It was a true miracle that black garbage bags existed. All the chopped up body parts fit and it still looked like regular garbage.
Jeongguk hauled one particular garbage bag full of body parts out to the dumpster behind his apartment building. He always made sure to take out his trash on the morning before it got emptied.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon as Jeongguk climbed twelve flights of stairs back to his apartment. He didn’t take the elevator. He never took the lazy way out.
In his one bedroom apartment, he took off his shoes and went into the cramped kitchen to make himself a cup of tea. He didn’t drink coffee. It was yet another lazy way to keep yourself awake.
With the steaming cup of tea in his hands he made his way over to the green couch in the livingroom. He picked up the notebook and pen lying on the side table and turned on the TV. Took a scalding sip from his cup.
The morning news were in a giddy frenzy. A senator was found dead in his home, bleeding all over his persian carpets. No lead on the murderer yet but some were suspecting the bodyguard. Police were investigating. Jeongguk snorted at that because weren’t they always?
He jotted down the key points of the story, flipping to other channels to see if different news stations picked it up yet.
Once he was satisfied, he turned off the TV and finished his tea. Looked over his notes. This was going to be an easy one.
He dressed into inconspicuous clothes: blue jeans, black shirt, a pair of sneakers. A white baseball hat. Locking the door after himself, he headed down the stairs and down the street to an internet cafe.
Technology was a weapon. A double-edged sword. So Jeongguk didn’t own a cell phone, he only used burner phones when he absolutely needed them. He checked his bank accounts at internet cafes.
After making sure the rest of his $2 million was now safely sitting in his numbered Swiss account, he checked if his website had any new orders.
He clicked on a link hidden in the public library’s homepage. Entered the fifteen-character encrypted password and then another ten-digit pin. The cloud page loaded with one submitted document.
Jeongguk didn’t click on it. He just typed the keyword into the cloud’s search bar and the document opened onto the screen.
The computer he was using was in the corner so he only had the wall behind him, but Jeongguk could never shake off the underlying current of paranoia. He sat up straighter so his shoulders would shield most of the screen from the CCTV cameras.
He entered the message into the decryptor in the next tab and waited for a few seconds. When it was done, Jeongguk stared at the words formed.
Another order from baguette.
He jotted down the target information into his notebook. Then he closed all the opened windows and inserted a flash drive into the computer. Ran the history erasing program that reached all the way into the servers and the internet provider.
He nodded to the cafe owner with a small smile on his way out.
Jeongguk brushed his teeth slowly, methodically. The white light of the bathroom highlighted the growing bags under his eyes. He spit out the foam and rinsed his mouth. Dropped the toothbrush into its cup. Turned off the light. Slammed the door shut.
He dropped into the hotel bed, body heavy. The city lights twinkled at him through the long narrow buildings. Hong Kong reminded him of Blade Runner, all smoky and neon and futuristically chaotic.
It was times like this, in foreign hotel rooms late at night, when he allowed the useless bitterness to rear its ugly head. He knew things would get ruined, things always fell apart. That was not what he was bitter about.
Even when everything ended, they didn’t have to leave.
First Jimin left. Dropped the moment things got serious. And then Taehyung. Jeongguk wasn’t surprised because Taehyung couldn’t stay in one place, in one situation, with the same people, for too long. He was flightier than a butterfly.
But Jeongguk was alone now. It really shouldn’t have been that big of a deal and it usually wasn’t. But sometimes it was, like tonight.
His hands still smelled of gunpowder from the rifle he used to complete baguette ’s order. That was what he was now. A hitman. He didn’t have the energy anymore to start up another weapon and drug trading organization. He couldn’t do it alone. So he took his skills elsewhere. There was always a market for getting rid of people and the pay was above decent.
He traced the small tattoo of a butterfly right beneath his ribs. It was barely visible, barely there. But it was a reminder, a comforting rise of skin he could always count on. He got it together with Taehyung. Except Taehyung got the butterfly on the left side of his chest, stretching over skin in intricate detail. It was always go big or go home with Taehyung. Must have been a pain to remove.
The scratchy sheets dug into his bare back and Jeongguk closed his eyes. Welcomed the loneliness, because he was the kind of person to face every problem head on. Avoidance never helped anyone. He gathered the blankets close to his chest and wrapped his entire body around it. Holding something always helped.
He was back in Seoul, back in the apartment. He didn’t consider it his own, nothing in his life was permanent. Home was never a physical thing.
It was late afternoon and Jeongguk was wearing a pair of sweats and nothing else. He was watering the plants on the windowsill, absorbed in the ambedo of the water leaving the cup, settling into the earth. Sinking easily, molecules dividing themselves to fit between dried particles of dirt.
His windowsill was crowded with pots of plants, flowers. Things he kept alive, maybe to make up for all the lives he constantly took. The late spring breeze ruffled the English ivy stems that were growing a little too long. Jeongguk would need to prune them soon. His newest addition to the collection, a Japanese peace lily, was leaning too much to the side where the sun shone more brightly. He rearranged it with the gardenias, who liked more shade anyway.
The window was open and he could hear the birds chirping. The leaves rustling in the trees below. The distant sound of cars rushing by on the expressway.
Jeongguk took it in. Stood there with his empty water pitcher in both hands and breathed. Something close to a smile brushed his features. This was what life was. Despite everything that went wrong daily in so many people’s lives, life was still beautiful in the details. In the small ordinary things.
A loud knock on the door startled Jeongguk into almost dropping the pitcher. The only thing that saved him was his well-honed reflexes.
He crossed the living room and set the pitcher on the kitchen counter. Then he took soundless steps to the door, peeking through the peephole. He couldn’t see much because the glass seemed to be smudged. He would need to fix that right away. During the whole two months that he’d lived here, no one had ever come to his door.
Jeongguk hesitated. Another knock came and he reached into the pocket of the coat hanging on the coat hanger. Pulled out a Glock 18 and took off the safety. Unlocked the door and flung it open with the other hand. His gun was still hidden behind the door.
“Hello!” the man at his doorstep chirped.
He was holding a pie. Immediate danger averted, Jeongguk lowered the gun behind the door but didn’t click the safety on.
