Taehyun doesn't want a partner.
Scratch that. He doesn't need a partner.
He's been with the agency for a long time. When he first entered he knows other agents were sceptical. He heard the whispers. He saw the looks. Of course he saw the looks, he's good at what he does, it's his job to notice things.
To notice things, and to distract. To keep low, to get rid of those who pose a threat.
They eye each other; one with curiosity, the other with disinterest. Taehyun refuses to look Mino in the eye when he speaks and Mino closes the door with a deliberate force every time he leaves the room, as though to remind his new partner he is still there.
Taehyun washes blood from his hands in the dim bathroom of the suite, watches as his victory mixes with clean water and washes away forever. They don't discuss kills. They send a message through to HQ, a symbol or one letter and a name is erased from the list, just like the life was erased from the man.
The next target is chosen and life repeats itself, the clock ticking on as normal. Sometimes Taehyun thinks it feels as though the hands are turning anti-clockwise, that somehow time is working differently in his world, but then he stares at his watch some more and realises (with relief or panic, he isn't sure which) that time works the same way for him as it does for the cheerful barista at the counter in front of him and for the wide-eyed baby in the carrycot beside him as he places his order, as well as for the harassed looking mother who carries her.
Time stops for no-one; not for the innocent, and not for those with blood on their hands.
Taehyun stops wearing a watch for three days after this, but his new partner points out soon after that in their line of work timing is pretty much key, takes his own watch out of his pocket and fits it round Taehyun's wrist, hot fingers against his skin. Taehyun only flinches for a fraction of a second, but Mino notices all the same.
Mino isn't new to the job, but he's new to the agency. He's skilled, that's for sure, but he's new and Taehyun doesn't need anyone new in his life. Too many of the old people haven't made it through missions, and he is sick of hurting and of pretending that it doesn't hurt at all.
After the last friend fell he promised himself he would work solo from now on, he wasn't planning on letting anyone else inside the illusion of a fortress that he had successfully built up over the years.
If he worked alone, it would hurt less. It seemed simple.
Having no one but yourself to lose, Taehyun thinks, makes life a lot easier, a lot less worrisome. Losing others marks your heart, but free of that concern your heart, and mind, can focus on other things.
Things like keeping yourself alive, killing other men. Just normal, everyday stuff like that.
They take out three agents in one hit, silenced guns heavy under their fingers, feeling the heat of the metal even through leather gloves.
And then the routine maintenance: Bodies disposed, evidence cleared, no trace of their existence.
The men they killed today aren't only dead, Taehyun thinks later that night, they don't even exist. Names wiped from records, no trace of them on file, they were never agents here, they were never men.
Not officially, anyway.
Taehyun writes the names of past agents he's worked with down on the palm of his hand once or twice a month and then washes them away, standing over the sink with hot water steaming up the mirror until he can't see his reflection. Until he is as anonymous as the names that have traced his hands for the whole of three minutes.
It's a ritual now. A tribute to fallen comrades, to friends he once let in. If he doesn't remember them, no one will.
He tries not to think about being wiped from existence. In a way he already is. He doesn't use his real name, he has no back story, no life of his own anymore. But he is alive, he is breathing (hot gulps of air, in and then out, gasping as the hot water starts to sting his hands).
Taehyun is alive, but he's pretty sure he doesn't exist.
It's their fourth mission together and Mino is standing in the doorway of the bathroom. He doesn't ask questions; he knows Taehyun won't respond (not yet). "I'm going to a bar," he states.
"I don't need to know."
"It's a quiet place."
"I don't want to know."
Mino places a slip of paper on the damp counter top. "I'll see you there," he says, turning fast and closing the door to the suite softly.
Taehyun washes his hands until the water is burning his skin and the water is crystal clear, eyes the note with apprehension. The address scrawled on it in dark ink is in an nondescript neighbourhood not far from the hotel.
He doesn't want to go, he doesn't want to give his partner the satisfaction of thinking his walls have started to thin, that he is anything but the closed shell he has to be to survive in this world. He doesn't want Mino to think that he plans to co-operate, to act like a team with him. He had a team he was happy with. He had-
Taehyun shuts his eyes tightly and pushes thoughts of past agents, past friends out of his mind. Purges his thoughts, thinks only of shadowy faces and muffled cries and the hot blood of the enemy.
