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The Circle I Made

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The girl in the computer core room is just as quick to draw her gun as Sooyoung is.

Sooyoung feels a prick of irritation as she surveys what she’s found – the loud whizz of the computer system, the blinking red lights, the flash drive – she’s been beaten to the punch. Four months she’s spent carefully engineering gaps in the SM security system just so she could get in tonight and copy as much of their computer systems as possible, and this blonde twit had gotten here first.

Sooyoung had to take out three guards on her way to the computer core, at least two of them got a good look at her, and one of those recognized her. She’s blown her cover to get here, and she’s damned if she’s going to leave with nothing.

She plays nice. “The guards are going to be on top of us long before that finishes.”

The girl looks at her warily, sizing her up. Sooyoung recognizes her as one of the editorial assistants at the fashion magazine the SM agency uses as their cover, although not one of the ones she would’ve pegged as an agent. Too gregarious, too clumsy. But then the best operatives are the ones you’d never suspect. If anyone knows that, it’s Sooyoung.

“I’ve only got 18% of the main databank,” she says finally. “I need – ”

“This isn’t about what you want or need, it’s about what you can get.”

The girl’s lips twist in consideration. Sooyoung calculates: the best option is to use the girl to get out of the building, under the guise of teamwork. It’s unlikely she can take down all of security herself, although a part of her was looking forward to the attempt. But it’s better this way – once they’ve made it out, she can claim the flash drive for herself.

“It’s Jessica, right?” Sooyoung asks conversationally, as though the two of them didn’t still have their guns trained on each other’s heads.

“Tiffany,” the girl says shortly.

“All those American names sound the same to me,” Sooyoung says, which almost earns her a smile: good, progress.

There’s a guard hollering somewhere in the corridors, much closer than they have been up to this point: too much closer. “We cannot be found in this room.”

The girl nods, they lower their guns at the same moment. Tiffany grabs the flash drive and starts to shut off all the processing cores, Sooyoung climbs onto a desk in the corner and starts to cut a gap in the ceiling. At an angle, so they’ll be able to fit it back in when they’re through.

“You can’t do that,” she she hears Tiffany start to move a chair to jam the door shut. “They’ll know we were in here.”

“I don’t have enough time to shut down all the processors, they’re going to know anyway.” Security is in their hallway now, checking rooms and doors too close for comfort. They will find them momentarily.

“Doesn’t matter,” says Sooyoung finally, pushing her hole open, pulling herself effortlessly up into the ceiling and then reaching back for Tiffany. “We’ve just got to get out. Come on.”

*

By the time Tiffany is sure they’ve passed over the interior office – the agency – into the exterior office – the magazine – they’ve been crawling through the ceiling for at least five minutes, Sooyoung’s hands and knees raw from the roughness of surface, never meant for human contact. She’s got to stop doing this in hotpants.

She descends first, sprinkling decades of dust onto some poor graphic designer’s desk, then reaches a hand up for Tiffany.

“They’re in here too,” Tiffany whispers when they’re both on solid ground again. “In the front, we won’t be able to get out.”

“They’re looking for someone on the inside, we’re… here we could plausibly just be hapless magazine employees.”

Tiffany starts to laugh. “Have you seen what I’m wearing? Have you seen what you’re wearing?”

Sooyoung blinks at Tiffany as if seeing her for the first time. It’s a testament to her time as an SM operative, and all the sparkly polyester hot messes they have sent her out in that she barely registered Tiffany’s clothing as odd. But it is: sequined blue shorts, a big pink bow. She must’ve been fresh from a mission when she broken in. Sooyoung was too, and she’s worse off than Tiffany: she’s a god damn cowboy, boots and hat and all.

“Okay,” says Sooyoung after a beat. “Okay.”

She turns around starts to strip.

“What are you doing?” Tiffany hisses, but Sooyoung continues undaunted, even once she’s past the innocent bits: the hat, the boots, the vest.

“Your shirt is fine, but you can’t keep the shorts,” she calls over her shoulder, quietly as she can. Part of her expects Tiffany to protest, but she hears the telltale hiss of a zipper as Tiffany does as she is told. Sooyoung is down only to her underwear and holsters now: she spends five seconds trying to figure out a way to get out of this that ends in her keeping her gun, a little sigh of distaste escapes her when she realizes it’s just not possible. She hides it with the clothes, stuffing them anywhere they fit in the cubicle: file cabinets, drawers, behind the bulletin board.

