Sabine saw The Code first.
Just after his fourteenth birthday, Hoseok met up with his best friend after school for their traditional birthday shenanigans. The funny birthday card, the sweet cupcake with a single candle on top, and a handmade present that he knew Sabine spent the better part of three months putting together. That was supposed to be the plan. Nothing changed in the ten years they knew each other.
Instead of meeting on the roof after school, Sabine told Hoseok she would be waiting for him at the abandoned playground on the edge of town. He didn’t understand why she wanted to meet there, of all places. Kids didn’t go there anymore because of a major accident and the lack of upkeep made it look creepy. Going there after the sun went down just gave it eerie vibes.
When he arrived, Sabine was idly moving back and forth on one of the swings. Her eyes looked focused on something just behind him. When Hoseok turned to see if there was anyone there, he felt a chill slide down his back when there was nothing. He wasn’t sure if Sabine was trying to scare him, but it was working.
“Hey, Hobi,” she called to him, standing from the swing to meet him, “you haven’t been using your inhaler lately.”
He tilted his head slightly. Now that she mentioned it, he hadn’t been. The doctor told him to only use it when he felt it was necessary. For the last year, he didn’t feel a need. P.E. wasn’t as hard for him as it used to be and he could run four full laps around the track without feeling winded.
“No, I haven’t,” he replied, meeting her gaze, “but why bring that up, Bean?”
She smirked, brushing past him to stare out across the road. The street lights flickered to life, illuminating the pastel green landscape around them. Hoseok knew that look and it almost always meant trouble. He really didn’t want to get involved with another of her hair-brained schemes on a school night.
“Can you see it?”
He turned to look in her direction, her back still facing toward him. “See what?”
He watched Sabine’s back muscles tense slightly until she craned her neck to look at him. “You can’t see it?”
“See what?” he repeated with a sigh. “I don’t see anything except you being weird.”
For a while, Sabine said nothing. It wasn’t like her to be silent for this long and Hoseok was consciously aware of how hard she was looking at him. He was about to tell her to say something, anything, instead of staring at him like he’d grown a second head. Just then, she let out a defeated sigh and began walking away, leaving him behind.
“Hey,” he called, already starting after her, “what am I not seeing?”
“Doesn’t matter,” came her dejected response, “no point if you can’t see it.”
He wanted to keep bugging her about what it was she was seeing and he wasn’t, but Sabine clearly made up her mind about something.
Hoseok just wished he knew what that “something” was.
Hoseok watched his best friend continue her ascent up the fire escape without him. He tried not to be too loud, considering that their neighbors were middle-aged office drones who worked nine to five hours and had 2.5 kids. The last time it got rowdy in their complex, the local authorities were called almost immediately. Add the fact that they were sneaking out after curfew and it was easy to see why Hoseok was a little nervous to be raising his voice.
But Sabine kept going, as if she hadn’t heard him.
Pouting, Hoseok quickly ran up the stairwell after her - his legs feeling much lighter than they usually did. Normally he would feel winded trying to keep up with her, but today it felt easier to breathe. Which was strange, considering he’d been diagnosed with asthma since he was a child.
Then again, a lot of things were different for the past two years.
His parents told him that it was the normal adolescent hormones that popped up at the age of thirteen. “Puberty” and all that nonsense. He’d learned about it in school and, at the time, it made sense. He figured that it was just “growing pains” and nothing more.
Ever since his fourteenth birthday, however, he knew that things were changing at a pace that almost didn’t seem natural. Things were getting weirder and weirder every day. Hoseok even had a weird case of déjà vu when he thought he saw the same cat go by twice.
That couldn’t have been the case, though. That sort of stuff wasn’t real.
Hoseok mentioned it to Sabine just a few days before his fifteenth birthday. He remembered the way her eyes almost seemed to light up - a look he hadn’t seen on her face in almost a year. The truth? Their friendship was strained and Hoseok was confused as to why. He couldn’t remember doing anything to upset her and she was the sort of person who was blunt and honest about her feelings at all times.
Though she had been surfing the net more and more. There were days where Sabine would skip out on their normal hangout time to stay glued to her computer. Her parents said she was studying or doing homework, but he knew Sabine was extremely intelligent and rarely had to put any real effort into her school assignments. Hoseok was no dummy either, but even he needed her help from time to time when it came to classwork.
The days bled into weeks and then the weeks into months. Before long, he was beginning to dread that things weren’t going to be the same between them anymore.
Then Sabine showed up at his door, telling him to come with her to the roof of their apartment complex. He wasn’t about to question her reasoning. Hoseok was just glad that she was talking to him again outside of class.