He goes to the bar.
Mino is sat in a corner sipping from a whisky glass. He's a lonely businessman. It's subtle; a pocket square in his right breast pocket, a gold watch he fiddles with, the way he eyes the blonde waitress at the bar. He's in character.
Taehyun approaches hesitantly. He's wearing jeans and T-shirt, he looks like a college student, he looks young.
"What is this? You look like a middle aged fat-cat." He hisses it across the table.
He'd been expecting a post-mission wind down, a cold beer, a moment away from reality, but now he isn't even sure why he'd automatically thought that's what his partner had been suggesting. It isn't like Mino would know it had been their ritual. Before. Before the fortress, back when there was a them in Taehyun's life.
The bartender approaches them and Mino waves her away, panicked eyes, a blush rising in his cheeks.
There is red clouding Taehyun's vision. What the hell is his partner doing, suggesting they meet in public, dressed as a fucking businessman, drawing attention to them sat huddled in the corner of a hole in the wall when they're meant to be laying low and awaiting their next orders from HQ?
Mino ignores him and keeps on glancing at the bartender with a worried expression.
She appears silently a moment later, places the bill for Mino's whisky down on the table and pauses before she leaves, a smug grin across her face as she looks between them, letting out a small laugh as she turns away.
Mino takes Taehyun's arm and practically drags him from the bar. They step out into the cold air and Taehyun pulls away, fury boiling under his skin. "Are you trying to get us killed?"
Mino pulls at the watch, it's heavy and clunky and he prefers to keep it in his pocket. Likes to have bare wrists, bare hands, for doing what he does best.
"I got a message from HQ." He isn't fazed by Taehyun's fury. "The Russian oligarch who got away last month is in town. He's planning something." He drops his voice ever so slightly lower. "He's the next target."
He stays close to Taehyun's side, mouth to ear, hot breath on his skin as he pauses. "He frequents the bars in this area when he is town. He picks up escorts & takes them to a local hotel. He'd been spotted here last time he was in town, it's known for pick ups, hence why..."
He gestures between them with his hands.
Taehyun's fury hasn't subsided. He's angry with Mino for not telling him they had a new target the minute the orders came through from the agency.
He's also angry with himself for doing exactly as Mino expected, despite not knowing he was meant to. As if Mino knew he would come, knew he would dress down, knew him. "OK so you're a businessman looking for an escort." He clenches his jaw. "And my role is?"
Mino's mouth curls into a small smile. "Don't blame me," he says as he starts walking ahead. "Head quarters gave the orders."
The clogs turn into place in Taehyun's mind. "He picks up male escorts. I'm playing the escort." He runs his toungue along his teeth, feeling embarrassed he didn't understand more quickly and irritated that the man in front of him is clearly enjoying having the upper hand. "Whatever. As long as I get the kill."
"Clean, hard and fast." Mino nods. Pauses. "That could also be what your escort ad reads." Mino's eyes crease when he laughs.
Taehyun can't help but smile, although he really doesn't want to.
Killing shouldn't be funny.
Mino tells Taehyun the names of his parents and the name they gave him after they have been working together for forty two days. After travelling through six cities and taking on four identities, of laying low and being forgettable. Forty two days of gunshots, of strangulation, of poisoned drinks and 'heart attacks'.
Taehyun pretends not to hear, even though they're alone in a silent hotel suite, even though he is looking his partner directly in the eye when he says it.
They don't speak of it for a long time.
Taehyun has only known the real names of two agents. And they of his. Or maybe that wasn't his name. Taehyun sometimes isn't sure even he remembers his real name.
(Or maybe he doesn't want to remember.)
Both of those agents don't have names, real or otherwise, anymore. They don't officially have names, or bodies, or even grave-sites.
They have biro markings on the damp hand of a young agent, once or twice a month, though, and that would probably be enough for them, thinks Taehyun. They never needed much aside from each other.
And they didn't make it out of the mission.
But Taehyun, their co-agent, their friend, well, he did make it out the other side. Or at least his body did. He thinks part of his soul might have disappeared with the other two men.
The trick is, he decides, is to need nothing. Especially not another person.
(He writes their names side by side on his hand, see's their faces, washes them away.)
Taehyun and Mino move from city to city. They're neither a face in the crowd nor a shadow on the wall. No one thinks anything of them (at least not until it's too late).