As soon as she’s sure all the evidence is tucked out of view, she kicks over the trashcan.

“What are you – ” but Tiffany doesn’t get to finish, because Sooyoung presses her up against the desk and kisses her. Tiffany is ramrod stiff at first, listening for the loud footfalls of security, but she relaxes after a moment, intuiting the crux of the plan. Sooyoung thinks about grabbing the flashdrive she’s pretty sure is tucked into Tiffany’s bra under the guise of feeling her up, but no: she can’t turn Tiffany against her until they’re safely out of the building. She can handle her then.

Security finds them scant seconds later, they break apart with matching squeals of mortification, as if it were all scripted. Sooyoung watches a guard’s upper lip curl in some combination of amusement and arousal and she realizes somewhere in those thirty seconds Tiffany managed to get her bra unhooked. She chances a glance at her, but Tiffany is staring straight ahead, cheeks flushed with false humiliation.

“Employees aren’t allowed here after eight,” the other guard says, stiffly.

“We didn’t – I mean – we’re sor – ” Sooyoung stutters. Tiffany opens and closes her mouth like a fish, as if unable to speak.

Both the guards are smirking now, more obnoxious than nefarious. Good: they probably haven’t spoken to security in the back, who have surely figured out someone’s been dicking with the computer core by now.

“Out we go, girls,” says the first guard, snatching Tiffany’s arm and pulling her forward. The second guard does the same to Sooyoung. She can feel his left hand hovering over her ass, wondering momentarily if he can get away with it before settling for her hipbone. She grits her teeth and bides her time.

She doesn’t have to wait long: as soon as they four of them are in the elevator, she sees Tiffany start to move out of the corner of her eye. They’re professionals, it takes them all of fifteen seconds to knock both of the guards out. Tiffany jams her finger on the door closed button just in time to keep Sooyoung from flashing whoever might be hanging around on the ground floor.

“That’s the last time you get to fuck around with my bra,” mutters Sooyoung mutinously as she reattaches it at the back. Tiffany actually laughs. She keeps the door closed with one imperfectly manicured finger as Sooyoung scavenges around two prone men, tossing Tiffany one of their guns and keeping the other for herself. She makes quick work of their pants, belts, and jackets, tossing one set to Tiffany and dressing herself quickly in the other. When she’s done Tiffany releases her hold on the door closed button, and Sooyoung, goofy in her baggy, hastily donned uniform, pops out to check for people.

“It’s clear,” she stage whispers.

Tiffany nods without looking at her, finishes doing up her belt, and steps out of the elevator just as it starts to close.

“So,” she says finally, without overture. “Can you get us out of the country?”

*

Sooyoung was little more than a child when they found her, young enough that she barely registered the man in the suit speaking to her father, too busy giggling over something in a shop window with Soojin to notice him more than passingly. She remembers the second encounter with SM Agency better: another man, notable to her only for the deep lines that creased his face, bending slightly to her level and asking if she felt it was her duty to help her country.

It wasn’t a question she’d ever expected to be asked, military service was mandatory only for boys, but nevertheless the answer had been trained in her, she answered in the affirmative.

Choi Sooyoung is smart, but she’s never been brilliant. She’s popular enough, but in an inconspicuous kind of way. She can be funny and charming sometimes, but usually she comes off loud and brash. She’s solidly athletic, but not a standout. Pretty, but too round-faced to be fully beautiful. She has a sound collection of desirable qualities, but she has never been a standout in anything but height, and even that won’t last much longer as the boys in her classes start popping up like weeds.

She can see it in their faces, though, the SM instructors who school her in marksmanship and combat and foreign language when all her peers are learning math at their real hagwons. At this, she is remarkable, the best. Even the more stoic ones crack stony smiles at her, telling her she will be a credit to the National Intelligence Service and to South Korea.

At the time she had no frame of reference for what that would really mean: fantasies about discovering the piece of intelligence that would lead to the fall of North Korea, dismantling bombs and saving buildings full of people in the process, deep cover. When she’s seventeen and they finally start sending her out on real recon missions, and she finds she spends more time dressed like a showgirl, stealing blackmail material and breaking into banks, she doesn’t question it, she does what she can for her country.

When she puzzles it out, she he biggest deception is not what they have made her do, but what they have made her feel.

*

Sooyoung’s contact is an hour late.

