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Broken Glass

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Part I.

“I told you a long time ago that I didn’t want to be involved.” Your tone is cold, because it has to be. You have to get this point across.

Baekhyun just looks at you, sighing. “I know.”

Something inside you makes you want to sweep his maroon bangs out of his face, but why bother?  It would be too forgiving. Be cold, be cold, be cold. And, inside, you do feel cold. Empty.

“Is there a reason you’re all here? Instead of at your palace?” You spit the word out – not out of envy. You mean to mock them, to make them understand that you don’t want them around. You wish it could be that easy.

Chen hesitates, his eyes flashing to Kai and Xiumin before answering. “None of us really know.”

Wonderful, you think. Sarcasm has always suited you best.

Sarcasm doesn’t suit any of them. The dull sense of need they have doesn’t suit them either. If they’re willing to be honest, they know why they’re here. They know why they’re coming back. They just refuse to acknowledge it.

You also refuse to even dwell them – on what this is. Honestly, you wish you didn’t know so much about them; they may have never taken such an interest in you if you were more inclined to mind your own business. Taking your frustration out on something else besides the obvious, you choose to glare at the bright full moon hanging overhead as if it has offended your every sensibility.

Kai steps forward – the casual jeans and leather getup he’s wearing make him almost seem normal – and his expression is sort of desperate. There’s a natural call inside him, inside all of them, spreading like wildfire. It beckons them towards danger. They hunger for it, they thirst for it. There is no way to stop them.

You know that.

Kai startles you when he speaks. “Come with us. One last time.”

It’s like a dam has broken. They all move, just a bit, from the stone statues they were before. Baekhyun’s tight red leather pants are loud against his legs. They’re loud and flashy like him - like all of them. It just serves to remind you how needy they are for attention. 

It’s enough to keep you from responding. 

When you say nothing, Xiumin echoes Kai as though they’re speaking the most logical, sensible things in the world. “It’s a nice night.” His hair, perhaps a deeper red than Baekhyun’s, falls over his forehead and draws all the attention to his dark eyes.

Ah. Well. By nice, he doesn’t mean pleasant, not if you know them well enough. He means dangerous. It’s a dangerous night. Just as dangerous as they are.

What are they planning? Your curiosity is wicked at times – and this appears to be one of those times. Do you want to call someone to stop them or do you want to help them in their venture?

But you have a choice. You can just say no. You can walk away and lock the gas station doors even if it means facing your father’s displeasure over the loss of customers. You can ignore the ache you feel as you look over the four of them: half of the group, and all so different.

The buzz in your veins, the shot of adrenaline you feel, may be something besides aversion. How can you know without taking the risk? But is it worth it?

Xiumin speaks again, because he knows you won’t. “Just this last time.” He’s overflowing with a dark sort of radiance. It’s an oxymoron that seems to describe them all.

This feels like the first time you met them. Are you starting over again? Does this mean you’ll be sucked back in?

Your response is on the tip of your tongue, but when it comes out, it’s baffling. “Fine.”

They have more of a hold over you than you thought.

Chapter Text

Part II.

The tears you feel pricking at your eyes are stupid. There is no other word for it. Why are you crying for them? There’s no indication that anyone has noticed yet, which leaves you grateful, but it’s only a slight consolation. You’re already questioning your sanity for agreeing to come with them, and this episode just makes you feel like you’re spiraling into a deep, dark hole.

When you realize where you’re at, there’s shock more than anything. “Why did you bring me here?”

This place, decked out in red and gold, haunts your memories.

You whip back towards the men. They’re sheepish and stiff in their movements, but they clearly don’t understand how you feel. It’s rage that burns through you – something akin to revulsion, detestation.

You think you understand. You’re a spoil of war. Or, rather, you’re a trophy to be won at whatever game it is they’re playing.

This theater is where they count their wealth. It is where they stash everything they’ve plundered. You remember all the celebrations: the flashy suits, the piles of money strewn about haphazardly, the clinking of glasses, the prominence of an Adam’s apple as alcohol slides down a throat.

Now you want out. You really want out. 

“I’m leaving.” You don’t ask permission, because there is no point. If they want to keep you here, they’ll have to fight you.

But they’re not looking at you anymore.

You wish you had the willpower to stay where you are. You wish you had the motivation to make a run for it. Even as you think it, you know you don’t. You can’t do anything but turn around, and there’s something inside that knows exactly who you’ll find standing there.

Suho exudes leadership, but it’s very odd with him. He’s somehow just as quiet and gentle and reasonable as he is commanding. He’s authoritative without being overtly dominating. He earned your respect a long time ago.

But it is soiled by the memories. They were once white – pure. But then they rusted over, yellowing in your mind until they were painted to black.

“You’re here.” Suho might be drowning, if the strain in his voice is anything to go by. Does it mean you’re a terrible person for wishing he’d suffocate? But you repent the next moment anyway, because he still has a hold on you. If he dies, you might never be the same.

You can’t help what you say in response. “No, I’m a figment of your imagination.” The tone is wry and unwaveringly unsympathetic. You fold your arms across your chest like it will give you some measure of protection from his words, from the memories that surround you.

He breaks into a smile, one just as soft as he really is. “I’d take it.” You hate how soft he is. It’s the reason he was able to break your shell away in the first place.

Soft but determined footfalls tramp against the red carpet under your feet. When D.O. comes into view, you’re ready to flee. Not that you haven’t been tensing for a quick getaway this whole time.

He looks at Suho but seems to sense the change in the atmosphere. The rich theater is thick with emotions, and you’re not even sure you could name all of them.

D.O. finally settles his eyes on you. His gaze is unreadable, neither warm nor chilly. He faces Suho again, ignoring you now. “We’re ready to go.”

At least someone is behaving sensibly about this whole thing. At least D.O. is capable of the right reactions. He’s the only one you don’t feel the urge to attack right away.

But his normalcy sets you off, even though you regret it. “Where are Chanyeol and Sehun?”

If you were asked to cite your favorite person in the world a year ago, you would have said Sehun. If you were asked to cite your favorite person in the world six months ago, you would have said you couldn’t pick between Chanyeol and Sehun. It was ironic, really, because they were so different from each other. Somehow, you just enjoyed their contrasting senses of humor.

The really strange part of the situation? If anyone asked a year ago, you would have said your best friend was Byun Baekhyun. The same would have been said if they’d asked five years earlier or six months later. Your admission was usually followed up with a smile and “now, and forever.”

It’s amazing, really, the amount of times you’d ended up having lied about that.

As you’re thinking of the devil, he answers your question like D.O. wasn’t your intended recipient. You can’t bring yourself to give him the time of day; you won't even look at him. “They’re waiting for final briefing,” Baekhyun informs, voice quieter than you’ve ever heard it.

You're waiting for any briefing. What are they trying to pull off this time? You look toward Suho, hoping he’ll read your mind like he’s always seemed to be able to do.

The leader nods, but he’s focused on you. Briefly, this makes you feel self-conscious, but it doesn’t take long for your sense of antagonism to give you poise. “In my office,” he elaborates, never looking away from your attempt at a heartless gaze. His words, coming from anyone else, might sound like an order. With Suho, they seem to be an expression of hope. The last time you talked to him on friendly terms was in his ‘office’.

You can only wonder what it will be like now that you're not on friendly terms. 

Chapter Text

Part III.

With the elaborate paintings, low-hanging chandeliers, copious amounts of alcohol, and variety of study materials, it’s not exactly what others might deem an office. You used to think of Suho’s space as a safe haven.

How things have changed.

Sehun and Chanyeol, their lanky figures already lounging in the room, are completely startled by your presence as you walk through the door Suho opens for you. Chanyeol's face speaks for them, giving you clues; he represents their puzzlement, their excitement, their yearning. You wonder why they weren’t the ones sent to retrieve you, because even Baekhyun knew how attached you were to the giants.

In reality, though, you think they may have been the easiest ones to deny.

Chanyeol’s bounding over, narrowly missing the twinkling chandelier hanging from the ceiling; Sehun follows closely, but he's a bit more cautious. You have no time to react before the tallest drags his hands around your shoulders, tugging you closer.

You didn’t register it before, but now you do: he’s not wearing a shirt. It’s not as if it’s cold outside, so your judgement shifts a little, but what is the point of wearing a jacket if you’re not even wearing a shirt? The leather of his coat is cold against your arms.  

A tickle of annoyance reaches your brain, but it’s not annoyance towards them. You’re exasperated with yourself.

You should be kicking and screaming and running far, far away from this mess. You know it. Your brain repeats that it’s the best possible course of action. But you can’t seem to make yourself leave. The separation hasn’t been thorough enough – it hasn’t been long enough yet. At least, that's the excuse you have to use. 

As usual, Sehun is nearly the antithesis of Chanyeol. He blinks at you, as soon as you’re free of Chanyeol’s possessive grasp. For a moment, he just stares, looking as blank as he can. Then he reaches for your hands.

The youngest used to always do this, checking to make sure you were okay, whenever you’d come back home safely.

Home.

What is home now?

You don’t know. It used to be here; you’d spent all your late nights at the theater. It used to be their mansion, where you’d often find yourself tucked into the bedroom they'd designated as yours. Now…now, you don’t have a place at all. Not with your family, not with your boys. You belong nowhere.

Your first instinct is to slap Sehun away, but all you do is back up, straight into Kai’s chest. He, fortunately, is fully clothed. He’s changed outfits – the ones who came to get you all have – but it’s only into something more appropriate for whatever they’re planning. What are they planning?

You take a moment to right yourself, jumping away from Kai’s reach as well.

They’re all staring at you and, individually, their gazes irk you; there’s a mix between disappointment, apprehension, concern, and, worst of all, adoration. You can’t handle any of it, not now. Not ever.

As for Sehun…beyond the mask of indifference, he looks wounded. You’ve learned how to see it with him. Somewhere deep inside, in a place of your heart you thought you’d buried, you feel regret. The guilt hits you like a wave, crashing over your shocked system.

No, come on. Get yourself together.

You have to put on a front to get the words out, but you’ve always been good at acting. You were their wild card because of that. It almost feels wrong to use the skill, but you can't stay here any longer. “Sehun. Take me home. Take me to the gas station.”

He goes still, and the others tense around you.

Baekhyun breaks first, and that’s not a surprise. “So, you remember Sehun, but you’ve forgotten the rest of us?” He steps in front of you, into your line of sight, and despite his short stature, he’s intimidating. His ire is almost as strong as his comedic childishness and he’s almost always giving in to his juvenile instincts. “You’ve forgotten me?” He comes across as frantic, perhaps violent, but the melancholy tone he ends on gives him away. “You can’t just pretend you’ve forgotten everything. You can’t just run away.”

It isn’t quite a threat, but it could be one. As you watch him, he walks closer to you, his movements harsh. What is running through his mind? What, exactly, would he do if you ran away again?

The sudden image of being locked up inside the basement of their mansion is the only thing that fills your mind. Rationally, it terrifies you. You’re without a weapon, with the exception of your words and your fists. You’re surrounded by friends turned, perhaps by your own doing, into villains.

Irrationally, though, it makes you furious. Running away? You’re the one running away? “Coming from you? I’m the one running?” They’re just all looking at you, eyes wide. Baekhyun seems taken aback, but it only takes a moment for the cold glint to resettle in his eyes like he’s developed a heart of stone. It doesn’t faze you. “I’m not the one constantly searching for something to make me feel fulfilled. I’m not the one who turns to money to soothe a lack of purpose.”

Your last words seem to spark something in all of them, and you realize you’re surrounded by men, eight of them, and not statuary with eyes covered by depravity, as if to avoid all reason. You shouldn’t fear them, but at the same time you have to.

 D.O. is the first to react. “Calm down.” The way he says it is rather passive, like a sunbathing cat that can’t be disturbed by any outside influences.

Anger burns through you, but the others heed his words. It appeases you enough to quiet the harsh words you’ve been throwing, but not enough to completely stop you. “I don’t want to be calm. I want to go home.”

Suho doesn’t waste a split second. “You are home.” His eyes are bright with restraint, like he’s trying not to lose it and offer a measured outburst directed at the whole group. “This is where you belong.”

You frown automatically, wondering if it’s a sentiment they all share.

Chen’s been remarkably quiet since you’ve arrived, but as soon as you look his way, you can tell it’s because he’s deep in thought. While it may be a rarity for the energetic Chen, Suho’s words seem to trigger something. “You agreed to come. One last time.” His eyes shine with a plea. Whether for peace or for control, you don’t know. “You don’t have to stay forever.”

But that is what they want, right? That had been one of the major objections they raised when you tried to part ways the first time; it took at least several tries, several moments of persuasion before you finally escaped. They insisted, as they always did, that they needed you. It was a testimony to how skilled you were, perhaps.

Now, it just feels like a burden to have your talents.

Nonetheless, Chen raises a valid point. You did agree. You said “fine” as if everything was. You can handle one last time. But if Suho pursues his theory that you “belong” with them, you will just have to disappear. Even if it means leaving family behind.

“Fine.” You repeat it, the tone exactly the same as it was not even two hours ago. This time, though, you feel a sinking dread. 

Chen’s lips slowly spread into a smile. He’s won the match, but you won’t concede the game. “All right, leader Suho. Now that everything’s settled, shall we commence with the briefing?” His overdramatic nature, the energy he’s been inwardly focusing, comes out suddenly.

Suho shakes his gaze from you, moving towards the lounge area at one end of the room. “Okay, let’s get one thing straight. We’re all divided into groups for this one. Make sure you stay with your group.”

You’re following Suho, wondering what kind of game he's playing, but you don’t take more than a few steps before you stumble over something on the floor.

When you glance down, you’re surprised to see a bright red phone – the old-fashioned, rotary kind – splayed out on the red and gold carpet. Laying next to it are a variety of random playing cards, but they're not what surprises you. 

Sehun catches your arm, tugging you fully upright. This time, you let him touch you and, more than that, your eyes ask an important question.

The youngest sighs, and his touch disappears. “Xiumin got drunk a few weeks ago. He sneaked up here and tried calling you on it so that we wouldn’t find out. Baekhyun disconnected the call while Chanyeol took his cellphone away, just in case. Suho told us to leave it there, disconnected.” Sehun glances away, but you're no longer focused on him. 

A chill passes through you. That phone...it was a connection to you, and now it is disconnected. There is an ominous effect to it – it’s both a reminder and a warning. You’re not part of this anymore. You were worrying about them keeping you earlier; maybe you should just be worrying about being here at all. Why you? Why now?

