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triple dog dare

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Sae-byeok forgets the time when Ji-yeong is around.

She realized this the first time they talked—really talked, which excluded taunting quips or three-worded requests. After her victory collecting all the marbles, she made her way to a set of stairs leading to a little house at the top, where it was easier to pretend that the gunshot wasn’t caused by her, didn’t take a life because of her. Sympathy does not do any favors in hell, so why did her jaw still clench when the death of her opponent was announced?

That could’ve been you if you weren’t careful, she told herself, shaking her head as if it could clear all the thoughts running rampant in her mind. Focus. Win the games. Go back to Cheol. Find your mother.

“Sheesh, going through something?”

Sae-byeok startled, but kept her face still as possible as she spared a glance to her side. She knew that voice, its lilts and cadence taunting—it dredged up an image of a short girl with a nose piercing in the back of her mind when she heard it. She was familiar enough to feel some sort of twisted relief at seeing this near-stranger alive, at least familiar enough to match the face to the number on the jacket.

240 was looking at her curiously from her seat on the steps. When she didn’t answer, 240 tilted her head. “Are you mute?”

A spark of annoyance flared in Sae-byeok’s chest. Right, she didn’t like 240; it was stupid to feel relief when her feelings hadn’t changed. Her orange highlights, her snarky remarks, her horrible timings—all of them Sae-byeok would be better off without.

“None of your business,” said Sae-byeok eventually before straightening herself up from the wall. She heard a faint, Oh, so not mute coming from the girl, but that was that; the conversation was over.

When Sae-byeok made a beeline for the exit doors, though, the girl spoke up again. “Going back already?”

Sae-byeok paused, feeling like she was missing an important part of this interrogation. “‘Already’?”

240 shrugged, returning to picking her nails. “It’s safer to be here than in there; I’m not taking my chances with 101 finishing the game early.” Sae-byeok was silent, which apparently meant concern to 240 because she added, “Don’t worry, I have a permit from this red fucker here to stay.”

Sae-byeok blinked, feeling shock over the vulgarity of this girl pass over her face until she schooled her features again. “How’d you do that?”

“Nothing against the rules saying you can’t stay.”

Fair. Sae-byeok glanced at the red guard standing at the far wall, not knowing what else she expected besides the trained unresponsiveness of the guy. At least she wasn’t having a gun pointed at her.

She sighed and took a seat at the foot of the steps, taking note of the time floating above them: 18:26. More than half the time left. She hugged her knees and rested her forehead on them, closing her eyes and pretending that it was her brother playing marbles on the streets of her hometown instead of adult men vying for survival in an enclosure designed for their deaths.

She tried her best to ignore the girl sitting a few steps behind her, asking questions that Sae-byeok had tuned out a long time ago, but when 240 asked a question that hit too close to home—“Hey, are you really a spy from the North?” —Sae-byeok couldn’t help but snap, “Are you really a police interrogator from the South?”

She shouldn’t have said that. Already, she could feel the amused eyes on her back, could imagine the slow smile spread on the 240’s face. This girl was dangerous.

“Someone here had to speak and it clearly won’t be you,” 240 responded nonchalantly. She was right. “Besides, you’re riled up about something. It’s fun poking fun.”

Sae-byeok narrowed her eyes at the far distance, determined not to look back. “You just killed someone,” she said slowly, deliberately. For some reason, she could feel the girl tense behind her, but it might’ve been her imagination. “And I just did too. How do you imagine I’d feel?”

“Normal.” When Sae-byeok finally looked behind her shoulder, incredulous, 240 shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done it. Y’know, you didn’t strike me as someone who would have moral debates over this thing.”

“I’m not.”

240 scoffed, humorless and bitter. “Good. Morals don’t exist in whatever these shits have planned for us.”

Sae-byeok agreed silently. She had meant to let the conversation go, but curiosity got the better of her. “This wasn’t the first time for you?”

240 seemed taken aback that Sae-byeok was the one to ask a question for a change, but didn’t mention it when she replied, “Nope.” A pause, then: “First one was my father.”

For whatever reason, the girl was observing her again, but Sae-byeok stayed quiet, stoic. 240 eventually gave a short bark of laughter. “Wow, you really are cold. Cold as ice.”

“What do you want me to say?”

240 tilted her head back to gaze at the painted sky while Sae-byeok stared at her. Look at me. But the girl’s mind seemed elsewhere, considering her answer properly for the first time since Sae-byeok had met her. “I don’t know. People usually say sorry when I talk about it, but it just makes things weirder.”

Sae-byeok returned her gaze to the ground. She knew how that felt, too.

“And you?” 240 asked eventually. “Is this really your first time killing someone?”

She gave a slight nod of her head, wordlessly. Sure, she’d seen hundreds of corpses when she was as young as ten, had nightmares sleeping next to them, but she had never been the cause of them.

“Had seen plenty of dead bodies before, then?”

Sae-byeok almost laughed. What were the chances that 240 could read her mind? “Soldiers burned up dead bodies in my hometown when a plague broke out. I watched my grandma, grandpa, and older brother burn up at that same spot, and later my dad when he was shot down crossing the river.”

240 clicked her tongue. “Ah. Gotta say, your stories are way darker than mine.”

That was bait, and Sae-byeok knew it. Honestly, she would have felt a little more insulted that 240 was treating her like a fish if 240 hadn’t intrigued her so much. Maybe that was why Sae-byeok let herself fall head-first into the trap by saying, “Oh, yeah?”

Sae-byeok moreso felt 240’s Cheshire grin than saw it. She knew she had just lost, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. “Oh, yeah .”

The other girl started talking, of stories of dead mothers and fathers, and somehow pulled Sae-byeok into it, too. She found herself talking about Cheol and the orphanage, her mother, her hometown back in the North, and regretted every word that came out of her mouth. She wondered what it was about the stranger behind her that made her so vulnerable, so willing to be laid open bare. The last time she let her tongue run wild like this was… She couldn’t even remember.

Why did it feel safe here, of all places, especially when she knew she was being watched?

At one point, 240 nudged her with her shoe to get her attention, as if Sae-byeok hadn’t been so laser-focused on the girl that she found it hard to think straight. “Hey, when we get out of here, let’s go to Jeju Island together.”

“What?”

“Y’know, like in the movies.”

Silence, then 240 groaned. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

“I know what Jeju Island is. We had a map.”

240 laughed, bizarrely, like she hadn’t expected Sae-byeok to respond. Then suddenly she was beside Sae-byeok after hopping down a step, extending a pinky like they were children in a playground. (Sae-byeok guessed they were, technically.) “Promise me. Once we get out of here, Jeju it is.”

Sae-byeok stayed silent. She should remind the girl that there was, at most, a 20% chance of them still breathing in the next 24 hours. She really should.

But perhaps it was because she couldn’t see 240 from keeping her eye straight to the far wall ahead; perhaps it was because she was tired and exhausted, from the games and the girl alike. Perhaps it was a combination of them that muddled her mind enough to make a terrible split-second decision and say, “Sure.”

It was a promise they could never keep, and it was dangerous to think otherwise. But when she finally looked to her left and caught sight of 240, dopey grin and sparkling eyes and all, she didn’t want to take it back.