They’re in a bright red booth in the back of an American theme bar (“this place is too clean to be authentic, it’s unnerving,” says Tiffany as soon as they sit down), packed in next to each other instead of across from each other, neither willing to cede the view of the entrance. One last store was open on Rodeo street, full of trendy preteen styles, but these skinny jeans are the most blessedly normal thing she’s worn in hours: she can’t care that the bouncer spends a good two minutes longer than necessary examining the authenticity of her identification.

Tiffany is laced up with one and a half glasses of the pinkest drink Sooyoung has seen in her life, crunching a piece of ice with her jaw as she tattoos stars on Sooyoung’s arm with her finger, whining about how much she liked the car they had to ditch in Munjeong-dong in a tone that lets Sooyoung know she’s hardly obligated to listen. This is her moment, she tells herself: she could easily snatch the flash drive. She’s only managed a couple of sips of her beer, and she’s seen Tiffany in action now: she knows she’s good, but she also knows that she’s better, alcohol or no.

But she can’t work up the effort. They don’t yet know what Tiffany managed to download onto that memory stick, if that 20% of the databank she snagged is even useful to them. It could be worth killing for, it could be worth nothing. There’s no point in action when she doesn’t know what she’s acting for.

She takes another sip of her beer and raps her fingers impatiently against the wood of the table in front of them, and Tiffany stops midstream, sensing a change in mood.

“So,” she says casually, after a moment, “Who do you work for?”

Sooyoung almost spits out her mouthful of beer. “You don’t beat around the bush, do you?”

“Why should I?” Tiffany asks, eyes suddenly serious. “We could play a couple of rounds of verbal chess if you’d like, but who knows how long we’ve got before your contact gets here.”

“Are you NIS?” Sooyoung asks quietly.

Tiffany’s eyes narrow, but she answers all the same: “No. CIA.”

Of course. Tiffany’s so American it falls off her in waves, despite the years she’s already spent here. She breathes, opening her mouth to lie but what comes out is the truth: “I worked for SM. Now I work for myself.”

“SM Agency recruited you under the guise of being NIS,” translates Tiffany. “But you, at some point, deduced that they weren’t. God – you know, all this time, I thought you were NIS.”

“All this time?” Sooyoung frowns.

“I mean, I knew there was another agent working against them,” Tiffany clarifies. “I didn’t know it was you specifically. I’ve been using the holes you’re tearing in security and then covering our combined digital footprints for six months now. I just presumed you were an NIS mole. Damn – you were my best proof that they aren’t part of the NIS.”

“You don’t know for sure?”

“No,” Tiffany breathes. “No, we don’t. We suspect, but there’s no way to prove SM isn’t actually just a black ops division of the NIS – there to do the international espionage equivalent of dirty work – the stuff the government wouldn’t want associated with South Korea. We – the CIA – we’re pretty sure SM is just an advanced money-laundering operation, but until we have solid proof we can’t go after them, or even ask.”

“Because the US and South Korea are allies,” says Sooyoung after a moment, bringing her beer back up to her lips to create a pause. She’s worse off than she was this morning, her cover at SM blown to hell, not really any closer to the truth with Tiffany than without her. But she feels better all the same. So she chooses to be reassuring: “Well. We still don’t know what you’ve got on that flash drive.”

*

Her contact – a friend of her sister’s – arrives minutes later, with two suitcases. Nothing’s really inside, just the passports and plane tickets and a box of hair dye, because (he says), “Nothing’s more conspicuous than an international traveler without baggage. Except for a blonde Asian woman.” This with a pointed look at Tiffany, who ducks her head, laughing.

“I’m sorry I can’t get you to the airport,” he says finally, looking at Sooyoung.

“You’ve done enough, Jaewook,” she says. “Thank you.”

*

It takes Tiffany forever to get her hair back to a solid, presentable black in the dingy bar bathroom, and Sooyoung stands outside and considers. Mostly she thinks about the agency, whether or not they’ve already figured it all out, sent out one of their assassins to track her down. In seven hours Yuri and Hyoyeon will report to work, expecting to see Sooyoung in her cubicle as usual, only to be told – what? That she’s a traitor? That she betrayed them? That she’s dead?

She’s spent more of the last three years with her partners than anyone, held their lives in her hands more times than she can count, trusts them implicitly with her own. But it’s more than that, more than work, even though the ultimate truth was that she could hardly tell them anything: in all the hours they spent together they were never fully alone, never out of reach of the agency.