And yet…Xiumin had gone to such lengths. It's almost touching.

In another life, you would have run after him and hugged him abruptly, right in front of all of them. Unfortunately, those days have passed, and you don’t think they can return.

You are walking into new days.

But then Chanyeol falls into step beside you and Sehun, and it feels like old times again.

Chapter Text

Part IV.

The leader has sent his troops off; that leaves you both alone in his office. You’re standing, he’s sitting, but that’s how it’s always been. Now is a good time, you think, to get answers from Suho.

In a surprising way, you receive many of them when the mystery of your role in all of this unfolds. 

You blink as you process his crafty plan. Facing him in with puzzlement, you have to raise an incredulous eyebrow. “Is there a particular reason why I have to be the one playing this part? It’s 2018, you can all do the same things I can do and there's certainly less judgement than there would have been a few years ago.” Well, at least you know why they need a woman now. "Besides, who cares what others think, anyway?" 

Suho gives you a long look, one that spells out his decision to consider your previous statements null and void.

You sigh. “Honestly, just say you're married to Xiumin or one of the others and leave me out of this." 

Suho cracks a smile, but it’s wearing thin. “Unfortunately, your role is a little more complex than that. Women are, at least psychologically, seen as more welcoming and trustworthy than men.” You roll your eyes at him. He tilts his head back, and you can tell he’s mildly exasperated by your non-compliance. “It’s been established by years and years of culture and tradition, it’s not something I’m just inventing off the top of my head.” His eyes actually twinkle as he looks at you again. "On that note, I have it on good authority that our target is hopelessly straight." 

He makes some sense, but you can't help rolling your eyes to the ceiling. Either way, he’s right about one thing: your role in this plan is devastatingly complex and is going to require a lot of skill. “Why me, though? You know plenty of people with my talents. Besides, I haven’t been using them. I’m rusty.” The excuses come as naturally as breathing, because some part of you doesn’t want to be here. It’s the part of you that just wants to live a normal life, free of worry.

The look he levels you with is serious. “You’re the best grifter I’ve ever met, and that’s the truth.” You know that sentence isn’t technically finished. For once.

The truth…for once.

Fury explodes through your veins, not for the first time. Years of practice help you manage it. “Let’s just get this over with.” You know you don’t have to play your part for another two days, but you mean what you say.

As if on cue, the others return, entering the room in a horde. When Suho dismissed them, they were oddly reluctant to leave, despite their earlier approval for the plan.

Chanyeol twirls a white rose between his thumb and index finger, and he grins at you and Suho from across the room. “We’ve got the flowers in place, boss.”

Ah, flowers. Any kind, any color, any shape, any fragrance. Flowers, the epitome of purity and beauty, are the most dangerous calling card in the world; for the use of the group, they conceal what they’re meant to.

D.O.’s eyebrows crinkle in when he looks at you, and you think he looks vaguely surprised. “Did you go over your part of the plan yet?”

You huff out a breath, but Suho answers for you. “We did, and she’s prepared for it.”

You wouldn’t call it prepared for, per se. Perhaps reluctantly agreed to would be a better way to describe it.

Now D.O.’s eyebrows raise. This time, Suho can’t pipe up for you - D.O.'s words are direct. “I would have thought you’d be long gone by now.”

This is why you liked D.O. in the first place. Witty, clever, sharp, rational, a bit rude – it’s odd that he’s sometimes so shy and sometimes so sardonic, but you’d never minded it before, and you certainly appreciate it even now. Even when he blows up, he’s oddly reasonable about it. He’s perfectly suited to the role of right-hand man.

Before you can tell him that you’d love to be anywhere but here, Baekhyun interjects. “Oh? Do tell, what is this mysterious role that our queen gets to play?” His expression is light and whimsical, like everything is just perfect, and he arches an eyebrow at you.

You glare at him because you can. It’s also because you’ve thrown away that title – Queen of Hearts – and because he’s being possessive. Again.

It’s concerning, because it means he still thinks of you as though you’re his closest friend, as though you haven’t shut the door and locked him out. Then again, here you are. So…maybe you haven’t.

There’s an audible thud in the background, the sound of a drawer slamming shut, you imagine. You turn to Suho as he stands up from his blue chaise, watching him swirl a glass of what you’re sure has to be some alcoholic beverage. Where did that come from? “She’s my wife.”

“What?”

You’re not sure who says it first – is it Chen? Or Chanyeol? Or Baekhyun? Sehun, perhaps? Xiumin just looks noticeably perturbed, his lips pursued, and Kai folds his arms over his chest like he’s not sure what to do with them. D.O., you assume, knows what you’re supposed to be doing as part of the arrangement, because he doesn’t even blink.

Turning to the group, you let out a withering sigh and speak up before someone else can talk over you. “He needs me to play the charming woman who causes the target to let his guard down.” You frown, realizing what your role might require. You glance back at Suho, hoping he's not stupid enough to think you'd do anything like that. “Does this mean I have to properly seduce him?” You’re quickly firm about the issue, staring Suho down with a glare. “You’re not going to ask me to sleep with him to gain his trust or something, are you? Because, frankly, I won’t do that." 

There are all sorts of protests flying now.

“You’ve never done that before, right? Been intimate with a target?” Kai stares at you wonderingly, and you wonder if he’s rewriting the innocent image of you he has in his head.

You smile, and it’s the first time you’ve done so all day without being sarcastic. “Not to that extent, no. Maybe a kiss or two. I usually make sure they’re out of it before I create pretenses that something happened. Fortunately, most of these plans involve questionable consumption of alcohol, so it's not that difficult.” You shoot a glare at Suho. “I just wanted to make sure I’m not getting into anything requiring special consideration here.” Suho never talks about the few times he brought specially contracted women into his plans, and you are convinced, at this point, that no one else knows it happened. Part of you is understanding - there are cases in which sex is the easiest thing to offer as a distraction. But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.  

Kai appears relieved at the news. You feel similarly, if you’re being honest. Not that you especially enjoy kissing strangers, but it was something that was apparently occasionally required. It doesn't exactly disrupt your moral code like being physically intimate would. Perhaps it’s a bit odd, given your age, but you are still pure. You’ve given everything else away, but this you had to save. 

Baekhyun still seems shaken, but he answers for the leader. It's more vehement than you can ever imagine Suho being, anyway. “We’re not letting anyone use you for sex.”

You scoff – he’s acting as if he’s the one making the final determination, his tone unnervingly dominant. You want to set him straight. “Calm down. I just said I wouldn’t do it. I’m neither risqué nor desperate enough to give my virginity to a stranger.” You don’t know what he’s implying - you honestly hope your former best friend doesn't think you're the wanton kind - but you are definitely not the type to be so easily persuaded. As long as Suho isn’t trying to use your assets in his equation, you’re on that much more on board. You're ninety-five percent sure he wouldn't, but he didn't give specifics earlier. 

As you're contemplating the turn of events, the group turns into statutes again, with the exception of the giant.

Chanyeol’s head tilts as he looks at you. “What?”

You blink at him once, raising your eyebrows. “What do you mean ‘what’?”

“You’re a…”

He doesn’t have to finish his sentence, and, at this point, you’d rather like it if they were all silent. “Yes.” Your gaze sweeps the room, half judgmental and half irked.

You catch Chen’s Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat before he clears it. “We didn’t think…you know?” Chen sort of trails off, his eyes casting around at the rest of the group.

You huff, beyond exasperated. “What? Just because I’m an adult doesn’t mean I’m going to give myself to the first person who catches my fancy.” You turn to Suho, shaking your head. “Am I supposed to stay the night here or are you taking me back home? Because I’d like to avoid snapping any necks tonight.” You know your father might be livid if he ever finds out that you closed up the gas station store early, but you’re more willing to chance his wrath than face the ignorance and awkwardness of the group around you.

“You’re not staying here,” Suho remarks placidly, swirling the glass in his hand. He clears his own surprise off his face as he drains the liquid in his cup. You watch as sets the empty glass down on his desk with a dull thump. “But I’m not taking you home, either.” You regard him with distrust now, because there’s only one option left. “We’re all heading back to the mansion for a good night’s sleep.”

There’s a strange glimmer in his eye. You don’t know what it means…but you do know that it’s a dangerous night.

Chapter Text

Part V.

He was your next-door neighbor. Even if you hadn’t lived right next door to each other, you think you would have eventually been friends anyway.

In reality, he essentially chose your path for you. The year he tried out for the school play, he begged you to join, too. You lost to the puppy dog eyes. Caving, you auditioned. He didn’t make it in – too wild, the director said – but you were cast as the female lead.  

Baekhyun still stayed behind to watch you. The director eventually put his energy to work behind the scenes, on the sets, because he was already there for every practice anyway. It was always your theory that he just took longer to grow into the acting than you did, because he put too much of his energy into too many things at once. 

Meeting Suho and the rest of the group changed him. Eventually, he brought that change to you. You lost to the puppy dog eyes again.

 

--- 

D.O. deposits you at the entrance to your old room.

It’s the first time you can say with clarity that you hate him.

Even through your departure, he’d been the most understanding, the most level-headed. Bringing you back here means he doesn’t care, and he certainly doesn’t understand.

“Nope, no. Nope. Not happening.” You backpedal out of the doorway, nearly tripping over your own feet. Luckily, your flat shoes mean you have better balance.

You glance at D.O., who looks back at you from his place further down the hall. He was just going to leave you here? No words? Nothing? “I don’t want this. I can’t do this.”

You have a brief moment of clarity. Eyes moving every which way, you’re already looking for the best exit. If you dragged yourself up the grand staircase, you can certainly move straight back down it.

“I was surprised you even agreed to come back.” Reluctantly, you find D.O.’s eyes, and the way he’s looking at you almost sends guilt through you again. Why is that your recurring emotion?

You face him down, ignoring his skepticism for a moment. “You’re the only one who doesn’t seem overjoyed to see me.” Overjoyed and intent on reclaiming you as their ace. It’s problematic.

For the first time today, you see him smile. “People come and people go. I’ve gotten used to it.”

This might be the time to pause and ask who hurt him, but there’s one catch – you already know the answer. “You never went after them. Why did the others come for me? Why now? You couldn’t have gotten this whole plan out of the way sooner?”

D.O.’s eyes shift to ceiling, but it only takes two seconds before he’s looking back at you. “There was no plan.” Furrowing your eyebrows, you try to decipher his statement. “Without you, there was no plan. We wouldn’t be doing this at all. We might have even left the city.”

You finally understand. They formed this venture around you. It’s for your benefit. But…? Nothing makes sense. One week, Suho forcibly halts Xiumin from contacting you, and the next week they’re visiting you in person, dragging you back to your nightmares.

You need to focus, but right now, you can’t. Too much, too much. “I don’t understand. Why does it matter? Why me? The others could leave, and you didn’t try to recruit them again. But I have to be a part of this mess?”

D.O. huffs a frustrated breath, but he remains focused on you. He wants to say something, you can tell, but he hesitates. “You have no idea what you do to any of us, do you?” The way he asks is oddly honest, and he’s looking at you without blinking. He’s a man without fear of judgement.

You swallow, harshly. Did you hear him right?

Before you can form a response, his expression drops. It’s the poker face again, the one they all have when they’re hiding emotions, when they’re hiding themselves. “Just a thought,” he adds, a bit under his own breath, but you hear, nonetheless. He waves to your room. “It’s a nice night.”

What, is that code for something? You’ve never heard it before Xiumin said it earlier today.

D.O. doesn’t elaborate. He turns abruptly, sharp footfalls following the trail he makes down the long, marbled hallway. He doesn’t look back, and you don’t know what to do except watch him walk away.

“But…”

Temptation and curiosity combine to make you peek your head through the door of your old room again. When you flip the light switch on, you realize that it’s nearly empty, save the bed, a dresser, and the closet doors. The best way to describe it is that it is ‘white’ and ‘pristine’ and it looks exactly the way you left it when you carted all your personal items away.

“I hate this,” you mutter, hoping that someone will hear you and save you from your predicament. No help comes, so you press a tentative toe to the carpet. It’s plush red stuff – a color they favor for reasons you’ve never quite understood. Nothing happens, but it’s not as though anything should happen. You’re just…

Terrified.

You’re giving in, far too much. You’re giving up too much of your own hope to give them too much hope. And D.O.’s words…don’t exactly solve your problem.

If you’d rather be anywhere but here, why are you still here?

You know the answer, but you don’t like it.

You make a break for the bed, dashing over the floor like it’s on fire. But the bed isn’t the true object of your desire: it’s the closet.

You want to know. You have to know.

Your hand slides to the knob before you can begin to process what’s really going on. You take a deep breath in before you slide open the door.

They…

They…

They really kept it all.

All of your outfits – costumes, rather. Most aren’t items you’d spend an average day in; they were specifically for jobs, all custom selected.

The weird expensive pajamas are the first thing your eyes are glued to, because you know you aren’t sleeping in your jeans. Why were these even part of your wardrobe? It wasn’t as if you’d ever worn them before, but you’re suddenly glad they exist.

You have to close the bedroom door, but you’re out of your homely clothing and into the silk within seconds. You’d rather not run into any trouble, not if you have to be here.

I don’t have to be here

But it’s a thought you ignore.

You’re folding your clothes up, laying them on the dresser like you used to when you dragged clothes over here from your father’s house, when you hear a knock on the door.

“Uh…come in? I guess…” The familiar words slip off your tongue, but you’re quick to correct them. It’s mostly a correction to remind you that you don’t belong here. It’s something you seem to be forgetting.

Your guest surprises you by cracking the door open just enough to slip in and close the door behind him. He eyes you, and his momentary surprise fades to what you relate to an arrogant satisfaction. That raises your ire, but at this point, you deserve everything you’re taking.

“What do you want?”

It’s arguably your least favorite person in the household.

It’s funny how they always say those closest to you end up hurting you the most.

Baekhyun just gives you a soft smile, still taking you in, and the scene is very familiar. The cloud of memories the expression brings back are too much and you’re ready to pray for a black hole to swallow you up. “I needed to see you. Now that I have, I’m pretty happy with the choice.” His eyes finally meet yours.

“I’m not.” You offer him an exit, hoping he’ll be smart enough to take the cue.

As it happens, he probably is smart enough, but he chooses to ignore it. If anything, he looks more pleased than before. “I…I really missed you.”

Your heart hurts. Like – no, it physically hurts, a little pang reverberating through your heart at his words. Or maybe…it’s not his words so much as the earnest, adoring expression on his face. You resist the urge you have to run. There’s nowhere to go anyway, nowhere that wouldn’t require getting past him first. Even the window in your room is a bad choice. It’s much too high, a detail you never noticed before, because you had no reason to. You wonder if they considered that before they gave you ownership of the room.

