.

It’s the police. The police found them.

“Looks like we have company,” Changbin mutters.

“Oh god, this is horrible,” Felix adds. “They’ll make a mess.”

Logically, Minho knows they should be scared.

They’re not.

Christopher actually winks at Minho and motions towards the door. “Let’s go”, he mouths.

The time they spent inside the warehouse couldn’t have probably been over seven minutes. Minho follows after Christopher, he’s the first one. His heart beats in his throat now, he almost can’t breathe properly.

He hears a shot. Another, and another. A bullet ends up in a wall right beside Minho’s head, and for a minute, he doesn’t think – he turns around and shoots back.

“For fuck’s sake,” Jisung breathes out and grabs Minho by his collar. “Let’s go.”

Christopher pushes the door to the warehouse open and the shoots fire in the air now. They could potentially harm the crowd, and in retrospect, Minho should probably be ashamed because he just doesn’t care.

Minho runs after him, through the open part of the square, the few meters that divide the warehouse and the stage. The mayor, probably startled by the ruckus, flees his spot. It’s almost comical how he tumbles down.

Something explodes, probably set out by Jeongin. The stage shakes and groans like an old injured animal, and Minho has to hold into Jisung because he's terrified.

The crowd screams.

He follows Christopher mindlessly, fights his way through the crowd and runs up the stairs. He knows that the projection behind him, placed by Christopher a second ago, is showing the tape. On the tape is District Five, where the School breach happened. Minho has watched a few movies about nuclear weapons. District Five looks exactly like these movies.

Everything is a chaos in Minho’s head. Suddenly, he’s on the stage, and Christopher is standing in front if the microphone. Christopher looks like the mayor now, Jisung is too far away from Minho, and it’s Felix to his right now. Felix looks over the people with a dark expression on his face, and Minho realizes that he’s the only one so disoriented.

The mayor and his people flee. Why are they fleeing? Are they afraid of explosions?

The next second, Minho realizes that something is definitely wrong with the crowd. After considering them for a second, he realizes it. They’re unmoving.

Quite literally, none of the people make a single move.

The government and the mayor are now down, under the stage. Jeongin, like a nimble fox, gets up go join his team.

They’re up there. They’ve done it. The thing that they have spent so much time and preparation on, it’s finally done and Minho can feel it in his veins, in his bones, in his entire existence. They failed. Something is wrong.

He looks at all the people underneath him. Their unmoving owlish eyes stare right at him. Can they read what he's thinking? From up here, every person looks the same. Their faces are undistinguishable. Their clothing is the same in color.

Christopher glances back at them, as if he's asking for permission. He's tapping on the side of the speech stand, and the mic makes a low vibrating noise.

But a second later, and image of uncertain Christopher is gone. He turns to the crowd, and he speaks.

“Listen to me, the people of district one,” he says, forcefully, as if all he ever did his life was give speeches as a rebellion leader. “You have been lied to. Lied to, and tricked with, and mistreated. This man,” he gestures towards the mayor, “has been tricking you".

“Why doesn’t the old man flee?” Jisung whispers into his ear. “And why the fuck are we still allowed to stand here?”

Minho shrugs. Jisung is vibrating from anxiety or excitement.

“This city,” Christopher continues, “holds far more secrets than any of us could possibly imagine. There are things they hold away from us, secrets, tricks, something that we will never be told about. We should be careful with who we trust, and why we trust them.”

The crowd is still frozen, and it’s unnerving for Christopher, too.

“I am the leader of a rebellion group,” Christopher says. “And I am telling you that we have never aimed to hurt you. The children that have been disappearing? People killing themselves? This is their fault,” he adds, gesturing towards the mayor and his team. “And we want them to pay for it.”

“But I am not the one you are looking for,” the mayor says suddenly. Now, when Minho is above, none of them look exactly threatening or even scary, or even – Minho is ashamed to admit it – as someone who had any intelligence to rule whatsoever.

Changbin looks like he’s about to throw a fight. Felix steps in front of him, physically putting himself between Changbin and other people. For some reason, this scene strikes Minho right across his chest.

“What do you mean?” Christopher snarls.

“I’m not the one you’re looking for,” the mayor says. “I’m just a marionette. You know it. Everyone here,” he looks behind himself, at the crowd, briefly, “knows it. I’m not the real ruler.”

Minho, for the first time in his life, feels stupid.

Chapter Text

Freedom is what you carry in your heart; the rest is details.*
Oxxxymiron "The Wind of Change"

Sometimes Felix wants to die.

Not always to, like, actually die. There are times when it's more of a metaphorical wish to stop existing for a while. Because something embarrassing has happened, or because everything is too much. It's more of a recurring thought that keeps spiraling around and around in his head and he ignores it. More or less.

Sometimes, though, he actually wants to die. Only Changbin knows, and maybe that’s why Changbin is always so protective over him, like a guard dog. He just- wants to die.

Walking with the District Nine members through the streets, he actually wants to die. Not from embarrassment or from overwhelm. Just- die.

He can still see the mayor’s eyes, looking over them with a mischievous glint to them. They, the nine young men, standing on the stage like a bunch of fools. The mayor, with his fur jacket intact. The crowd, staring at them, speechless, unmoving. It must’ve looked like a photo or a surreal scene to the outside observer but there wasn’t anyone to observe. At least, Felix thinks so.

He walks almost right behind Seungmin and Hyunjin. Both keep apart somewhat but it's still obvious they drift towards each other. Minho and Jisung talk about something, almost inaudible. It looks like they're only opening their mouths without actually making sounds.

Changbin bumps into Felix, and it jolts Felix out of his daze. He glances at Changbin and mutters, “Careful.”

Changbin shrugs. “I am careful. You should be more careful.”

Felix tripped over something when they were getting down from the stage. Falling, he hit his back on the stage edge. It will leave a huge ugly mark right across his ribs, but for now it only hurts.

“I’m careful,” Felix retorts without much fire. Even with Changbin, he always tries to speak as shortly as possible, mindful of his accent. “Accidents happen.”

“They happen much too often to some people.”

Changbin does not need to know that some of Felix’s accidents aren’t accidents.

All Felix wants is to sit down and meditate. Sort out his emotions from the emotions of the others. He doesn’t know why he keeps feeling them so clearly even after he woke up in the hospital. The nurse said it was a side effect from his concussion. She said he became hyper perceptive. But now, oh, now he doesn’t only hyper percept or whatever: he knows he's feeling the others, and it isn’t right.

It gets worse over the half an hour. The entire reason why he almost smashed his head on the edge of a stage was because he felt Christopher’s terror. It hit him square in the chest, and he couldn’t see or breathe or think.

Others are only confused, except for Minho and Jisung. There is a secret between them, something they don’t say out loud. Felix can’t see what it is. He wants the control over his emotions back.

Christopher's low, tired voice catches Felix's attention. “We should head out to look for the real government. We can’t stay here.”

Changbin reacts immediately. “I want to stay here. It’s over, Christopher, deal with it.”

Jisung glances at Minho before he speaks up. There's definitely a secret between them. “We can’t drop it halfway through! We failed this time, but what if next time, we do better? It’s not our fault the government is so fucked up!”

“Nothing is ever your fault, is it?” Hyunjin hisses.

Christopher sighs. Felix can feel the waves of exhaustion emanating from him.

“Stop fighting,” Christopher calls. “We don’t have the time now.”

Both sides fall silent. They continue walking, and now Felix can see they aren’t going to the base in the old factory. They're going to Woojin’s house.

Felix has never been to Woojin’s house before, but he’s been in the area. It always makes him feel like he doesn’t belong here, in this city, in this district. Everything is so perfect and clean and organized, glass and metal, rich, correct. Felix feels like a dirty kitten there, with people staring at him.

At first, he doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. He's too preoccupied with the view of Minho’s conspiring back. That, and the fact that the world starts to spin because he's exhausted. He needs to sit down, or even lay down if possible.

It's Jeongin who says, “Where’s everyone?”

Felix blinks and looks around. Save for their group of wannabe rebels, the street stands empty.

“Left for the procession?” Christopher says, keeping his voice the same levelled tone it always is.

But now, clearer than ever, Felix can feel his fear. Chistopher is constantly terrified.

Sitting on the asphalt also sounds like a great idea now.

Seungmin bites his lip. “Everyone? I don’t think so.”

Jisung nods quickly. The gesture makes him look like a squirrel. “It’s never everyone. Never everyone who goes to the gatherings and shit. There must be, like- someone.”

Minho scans the area. He looks like a cat searching for its prey. “At least the police. The police never leave the district unsupervised.”

“We’re here,” Jisung tries to joke. “We can watch over this area.”

Minho stares him down.

There isn’t even a stray cat hiding anywhere. For all the district’s perfection, it has one major flaw. Stray cats seem to appear from the shadows themselves. It's an obvious problem to Felix who would’ve preferred dogs.

He tries to check if Minho feels upset about stray cats (really, Felix? Is this how you will use this weird ability?) but he can’t reach his emotions. Maybe it's all about whether they actually want to share their feelings or not.

Christopher's eyes slowly glaze over, but he still manages to mutter, “That’s why I’m saying we should leave. We should leave the city before- before anything bad happens.”

He begins to act frantic, so much that Woojin has to catch him by his elbow. Christopher ruffles his hair and hits himself in the head with the heel of his palm.

Out of reflex, Felix steps back.

“Okay, Chris,” Woojin says, his voice level. Felix listens: no emotions flow through his cracks. “Okay. We will do it. We have to stop for a break now, okay? We will continue later.”

“He’s about to lose his memories,” Jisung mutters to Minho, but Felix can hear it clear as day. “Shit, I’ve never seen it happen.”

“Me neither,” Minho replies. “And I would’ve preferred to never have to see it.”

Woojin tugs Christopher to follow after him.

Now, Felix can see it: the city looks deserted, like one of those haunted cities from scary movies. The ghost city.

He's getting paranoid but now it feels like every single window has eyes, following his every step. This is exactly how he felt every time he walked these streets but now there wasn’t anyone to actually watch him. Or was there?

“Sometimes I’m thankful for Woojin’s existence,” Changbin mutters. Only Felix can hear him. “I don’t know how I would’ve handled it without him.”

“Yeah,” Felix replies.

“Imagine losing Woojin,” Changbin continues. “Having to go on without him.”

“Yeah,” Felix echoes, but this time he's a bit more sincere.

He tries to think about it from time to time, he does. What if they do lose one of them? What would they have to do then? They started as the nine boys who woke up in a hospital with no memories about themselves. They went through the process of planning a rebellion. Now, they have to finish it together.

Minho must’ve migrated closer to Christopher to be able to support him in case of an emergency. Too lost in his thoughts and the all-consuming need to sit the fuck down, Felix doesn’t notice that nothing separates him from Seungmin now. As Seungmin freezes right in front of Woojin’s building door, Felix smashes his face right into his back.

He swears under his breath, and Changbin hisses something like “I told you to be more careful”. Felix is getting frustrated with all these hiccups on their journey to a nice soft couch lately.

Hyunjin is there in a blink of an eye. “Seungmin? Dude? What happened?”

Seungmin doesn’t reply right away, which annoys Felix to no end. He's too tired from their emotions, he wants to close off. He doesn’t know how much more of it he’d be able to take.

Finally, Seungmin replies. “We shouldn’t go inside. Inside. In Woojin’s apartment. We shouldn’t go there.”

“Why on earth? Why can’t we go there?” Changbin says, and yes, he's also getting frustrated. In spite of himself, Felix feels a weird sense of justice. He isn’t the only one suffering here.

Seungmin trembles under his intent eyes but replies anyway. “I don’t know. I- feel like it’s dangerous?”

“Dangerous how?” Minho asks, sharing a quick look with Woojin.

This, too, frustrates Felix. The fact that only a few of them make decisions in critical situations.

“Just- dangerous,” Seungmin answers, almost inaudible now.

Woojin and Minho share another look again, and Woojin glances at them.

They must be a pathetic picture now. A bunch of boys who got tricked over and still don't understand what happened. Felix would’ve laughed at himself if he actually had the energy to.

Finally, Woojin makes a decision. “Let’s go inside. We can decide what we do later.”

*

The last thing Felix expects to see in Woojin’s apartment is a cat. And yet there it sits, fat and healthy, on a kitchen chair, meowing.

He didn’t know Woojin had a cat. Glancing at the friend’s back, he realizes he doesn’t know anything about any of them.

Christopher still teeters on an edge of a blackout, squirming and rubbing his forehead. Minho and Woojin help him sit on the couch in the living room – a nice wide space in hues of blue.

“Is there anything we can do?” Changbin asks as Jeongin excuses himself to the bathroom.

Woojin must’ve replied something but Felix doesn’t listen. He watches Jeongin disappear behind a wall, almost running. Does he have an upset stomach?

He doesn’t care anymore. The others' feelings finally settle down, at least for him. It might be that they close off, finally realizing what they’ve done. Or Felix is far too exhausted to tune in to it anymore.

As Felix has a prospect to sit down, he has to do one more thing. Go to the kitchen, grab a cold pack and have Changbin hold it against his bruised back.

Christopher hasn’t lost his memories quite yet.

Walking through Woojin’s apartment, he has a strong urge to be nosy. He's so curious about what their eldest rebel has in his pocket, what he's hiding from them. Even though Christopher claims they have no secrets from each other, it isn’t always true.

Woojin’s bedroom door is closed. Felix stops in front of it, and before he can think about it, his hand is already on the door handle, ready to push.

Then he hears a voice say, “Please don’t”.

At first he thinks he's hallucinating, but no, the voice is real. It takes Felix another second to realize that the voice is coming from the bathroom. It's Jeongin talking.

Woojin’s bedroom is long forgotten now. Like a spy, Felix walks over to the bathroom and holds his breath. He thinks he hears sobbing.

And then, he hears it again. Jeongin’s voice, high-pitched and strained. It repeats, “No, please, don’t.”

Felix’s heart is beating against his ribs so strongly, it actually hurts to breathe. He suddenly feels bad for eavesdropping, but this apartment is starting to creep him out. It's far too clean and far too correct to be true. It can’t be an apartment from the real world, like a fake decoration on a stage.

He holds his breath altogether, trying not to make a sound. Murmurs from the living room and kitchen mute the sound. Felix can hear something anyway. Now he's pretty certain he hears Jeongin sobbing, barely keeping himself together. His voice is too low for Felix to tell the words apart now, and he tries to reach out with his weird empathic ability. According to his ability, Jeongin isn’t feeling anything. Which, in retrospect, is quite useless of an ability.