There’s a payphone at the end of the hall (god, who knew places still had those), and on an impulse she calls Hyoyeon’s answering machine, the home number she never thinks to answer. At the last minute she decides her voice would be too much, too traceable, so she taps out “I miss you already” on the wall, backwards and in morse code.

When she finishes she turns to Tiffany, watching her against the wall, hair dark and wet.

“One of my partners,” she says simply.

*

Sooyoung is unnerved at the airport, sure that SM will catch up with them before they can board their flight to Sydney, but as soon as they take off, she crashes. Hours later, she wakes up with a start, awkwardly draped across her seat. They're over the ocean, halfway there at least.

"You sleep on your stomach, don't you?" Tiffany asks, without looking up from her magazine.

"What?" Sooyoung asks, too bleary-eyed to make sense of that question.

"You twisted yourself into a knot while you were sleeping," Tiffany said noncommittally, still not looking at her. "Like someone who isn't quite comfortable sleeping without her head burrowed into something."

"Um," says Sooyoung, and then after a pause: "Yeah. I guess I sleep on my stomach."

Tiffany gives her a half-smile, pleased at the little bit of truth she’s uncovered. It’s barely a concession for Sooyoung, but she knows very well what important in its’ own way. They've both been rubbed raw of real identifying information: name, birthdate, hair color, social security number, nervous habits. Sooyoung changes the order in which she applies her makeup daily and listens to a different radio station every day in her kitchenette as she makes herself breakfast, because nothing is more dangerous than habits, but she’s never been able to sleep on her back.

Tiffany is quiet again, though: when Sooyoung nodded off she was flipping through the inflight movie catalogue, cheerily helping the little girl next to her pick out a movie, since the English summaries are always better than the Korean ones. It’s hard to follow these switches in mood, the way Tiffany spends half her time bubbly and loud and the other half determined and almost melancholy. There’s an underlying warmth to her, too: she’s never known a spy to engage in idle small talk the way Tiffany does, asking waitresses about their engagement rings and chatting up stewardesses about which romantic comedies might be worth paying for on the plane. Conversations she can gain nothing from. She’d dismiss it as a weakness, but damned if Tiffany isn’t cracking her open too, bit by bit. If she had any forethought, she would’ve just taken the flash drive –

But no, she reminds herself. Without Tiffany she is nothing but a rogue operative, lacking in legitimacy.

“We call what you did just there pulling a Jessica,” says Tiffany.

“Sleeping on my back?” says Sooyoung, confused.

“No, nodding off in the middle of the action.”

“We?” Sooyoung says after a moment.

“Sunny and I,” says Tiffany.

Jessica, Tiffany, Sunny. Tiffany’s team. She wonders about them for a second, if they have the same patterns of familiarity that she had with Yuri and Hyoyeon, if they are at the agency now reeling with the same sense of betrayal that she’s afraid of for her own partners. She wonders how long Tiffany’s known them, how long they’ve been together, the extent of Tiffany’s cover: she almost asks, but she’s not sure she’s ready to give her own answers in turn. So she stays silent.

"I don't think there's anything Jessica likes more than sleeping," Tiffany says after a minute, and it's supposed to be funny but it comes out sad.

*

Their flight to Los Angeles is under a different set of passports, staggered out so they won’t leave Sydney until three days after they’ve landed. Tiffany is dejected, rambling on about sunshine and how much she’s missed American television, like she hasn’t spent years without it. Sooyoung is happier to wait in the limbo of Australia: she has no idea what awaits her in California.

Sooyoung doesn’t think Tiffany slept on the plane, so she’s sure as soon as they check into their airport-adjacent hotel room, she will be dead to the world for ten hours at least. Long enough for Sooyoung to get her bearings again.

Instead Tiffany channel surfs, making her way through the same eleven channels at least three times before Sooyoung has had enough of the blaring English commercials and yells at her to shut it off if she doesn’t want to watch anything in particular. Tiffany doesn’t, but she does divert her attention to Sooyoung, pulling the complimentary paper and pen off the table to the left of the big queen bed and coming to sit next to her.

She starts to draw circles. “SM has five ops bases, we think. Each with its’ own entirely separate set of agents. Male or female, never both.” She idly sketches the hangul for ‘male’ in three of the boxes, then puts ‘female’ in the remaining two. She puts an X through one of the male boxes.

“The CIA hasn’t heard tell of any of these agents in almost a year,” she says. “I – we – don’t know what that implies, exactly. They might be gone, they might be biding their time.”