But you close your eyes, because you really don’t know how to do this. It shouldn’t be this way – you’ve always known what to say to your best friend. “I can’t do this.” You open your eyes, gulping back tears. “I need to go. You have to let me go.”

His face nearly blanks, all except for the eyes. The eyes are sorry; the eyes are sad. “I don’t know how.”

You get the feeling he’s not talking about your current situation so much as the friendship that ties you together. “You could have just stayed away. It would be so much easier for both of us if you hadn’t come for me.”

He blinks, and his eyes are suddenly searching, straying across your face. You stare back, questioning. “But that means…you’ve been suffering just as much as me.” His gaze narrows. “And you’re willing to let us both suffer?”

You look away, fearing your voice will give you away if you speak up too quickly. You’re an actress, yes, but you never could be around him. It’s like you still don’t know how. “We’re too attached. I’m too attached. Is it so hard to believe I would give up peace for freedom?”

“Why do you need freedom?” At first you feel fear again, but his expression is clouded with pure confusion, and his sobriety goes straight to your heart. “You didn’t want us anymore?”

You don’t know how to explain it to him, not in a way that he’ll understand. You knew they were attached to their lifestyle. You knew they were attached to each other. But you want normalcy. You want average, because you know what above average feels like, and it only strikes you as being empty.

Then why do I feel so empty now?

The two of you have barely moved since he stepped into the room. As much as you want to sit down to see if it helps your aching head, you can’t bring yourself to get too close. “It was never about any of you, not like that. I couldn’t keep up with the lifestyle anymore.”

For the longest time, it gave you a rush. But one day, reality set in. For the longest time, you kept pretending like it was okay, for their collective sake, but it was too much, too quickly.

Baekhyun shakes his head. It seems to wake him up, because he’s moving toward you. Your heart rate escalates, and you can’t remember if you want out of this situation or if you need to go deeper in. You’re not sure what he’s thinking, but when his soft side emerges, a tremor starts under your skin. His hands reach out to cup your face, and the touch is gentle, concerned. “You were the best, you were better than all of us. What changed?” He’s searching again, desperately now, as though your eyes will give him answers. “Was it me? Did I do this to you?”

Annoyance flares through you. You don’t need him to take responsibility. Any decisions you made, you made for yourself. You have your own mind. “Will you stop trying to assume responsibility for me? I’m not a child, Baekhyun. I made my own decision, okay? I wanted in, so I got in. I wanted out, so I got out.” It’s a harsh whisper that fills your throat and then fills the air.

His eyes flicker, but they dim with a sadness he reflects in his smile. The rarity of this sort of solemnity makes it hard for you to look on. His hands drop, and he just looks at you, utterly calm. “Sorry. It’s just…you’re part of me. I can’t help it.”

It’s rational, almost. You’ve known each other since you were toddlers. He should be family. But he can’t be. Not if you want to keep on living in freedom. You straighten up. “It’s okay.” Wherever your relationship is floating now, this is where you have to leave it. “Just…I’m just here for one last job, okay? After that, I’m gone. I agreed to this one last time. But that’s it.” Your finality, you pray, establishes something. Yes, you’ll stay. For now. But after that? You’re out, like a ghost.

He tilts his head like he’s trying to figure you out. To be honest, you can’t blame him. You’re just starting to figure yourself out. He gives a sheepish smile, raising his hands. “Okay, okay. You don’t have to tell me twice.” He’s back to usual self, the mood maker who always tries to lighten the atmosphere.

But you have a thought, because that’s all you can seem to do now: think. Before, you didn’t want to involve anyone when you left. You saw happened when the others left. Even Lay’s long-term assignment had shaken them up, because he wasn’t with them – still isn’t. But now…this might be your best chance to talk Baekhyun out of the fold. Maybe you could still salvage something. You find your voice. “Baekhyun…”

There’s a knock on the door.

Another one.

Who is it this time?

You and Baekhyun both tense, and he completely backs away from you. Instead, he faces the door, eyes roving between you and the closed entrance.

Tentatively, you call out, “Who is it?” The closed door at least gives you the right to ask, even if you are a guest in their home.

“Jun.” His voice is quiet and calm from the other side of the wooden door.

Your eyes widen. But – they – you thought…? Leader Suho had always made a point of using code names, as if you were secret agents. That isn’t to say you don’t know their real names…but you aren’t supposed to be using them. With the exception of Chanyeol, Sehun, and Baekhyun, they all use alternate identities. Even you went by one when you were part of the group.

An arm sliding around yours makes you practically jump. Your head twitches towards Baekhyun, who’s in the middle of tethering himself to your side. “What are you doing?”

Baekhyun’s lips purse as his grip tightens. “Why is Suho here?”

You glare at him. “Why can’t Junmyeon be here? It’s his house, too.”

Baekhyun just glares back, eyes narrowed. “Junmyeon?”

Baekhyun knows as well as you do that it’s Suho’s real name. You know that’s not what he’s asking. “He said it, not me,” you point out, feeling both petty and frustrated.

“But you don’t have to agree with him.” Baekhyun pouts now, and the puppy eyes are suddenly trained on you for the first time in what feels like it must be forever.

You roll your eyes. “Let me go. Jun might need something.”

“Now it’s Jun?”

You ignore your bes-uh, ex-best friend. “You can come in,” you shout toward the door, gritting your teeth as you try to detach Baekhyun from your arm.

Suho opens the door like a normal person would, much more refined in his action than Baekhyun with his previous entrance.

You feel the eyes on you as he walks in, but you’re preoccupied. “Baekhyun…”

“What? No nickname for me?” He’s taller than you, but he’s making himself smaller as he taunts you, snuggling into your side.

“Okay, no, honestly – you’re driving me insane.” But in a strange way, it reminds you of how things were before. You would clam up...rather, you should clam up. You should shut down, order them both out. But you won’t. You can’t.

You enjoy this.

I enjoy torturing myself? What’s wrong with me?  

Maybe it’s them. Maybe they’re what’s wrong with you.

But you lo-

No.

No.

You can’t bring yourself to even think it.

“Baekhyun.” Suho’s voice isn’t quite stern. Maybe the better word is ‘corrective’? You feel as Baekhyun’s head twists towards the leader, since he’s nearly embedded it in your neck. “I have some things I’d like to discuss with our guest.” He’s not quite cold, but he’s making a clear point – perhaps several if you were to analyze enough.

Loosening his grip, Baekhyun finally manages to untangle himself from you. This time, his smile reaches his eyes as he looks at you. “It’s a nice night.” He pats your cheek, expression fond.

Blank, you watch him leave the room. He passes Suho, and the brief second of exchange they have is enough to make you apprehensive about Suho’s visit.

What is it now? What will he ask of you?

But your brain clouds over these thoughts as you watch Baekhyun retreat. His shining eyes, his I missed you.

I missed you too.

Chapter Text

Part VI.

 

Baekhyun talked about his ‘brothers’ as though they were his life. You have no idea how he found them, or how they found him, but apparently something just clicked for all of them.

He was one of the last to join the group. There were twelve of them then, all young and starry-eyed, but the one who interested you the most from the start was the level-headed guy who had been inadvertently made their leader.

He approached you about joining them first – it wasn’t even your best friend. “Baekhyun said you’re good at acting. Show me?” The way he always said things was comfortable but encouraging – no real force, just genuine curiosity and concern.

It helped that your mother had left you with an alcoholic to look after. Your father drank through his days and his nights and all he had left was the gas station. And you.

So he left you to the gas station and the gas station to you, and spent his days wasting the money you desperately tried to earn while hiding behind the excuse that he was still rattled by your mother’s absence.

You didn’t even want money. You just wanted to get away. Suho offered you an escape.

“You can be part of the group.”

Cue puppy eyes from Baekhyun and suddenly you were sold.

You had a place to call home, people who made you feel like you were okay. You became their queen – the most powerful player on the board.

---

“Is this about the job?” You stare at Suho, trying to remain emotionless. “Look, I already told you I’ll do it.” A frown crosses your lips. “But this is the last time I want to see you guys.”

Suho quirks a brow. “Is that what you were just telling Baekhyun?” His voice is even, giving no indication as to what he’s implying, but the subtlety doesn’t mean you’re not aware of his meaning: you’ve learned how to read him.

“Yes,” you bite back, “that’s exactly what I told him.” You fold your hands over your chest, and his eyes catch the motion, following your discomfort.

But, like a good leader when things don’t go to plan, he redirects. “Actually, I’m not here about the mission.”

The way he phrases the group’s little ‘expeditions’ makes it seem like they’re all for good intention. You wish they were – maybe you would have stayed. Okay, no, you would have definitely stayed.

But there’s no point in pondering it: you made your choice. “Then what do you want, exactly?”

“You.”

It’s startling, the way he says it. He’s completely calm and collected, but when he gives no indication of continuing his declaration, you understand. He only meant to say the one word. He only meant that… he wanted…?

Your brain trips over the very idea.

You stare at Suho, narrowing your eyes. “Do I want to know why?”

If he’s surprised by how calm you’re being, he doesn’t show it. “Does there have to be a reason?”

Your eyes say more than you do – there needs to be a good reason or you’re going to refuse to speak to him again until tomorrow. “Yes.”

Suho stares for a moment, then raises his hands in the air, like it’s the last straw: he’s finally been pushed to a breaking point. “I’m honestly struggling without you here.” It’s not even hard for him to confess. If anything, he just looks relieved.

You’re surprised. They were fine before you came, they should have been okay once you were gone. You can’t let the guilt consume you, so you refuse to acknowledge it.

Why does hurting them hurt you so much?

It shouldn’t.

“You were glue. You were holding us together. I didn’t realize it until you were gone how much we needed you.” Suho looks ready to crumble, his eyes wide with acknowledgement, with frustration. Then he looks at you, really looks at you, and his eyes turn desperate. You watch his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows hard. “I didn’t realize how much I needed you.”

You’ve already suffered through Baekhyun. How are you supposed to deal with this?

It’s almost as though they’re making it their personal missions to guilt-trip you. Maybe they are.

You feel frozen, and part of you wishes he would just go away, because you have no idea what to do.

Stop giving in! You wanted freedom, remember?

It’s a warning that tickles the back of your brain, but at the moment you’re not listening to it. You’re not really ignoring it either – you can’t do anything. There is no proper reaction here.

Suho blinks at you, probably waiting for a response. It’s something a normal person would give. But you can’t - his words mean nothing. You want to call them lies, because everyone’s just fine, business as usual. They don’t need you. No matter the words that flow so easily from the leader’s lips. 

Finally, he just looks exasperated with your silence, giving himself up to his words again. “Please, please, please…you can’t leave again. Please don’t walk away.” He treads closer, lightly, coming to stand in front of you, only arms-length away. You watch him, warily. “I don’t think any of us could handle it again.” You watch as he takes a deep breath in, holding your gaze. “Please don’t break my soul, not again.” The leader looks down, and you can’t remember a time when you’ve ever seen him so vulnerable.

Eye rolls, you’ve seen. Annoyance, you’ve seen. Exasperation, you’ve seen. Fondness, you’ve seen. Excitement, you’ve seen. You’ve seen a lot from the charismatic leader. But vulnerability? Not a chance.

At the same time…

It could all be just another lie – some sort of fancy manipulation.

This might have been so much easier if he’d just been honest with you from the start. Unfortunately, there’d been a lot Suho had hidden from you about your ‘missions,’ about his contracted jobs with the shadow agency known only as SM.

 

 

“I didn’t want to hurt you – it was the only way. You have to believe me. I couldn’t tell you, it was part of the contract.”

“The contract? What about our unspoken contract, Suho? What about the idea of a group says that you can keep one member in the dark? We’re supposed to be united. You said ‘we are one’ but I don’t think you understand. I’m not part of the ‘one.’ Not like this. Not anymore.”

“Please…”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do this. Not anymore. I’m done.”

 

 

What sweet lies he pedaled.

Sometimes you aren’t sure what about him was real, what was fake. You’ve always worried that the others are the same – a mix of their true selves and the corruption left behind from their underhanded activities.

And you were supposed to be the grifter, the one with the promises and the lies coming thick and fast. Maybe it's your naïveté that keeps you thinking that a person should be able to be his true self when he's with someone he cares about. Anyone else would have just taken it, knowing that the world is full of hidden things, of lies, of betrayal. You still couldn't understand - you were supposed to be part of his family. He made so many promises, so many assurances of his trust. We are one. How was it so easy for him to bend that truth? 

You were a liar for a living and you were duped by one of the only people you could never lie to. 

It’s almost laughable.

Except it’s not, because you can’t laugh, not even bitterly. You swallow instead, trying to avoid his pleas. They’re overdramatic anyway.

“I already told you – this one time, I can take it. I’m done forever after that.” You let out a sigh. “Honestly, I just want to be left alone. The simple life is fine by me.” You shrug. That’s how you’ve always been. You just always wanted a place to belong. It was enough.

When you lost the group as your home – your place – you found something else.

You belonged. To yourself.

It was you and you alone on the road, indefinitely.

And you’ve learned to like that just fine - because even when you don’t fully know yourself, even if you don’t always know who you are, your heart is the same. Your mind is the same. You can at least trust yourself, right? 

Suho’s gaze sweeps your face. “What can I do to change your mind?” He sounds like the CEO of some company trying to close on a deal while it’s rapidly heading south.

“Suho…”

But he leans forward, silencing you with his lips pressed firmly against yours.

The whole thing is a mess. Your brain is a mess.

Hauling off and hitting him would be a good option, but you shut the thought down as it comes. The attachment you have to soft Suho gives you pause. The attachment you have to the sweet lies of Suho is something you hate, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ve stupidly given in – you just acknowledge it with disappointment.

His arms slide around your waist, tightening his grip as he winds his hands together around your back. His angle changes slightly, though he’s nothing less than gentle as his mouth moves against yours, and the practiced effort of it doesn’t escape your notice. You’re a bit busy to comment on it, though.

He pulls away finally, blowing his breath against your face. You huff out a sigh against him.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Suho’s eyes find yours and the arms latched around you keep you close. You can feel the radiating warmth of his skin. “Stay with me. Let me stay with you. I don’t care. I just want to hold you close, just until morning.”

You can’t make any sense of anything right now. Why are they so overwhelming, all of them?

Does he mean what he says? Did he mean what he said about truly needing you?