The man with the pie was tall, broad shoulders, collarbones peeking from the stretched collar of his cotton pink t-shirt. The pretty face of someone who never had to work for anything in his life, with those high cheekbones, quirked full lips, and wide sparkling eyes.
Eyes that were staring straight at Jeongguk’s bare chest, all the scars on full display. Jeongguk had a lot of scars.
He shut the door right in the stranger’s face.
The gun went into the waistband of his sweats, safety on. A white t-shirt wrinkled from his dresser was pulled over his head. And then Jeongguk reopened the door.
The stranger was still standing there, cradling his pie. He didn’t look the least bit phased from having a door shut in his face a minute ago.
“What do you want?” Jeongguk asked, maybe a little gruff.
“Ah, yes, hello, I’m Kim Seokjin,” the man introduced himself with a brilliant smile. Jeongguk shrunk away from him slightly. “Your new neighbor.” He pointed to the ceiling with one finger. “Right above you. Thought I’d come by and greet my neighbors.”
Jeongguk stared at him suspiciously. Seokjin only had one pie.
“You’re the last one,” Seokjin said as if he’d read Jeongguk’s thoughts. Thrusted the pie at Jeongguk who had no choice but to take it. “I hope you like peach pie, it’s a special recipe.”
And then he just stood there, as if expecting for Jeongguk to react in some way. Jeongguk wasn’t sure how to react. The gun handle was digging into his lower back.
“What’s your name?” Seokjin asked, cocking his head to the side. Jeongguk was mesmerised for a second, watching his dark brown bangs slide over his forehead. He had to force himself to remember what his last passport said.
“Park M-Minwoo.” He wanted to put his Glock to his own head for that stutter.
“Nice to meet you, Park Minwoo-ssi!” Seokjin was positively beaming. “I hope we can have a great time living in the same building. If you ever need anything, I’m in 649.”
Jeongguk nodded, confused. Why in the world would he ever need anything from his upstairs neighbor? But if there was anything that Jeongguk had learned in life was that people were strange.
“Good, glad we had this talk.” Seokjin gave him a little wave. “Enjoy the pie and see you around, Park Minwoo.”
And he was gone. Jeongguk closed the door and stared at the pie in his hands. He walked into the kitchen and dumped it into the trash can.
It has been a week since Kim Seokjin had showed up at his door. Jeongguk hadn’t heard of him since, thankfully.
He had finished another job for baguette earlier tonight and now it was almost midnight. Jeongguk was tucked under the covers in his bed, slowly drifting to sleep. He nearly dropped to the floor from his bed, grabbing the revolver from under his pillow as a sudden loud buzzing noise came on.
Jeongguk couldn’t pinpoint its source for a moment, the adrenaline rushing through his ears. The noise wasn’t stopping and after a little while, Jeongguk realized it was coming from upstairs. It sounded very similar to a vacuum cleaner.
He sagged against the headboard with a sigh. The revolver was still tightly clutched in his right hand. His other hand came up to rub at his eyes.
For the next hour or so, Jeongguk laid wide awake as Seokjin vacuumed his entire apartment. He didn’t even realize the walls were this thin. Or maybe Seokjin’s vacuum was too loud.
Either way, Jeongguk’s eyes finally closed at around three in the morning, because after the vacuum turned off, Jeongguk could still hear a phantom sound.
The following morning, Jeongguk didn’t wake minutes before his alarm went off like he always did. He slept through three snoozes, and when he finally got up it was six-thirty and he was cranky enough to fleetingly consider staying on his couch and not doing anything.
But self-discipline was a thing that Jeongguk had perfected over the course of his entire life. It was going to take something a lot bigger than one sleepless night for him to give into any form of time wasting.
An hour later, he was opening the door to the stairway on his floor. He was dressed in a white t-shirt, black jeans, and a black baseball cap. His wallet was in his pocket along with a switchblade. He carried a folded shopping bag in his hand and there was a bounce in his step.
Before he even took the first step down, someone was hollering at him to “hold up” from the stair flight above. Jeongguk’s fingers twitched to the switchblade in his pocket even though he instantly recognized the voice as Seokjin’s. Or maybe because it was Seokjin.
“Hey, you take the stairs, too?” Seokjin asked when he reached Jeongguk, breathless from running down the stairs.
He was wearing a pair of godawful neon short Nike shorts and a white tank that hung entirely too loose on his body. Jeongguk glared at him. No one in their right mind would ever take the stairs down from the thirteenth floor when there were two well-functioning elevators they could use.
“What?” Seokjin gave him a defensive look back as he began to descend the next flight. “This is great exercise. Can you imagine my ass in a month?”
Jeongguk sighed and followed him down. “You’re going to die at floor six and I’ll just leave you there to rot.”
Seokjin turned around to flash him a quick smile. “Oh, you’re funny. I love cynical humor, we’ll get along well.”
Seokjin did end up giving up between floor six and five, and Jeongguk ended up dragging him to the elevators. It wasn’t pretty.
At the grocery store, Jeongguk bought some eggs, milk, rice, vegetables and his monthly supply of spaghetti. He wasn’t a five star restaurant chef, but he could cook for himself. A survival skill he’d learned pretty early on in life.
Seokjin was dumping bags of flour and sugar into his cart along with milk, eggs, and other strange ingredients Jeongguk wouldn’t know what to do with in the kitchen.
“Did you enjoy my peach pie by the way?” he’d asked when both of them were staring down the snack aisle uncertainly.
Jeongguk almost forgot about the potentially poisoned peach pie. “Yeah, it was great.”
The two of them reluctantly moved on to the next aisle without getting anything.
“I’m making blueberry muffins today. Do you want some?”
Jeongguk did not want some. “Sure, why not.” But he also didn’t feel like being rude to someone he’d just met recently.
They walked back home together, Seokjin explaining to him the blueberry muffin recipe. Jeongguk didn’t really care but Seokjin looked overly enthusiastic about it anyway. They parted ways in the building’s lobby, Seokjin taking the elevator and Jeongguk taking the stairs.
After putting away all his groceries, Jeongguk went out again. Seokjin wasn’t there to follow him this time, thankfully. It was late morning and the sun was still making its way to the top of the sky. Birds were chirping overhead and Jeongguk smiled to himself. Mornings were always so peaceful.