“Do you know if they’re all in sets of three, the way our... ops base is arranged?”

Tiffany purses her lips. “I don’t think so. It seems uneven. Twos and threes, mostly. This base – ” she points to one of the two remaining circles with “male” sketched in it, “ – seems to send them out in bigger groups, sixes and sevens. They’ve got the biggest concentration of agents of all of them, according to CIA intel.”

“And here I thought they had a fixation on the number three,” Sooyoung smirks, humorlessly. Tiffany looks at her, eyeing her questioningly. Sooyoung sighs.

“I’ve intercepted some of the transmissions out of our... ops base, whatever you called it. Only lower-level transmissions, I couldn’t get anything but callsigns, but...” she trails off as she rings the final circle with three smaller circles.

In the first, she writes out Rosary, Seafarer, Snow White. Herself, Yuri, Hyoyeon. In the second: Iceman, Mushroom, Slavemaster. She can tell from the way Tiffany shifts next to her that this is her unit. In the final circle, she writes the final three names: Android, Esquire, Piebald.

“Do those last three callsigns mean anything to you?” Tiffany asks, tracing them with her finger. Sooyoung shakes her head no. “Do you think they all have the same ‘manager’? The same tinny voiced bastard who gives orders through speakers and never shows his face?”

Sooyoung opens and closes her mouth. There are too many questions she isn’t sure she’ll ever have the answers to.

“We have to – ”Tiffany says, and for the first time she draws out the flashdrive, but Sooyoung shakes her head.

“We haven’t slept,” she says, surprised at how little she wants to do anything but that. “We need to sleep first.”

They do. Tiffany has to pull the blankets off her completely to get her out of bed in the morning, Sooyoung slits her eyes open and asks her plaintively if she wants to die. It takes Tiffany a good five minutes to stop laughing, by that time Sooyoung is nothing but awake.

*

They set out the next morning in search of somewhere to buy a laptop, and keep finding anything but. Tiffany buys them a change of clothes and pajama bottoms, Sooyoung finds a postcard with a picture of the opera house. She writes “you should take a vacation” on the back and prints out Yuri’s address in roman letters. She wonders why she can’t just come out and say it, to Yuri, to Hyoyeon, to either of them: “I love you, I miss you, I’m sorry, I hope someday you understand”.

But she knows why.

Tiffany wants to walk on the beach, and Sooyoung doesn’t know how she can be these two people at once: one, the agent, who wants nothing more than to know what’s on that flash drive, the other a carefree woman of 21, jeans rolled up, shoes clutched in her hands, grinning as the waves play at her feet, trying to goad Sooyoung into a piggyback ride. Sooyoung feels a pinch of jealousy, she has never been able to separate the pieces of herself so easily.

It’s hard to explain the feeling Tiffany elicits in her, precisely. It’s been weighing down on her since the airline flight, maybe before. She feels as lost with her as she felt without her, but this time it’s almost like it’s for the best.

*

Tiffany’s left earring is some kind of network jamming device, isolating one computer from the rest of the system. Sooyoung starts to ask, but Tiffany waves her hand, “I don’t understand it, but my handler thought I might need it to get anything off the SM system.”

It seems like all of the data is comm transmissions, and Sooyoung tries to hide her disappointment at when she realizes that most of them are the ones she’s already managed to intercept and read. It feels like a lifetime ago, and the vertigo starts to give her a headache, so she leaves Tiffany to log through each of them, her lips pursed with concentration. Sooyoung watches television, something with a lot of men in crisp suits and serious American accents. She can’t focus.

Tiffany joins her on the second bed an hour later, the mattress sagging with the weight of her disappointment.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be anything useful to us,” she says quietly.

Sooyoung nods, it’s a truth she’s prepared for, even though in some ways it means she has nothing left: Tiffany can always be reabsorbed into the CIA, go back to being the sunny Californian princess she was before she got wrapped up in the claws of the agency. Sooyoung doesn’t have anything outside of Korea, and right now it feels like her former employer has put a big red X across the entire nation.

“I feel like...” says Tiffany, “I feel like I’m never going to stop looking over my shoulder. I feel like – today – us walking around in public like that, I feel like that’s not allowed, because someone’s going to see us and know and write back and...”

“They don’t know we’re together,” says Sooyoung quickly. Too quickly.

“We didn’t kill those guards,” says Tiffany. “The ones who – saw us together.”