He spends a few minutes standing like that. Eventually, he is about to give up and go to mind his own business. That's when he hears a quiet but steadier, “Please don’t hurt them.”

His blood runs cold. He knows immediately that by “them” Jeongin refers to District Nine members. But who is there to hurt them?

Felix presses his ear to the door tighter, still mindful of the others in the apartment. If someone walks in on him glued to the white door to Woojin’s bathroom, he’d have to deal with a lot of questions.

Nothing can be heard more. No matter how hard Felix listens, he can’t know if Jeongin says anything else.

He's about to pull back and continue his way to the kitchen for the ice pack when something booms outside.

Surprised, Felix smashes his elbow into the bathroom door and hisses from the sudden pain. Jeongin definitely hears him.

The voices in the living room and in the kitchen die down immediately. The house, shaken by the explosion on the street, stands still and silent.

Felix listens for any other sounds from behind the closed door or from the outside. Nothing comes. Complete silence, only interrupted by his ragged breathing.

The cotton silence, almost suffocating, is broken by Christopher’s voice. “What was that?”

By hearing him Felix knows already that he blacked out. He sounds upset, vulnerable, like a child who lost his parents. The loud sound must’ve triggered him.

Jeonging isn’t stupid, he heard Felix bump against the door. Felix should expect questions. And yet, Jeongin’s voice throws him completely off balance.

“Who’s here?” Jeongin calls, and the suspicion in his voice almost makes Felix sick.

He pretends like nothing happened. “Jeongin? Who were you talking to? I thought I heard some voices”

“No one,” Jeongin replies quickly and inhales. “I wasn’t talking to anyone. It’s okay. I’ll be back soon. Give me a minute.”

“Are you okay?” Felix presses.

“Yeah, everything’s fine.”

Felix doesn’t believe him for a second but he has to reason to press for more answers. For now, he has to let it go.

Woojin’s bedroom doesn’t look quite as attractive anymore. Jeongin falls quiet in the bathroom, waiting for Felix to leave.

Felix has no choice but to retreat to the kitchen.

In retrospect, they should’ve paid more attention to the noise outside. And to the fact that there wasn’t anyone on the streets. And yet, they let it slide past their attention.

In the kitchen, Minho is cooing over the distraught cat. It stopped meowing but is still restless, pacing the kitchen and swishing its tail. Minho sits down on the floor by the fridge and makes all kinds of noises to attract cat’s attention. Every time the cat meows, Minho meows back. They can been having quite a decent conversation for all Felix knows.

“Do you like cats that much?” Felix asks, reaching out with his empathy to check for anything Minho feels. Minho remains blank. At this point Felix starts wondering if his exhaustion disables his ability.

Minho glances at him from his spot on the floor and moves to the side when Felix reaches out for the freezer door. Only after eyeing him for a few seconds does Minho reply, “What if I do?”

“Nothing,” Felix shrugs. “I prefer dogs.”

Minho makes an almost disgusted face and turns his whole attention to the cat. His entire body tells Felix that the conversation was now over.

When Felix returns back to the living room, it's filled with tension.

Christopher had a complete blackout, that much is obvious. He doesn’t even have any idea who are all these people right in front of him. These things happen rarely and Felix hoped to never be a witness to one of them.

Hyunjin and Seungmin stand by the window, looking on the streets from behind the curtain. They try to be subtle.

Woojin sits near Christopher on the couch, keeping a good distance between them. They don’t speak, and Christopher stares at one spot.

He’ll remember everything eventually, Felix reminds himself. He always does.

What will happen if one day Christopher blacks out and never comes back to his senses?

Jeongin walks in a few seconds after Felix. Jisung leaves, muttering something about getting Minho away from the cat.

Jeongin’s eyes are puffy. But even if Felix tries to confront him about it, he’ll get nothing but a very annoyed Jeongin in the end.

Changbin reaches out for the ice pack and takes it from Felix’s hands. He pats the space on the rug, inviting Felix to join him down there.

Felix hesitates for a few seconds.

Changbin stares him down and pats again, more persistent. Felix stares back.

Christopher and Woojin talk quietly behind him.

Felix focuses, trying to penetrate the deep abyss of emptiness. He confronts it every time when he tries to feel Changbin.

He gets so lost in that dark liquidish feeling, he doesn’t hear Changbin talk. He only sees his lips move and doesn’t recognize the sound immediately.

“What?” Felix asks, blinking rapidly. He still feels like Changbin’s void clings to him like licorice.

“Did you hear a knock? I think I heard someone knocking.”

Woojin is alert in a second. “I didn’t hear anything. And I have a doorbell.”

“I didn’t hear anything either,” Hyunjin adds and glances at Seungmin. Seungmin shakes his head. “Neither of us did.”

“I’ll go get it,” Felix sighs. He wants to sit down. The only thing he wants. Sit down.

They should’ve paid attention to the sound outside.

The cat now meows so desperately, Minho has to grab it in his arms to console. Jisung hovers nearby, amused.

Felix opens the door.

He doesn’t know what he expects to see there. A neighbor asking for some salt? Or a post delivery service?

He definitely doesn’t expect to see the police.

It is the weird kind of police though, now that he looks closer. They wear the same clothing Minho and Jisung usually wear but instead of marine blue, it's ruby red.

Right before Felix stands a man in a tight perfect suit, his gray hear styled, his posture perfect. The man is perfected to automation; he probably isn’t even human.

Felix's voice gets stuck in his throat. Still, he manages to say, “Yes? Did you need something?”

He wonders why hasn’t he checked who it was first. Then, maybe, they would’ve been able to escape.

“We would like you to go with us,” the man says. Even though his words sound like a request, Felix knows it isn’t. It's a nice way to order.

Felix tries to buy himself some time to think. “Where?”

“Who is it, Felix?” Woojin calls from the living room. "Do you need my help?”

Out of sheer habit, Felix reaches out to the others, trying to see if any of them are feeling anything special. He doesn't get anything.

“We would like you to come with us,” the man repeats.

For a second, Felix thinks about turning away and running. It's probably the worst situation to find themselves in. Christopher is uncooperative. It isn’t that surprising: he has zero clue who they are. His notebook must’ve been lost somewhere. Felix’s back is hurting worse by every minute. Jeongin has spent the past ten minutes crying. And yes, of course, there stand armed people in their entrance.

Woojin steps out of the living room. “Felix? Who is i- oh fuck.”

“Oh fuck,” Minho breathes behind Felix, and Felix turns around in time to see him completely blanch out. He has a huge cut across his cheek from cat’s claws. It stands out, especially now that he's grayish-ly pale.

In retrospect, they should’ve expected it. They should have.

Next time Minho opens his mouth, he orders, “Leave.”

A gun cracks, and Minho freezes.

“Do not,” the man says, “attempt to order us. It won’t work and you’ll get yourself in trouble, young man.”

Minho gulps.

“If you walk with us peacefully, nobody will get hurt. We can promise you that.”

“But who are you, if I may know?” Woojin insists, taking a step forward, standing shoulder to shoulder with Felix now.

The man with gray hair doesn’t have a chance to reply. Jisung, in a gravely voice, speaks behind Felix. "It’s the anti-rebellion troops. The ones that make sure nobody stands up against the government.”

Felix blinks, feeling like a complete idiot. “Wait, they actually exist?”

Woojin turns to face Minho and Jisung so rapidly, he almost throws Felix off-balance. If Felix would ever see Woojin furious, now is be the best moment to remember. His face flushed, his brows knit togethes, and his jawline so sharp it can actually break his skin. “You knew they existed? You knew they existed and you never told us.”

Jisung gulps but Minho holds Woojin’s gaze. “We didn’t want to frighten you.”

Woojin hisses like an angry cat and turns to go get the others. The man at the door doesn’t let him. “Stay put, young man. Let your police friends sort everything out.”

Felix watches Minho and Jisung share a glance and Minho walk into the living room. For a minute, he can’t hear anything behind the sound of his own frantic heartbeat. Then, Changbin walks out, like an animal creeping up to its prey. Seungmin and Hyunjin follow.

A second later, Felix hears Minho’s voice call out for Christopher. Christopher protests.

“Chris,” Minho keeps repeating. “Hey, Chris, it’s okay, let’s go. It’s okay. You have to trust me, I won’t hurt you”.

But Christopher won’t give up. After a few seconds, Felix concludes that Christopher actually puts up a fight. Minho’s patience must’ve been running low because he snaps, almost like a cord. Looking him right in the eye, he says, “Christopher, follow me.”

Minho swore to never use this weird ordering ability on anyone. Now he had. Felix wonders how many other promises they’d have to break for each other.

Felix has to be the first one to step outside of the apartment and follow after the man. They don’t use the elevator but walk down a flight of stairs. The policemen in red clothes form a chain where each member of District Nine is separated from the other by one outsider. They only let Minho and Christopher walk together.

Felix isn't angry at Jisung and Minho for not telling them about the existence of the anti-rebellion troops. The fear on both of their faces makes him think they have a very good reason for that. After all, you don’t just forget to alert the others that there is, by the way, this secret police division that doesn’t let people rebel.

For as much as he can see, there are policemen everywhere. At every corner and in every alleyway, they look like the city streets had a massive bleeding. They don’t have their guns out. Yet, somehow Felix knows they’d pull them out of nowhere if he tried to take a step to the side.

He tries to reach out to the others again, and it doesn’t work. At this point he is certain something is blocking him, not letting him see into their emotions.

Right before the building stands a bus.

For a second, Felix hesitates. The bus seemes familiar, like he’d already seen it or even rode it. A moment later, he feels something press into his back. Felix refuses to admit that it is most probably a gun.

Stepping inside the bus, he stumbles again. The feeling that he’d seen this already is now stronger, more persistent. For a second, he thinks he sees them seated inside, fast asleep, but almost like in some other life. He doesn’t have a doubt that this time, once they’re all settled, they will be put to sleep too.

He walks to the furthest seat and watches the others take their places. Changbin exchanges a short glance with him and took the seat right in front of him. Jisung hungs his head lowly. Woojin tries to keep calm. He never usually has to force himself to be calm, at least not as long as Felix remembers.

Hyunjin acts weird but Hyunjin is always weird. He takes a second to pick his place and settle near Felix, smiling at him tightly. Seungmin sits in the head of the bus.

Jeongin, Minho and Christopher are the last to enter. Jeongin keeps glancing back to check on Christopher and Minho, and gets poked by his policeman. The boy looks more distraught than the others. Maybe because his emotions-reading skill isn’t as superficial as Felix’s. Jeongin can know the emotions under any circumstances.

Christopher and Minho sit together. Felix suspectes it is because their guards don’t want to deal with Christopher.

Minho looks like he's about to cry. Felix, in full honesty, can understand him. There’s a weird pressure in his head now, and he doesn’t know what it is.

There is a tiny part of Felix that expects answers. And yet, he doesn’t get any. The bus rumbles lowly and starts moving.

*

He knows he's dreaming and yet everything feels so real.

He's in the dance training room. It’s his second house now, with how much time he spent in front of those mirrors. They reflect his every flaw and every movement. Felix isn’t like the others, he isn’t like Seungmin. He doesn’t have to get punishments for being imperfect; he is always perfect.

But now, with the monthly evaluations coming closer, he feels like he's going insane. They're right when they say the mental state of the group leader is most important. Christopher’s thoughts keep buzzing in his head like a bunch of angry bees. He can’t tell them apart and isn’t even sure Christopher himself is aware of those thoughts. They might as well have been some unconscious buzzing.

Christopher had his memories wiped again recently, by his own request they said. It would only be a matter of time before his memory is damaged beyond repair.

Felix doesn’t feel it, he knows it. Whatever it is that they want to get rid of, they fail. The thoughts still buzz in Christopher’s head, and they transfer to Felix, too. Felix can’t focus on his routine and all he wants to do is to go down to the labs and yell at their leader.

He can’t though. Any emotional outbursts are prohibited. Also, Felix would never let himself start yelling at someone.

He stares at his own reflection in the mirror. This is the only room in the entire school that has actual real mirrors that reflect the real world. Felix is the only person in their group who knows what he looks like.

It feels like he's there but not exactly there. It's both the Felix-from-his memories and the actual-Felix, staring at themselves in the mirror.

The surreal feeling continues for about thirty seconds before Felix senses Changbin approaching. Changbin has quite a definite intention. Felix prepares for the conversation even before Changbin knocks on the door.

Felix hears himself say "Come in". It takes him a minute to realize he's talking from inside his head.

For a second he wonders why Changbin bothers being physically present with Felix. They can talk in their head anyway.

‘You know I’m not allowed to. Come outside, it’s important.’

Then, Felix remembers: Changbin hates not seeing the person he's talking to. Which, in fact, is understandable.

Felix pauses the music and scans his fingerprint to open the studio room. The door slids open.

Changbin is there, in a bright room with benches on both sides, white and pristine. His clothes, as white as Felix’s own, blend in with the room. The only bright thing is the huge lettering above the entrance that reads “save the humanity”.

‘Christopher says we’re almost ready,’ Changbin says, staring right into Felix’s eyes.

Felix hates it when Changbin does that. Changbin’s own eyes are black like an abyss, and he always feels like he's drowning there, helpless as a puppy. ‘Christopher had his memories wiped clean. He couldn’t have retained anything.’

Changbin shrugs. ‘He kept them on the key. Guess he knew they were coming after him.’

Felix watches, in bewilderment, realization dawn on his own face. Christopher never asked to remove his memories. Instead, he prepared for every time the teachers came with the remover to rewrite his head all over again. He kept them on a memory stick.

‘We don’t know who we will be once we escape,’ the memory-Felix says, cautious. ‘I’d- I’d like to have the actual me back.’

Changbin blinks, surprised. ‘Aren’t you the actual you right now?’

Felix watches the memory-Felix shrug. ‘I don’t think I want to go with them. They’re like, kind of dangerous? And I don’t trust Hyunjin.’

Changbin sounds amused. ‘Hyunjin is the least harmful of them. I don’t think we should worry about him.’

‘I still don’t fell all that confident about him.’

Changbin sighs and puts a hand on Felix’s shoulder. He's warm. It reminds Felix that despite everything going on around them, they're still human. As human as they can be. ‘Let’s go. The world awaits us.'

Felix watches himself and Changbin walk out the room. He wantes to follow them but far too quickly, the room begins to fade out. Before he knows it, there isn’t anyone except for him.

*

Waking up is different. The weird empathic ability that he used to have returns back to him now and hits him tenfold. He knows some of the others are already awake. Some still feel like foggy patches on a window, fuzzy on their edges.