He took a bus to the shadiest area of Hongdae and ducked into an old music shop called “J-hope Tunes.”
The inside space looked a little dusty, vintage almost. Untouched guitars hung on their displays. Yellowing band posters plastered on every wall. There was even a rickety piano in the corner. One half of the shop was completely dedicated to crates of vinyls.
A Morrissey record was spinning on the player at the empty cash register table. A man peeked out from the back door, zeroing in on Jeongguk’s fingers flipping through one of the vinyl crates.
“Yo, man, haven’t seen you in awhile,” he said, coming out to stand next to Jeongguk. “I’ve got this rare Echo and the Bunnymen record a few weeks ago, if you want it.”
Jeongguk tried not to flinch at that. “No, it’s fine. No more vinyls for me.”
Hoseok seemed to understand exactly what that meant and smoothly changed the direction of the conversation. “Then I’m sure you’ll be interested in an SRS?”
Jeongguk was very much interested in an SRS. “Lead the way.”
The backroom led to a warehouse-like basement that Jeongguk was pretty familiar with at this point. Hoseok brought him the sniper rifle and laid it out on the metal table.
“I’ve got an improved scope on it, too.” Hoseok took off the .308 barrel and attached the .338. “It may not be as powerful as your Barrett but it’s a bullpup. Much easier to carry and conceal.”
Jeongguk examined the rifle up close, picking it up in his hands and testing it out. “I have been looking for something less bulky. This looks great.”
Hoseok grinned, showing off too many teeth. “I always save the best for you.”
Jeongguk scoffed. “You’re saying that like you don’t have most of Korea’s best snipers under your belt.”
“Most of them are middle-aged action movie wannabes or fucking psychos. Or both, they’re usually both.” He took the rifle out of Jeongguk’s hands and began disassembling it. “But you’re a cute little bunny who knows his guns almost better than I do.” He reached over to pinch Jeongguk’s cheek.
Jeongguk batted his hand away with a laugh. “I don’t even know you, hyung. Don’t act so familiar with me.”
“We’re doing illegal business together, we’re practically family. Hold on.”
Hoseok walked off into the maze of shelves that took up half of the warehouse. Jeongguk turned his attention back to the SRS. He’d been wanting a lighter more maneuverable rifle for a while now. Staying for the aftermath was never fun so the faster he could get away from the scene the better. His Barrett M107A1 was a hassle to set up and pack up. And despite what Hoseok was saying, he really did cater to some of Korea’s most dangerous criminals. He always had what Jeongguk needed.
Hoseok came back carrying a guitar case. He laid it out on the metal table next to the rifle and opened it up. The inside was molded into the shape of the SRS and all its accessories.
“Had this one custom made,” Hoseok commented and began putting the rifle parts inside. “On the house because I’ve missed you.”
“Hyung, seriously.” But he smiled anyway because Hoseok was always over-dramatic. And it was nice, to see a familiar face after so long.
“Don’t seriously me.” He shut the case with a snap and thrust it into Jeongguk’s chest. “I’m getting a few SABRs delivered in a week, come check it out.”
Jeongguk nodded, slinging the faux guitar case over his shoulder. “Will do. How much do I owe you?”
“I’ll send over the invoice. The account is still the same.”
Jeongguk ended up at the internet cafe on his way back. The invoice was waiting for him in his inbox.
Jeongguk had around twelve different bank accounts under different names. They constantly held a few thousand dollars that automatically got replenished from his Swiss bank account. And when he paid for things like sniper rifles or other expensive illegal things, he took a little from each account. He could have easily set up an automatic system for that, but he liked doing it manually.
Once that was done, Jeongguk checked his public library inbox. Empty.
The next day, Jeongguk was watering his plants in the morning, like usual, when a knock came on his door. Jeongguk sighed and walked over, peering into the peephole. He’d cleaned it a few days ago so he could see Seokjin’s face pretty clear.
“What?” he said, cracking the door open wide enough for his head to peek through.
“Hello, neighbor,” Seokjin replied, holding up a tupperware container. “Lovely weather today, no?”
“Uh, yes.” Jeongguk never really knew how to act around him. Seokjin was annoying but Jeongguk felt bad being rude when he was trying to be all polite and pleasant. “I suppose so.”
“I brought you blueberry muffins.” He held out the container. The cap was pastel pink with a Princess Peach print. Jeongguk opened the door a little wider and took it.
“Thanks,” he said.
He was about to close the door when Seokjin asked him to wait.
“I do my grocery shopping every Monday morning,” he said. “Do you want to do that together from now on? Yesterday was fun.”
Jeongguk stared at him. He did his own grocery shopping Monday mornings, too. He didn’t want to taint that experience with Seokjin in neon shorts. But he also didn’t want to rearrange his entire week routine to change that.
“Great!” He gave Jeongguk a slightly feral smile. “See you around.”
And he was off down the hall. Jeongguk closed his door. Locked both locks.
In the kitchen, he opened the container. The muffins looked amazing, like something out of a Martha Stewart magazine. Jeongguk picked one of them up with a paper towel. Brought it up to his nose and sniffed.
The pastry smelled buttery and like blueberries. Heavenly. Jeongguk took a deeper inhale and stopped in his tracks. It smelled like almonds. Not entirely, but the scent was there, even if barely.
He dropped the muffin back into the container and dumped the contents out into the trash. He then washed it under hot water with dish soap and put it out on the counter to dry.
Cyanide smelled like almonds, too, and he wasn’t going to take his chances.
Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday Jeongguk worked part time at a dusty manhwa shop a few blocks away from his apartment. He got hired a year ago, employment and income proof for the landlord.
The job wasn’t hard. All he had to do was shelf manhwa and ring up the occasional customer. The hardest part was dealing with his coworker, Im Jinah.
“So I had a dream that my mom was pregnant,” Jinah was saying, following Jeongguk as he rearranged the books on the shelves in alphabetical order by the author’s last name and genre. Currently, they were arranged by color, courtesy of a bored Jinah on an eight hour shift the day before. At least it wasn’t as bad as when she rearranged everything to be in alphabetical order by the volume title. “And I was so excited that I decided to live-tweet it. But every tweet turned out to just be my RRN number and all my passwords. I woke up in the middle of the night and deleted my twitter.”