When he finally reached the top, Sabine was standing on the edge of the roof on the other side. Her dark curls whipped around her head as a sudden gust of wind blew through the air. Hoseok shivered, feeling the cold bite go straight through him. He crossed the roof to where she was, rubbing at his arms to warm them up.
“So,” he said, trying to ignore the awkward feeling in the air, “what’s up?”
She continued to stand on the rooftop’s edge, her hands stuffed into the large front pocket of her hoodie. Sabine didn’t answer him right away and while that would have bothered him before, he was just glad to be able to be close to his friend again. If he was admitting anything to himself, it was that Hoseok missed her. A lot.
“Do you feel that?” she asked suddenly, causing him to look up at her.
Sabine sighed, turning to look down at him. “C’mon, Hobi. I know you feel that.”
He really didn’t understand what she meant, and was about to tell her as much. Suddenly, she reached down to grab his arm so she could pull him up onto the perch beside her. Hoseok almost squawked, losing his balance slightly until she tightened her hold on his sleeve to steady him.
“Bean, I really don’t know what you’re talking about…” And he felt bad about it.
“No. I think you do.” Sabine gave him a pointed look. “You feel it, but you just don’t want to admit it.”
He sighed. “What is it I’m supposed to be feeling, Bean?”
“That this,” she said, stretching her arm out toward the cityscape, “isn’t real.”
Hoseok balked at her. “Wait, what?” He blinked once. “What?!”
This time she scoffed. “You haven’t had to use your inhaler in the last two years. You run the track regularly during P.E. and you’re able to keep up with me now.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but stopped himself because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to argue with what she was insinuating. It wasn’t like any of it was a lie. But to say that none of it was real? That was just crazy.
“I’ve been reading up on these forums and there are whispers about this place. About how it’s not real.” Sabine’s brows furrowed as she bit her lower lip, averting her gaze from his. “How our whole life is one giant lie.”
A soft ache welled in his heart. Had she been battling with these feelings of depression alone all this time? Was that why she’d pushed him away?
“Hey,” he said gently, reaching out to grasp her hand, “that’s not true. How can you say that?”
“Because it’s true. I’ve seen the glitches. I’ve seen the code.” Her tone was a mixture of hurt and indifference, like she couldn’t decide what emotion to display to him. Sabine turned to look at him. “And you have too. You just keep pretending that you haven’t.”
Hoseok frowned. “Sabine, come on…”
“You just want to keep being blind to it, but I know you’ve seen it too!”
The truth? He had. He had seen weird things - almost like flickers and after images. He figured it was because he was overworking himself or that his body was continuing its weird pubescent changes. What other reasoning was there? If he saw the same cat twice, it was just a coincidence. If he felt lighter on his feet, it was because he was taking the time to exercise properly. If there were ripples in the glass reflecting a person that was both him and not him, that had nothing to do with anything. It didn’t mean that their world wasn’t real or that their lives had no meaning.
A rush of movement reclaimed his attention and he screamed in horror as Sabine jumped off the roof. Hoseok reached out, grabbing at her wrists. The force of the jump coupled with gravity pulling her weight down in a rush caused his knees to crash into the concrete perch. The pain was immediate and he gripped onto Sabine with all of his might. Tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes as he looked down at his best friend, unable to fathom why she’d had the sudden urge to want to kill herself.
“Let go,” she said, causing him to sob.
“Are you crazy?!”
“Just let go, Hoseok.”
When he looked down at her, she wore an expression he couldn’t place. It seemed almost peaceful; resolute. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was a level of acceptance plastered over Sabine’s face that was profound. It caused his heart to leap into his throat and for a moment, the landscape dissolved into an array of black with strings of green numbers and letters in every direction. Even his best friend’s image was shaped around these numbers and letters.
His knees scraped across the concrete, causing his grip to slip a little. And then everything returned to normal. Or, at least, the normal that he believed himself accustomed to.
When Hoseok’s eyes met Sabine’s once again, he saw her crying. He didn’t have to ask why. Because he already knew the answer.
“...it’s not real,” he mumbled.
Sabine nodded, smiling up at him. “So let go.” Her fingers tightened around his wrists. “Let’s go.”
He smiled at her, leaning down a little further, and gave a small laugh. “Okay.”
Hoseok waited for her to close her eyes first. Then he closed his. When he felt her thumbs pressing into his wrists, her silent way of saying she wasn’t going anywhere, he let gravity take hold of them both. The world rushed around his ears - the wind howling from the speed of their descent. At some point, he groped blindly until his arms wrapped around Sabine in a strong embrace.
And then everything went dark.
“Welcome to the Real World.”