Except for a low humming of their confusion, Felix doesn’t hear any other noises. He tries opening his eyes and is blinded by the bright lights.

He's in a white room. White walls. White air. Eveything is so white.

As he finally opens his eyes, there's a woman sitting on the chair by his bed. She looks familiar. She smiles and says, “Good morning, Felix.”

In an instant, Felix knows she uses a language he never speaks with the others. And yet, he can understand her much clearer and without any doubts.

The words don’t roll off his tongue effortlessly, but they feel welcome. “Hello. Who are you?”

“I am,” she says finally, in the same level tone, “your researcher.”

“My what?” Felix blurts.

The woman must’ve been crazy for all he knew. How can she say she's his researcher? It’s not like he's a test subject or an animal grown in a lab. He's his own person, thank you very much.

“Your researcher. The one who picks out the personalities for you. The one who watches you grow and develop, the one who watches your brain change. Every one of you has one. I was assigned to you when you first arrived here but you don’t remember. It was almost a decade ago, come think of it.”

“This is the school? The school our assignment mentioned. It’s that one school, isn’t it?” Felix whispers. He doesn’t know why he was whispering exactly. Maybe because the realization is too much and he feels overwhelmed by it, feels fragile.

The woman hesitates for a moment, and Felix reaches out to her desperately. In District One, he was also able to detect the feelings of the others, not only his team members.

This time, he's met with a wall of complete silence, something he doesn’t know how to penetrate. It wisn’t the same black liquid he encounters every time he tries to feel Changbin. It's something Woojin often feels like.

Finally, the woman replies. “Yes. We included the mention of the school into your assignment to see if we could trigger your memories. But one of us,” she made a pause to pull a disgusted face, “did a very careful job of wiping it all out. We couldn’t reach out to you, and so we had to get you out of there.”

Felix feels sick. “The rebellion assignment. Was it from you? Was it all a game?”

She looks at him very carefully before standing up. “Please follow me. We have a meeting scheduled for you. Very soon you will meet with the others, and we will tell you everything.”

As Felix gets out of the pristine white bed, he has to stop for a moment. The world sways like he's on board of an old ship. Once it settles down, and he doesn’t feel like puking his guts anymore, he gets up and follows the woman outside of the room.

The entire experience feels somewhat unreal. Come think of it, he sort of doesn’t believe in the rebellion in the first place. But to think that it all had been orchestrated by someone else is almost too painful to bear.

He keeps calm, completely unfased by the event laying out around him. Maybe it's because he's still shocked or because he hasn’t caught up on it yet. Maybe he’d freak out later.

He walks after the woman through the white hallways, and even if he tries to escape her, he’d be lost in no time. He usually has a decent sense of direction. This time, he has no idea which turns they take and where exactly they go.

Jisung would've been able to memorize the way out. Jisung can always remember the smallest details of the most complicated maps. Jisung is the sort of genius Felix could never hope to become.

She leads him to a wide room, as white as any other room, with a small exception of screens that glow blue. Felix throws one glance at them and knows: he can’t understand the information on them.

And yet, Christopher is already by the screens. As Felix reaches out, he realizes that the anger from before belongs to him. Christopher feels so angry Felix has to restrain himself from attacking his researcher.

He walks up to Christopher, putting a hand on his shoulder to announce his arrival. Christopher glances at him shortly and turns back to the screens.

They float right in the middle of the room. The blue signs and letters reflect in his eyes, making them appear almost glazed over.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Felix asks lowly.

The same language he used to speak with the researcher rolls of his tongue. To his surprise, Christopher hums in response, acknowledging his question. When he replies, it's the same language. “These look familiar. But I can’t remember anything.”

So he must’ve recovered after the blackout. Enough to remember Felix, anyway. Which is also great news, come think of it.

“But what are they?” Felix asks, more to himself than to Christopher. He can't expect Christopher to give him a decent answer, not when they’re all so shaken.

“They’re the recordings of our thoughts and emotions,” Cristopher replies. For a second, Felix feels all air leave his lungs. “They’re what?”

Several things happen simultaneously. Christopher presses a button on the screen in front of him. It switches to the next slide, for him to explain everything. The door clicks, announcing the arrival of Jeongin. Jeongin feels blurry now, like he isn’t there, or like there's someone else alongside Jeongin.

And next, a voice speaks right into his head. It says, 'Welcome back.'

For a second, he knows he's feeling everyone. It shouldn’t be possible. And yet, he knows their emotions. Christopher is lost, Hyunjin feels overwhelming guilt. Seungmin still struggles to keep himself awake and it scares him. Felix is overwhelmed. Minho is the steadiest, and yet, even he is ready to fight.

He feels everyone, every single one of them. In that moment, he knows all their hopes and aspirations and pains. He knows every single time he wounded them with his words, every time they felt happy because of him.

There is no Woojin. In this thunderstorm, there is no Woojin.

A voice speaks actually inside his head again. It says, “You failed trial one.”

Felix looks around and knows he isn’t hallucinating. The others hear it, too. Minho pales and stares at Jisung, and even Changbin himself looks thrown off balance. Everyone looks at each other with horror in their eyes.

As the echoes in Felix’s head die down, the voice comes back. "You failed trial one. Unfortunately, it will not be accredited for.”

Changbin glares at the researchers, nine of them, lined up against the white walls of the round room. “What the fuck do you want from us?”

“You are now to enter into trial two, which will determine if you will be authorized to complete the trial three. Trial three is required for your graduation,” the voice continues. Felix wants to claw it out his head, make it stop. He doesn’t welcome voices speaking to him out of no-fucking-where.

'What does trial two consist of?' Jeongin asks lowly, and it takes a second for Felix to realize that he's talking to the voice inside their heads. Jeongin’s lips remain unmoving, and his eyes unfocused. He actually communicates with the voice the same way the voice communicates with them.

“No, okay, wait. What was trial one again?” Seungmin says, with a hard tone that is so uncharacteristic for him.

“Why are we in any trials that we know nothing about?” Jisung asks.

Minho lets out a tiny scream and grabs his head. Felix reaches out mentally, terrified, and backs away immediately. Jisung’s voice echoes in Minho’s skull, amplified tenfold.

The Voice chooses to ignore their questions. Instead, it says, “Your original communication channels have been enabled again. You can now again hear and feel each other as you did when you were inside the School.”

Christopher looks completely lost. “I don’t feel anyone. Why can’t I feel anyone?!”

“The trial one,” the voice says, cold, metallic, “was to tell a lie from truth, which you, unfortunately, failed to do. The trial two will require you to find what is actually true. Please proceed in accordance with the instructions given to you prior to the start of trial one.”

“So, the rebellion was a fake?” Christopher asks, his voice almost broken. “It all was for nothing?”

“What instructions?” Woojin says.

But it's over. Felix knows that before anyone else tells him. The voice disconnects from their heads, and the researchers start moving.

Felix looks at the others, and sees that they are as terrified as he feels.

That’s when it booms again.

Chapter Text

You can't wake up, this is not a dream
You're part of a machine, you are not a human being

Halsey "Gasoline"

Hyunjin never quite feels like he fits in with the others. He knows things that remain a complete mystery to them. If they ever find out about his tricks with their keys, they’d never forgive him; not in a lifetime.

He’s never done anything bad per se; he only blocks them and returns to the owners. Nobody ever told him why he had to do it and he didn’t have any strength to resist the voice in his head that gave orders. The voice popped up in his head and told him when he had to steal yet another key and reprogram it.

The key is a memory stick. A small device that contains all the original information about them. Altering it and blocking feels like the worst kind of crime ever.

One time he almost broke his hand trying to resist the voice. It made him sick when Seungmin found him nursing the injury and got all concerned.

Hyunjin does not deserve any concern for what he’s done.

The last key he had to take care of belonged to Christopher, and he messed up. It wasn’t stated anywhere that the others’ keys were connected to him, because why would they be? Christopher was never marked as the link member, he was the leader. Woojin was supposed to be the link member; they always put this label on all his files.

And yet, once he tried to alter Christopher’s key, everything went wrong.

That’s what he told to his scientist, sitting on the pristine bed in front of her. She listened carefully like she always did when he confined in her.

The others’ keys were connected to Christopher’s key. Attempts to affect it reverted most of his changes done before. Was it because Christopher put some kind of a safety lock on his own key?

Before leading him from his old room and into the halls, the scientist stopped. She turned around and looked him right in the eye. He stared back.

She asked, “Which side are you on?”

The scientists’ side was to build special groups that could have an influence on the future of the world. The District Nine side was to take the entire system down.

“I don’t know,” Hyunjin whispered.

*

He can see it in Christopher’s eyes as the leader observes the blueprints on the screen in the round room. Christopher figured it out already. Christopher realized that their escape was artificial. They never got out.

Hyunjin knows what happens next. Next, they will be taken back to the school, back into the training program. The school is so secure, the news of the breach is, of course, fake. Next in the plan, they have to go through a few more trials. Then, some of them will be deemed strong or smart enough to work with the government to save the humankind.

The others don’t know about that. They don’t even know there is something wrong with the world outside of the city.

“Welcome back,” Woojin’s scientist says. “We missed you.”

The others don’t reply, but they are projecting so much hate to the man, Hyunjin wonders how he’s still standing.

“We were looking forward to the time when we could reunite again,” Seungmin’s scientist adds. He's almost a boy, and his white coat makes him look like a baby goose. “We are so happy you went through the first trial!”

‘I want to punch him,’ Changbin supplies through the link.

‘Please don’t,’ Felix replies.

The mental link, disabled for the time when they were in District One, is back online now. He didn't expect them to get familiar with it so quickly.

Woojin's scientist continues speaking. “What you experienced in District One was the so-called Trial One. It was designed to see how you would operate under different circumstances. You should start remembering the events that led up to you waking up there shortly.”

Jisung chuckles and tries to cover it with a cough. ‘On the bus, I had a dream where I plunged a syringe into the guy’s thigh and that was how I got myself out of his hold. Is this what he calls memories?’

‘Can you be a little quieter?’ Minho hisses.

Hyunjin can’t tell if he was happy to have the mental link back. Maybe he wants to go back to the complete silence in his head, not interrupted by baseless banter.

It's Changbin's scientist this time. “We had to discontinue it because of technical issues. However, the next Trial is scheduled to start shortly.”

“What’s the next trial?” Jisung blurts.

His scientist throws an unreadable glance at him. “You will know when the time comes.”

Someone keeps glancing at their electronic watch. Christopher joins next. “Who comes up with the trials?”

‘Jisung, stop thinking,’ Minho groans.

Christopher’s scientist, a tall man who could’ve been handsome if not for the cold expression on his face, replies with, “You.”

Christopher holds the gaze. “Why?”

“Because you think the same as us. You think that humanity wastes too much talent on useless things. You think they should accumulate knowledge instead of wasting it on wars, or pointless activities. You think we have destroyed our own kind, turning the world behind the walls into an endless desert.”

Jeongin's scientist, a miniature woman who almost blends in with the wall, speaks up next. “The original purpose of the project was to collect the young people from the places that still could produce them. It has been observed that the original failure of our ancestors was because they couldn’t utilize the talents they had. A lot of brains and efforts went to waste.”

Jisung's scientist smiles. “We, and you, too, developed a system that maximizes the talents. It allows us to remove the unnecessary from a person, leaving them as a concentration of talent. We have a school full of kids who are like you. They will follow your path right after it’s been confirmed.”

Cold shivers creep up Hyunjin’s spine, making him feel sick and sticky.

Seungmin bites his blood. He might draw blood. “Don’t remember thinking any of that stuff. Mind reminding me?”

The scientists look at them with heavy eyes. Woojin's scientist sighs. “We never forced you into anything. It was your project. You nine built this. It's your responsibility.”

“We want you to remember this conversation. We never meant you any harm. We were doing what you thought was right.”

‘I don’t trust them,’ Jeongin mutters. ‘Why do they think we’ll believe this?’

“We don’t trust you,” Christopher announces.

When it booms, Hyunjin doesn’t expect it. The sound reminds him of the boom outside of Woojin’s apartment.

Scientists freeze for a moment. Having exchanged a few glances, they split, approaching their subjects.

Hyunjin’s scientist appears in his line of vision, not letting him see what's happening to the others. Hyunjin looks up at her, expecting to see any sort of emotion.

‘We must go,’ she says into Hyunjin’s head. Hyunjin isn’t surprised. Sirens in the building scream so loud, he can barely hear himself think. Using normal speech would’ve been useless.

‘Where?’ Hyunjin asks, allowing her to take him by the wrist and drag him to the exit.

‘To a safe place.’

‘Do not go with them!’ Christopher yells. ‘I repeat, do not go with them!’

Hyunjin backs off. The sirens keep on blaring, someone is yelling right into his head.

‘Fucking get off me!’ Seungmin screams at the person who's trying to grab him.

The sirens keep blaring. Yet, now Hyunjin hears voices yelling and heavy footsteps.

“You kids in here?” asks a new voice, and Hyunjin is surprised he can hear it over the deafening sound.

“Who is it?” Jisung asks in reply. “Because if it’s another group of scientists, I swear to fucking god-“

There are sounds of more footsteps. He feels someone grab his shoulder. He pushes back. The person must’ve expected it because they dodge.

A new voice stops him. “Don’t fight, do not fight! Stop fighting! We’re here to get you out!”

“I won’t hurt you, I promise. Everything will be okay," says a female voice to Hyunjin’s left. He feels her touch his shoulder again.

Lost, disoriented, Hyunjin grabs onto the hand leading him by his shoulder. He doesn’t know what's going on anymore.

Christopher is in full leader mode now. ‘If you’re lost, try to reach out and feel where I am. ‘We’ll have to work together here.’

The run through the school’s hallways is chaotic. He hears shots and voices and explosions, and yet, he can’t tell a single thing from another. They all mingle and collide together for him, making him feel overwhelmed. He wants it to be over.

“We’re almost there!” someone shouts over the sounds of explosions and people gasping.

“Did we know this place had soldiers?” Felix yells. “Because it does! And they’re very right behind us!”

‘What do you mean sold-‘

The hand on Hyunjin’s shoulder disappears.

‘Shit!’ Felix shrieks in his head. ‘Shit, they killed the person who was with me.’

The others turn into complete chaos inside his head.

“Once you exit the building,” the same voice from before says, “you will see vans. Please make sure to board onto them!”

Minho gives an order. ‘You heard him! Go forward, out of the building, and enter the van.’

‘Wow, these things look fancy,’ Felix snarls. An explosion makes him trip and fall. ‘Shit, that hurt.’