“Please explain to me your reasoning for putting green right after red,” Jeongguk said, deciding to ignore her babble. “All the other colors blend into each other. And then it’s just red and green.”
“Christmas colors,” Jinah replied, like it was the most obvious thing ever.
“Right. Of course.”
Jinah looked down to examine her nails. “Honestly, I don’t get why you care so much. We only get like five customers a week. We’d be out of business years ago if it wasn’t for our impressive hentai collection.”
“Have you considered the fact that we might be out of business very soon because our remaining customers can never find anything?” He separated the second volume of The Scholar Who Walks the Night from the rest of the Goong volumes. “Also, please take Let Dai off the main display already. It’s been collecting dust here for the last four months. We’re supposed to feature different series every week.”
Jinah went over the the counter and took out a duster. “Let Dai is the best manhwa of all time and it deserves all the four months it’s been up here.”
She began dusting the display with a concentrated frown on her face. Jeongguk sighed. Went back to sorting the rest of the shelf. Some pop song was playing overhead on low volume from Jinah’s phone.
“Anyway, I’m honestly not sure what I’m more scared of,” she said, continuing her earlier rambling. “My mom getting pregnant or all my personal information being displayed on the internet.”
“I think you should be scared of getting fired,” Jeongguk said. “If Yujin-noona finds out how you’ve been running this place, she’ll blacklist you from every employer.”
“She wouldn’t do that.” Jinah finished dusting the display and moved on to the extensive hentai shelf. “We’re like third or fourth cousins. You can’t fire family.”
Jeongguk was going to argue that point but the pop song overhead changed to a groovy early 2000’s beat. Jinah suddenly sprung up like someone gave her a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
“It’s Ketchup Song time!” She rushed to the counter where her phone was, catching herself from tripping on her maxi skirt. She turned up the volume and began swaying to the melody. The duster twirled between her hands, making her look even more ridiculous.
Jeongguk just shook his head but by the time the chorus came on, he was joining her on the makeshift macarena-like dance in the middle of the shop. In this tiny forgotten manhwa shop where nothing bad could ever happen, he had learned not to take himself too seriously. He wasn’t scared to make a fool out of himself only because he knew Jinah would always beat him in the cringe department.
Jeongguk was wiggling his hips to the beat with a volume of Orange Marmalade in one hand when he felt a heavy hand land on his shoulder.
The reaction was immediate, unconscious, and the man was flipped through the air, making a loud cracking sound as he landed on the floor. Orange Marmalade dropped with a slap.
“Oh my God, Park Minwoo, you just assaulted a customer!” Jinah was shouting over the music from the other side of the store. “We don’t have enough money for another lawsuit.”
The music shut off and Jeongguk was left staring down at Kim Seokjin sprawled on the floor. There was a look of stunned surprise in his wide eyes which was quickly giving over to pain.
“Nice dance moves, Beyonce,” he said, and any feelings of guilt Jeongguk might’ve had disappeared into thin air.
Jinah was by his side in an instant, offering her hand to pull Seokjin up. “I am so sorry about that, are you okay? No concussion? How many fingers am I holding up?”
Seokjin was holding onto the shelf for support, eyebrows furrowed at Jinah’s finger. “Technically all five?” he said, a little unsure. “You’re holding up your entire hand.”
Jinah and Jeongguk stared at him. Jinah looked like she was having the revelation of her life.
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk said. “I really didn’t mean to do that.”
Seokjin rubbed the back of his head with his other hand. “It’s fine. I think. No broken bones.”
Jeongguk just stood there a little awkwardly, not sure where to go from here.
“Did you need help with anything?” Jinah asked. “We’ll give you a fifty percent discount on your purchase today as an apology.”
“Ah, yes, I came here to buy the third volume of The Bride of the Water God,” Seokjin said, diverting his attention to her. “I just finished the second one and I need to know what happens next.”
“Of course, I’ll be right back.” Jinah disappeared to search the shelves for the third volume. Jeongguk hadn’t gotten to those yet so she was going to have a hard time trying to find it by her weird color system.
“You work at a manhwa shop?” Seokjin asked Jeongguk.
“You read The Bride of the Water God?” Jeongguk asked in return.
“Hey, it’s actually really interesting.” Seokjin folded his arms over his chest. He was wearing a white polo and navy shorts, going for that laid back rich kid look. Which Jeongguk supposed fit him quite well.
“I don’t doubt it.” Jeongguk’s gaze wandered off to the shelf behind Seokjin and he reached to pull out a certain volume. “Let me ring you up,” he said, leading the way to the cash register.
“Great!” Seokjin followed him. “Thank you.” Handed over his card as Jeongguk rang up the book and put it into a bag. “How did you like the blueberry muffins?”
Jeongguk slid the card through the card reader and waited for the receipt to print. “Loved them.” He handed the bag, receipt and card over to Seokjin.
“Awesome.” He stepped away toward the exit. “I’ll be back after each volume!”
Jeongguk waved with resignation. The Bride of the Water God had twenty-three volumes.
“Hey, I found the fourth and the second one, but I can’t find the third one, I don’t think we even have that in stock--Wait, where did he go?” Jinah was peeking out from behind one of the bookshelves, hands full of manhwa volumes.
“It was on the front shelf,” Jeongguk said, walking back to the shelf he left off on. “He already bought it and left.”
“Oh.” She looked down at her full hands and then back at Jeongguk. “Did you give him a fifty percent discount?”
“I did.” He took the volumes out of Jinah’s hands. “He’ll be back so you better go find the rest of them.”
Jinah’s eyes lit up. “Really? Do we finally get a regular who’s nice to look at?”
Jeongguk scrunched up his face in displeasure. “He’s my neighbor.”
“Wow, who would’ve thought you’d pull us in customers.” She twirled back into the shelves. “I’m off to find hot neighbor’s manhwas.” But then she swung back to peer at Jeongguk. “I didn’t know you knew martial arts, by the way.”
“Well now you know.” Jeongguk kept his gaze on the shelf. This wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t as dangerous as it could’ve turned out. He didn’t end up pulling out his knife. Now that would’ve been a scene to explain.
“Good.” Jinah nodded. “Now I know you’ll protect me if someone tries to rob this place.”