"We eliminate threats." Mino runs his fingers around the edge of a whisky glass, leans against a pane of glass. High up, a penthouse suite. They leave the city tomorrow.
"Do we?" Taehyun's doesn't look up. "I thought we killed people." He knocks his whisky back, places the glass back on the tray and undresses silently.
Mino stays at the window until Taehyun is asleep.
Taehyun doesn't do small-talk and Mino does only that. Mino pretends to be oblivious, pretends not to realise Taehyun is disguised as a fortress. But he realises, he clearly realises, he is a fucking secret agent. He realises.
So why he doesn't just give up is something Taehyun can't figure out. He doesn't want the incessant talking, or the greetings in the morning and especially not the habit Mino has of laying his arm across Taehyun's shoulder when they're side by side. Things like this make it difficult not to care about someone, although Taehyun swears he will never admit this to Mino. Hell, he hardly admits it to himself.
But Mino doesn't give up. Tells a dark joke as they sweep a hotel room for bugs, sings in the shower loudly and leaves Taehyun a hot coffee beside his bed when he wakes up early.
Sometimes, when Taehyun is only half awake and his mind is still groggy, he accidentally says, "Thankyou," whilst smiling at the smell of fresh coffee.
One morning he catches Mino's hand in his own as the older agent turns away after placing the cup on the table next to where he lies and squeezes it before he registers what he's doing. He spends the next three days on edge, making sure to sleep with his back to his partner's bed across the room, making sure to be quick and cold with his responses, embarrassed about letting his guard down for a split second.
Mino can see how hard Taehyun is trying to lock him outside of his walls, can tell it isn't a natural reaction for him, that really he's affectionate and sensitive and wants to let people in, but he doesn't push the issue. He just keeps getting up earlier, bringing coffee, letting his hand linger on the cup longer than probably necessary.
"You used to be part of a team." It comes out as Mino sits at his laptop, waiting on orders. "You used to work with other agents. I've read your file."
"And?" Taehyun sits beside him, looking straight ahead, eyes piercing the wall. Trying not to make it clear how ruffled he is by this admission.
"And, I asked to be assigned as your partner."
Taehyun is incredulous. Says, "You did? And why the fuck would you want to do that?"
"I was intrigued." Mino shrugs, not fazed by the younger's reaction. "You have quite the reputation."
"For what?" Taehyun asks, fiddling with the cuff on his shirt.
"For completing missions, what else could I mean?" Mino turns to look at him. Adds, dryly, "I heard about your reputation for being amazing in bed." Nudges his elbow, laughing.
Taehyun rolls his eyes in response. Says, "Well, I'm sure you're regretting that request now."
"Not really." Mino looks back at the screen; a message could appear at any time. "You're one of the best I've worked with." There is sincerity in his tone. "I read about the doubts other agents had about you, when you first joined the agency. But you're skilled, and we're a good team and-"
Mino is interrupted by a black box popping up on the screen in front of him with a small beep. Seven passwords later and they have the name of their next target.
Later, when they're laced with sweat and their heartbeats are slowly starting to return to a normal rate, when their mouths are dry and adrenaline courses through their bodies. When they're standing over a dead man or two, or three, Taehyun lets out a small laugh, his eyes creasing into a smile.
"I think we make a good team, too." It comes out in choked breaths, as he runs a cloth along the edge of his gun.
He doesn't look Mino in the eyes as he says it.
(One step at a time.)
They've worked together for seventy days when it begins to snow. Heavy drifts coming down at a rate neither man has seen before. They really should be moving on to the next city, to the next mission. The ticking of the clock doesn't wait, Taehyun knows that.
"Do agents get snow-days?" Mino muses good naturedly, nose pressed to the penthouse window like a child.
Taehyun is beside him, his nose almost as close to the glass. "We aren't allowed sick days, or birthdays, or, hell, bereavement leave. We definitely don't get snow-days." He breathes on the glass, watches the condensation clear. He feels younger than he has in a long time.
"Snow-days were always my favourite. As a kid, I mean." Mino is transfixed by the snowflakes falling from the sky around them. "My mother would make me wrap up in this crazy ski outfit and send me out with hot cocoa for all the local kids. I had this best friend who I swear was an expert snowball maker. They were always the perfect size and shape for hitting girls with." Mino is grinning to himself as he stares out into the night.