Tiffany is blushing again, and Sooyoung watches her with interest. She almost asks: haven’t you ever done that before? To save yourself? To save someone else? Sooyoung has kissed too many people who meant nothing to her to save a piece of skin.

But she doesn’t, she can’t, because she’s been dwelling on that moment too. The memory is starting to be rose-colored, tinged with a feeling she rationally knows wasn’t there at the actual moment she kissed Tiffany. At the time she was ready to bang her over the head for a flash drive that would only end up disappointing her.

No, those questions would close a door, she realizes, and before she can stop herself she presses her lips to Tiffany’s arm. Tiffany giggles in shock at the awkwardness of the gesture, swatting vaguely in Sooyoung’s direction, all smiles for a moment before she turns serious.

“Do you know what you’re doing, then?”

“Of course,” Sooyoung says, and even though seconds earlier she wouldn’t’ve been able to come up with that, she’s suddenly found her place. She kisses Tiffany again, this time on the side of the mouth, aiming for the same chortle of laughter she got before. Tiffany’s hand snaps up as she starts to pull away, her reflexes quick and agile, keeping their faces mere breaths apart.

“Don’t miss next time.”

That’s as much of an invitation as Sooyoung’s ever needed.

*

In the morning she realizes, and the thought jolts her out of bed.

Tiffany is sleepy and bewildered, awoken by their sudden disentanglement but not yet awake, nebulously repeating every third word Sooyoung says to her as questions: “Transmissions? Locations? Trace?”

If Sooyoung had time to dwell she’d be hilarious, but she’s too busy opening up the laptop and plugging the flash drive in, her fingers clumsy with the drama. She has to run a decryption algorithm, but the advantage of working with SM is knowing half the ways they encrypt things. By the time she’s done Tiffany is reading over her shoulder.

“GPS data,” says Tiffany, frowning in confusion. She doesn’t understand yet.

“From the transmissions,” Sooyoung says. “GPS data for all transmissions in and out of our ops base.”

“Wait,” says Tiffany. “Wait.”

Sooyoung gives her a minute to think about it while she traces them. Four in Seoul, one in Suva.

“Oh my god,” breathes Tiffany, “This is it. Those four must be the other four ops bases, and that one – ”

“The manager,” says Sooyoung. “Living out his life on a pretty beach somewhere while his agents risk their lives to keep him comfortable.”

Tiffany starts to reach for the hotel phone, but her hand stops in midair. “We still don’t have anything. We can’t prove any of it.”

“We have him. It’s better than nothing, if we can get to him before he runs.”

“Us?” says Tiffany. “Alone?”

“You said it yourself, we can’t call in your CIA in because we don’t have the evidence to implicate him in the eyes of any government. This GPS data is all we’ve got, and if we sit here and do nothing, we’ll lose our only lead. Because he’s going to know that he’s vulnerable,” says Sooyoung breathlessly. “He’s going to try to move.”

*

Fiji is breathtaking.

“Yeah,” says Sooyoung, after a long, companiable silence, “If I were an evil mastermind, I’d retire here.” Tiffany laughs for the first time since they left the hotel in Sydney.

Tiffany’s CIA handler has a contact here, willing to pawn out old guns for a price. Sooyoung is annoyed that she has to pay for a gun without being offered the chance to test it, but she can’t deny she feels less naked with it in her hand. It’s been years since she went anywhere without the safe weight of concealed weapon, the lack of one has put her on edge every second since she’d left Seoul.

“Told you I’d find it,” says their contact, emerging from his garage again, grinning as he hands them a beat up old GPS device. “Didn’t think anyone’d ever take it off my hands, it’s so many years out of date. But this is why I don’t throw things away, never know when they’re going to come in handy.”

*

Sooyoung is sort of expecting the manager to live in something out of a Batman movie, although admittedly that would’ve looked off on a beach. It seemed right that he would live in something mythical and scary-looking, gothic and forbidding. She’s disbelieving when she sees the quaint yellow building pop up on the horizon, unwilling to accept that this is the place until she can see it. It’s large but sweet-looking, expensive but not pristine. Oddly homely, all by itself on this particular stretch of beach.

She does expect it to be guarded, but she and Tiffany circle the place three times: there’s no one on the outside.

“I think our best bet is the balcony entrance on the second floor,” says Tiffany. Sooyoung nods, and gestures for her to lead the way.