“No one in their right mind would ever want to rob this place,” Jeongguk called after her as she disappeared back behind the shelves.
It was Sunday night and Jeongguk couldn’t sleep. Again. Because Seokjin was vacuuming his entire apartment. At eleven-thirty in the evening.
Jeongguk had thought this was a one time thing, but apparently not. After rolling around in bed for fifteen minutes straight, he remembered the pair of earplugs he owned somewhere in one of his kitchen drawers. He got out of bed and put them on only to take them back out a minute later.
He couldn’t hear anything in them. Which really was the whole point, but Jeongguk only didn’t want to hear the vacuuming. It was anxiety-inducing, not being able to hear anything else. If something happened, he needed to be ready. His senses needed to be on guard.
That left him with the sole option of lying flat on his back and staring up at the ceiling. Hoping and praying Seokjin would come to his senses and go to sleep. Or drop dead. Jeongguk was open to anything at this point.
The next morning, he stepped out onto the stairs, grocery bag in one hand while the other was rubbing his eyes.
“Good morning!” Seokjin exclaimed from where he was leaning against the railing, waiting for him. He was wearing neon orange shorts this time, looking like a roadwork sign.
Jeongguk just sighed heavily. “Good morning, Seokjin-ssi.”
He began descending down the stairs and Seokjin followed him.
“Call me hyung,” he said.
Jeongguk turned to glance at him skeptically. “Why would you assume I’m younger than you?”
“How old are you, then?” Seokjin asked, cocking his head to the side and raising his eyebrows. Daring Jeongguk to prove him wrong.
“I’m twenty-eight.” Seokjin ruffled his hair. “Dongsaeng.”
Seokjin barely lasted until the fifth floor this time. They bought their groceries and Seokjin promised Jeongguk chocolate croissants.
At the internet cafe, a new order from baguette awaited him. Jeongguk wrote down the details of the target’s file in his notebook and went out to familiarize himself with the target’s daily route.
The rest of the week passed calmly, without much of a hitch. He dumped Seokjin’s croissants--albeit regretfully--into the trash, went to work, watered his plants, and did some more research on his target. He visited Hoseok and ended up buying one of the SABRs.
Sunday morning, he set up his rifle on the roof of an abandoned parking garage, aiming into one of the windows of the highrise condominium building on the opposite side.
Being a paid assassin wasn’t as glamorous as it seemed. It was a quiet job that required patience. The key was to pick the perfect spot and then wait. Sometimes the waiting took hours, laying in the same spot stiller than a rock. It was important not to let your body fall asleep. It was also just as important not to let your mind fall asleep. And it was hard. That was why Jeongguk always took the stairs. He took any opportunity he could to move.
The clock was ticking closer to seven. Jeongguk had been watching the reflecting balcony door through his binoculars for the last hour.
Finally there was movement. The balcony doors opened slowly. No one came out.
Jeongguk put down his binoculars and shifted to the rifle’s scope. The door opened a little wider and finally someone stepped out. A young woman, late twenties. She was wearing a white silk robe and her shoulder-length maroon hair ruffled in the slight breeze. She brought a cigarette up to her plump lips and lit it with a zippo lighter as she stared down to the street below.
Choi Jinri. His target.
Jeongguk hated killing people in the mornings. Mornings were pure and peaceful and no one should have to die before they could start their day. But unfortunately for Choi Jinri, this was the only time she was alone. And baguette ’s directions clearly stated that she was to die alone. Jeongguk wasn’t one to argue with his source of income.
Jinri’s slightly swollen eyes lifted to the sky, as her lips blew out a puff of smoke. Jeongguk’s finger rested on the trigger as he adjusted the crosshairs to her chest. He waited until she was completely still, entranced with the rising sun.
He squeezed the trigger. Her body jerked back, cigarette flying out of her fingers. She was dead, slumped on the floor of her balcony.
Jeongguk scooted away from the edge of the roof and quickly disassembled his SRS. He put it into its custom guitar case and stood up to stomp his numbing feet.
On his way back home, Jeongguk stopped by the market and picked up a moth orchid. The flowers were a deep burgundy-maroon. It was pretty. Jeongguk felt a little sad looking at it.
That night, Jeongguk was wide awake by the time midnight rolled around. He was wrapped around his blankets like a koala. Seokjin’s vacuum came on once again, and Jeongguk kind of wanted to laugh this time.
What if Seokjin was doing this on purpose? What if he was trying to mess up Jeongguk’s circadian rhythm and weaken his reflexes and whatnot so he could kill him more easily? Since all the pastries weren’t working.
Jeongguk pulled a pillow over his head to muffle his scream.
The next morning, Seokjin made it all the way down to the fourth floor. Jeongguk barely made it, too. He did not function well on less than seven hours of sleep.
When they entered the apartment lobby with their grocery bags a few hours later, Seokjin stopped him before he could trudge back upstairs.
“Just, hold on.” Seokjin put down his grocery bags (why did he buy so much flour every week?) and took a few steps closer to Jeongguk.
Jeongguk tried to step away because he was suddenly too close, but Seokjin pulled him into a hug. Jeongguk stilled from shock.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Giving you a hug,” Seokjin replied, his breath tickling Jeongguk’s neck.
“Uh, okay. But why.”
Seokjin’s palm patted his back, maybe a little condescending. “Because you looked like you really needed one.”
Seokjin’s body was warm against his and it was actually kind of nice. Jeongguk missed hugs. But this was Seokjin and this was weird. So he just kind of shuffled uncomfortably in Seokjin’s hold and cleared his throat.
He lifted one arm to pat Seokjin back. “Are we done here?”
“Not yet.” Seokjin pulled him even closer. Jeongguk could feel the steady beat of his heart and the rhythm was hypnotizing. “Long hugs make everything better.”
He wasn’t wrong because Jeongguk could feel some of the tension leaving his body. It was also still awkward.
Seokjin was so infuriating because he was annoying and yet completely unaware of it. And then he would go and do something aggressively sweet and Jeongguk never really knew how to react. He waited until Seokjin pulled away first, that was his safest choice.
“I’ll make you chocolate chip cookies tomorrow,” Seokjin said, ruffling his hair and picking up his grocery bags. “See you later.”