Maybe I could try again…

No.

No.

Not this again. You’re not playing these games.

“No.” You pull back, the harsh movement loosening his grip. You’ve got to separate yourself from him. From them. You need to stop making this job personal. You shove at the leader’s upper arms, moving back. “I promised myself, Suho. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do this, that I wouldn’t let myself be trapped again. So I’m not going to. I’m not coming back. I’m here. Temporarily.” You level a serious gaze on Suho, your words conveying more than you can say. There is no forever.

The pure look of disappointment that flashes across Suho’s face is enough to make you fall into regret for the thousandth time today. You’re slowly tearing apart your insides. You’re slowly tearing apart your heart.

Suho crumples slightly, but his recovery has always been fast. The brief pout of his lips is contained within a second, like he hadn’t even lamented for a moment. A sad smile is the only indication you receive that tells a story of discontent. “It doesn’t matter.”

Well. That’s a surprise. You want to know what's changed in the span of the last few seconds, but you have a feeling you'll be more confused once you start asking questions. 

Suho’s already walking to the door like the incident had never even occurred, like your lips aren’t still warm with his kiss. He shuffles the door open, the picture of ease. He slides through the door, but peers back around the edge, his eyes bright and knowledgeable as he stares at you with no shortage of desire - what kind, you don’t know. “It doesn’t matter because no matter where you go, you’ll always have us. We’ll always have you. Your heart knows that.” With that, he’s gone.

He scares you now.

It’s funny, because you don’t think you’ve ever had such a thought about Suho before. Sure, he’s definitely been the subject of your ire before, the subject of your annoyance, even…but never your fear.

He scares you because he’s right.

You can never escape them, no matter how hard you try.

Do I even want to?

Chapter Text

 

Part VII.

You had watched them so many times, remaining an observer. It was as if you were on the outside, looking in through a window. Because you were one woman to twelve men, you were the odd man out when you were first introduced to the group.

But there were times when you felt so included.

Sometimes you slipped up, you had to admit. They were your family more than you cared to admit. They were more your family than your own flesh and blood.

 

“Jongdae. You okay?” You stopped in the aisleway, glancing down at him.

He was sitting alone in one of the bright red theater chairs, not reclining, not moving, just sitting there. There was a table propped next to him, littered with various articles that were familiar but had little significance – all except for the playing cards. His hand twitched, smoothly, bringing a liquid-filled glass with it.

It caught your eye, mainly because of the fuchsia color beyond the glass, beyond the golden tint of the liquor.

Roses weren’t particularly harmful when consumed, but the choice was an odd one.

“Do you ever think about your purpose in life?” Chen barely moved, and he didn’t bother turning to look at you.

It was startling, his question. Not only because hyper Chen had completely vanished, but also because it was a question you didn’t know how to easily answer. It wasn’t to say you didn’t think about what place you had in the world. You just couldn’t fathom that other people had similar concerns.

You often wondered what value you held – your mother had abandoned you, your father had as good as left you to fend for yourself, and you were alone in the world to make your way. Except for them. Your boys.

But to think that Jong – that Chen – had such thoughts?

To say the least, you were surprised.

It was with a whisper that you answered his existential question. “Of course.”

He still didn’t look at you. “What do you think yours is?” He sounded curious, not mocking. Just inquisitive, like someone seeking out a shred of hope that maybe having a purpose was real for someone – that it was possible to have meaning in life.

You blinked. Emotion tugged at your throat. You didn’t know the answer to his question, and you weren’t sure you ever had. But you held one important thing close, hoping it was enough to suffice. “I’m not sure I know, really. I think if anything, you are my purpose.” There was a creak from the red velvet seat next to you, but you continued. “You all are. This life – my purpose. My future.” You tried playing it off, maybe out of humor or maybe out of self-pity. Probably both. “After all, no one else wants me.”

ThudCreakScrape. Thump.

The sounds of him standing to his feet, drink discarded onto the table that stood in between you.

You didn’t look over, you couldn’t bring yourself to face him. You’d spilled your guts – something you rarely did – and now he was probably going to ridicule you. Your attachment was dangerous.

“You’re right about one thing. We do want you.” He was serious. You weren’t sure you’d ever seen him without a smile when it was just the two of you, but he didn’t sound like he had one then. “But you have to be you. You have to believe in your own value, just like I believe in you.”

The words almost hurt your heart; you clenched your jaw, stifling the feeling. You finally looked at him, properly, eyes meeting eyes. The barest hint of a smile had etched its way onto his face. You crookedly smiled back, not even sure where this emotional side had surfaced from – not sure where either of you were at right now, except in terms of the physical realm.

“Then you should know one thing.” You started, trying to clear your own head as much as relate to him, to throw the weakness back in his direction. Because you were observant, you’d learned many things. “I believe in you too. And…I know who you are.” If there was any good time to deflect, to act on your instinct to escape the situation, it was then. “You’re a terrible at games and you like being coddled and you stick your tongue out when you laugh. You forget things so you have to write a lot down and you’re impossibly stubborn if you actually want something. You care about everyone, and you’ll go to impossible lengths to help us all, and at the same time, you love pranking everyone.” You shook your head. “You’re crazy. It’s...interesting.”

Chen blinked at you, then his smile widened. “I knew you were observant. It’s almost scary when you’re on the receiving end of all the power of the Queen, though.” His grin was more than enough to tell you he was joking. The name was a bit of a gag among the group; it was just a trigger phrase for the media. 

You rolled your eyes. “I hate it when you guys call me that.”

It was unexpected, but the utter troll just reached over to pinch your cheek lightly. “Sorry, kiddo, I think it’s stuck.”

You swatted his hand away, glaring. “I’m not that much younger than you.”

It sobered him up slightly, and he leveled you with an unreadable gaze. “I know.”

“Guys? We got the latest update on our next hit from the boss. He wants everyone there.” Kai’s soft voice reached your ears. You looked to find him standing at the top of the stairs. He adjusted his glasses, smiling softly at you.

Why did they have to be so good and yet so bad?

You never found the answer.

So you left them behind.

Chen said to find yourself – so you did.

---

You might have thought this was all a bad dream, if you hadn’t been waking up in the wrong bed at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Why am I still here? It’s the question that’s been circulating in your brain for far too long now. If you wanted to leave, you would have. You’ve done it before. 

So... you don’t want to leave. 

You want to stay. 

With them. 

After everything that’s happened. 

You hate them - but you don’t. 

It’s a mess in your head.

You know why you left, but everything that they keep saying drives you insane. Everything they keep doing drives you insane. Faint memories of Suho’s lips are blocked from your brain as quickly as you can manage the feat. 

It’s the fear you can’t manage. What happens when you get out of this bed? What will they want next? What other situations will you walk into that make your head spin and make you question your own sanity? 

If yesterday was any indication of what today will look like, you want nothing to do with it. 

Or do you? 

You groan. There’s definitely something wrong with you. 

You’re scared to put on anything other than your yesterday-clothes, so that’s your best bet. They’re comfortable. You need that right now. 

“Why am I doing this?” You face down the mirror above the dresser in your old room. It feels like a moment of nostalgia as you stare at yourself judgmentally. You’ve made faces in that mirror so many times, just practicing for the next target. The next victim. 

A chill passes through you, the reminders of your past already drilling a hole in your chest. 

Just breathe. 

It’s one last time. You can do this. 

You still have no idea why the media decided to name you a Queen. There’s nothing particularly regal about you. 

And then it clicks. They didn’t name you for the playing card, they named her. That ‘you’ that you slipped into when you played your roles. She was confident, calm, collected, impressionable, trustworthy, smooth. You had pretended to be someone else so many times. It was never you - not the real you. If anything, it was only part of you, a side that never really saw the sunshine.

The only people who ever knew the real you, the full picture...

They are your current housemates. 

No one else. 

You hate the fact that you’d inadvertently given them the keys to unlocking a door you could have been hiding - the truth of who you really are. 

Because even though you left...they never truly left you.

Suho was right. 

It’s too much. 

The thought process sends you flying out of your former room, eager for a distraction - anything. You glance around at the elegant, cream-colored space, staring down the hallway, hoping something will magically appear. 

Thinking is banned. 

A split second later, you’re moving again, toward the staircase. Fresh air? Food? A change of scenery? Something? Anything

You slam into something solid, ricocheting backwards without completely falling. A warm hand slides around your wrist, pulling you closer - an attempt to settle you, you guess. 

It’s Jongdae.

No. Chen

You’re on red alert, but he’s a distraction, so you take it. 

“Sorry...” 

He looks you over, carefully. “You might want to be careful around the staircase. It’s a long way down.” 

You’re not sure whether it’s a threat or something else. It wouldn’t exactly be characteristic of him to be making calculated statements. Probably just a word of warning. “I just wasn’t looking. I’m fine.” You retract your arm, pulling away from his grasp. 

Chen shrugs, but it seems half-hearted. There’s something wrong. You sense it immediately - you know him too well. “Chen. You okay?” The words slip out before you can call them back. 

It’s almost a perfect reflection of your words from so long ago. Like you’re gazing through a looking glass, still mesmerized by the past. You freeze, internally cursing yourself. 

Chen’s smile is slow in spreading across his face, but it comes. He looks almost too pleased. “To be honest, I was hoping you’d do that. I was hoping you’d do something.” You can’t bring yourself to speak, because your brain makes a cycle through many facts all at once: he’s learned how to pretend better, to become a more skilled actor, if he means what you think he means; furthermore, he was waiting for you, purposely. You need to find out why. The dynamic you have with them now can’t shift.

The real answer is surprising. Well - it’s not a surprising as it could be, all things considered. “Things aren’t as fun without you around here.” He whines. He actually whines. Like every spoiled brat ever. Sehun comes to mind as well, although he used to be a bit more low key about voicing his dissatisfaction. “I miss pulling crazy stunts with you.” 

He’s not saying his misses you, exactly. But that’s nearly the point. You really wonder if they’ve ever hated you at all, despite Baekhyun’s anger when they first brought you in yesterday. 

As for crazy stunts, you know it’s terrible, but you have to smile. You’ve always been a bit of a pushover, but you used to pull limited pranks on the others. Call it crazy, but you liked it when they laughed. When you all laughed together. 

It was so different from the bland, gray, unemotional walls of your father’s home. 

“Remember? Remember when you decorated Sehun’s room with all those pink flowers? He was so pissed because he thought it was me or Baekhyun.” Chen laughs, characteristically excited. “Remember when you put salt in Xiu’s drink during one of our jobs? He panicked and started coughing and it took all I had not to break into laughter while we were trying to secure our way into that suit’s house for his party. It was such a mess.” 

You remember. You honestly felt terrible after the salt incident because you’d nearly sabotaged your own job, but Xiumin, in his infinite wisdom, said you just “owed him one.” You don’t think he ever cashed in on the opportunity - and that worries you now as you recall it. You don’t think the oldest would keep a record of your debt...but it leaves you more attached than ever. 

You’ll have to wipe that from your record as soon as possible. 

“Yeah, I definitely remember it.” You leave a slight smile plastered on your face, accommodating but not overtly friendly. He’s bringing up things you’d rather not think about, because it’s just adding to the confusion. It just solidifies the idea that you’re stuck here. You’re stuck to them. 

Chen just grins. “Well, you can forget it. We’re going to make new memories.” 

Now you’re just plain puzzled. “Um...what?” 

“Come on. I know you.” Chen levels you with a half smile. “You’re in your head right now. You want out. I’ve been there too.  Just...trust me?” 

It’s annoying that he’s so good at reading you - you want to know how he learned to in the first place. But right now, it’s not the first thing that sets you against him. Because it’s worse that he asks for your trust. 

“Chen...” But you know he’s not the one who’s responsible for leader Suho’s mistakes. He’s not the one behind all these risky jobs. He doesn’t think you’re a prize to be won. He’s one of the only ones who doesn’t want to hold you back. 

Curse him for knowing you too well.

“Fine.” Again with that word. You have to qualify it this time. “But I...I don’t want to get carried away.” 

Sometimes you have no idea how your brain manages to formulate words. Sometimes your words don’t come out correctly. 

Apparently, this is one of those days. 

You’re absolutely the worst for making it sound like he’s been propositioning you and yet you hope maybe he missed it, but then again it’s Chen - and he’s just so... 

He laughs behind an arm. Giggles? Chortles? Guffaws? It’s loud, either way, which is probably why he’s trying to muffle it. “Can’t believe you think of me that way.” He wipes away a few fake tears for the sake of the drama. 

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it!” You try to interject, disgusted and slightly embarassed, but your brain’s up to no good today, and decides to suddenly short-circuit when his fingers close around your wrist again. 

“Can’t say I mind it if you are having nasty thoughts about me, though.” His eyes are mischievous, dangerous even, and you’re wary. 

You yank your hand back for the second time today, scowling at him.

You gag for good measure, finding the idea fundamentally odd. But then you look at him again, furrowing your eyebrows. It’s not to say that you don’t know that he’s nice looking (or whatever, adds your brain) but he’s...like family. 

Like family you sort of want to run away from and sort of want to pull closer. Like family you’ve definitely attempted to kick in the shin and but wanted to hug afterward because he looked so wounded, the drama queen. 

It doesn’t pair well in your mind, so you block it out. 

You’re vague when you answer, though, for reasons you don’t even know - or want to pretend not to know. “Mm, as if.” And, like you always do, you redirect. It’s safer. You target him instead, hoping he won’t be able to retaliate. “If we’re talking about remembering nasty things, though, I seem to recall a few incidents at the club. Like those times you climbed up on the table and tried to twerk?” You ask it like it’s a question, because the image that stains your brain involves something a lot different than actual twerking - a lot more mentally unsettling. “Oh, and that time you practically lost your shirt while we were on the dancefloor? It was honestly disturbing.” You deadpan for a second, watching for Chen’s reaction.

It’s expected, and you’re prepared, but that doesn’t mean your ears are. “Hey!” His voice pitches higher, turning into a whined complaint. “You don’t have to do me dirty like that.”

You scoff, but it’s lighthearted. Chen was always able to bring out that side of you, perhaps more easily than the others. It almost makes you shut down again when you recognise it, but Chen’s already speaking again.

“I know why you left.” His soft voice reaches your ears. You glance at him, swallowing the instant terror. You’re a blank slate when you want to be. “You didn’t want to be abandoned again.”

Something seizes in your chest. You search his face, trying to understand where he’s coming from – how he’s come to this conclusion.

“It’s easier if you leave someone behind than it is to deal with it when someone leaves you,” Chen continues thoughtfully. His dark eyes blink at you, almost innocently.

