Newt work up strapped to a bed in a white room. The anxiety started as soon as he pulled on his restraints. He didn't know where he was or what had happened, but it couldn't be good. It was never good.
"Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty. Took you long enough." As soon as he heard Minho's voice everything got infinitely worse. He snapped his head towards the sound and found both Minho and Tommy at his bedside, well within reach if he wasn't strapped down. Panic cut through him like a Griever blade, shredding his insides.
"What the bloody hell are you doing?" he swore, his last memory suddenly vivid in his mind. "Don't you idiots have a lick of self-preservation? The bloody maze should have taught you that. I'm a danger to everyone and there's nothing you can do, so I want you to stop trying and get the hell out of here."
"Awful coherent for a crank," Minho drawled, ending in a wide smirk. Even Tommy was grinning, and while Minho's snark was typical Tommy's cheer wasn't. Their joy at his distress was cruel, and even in his virus addled mind Newt knew that wasn't like them.
"Why are you smiling?" he snapped, but he felt the fight drain out of him, exhaustion seeming to fill every cavity in his body. Maybe this was the next stage. At least it was better than the rage.
He'd expected madness to come next.
"Newt." Tommy reached out and grabbed him by the forearm. Newt wanted to pull away, but there was something about his voice. He was so bloody calm. He'd looked half as wild as Newt had felt the last time they'd seen each other, screaming and scraping on the ground. But Tommy was steady now, just as he'd always been in the Glade. It was that calm that had fascinated Newt once – had revived his starved hope that maybe things could be different. He'd honestly come to believe that Tommy might change things for the better, find them a way out.
And then everything had gone to hell.
"It's over. You're okay. You don't have the Flare anymore."
His stomach dropped out from under him like he was back in the Box again. "What?" He closed his eyes and tried to focus. He could barely breathe, each breath suddenly catching in his lungs, but that terrible itch in his brain – the awful ragehatepaindespair – it wasn't there. And the fog – the way the words he wanted to say drifted away and he could no longer quite figure out how to articulate his thoughts – that seemed to have lifted as well.
The straps around his arms opened with a load click. He wrenched his free hand away and flipped it so he could stare at his wrist. He could barely see his veins under his pale skin. They'd been black and angry the last time he looked, the virus physically manifesting. He's imagined it wrapping around his organs and spilling out his eyes. Maybe that was why so many gouged them out.
"How can that be possible?" he whispered.
Tommy was still staring at him. So calm. So kind, after everything. This could all be some terrible joke. He deserved it, the way he'd acted.
"WICKED is good, apparently."
"What?" He'd never expected to hear Minho say those words, even sardonically.
Minho pushed his chair backwards with a harsh screech and then swung his legs up onto Newt's bed, inches from his face. He folded his hands behind his head and leaned back with a smug grin. "It's a long story, shank. You missed quite the adventure."
"Minho." There was warning in Tommy's tone.
"You want to tell the story?"
Tommy looked away, and the calm faltered. "No. But get on with it."
"All right. Here's the short version. Thomas here knocks you out and decides we don't have any choice but to take you to WICKED. He agrees to be their Final Candidate – as long as they keep you drugged out on enough Bliss to stop the Flare from progressing and agree that you'll be first in line to get the cure. They lost a fortune in that deal, let me tell you. Then there was the bit where our friend Ratman wanted to dissect Thomas's brain for science – I thought we were going to have to have an old fashioned shootout for a minute there. Then this lady shows up – Chancellor Paige – and arrests Ratman and all his cronies. Says they don't have to cut up Thomas's brain to find the cure. Turns out she was right. Took about two months, but they figured it out just by looking at all the data from our shuck experiments. Now WICKED's out curing the world and they sent all the other Immunes to this so called Paradise while we've been waiting around for you to wake up."
Air was flowing into his lungs too fast now. He felt lightheaded. Everything Minho said would have made a fine movie – and it seemed absolutely impossible. "You're serious?"
"Who could make this up, really?"
"It's the truth." Tommy's voice was quiet, commanding – but he wasn't meeting Newt's eyes anymore. And suddenly Newt was back in that field screaming hateful things – things that he'd tried to hold back yet was determined to say because he'd needed Tommy to do what he could not. He hadn't thought of what his request would do to his friend. He hadn't really been able to think much at all.