Jeongguk watched him get onto the elevator and then turned around to begin his trek up the stairs.
An hour later, he was sitting at the internet cafe, staring at the computer screen. He had a new job order, from bluebird. Bluebird was a government handle, they were one of Jeongguk’s regulars, nothing strange there. But the target file, that wasn’t very pleasant.
Jeongguk had been staring at the three hanja syllables at the top of the file for the last minute or so.
For the past three years, Jeongguk had willfully repressed every memory he had of Min Yoongi. He was the reason why Taehyung wasn’t with him anymore. But then it’d been just as much Taehyung’s fault. Taehyung, his idiot best friend, who had to go and fall in love with an NIS agent and ruin everything they’d worked so hard for.
And now Jeongguk was left friendless and sad, living off of killing people. It was a little unfair, was all.
Jeongguk clicked to reject the job and logged into his Swiss bank account to check his balance. A little over fifty million was enough for him to live comfortably for a while, even move out of the country. He knew bluebird would be petty enough to blacklist him to his other clients.
It came as a relief when he logged out. Erased the history. Being a hitman wasn’t all that great anyway. He could finally move to some stock suburban neighborhood, start his own garden, maybe even date. It would be nice and boring and normal. Maybe he could even feel safe enough to sleep without a gun.
When he was walking back home, it suddenly hit him that if bluebird didn’t get what they wanted, they’d go to a different source. With that price on his head, Min Yoongi would be gone in a week at most.
But it wasn’t his business.
It wasn’t and yet he was turning around and walking to a bus station. Twenty minutes later, he was walking through Hyehwa-dong, passing numerous coffee shops and ignoring all the trees rustling in the breeze.
He stopped in front of the theater entrance on the corner of the street. It didn’t have any kind of sign on it, it was just a theater. Jeongguk stared at the tinted glass door, letting people pass him by.
He counted off to three in his head and pushed the door open. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the dimness. No one was inside, the box office was empty, the doors to the actual theater looked like they were locked. Jeongguk’s gaze swept over the dark interior and he wanted to leave and forget the whole thing. His eye caught on the door in the back marked “Not The Bathroom” and it was just as well. He needed to try harder than this before he could allow himself to give up.
He walked up to the door and was just about to knock when it opened. Jeongguk was suddenly faced with a wide-eyed Jimin.
“Guk?” Jimin asked, like he couldn’t believe his eyes.
His hair was a chestnut brown instead of black like he remembered. He looked softer around the edges. Happier.
“Holy crap, Jeongguk.” Jimin’s face split into a grin, so genuinely happy to see him. “I haven’t seen you in ages. Come inside.”
Jimin let him into the office and closed the door behind them.
“I’ve missed you, kid,” Jimin said, reaching up to ruffle Jeongguk’s hair. “Do you want tea?”
Jeongguk took a seat on the leather couch in the corner and nodded. Jimin was incredibly intelligent and resourceful but he was soft. He was soft and caring and an amazing friend. It wasn’t a surprise he left as fast as he did. Jeongguk had missed his smiles, his company, he missed it so much his chest hurt.
Jimin set a cup of tea in front of him and sat down next to him. Jeongguk took a careful sip so he wouldn’t have to speak.
“Is everything well?” Jimin was asking, watching Jeongguk’s face. “I don’t think you showed up here because you missed me?”
Jeongguk set down his cup with a click. “There’s… I need you to find someone. Min Yoongi. It’s related to Taehyung--”
Jimin’s face turned stone-serious. “Why are you looking for him? Did something happen?”
“Wait, you know him?” Jeongguk turned to face Jimin fully.
“Yeah.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s a long story. He’s with Taehyung.”
Jeongguk tried to wrap his mind around this new information. “He’s with Taehyung? But Taehyung…”
“Yeah, Taehyung doesn’t remember anything. But he knows, everything that happened. He found out.”
“Is that a good thing?” This was complicating matters even more than Jeongguk would’ve thought.
“I don’t know.” Jimin was examining the wood lines on the coffee table. “I think so.”
“Jimin, there are people after him.”
Jimin looked up at him. “Yeah, I figured as much. They’re leaving to Berlin next week, I think.”
Jeongguk breathed out a sigh. “That’s good. For how long?”
Jimin shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think they’re planning on coming back.”
“Okay.” Jeongguk was glad he came by. This made things easier. “They need to be careful with the passports.”
Jimin got up and walked to the oak desk, taking out a piece of paper and scribbling something on it. He handed the piece of paper to Jeongguk.
“You should visit them,” he said. “Before they leave.”
Jeonghuk turned the paper over in his fingers. Stared at the address written there. “Taehyung…”
“He probably won’t recognize you,” Jimin said, answering his unvoiced question. “But he knows who you are.”
Jeongguk nodded and silence settled over them for a little. Jimin broke it first.
“I was just about to head out for lunch.” His voice was unsure but hopeful. “Do you want to come with me?”
Jeongguk rose from the couch and nodded. “Sure.”
They ended up in some busy cafe at a window table. Jimin wasn’t even touching his sandwich. He was just staring at Jeongguk as the latter picked at his salad.
“What?” Jeongguk asked, letting out an embarrassed laugh. “Do I have something on my face?”
“No.” Jimin grinned at him, his eyes twinkling into crescents. “I just haven’t seen you in like six years. Let me look at you a little before you disappear again.”
Jeongguk rolled his eyes but smiled back, leaving his fork on the plate. “There’s not much to look at.”
“What are you talking about?” Jimin made that mock outraged face. “You were a fetus. And now you’re a fully grown man. How did that happen?”
“I was not a fetus,” Jeongguk argued. “I was bigger than you.”
“Yeah, sure.” Jimin’s teasing smile melted into something more subdued. “How have you been all these years?”
Jeongguk shrugged. “Not too bad.”
“What are you doing nowdays? I haven’t heard about a new weapon trading company.”
“No, I’ve been just doing some odd jobs. Mostly on my own,” Jeongguk said without going into too much detail. Jimin knew what he meant, anyway.
“Ah.” Jimin nodded. “That makes some good money, too.”
“What about you, hyung?” Jeongguk rested his chin in his palms. “Still running the PI business?”
“Yep.” He twirled the straw in his water glass. “It can be a little slow, but I’m surviving. I’m running a dance studio, too, now.”