You’re bitter again, memories of your mother trying to force their way into the forefront of your mind. “I don’t know what you’re talking about – and furthermore, I don’t think you have any idea what you’re saying.”

“We all know what it’s like to lose someone. Remember when KLT were here? It’s not like it was the most graceful parting of ways ever.”

As if you’d forget them…

The initials are all you can use. They have no association with the group anymore, not formally. Suho knows how to stick to the rules. Or, more properly, he listens to SM.

But because you understand why they left, it never felt like abandonment. It just felt like three birds were set free, because they no longer wanted to be in the enclosure with the rest. They wanted to spread their wings.

You can relate.

For the boys, though…it was different. As it always was.

You were on the outside then; you’re on the outside more than ever now.

Maybe Chen does understand.

But it won’t matter in a week.

You’re not going to stick around. “Someone once told me I needed to be me. That I needed to find my own value.” You are the one saying it, but you get the feeling he already knows what you mean. You have wings as well.

Chen’s eyes smile, gently. “And?”

You sigh, drowning in your own weakness. “I’m still not sure who I am.”

“You know, neither am I.” Chen reaches out to pat your shoulder. The gesture feels like something Xiumin’s done before. It makes you raise an eyebrow, but there’s no indication that the recipient of your expression understands it. “I don’t have a problem with it anymore, though. I’m here, right? Might as well make the most of it.” He shoots you a significant look, one that goes over your head. “Besides, I told you once that we want you, no matter who you are. It still holds true.”

You’re not sure Baekhyun or Suho would like where this conversation has headed. But it’s one thing you can be sure of, with sudden certainty – Chen does understand. He might be the only one who will let you go again without putting up a fight. 

“Come on,” said blonde prompts, holding out his hand. “Let’s go distract Xiumin with anime and then trash his room or something.” You know he’s joking, because anyone who crosses into Xiumin’s territory and creates a mess tends to suffer.

But then - it’s so normal, what he says. Like watching anime and engaging in underhanded activities on a day-to-day basis makes sense. The average person would wonder how it could be so easy to separate one side of life from another.

Then again, with them, it always has been that way.

You’re starting to think they’re actually crazy.

What does that say about you?

Chapter Text

Part VIII.

Xiumin stared down at the object between his fingers. It was a shining golden compass, helpful for travel if you’re looking for something, for someone – especially if you’ve lost your way.

He was scared that he had. He was scared that you had. 

He was scared that because you’d lost your way, he’d lost his. 

The only thing that made sense in that train of thought was you

Why did you leave? He still didn’t understand. Suho hadn’t explained properly.

You’d just left without saying goodbye to any of them. Why couldn’t you at least have come to me?

They were all so afraid it was something they’d done. One of them, maybe all of them. 

The last few weeks were full of nothing but arguing the possibilities, debating the reasons why you might have abandoned them suddenly. Was it because we were too crass? Too harsh? Did one of us hurt you in some way? What did I do?

The fearless leader was no help. Suho was quiet – too quiet. And very, very brooding.

Baekhyun was louder and angrier than before, so was Chanyeol. D.O. was still trying to pretend nothing had happened. Sehun just frowned a lot, equally as brooding as Suho, although it wasn’t much of a change from his usual façade. For the first day after you’d gone, the rims of Kai’s eyes were red; for the last weeks, he’d been oddly more depressed, the usual smiling face disappearing in a cloud of gray. Chen was oddly silent, and Xiumin hated that more than anything. If his best friend could shut down without you, like a complete 180 on his personality, what was keeping any of them from going insane?

The reminder of your absence still hurt his heart. And his head.

He really needed a drink.

He wanted to drown in it, let the amber liquid swallow him up.

But there were things he didn’t want to give up on.

So it was just glass after glass after glass – and nothing felt better.

If anything, he was making it worse.

He needed you. You were a piece of his puzzle, ripped from his hands like fleeting fog. He felt as though he had misplaced a priceless object, worth more than any of their usual plunder. When did I get so attached? But it didn’t matter, because you were the only thing on his mind. The memories swirled in his head and danced before his eyes, taunting him. He was falling apart at the seams, tied to his chair without escape – he couldn’t get to you. But he needed you all the same.

He sighed. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.

He loved you.

He wasn’t supposed to, and he had never meant to, but he loved you.

He wanted you. Wanted to hold you, wanted to feel your soft skin under his fingertips, wanted to breathe the same air as you were. If he was being honest, there was so much more he wanted – to taste, to touch, to love. As long as it was you.

He crossed his arms over his each other, burying his chin against his chest, as if to ward off the feelings.

In a split second, a decision was made.

Where did Suho hide that stupid red rotary phone?

If you were the trap that was baited for him, he had already fallen in.

 

“Please, please just let me talk to her. Please. She might come back. I need her to come back. Please, Suho, please. I can’t…I don’t…I’m not sure how to do this. How to live without her. I know I shouldn’t – we shouldn’t – but she just…I love her. No – no, please. Please don’t…Please!”

---

“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to do it properly.” It’s Suho, and he’s called all of you together for the last meeting before the finalized plan is a go.

Chanyeol waves a dual earpiece, twirling it around one long finger. “These are the toys we get to play with this time around. Since we’re all separate for this part of the job, we need to have constant communication.” He passes everyone a set, his eyes lingering to watch you as you tilt your head to insert the communication device in the proper place.

“Hey, let me do it.” Your chest seizes up, and you’re ready to turn him down, but he beats you to it, his fingers reaching for you before your mouth can form the words. Chanyeol tucks a lock of hair behind your ear, leaning in to adjust the device. He’s an expert at this, but it doesn’t make you any more comfortable with the proximity. Besides that, his steady breath huffs against your neck at an angle, and you have to fight away the shivers that any normal person would have as a reaction.

Your fingers twitch, hands readying to shove him or punch him – anything, honestly, to get him away from you. His embrace from yesterday lingers on your mind. At least this time he’s wearing more clothing. You just wish he wouldn’t always be so invested in skinship.

And yet… you relish the closeness all the same.

The eight boys you’re with, and the one away on his assignment – they’re the only people you’ve really ever let get this close. You’re not completely in the dark; you understand why your mother suddenly left your father. He’s never touched you, but there is no telling why or when; there is no changing him.

The thought reminds you of Suho, and you wonder, briefly, if it’s possible. Your eyes flicker in his direction as he fiddles with the bud in his ear. Maybe he has become more open with the group. Maybe he still isn’t concealing truth with shadows anymore. Instinct gives you an answer: there is no changing him.

Chanyeol’s whole face is caught up in his grin as he readjusts your hair and then moves away. You almost miss him. There’s a calming feel when he’s around, something you’ve never understood, because he’s not particularly calm himself. It’s almost soothing, though.

You look around the room, gauging the varying expressions around you. Xiumin’s staring at you, head tilted to side. Your eyebrows lift in question. What?

He shakes his head, looking down suddenly, then begins toying with the device in his ear. When he straightens up, his eyes immediately fly away, no longer focused on you. Your gaze narrows – what is he thinking?

Sometimes it felt as though Xiu could read your mind, as though you could read his.

You don’t think it the ability works anymore – you stare at him, and nothing happens. Out of all of them, you’re curious to know what Xiumin thinks of you the most. He’s the oldest, and although Suho has ended up with his leadership position, Umin has seniority. To you, he represents the middle ground. Full of humor and gentility, but equally as strong and thoughtful; he’s simultaneously childish and the most responsible one of all. The one trait you can’t figure out is his genuineness.

With the others, there’s always been this lingering feeling – they’re hiding themselves to some extent, careful even when they’re acting out. It’s different with Xiumin. You think he wears his heart on his sleeve, exposed for all to see. It doesn’t matter where he goes. You’ve seen him with haunting looks of wrath, expressions that put the sun to shame, sorrow that builds into an overflowing waterfall. And maybe that’s why you didn’t always have to ask to know what he was thinking: he’s more of an open book.

You’ve always been the same way, even when logic tells you to hide your feelings, to hide the truth from your face. That’s why your lies are always half-truths. It’s why you’re your emotions always seem so real – because they are. Somewhere inside you, all of it is real. Even if it isn’t supposed to be. 

Suho’s voice interrupts your thoughts. He stands right next to you now, gesturing toward the rest of the group. “Everything commences tonight at 6 o’clock. Is everyone clear on the basics?” He glances around at the variety of nods, giving a firm shake of his own head. “In summary, Sehun’s going to be back and forth from the kitchen, and Chanyeol, you’ll be in the van. D.O. will flank me at all times, Baekhyun will be out looking after the cars, and Kai, you’re on the perimeter.” He pauses, letting everyone absorb his words. “Xiumin.” The oldest jerks his head toward the leader. Suho smiles. “I need you and Chen staying behind. Just in case.”

Xiumin nods, and this time you can’t read him at all. It’s like he’s gone blank. It makes you wonder – how much effort does it take him to hide who he is? How much effort does it take him to keep emotions off his face?

You’re blank when you need to be, when it’s valuable, when you’re scared – but you’ve been training for years to remain impassive. He’s purposely hiding something.

“Ah, almost forgot.” Suho speaks again, slightly louder than before. You’re about to turn your head to glance his way, but you’re interrupted by his strong grip on your forearm. Before you know it, you’re tugged to his side, leaning into him, and he’s tilted his head down and to the side to look you in the eyes. “You’re with me.”

Your eyes widen. The half-smile on his face is something else. It’s not joy, exactly. The shape his lips make is almost sly.

Lips. Warm, sweet, pressed against your own. Not comforting. Just wanting. Just covetous.

The memory of last night shakes you, and his touch suddenly burns.

You slide your arm out of his grip, gritting your teeth. The motion is slow, but you know what it looks like. You’re conveying your annoyance well. “Thank you, I’m aware.” If your rejection doesn’t burn, perhaps your satire will.

You hold yourself at a distance from him, crossing your arms over your chest. What’s happened to make Suho so esurient? Some part of you knows that this is him, it’s just the side of him that he always hid. And, really, you think, it hasn’t completely been for his own sake. He’s had to press down his own needs for years in order to give every piece of himself to others. In all honesty, his actions make more and more sense.

The good leader continues as if nothing has happened. He’s skilled at that. “Does anyone have any suggestions, comments, or questions?” He’s always asked this, after every briefing. It’s part of what makes him such an effective mastermind– his ability to gain feedback from others.

You glance up, and they’re all looking at you. A sigh passes through your lips before you can call it back.

Suho dismisses you all quickly after that. He doesn’t try to hold you back, which is a surprise. But then, he’s already made his move. There isn’t a necessity for another one.

You trail out of Suho’s office amongst the others, lost in your own thoughts.

The tap on your shoulder catches you off guard, but you’re quick to find the owner of the hand despite the goosebumps that break out on your skin.

It’s Xiumin.

It’s something of a surprise.

Hopefully a welcome one.

You hope he’ll explain his previous reticence. Maybe you’ll be able to easily decipher his thoughts again, just by reading his expression. Why do you want to? I thought you were trying not to be so famil-

You cut your own thoughts off with an internal grimace.

“Can I talk to you?” He’s upfront about it, but that’s normal.

Chen peers over Xiumin’s arm, eyes calm as he looks at you. You’re not sure if he’s purposefully trying to communicate with you, but you take his expression at face value. Umin needs this.

You blink, then your expression easily morphs into a quiet smile. “Sure.”

His steps are light on the marbled floor as he leads you away from the others. It feels almost as though you’re being led to the slaughter, but you have to doubt that. Your blood feels like acid in your veins as you consider it.

He leads you to the end of the hallway just outside of Suho’s office, his hands folding together and breaking apart as he moves forward. All of a sudden, he stops, spinning on his heel to face you. You stare, just watching him for a moment. He’s straight-faced like before.

But then, a smile breaks across his face.

It’s not a knowing Suho-smile. It’s not a smug Baekhyun-grin. It’s not the overjoyed smile of Chanyeol. It’s not the commiserative smile of Chen. It’s not the overly fond smile of Kai. It’s not the pleased Kyungsoo smile, and it’s not the confused grin Lay always shares. It’s not that sneaky simper Sehun often has either.

It’s small, but it’s there. In a quiet measure, it speaks louder than any of the other smiles would. It speaks of trust – this, you think, might be real.

You remember what Sehun said – that Xiumin had tried calling you, breaking the rules, defying unspoken code. You remember thinking about pulling him into your arms when you heard that. But you also remember why you didn’t. Too much emotion is never a good thing, not here; you’re all supposed to be unwavering, callous in your view of humanity.

It’s almost ironic, really. The group takes on jobs that require trust between members, but at the same time moral codes aren’t supposed to apply because, to your knowledge, none of the others have ever been in the practice of displaying compassion for the victims of their efforts. Attachment is supposed to be a weakness, that which anyone can exploit - it’s a risk that’s never meant to be taken. This life is supposed to make a monster out of anyone who lives it. 

The impossibility of that demand finalizes it: this life isn’t for you. You’ve thought of them as family for too long for that. You’ve been too soft

But aren’t you all monsters? You’re just the same as the rest, if not worse. You were just as guilty. Fleeing had seemed like the only option, the only right one. 

On one hand, you want to know who you are. On the other, you want to be human again. After this, it’s all in the past. 

“I can’t believe you’re doing this.” Your responsive smile disappears as the words leave his mouth. They completely contrast with his expression.

“What?” You frown, giving him a cursory glance. He looks worn – circles under his eyes. It’s a bare hint, probably covered by makeup, but it’s there. His smooth dark magenta hair stands out as a change. It was light brown and wild the last time you remember.

“The way you left…” He sighs, and his smile breaks. “You didn’t say goodbye. You didn’t want to be found. You didn’t want to come back.”

So Xiumin, too, knows? He understands your logic?

“When you leave again, I want to go with you.”

Your heart nearly stops.

You look straight at Umin now – you’re properly looking at him this time. All this time, you’d been thinking about convincing Baekhyun, perhaps, maybe Sehun and Chanyeol, all of the logical choices…but this? It’s something entirely unexpected.

You stare at him blankly, then you’re shaking your head, amazed. “Are you serious? Honestly? You’ll come with me?”

Xiumin lets out a huff, but he smiles, nonetheless. “Is it so hard to believe that I want to be with you?”

The words stop you short, only barely. The way he’s phrased it…

Is odd.

“When you were gone, it felt like there was something missing. It was just…really strange. It felt…empty.” He gestures, almost absently. “And yet, it made sense, in a lot of ways. I don’t really know how to explain it.”