‘The fuck’s going on,’ Jisung mutters. Even in their heads, he sounds out of breath. ‘I thought we were taking a nice chill night stroll? Why is there someone coming after us?’

‘Somebody wants us dead,’ Seungmin jokes back.

Minho interrupts them. ‘If you have the energy to make small talk, how about you get over here?’

Hyunjin can't move. Seungmin's voice cuts through the fog in his head. “Spending a good time here? Why do I always have to drag you out?”

Next thing Hyunjin knows, Seungmin pulls him forward. He stumbles on something and realizes that the ground has ugly scars from explosions.

Another explosion, someone screams.

“Faster! Faster!” Minho yells.

‘Minho! Watch it!’

The feeling of complete horror replaces fear and confusion. A gunshot booms too close. Hyunjin feels like his heart stopped. Was one of them shot?

“Help him! Minho, get behind the wheel!”

“Should I leave him here?”

“What, you wanna stay with him?”

Next thing he knows, he's sitting in the back of a ridiculous van that doesn’t even have any walls. They're gaining speed even before he has the time to settle down. Felix has to jump from behind, dragging himself up by the sheer power of his arms.

“Minho, you fucker!” Changbin yells. “You could’ve waited!”

Hyunjin has a minute to look around. The man who must’ve been riding the van before Minho stays behind, laying on the ground. He's dead.

“Is anyone hurt?” Woojin calls, turning around. He sits beside Minho at the front. Hyunjin is terrified to see a shotgun in his hands.

“I might have pulled my ankle,” Felix replies. “But it’s not that bad, I’ll live.”

The van jerks, almost like it has a painful spasm. Hyunjin collides with someone, the person groans, someone squeaks in surprise.

“Could you please drive more carefully?” Felix spits out. “We’ve had too many people trying to kill us in the past ten minutes!”

‘You wanna drive this thing when your hands are covered in blood up till your elbow? Be my dearest guest!’

“Is anyone else hurt?” Woojin calls. “Headaches? Voices telling you to do things? Bones, arms? Everything in its place?"

A horrendous crash comes from behind them. Hyunjin turns his head so fast, an army of black dots attacks his vision. The school roof collapses.

‘My soul left my goddamn body,’ Jisung breathes. ‘I will grow old before I’m twenty-five!’

‘Judging by how things are going, you might die before you’re even twenty-five. Think about that.’

Voices – real voices, not something happening inside their heads – are yelling behind them. Hyunjin turns around again. One of them has only two men. Other cars have more people with guns. They look serious, and they must have been the force that brought the roof down.

“Oh shit,” Seungmin breathes out loud. “Oh shit!”

Hyunjin is alert in a second. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“The people in the school. They’re all dead.”

Jisung’s face bleaches, and even Changbin looks disturbed at the thought.

“They- they probably deserved to die,” Felix suggests weakly.

“Nobody ever deserves to die!”

"What the fuck do we do now?" Seungmin whispers. "I'm not even following anymore. What's going on?"

"We'll figure it out when the time comes," Christopher replies. "For now, we have to look around. We have to see what will happen. Okay?"

Hyunjin relaxes against his seat and takes a deep breath. His heart calms down bit by bit.

They will have to figure this whole mess out.

*

He must have fallen asleep. Next time he wakes, it's to low shimmering anxiety emanating from every single one of them.

Two other cars stop on both sides of them, people getting out swiftly. Every single one of them has guns. The drivers stay put.

A man, tall, blonde, stops at a side of their vehicle and motions for them to get out with his rifle. “Come on, boys. Time to land.”

The others hesitate. They look at each other, confused, but none of them say anything or move to get up.

“Move, before I make you,” the man says, with a hint of steel in his voice.

That gets a reaction. Changbin stands up. The action somehow makes him look more intimidating than usual.

“You think you can make me do anything?” he growls. “Let me see you try.”

‘Changbin,’ Woojin hisses.

The man doesn’t look impressed. In one swift motion, he points a gun at Changbin, and Christopher takes it as his cue to get up.

“Changbin,” he says, trying to get his attention before anything dumb happens. “Sit down.”

“You a leader?” the man asks, turning to Christopher. “Tell your kids to get out of the car.”

“Yeah, fucking make me,” Changbin hisses again.

‘Changbin.’

The man sighs and lowers his gun. “If you guys don’t get underground, chances are, they will catch up with us. They're gonna hit you square in the head. If you wanna go out like that after you got a chance to change things, be my guests.”

“Wait a minute,” another man joins. “If they’re not coming with us after all, then I’m gonna kill them right here and now. Cause Lean was fucking shot because of them!”

Even from the distance between them, Hyunjin can see a massive shiver run through Minho. ‘Holy shit.’

‘Minho,’ Christopher calls. ‘Get up. It’s safe, get up and follow them.’

Minho sends him a quick look but doesn’t argue.

As Minho gets on the ground and takes a first step towards the bunker, Hyunjin stands up, the others move, too. In a matter of seconds, they line up on the grass.

And within a minute, the bunker swallows them.

The others buzz around him on their private frequencies of communication. They remembered how to use the link.

'Please stop aggravating them,' Christopher says in the common space. 'I remember something. We asked for their help.'

‘Help us do what?’ Felix asks.

‘Would you please stop being so-‘

A loud crash rips through the whole underground and cuts Hynjin mid-sentence. He has to grab onto edgy walls to keep himself upright. The world shakes around him.

The others stumble as well, grabbing onto each other. Jisung almost sends Minho and himself down the stairs, and it takes a whole Seungmin to balance them out.

“The fuck was that?” someone breathes.

“That,” one of the men smiles, “was an aircraft sent out to kill you.”

The rest of their descent goes on in complete silence. There isn’t even any buzzing in his head now. Everyone shies away from the common space to wallow in their own terror.

Hyunjin tries to reach out to Woojin to see what happens. As he expects, he's met with a soft wall of ‘please come back later.’

They go down and down, lower and lower until finally, Hyunjin sees light. This sends his hopes up despite his better judgment. The buzzing in his head is also back; the others come out of their little shells.

He finds himself standing in the middle of a city square. The buzzing cuts off at once, and at first, he doesn’t pay much attention to it.

He looks up. The sky is blue. The houses around them look real. People walk past them without looking or caring. None of them seem bothered by boys who show up out of nowhere.

He turns around. And round and round and round. He sees his special group, and he sees the men who brought them here.

“Have I gone insane?” Seungmin whispers. “Because if I haven’t, I’m getting there.”

“Does anyone else’s head hurt?” Felix says.

Changbin looks alarmed. “Felix, I can’t reach out to you.”

Minho stares at Jisung, and Jisung stares back at Minho. “You never shut up,” Minho whispers. “But you’re not here.”

“No, it’s you who’s not here,” Jisung replies, brows furrowed. “I’m right here, you’re not letting me in.”

“Jisung, I don’t even feel you-“

The others look at each other. Seungmin even reaches out to Hyunjin to touch him.

His heart in throat, Hyunjin tries to talk to Seungmin, ask him what's going on. But there isn’t any Seungmin in his head. The common space looks completely blank. No matter how loud he shouts, his voice echoes around the bare walls.

Jeongin makes a face and mutters, “You all are so sour.”

Woojin replies something absentmindedly.

Hyunjin comes closer to the men, but stop for a second. What does Hyunjin want to ask?

The first thing that leaves his mouth is, “What is this place?”

“You’re gonna find real soon,” a man replies and smiles. Hyunjin doesn’t like his face.

He feels very small under the man’s blank eyes. They're almost the same height and built similarly, but the man clearly knows what he's doing. Hyunjin, on his part, isn’t so sure anymore.

“Follow me,” the man calls. “Follow us. We'll tell you kids what you gotta do.”

Hyunjin catches Christopher’s attention and raises his eyebrows. Christopher shakes his head and points at the men leading the way, suggesting that they had to follow.

As they walk, people start to pay more attention to them. There aren’t that many young people on the streets. Most are in their forties or thirties, although some do, in fact, look their age.

Maybe a group of men with guns does have something to do with how much attention they attract.

"We can’t be doing this,” Jisung whispers, looking at every one of them. “You gotta be kidding. What’s going on? Can someone fucking explain-“

Minho looks completely blissful. Maybe because he doesn’t have to deal with this alone now.

“Can you shut up for one holy second?” Changbin bites back. “It’s not like I care, but you’re giving me a headache.”

Jisung gasps, offended. Woojin smiles and hides his face in his elbow, pretending to wipe the sweat from his forehead.

“Chill, guys,” Christopher murmurs.

More endless bickering. They pass dozens of identical buildings. These remind Hyunjin of insect eyes for some reason. Glassy, segmented, uncomfortable to look at. The goal of their walk must be a special insect eye building though. The one that looks like it can reach the sky if there even is one.

*

‘I’m telling you, we shouldn’t try to steal food from the people who helped us.’ That's Minho.

‘But I’m hungry!’ Jisung.

‘The lunchtime is coming, can you wait for like half an hour?’

‘I’m starving!’

‘You’re stupid!’ Changbin. ‘Please stop discussing food right in my head!’

‘Second that,’ Felix adds. ‘Guys, seriously. I want to take a nap while I can.’

‘Wise enough,’ Christopher chuckles. ‘We never know when will be the next time someone tries to kill us.’

‘Nobody tried to kill us,’ Jeongin says. ‘They wanted to help.’

That starts a banter. Hyunjin pulls his head through a shirt and sighs.

The link is back on again. The chaos is back, too.

Woojin is standing by the door with a book in his hands. He picked it up from a coffee table nearby and was immediately occupied.

“Where are we?” Hyunjin mutters. "What do you think?"

Woojin looks up at him from his book and smiles. "Hopefully, we will find out soon."

His kindness makes Hyunjin feel sick. He purses his lips and does his best not to say anything rude.

Woojin closes his book, sighs, and only then does he reply. “I don't know. They will tell us later.”

Silence falls over them. During these few moments, Hyunjin listens to the ongoing discussion in his head. They now moved on from discussing ethics to discussing chicken wings.

Woojin is the first to break the silence between them. “Hyunjin. Do you know what is the most certain way to kill a person?”

Hyunjin shrugs. “I don’t know. Some kind of poison?”

Laughing softly, Woojin shakes his head. “Unfortunately, no. It would’ve been so much easier, right?”

It's meant to be a joke, but Hyunjin doesn’t feel like laughing.

“It’s loneliness, Hyunjin,” Woojin sighs, realizing that Hyunjin is not in the mood. “If you want to destroy someone, to kill their will to live and fight for what they care about. If you want them to question everything they have ever believed in, you make them lonely.”

For a second, Hyunjin doesn’t know what the heck he's talking about. And the next second, he feels so angry, he almost yells at Woojin to get out.

“I’m not lonely, Woojin,” he hisses. “Of any things, I am not lonely.”

Woojin blinks at him and offers the same goddamn soft smile. He learned from his advanced psychology training. “You are what you think you are. Always.”

Hyunjin only huffs and brushes his fringe off his face.

“Are you still not talking to Seungmin?” Woojin asks, sounding almost concerned, after a few more minutes of silence.

“It’s not me who’s not talking to Seungmin. I’m giving him space. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with me right now, after how I treated him.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes, I am sure!”

“And why do you think so?”

Woojin knows what he's doing, and it's damn well working.

“Because none of you want to have anything to do with me, okay? Do you think I cannot see it? Well, I damn well can, it’s not like I’m blind or anything, Woojin!”

Woojin considers him for a second before saying, “Why do you think we don’t want to have anything to do with you?”

Hyunjin feels vulnerable like he's being examined by a surgeon. Split open, for everyone to see his insides if they so wished.

“It’s not that we don’t want to have anything to do with you,” Woojin says finally, making Hyunjin shudder. “We think we should give you more space, but we don’t know how much space you actually need. You never talk to us. We can see that something’s happening, but we don’t know what it is, exactly. Seungmin thinks it’s his fault.”

“It’s not!” Hyunjin blurts and regrets it immediately.

Woojin smiles. “See? That’s what I’m talking about. Seungmin needs to know that your mood isn’t his fault. But he wouldn’t ask you. And you, you wouldn’t talk to him.”

He hates it when someone psychoanalyzes him. Too bad Woojin can’t help himself.

“Think of what I said,” Woojin says with a smile. Hyunjin hates it when Woojin smiles like that. Like he knows everything. “It’ll help you in the future.”

“I hate it when you speak like that,” Hyunjin mutters.

“When I speak like what?”

“Like you already know everything that’s gonna happen,” Hyunjin replies.

Woojin's eyes are soft. "No. No, I don’t know everything that’s gonna happen. There is someone, but not me.”

*

The bantering in his head continues. In full honesty, Hyunjin expects to not see anyone in the meeting room. It would’ve been reasonable to fight if they were in different rooms, not yet gathered together.

The members of District Nine are all present in the room. They stare at each other and yet have pointless conversations in their heads.

The room is not too spacious, with bare concrete walls. A heavy wooden table takes up most of the space. Everyone's sitting around it, and it frankly looks like they're about to have lunch.

Woojin sighs and takes a seat to Christopher's right. “We need to learn how to disconnect from the flow. I’m getting a headache.”

“Welcome to the headache club,” Cristopher chuckles.

The only space left for Hyunjin is near Seungmin.

As Hyunjin sits down, Seungmin whispers, “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Hyunjin replies. It sounds dry even to his own ears. Seungmin flinches.

“I’m sorry,” Seungmin blurts. “I’m sorry. I- I knew something was gonna happen, I sort of knew it even before we started the whole rebellion thing and shit. But I thought I was, you know, paranoid or something. So I didn’t say anything, and you got hurt, and now we’re here. I’m sorry.”

Hyunjin looks at him for a moment. He isn’t even sure if he's angry at Seungmin; in his view, Seungmin should be angry at him.

The door to the room opens with a bang. Someone must’ve kicked it open.

For a second, Hyunjin expects to have to fight again. He definitely doesn’t expect to see a belly enter the room before its owner. A round smiling bearded face accompanies the belly.

‘Everyone, meet the rebellion leader,’ Christopher supplies. ‘I’ve spoken to him already. Quite a remarkable character. Not dangerous. I hope so.’

Felix hums. ‘I wouldn’t certify for “not dangerous”. He’s like- he feels weird.’

‘Let’s go through this together,’ Woojin says. ‘We can figure it out later.’

Despite his best judgment, Hyuinjin relaxed at his words.