Not that his friend had listened anyway.
"I need a sandwich."
Minho snorted, and Newt tried to forget the way Tommy flinched. "I'm bloody serious. Haven't eaten in ages, apparently. Can you go get me something, Minho?"
There was too much between them to sit around and pretend nothing had happened. But he'd rather be alone to discuss it.
Minho shot him a look but didn't argue. "Yeah man." He offered a mock salute as he swung his legs back to the floor. The door shut behind him with a resounding thud.
And then there were two.
Although Tommy seemed to have trouble meeting his gaze Newt had no such qualms. The boy looked rough – his hair a bit shaggy, his sun burn from the Scorch completely faded into a pasty whiteness – though his clothes were neat and filled out properly. But his gaze was uncharacteristically squirrelly, which caused some unquantifiable emotion to well up in Newt.
"I don't know whether I should be livid or grateful."
Tommy's shaky exhale might have been the start of a laugh, but it fell flat. "Least I'm not the only one who finds this awkward."
"It's more than awkward, you shank."
"Would you just shut up a minute?" The outburst was so uncharacteristic that Newt listened, his mouth snapping shut. Tommy ran a hand through his hair. "I've spent three months trying to figure out what to say if you ever woke up, so I just need you to listen, all right? Then you can say whatever you want."
It was nice to be able to comply, his emotions all kept within human range. "Go on then."
Tommy seemed to relax a bit when Newt didn't leap at his throat. "I hadn't read your note when we found you in the Palace so I had no idea what you were on about. And then when you wouldn't come with us I did read it – but it didn't matter. I couldn't do it! Maybe if I thought there wasn't any other way – I never wanted you to suffer. I can't begin to imagine what you went through, but I can understand that you'd want it to end. But I could not accept that all the klunk we'd been through had been for nothing. I was not going to let you die if there was a way I could stop it. And I'm not going to apologize that I wouldn't shoot my best friend in the head. Maybe you didn't want to be saved, but there's millions of people out there who did, and the truth is I probably never would have come back to help with the cure if it wasn't for you. Which is shucking ironic, because apparently this whole shuck mess was my plan to begin with."
Tommy had started pacing somewhere in the middle of his diatribe, but by the end he had flopped back into the hospital chair. Newt had never been able to think of Tommy as being in league with the Creators, even after they'd learned that Gally had been right. He'd only been a Glader for a few days, really, but he'd wormed his way right into the heart of their little society. He was one of them, through and through. And Newt had always trusted him, without evidence and sometimes against his better judgement. He couldn't help but trust him now, even as part of him still yearned for the solace a bullet in his brain would have provided.
Newt cleared his throat. "I'm, uh, not really sure what to say to all that."
"You don't have to say anything. You just have to never ask me to kill you again."
He deserved to have his terrible weakness thrown in his face, but that didn't make it sting any less. "Fine. I'll ask Minho next time."
"Don't even joke about that!"
"Just cause you don't have a sense of humor." Newt chuckled, the sound foreign to his ears. How long had it been since any of them had laughed at a joke? The thought sobered him. "I didn't mean any of the klunk I said. I never hated you. Certainly don't now."
"Good to know."
He sounded like he'd doubted it, and the guilt of that gnawed at Newt the same way the Flare had, making him want to squirm. "Were you really going to let them cut up your brain? For me?"
"Yes," he answered vehemently. "It was the least I could do to make amends."
Newt flinched, because that had been the lowest of blows, and while the Flare had removed his filter and caused him to explode, it had been the still-sane part of his brain that had realized playing on Tommy's guilt was the surest way to get him to snap.
"Next time you probably shouldn't listen to someone who's going mad. Monsters don't exactly give the best advice."
"You were never a monster to me."
Newt wasn't sure why Tommy's softly spoken words made something swell in his chest and tears burn behind his eyes. He didn't understand how close Newt had truly been to the Gone – still far enough away to be bloody terrified but close enough to feel the bloodlust boil, to tear out his own hair and consider taking a bite out of his closest friends. He'd watched some of his new Crank pack tear a child apart and he'd been ready to join them before he'd gotten chased off for being the greenie. He had wanted so badly just to give in so resisting wouldn't hurt anymore. But even to the very end he'd been sick at what he'd become. His worst fear was he'd start killing and eating people while part of him still knew it was wrong.