Taehyun's heart aches suddenly at the realisation that the man next to him has a history, a name, a life. Just like him. Just like his friends did.
He says, "I was in a team of three before I started working alone."
Mino looks away from the snow for the first time since he first pressed his nose to the cold window. Doesn't speak, just stares.
It's not that he doesn't know this (he's read his file after all), it's that Taehyun has never initiated conversation before, never offered anything of his life.
Mino told him his family name once and Taehyun's mouth had become a harsh line and he'd left the room immediately.
Mino had half expected to receive a message telling him to return to HQ for debriefing after that. But Taehyun clearly hadn't told anyone about his moment of unprofessionalism. Mino can see that he cares, that he just doesn't want to admit it to himself.
"I worked with them for a long time. We... It was our team who uncovered the nuclear warhead maps in 2011." He swallows. Grade A classified information spilling out of his mouth and mingling with the warm air of the room. Information he swore he would never tell a living soul.
It feels good to be saying it. It feels good to be telling Mino.
"They were in love. I knew it before they did. I knew them so well, my co-agents. I'm not sure if I realised it until it was almost too late, but they weren't just my team, they were my friends." He presses his hand to the glass, looking out across the city and imagines their names on his palm, as if he's showing them to the world. "They died together. That's what counts, right? They were loved, and they loved, and they died with each other." Maybe he is rambling. Maybe he is telling Mino and maybe he is just telling himself.
And then there is a hand on his back running soothing circles over it, the heat searing through his coat.
"I can't go through that." It comes out in a whisper so quiet Taehyun isn't even sure he is really saying it. "I can't die. And neither can you."
They stand in silence for what feels like eternity.
Taehyun pulls away from the comfort and clears his throat. "We should get on the road now. Agents don't get snow-days, after all."
They spend Christmas day in a nondescript guesthouse in a nondescript town, pretending to read the daily papers whilst eyeing a black market weapons dealer across the guest-house breakfast room.
(Taehyun had noted Mino's red and green Christmas tree printed sweater that morning as they'd met in the hallway with a smirk and a roll of his eyes. "Merry Christmas," he had said, with little conviction.
"Merry Christmas" Mino had grinned in return, holding back laughter at the tight line on his partner's face.)
Mino enjoys ruffling Taehyun's feathers and pretending to be oblivious about it, living for the tiny cracks in Taehyun's veneer. For the smile in his direction when the younger thinks he isn't looking, for the way his clothes are neatly folded beside his hotel bed every morning when he certainly didn't do it, for the times when Taehyun forgets for a moment that he's method acting his way through life and reaches out for physical contact when they're alone.
Sometimes Mino thinks that their relationship should be straightforward (they're co-workers essentially), but in reality it is about as unconventional as relationships come (because they're not co-workers really, but co-killers, co-existing, and yet not existing at all) and so he decides not to worry about how much the fleeting moments of closeness mean to him.
They can go days without speaking about anything but the mission in hand, clinical and focused, and then there are the days when Mino can't help but read out funny stories in the local newspaper of whichever city they're in that week, days when he places a muffin as well as a coffee beside his partner's bed in the morning.
And Taehyun stays silent and still and doesn't let him in.
(He did once. Just once. Watching snow fall behind steamed up glass.
It is all a game and they know it, for Taehyun knows deep down that Mino's laugh isn't always genuine, that he spends half of the nights slipping out of his bed and standing at the window, deep breaths and worried sighs, and Mino see's the smile in Taehyun's eyes every so often, sees that he wants to laugh at his silly joke, knows that he notices him at the window in the night time and senses his desire to get out of his bed and stand with him; to give him the company they both want, or need, or some combination of the two.
But, neither of them break their roles: the brick wall and the hammer. They're carefully sculpted, a superstition of sorts.
Because they're alive, they're successful.
And Taehyun is starting to feel terrified that admitting the truth (that he's lonely and that he cares, that he is used to Mino's company, enjoys his company now), well, that would just fuck things up.
Mino goes missing during a mission in late March. He leaves their hideout to begin surveillance and doesn't return.
Taehyun logs in to HQ's system after twenty four hours, clicks on his partner's name (the one he was given, but not by his parents), and hovers over the symbol for Missing In Action.
Taehyun has done this once before.