But you understand. He says ‘empty’ and you understand. This is humanity, taking the place of the monster inside. 

Xiumin’s never liked people touching his face, but you have also never been one to play by the rules of anyone else’s game. “Min. Xiumin. Umin. Min-ah.” You list his names, and his eyes lock with yours as you cradle his soft face between your hands. Soft, pale Umin with his wide, round eyes. It’s a revelation, just looking at him this closely. “Minseok.”

His eyes widen, but he stays silent. He doesn’t make a move, nor does he shove your hands away.

“I know how you feel. If you want to leave, I’ll take you with me.” You’ve never quite been this happy, you think. But, it somehow feels wrong. “Do you think…what about the others?” Your hands slip away, tucking against your sides as you back away, suddenly anxious.

If he’d be lost without anyone, it would be Chen. They’ve been a married couple a few times during the group’s assignments; it doesn’t surprise you. Frankly, it doesn’t surprise anyone. The best word to describe them is inseparable: incapable of being parted.  

Beyond that, you suspect Min’s attachment to Chanyeol is one he wouldn’t be able to give up. For all his attempts to sweet talk or caress or canoodle with the younger, leaving Yeol behind is almost unfathomable.

Really though…you can’t see him separate from the rest at all. It’s just the way it is between them. It’s just…

Love.

They love each other. You don’t know how, per se, but they’re closer than brothers, thicker than thieves, tied tighter than the strings of a tangled knot. You know they’re not supposed to be, and it doesn’t exactly make sense, but that’s how they are.   

It’s just not the same for you.

The bond you have with them isn’t quite the same, not from your perspective. You were gone and they functioned just as well – there’s no evidence to the contrary, despite Suho’s words. If any of them leave the rest, however… you fear the outcome. No matter what they say, they don’t need you; you don’t need them. They just need each other: even villains need company, a band of like minds.  

Besides, they don’t lo-

Not that word. No more of that. It just brings trouble.

Xiumin’s fingers twine with yours as you try to clear your head. He leans in, slightly. “It doesn’t matter.” You suck a breath in. It’s the oddest thing, but fear is the underlying emotion you suddenly feel. For some reason, Xiumin just smiles. “You know why? Because no matter what happens, we’ll all find each other again. Even if it takes searching the entire universe.”

More than any other words, these ones hurt.

You have trouble grasping the reality of it – it’s like Chen and his guarantees that they do want you, only this time, it’s multiplied by a thousand. It’s like Suho’s promise of always, only this time, it’s magnified beyond time itself.

It’s just not…

Possible.

Why would anyone go to such lengths to find someone? The logic in your head tells you it’s just exaggeration: it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything because it can’t mean anything. 

But they did bring you back, didn’t they? Wherever you go

And even if the idea makes you want to run even more, you can’t deny it. You want Xiumin with his genuineness, and his kindness, and his humor, and his attention to detail, and his…well, his everything. You can’t say you need him, not exactly, but you won’t complain if he comes with you, if he wants this. You’d never stop him. You’d never say no.

You’d never say no to any of them, not even Suho. Or…maybe especially not Suho – he’s more caged than the rest.  

“Okay.” You aren’t sure you can say anything else, but all the same, you have no idea what you’re getting into. “If it’s what you want.” You remain impassive, aside from your eyes. If you can’t speak, they will do so for you.

You’re graced with a smile that you can only describe as cheesy, as Xiumin’s lips pull back to expose his teeth.

Crap.

You want to hug him so badly – your fingers actually tingle with the effort to hold back.

But if he’s serious about leaving, if he’s really truly going to let go of this life, why not? The world of monsters is only for the group; on the outside, the rules for ruthlessness don’t apply.  

Before you can actually do anything, he yanks lightly on the hand he’s holding, pulling you closer. He’s honestly barely taller than you, but somehow you manage not to run your forehead into his chin as he tugs you in. Instead, his forehead rests against yours, gently. His empty hand reaches for your other one.

And that’s how you stay: completely silent, eyes closed, forehead to forehead, hands locked together.

This is the most contact you’ve had with another person since you left the group.

It’s good.

Too good, perhaps.

But you can’t break away. Won’t. You won’t break away. Not this time.

Peace takes over your whole form. As on-edge as you have been during this experience, it’s no surprise that you physically feel tension leaving your shoulders, like a weight has been removed.

And your heart pounds vigorously in your chest, reminding you that you’re still human. The answering thumping of Xiumin’s heartbeat reminds you that he’s the same. There are no monsters here, despite what you’ve been told, despite what you’ve seen.

Then you smile. Just a bare hint, a tiny slip of the corners of your lips.

“Hyung?” Kai’s quiet voice echoes down the hall, louder through the tunnel effect of the walls.

Startled, you break away, head rising up to find Kai’s form. But your hands are tight in Xiu’s grasp.

You look at him, he looks at you, and one of his eyebrows raises, but he does nothing except smile and then turn his head to meet Kai’s gaze. You pull one hand away, needing that much of yourself back just to reclaim your sanity.

Kai looks quizzical, perhaps, but there’s nothing to indicate contempt as he moves towards the pair of you. With his usual fluid movement, he approaches, a report on his lips. “It’s almost time. I guess Baekhyun found a dress for you, too. Suho figured it would make sense at the gala you’re attending.” He glances your way, the edges of his mouth curving up slightly.

The tension in your shoulders returns. The mention of Baekhyun makes you want to pretend like you haven’t heard him, but it isn’t exactly as though you have the means to refuse at this point. Besides, it’s a new day.

Your eyes flash back to Xiumin, finding him watching you with a steady gaze. It’s a new day, full of new surprises.

You sigh. “Okay.”

It’s the new ‘fine’ apparently.

You follow Kai, expecting Xiumin to join you. But he doesn’t – he just stands there at the end of the hallway, a slow smile on his face, his eyes wide as they take you in when you look back to find him.

If he didn’t know before, he knows it now: I will find you. I’ll always find you. Because I need you.

“Because it’s love.”

And let’s not forget, you do owe him one. Xiumin smiles. 

Chapter Text

Part IX.

He nosed his way through the slick between your thighs, gently probing until he found your perfect little rosebud, just begging to be teased by his teeth. His tongue swathed through the mess, sucking against the pink skin, eagerly savoring the tangy, slippery fluid. 

Smiling, he sat back on his knees, a little mystified. “You taste so fucking good.” 

“Jongin.” Hearing you say his name - his real name - was a euphoric experience, like the ultimate cloud nine. 

“Mmm? You need something?” He smirked, tracing a finger around your quivering hole, just a little pressure. Just a hint of more to come. 

You reached for him, pulling yourself upright with straining stomach muscles. He knew exactly what your plans were: instead of moving his head back where it definitely belonged between your thighs, he maneuvered your fingers so they were locked tightly with his. 

You grumbled, looking as endearing as ever. The pink flush of your skin was radiant in contrast with his white bedsheets. The light sheen on your neck was more than appealing, and he considered leaving his mark there, wanting to see your reaction. 

You were pulling your hands away before he could react, fingers gingerly slipping down to finish the job he’d seemingly left behind. He intercepted your movement, fingertips brushing against yours. 

You looked up at him, eyes wide. 

His dark eyes were bright, sweet like the smile on his lips. “You know I love you, right?” 

You laughed. Honestly, it was nice, just hearing the joyous sound. “Personally, I think it’s pretty obvious.” You rolled your eyes, but your smile was genuine. 

Your smile. Possibly his favorite thing about you, besides your laugh. “Just making sure.” His shoulders dipped down playfully. 

Then - mmm, it’s still so fucking good. He buried his face between your thighs again, tongue sliding first to your sensitive bud, before he found the source of the tangy taste, tongue dipping into your tight hole. Your walls fluttered around him. He pulled back slightly, smiling. 

It took a few moments, but he’d accomplished his mission: your walls tightened possessively around the finger now curling inside. “Jongin...Ah, Jongin...Kai...” 

 

“Kai?” 

 

His eyes opened. 

Hazy sunshine hit his dark orbs, and he closed them quickly, groaning. What’s going on? 

“Are you okay? You...you keep saying her name.” He recognized the voice, the one that belonged to his best friend, if anyone could have a best friend in their line of work. 

Oh. 

He groaned again.

It was all a dream.

His skin was heated, and he was ninety percent sure his damp underwear was making the problem worse. It was kinda sad, honestly, that he was even having these kind of dreams. 

He hadn’t honestly thought about you like that - not until recently anyway. 

It was definitely starting to become an issue, though. 

Blinking, he faced D.O. with a quick reassuring smile. He was surprised there was no interrogation about the questionable rigid lump that tented his jeans. “I’m fine. Just a dream.” Then he frowned, bottom lip jutting out. “But you shouldn’t have let me sleep on a stakeout.” 

D.O. hummed noncommittally. “Figured you’d need it. We all need it these days.” It was implied, but Kai knew what he wasn’t saying. 

They were a fucking mess without you. 

Apparently, he was a fucking mess with or without you. 

The dream was still fresh in his mind. How baseless can you be? Just think of literally anything else. 

He missed you more than that. In a different way. 

There was only a certain level of partiality he’d tried to allow for, but apparently you’d slipped past those boundaries, right into the gray area. 

He stared out the window, scowling darkly. But remembering the image of your smile - even your dream smile - well, he couldn’t help the small smile that curved the sides of his lips. 

 

And then - 

You know I love you, right

Wait a minute. 

Wait a minute

Did he...? 

Kai’s fingers rubbed into his thighs, trying to calm the sudden rapid thumping of his heart.

 

Oh no. 

 

——

 

It really does come as a surprise to you.

They do seem human.

Not so much like they’re humans pretending to be other humans pretending to be other humans.

Not like Suho is the heir to the richest empire in the province at the same time as he’s the leader of the most notorious crew in the same province.

Not like Chanyeol is a child actor with a background as a drummer in an upstart band who functions as something of a hacker, something of a tech whiz for said crew.

Not like Xiumin was at university with a soccer scholarship before he’s switched to hitting much more than just soccer balls.

Not like Kai is a former backup dancer for some of the most famous idols ever, now using his speed and stealth to sneak through shadows.

Not like Sehun used to take pictures and let people vote on his attractiveness on the biased internet of all places – of course, his charms could only contribute to his regular undercover work.

 

It’s funny, considering who they all are. Considering who they all were.

Considering your former best friend, the family-oriented, childish gamer you grew up with, the boy who could literally make friends with anyone - considering he’s now the level-headed, gun-toting, car-stealing swindler he often makes an appearance as. Maybe he played one too many video games.

But…just thinking about it, it’s really funny. 

Okay, it’s not. If anything, it hurts. How did they get here from there? 

Of course, you have no right to judge. But still.

“You look good.”

You turn around, eyeing Kai suspiciously. His form fills a bare minimum of the doorway. He’s rather slim in build, but you know better than that; it’s to his advantage to make victims think their opponent is weak.

“I want to kill Baekhyun.” You announce it with a flat tone, eyes flashing to the mirror in your room instead of the man in the entryway. You eye the white dress that’s been selected for you skeptically, fingers picking at the necklace that hangs around your neck. Your arm practically jingles with the movement, the bracelets that are part of the outfit sliding up and down your arm. 

Kai laughs, and it’s cute. It’s rhythmic, bouncy, adorable. Which basically sums Kai up in a measure.

Except…it doesn’t. He’s clever and somewhat deadly; you definitely know better.

“Unfortunately, Baekhyun has a job to do, so you may not want to dispose of him just yet,” Kai teases, eyes lighting up – I missed this.

Your eyes flash over to Kai and you can’t help but look at him for one long moment. You remember the first time meeting him; you were both young and impressionable and Suho had given you a job to do.

——

A boy drove you and the leader to the park. When you’d first seen him, he seemed a little sullen, straight-faced and probably straight-laced. Suho introduced you to him using one name: Kai.

Sounds fake, you’d thought. You’d wondered if he was like you – persuasive, manipulative, a people-person. Somehow, you’d doubted it.

Suho led you both into a large square, filled to the brim with people; everything seemed normal as normal could be. There was a large fountain in the center of the square, and people surrounded the edges, tossing in pennies, giggling in high-pitched voices, taking pictures with each other. There were a few occupied benches, abandoned bikes, people playing baseball, and one solitary ice cream cart. It was a warm day – the sun was bright, the breeze was pleasant, and world seemed at peace in this one tiny place.

“I’ll give you the scenario, you just have to get the prize.” Suho tilted his head, focusing on you with his all-knowing eyes. He had taken a seat at the edge of the fountain, and Kai plopped down next to the leader, leaving you the spot next to him, the quiet boy.

You shook your head slightly, adjusting your baseball cap, ready to be challenged. “Fine by me.”

Kai watched you, just sitting there passively. You knew very little about Baekhyun’s new friends, and you definitely didn’t trust them. But anything was better than sitting at home or sitting at that stupid gas station.

Suho smiled, patiently, waiting for your gaze to return to him. “All I’m asking for you to do is get some ice cream.”

Your eyebrows jumped as your eyes moved back to the leader. “Seriously? I don’t think you understand – I can definitely handle myself in any situation.” You prompt the leader for more, folding your arms across your chest. You thought Baekhyun was speaking of a group of serious individuals, not a group of pranksters.

Suho shrugged. “I’m sure you can, but I’m interested in your technique more than anything.”

Your eyes searched the area, taking in the sights, listening to the sounds. Finally, you sighed. “Okay, I’ll make it quick.” You agreed, nodding your head quickly, as a plan formed in your mind.

Target is on the move. You watched as your version of a plan got up from his spot near the fountain. Huh. He was kinda cute.

You attempted to walk casually, like any average citizen on a stroll in the park. And then –

“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” Little containers of paint and a few paintbrushes littered the sidewalk and you bent down to start gathering them in your arms.

Your impossibly adorable target looked straight into your eyes, grinning nervously. “Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m sorry I didn’t see you.” He was clutching onto a sketchpad desperately, roving his hands over the cement as he tried to help you on your quest to rescue his supplies.

You smiled reassuringly. “It’s no problem, uh…” You looked at him, an apologetic smile crossing your face.

“Jungkook,” he returned evenly, his smile widening, his two top teeth peeking out in the most charming way. Okay, this kid was seriously cute. You almost felt bad.

You returned his smile eagerly, handing the fallen paint supplies back to him. “So, you’re an artist? Cool. Must be a nice day to sit in the shade and paint,” you commented lightly, nodding to the chairs and tables situated under a large willow tree only a few feet from your location.