And now it was all gone, like some terrible nightmare his friend didn't even believe in. It was hard to fathom how he could possibly be cured.
The door opened and Tommy leaned back, the moment lost. Minho entered, carrying something on a tray that was most definitely not a sandwich.
"Someone followed me home," he said, tilting his head toward the woman who entered behind him.
The woman's dark hair was pulled back in a severe bun, she was dressed all in white, and the moment she said, "It's good to see you awake, Mr. Newton," Newt actually snarled. The nurses had all called him Mr. Newton during his bloody third trial, when they'd told him he wasn't immune to the Flare and then spent three weeks bombarding him with each and every side effect he was likely to experience.
"Prove that it's gone," he demanded, suddenly terrified that this was just another trial. Another game, somehow more horrendous than everything that had come before.
"That isn't necessary. We ran extensive tests through your entire recovery."
"I don't care," he hissed between clenched teeth. "I want you to prove it right now."
Tommy was staring at him and he knew he sounded a bit mad, but he didn't care. The itch, the paranoia – it just had to be nerves but he wasn't sure and he had to know.
"Very well." The woman retrieved a wheeled cart from the corner of the room and instructed Newt to look into the contraption rising out of it. He felt a sting in his neck and a puff of air in his eye. The wait for the results stretched into eternity as he imagined his descent into madness starting all over again.
"Acquired immunity," the machine finally chirped. "No contagion detected."
He'd learned not to trust relief. He'd been fooled again and again – and there were so many ways this could still be another WICKED trick. But he relaxed a bit despite himself.
"Well then, if I'm fine that I want to get out of here. Minho said something about Paradise." He swung his legs off the bed, not registering how heavy they felt until he pushed himself off and they crumbled underneath him.
Thankfully Tommy was still by his bedside to catch him.
"What the hell is wrong with me?" he demanded, too freaked out by the way his legs wouldn't respond to care about his awkward position practically sprawled in his friend's lap. Minho stepped forward to help Tommy hoist him back on the bed. His limp was bad enough. He didn't know how he'd manage if both his legs were shot.
"Mr. Newton, you've been unconscious for nearly fourteen weeks. Your muscles have atrophied. It will take intense physical therapy until you return to your former strength."
"But I will, won't I? This isn't permanent?"
"Your body has proved incredibly resilient. I expect this obstacle will be easier to overcome than many of the others you have faced."
"The others you put me through, you mean."
"The trials you experienced were necessary for the survival of humanity. As one of the first recipients of the result of those trials, I'd expect you to understand that better than most."
"I'm definitely grateful that torturing children for sport has better results than traditional immunology. More entertaining too, I reckon."
"You tell him, shank," Minho said, sounding absolutely delighted.
The nurse was decidedly less amused. "History will be the judge of our actions. But if you're determined to be so intractable I'll leave you be. Physical therapy will start first thing in the morning."
Newt breathed a little easier as soon as she left, but when Minho handed him the tray of mush his stomach turned. He wasn't hungry anyway, he'd just needed a distraction, but there was no way he was eating whatever was in that bowl. He was nowhere near close enough to starvation point.
But as he pushed the bowl away he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the metal tray. All his appendages were fine, thank god – his nose and ears intact. All the gouges in his face had healed, leaving only faint scars he could barely see, and his eyes shown clear and bright. But his hair was a right mess. It was inches longer than he ever kept it, tangled and ratty, but the real problem was the places he had torn it plum out. It had begun to grow back while he was unconscious so the spots were no longer bald, but they were noticeable, leaving him looking decidedly wilder than he was comfortable with.
"Bloody hell," he swore, squinting his eyes and wishing he could blame his appearance on the warp in the metal.
"Could be worse. You still have your nose," Minho said as if commenting on the weather. "But it does look like you got your hair cut by a Griever."
"I'm sure a nurse would fix it for you," Tommy offered.