He remembers his hands shaking as he swiped his finger prints to log into the system. His throat dry and tight as he selected the agent in question, clicked "MIA", waited for a response, an action.
At least that time there had been two of them sat there, side by side, and Taehyun had let the other agent grasp his hand, his palm sweaty, his breathing quick, had closed his eyes and took a deep breath and had told the man beside him that the third agent was probably just trying to close the mission himself, had just taken on a big task, was working too hard as usual. Laughed and squeezed the sweaty hand in his and wiped a silent tear from his partner's eye.
When he had awoken the next morning, his partner's hotel room was empty, his bed unmade, his gun gone, a scrawled note on hotel headed paper left in its place.
"I have to find him."
Taehyun knew the protocol in this situation; an agent gone rogue, acting without orders, he should log onto the system and report him. And he would have done just that a year before, when he was furiously trying to prove himself a ruthless and talented agent to those at HQ.
But now he had a team that he cared for. Who cared for him. And whom he had watched fall in love. So Taehyun didn't file a report.
Instead, he tidied their room, brushed away fingerprints for them, and waited for them to return. He looked at his watch a lot that day, and the hands on the clock-face neither seemed to turn clockwise, nor the other way. They didn't seem to move at all.
Forty two hours later Taehyun let the tears run down his face openly as he logged into the secure server, cursing as he swiped his index finger over the scanner. He choked back an intense feeling of nausea as he selected the two agent's names (the names they'd been given by the agency, names that meant nothing to him) and changed their status.
The agency way of saying 'dead'.
A week later and Taehyun was back at HQ being debriefed. A solo agent once again. The usual spiel:
"They were talented agents, they will be missed. Of course it goes without saying they will not be spoken of again. You were never in Berlin, there was no Operation R.8. You can go now. You will be contacted shortly."
Taeyhun knew that by now their faces would have been erased from existence. That their bodies would be ash, that their families would never know the truth about their lives and the work they did.
And Taehyun felt the bitterness bubbling under his skin. He wanted to push his nails into the table top, stand up, shout in the face of the cold eyed man in front of him. "They existed. They exist."
But instead he left the room with a nod. Returned to his accommodation, dark and unwelcoming.
He wrote their names (their real names) side by side on his hand in blue ink. Stared at the letters, willing it to mean something, to change things.
And then placed his hand under the faucet, ran the tap hot and promised them he would keep them alive in the only way he could.
There is a phone call to his hotel room in the dead of night.
"You need to leave." It's Mino.
Taehyun's throat feels tight. He furrows his brow, pushes hair out of his eyes. "Where are you?"
"I can't... Just get out of the hotel. Leave the city. Now." Mino is talking in hushed tones, words rushing into Taehyun's ear faster than he thinks anyone has spoken before.
"You're MIA," is the only response Taehyun can muster.
"I'm inactive, Taehyun." There is a sigh, almost annoyed. "Or I will be. You have to go because if you die too there will be no one to log it in." He laughs sadly.
Taehyun is pulling trousers on, the phone under his chin. "Shut up. Where-"
Mino cuts him off. Says, "Will you write my name down too?" Taehyun stops still, in the middle of reaching for a shirt.
"I know you heard when I told you it. And I-I've seen you... Just write it down with your friends names. So that I exist. Please?" There is the sound of scuffling in the background, of voices getting louder. Sounds of a struggle, of muffled cries. And then the phone goes dead.
Taehyun looks at the palm of his hand, can almost see Mino's name appearing in the centre. He shakes his head, grabbing a shirt from the floor next to him and pulling it over his shoulders.
He loads his gun, grabs a second one and pushes it into the waistband of his pants, then heads for the door, pausing when he touches the handle and looks back. His bed unmade, the phone dangling from its cord over the bedside table, all that is missing is the scrawled note.
It looks like a mirror image of his co-agents', room the morning of the day they ceased to exist.
Taehyun swallows thickly, takes a deep breath, and promises himself he will find his partner alive.
The next six hours go by in a blur of panic, his heart hammering against his ribcage as he slips along a dark hallway, gun heavy in his hands, alert and ready to do whatever he needs to. To get in, to get out, to get away.
To kill if he needs to.
Taehyun doesn't need a partner, or maybe he does. Or maybe it's not need any longer, maybe now it's want.