The leader lands on a chair at the head of the table, to Christopher’s left. Christopher smiles at him, tight-lipped. The bearded fc“You having a private chat, boys?” the bearded face laughs. “It’s not very polite, you know. To discuss other people in secret when the person is right in front of you!”

After him, a group of other people enters. They stand by the walls.

Seungmin sits up immediately. ‘Shit. Shit, shit, shit!’

The bearded leader laughs. “Wow, easy, boys. We’re not gonna hurt you.”

“How do you know when we’re communicating with each other?” Christopher asks, the same damn smile on his lips.

Sometimes Hyunjin wants to have as much self-control as Christopher did.

“Your eyes. They get this- kind of like a faint glow to them.”

Hyunjin stares at Jeongin who sits right across from him. ‘Say something.’

‘You look ridiculous,’ Jeongin supplies.

Hyunjin makes a face at him, but his suspicion is correct: he doesn’t see any glow to Jeongin’s eyes.

“Is it something only an outsider can see?” Christopher asks carefully.

The leader shrugs. “I guess. If you can’t see it yourself, I mean, there should be something else.”

Changbin stares the man down. ‘I don’t like him. No, wait, that's not correct. I hate him.’

‘I don’t think he’s that bad though. I mean, they got us out, right?’ Jisung muses.

The leader laughs. He's clearly amused by their confusion. “You must have a lot of questions, boys. Come on, ask up!” Christopher turns back, to look at his group. ‘I want to ask him who they are in general.’

Woojin nods. ‘Go ahead. Also, ask how they knew where to find us.’

The leader's laugh sounds almost like a thunderstorm when he hears the question. “Oh, that’s an easy one! We’re a group that wants to overthrow the government. Like you boys were in that District One of yours, weren’t you?”

‘But we didn’t live underground,’ Changbin hisses.

Christopher voices it.

“Nothing wrong with living underground. This is District Two. Under it, you'll find District Three. You boys contacted us, don’t you remember? We were kind enough to join your plan. Now, you seem to have lost all your memories, haven’t you? What a shame. We’ve had so many good memories together!”

‘How they knew where to come and when to rescue us?’ Minho asks.

Christopher becomes their voice, asking questions instead of them. It only feels natural.

“You gave us instructions,” the beard shrugs. Then, to Hyunjin’s great surprise, he points at Seungmin. “Said he developed this entire plan. That everything would happen exactly when he said it would happen, and voila! It did.”

Felix sounds like he doesn't believe his ears. ‘And they trusted us? Without any proof?’

“You have a reputation,” the beard hums. “We knew who you were, we didn’t have many reasons to not trust you. Although I should admit, there's a rule to this world that you should remember. Never trust anything anyone tells you. We all lie and alter the information as it pleases us. Don't even trust me.”

‘And who are we?’ Minho asks, his voice dripping with venom. ‘I’m quite curious, actually.’

“You asked us not to tell you,” the beard smiles. “So I’m not doing it.”

Silence falls over the room. Hyunjin sighs, sliding down in his chair. He feels exhausted.

“If you’re the rebels,” Christopher asks after some time, “you maybe know where the real government is?”

“Of course we do,” the bearded man smiles again. “This information comes at a price.”

*

Once he steps out on the roof, the memories hit him.

It looked like the very same roof where they used to gather up and have weird night parties and sleepovers. It all now seems so far away, almost as if it happened to someone else in some other life. Hyunjin remembers the fairy lights, and how Christopher and the others used to smile. They smiled and laughed. Even though Hyunjin couldn’t force himself to share their mood, they were still happy and alive.

He approaches the edge of the roof and looks down. The world down there was a magnificent purple, the city alive and pulsating with light and energy.

He's consumed by his thoughts and memories of the others, and of the worry about what will happen to them now. He doesn’t hear the footsteps coming up from behind him. When he does pay attention, Seungmin is standing on beside him.

Hyunjin can swear he hasn’t seen Seungmin in what feels like actual ages, even though that isn’t exactly true. The last time they actually spoke to each other was about a month ago.

Hyunjin misses talking to him.

Seungmin doesn’t look hurt by their distance, though. His expression appears pensive. A bit melancholic, as he observes the underground city.

Hyunjin looks at the streetlights to avoid staring at Seungmin.

The silence between them stretches on and on.

“So, they want to have one of us in exchange for the information about the real government, don’t they?” Seungmin asks eventually.

“Sounds like it,” Hyunjin replies.

He still feels the sudden rush of anger from the others at the news. He almost thought Changbin was going to break something. Perhaps someone’s nose.

“We can’t give anyone up,” Seungmin mutters. “We started this together, and we should finish this together. All nine of us.”

Hyunjin hums in some kind of agreement.

“And it’s unfair,” Seungmin continues. “How can they want someone in exchange for a bunch of coordinates?”

“I guess it’s a test that we have to pass,” Hyunjin says with a sigh. “Or maybe, there are some special skills we have that they want. Maybe they have someone special in mind who they think they could use.”

“I don’t want to pass this test,” Seungmin sighs. “And then, it doesn’t make any sense, you know? Because not even all of us have some special abi-“

He cuts himself off and gasps, looking up at Hyunjin with wide eyes.

“It’s okay,” Hyunjin says and tries to smile. “That’s what my scientist told me, too. Not all of us have anything special about them.”

“But, I mean, maybe they were wrong,” Seungmin says hurriedly. “Maybe- I mean, Christopher designed everything, right? And now it turns out, we helped him. Nobody except for us knows what’s really happening, and we don’t remember shit, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

But the conversation is dead now, and both of them know it. That’s how most of their conversations end up anyway lately, dead halfway through. Hyunjin misses the way they’d talk sunset to sunrise, about everything and nothing in particular.

“Christopher is calling for me,” Seungmin mutters, rubbing his right temple. “I’ll go inside. Please don’t stay up here for too long, okay?”

“Yeah. I won’t.”

Seungmin leaves. Hyunjin is left on the roof alone. Again.

Chapter Text

You live on the other side of the moon,
And I almost never see you.
I'm sitting on the roof and whispering my poems,
Maybe someday you will hear me.*

Flёur "On the Other Side of the Moon"

It’s early in the morning when they’re all back together again. The silence is tense, Seungmin feels like he could touch it if he wanted to. He doesn’t, though. He doesn’t want to touch it. He doesn’t want to have to do anything with it.

He woke up feeling wrong. Is it from sleeping underground? Or because now he could hear the others speaking in his head in the middle of the night and he didn’t know how to tune them out.

Things have an aura now; everything in his line of vision shimmers in different colors. Changbin’s head is purple, for example. Could be from all the thinking he had done last night - that Seungmin could hear, by the way. He didn’t ask to, too.

Seungmin blinks a few times, trying to clear out the fog from his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Felix whispers to his ear.

Seungmin nods. Felix is far too kind for his own good. He can’t bother Felix with his lack of sleep.

“Okay,” Changbin announces, dragging Seungmin out from his thoughts. “Since nobody wants to do it, I will. We need to decide what we do with the ultimatum we got yesterday.”

‘I’m so tired of sitting down and discussing something,’ Hyunjin groans.

“No, we don’t need to decide what we want to do with it,” Christopher interrupts. “We don’t exchange anyone. Nobody stays here. Everyone continues the journey.”

"Does anyone else feel unreal?" Jeongin almost whispers. Nobody hears him, except for Seungmin. And yes, Seungmin does feel unreal.

Christopher’s head is green. Seungmin blinks again a few times. It doesn’t help. The head is still green.

“But this doesn’t make any sense,” Jisung mutters. “We’ve gone such a long way, we got screwed over by this weird-ass system, and now what? Now you suggest we lower our weapons and go home? We need that map. Or the coordinates. Whatever that shit is, I don’t care.”

“I can stay,” Woojin speaks up. “I-“

Christopher cuts him off. “I said no. You can’t stay. Nobody stays. We all go together.”

“But what if I do want to stay?” Woojin says, louder this time, to make Christopher listen to him. “I want to stay. Please.”

Christopher takes a moment to stare at him. His head is a lighter shade now.

Seungmin looks at Woojin and almost screams. Woojin is black.
The auras around people get thicker. He doesn’t know what it means, but he has a feeling that something is going to happen. He’s never had these visions before. Is he losing his mind?

Woojin and Christopher stare each other down. It doesn’t take a genius to realize there are things they’re not saying out loud and not sharing through the link.

“What do you mean you want to stay?” Jeongin murmurs. “You’re not upset, and you don’t look like you’re tired.”

Somebody knocks on the door, but Woojin doesn’t pay attention to it. He opens his mouth to reply.

The person knocks again. Seungmin looks around. Nobody notices it. Nobody hears the knock.

As he gets up to answer the door, the world sways. It’s like he’s on board of a ship, and a storm is starting. Not that he’s ever been to a ship. Not that he remembers of, at least.

Felix calls after him, but his voice sounds distant. “Seungmin? Hey, what’s wrong?”

He opens the door. There’s darkness behind it, and nobody else.

“Seungmin?” it’s Hyunjin now.

“Seungmin”, someone calls. The voice sounds distorted. “Seungmin? Hey, Seungmin?”

It feels wrong. It sounds wrong, too.

The darkness behind the door is getting shapes now. In a moment, Seungmin can see figures of people moving. They’re running somewhere. He counts them; eight people running somewhere without stopping.

The shadows move, like they’re taking a deep breath, and change their shape. This time, Seungmin sees a single shape. It falls to the ground. Other shapes shy away from it immediately, darting to the corners. The fallen shape stays lying there, almost as if it were asleep.

For the third time, the shadows drift, like they’re growing from under the ground. Seungmin watches them get taller and stronger. Watches them open their petals and become small flowers.

It’s a big clearing now. In front of him, a big clearing of shadows lies, inviting him to take a step outside.

Somebody grabs his shoulder. It startles him.

He turns around quicker than he can think about it, prepared to hit the invader in the face. But it’s Felix. He’d never hit Felix.

Felix is looking at him with concern in his eyes. Of course, he is; he must’ve felt something.

Felix's voice trembles. “Are you okay? I can’t feel you. What happened?”

Seungmin’s hearing clears out somewhat, but when he looks at Changbin’s huffing head, it’s still purple. The head looks unhappy when it says, “Must’ve thought we were too boring for him to talk to us. Nothing surprising.”

“Changbin,” Christopher hisses.

Christopher’s lips don’t move anymore, but Seungmin can still hear him speaking. It’s not the same as when they talk over their mental link though; he knows it’s different. Is there a name for this kind of voice?

“It’s my fault,” Christopher’s voice says. “It’s my fault we lost him. I’m so sorry.”

Seungmin counts them. Everyone is in place. Nobody’s lost. Who is Christopher talking about?

“I want for this to be over. Please, can we go home now?” Felix’s voice says. Seungmin knows this isn’t connected to Christopher’s words in any way. Felix doesn’t move his lips though.

“Seungmin? Hey, dude, could you please start feeling something? This is legit creeping me out.” It’s the real Felix’s voice this time, and Felix is in his line of vision again, trying to look him in the eye. He’s furrowing his brows and biting his lower lip.

Sometimes, when he's worried, Felix pronounces the words in a very funny way. Christopher says it's Felix used to speak some other language. Some language they don’t know.

There are two Felixes in front of him. One of them looks serious, calm, collected. The other one is fretting and unsure.

“This isn’t funny,” someone else says.

Seungmin wishes for oblivion because these things are all too confusing. He doesn’t want to continue seeing them.

He gets his wish granted. When he tries to shake off Felix’s hands, the world starts to sip away from him. Bit by bit and drop by drop until it's gone.

*

Seungmin sees a completely different world now.

It’s a city. He’s never seen this kind of city, too. It used to be a big city before. Now, the city consists of empty buildings and sand. The heavy wind lifts up clouds and clouds of dust, and Seungmin has to cover his mouth. He coughs to clear out his airways, but he still feels the grains inside of him.

He himself is sand. He is a sandman, ever-changing and unstable.

The sand cloud dies down in a few minutes. Still coughing his lungs out, Seungmin tries to look around.

He sees the others a few meters away and takes a step towards them immediately. After a second, he stops.

He sees himself in that group, too.

There are injuries all over their faces and knuckles like they’d been in a fight. Jisung’s lower lip is still bleeding, and he licks the blood from it every few seconds. Minho’s face looks like his cheekbones cut through his skin. Changbin’s hands are the worst, turned into a red-purple mess completely.

“You should’ve told us before,” Jisung yells at Woojin. Seungmin takes a step back, surprised by this sudden outburst. He creeps closer, but the group seems to not notice him. “How long? How long have you been feeling like that?”

“From the very beginning,” Woojin replies. Despite how his voice sounds, Seungmin can see how his jaw is sharper now. He’s gritting his teeth so hard, Seungmin can almost hear the sound. “It’s always been here. I’ve always known it would happen.”

“No,” Jisung announces and turns away. “No. I refuse to accept it.”

“It’s not like it’s your decision to make,” Woojin says to his back. “And you very well know it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jeongin says. He’s not as quiet as Seungmin knows him to be. “You could’ve told us. I thought we were in this together.”

“Well, we weren’t,” Woojin says and shrugs.

Seungmin wants to know more. He steps closer; he’s almost standing shoulder to shoulder with his own copy. The copy is looking down, upset. Woojin opens his mouth to say something. Instead, Christopher’s voice sounds from somewhere behind him.

“I’ve read his file,” Christopher says. “He can see the future sometimes. Something about being sensitive to the vibrations of the world.”

"He's seeing the future? As in, he's seeing the future right now?"

“Isn’t it because of a strong intuition or something?” Hyunjin mutters. It’s his bare voice, no actual Hyunjin speaking. “I thought that’s how it worked.”

“Wait, but how do you-“

Christopher – the Christopher in front of Seungmin, that is; the Christopher from the future - takes a step to give Woojin a hug. Woojin reciprocates but he doesn't look happy.

Jeongin opens his mouth and says something, and it looks like he’s accusing someone. Seungmin doesn’t hear it. Seungmin’s world is fading out once again.

*

When Seungmin comes back to his senses, he's lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. The ceiling is the same concrete color as the walls are. There are faces in his line of vision, all of them in different degrees of worry. They don’t press him about his blackout. Seungmin can see from their faces they know something they aren’t telling him. He doesn't want to ask more questions.

The issue with a map exchange still stands open. They still have to make a decision. As the others speak about it, he doesn't pay attention. The shapes and shadows, still very present in front of his eyes, don't leave his mind.

Their next step is to explore the city, someone suggests. The leader gave them a day to think it through, said he'd come back next morning. So they do their best to think; or rather, they do what they can to think. They sneak out the building and go outside, into the unknown world.