"I'm not letting some WICKED hag anywhere near me with scissors." His bravado was mostly out of principle. He'd been at WICKED's mercy for months while he was unconscious. All his bloody life he'd been at WICKED's mercy.
"I could cut it." Newt turned toward the voice to find Teresa framed in the doorway, dressed in a black jumper and blue jeans, her hair neatly combed, looking more normal than anything Newt could ever recall. "I'm glad you're okay." And then before Newt could really process what was happening she had sat on the corner of his bed and thrown her arms around him.
He sat awkwardly in her grasp, not really sure what to do, and shot an apologetic look to Tommy from over her shoulder. From practically the first moment Teresa had shown up she'd been off limits as Tommy's girl – not to mention that fact that Newt had absolutely no idea what she had been up to since she got her memories back and left them behind. But Tommy smirked and shook his head and Newt relaxed enough to bring an arm around Teresa's back. He couldn't remember ever being hugged before. But there was something undeniably soothing about the contact. It seemed familiar, as if he'd had a mother or perhaps a sister who had hugged him often, once.
She smiled a bit bashfully after she pulled away, and Newt could see what Tommy saw in her – although she had been the first girl Newt had seen in years. "I was serious about the haircut," she said, pushing her own hair behind her ears. "Who do you think cut Tom's hair all these years?"
"I've honestly never wondered that."
Newt heard Minho's snort. The tirade he expected to follow about how he shouldn't allow that she-devil anywhere near him with a sharp object never followed.
Something definitely must have happened while he was out.
"Suppose I don't have much to lose."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Teresa quipped. She riffled through a nearby drawer and returned with a pair of sheers.
After all he'd been through the apprehension was ridiculous, but his stomach dropped with the first lock of hair. It was so bloody long. He closed his eyes, trying to focus instead on the feeling of Teresa pulling on the strands, occasionally scratching her nails against his scalp as she ran her fingers through what remained. There was something comforting about having another person so close who wasn't trying to kill him.
"All done." Newt opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by a pile of hair. He immediately reached up to assess the damage.
"It's so bloody short!" he exclaimed, dismayed to find it shorn just an inch or two beneath the nape of his neck.
"Everything you've been through, and this is what makes you cry," Minho teased. "At least it no longer looks like you've torn it out yourself."
"Says the shank who got half his hair burned off three months ago and left it that way."
"This looks gives me character, shank. Shows I survived some serious klunk. Girls dig that."
"What girls?" Teresa asked, so nonchalantly that it took a few moments for her sarcasm to sink in. She picked up the tray, wrinkling her nose as she pushed the bowl of mush aside.
"I kept it as long as I could."
Newt stared at his reflection, shocked by the way the change made him look younger. His hair was still longer than Tommy's, but not by much. Its choppy styling made the shorter pieces looked almost intentional. It would definitely take some getting used to. But at least he looked civilized again.
"Good that," he offered. "Thanks."
And with a touch of order restored, his breath came a bit easier.
Teresa left shortly afterwards, but the boys stayed until the nurse returned a few hours later and shooed them off. Newt lay alone in the dark, wide awake after being unconscious for so long. There was no light even to cast shadows across the room. It was always the bloody dark. The Box and the Glade once the sun went out and the terrible room just like this one where WICKED had left him to start to rot. With great effort his shifted his leaden leg and his ankle brushed against the restraint, sending a shiver through him. It had been pitch black in the Crank Palace, but it hadn't been silent. The moaning had never let up, but that had been better than the giggles. They'd start sporadically, but their frequency increased as the night wore on. Once he'd shouted out for the bloody wanker to shut up only to realize he'd been the only one there.
His stomach rolled. He wanted to get up and pace but his body wouldn't obey him. What if this was just another WICKED trick? What if he still had the Flare? What if they gave it to him again or the cure stopped working or he was really back in that alley, cracking up for real?
When the sobs started deep in his chest he didn't bother to stifle them. All the fear and misery of the past few weeks washed over him, tumbling him about like a wave on a beach he knew existed but couldn't remember visiting. The warmth of the tears on his cheeks seemed real but he couldn't be sure.