Whatever. He doesn't need to be pondering this right now, not whilst he is on edge, listening for footsteps outside the metal door of a locked room.
The sun is setting by the time the two agents are back in their hotel room, one grimacing with pain as the other wraps a bandage around his chest with skilled hands. "So this is how to stop you talking so much." Taehyun gently leads his partner towards the bathroom, as blood stains the white bandage covering fresh wounds.
Mino chokes back a laugh, pain searing through his body. "Oh, so you actually hear me?" He scoffs.
Taehyun smiles, rolls his eyes. He stops when they reach the small en-suite, pulls a towel off the rail and turns on the tap above the sink. They eye each other's reflections in the vanity mirror in front of them for a moment.
"We should wash the blood off your face," Taehyun says, wetting the towel.
"We'll have to go back to HQ." Mino closes his eyes as his partner softly wipes the dried blood from the corner of his mouth. "Did they send you any orders?"
"No," Taehyun says.
"Even after you logged me in as Missing in Action?" Mino sounds sceptical, raises an eyebrow even though it hurts to.
Taehyun doesn't look at him, runs water over the edge of the towel again, before returning to his job, this time pressing the soft fabric to the deep cut lining Mino's forehead, just under his hair. "I didn't log you in." He responds simply. "I know how the agency react when an agent or two are logged in as MIA... Or even Inactive... They - they don't think about the person who is out there in danger, they think about the good of the agency, about the service we provide and how efficiently we can provide it. Anyway, you've read my file. You know about - about them. I logged them into the system, and for what?"
Taehyun is rambling now and he knows it, remembers how good it felt to do that time, when his walls were only just starting to crumble, when he was stood at a penthouse window watching snow fall.
"I dream about the day they died so often. And in every dream I follow them and in every dream I save their lives." The towel isn't in his grip anymore and he doesn't remember it happening but he's now sitting on the cold tiles of the bathroom, and Mino is beside him, listening intently.
Taehyun continues. "I knew where he'd been taken, where to go, and I wanted to follow them so much, but I - I just didn't. I told myself that one rogue agent was bad enough for the agency and that anyway it would be fine, they'd be walking through the door in front of me any minute, happy and laughing. And then the next thing I really remember is my debriefing, and the horrible realisation that their lives meant nothing to the people that they gave them up for." He breathes in slowly.
"So, I didn't log you in, I didn't want to give the agency the satisfaction. I waited for you and then I-"
"You saved my life." Mino is closer to him now, his face tired and bruised, some blood still stuck in his hairline. But his eyes soft, a smile on his lips. "You let me in."
Taehyun leans over and traces the outlines of the bandages on his partner's bare chest, looks up at him through heavy eyelashes and lets a small sigh escape his mouth. Says, "I didn't want to."
"You had good reason." Mino's hand is on his face now and Taehyun knows it's too late to go back to pretending to be a statue now, isn't sure if he ever could as he feels his whole being softening into Mino's touch, the elder agent leaning in closer until their breath is mingling and Taehyun's head is dizzy with a thousand emotions, one of which, he realises, might be love.
Later, as they lie together in the hotel room half asleep, Taehyun places Mino's hand in his, sits up and takes the cheap, hotel pen from the pot on the desk, before writing the name he had heard all those months ago (and pretended not to) in the centre of his partner's hand. Adds another underneath, one that feels foreign, but he knows is his. It looks beautiful, it looks real.
Mino sits up awkwardly, slow, grimacing at the pain in his chest. He slides his arm around Taehyun's shoulder and nestles his face into his neck for a moment. "Nice to meet you Nam Taehyun."
Taehyun smiles, tracing the names he has etched into his partner's palm. Hearing it out loud sounds like a melody.
"Nam Taehyun and Song Minho." The words dance off the top of his tongue. He repeats them over and over, until he's giddy with the intimacy of who they are, until he's said them so many times they're one long word and Mino is laughing, pushing him down against the pillow and covering his mouth with his own.
It's midsummer and Taehyun sits on the edge of a bed, watching his partner shrug on his tuxedo jacket across the room - another identity, another target, the hands of the clock moving round as they always will - and smiles as he catches Mino's eye.
They have no official back-story, no identification card, no grave plot awaiting them, he muses, as his partner turns and walks over to their bed, bends down to brush Taehyun's his lips with his own. But they are alive, and they are loved.