This new district doesn’t look much different from District One. It must be District Two, Seungmin assumes. It's still people, the same kind of human beings. Their clothes look a bit cheaper, and the sky is artificial.

People don't pay attention to them, as they didn't back in District One. It must be the local thing in this city. The lower they get in the districts, the more animated people would be. For now, they look like shadows.

Seungmin doesn’t notice that something isn’t going as usual at first. They walk through the city, everyone has forgotten about their existence. He gets lost in his own thoughts.

What are these shadows around him? Were they a prediction, a thing his scientist warned him about?

What is going on around them? Where did they end up? Why are they here, exactly? He still can’t remember anything until the moment he woke up in the bus. It makes his skin crawl. And the most pressing question is, where do they have to go?

Minho was right when he said they couldn’t stay here. The city gave shivers to them, and something about this jungle felt feral.

Streams of people blur together in the glass walls of the high-rise buildings. Their voices mix together. Every face Seungmin passes looks exactly the same to him. At some point, he starts to feel anxious. What if he himself ends up like this? Same as all these people in the city.

They need to get out of there. Seungmin doesn’t even care if the rest of them disagree.

A movement catches his eye.

He stops. At first, everything remains the same. As the others notice he fell back, they halt as well.

"Seungmin?"Christopher calls. "Hey, Seungmin? What is it?"

"Are you having another one of your visions?"

Seungmin shakes his head.

A man, he realizes. An old man, sitting on the sidewalk, almost unnoticeable in the crowd moving. That's what caught his attention.

The man beckons him again with his dry hand. He kind of looks like a stick man.
The others notice him as well. Christopher gasps.

"What are you doing here, sir?" Woojin asks, approaching the man first.

The man doesn't look like a beggar or a homeless person. He must be a wealthy gentleman who likes to hang out on the sidewalks. He looks at them and pats the pavement by his side.

They exchange quick glances. Christopher is the first to approach the man and sit by his side. Unsure, like wild animals, the others follow suit.

"I wish we had our mental thing back," Changbin mutters. "Like, life would've been much easier."

"It doesn't work out in the city," Felix replies. "Here, it only works in that building."

"Which kinda sucks."

The man eyes every single one of them. Seungmin feels like the eyes pierce through his very soul. He moves his shoulders, trying to shake off the feeling. The man laughs, almost as if he knows what is going on.

"You boys aren't local," the man says, almost as if to himself. "Where are you coming from?"

It's a sudden question. Christopher glances at his group as if asking for permission to speak for them. Nobody minds, of course. "How do you know we're not from here?" Christopher says, instead of replying.

This feels like the smartest thing to do. The man eyes him with despise and huffs. "No respect from the young people these days," he complains to nobody in particular. "Wait until you're my age, young man. Then we'll see how you'll talk."

"Do you know what's going on here?" Christopher presses before anyone else has a chance to speak up.

"You boys are from the School, aren't you?" the man asks, eyeing them one by one.

"We don't know, sir," Woojin replies. "How do you know we're from the School?"

"Ah, of course, you don't know," the man nods. "Or rather, you don't remember, don't you?"

"Do you know anything about the school?" Christopher presses.

"What if I do?"

"If you told us, we might be able to stop them."

"Who says I want it to stop?"

Seungmin's bottom hurts from sitting on the concrete ground. People pass by without paying attention. He feels like they wouldn't care unless he tried to affect their world in any manner. In that case, they might get paranoid and defensive.

Christopher considers his words for a minute before he actually speaks up. "We haven't heard much about it, but we know that some people hate it and want to get rid of it. We presumed it was a bad thing that should come to an end."

Seungmin remembers reading something in the file that Jisung sent them. Something about the school, something vague, he doesn't recall any details.

"Then you should ask why the school exists," the man tells him. There's a mischievous glint to his eyes. Seungmin doesn't know it they should vary of him. After all, it's some old man sitting on the sidewalk of a city.

"Why does the school exist?" Christopher asks.

His patience is admirable.

The man's eyes lit up, excited. He sits up, alert now, and pretends to think for a moment before he starts speaking. “Hm. Because too many kids decided that they weren’t good enough to do something. It was like, a huge epidemic back then. Everyone was shouting left and right that they would never be good enough. Jumping off the bridges, those little idiots”.

Jeongin, sitting beside Seungmin, makes a face. Hard to tell if he's uncomfortable or disgusted.

In a screeching voice, the man continues. “So they take them in, and they make them forget these stupid things. Oh, if you only knew how great of inventions we saw afterward! We managed to live in the world that what they called climate change destroyed! But I tell you what. There was no climate change. It was all the governments trying to cover up their greed. The rich people feeding on the poor. As it always was. But now, oh. Now they cannot do that anymore. A great world we live in, a great one!”

Woojin had one of his hands clenched in a tight fist. “Have you ever known anyone who had been through this program, sir?”

“Of course I have! And you know what? I’m glad I sent him there!”

“Was it someone close to you?”

“My son.”

For a second, Seungmin's world stops. Then, he says, “What happened to your son, sir?”

“Dead. Brain tumor or something. Idiot. Could have done so much more. Should have done better.”

Christopher gasps, covering his mouth. "I heard about the case. It’s not on the files, I overheard those who were about to graduate. They let me wander around the school, thought I’d come back to them or shit. They- they- he died because the capacity of his brain was over exceeded. He was doing too much, and the brain has unlimited power, yes, but a part of it is blocked for a reason.’

"He died because he was in this program?"

"He died about fifteen years after he graduated. He was the one who designed the city levels to keep the non-useful ones away so that they wouldn’t bother anyone. He's the one who designed the social ranks, too."

"The social what?" Jeongin blurts. Woojin sends him a glance.

"Ranks, my boy, ranks," the man repeats. "You think people go to different levels as they wish? Oh no, they aren't. It's based on their rank. On how useful they are. It's a shame someone from District One decided to go down here. You might've been more useful up there, where there's this actual sun."

Christopher clears his throat to get the man's attention. "Do you know what will happen if we go further? To the lower levels? What will we find there?"

The man shrugs and gets up. With sudden grace, he sighs and dusts his pants off. "Nothing. No matter where you go in this city, whichever level you try to hack into, you won't find anything. No way to stop what's going on here."

They're left sitting on that damned sidewalk, with people still walking past them. The man disappears, blending in with the crowd.

Changbin hits his head on the wall a couple of times and groans. "This place is full of weirdos who say random shit and never really do anything useful. Does anyone else feel like this is a weird simulation?"

Felix laughs breathlessly and shakes his head. Woojin pats Changbin's back, almost as if telling him that it's all gonna be alright.

It takes them a few minutes of silence before Jisung announces that his ass is cold and he wants to go further. They don't object.

*

Seungmin's mind wanders off, back to the shapes he was seeing. The more he thinks about them, the more they resemble the shapes of the members. Which he doesn't want to believe.

Nobody speaks. Seungmin doesn't know what they're thinking, which is unnerving. He was listening to the radio of their thoughts the entire night. Now, it's so quiet.

He tries to reach into Hyunjin's head for the millionth time in the past few minutes. No matter how hard he tries (he thinks his fight might've gotten red, too), there is no Hyunjin's head for him to reach for. No headspace where he felt so cold before.

He's so lost in his own head, he doesn't notice a person who stops in front of him. Until he hits his nose on Woojin's shoulder.

They're in front of an old bookstore. It seems they've reached an old district. A place where most secrets are often hidden.

It's getting to lunchtime. A moment when they will have to come back to the base to make sure their absence isn't noticed.

“Woojin, we don’t have the time,” Seungmin sighs and grabs his elbow to drag him away from the bookstand.

But Woojin looks enthralled. He resists the pull and frees his arm from Seungmin’s fingers, returning back to the table with the books.

His eyes look glassy. Almost as if it were a precious stone or a piece of fine technical equipment, he picks up one of the books.

Jeongin walks up to him and tries to reason with him, too. “These are simple books. There’s nothing special about them.”

Woojin shakes him off, too, and opens the first page.

Seungmin doesn’t like it here. The bookshop gives him a creepy feeling of being watched, observed, studied. He's almost convinced now: someone is staring at them. Is it the shadow behind the creamy curtains on the second floor?

“We have to leave,” Jisung mumbles, standing close to Seungmin and also looking up at the second floor. “I don’t like it here.”

Christopher is talking to Woojin softly now. They have to be discreet. Minho fidgets with his hair. Changbin paces. Felix stands still, like a statue, observing everything with a deep frown on his face. The expression doesn’t suit him in the least.

Anxious, Seungmin turns away. He looks around. Anywhere, to not look at that excruciatingly slow and cautious scene anymore.

He almost screams when he comes face to face with a woman.

She doesn’t look particularly disgusting or ugly or anything, she's justout of place. He didn’t hear her come up from behind him, and he didn’t hear the store door open. The street was empty except for them a few mintes ago. Now, there's a woman in front of him, with her hair styled and her clothes clean. She must be in her fifties. Everything about her looks normal, except for her eyes. These must be the eyes they always describe as crazy.

Seungmin calls for Christopher, but his voice is so quiet that Christopher doesn't even hear it.

“You shouldn’t have left the school,” the woman sighs.

This gets Christopher's attention. He reassigns Woojin to Minho and Jisung, and comes closer. “What do you mean?”

“You shouldn’t have left”, she repeats in the same voice. “Now, everything for you will collapse if you don’t find anything.”

“If we don’t find what, exactly?”

"You. Yourself. You have to find yourself. Your you.”

“Our what?”

She points at the window. Now that Seungmin looks closer at her, she has a few teeth missing. Her clothes look dusted over. The longer he looks at her, the more she reminds him of the old man from earlier.

The woman gestures towards the entrance of the bookshop then. All Seungmin's instincts are yelling at him that this is a bad idea, such a bad idea. He wants to scream at the others in his head but he can't. They said he could predict the future? His prediction is that this, in the long run, is going to end badly.

Jisung follows her hand. He pushes the entrance door, and a bell rings softly above him as he enters. The others do the same. Seungmin enters the last, and the woman closes the door behind him.

For a second, Seungmin can’t quite pinpoint what he's looking at, exactly. Is it the bookshop’s interior that makes his skin crawl so uncomfortably? There are books stacked everywhere, some of them in messy piles. Only one lamp is on, and the windows are so dirty, no air comes in. The air smells of old cat fur and stale bread.

It takes him a minute to realize what's wrong. There's a huge mirror on the wall, he's standing right in front of it. Jisung is a few steps before him, but not enough to cover Seungmin completely. Seungmin sees Jisung, he observes his face lose all its color. And yet, and yet. He can’t see himself in the mirror.

“What’s wrong, Jisung?”

Jisung tries opening and closing his mouth, but no sound comes out. Seungmin feels sick in his stomach, like someone poured a whole bottle of green slime inside of him.

This can’t be true, he tries to reason with himself. Nobody ever has no reflection.

Christopher comes up behind Jisung. Seungmin can feel his slight annoyance with his whole back. Christopher thinks he's good at hiding it. Sometimes they're terrified of him.

Christopher's reflection walks in. For a few moments, Christopher stares in the mirror. Seungmin waits for him to say something, anything. Has he gone insane? Did he eat something wrong for breakfast? Has the school driven him insane?

“Can you be any slower?” Changbin calls. “I totally want to spend my entire life here.”

Felix snorts and gets an elbow in his ribs from Woojin.

Christopher shifts, trying to get a better look. Tilts his head. Furrows his brows. Glances at the woman watching them with weird fascination. Finally, he says, “I can see your reflection.”

“I can see your reflection, too,” Jisung confirms.

“But I don’t see myself,” Christopher adds.

“Yeah, I don’t see myself either.”

The others erupt in various ‘what’ and ‘is this a joke’, gathering around the mirror to get a better look. The woman laughs. Seungmin, to be fair, hates the sound the second he hears it.

Still laughing, the woman stands up and poses in front of the mirror. The others shy away immediately as if she's contagious.

"Ain't I beautiful?" the woman laughs. "Ain't I beautiful, boys? Do the men still find me beautiful? Tell me! Please tell me, because I will never know."

Seungmin glances around to get the clues from the others. How should they act? Should they run away? Should they stay and listen to her?

The woman continues posing as they watch her. Her voice resonates in Seungmin's head. "This is what it's gonna be like, my boys. The deeper and deeper into the city you go, the more of yourself you will lose. The deeper into yourself you try to look, the less you will see. The further you go, the more of yourselves you will lose. And this mirror? The mirror that shows you everyone except for you? It's the only mirror that will ever tell you the truth. And this is the truth, my boys: you will never see yourself. The others will see you, they will see reflections of yourself in them. But you can never see you."

"Let's get out of here," Minho orders quietly. "Go, everyone, go."

The woman's laugh echoes in Seungmin's head for hours.

*

They don't talk about the woman but the memory of her is still fresh in their minds. Not even a minute passes without someone looking back to check that nobody's following.

The woman is too old to follow anyone at the speed they're walking.

"If this is what District Two is like," Hyunjin mutters to Seunmin's right, "I'm scared to imagine what the other districts look like."

"I know, right?"

Seungmin pretends like everything is okay and he isn't surprised to have Hyunjin speaking to him.

"I'm sorry," Hyunjin blurts. "I'm sorry for what I've done."

Seungmin trips on a stray stone. Hyunjin has to catch him by his arm.

"You haven't done anything wrong," Seungmin mutters when he has his balance back. "I mean, it was all-"

A shadow catches his eye. At first, he lets it pass by him, unbothered. Then, something clicks in his head.

"What do you mean I haven't done anything wrong?" Hyunjin continues. "I betrayed you. If it wasn't for Minho and Jisung, you would've been dead by- Seungmin?"

“My sister,” Seungmin whispers. “I saw my sister.”

“You have a sister?” someone asks from behind him.

The girl walks down the street, and he's thankful to all the gods out there that it's still early. The street isn’t crowded. He can walk briskly behind her, looking like a complete creep. Her name is on the tip of his tongue. She speeds up, too, probably having felt his presence. For a second, he thinks he's going to lose her, so he comes running. That's when she stops so abruptly, he almost bumps into her.

“Who are you and what do you want?” she barks.

She looks as beautiful as Seungmin remembers. He remembers how he promised himself that he will repay her for all the times she protected him. She's a grown woman now; he still looks like a child by her side.

But the only thing that matters is that she's in front of him now.

Her name comes back to him.

Her eyes lit up when she hears him speak. He hears her breathe out a surprised “Min”. She brings him in for a hug.