He didn't want to be here, trapped in another cage, prodded and studied. Even if the cure was real the world was shot to hell. After what he'd seen in Denver he couldn't imagine society could ever rebuild. The human race was wrecked, the few who remained reduced to torturing kids in the name of science. It would have been so much easier if Tommy had just done what he asked. The thought of even trying to move past everything he'd been through was so daunting it made his brain itch again.
Flare was gone, and he might still go mad.
Something shifted in the darkness and Newt bolted up, reaching in vain for a weapon and finding only sheets. His worthless body wouldn't move and he had no way to protect himself.
"Cool it you shank," Minho whispered, shining a flashlight in his face. "It's just me."
The adrenaline faded, leaving him bone weary. He swiped at his tears with the back of his hand. "What are you doing here?"
Minho closed the door behind him and took a few steps forward. "Thomas and I learned quick it's much easier to sneak back in than convince the nurses we should stay."
Newt blinked, the implications of that sinking in slowly. "You've been sneaking in here?"
Minho shrugged like it wasn't the kindest thing anyone had ever done for him in his short, shucked life. "Course. Couldn't have you waking up alone."
Newt wished there was a way to express the rush of gratitude bursting through him, but that was not the way of the Glade. But he figured, if Minho realized how desperately he needed companionship, that he already knew.
"Now shove over. Now that you're awake I'm not sleeping in that shuck chair."
Newt stared pointedly at his worthless legs, but Minho scoffed, "Physical therapy starts now," and Newt dragged himself to the edge of the bed. Minho laid down beside him, and it didn't take Newt long to match their breathing as he'd done so many nights in the Glade, the simple exercise draining the stress from his body and clearing his mind. Minho left the flashlight on between them, its dim light chasing the monsters from the corners.
"So, how was your first day back among the sane, Mr. Newton?"
He was just teasing, but Newt flinched. "Don't call me that. The bleedin' nurses all called me that during the bloody third trial."
They'd never talked about what they'd gone through when they'd been separated after the scorch. But Newt would never forget the litany of side effects the nurses had repeated, or the videos they'd made him watch of cranks from the moment of infection to well past the Gone. Somehow they'd remained so detached, as if they didn't care that soon he'd be a monster.
He'd never told anyone about the needle mark on his arm. How he'd never felt the itch in his brain until he woke up in a room quite a lot like this one.
They may have cured him, but he'd never be able to say that WICKED was good.
Newt narrowed his eyes, surprised at how contrite Minho actually sounded. He wondered what hell they had chosen for Minho, but he didn't want to know. "Don't think I've ever heard you say that."
"First time for everything. Sometimes there's a second time." His words were too pointed, and it suddenly made sense why Minho had left him alone with Thomas earlier instead of arguing about being bossed about.
And just like with Thomas, this was something he knew he couldn't hide from. Not if he was really going to live. "Tommy told you what happened, didn't he?"
"Yeah. Not right away, but he was all torn up about it."
Minho's tone was maddeningly neutral. Newt steeled himself for disgust and rejection. He wasn't sure why Minho had even come, if he knew what a pathetic shank Newt was. "And?"
"And what? Am I supposed to be surprised? You tried to kill yourself in the Maze and that was a picnic compared to what happened after we got out. Course you snapped. The only thing that makes me mad is you thought we were just going to give up on you."
Newt shifted on his side, staring. "You bloody well should have! I could have killed you. I could have killed everyone."
"But you didn't. Instead you worried about everyone else's safety and tried to off yourself. Crank Newt seemed a whole lot like shank Newt to me, just more pissed off."
Newt gaped. "I wanted to eat people!"
"You weren't passed the Gone yet."
"But why would you risk it?"
"Because you would have done the same for us. You took care of everyone in the Glade for three years. You gave us order and purpose. Amused us with that shuck accent. The shuck tattoo is right – you were the glue. It was time to return the favor. Besides all that, you don't leave your brother to go through hell alone. If you were going to die, you should have done it among friends, not a bunch of rabid cannibals."
The sincerity was uncomfortable, from Minho no less, who only had one mode and that was sarcasm. Yet somehow it soothed Newt like Teresa's unexpected hug. Minho's certainty was unshakeable. He'd been a steadying presence since his first week in the Glade. A monumental pain in the arse, always. But he'd never once contemplated surrender. Newt just hadn't expected all that fortitude to be directed at him. "I didn't want you to see me that way."