Jeongguk lit up at the news. “Really? That’s great! Do you like it?”
Jimin nodded, a light happy flush on his cheeks. “Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve been wanting to do that for so long and one day I just decided to go for it.”
Jeongguk chuckled. “I still remember your high school talent show performances.”
Jimin flicked a piece of napkin at him. “Ew, that was so bad. Why’d you have to bring that up? My entire body is now covered with goosebumps.” He shuddered, making a disgusted face.
“It wasn’t that bad!” Jeongguk tried to assure him but ended up laughing. “You thought you were so cool.”
Jimin covered his cheeks with his hands, squishing them together. “You’re bringing up repressed memories, stop it.”
“Park Minwoo!” someone called and Jeongguk looked up, startled, straight at Seokjin who was dodging stray customers to get to their table, holding up an eclair in one hand.
“Oh, shit, what’s he doing here?” Jeongguk mumbled to himself.
Jimin’s gaze shifted between Seokjin and Jeongguk, full of unanswered curiosity.
“I thought that was you,” Seokjin was saying as he stopped next to their table. “What a coincidence.”
“What are you doing here?” Jeongguk asked, trying not to sound demanding.
“This place has the best eclairs in Seoul.” Seokjin waved his eclair around for emphasis. “I was craving some eclairs.”
Jeongguk nodded, maybe a little on the awkward side. He could feel Jimin boring holes into the side of his face.
“Um, this is Jimin,” he said. “Old friend. Jimin, this is Kim Seokjin, my neighbor.”
Seokjin shifted his napkin-wrapped eclair into his other hand and shook Jimin’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, Jimin-ssi,” he said in that smooth charming way he had. Jeongguk squinted at him in slight suspicion.
Jimin smiled, his cheeks bunching up. “Likewise. Oh, have you been to the coffee shop across the street? The chaud pastries are to die for. It was called Deux Coeurs? I think?”
Seokjin’s eyes lit up. “ Doux Coeurs! Yeah, I’ve heard of it. I haven’t gotten around to checking it out yet, though.”
“It’s definitely worth checking out.” Jimin nodded.
“Maybe I’ll stop by right now.” He was turning to leave. “It’s nice to meet you, Jimin-ssi, but I’ll be going now. I just passed by to say hi.” Jimin waved at him sweetly and Jeongguk caught Seokjin’s eye for a second. “I’ll see you around, Minwoo.” And he was gone with that.
Jeongguk went back to his salad. He could feel Jimin staring at him so he gave up after a minute, looking up. “What?”
Jeongguk didn’t rise to the bait. “What about him?”
Jimin was trying to hold back a laugh. “The sexual tension between you two was so thick it could be cut with a knife.”
Jeongguk rolled his eyes. “I really don’t think that was what it was.”
“The moment he showed up, you turned all cool and quiet and kept on staring at him.” His voice pitched lower in an attempt to imitate Seokjin. “I’ll see you around, Minwoo. The only thing missing was a wink.”
“You honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I totally do. You’re still so awkward at flirting.”
He’d been friends with Jimin since Jimin was twelve and he was ten. And Jeongguk had forgotten what it felt like to be around someone who knew him that well. He kind of hated it, but it was a refreshing change.
“Hyung, please leave me alone,” he said but Jimin’s little laughs were contagious.
“Ah, it feels so great to have someone to tease again.” Jimin leaned a little closer. “Do you remember when you tried dating Jung Eunbi in high school? That was such a disaster.”
Jeongguk sighed. “Hyung, please.”
“Seriously, though.” Jimin said after he stopped laughing. “If you like him, go for it. You should have fun sometimes. I know you don’t always know when to have fun.”
Jeongguk leaned over the table to whisper to Jimin. “Actually, I think he might be trying to poison me? I’m pretty sure he puts something into the pastries he bakes for me.”
Jimin’s eyes widened. “He bakes you pastries? That’s so cute.”
“Yeah, it would be if he wasn’t poisoning them.”
Jimin’s eyebrows furrowed in concern. “Do you think he was hired by someone to kill you?”
Jeongguk shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s really hard to read him.”
“Hmm. Do you have actual proof that they’re poisoned?”
“I mean, I haven’t chemically tested them.”
“Maybe you should start there.”
Jeongguk nodded even though he could see a glint of skepticism in Jimin’s eyes.
They continued catching up for another hour, reveling in each other’s company. They ended up parting ways without making any promises to meet again. It made Jeongguk a little sad again. He walked home, holding the paper with Yoongi’s address in his pocket.
The next morning, when Jeongguk was stepping out of his apartment to go to work, his foot landed in something soft. He looked down and realized he stepped into a saran-wrapped plate of chocolate chip cookies. Jeongguk stepped out of it and picked it up. There was a note on the top in loopy handwriting that Jeongguk had no trouble associating with Seokjin.
“You looked a lot better when you were with your friend, but if you’re still sad you can eat these. -S,” the note said. All the cookies were squashed now and Jeongguk felt slightly guilty so he left the plate on his kitchen counter instead of throwing them away.
At the manhwa shop, Jeongguk was at the front of the store, rearranging some of the displays. Jinah was at the opposite side of the same bookshelf, leaning against it as she reread the first volume of Let Dai.
The Ketchup Song came on overhead after some Red Velvet song finished playing. Jinah moved to turn it up and put it on repeat, dropping the manhwa back on the shelf.
“Party time!” she shouted, but stopped mid-dance move and leaned back against the shelf cooly when the bells over the entrance jingled. Two men came inside. They were wearing all black, baseball caps and face masks obscuring their features.
Jeongguk moved as inconspicuously as he could until he was half a foot away from Jinah. He pushed her behind the hentai bookshelf just as one of the men pulled out a gun and pointed it in his direction.
“Hands up,” the guy with the gun barked.
Jeongguk’s hands slowly rose above his head. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Just lead us to the safe and no one gets hurt,” the guy without the gun was saying. His voice was of a squeaky quality, grating on Jeongguk’s nerves already.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” Squeaky Voice said. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Jeongguk in fact did not know what they were talking about. They didn’t keep a safe here. He jerked his head to the other end of the store, widening his eyes as if surprised.