It feels incredible. He feels warm and important for the first time since he woke up in District One. She's there, right in front of him, all their past grievances forgotten and forgiven now.

“Oh my god, you grew up so well,” she whispers, looking him over when they part. “You’re almost a man now. I remember you being a tiny boy, but look at yourself now, oh god!”

She has smile wrinkles now, Seungmin notices. She didn’t have those when they were younger. She had become so old in the years that they had spent apart, Seungmin’s heart clenches painfully. How much did she have to go through while he wasn’t there? While he was far away from her, studying the pointless art?

He should’ve been with her. He should’ve helped her.

“Oh my god, what happened to your hands?” she breathes.

Seungmin snaps out of his thoughts and glances down at their intertwined fingers. His hands look completely normal to him.
But then she brushes over the joints, where his skin is most callused, and he realizes.

“It’s from the brush,” he says lightly, hoping that she'll let the topic go. “I was way too immersed in drawing, didn’t pay too much attention to time. So this happened.”

“You must love art, huh,” she smiles. But a second later, her face is worried all over again. “They didn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to, did they?”

Seungmin’s heart skips a beat. He's certain that the others feel it. They stand a respectful distance from them, keeping guard from the curious glances of the people walking by.

“No, it was all fine,” he smiles.

Something tells him that he'll regret this lie later. But now, he doesn’t care about any laters. Later could never come, and he doesn’t want his sister to worry more than she already had.

“Oh, god,” she breathes again. “Are those your friends?”

Seungmin glances at the rest of then and nods. Christopher smiles at him and bows at his sister once he notices her attention.

“You boys must be hungry, aren’t you?” she calls, addressing them.

Before anyone can react, Seungmin feels Christopher’s leader presence spread over their minds. “It’s okay, madam,” he says. “We will get by.”

“Oh no. you won’t,” she laughs. “I’m a teacher; I know how much a boy your age eats.”

*

His sister's apartment smells of some herb. Changbin recognizes it immediately and frowns in frustration. Now that they're outside the base, he can't talk to them in his head. It must be an important herb. He tries to get Felix's attention. Felix is too preoccupied with following Seungmin everywhere. He's probably still not over the fact that Seungmin blacked out on him.

Seungmin doesn't care. He knows he should, but as much as he loves and respects Felix, there are more pressing matters at hand.

"How long have you been living here?" Seungmin asks, following his sister deeper into her apartment. They enter what looks like kitchen. "In this city, I mean. Were you here forever?"

"No," she smiles, starting the kettle. "I've been here since you were taken."

"Taken?"

"Will you stay here?" she asks instead of replying. "Seungmin, will you stay with me?"

"I don't-" the words get stuck in his mouth. "What do you mean stay with you?"

"You're done with your studying now, aren't you?" she says. "You don't have to be away now. Now that you're here, will you stay with me?"

"I-"

"Please tell me you will stay," she whispers. "Please don't leave me again. I'm so scared of this District, Seungmin, please-"

"Why are you scared? Is someone threatening you?"

She opens her mouth to reply but is interrupted by a crash. Yelp. Silence.

"Sorry," comes Felix's guilty voice. "I shattered something"

"I told you to be more careful," Changbin hisses.

His sister frets around Felix, checking up on him. He only broke a cup that was misplaced on the phone table. She makes it look like his well-being is the only thing she cares about in the world.

Hyunjin is looking at her with clear mistrust in his eyes, and Seungmin doesn't get it. This is his sister. She's so kind and caring and gorgeous, how could they not trust her?

This is his sister. He's been carrying the hope to meet her one day. He hoped and wished for so long, it seems like this is the only thing he's ever done in his life. He wished to find her one day, and now she's there. Right in front of him. Alive and breathing.

"You look like you've fallen in love," Christopher whispers in his ear, with a mischievous grin on his face. "Are you sure she's actually your sister?"

Seungmin has never heard anything more disgusting, and he lets Christopher know by punching him in his arm slightly.

Christopher snickers and walks away.

The apartment, which is spacious enough for one woman to live in, is too small now. It only has one room and a tiny kitchen, there's barely enough space for nine men in here. Even if Seungmin showed up alone, he'd probably be too much for this tiny pretty apartment.

He still feels cozy here.

Chapter Text

We've come a long way from where we began,
Oh, I'll tell you all about it when I see you again

Wiz Khalifa (feat. Charlie Puth) "See You Again"

They spend the rest of the night in Seungmin’s sister's apartment. Calling back to the base to let them know they aren’t coming back for meals and check-ups. The base isn’t happy, Jeongin can read that much on Woojin’s face when he sets down the phone.

When the day is up, they stay the night. Seungmin’s sister, it turns out, likes to host parties with her colleagues. There are more than enough inflatable mattresses stored in her house.

Sleeping with the others again feels a bit like their last night on the roof. Back in District One. Back when they haven’t started this whole ruckus with overthrowing the government. When they weren't kidnapped by the school’s authorities and rescued by the rebels of District Two. Jeongin thinks of those times with fondness. The thought alone makes the weight on his chest lighter, if only for a minute.

The shadow is still lurking there though. It settles down for the night curled up under a desk like a pet cat Jeongin never asked to own. The shadow never sleeps; it watches over them day and night, conceiving of the ways it could hurt them.

There are a few things Jeongin cannot do with the shadow no matter how hard he tries. He cannot speak to it in front of the others; he can’t tell it to go away, and he can’t hide from it. The shadow has been following him around for as long as he could remember. When he first opened his eyes in District One hospital, it was already there. The shadow stood in the corner of the room, watching him. It continues to watch him.

Sometimes the shadow looks almost like a human, and it wears Jeongin’s face for fun. That way, whenever he talks to it, it always feels like talking to himself. Sometimes it’s an incoherent mass of something that keeps following him wherever he goes.

The shadow is having a philosophical speech from under the desk. “You know what. They’d all look so pretty if they were dead.”

Jeongin opens his eyes but tries to keep his breathing steady. Seungmin is sleeping right beside him, and he’s a light sleeper. He’ll wake up the minute he realizes Jeongin is upset.

Jeongin opens his mouth, and no sound comes. He wants to scream and tear the shadow apart, but the words get stuck in his throat.

“I could make them so pretty and happy,” the shadow continues. Its voice becomes dreamy. “People are always happier when they’re dead, you know?”

A scream bubbles inside Jeongin, but there’s no way for him to let it out. He wants to say that they won’t be happy if they’re dead. And when somebody dies, someone else is inevitably sad. Death is never a happy thing, no matter what one thinks.

The shadow sighs happily and falls silent. Jeongin stays awake until the sun colors him warm orange over the rooftops. He listens to Hyunjin toss and turn the entire night.

*

Seungmin’s sister is the first person to wake up. She must have a job she needs to go to. Moving around the apartment, she gets prepared for her day.

Jeongin pretends like he’s waking up. His eyes sting from the sleepless night. There’s a huge cotton ball stuck in his head.

She invites him to join her over a cup of coffee. Jeongin accepts because there isn’t much for him to do.

They spend a few minutes in silence. Jeongin stares at the street visible through the window. The shadow’s words keep on playing in his mind like a broken recording. He now can’t even remember what exactly it said, word for word.

Seungmin’s sister is the first to break the silence and stillness. She gets up to close the kitchen door with a soft click. As she returns, Jeongin expects her to become upset. But she sits down, and there’s a soft smile on her lips.

“Thank you for being with them,” she says. Her eyes are also trained on the street down there. “It may not seem like it, but you being there helps a lot.”

Jeongin shrugs and hides his face, pretending like he’s taking a sip of his coffee. When there isn’t anything else he can do to postpone the conversation, he says, “I don’t know. They’re still upset all the time.”

“How do you know? Did they tell you?”

“N-not really. More like… more like, I can taste emotions? And I don’t know how to explain, but there are several tastes to different shades of emotions and so on. And all the time, and I mean all the time, they taste like they’re upset.”

She turns to look at him. “What do I taste like right now?”

He looks at her for a second. “Nothing. I mean- It doesn’t work like that. I can’t tell you on the spot. It’s more like when a person’s emotion changes, that’s when I can-“

“Okay, I get it,” she nods. “Don’t get so nervous. I won’t judge you or think less of you because you can’t tell me right now.”

Jeongin hides behind his cup.

“What do you mean when you say they’re always upset?” she asks after a few more beats of silence. “You look upset, too.”

“They look like something is bothering them all the time,” Jeongin explains with a shrug. “I don’t- know how to help them.”

Seungmin’s sister hums. The sun is creeping up. Slowly, steadily, it keeps going up and up and higher. “Well, you know, when people aren’t feeling well and they don’t trust those around them, it can be harder to open up. And when they can’t speak their minds and they’re stuck on one with their thoughts, it’s- it can be excruciating. We need to talk to each other more, as humans.”

“But we do talk,” Jeongin protests weakly. Anything he says feels like it can send him into a mental breakdown anytime. The shadow shakes its head; it doesn’t approve.

“I don’t mean this kind of talking that includes ‘shut your face’ or ‘I don’t want to have to do anything with you,” she smiles. “I mean things like, you know, saying ‘hey, I care’. Or admitting to what’s been bothering you. What you think needs to change. What keeps running through your head.”

“But we do know what is running in our heads. Every single moment of the time. We have a mental link and all.”

For a moment, she looks taken aback, and Jeongin feels embarrassed. He forgot that in the outside world, in the normal world, people didn’t have mental links with each other. It isn’t realistic. And yet, here they are, the nine of them, completely capable of doing things that aren’t real.

Seungmin’s sister finds her balance. She smiles and says, “Well, can you always hear everything they’re thinking? Do you think they always know what you’re thinking? Do you think they always know what they’re thinking?”

Jeongin stills for a minute. She’s right. If any of them ever found out what he thought, they'd abandon him. And he’s certain he still can’t find out what exactly happens in their heads.

She must have read his expression because she smiles and nods. “Exactly. You guys are so tied up on your mental link. You think you can read each other because you have this something special uniting you. But the truth is, you still have to use your words.”

It makes sense. It makes so much sense, Jeongin feels like he has to sit down for a minute even though he’s already sitting.

They never talk. Except for discussing strategies and arguing. They never talk about anything else.

“And sometimes,” she adds, “you only find out what your actual thoughts are when you talk to someone else.”

Jeongin opens his mouth to reply and tell her that men don’t discuss their feelings, thank you very much. He’s interrupted by the sound of footsteps behind the door, and a soft knock.

“Jeongin?” Seungmin’s voice calls. He sounds raspy with sleep. “Jeongin? You in here?”

“Yeah,” Jeongin replies. The door opens. “I’m here.”

He’s always here when they need him.

*

The base stands silent, as does the rest of the city. The guards scan the backs of their necks before letting them in. Jeongin’s mouth is sour from all their emotions. Nobody around him is ever happy.

Seungmin and Hyunjin both look deep in thought. They must’ve talked about their argument the day before. Jeongin hopes they build their friendship again one day, even if it lies in ruins right now.

The rebellion leader is already sitting in the meeting room, waiting for them. There’s an arrogant air to his whole behavior. Christopher makes a face at Woojin, annoyed.

“So, the leader says as he stands up. He’s tall for such a heavy body. “Let’s get straight to the business, shall we? Or would you prefer to have small talk about weather first?”

Christopher stops before taking his seat. Jeongin sits down right behind him; Christopher’s shadow is covering him like a blanket.

“Let’s talk about business,” Christopher says in a level voice.

The leader – Jeongin realizes they still don’t know his name – chuckles. “So, do you boys want the map and the coordinates, or would you like to stay here forever?”

“We would like to have the map and the coordinates,” Christopher says carefully. “But-“

“But,” the leader interrupts him, “one of you boys has to stay here. Have you decided which one of you it will be?”

Christopher shakes his head. “No. We discussed it among ourselves, and we decided-“

Hyunjin springs up and hits Jeongin in the cheekbone by accident. His voice sounds an octave higher when he speaks. “Me. I will stay if you give them the map.”

For an excruciating second, silence falls over them. Jeongin’s heart skips a beat, then another beat and another one. Hyunjin tastes like raw dough, a taste he doesn’t have associated with anything. Is it betrayal? Self-sacrifice? What is it?

Seungmin chokes on air and reacts before anyone else can stop him. In a second, he’s standing up. “What?”

‘What?’ Changbin echoes in Jeongin’s head.

Hyunjin takes a step back, away from Seungmin who has his arm stretched out, not meeting his eyes. “I’m staying. I’m not going anywhere. You all should continue, I-”

Hyunjin falls silent. The others, too, say nothing. They’re a storm in Jeongin’s head though. Their thoughts and emotions collide and intertwine in the common space. It feels like he’s being pulled in eight different directions all at once.

The rebellion leader smiles into his beard. “The deal is accepted. We didn’t expect we’d get the only actual human among you, but given the circumstances-”

Christopher comes to his senses, and his whole body jerks. “What? No! There isn’t going to be any deal! Hyunjin, you’re not staying!”

Hyunjin snaps. “Can you, for once, let me make my own decision? The first time, when I got you out of the school? It wasn’t my decision. When I acted like I also didn’t remember anything? Not my decision. They were all your ideas because you wanted to protect us, right?”

Jeongin has a second of peace before his head explodes with their voices.

‘What the hell? Why haven’t we ever heard about any of these things?’ Minho yells. It does sound pretty loud in Jeongin’s head.

Seungmin sounds confused. ‘No, wait, what do you mean Hyunjin could remember everything this entire time?’

Changbin interrupts him. ‘Who cares, when the most important thing is that-‘

Jeongin tries to keep as silent as possible and covers his ears. It doesn’t help. All the noise is happening in his head only, after all. Woojin and Christopher exchange a glance. They think nobody notices, but Jeongin does.

“They seem like they’ve been planning behind your backs, huh?” the shadow says. It’s chilling in the corner of the room, most pleased with all the confusion and hurt. “I wouldn’t have forgiven them, like, ever, if it were for me. But you will. You’re so gullible.”

“Can we please get back to the business?” Christopher has to yell now to get their attention. “Hyunjin, you are not staying! We started this together, and there’s no way we’re gonna finish it with one of us missing-“

“Why are you so insistent? Is there something else you haven’t told us yet?” Felix presses.

Jisung gets up, too. Jeongin tries to get as far away from him as possible because Jisung is raging. He might even hurt someone because he tastes like hot sauce.

“Were you using us, too?” he asks, pointing to himself and back at Minho. “We were policemen, right? Having policemen in your team is so freaking cool and convenient, isn’t it? We can lead any suspicions off of you, we can risk our lives to make sure that your rebellion actually happens, huh?”