"We didn't want to see you that way either, but it was better than the alternative. You're no good on your own. That's why your kids are gonna call us Uncle Minho and Uncle Tommy and wonder why we never leave you out of our sight."
Newt couldn't comprehend how Minho could recognize his fundamental weakness and accept him anyway. Without someone else's convictions to sustain him he was like a stone dropped in the ocean. But he knew that once Minho made up his mind he could not be shaken.
And it was such a funny picture that he painted that Newt couldn't help but stop thinking of the past to consider the future. "You honestly think we could grow up enough to have kids?"
"If you had asked me that three months ago I would have said hell no. But now … maybe. I mean, nothing's tried to kill me for months. That's never happened before, long as I can remember. And there's girls at this Paradise. Not just the ones from Group B either."
"Doesn't mean any will be interested in you. Especially if they've got other options."
"Shuck off, slinthead." Their banter was still effortless. After everything that happened Minho was exactly the same – a little bored, a lot sarcastic, and 100% on his side. It was easier to contemplate a future with him here. "Just cause you have that fancy accent to woo the ladies."
Newt rolled his eyes. "Tommy's got all the luck with girls, apparently. Though you seem to have softened on his lady fair. I'm a bit shocked."
He expected Minho to scowl and object. But the boy took his time before answering, something serious flickering across his face in the dim light as his brows knit together. "She's the one who convinced us that WICKED could help you. Apparently this Paige woman had told Teresa about the split in WICKED – that some wanted to send the immunes to a safe haven and thought a cure could be found with less desperate measures. I thought she was lying but – here you are. Can't be totally bad if she saved you."
"Be still my heart. You must really like me to forgive Teresa on my behalf."
"Shove it. I still don't agree with all the klunk she did in the Scorch. I think Thomas oughta sleep with one eye open but it's his funeral."
He felt a swell of protectiveness for this girl who'd basically saved his life. He hadn't seen much of her after she'd abducted Tommy, but it had been clear every time that she'd hated what she did. "Sometimes we can't control the things we do."
This time Minho did scowl. "No one blames you for what you did as a crank, so just let it go. Dealing with Thomas's guilt complex is exhausting enough. I don't need yours on top of it."
Tough love was the way of the Glade, and he'd given similar speeches to dozens of Greenies. It was time he remembered that. "Good that."
"Good that," Minho echoed. Then he closed his eyes with an exaggerated sigh. Newt followed suit. He could still detect the glow of the flashlight beneath his eyelids and the quiet rasp of Minho's breath whispered that sleep might not be such a miserable prospect.
He was listening so closely that he heard the moment his companion's breath hitched and he shifted on the mattress. "I'm thinking of getting the Swipe removed."
Newt opened his eyes. Minho was staring at the ceiling, avoiding his gaze. "What's the point? Anyone who cared for you is almost certainly dead."
He hated the certainty he felt when he said it. In the Glade he would have tried to pretend, for morale. But Minho was no Greenie, and Newt didn't have it within him to lie. Not after all the times he'd been to the brink of hell.
"Because if I was them I'd want to be remembered." Minho looked at him then, and his eyes were blazing as if he were staring down a Griever. "WICKED took us from our families, then they took them from our minds. Those memories are ours! I want them back."
Newt understood Minho's point, but the prospect left him even sicker now that it had when WICKED first posed it. "I don't think I can handle any more death," he admitted.
"That's fine," Minho said. "I don't think Thomas is going to do it either. But if your real name is any dumber than Newt you better believe you're going to hear about it."
Minho yawned, a wild noise that made him sound more like a gorilla than a boy. "Now stop blabbering, shank. It's exhausting staring at your shuck face all day, just waiting for you to wake up. I need my beauty rest."
"You bloody well do," he teased. Minho swatted him on the shoulder and he laughed, the joy bubbling up inside him sharp and real.
"I'm glad you're okay," Minho whispered a few minutes later, probably thinking him asleep.
"Me too," he whispered back, finding, surprisingly, that he meant it.