“Oh no, boss, you can’t do that!” he said in his most convincing fearful voice.
Both of the guys turned around in the direction Jeongguk was talking, the gun now aimed away. In one smooth move, Jeongguk reached under his shorts and pulled out a knife from his concealed leg holster. The two turned back around after realizing there was no one there right as Jeongguk grabbed Squeaky Voice by the waist and put the knife to his throat.
The Ketchup Song was still blasting through the speakers overhead, reaching the chorus.
“Put down your gun or I slit his throat,” Jeongguk threatened.
Squeaky Voice squeaked.
There was a sound of manhwa books thumping to the floor behind the hentai shelf and Jinah’s soft voice whispering, “shit.”
Before Jeongguk could do anything, Guy 2, the one with the gun, was diving behind the bookshelf and emerging with a gun to Jinah’s head. Jinah was wearing one of her long flowery maxi skirts and the edge of it caught on the corner. A loud ripping sound followed as the hem of the skirt tore in a jagged line. Jeongguk could see tears welling up in her eyes.
“Aserejè… ja… deje…” she was singing along, wiggling a little in Guy 2’s arms.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help singing along every time the chorus comes on,” she sobbed. “I think this song is cursed.”
“Did you call the police?”
“No, my phone is at the cash register.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Guy 2 snapped, digging the gun into Jinah’s temple. “Just show us where the safe is before I end this bitch.”
“Don’t show them the safe, Minwoo,” Jinah said through the tears. “I can take it.”
Jeongguk stared at her, holding his knife firmly to Squeaky Voice’s throat. “What the fuck, noona, we don’t have a safe.”
“Then why did you say that?”
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say in situations like this?” Her face was red and blotchy at this point. “They do that in movies. I think.”
“No.” The music was starting to mess with his brain. Jeongguk could only hope it had the same effect on the two men. “No, that is not what you’re supposed to say, unless you want to die. Do you want to die, noona?”
She shook her head vehemently. Guy 2 tightened his grip on her.
“I think you want her to die,” Guy 2 was saying. “Or you’d be showing us to the safe.”
“Look, I very obviously don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jeongguk said. “This is an old mangwa shop on the verge of bankruptcy. Even if we did have a safe, we wouldn’t have anything to put in it. You’re welcome to help yourself to our cash register. I’ll even open it for you if you want.”
Guy 2 didn’t look like he believed him one bit. Squeaky Voice let out a scoff like he thought Jeongguk was bullshitting. Jeongguk brought the blade of his knife closer to his neck so it was brushing his skin. That shut him up real quick.
The Ketchup Song finally faded into silence. Everyone exhaled a sigh of relief. But a few beats later, it started up again. Jeongguk groaned.
“Can someone turn off the fucking music?” Guy 2 said, gritting his teeth. “This is not a party.”
The bells over the entrance jingled and everyone froze. Seokjin took a few steps inside and stopped in his tracks when he took in the scene before him.
“Oh.” His eyes darted from Jeongguk to Jinah as a careful plastic smile spread over his lips. “Good morning, all.”
Guy 2 snapped out of it first and pointed his gun in Seokjin’s direction. “Don’t fucking move or I put a bullet in you.”
Seokjin put his hands up in front of him, palms out. “Does that mean I can’t buy volume ten today?”
“You can come back tomorrow, Seokjin-ssi,” Jinah said, leaning back into Guy 2. Jeongguk was pretty sure her legs just gave out. “I’ll have volume ten ready for you. With a fifty percent apology discount.”
“Sounds great,” Seokjin said, smiling at her gently. “Thank you, Jinah-ssi.”
“Okay, fuck this, I’m slitting his throat,” Jeongguk said, pressing the knife closer to Squeaky Voice’s jugular as he let out a strangled squeak.
Guy 2’s gun swung from Seokjin to Jeongguk. “The moment you do that, you’re dead--”
That was the exact moment Seokjin decided to trip over something and grabbed onto the hentai shelf to keep himself from falling.
The thing about that entire stretch of bookshelf was that it was slightly unstable. It was also filled to the brim with manhwa volumes, half of which were hardcover anniversary editions.
The shelf tilted over from the sharp momentum, crashing right on top of Guy 2 and Jinah, who’d been standing right next to it.
It that one moment, three things happened simultaneously. Guy 2 fired his gun. Jinah let out a high-pitched screech. The chorus of The Ketchup song came on.
The bullet went into Squeaky Voice’s abdomen, jerking him out of Jeongguk’s hold. He toppled to the floor, but not before Jeongguk’s knife slid right through his trachea, a knee-jerk reaction.
All that happened in the span of a few seconds.
The Ketchup Song continued playing like it was having the time of its life. Seokjin was on the floor, trying to get up as he clutched his ankle. Guy 2 and Jinah were buried in a mountain of hentai, the entire bookshelf propped up against them. They looked unconscious.
And Jeongguk was on his knees next to Squeaky Voice’s bleeding body, holding the knife so hard his knuckles were turning white.
He could hear police sirens in the distance.
Seokjin crawled over to him, placing his hand on the hand Jeongguk was holding the knife with. Jeongguk looked up at him, startled.
“Hey, you should probably go,” he was saying. Prying the knife out of his hand.
“Go home. I’ll take care of everything here.”
Jeongguk stared at him, letting go of the knife. “What do you mean? Wait, are you okay? You’re not hurt or anything?”
“I’ll have a bruised ankle, probably,” Seokjin said, looking entirely too upset about it. “What kind of idiots thought it was a good idea to rob a manhwa shop?”
“My thoughts exactly.” Everything still felt a little surreal. The sirens were getting closer, mostly drowned out by The Ketchup Song.
Seokjin was pushing him away from the body. “Go through the back door.”
“Hyung, what are you talking about.” But he got up anyway.
“I didn’t waste three years in law school for nothing,” he said, waving him away. “I’ll handle it.”
Jeongguk nodded and walked to the back door. He shouldn’t have been doing this, he didn’t even trust Seokjin all that much, but he really didn’t have a choice. If the police began investigating him, they’d start finding things. His alias wasn’t completely foolproof because he was just using it temporarily. And then there would be questions about where he got the knife and why he was holding it to one of the thieves’ throats like that.
What a mess.
He hoped Jinah was okay.