Christopher takes a deep breath but his teeth are making a screeching sound.

Changbin stands up as well, and he’s taller than Jeonging is used to seeing him. Anger tends to make people look bulkier than they actually are. Changbin raises his hand, and it’s a gesture that cannot be mistaken for any other one. It’s a split second before Changbin’s fist connects with Christopher’s cheekbone. The cracking noise makes Jeongin nauseous.

“Stop it!” Jeongin shrieks. His breath has picked up without him noticing it. “For god’s sake, stop it!”

The room stills. Surprisingly, the room stills. Christopher spits blood on the carpet. It’s hard to tell what’s bleeding, exactly.

Everyone turns to look at Jeongin. He sits up straight, uncurls from his fetal position. “We’re not here to discuss the ways we’ve hurt each other and lied to each other, are we? We’re here to make an exchange for a map and coordinates. So let’s do that. It’s our top priority.”

‘Look who’s talking like he’s an adult.’

’Changbin, please don’t.’

Minho takes a deep breath, rubs his forehead like he’s having a headache, and orders, “Sit, everyone. Don’t speak unless you have something to say about the exchange.”

“I’m staying here,” Hyunjin mutters. He’s looking straight at Seungmin, ignoring everyone else. “I’m sorry if you feel like I’m betraying you or something, I swear I’m not. You can go ahead, rummage around in my head, do whatever. I’m not betraying you. You’ll be better off without me.”

“But-“ Felix starts. Minho stops him with a glance.

The rebellion leader – Jeongin almost forgot the man was even in the room – looks smug. He beckons Hyunjin with his finger like a dog. Hyunjin makes a face but approaches him.

Seungmin gasps when the leader’s fingers grab a hold on Hyunjin’s wrist. It’s final, Jeongin realizes. They traded their friend for information.

The shadow, lurking in the corner of the room, laughs. Jeongin wants to scream at it and tell it to shut the hell up.

Someone enters the room. Jeongin recalls this person to be the leader’s assistant. The man puts a paper package on the table in front of Christopher and leaves just as quietly. The door clicks behind them.

Nobody touches the package. Time stretches out like melted caramel. Jeongin’s teeth hurt from the sugary taste. His chest hurts much, much worse though.

*

He escapes from the room. The oily texture of the grim expressions on the others’ faces makes him nauseous. There isn’t anywhere for him to go to, though. The car that the rebels are presenting them with will only be ready in half an hour. Until then, they have to sit there, in the building, going crazy from the realization of what they’ve done.

When Christopher opened the package, the rebel leader and Hyunjin weren’t in the room anymore. Jeongin still wants to wash his mouth to get rid of the taste he got when the others saw what was inside the package.

A map, presenting the levels of the city. A notebook with the notes on names and locations of different government officials. Some of them were only on level three. Others were hiding deeper, so they’d need to go further and further down to actually find then. The location of others was still unknown. They could be on level one for all they knew, but level one was a forbidden area for them now.

The worst thing was the compass. The compass wasn’t functioning.

Felix had to snatch it from Changbin’s hands to make sure he didn’t throw it at the wall in anger.

So, all they had, in the end, were a few things. A broken compass. A sketchy map that only had the necessary marks on it, but no road that would lead them to it. A notebook that said who it was exactly what they needed to take down.

The feeling of being trapped in a hamster wheel gets stronger and stronger. No matter where Jeongin runs, there seems to be no exit. He cannot escape the shadow that keeps following him. There is no exit, it seems.

Hot tears burn his eyes, but he refuses to cry. That would make the shadow worse, and it is already strong enough for Jeongin to feel like he’s losing himself to it.

The shadow feels his confusion because it sighs behind his back. The sigh sounds almost as if it actually cares about his well-being. “You should finally let me in, you know? There isn’t any way you’re getting rid of me. they tried to separate us, remember? And they couldn’t. So now, you are trying to do that yourself. You can’t.”

Jeongin ignores it. He traces the wooden walls of the hallway. The wooden texture takes his mind off of the duties he has laying ahead of him.

The shadow continues speaking. “You cannot get rid of me, Jeongin. I am you.”

”You’re not,” Jeongin wants to say. ”You and I have nothing in common.” Yet, he keeps quiet.

He spends around ten minutes going down the hallway, mindless. The radio in his head is off. He doesn’t know if it's because he disconnected from it, or because the others don’t feel like being with each other.

The shadow goes with him and keeps chatting about something with itself. Jeongin does his best not to reply.

Halfway through the second floor, with rooms and doors surrounding him, he hears a noise.

At first, he thinks it’s the shadow playing tricks on him. He turns back around, but the shadow, wearing his face again, looks as perplexed. If there’s one thing it cannot do to him, it cannot lie.

So Jeongin hears someone wailing, their world might have as well fallen apart.

He tries to follow the sound and it leads him to a closed door. Jeongin stops, his hand on the handle. His heart beats somewhere in his throat. The person’s sobs taste like salt.

“Hey?” Jeongin calls, pushing the handle. “Hey, are you okay in there?”

The sobbing cuts off, almost as if someone turned off a recording. But Jeongin feels something behind the door, hears shuffling and heavy breathing. There is a real living person there.

“I don’t think we should go inside,” the shadow whispers, looking from behind Jeongin’s shoulder. “It could be a trap.”

“Or it could be someone who’s in real need for help,” Jeongin mutters. His mind flashes back to how broken and helpless Hyunjin looked when the leader took him outside. “Hey? Can I come in? I’m not gonna hurt you. Whatever it is you’re going through, you don’t have to be alone.”

He gets nothing but silence in reply.

The shadow tugs on his sleeve. It looks worried now. “We should go. I don’t know who that is in there, but it’s dangerous.”

Jeongin jerks his arms away, freeing himself from the shadow’s hold. “Cut it. I’m not leaving until we’ve helped this person.”

“No, listen-“

The shadow’s voice is interrupted by Changbin’s presence right in his head. Changbin is annoyed, most likely pacing the building in the search of Jeongin. His voice sounds loud and clear, so he must be somewhere nearby. ‘Jeongin? Where the hell are you? I swear, if we’re late because you’ve wandered off somewhere again-‘

Jeongin glances at his hand, still holding the door handle. ‘I’m coming. I’ll walk to you, we should meet at some point.’

He takes his hand off the handle, reluctantly. The shadow sighs, relieved.

He doesn’t expect to hear Hyunjin’s voice in his head. He doesn’t. And yet, before he even manages to take a step away from the door, Hyunjin speaks to him. ‘Please make sure they’re okay? I mean. At the end of this journey. Please make sure they’re all okay.’

‘I- Where are you?’

‘Jeongin, please, promise.’

‘Okay. Okay, I promise. Just- please come back. It doesn’t matter when. Please make it back to us one day. We’ll miss you.’

Hyunjin laughs softly and falls silent. Jeongin doesn’t feel him anymore, and yet, Hyunjin’s voice, loud and clear, echoes in his head.

With the last glance on the closed door, Jeongin leaves to meet Changbin.

*

There’s a car waiting for them in front of the rebels’ building. It’s a weird sort of car, with no walls. Jeongin would’ve called it a van.

It’s sunny for once. Yet, the sun doesn’t feel warm on Jeongin’s skin. It must be the artificial sun, the one they created to make the people in the district believe their life was normal.

The others are waiting for Jeongin and Changbin. But as they approach the group, they can see – and hear – that it’s not the only thing they’re doing.

Seungmin’s sister is here. She’s hugging Seungmin so tightly, Jeongin is worried his ribs might break.

“What’s going on?” Changbin whispers to Felix’s ear. Felix replies something just as quietly. Changbin hums and nods.

With visible effort, Seungmin detaches himself from his sister and holds her by her shoulders. Now Jeongin can see she’s been crying.

“This is gonna be ugly,” Minho mutters. “I don’t feel like we should be watching this scene.”

Yet, none of them move. The rebels are standing a few meters back. The sun reflects in the building’s windows, creating spots of light on everything. It’s Seungmin and his sister in the center of everyone’s attention.

She looks hopeful as she looks up at him. “Have you made your decision? Will you stay with me?”

Jeongin chokes on air. Minho to his right makes a strangled noise.

Seungmin nods. He’s pale and seems to be shaking. “I have. I’ve decided. I will- I’m going with them. I’m not staying here.”

A second passes. Then, she slaps him. “How dare you!”

Her face changes in a second. The pretty features turn into a madman mask, her face and neck redden like she’s been burned. She bares her teeth and snarls and Seungmin.

Seungmin has to step back because she tries to scratch him with her bare hands. Two rebellion officers are already there, holding her back by her elbows. She screams and thrashes. It’s impossible to tell her actual words now.

Seungmin looks shaken, staring at her now. His heart might have been broken twice in the past hour.

Christopher is the first one to come to his senses. “That’s our cue to leave.”

Minho seems to actually wake up at that. “Second that. Guys, get into the car. I’m driving, everyone, say thank you Minho.”

“Stop giving us your orders, Minho,” Woojin replies.

Jeongin and Felix have to take Seungmin by his arms and force him away from his sister. He follows them without a word. He doesn’t taste like anything.

The rebel leader pats the steering wheel like he’s giving them a fatherly goodbye. “Travel safely, kids. We’re counting on you.”

Christopher’s voice sounds tight when he replies. “Thank you for the assistance, sir. We appreciate everything you’ve told us.”

The man nods. “Follow the map, it’ll take you where you need to go. And remember this: you’ll continue facing the same things over and over again until you learn from them.”

Seungmin’s sister is still screaming when Minho starts the van. As they drive away, Jeongin glances back. Something catches his attention on one of the windows. He thinks he sees Hyunjin. Hyunjin looks like he’s been crying a lot.

When Jeongin turns back to face his groups again, nobody’s looking at each other. And everyone tastes like salt.

*

The map rests in Jisung’s lap like a sleeping beast. Christopher is reading through the notebook, his brow furrowed. Seungmin has the compass in his hands, and he’s looking at is like it personally offended him. In a sense, it did.

It’s silent in the van, except for the low humming of the engine. Minho and Jisung converse quietly in the front. Jisung reaches out and feels the air between them. It’s calm. They’re both calm despite the situation. Must be their police training.

They’re going to the exit from level two. Apparently, all the government leaders are on lower levels. Which Jeongin finds hard to believe. The lower levels are supposed to be less developed. Definitely not a place where a government official would want to live. But the information they have cost them too much, so they have no other choice but to follow through.

Christopher is the first one to break the silence. He taps the notebook and makes a face. “So according to this thing, there’s one leader per each level. In total, we have to find nine of them, though I have no idea how that adds up. So, only after we have the information on them, we can-“

“I wonder how much time it’s gonna take them to realize this world isn’t real,” the shadow mutters. It’s chilling by Jeongin’s feet, curled up in a tight ball of darkness, like a black cat.

Christopher cuts himself off, having realized that everyone is looking at him strangely. “What?”

Jeongin can’t stop but have the same expression as Changbin is wearing. The expression of utter disbelief.

What?” Christopher presses.

“Okay, spill it,” Changbin grumbles. “Say anything that will make me believe you aren’t a psychopath who tried to use Hyunjin for his own plan and then sold him for information.”

Christopher chokes on air, but the rest of them are strangely quiet. Nobody tries to shush Changbin this time.

“I wasn’t using him for my own plan!” Christopher protests. “I swear, I wasn’t! I wasn’t using him or any of you!”

Minho sighs and closes his eyes for a second before he actually speaks, staring back at the road. “How do you know though? You lose your memories every once in a while, don’t you?”

“I just know, okay?” Christopher seethes. “Why are we even discussing it? Isn’t it more important to find out why on earth Hyunjin-“

“No, Christopher, it isn’t more important,” Woojin says. He sounds calm, but he tastes like hot sauce. “What else is there? What do you know about ourselves that we don’t? I’m trying to see into your head, but it’s a complete mess.”

“If he speaks about how he came up with this world, I’m gonna die from laughing,” the shadow purrs.

For a few moments, it’s silence and the engine. Nobody breaks it. Jeongin doesn’t want to taste their emotions anymore, he’s so tired.

Finally, Christopher speaks. “I know that- I mean, I also didn’t know until recently, but my scientist told me that. Back in the school, remember, when we were taken? They were giving us pills without us noticing. She said we were being monitored during our time in district one. To make us more controllable or whatever, they were giving us some pills. She said we could experience the withdrawal syndrome if we stopped taking them. Which, I guess, is what's gonna happen to us. I mean, we don’t have the pills anymore. They’re not in our food or water, so I guess we’ll see what happens.”

After almost a minute of silence, Woojin sighs. “I want to trust you. But it’s kind of hard because you lied to us.”

“I didn’t lie, okay? I just haven’t told you, apparently. And I don’t remember why, I just know that I most likely wanted to protect you.”

“What’s gonna happen to Hyunjin?” Seungmin mutters. He’s not playing with the compass anymore.

Christopher sighs. “I don’t know. It wasn’t in the plan, okay? We never agreed to this. I mean, yes, he is the only one who actually remembers everything. Maybe he’s had his own reasons.”

“Is he coming back you think?” Felix asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Why does he get to run away like a freaking girl though?” Changbin snarls. “I swear I wouldn’t do it if I were him.”

“Changbin, chill,” Minho sighs. “We get it, you’re perfect. Not everyone can be perfect though, alright? Hyunjin is human, too. All of us are, even if some of us are very insistent they aren’t.”

“Are you referencing to me?”

“Jesus Christ, Changbin,” Felix groans. “Chill. He means all of us.”

Woojin smiles. “Never thought I’d hear Minho give someone a pep talk.”

“A pep talk on being human of all things,” Christopher adds, smiling back.

“Oh please.”

Jisung twists his neck to look at them from his seat and grins. “Cheer up, guys. We gotta finish our task of overthrowing this system. Nothing too hard, huh? Then we can focus on getting Hyunjin back. I’m sure he’ll be proud of us when he sees what we’ve done.”

The others look and taste happier now.

The shadow stretches out under the seats, and it resembles a cat more and more now. “Somebody’s gotta tell ‘em they’re not getting out of here unless they find their souls. Each one of you boys got one as you got me. Unless y’all find yours, there’s no way you could finish this mission of yours or whatever.”

Jeongin bites his lip so hard, he might draw blood. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot reveal what the shadow tells him.

The others laugh at the joke Jisung made, and Minho groans because the joke was bad. Jeongin can’t laugh. He can’t do anything. He’s helpless.

They have an enormous journey ahead of them, and he doesn’t think they will come out of it intact.