Jungkook blinked rapidly, eyes following your gesture. “Oh, yeah, right?” He palmed the back of his head. “Yeah, no, I’m not a real artist. I just…dabble.” He trailed off awkwardly.

“Well, it takes a little practice to become a professional, right?” You pointed out, standing up from your crouched position on the ground. You held out a hand for the amateur artist.

He stretched his hand out to meet yours, blinking once before breaking into a grin. “Thanks. And, yeah, I guess so.” You pulled him up, gentle with his hand in yours.

Encouragingly, you smiled back at him, as he continued to brightly grin. “Have fun, then. Nice to meet you, Jungkook.” He seemed oddly bewildered by this whole encounter, and that amused you – he was just too normal. A typically good kid.

“Huh?” He shook his head, locking eyes with you. “Oh, yeah, nice to meet you, too.” You walked away, hands in your sweatshirt pocket. “See you later?” His voice was quiet, but you didn’t miss it even as you moved away from him. As much as you hated to ignore him – the poor, nice kid – you had a job to do.

You bit down on your bottom lip, steeled your resolve, took a deep breath, and continued walking back toward the fountain, where Suho and Kai were still lingering.

Kai eyed you as you sat down next to him, speaking up in a surprisingly quiet voice. “So, what did you do? Steal some cash?”

You raised an eyebrow in his direction, then glanced at Suho. “Is that what he does?”

Suho waved his hand. “Don’t worry about him – just finish your assignment.” It was the start of euphemisms for jobs to come.

You rolled your eyes, then your shoulders, ready to do what you did best – persuade people you could be trusted. Kai watched you with steely eyes, expression not wavering. You couldn’t be sure, but he seemed like he was trying too hard to remain impassive. Must be one of the emotional oneshe does look young. Not that you weren’t young, not that you weren’t younger than he was, probably. But you’d pretty much convinced yourself that everyone was going to be another Suho – steel-firm and hardcore at the same time as being professionally respectful and politely commanding. 

You removed your baseball hat, quickly dragging your hair into a tight ponytail. “Be right back,” you promised, giving Kai a two-fingered wave. He seemed surprised – and you definitely liked that you had that effect on people.

You booked it to the ice cream cart, putting a pep into your step. As you got to the counter, you twirled a piece of your hair, looking unintentional and innocent.

The older man at the cart greeted you warmly. “What can I get for you, miss?”

You gave a friendly smile. “My boyfriend and I were hoping you had some vanilla crunch in there,” you informed, clapping your hands excitedly. You tipped your head back to where you knew Jungkook had relocated – one of the tables under the overarching willow. Ah, the power of suggestion.

Smugly, you smiled, pointing when Jungkook looked properly immersed in whatever he was painting. “He’s the one painting over there. He’s an amateur artist – but I keep telling him he should make it his career.” You pouted slightly, continuing your story as you turned back to the man at the cart. “No one thinks people can make money on art these days, but I know he can do it. If anyone can, he can.” You let out a wistful, hopeful sigh, then smiled again.

The ice cream man, rummaging in his cart, brought out two vanilla crunch cones. “You know, I never meet young couples who are so supportive of each other these days. It’s nice to see. Really warms my heart.” He extended his arm, handing me the ice cream with an appreciative beam. “That’ll be ten dollars for the nice young couple.”  

Balancing the two cones in one hand, you quickly rummaged around in your pocket, pretending to make a thorough search. “Oh my gosh – my wallet. I must have left it with Jungkook.” You gave the man an apologetic smile. “Do you think… can we grab it from him? It’ll only take a moment. You can get your money and don’t have to go through all the trouble of putting these back and then getting them right back out again.” You hold out the ice cream, redistributing it to both hands.

The older man hummed, then nodded. “Smart kid,” he praised lightly, closing down the freezer in his cart and ambling toward you.

“Thank you! Jungkook’s going to be so happy. Maybe it’ll be some new inspiration for him!” You said cheerily, peering at the man from behind the ice cream cones. “I’m going to grab a couple napkins, I’ll follow you in a sec!” You giggled, knowing exactly what kind of character you were selling – personable, sweet, devoted, an altogether average teenager in love with her best friend, the struggling artist who just needed a little ice cream to brighten his day.

The older man laughed gruffly in response, already walking toward Jungkook, his back turned to you.

You only had a small window of time. Your escape was quick and efficient, but you treaded lightly on your feet, casual in your movements as you made your way back to Kai and Suho.

You handed both cones off to Kai, the brush of his fingers against yours creating a tingle that spread across your skin. Ignoring it, you quickly pulled down your hair and jammed your baseball cap back on your head. “Well, we might want to get out of here before my boyfriend really gets in trouble.” You smiled, feeling Kai’s eyes on you. He moved to hand you the ice cream back, still heavily focused on your face. You swallowed, eyeing him. “I got one for you.” You nodded toward the ice cream, as Suho got up from his seat on the edge of the fountain.

You and Kai trailed behind the leader as you all made your way out of the park. It was impossibly slow, your casual walk back to the van. But it was the best way to avoid suspicion. “You know, I could have just used you as my fake boyfriend. Then we would have had to put more effort into getting the ice cream for free, but I think it would have turned out about the same way in the end.” You glanced to the side, eyes focusing on Kai, watching the sway of his long legs as he moved.

He tilted his head, looking toward you with curious eyes, and you moved your head back up to wait for the questions he surely had. “How did you know that would work? Especially with the guy at the cart?”

You met his eyes. “I’m an observer by nature. I take qualities I know and shape them to suit my needs. The guy with the cart is an older man, probably fifty or sixty years old. I caught the sight of the ring on his finger glinting in the sun when Suho was laying down the scenario, and I had to make a lot of conjectures. Of course, I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I assumed he was in a relationship of some kind at some point, and if he’s still wearing the ring while there’s a potential for losing it in the ice cream freezer, it must mean something to him. If that kind of devotion is what he values…well, I just used a bit of natural charm outside of that. And, Jungkook, I suppose.” You sighed. “I needed a scapegoat. He was just so…innocent.”

Something in Kai’s eyes changed. “Do you regret it? Using the kid, I mean.”

You looked up at the sky, eyes straying from your companion. If I say no, I have no heart. If I say yes, I have too much weakness. “Yes and no.” You knew Suho was listening. “I wouldn’t change my approach unless there was another, better choice. But I’m not heartless. I do feel badly about taking advantage of him.” But Jungkook won’t be out ten dollars anyway…

Kai nodded, looking thoughtful. Suho said nothing, and you wondered what he would think – whether he would appreciate this first trial performance. Whether he would offer you a permanent place on the team.

Suho reached the van first, nodding to Kai, who immediately searched his pockets for the keys. He produced the keys within a few seconds, but his face was questioning, a bit concerned. He glanced down at the items in his palm: the keys, a penny, and a stick of gum. “I could have sworn I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket…”

He trailed off then, looking up at you.

You quirked a half smile.

Suho spoke up suddenly, startling you both. “Welcome to the team.”

You turned around to find his mild smile directed at you, his eyes alit with a million schemes all at once.

Kai grumbled all the way back to the theater, but it was in between bites of vanilla crunch.

——

“Is there a particularly reason you’re staring at me so intently?” Kai’s voice shakes you from your memories, and you’re grateful, because you’re not sure how to handle them. He smiles passively. “Is it my outfit?” His eyebrows raise, and you think it’s some sort of attempt to look suggestive, but he looks too utterly adorable at the moment.

You register what he’s wearing, finally. It’s bright red. Bright red.

You’d prefer to keep your eyes intact, so you have to look away. Well – also because he’s exposed quite a bit of the skin of his sculpted chest, the bronze peeking out from behind the blood red. How did you miss that before?

“I thought you were supposed to be on the perimeter…?” You trail off, gesturing to his outfit without really observing it too carefully.

Kai nods, titling his head. “Yeah, but I’m allowed to come in for a drink or two,” he explains, softly smiling.

You nearly laugh. Kai’s a cute drunk. He just seems to get more and more adorable, a perfect little pout on his lips. When you look at him, he’s already pouting.

“Are you laughing at me?” He questions, bottom lip pulling against the top as he speaks. The huff of laughter that escapes you is enough of an answer, and Kai comes closer, straightening up and leaving the doorway. “What is this? You’re laughing at me?” His eyes dance with mirth, contrasting the straight tone he’s attempting. “Mm, there’s a price to pay for laughing at me,” he starts, barely restraining his own giggles. “I’ll definitely make sure you’re punished for this one.” His fingers brush against your waist, and there’s an abrupt tug that pulls you closer, followed by a sharp laugh. “Mm, how should I deal out this punishment, huh?”

You laugh, bringing your hand up to smother the amusement, snickering into your wrist. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, memories of drunk Kai set me off, you know that!”

His grip on your waist tightens, the silky white fabric bunching against the embrace. “I do know,” he agrees. He looks at you properly now, and you’re confused by the look of concern crossing his face. “I also know how touchy-feely you get when you’re drunk.” He sighs, looking at the carpet. “You have to be careful tonight. You can’t slip up, okay? You might end up with the wrong person, at the wrong time, and they might…” He trails off, glancing back up, eyes meeting yours.

You nod firmly, looking away. “But nobody is the wrong person. Everybody could be the right person. You know that’s how it works for me. It’s my last rodeo anyway – I would never let anyone get the better of me. You know how reliable these fists are.” You grin, lifting your hands and balling them into fists, trying to put some humor into the conversation. It feels like a dark cloud hovering over the room, and it makes you uneasy – so you distract from it.

Kai releases his grip on you, but he lingers, still filling the space. “You’ve changed. And yet, you haven’t.” You raise both eyebrows, amused by the inconsistency. Kai shakes his head, rephrasing it. “I know it doesn’t make sense. You’re still you, but you feel more like yourself.”

Your eyes widen, then soften. “I guess I am. I’m slowly becoming me, you know? I don’t feel as lost as I did before, I think. Not that I’m found, either, per se…it’s just something different.”

“Because you’re forgetting us?” Kai blinks, soft brown eyes fixating on you.

There’s a jolt in your system. The answer, as per your usual, is yes and no. “It would be easier. I want to forget some of it and some of it I want to remember. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse to forget it all. I just haven’t been gone long enough yet to put it behind me.”

Kai nods, his eyes trailing around your room. “I wish you would come back. You have no idea what it’s been like without you here. I wish I’d filmed it. It was like we all suffered from some kind of drought, even with plenty of water surrounding us.”

You smile slowly, understanding, but not completely. Not fully. Not yet. “I’m only one rain drop. I can’t be an ocean.”

Kai meets your eyes. “If you’re one rain drop, you’ve been divided into nine rivers and somehow managed to sustain all of them.”

Your eyes narrow – the metaphor doesn’t exactly go over your head, but it’s reminiscent of D.O.’s words. You have no idea what you do to any of us, do you? “Okay.” It’s all you can say, because you have to. You can’t hold onto Suho’s words, Xiumin’s words, Chen’s words – even Baekhyun’s words – without feeling like you’re about to explode into a million pieces.

Kai’s eyes turn sad and soft. Then he shakes his head, and you watch the light return to his face, but his eyes – there’s still a gray cloud swirling there. “I forgot what I was doing.” He admits it slowly, like he’s working his way back up a cliff after climbing all the way down. An unexpected grin splits his face. “I was going to tickle you as retaliation for laughing at me.”

It feels homely – your heart warms over.

I can still run away, one voice says.

No, you can’t, the other voice answers.

You’re not sure who’s right.

Kai reaches for you again, his fingers feeling for your arms, then sliding firmly into your armpits. “I know a few weak spots.” He giggles, lightly.

You slide your fingers against his upper arms, ignoring the shock that passes through your system as the complex muscles flex under his clothing, under your touch. “Kai – come on! We’re like way too old for this! Kai!”

You can’t help the laughter now – you’re focusing on so many things at once. Your dress slips off one shoulder slightly, the bangle around your neck jangles, and the bracelets on your arm clank together, as you try to fend off the oncoming attack.

Kai reaches for your neck, the next weak spot.

You thump a firm hand against his chest. “Kai, come on! Kai – Jongin!”

And all of a sudden, everything stops. Kai’s arms drop to his sides.

Your bracelets drag back to your elbow with the incline of your arm. Your palm sits squarely against his burning hot skin, the space where there is no fabric to speak of. The rise and fall of his chest is visible, and you feel it under your hand as it rests straight over his thudding heart. A pulse catches rhythm in your wrist, matching the steady thrum of the beating drum under his ribcage.

The jacket covering his arms doesn’t hide everything the little vest he’s wearing exposes – the fabric rides up, leaving his defined hips visible, the slopes plainly outlined.

And you’re just breathing, trying to remember where the heck you are and what the heck you were doing. Then you meet his eyes.

 “Fuck.” 

Kai breaks.

His lips seek out a response from yours like it’s the most natural thing in the world. A gentle mouth pulls against yours, tugging on the skin and pushing out again in a steady rhythm, tasting everything. The angle changes, a hand finds its way to your waist, a tongue presses against the seam of your lips. Your palm tingles where it’s pressed against heated skin and your fingers twitch, moving against his chest.

And then you remember another kiss, another day, another moment in time. Another moment in which you weren’t sure. Another one. 

And you break.

You pull away, mouth opening and closing in uncertainty, a vaguely wet gloss lingering on your lips. Kai’s chest heaves under your touch, and you quickly rip your hand away, waving your apologies. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to.” What did you mean to do, then? What didn’t you mean to do?

His eyes search yours, and you’re both still trying to understand what just happened. “Did you…” He breathes in, deeply. “You didn’t want that.” He almost chokes, one hand closing over his mouth – but you still see the horror-struck expression he tries to hide. “I’m sorry. Oh my go– I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…” He trails off then, and before you can do anything, he’s moving away – fleeing the scene.

“Kai! Kai!” You call after him, wanting to know. Wanting to understand. The possibility surfaces in your mind – does the drop of rain still get to thrive, divided amongst the nine rivers? “Jongin.” You whisper it, breathing out slowly. “Jongin.”

Your hands find their way to your hair, smoothing it down, running fingers through the strands. It’s a position of lamentation. What are you even doing? Do you know what you’re doing? It feels like you’re losing it.

Losing everything.

Losing your mind.

We’re all mad here.

We’re all fakes, mirrors, imperfect images. We’re all people hidden in our own shadows.

You thought you were breaking out from yours. Are you wrong?

Get your act together.

What about Kai?

What about me?

It comes down to one question: who am I?

Then, further, what do I want?