The door is locked, but easily picked, they enter at the same moment so they can cover all corners, weapons already drawn. But no one’s waiting: the room is clean but lived in, laundry sitting on the bed.

They split up to make quick work of the rest of the house and meet again in the kitchen. “He’s gone,” says Sooyoung breathlessly. “I don’t – ”

Tiffany’s lips are pressed into a line as she pulls a slim folder out from behind her back.

Sooyoung has opened every file cabinet she’s come across, checked under beds and inside drawers and come up with nothing: either he likes to keep himself clean.

“It was in a wall compartment,” Tiffany says, and then, sheepishly: “I tripped into the trigger. It’s mostly birth certificates, report cards, that kind of thing... but two contracts in here that have to do with the formation of the agency.”

“Are they damning?”

Tiffany faces crumples for a second as she fights some immense emotion, but she nods. “I’m going to call. But we – he could be anywhere – ”

But Sooyoung doesn’t think so, although she can’t explain why she knows, because there’s no reason for her to know. “He’s going to Seoul. That’s where he’ll be.”

It sounds even more ridiculous out than it sounds in, and she thinks if she were Tiffany she would laugh and try and beat some sense into her, but Tiffany just stares at her. Her skin has been ghost-pale since they left to hunt down the house, now she’s verging on deathly.

“Okay,” she says. “I’m going to call.”

*

They haven’t had cell phones since Seoul, so when the next move occurs to her halfway through Tiffany’s conversation with her handler, Sooyoung has to grit her teeth and wait for the manager’s landline. Tiffany reads the country code for her as quickly and clearly as she can, no waver in her voice, but it still seems like there’s an interminable amount of time before Sooyoung hears Yuri’s voice.

“Yuri,” she says, and she can hear the sharp intake of breath as Yuri realizes what this call is, who is speaking. “Have you spoken to the manager today?”

Yuri takes long enough to speak that Sooyoung is afraid she’s hung up.

“He’s here.”

“Physically?” Sooyoung asks, and she feels rather than sees Tiffany’s entire figure go stiff.

“Yes.”

“Yuri,” says Sooyoung, “You need to – you need to – he’s just a criminal. He’s just been using all of us. We’re not – we were never saving the world. There’s a team coming – the real authorities – you need to – I know there are guards, I know it’s not safe – but you need to get him out of the back, so they can apprehend him. You and Hyoyeon. And – and Jessica in accounting, and Soonkyu in – in graphic design, they’re – tell them Tiffany sent you.”

The silence on the other end is short but deafening, and Sooyoung is nothing but aware that everything is dependent on this line of trust she’s broken. The truths she kept from were ugly, uncomfortable, and difficult, but she knows at this moment that they both deserved to hear them.

Yuri hangs up.

*

Sooyoung retires to the beach.

She feels like she’s aged five years in the time she’s been sitting there, but the sun is still up, edging its way towards the sea when Tiffany walks out to meet her, belying that it can’t’ve been more than a couple of hours.

She knows as soon as she hears the footsteps on the sand that it’s over, whatever “it” was, Tiffany certainly wasn’t going to leave her telephone vigil until she had some kind of news to report. But the verbal confirmation of “They’ve got him.” is still a great sagging weight lifted from her shoulders.

“Our – they were instrumental in his apprehension, that was the exact language he used,” Tiffany says, voice stumbling just enough to make Sooyoung sure she’s shaken. She looks relieved and broken and exhausted and confused, her dark eyes fixed on the slowly setting sun as she steels herself for the next thing she’s going to say. “Do you know how many years of my life I’ve spent doing this? Undercover like this? Trying to bring them down? And they didn’t even need me. We didn’t even need to be there. And you – God, you had all of it figured out already. Everything. This is how I’ve spent my life, my youth, and there’s not a piece in this equation that couldn’t’ve happened without me. Do you know how unnecessary that makes me feel?”

There’s a part of Sooyoung that wants to howl too, when she really thinks about it – the dangerous part the other four girls – seven, really, she thinks, she can’t imagine Esquire, Android, and Piebald sitting idly by, whoever they might be – had to play in this. Her muscles ache with the inaction of doing nothing but sitting on a beach. But she knows reality is rarely that simple, that they were very much part of what happened in Seoul today, remote from it though they may currently be.

She also knows Tiffany isn’t ready to think about any of that.

So she takes Tiffany’s hand in hers, and tells the truth, gravel in her voice.

“You were necessary to me.”