You turn around, staring at the mirror again. Your white dress is wrinkled, and you smooth the lumps in the fabric.

Determination becomes your friend.

You don’t know what you want – not yet. You thought you knew…but in your heart of hearts? No, not yet. But you’re going to find out, you’re going to find out how to be you.

“Uh, what was that, exactly?” Chanyeol pokes his head in your room. You stare at him, wide eyed, and he stares back. “You – and Kai? I thought there was shouting or something.” Chanyeol half shrugs, moving more fully into your temporary living space.

Then – oh, heck, this again? Chanyeol’s chest is just as exposed as Kai’s, but he’s wearing a lighter color. Salmon? You think light pink in your head, but you’re not the one who was always interested in fashion. You blink back the image of a young Baekhyun rummaging around in your closet, focusing instead on Chanyeol. “It was nothing.” You swallow, hard. “Aren’t you going to be cold, sitting the van with that on?”

Chanyeol glances down as if he has only just realized what he’s wearing. “Oh, right. Nah, I’ve got my snuggly winter coat.” He smiles softly, fondly. “Besides, don’t you think my chest is nice? Baekhyun said the world should see it. Unfortunately, I’ll only be showing the inside of the van this spectacle, at least for today.” There’s a sort of triumph to his voice, and he locks eyes with you. “Well, you can look all you like.” He looks down, opening the jacket’s front wider, exposing more skin. The grin on his face is mischievous when he glances back up at you.

You roll your eyes to the ceiling. “Thanks but no thanks,” you return, closing your eyes before they open back up to focus on his face – solely his face. “Are we ready to go?”

Chanyeol quickly sports a thumbs up, nodding. “D.O.’s prepping the van. I’m your escort. Well, me and Baek.” He dips backward quickly, sticking his head out the doorway, just past the doorframe. “Baekhyun! She’s ready!”

You hear footfalls treading down the hallway, and Baekhyun slides into view – literally. His shoes squeak against the marbled floor as he slides across. He’s moving too fast, so he ends up gliding past the doorway, vanishing from sight for a brief moment. There’s a light cough and then he comes stumbling back into view. 

You get a good view of another exposed chest before his head dips back up, displaying the powder-blue tuxedo he’s wearing. It contrasts nicely with his maroon hair. “Whoops.” He smooths his shirt down, and flips his head back up, eyeing you. “Mmm, you look nice.” He ducks past Chanyeol, who straightens up and moves out of his way, blinking rapidly.

“Baekhyun.” You say his name firmly, hoping he’ll take a hint. It’s problematic, because he never does.

“What?” He looks smug. “I’m just saying, it looks nice on you, just like I thought it would.” His chin raises slightly, as though he’s feeling a bit superior after making a good choice.

Chanyeol gives you a knowing look, his eyes wide before he rolls them slightly to the side. He slides next to Baekhyun, bumping his arm against the other man, but he’s looking at you. “Ready to go?”

You close your eyes for a brief moment, steadying yourself.  Let’s go find out who I am.  

“As I’ll ever be.”

The gentle giant extends a hand, smiling. You tuck your fingers against his palm, and he pulls you closer, looping his arm around yours. The fond look he offers as he tilts his head down to look at you makes your heart thud – louder, faster (more confusion), heavy, drumming. Like with Kai.

“Then let’s do this thing.” Chanyeol declares, grinning.

Baekhyun steps around to your other side, pouting. “I wanted to say that line.”

Chanyeol’s eyelashes flutter down as he closes his lids slightly, taking on his usual scheming expression. “Too late. I got here first, so I get to say the line.”

 

 

Kai smiled emotionlessly, still trying to be cold. Still trying to put on the mask – for you or for himself, you didn’t know.  “It’s your first real mission. Are you ready?”

“Practice went well, didn’t it? Why wouldn’t I be ready?” You smirked, flashing a confident grin back at him.

“Just making sure.” Kai’s eyes took on a hint of concern, and he faced you with a softer expression than you’d seen on him before. “Because you have a heart, and I want to make sure it keeps beating.”

You were right about him – he was soft. Soft but also hard. Soft and pretty shy. Soft but also willing to do his job. He was a mess of contradictions; so were you.

You looked at him properly, eyes meeting eyes. “I’m ready. I can do this. And…and keep my heart beating. Yours too, I hope.”

Then his sunshine smile was there for the first time, the gentility of it altogether reminding you of a garden of sunflowers swaying lightly in the breeze. “Then let’s do this thing.”

 

 

You smile, turning your head to look at Chanyeol and then moving again to nod at Baekhyun. “Yes. Let’s do this thing.”

And no, you couldn’t go back to who you all were before. You couldn’t even forget. And you weren’t going to run away, not just yet. 

But you could change.

You could all change.

And maybe, just maybe, someday, you wouldn’t be as sad about that anymore. Maybe someday things would all make sense.

Chapter Text

Part X.

Chanyeol bounced his knees up and down as he sat in his computer chair, bored to death. It took a second, but he switched his position, tapping his foot against the hard floor in an unknown rhythm. His fingers drummed against his desk, just to the left of his keyboard. 

Ten seconds later, he was making a fist, and he quickly slammed in down onto the desk. “Ugh.” He was ninety percent sure he’d literally never been so bored. He slumped back into the chair, considering his options.

{Plan A}: Ask Suho when they were going out again. 

{Plan B}: Go bother the only female resident of their household, because she was way more fun than Suho. 

“Plan B it is, then.” Chanyeol grinned, making his way out of the room. The chair spun in circles behind him.

He tromped up the stairs, his feet thumping against the marble.

He bumped into Sehun on the way up, and he dramatically reached up to clutch at the youngest’s waist from two steps below him. “Sehunnie,” he whined, looking up at the younger while Sehun tried to sidestep him with an eye roll. “Do you know where-?” 

But then he remembered. 

You were gone.

He blinked, releasing the grasp he had on Sehun. “Oh.” 

Sehun was just staring down at him, expression confused, lost

Chanyeol blinked again, searching Sehun, as if the younger held the answers. Because he didn’t have them – and he needed to know…

Where were you? Why weren't you coming back? 

He’d expected that you’d come back quickly – that you’d just show back up and the door and walk in without bothering to ring the ridiculously expensive doorbell. Once the news broke that you’d disappeared, fled into the night with little warning, he resigned himself to the idea that it would only be a few more days until he saw you again.

There’s no way you’d just leave us…leave me.

{Theory A}: You were on some kind of secret assignment that no one was supposed to know about. 

{Theory B}: You were taking a temporary leave of absence to find your mother. 

The first theory made sense in his head, given Lay’s absence from the group. You were definitely skilled enough to be sent undercover, if there was a long-term assignment that required infiltration to complete.

As for the second theory... it was something you’d often talked about.

During those missions when you were confined to the van with him, you’d talked about literally anything and everything; for the most part, when you were comfortable around someone, you didn’t stop talking. Chanyeol always saw that as a good sign, and it helped that he liked talking. To you. Well, not only you, but definitely you, for sure. It was so nice. It made sense - like you each just needed each other to exist, to shine brighter on dark nights, to mirror each other as bright spots in darker lives. 

During those conversations, he learned that some part of you still felt responsible for your mother - and yes, he completely understood that. 

But you were coming back, right? Even if your mission was to find your mother, it would eventually be completed, right?

You have to come back, okay? I can’t just let go, not like this.

“Whoa, whoa – hyung? What’s wrong?” Sehun’s hands were suddenly reaching down for Chanyeol’s shoulders. 

That was when Chanyeol realized he was crying. 

——

The van is oddly silent.

You’re ninety percent sure it’s because of you, but you can’t exactly bring yourself to change the status quo. The quiet is nice. It gives you time to think.

You’re in this for the long con. Or the medium con? There’s not much technical ground covered in the way of this type of ploy – it’s going to be neither fast nor short.

You’ll simultaneously play the role of the grifter and the roper, with Suho as the inside man. Sehun will be the fixer, and D.O. is the floater. Kai is running as the greaseman, Chanyeol’s the hacker on comms and the wheelman if things get too out of hand. Baekhyun’s the lucky shill, if he works his position correctly.

It’s one of the group’s specialties: a white queen con. No other team in the country really uses it, but you’ve been known to play many variants before.

In a way, you’re excited to see how it unfolds. In another way, you’re strangely afraid. Sure, it hasn’t been that long since you’ve done this, but if you blow something, the whole team is in jeopardy.

Why did you agree to this?

The nerves spread throughout your whole body, leaving you with a settling chill.

From the left, Baekhyun’s hand settles on your bare thigh, the pressure of his fingers gentle even as he starts what you’re sure is supposed to be a soothing rub against the skin. It feels wrong, for millions of reasons.

You shove his hand away, avoiding looking at him – you know exactly what his face will say. Sad, utterly sad, and utterly sorry. You’ve seen it before.

Your eyes find Chanyeol’s, mostly because he’s been staring at the scene, you suspect.

He doesn’t know what Baekhyun did, you’re sure.

Even with all the forgiveness in your heart, you can’t bring yourself to forget everything. Even if he is family that you can seem to let go of. Even if you’ve spent your time trying to regard his actions as just another helpful Baekhyun moment. Thanks, but no thanks, that kind of thing. It’s your excuse for labelling him as though he’s the devil in your life. 

You want to tell Chanyeol. Chanyeol was always that one that you could talk to, nonstop, without feeling like he’d judge you. Because he’d laugh at the right moments, look solemn at the right moments, and just nod along like he was rocking out as the drummer for his old band. There’s something almost magical that happens when you talk to Chanyeol, like you’re experiencing something so ridiculously important by doing something so utterly simple. It was nice. It is nice. Those are memories you like - the reminders of his laugh, the smiles in his eyes, the way he seemed to shine with a new light every time you’d talk. 

Can you stop being so emotional

The setup in the van has you sitting across from him, but it reminds you of the times when you were the only two sitting here.

Suho used to order you to stay behind whenever they started toting the guns out – at least for a while, they treated you like some kind of young, innocent kid, and then, later on, you were too valuable to risk. Chanyeol was your constant companion during those days. You were both too important to the team to be exposed to violence, what with the limited combat experience you both had, although that meant completely ignoring the training you both had from Baekhyun in hapkido and Xiumin in taekwondo. 

You watch Chanyeol for a moment, just lost in your own thoughts. His gaze shifts slightly, sliding to Sehun on your right.

This is weird, admittedly, when you think about it.

D.O. in the driver’s seat, Suho in the passenger’s seat – and you’re literally left in the back with your ex-best friend, your former favorite-people-ever, and the boy who’d been your first real love. There’s no other way to describe Kai, not in your mind. 

You have no idea which one means the most to you. You have no idea who, no idea why, and no idea what

You close your eyes, flashing through memories.

A soft hand in yours, the swings creaking as you both rocked back and forth, kicking up the dust beneath your feet. Tears wiped away, gap-toothed smiles appearing - the image of youth, the absence of wariness, the presence of unguarded emotions. 

A mission gone wrong, dark blood sweeping from a deep wound, backed into a tight corner. The promise, accompanied by a sunshine smile, that you’d make it out somehow, no matter what happened. There was no giving up, no getting caught, no running away. Unless it was together. 

A starry night sky. The void, the silence, but not quite. Happiness filled the space – no one had to prove loyalty, because it was clearly there, too. Linked pinkies had to be worth something, right? It was like looking into a reflection of the same heart. 

A gentle hum from a whirring computer, the creaking from the chair that unexpectedly hosted two bodies, arms wrapped around your back – who knows who owned the tears that fell? Who knows who owned the smiles that came after? It seemed like time had completely stopped. 

You shift, coming back to yourself, more uncomfortable than you think you should be.

You look up at Chanyeol’s dark eyes again, wondering how he feels, wondering how he felt while you were gone, wondering if he’d still talk to you like he used to when you were alone.

“Okay, we’re at the first drop spot,” Suho announces, his fingers deftly reaching for the handle above the passenger side door. His eyes find you quickly, and he gives a short nod. “We’re up.”

A rush passes through your system.

No.

Don’t do it.

Don’t you dare.

“I need to talk to Chanyeol.”

Okay, so you definitely need more practice at listening to the more intelligent side of your brain.

Your eyes widen; so do Kai’s, and furthermore, Sehun tilts his head to calmly observe you as though you’ve gone crazy.

Yes, I have.

Chanyeol barely reacts – maybe he knew that you’d want this even before you did.

Suho shakes his head. “We have a short window here, you know that.”

Yes, you do. But you need to talk to Chanyeol. For some reason, you need to talk to Chanyeol – it just feels like it’s suddenly the most important thing in the world, and you’re way past ready to be impulsive.

“It’s important.” You’re not demanding, per se, but the stress you put on the words is persuasive. “Mission critical.” You’d like to sound sarcastic for that particular phrase, but that would make things worse in this particular case. The short huff of laughter from Sehun doesn’t escape you, and you almost crack a smile at that.

Suho stares you down like he’s willing you to crack. Sure, the guy is an expert in interrogation, but you know him. He’s not all that intimidating, not in the long run – especially not the man who so recently begged you to come back like he was about to fracture into a million pieces.

You win.

“Fine,” Suho relents. “I’ll be waiting in the car.” It’s not going to be a stolen one, interestingly enough. This is one of Junmyeon’s cars, legitimately.

You breathe out, gently, as Suho clambers out of the van. It feels like you’re in more of a maze now, stuck between people you cared (no, come on, you don’t still care about them, do you?) about more than you even cared about your own life. And, maybe, you’re stuck between still caring and still leaving.

It’s no easy task in a white dress, especially knowing that you have to keep it pristine, but you race for the van’s back door before anyone else can move. You adjust the handle, letting yourself out. Your descent expresses the height of your emotions – you thud on the ground, thankful for low heels and equally thankful that no one had tried to help you down.

Chanyeol’s lanky form follows you out. In that split second, you catch Kai’s eyes. Blinking rapidly, you try to clear that expression out of your mind: utter disappointment.

The van door slams, waking you from attempts at righting your mind. You can’t be stressed out now – not when you’re about to have the final performance of your life.

“What did you want to talk about?” Chanyeol’s expression is curious, his eyes following your movements as you straighten out your outfit and try to pretend like your rather short heels aren’t already affecting your feet.

 “Hey.” It’s short, because your brain is racing. Why do you want to talk to him? What do you want to talk about? You don’t even know. Maybe…you sort of just want to look at him. It’s not as if he hasn’t been in the background, lurking in your mind every time one of the others does something, says something – they’re all so interconnected that it would be impossible to right those thoughts in your head. But then you stumble on something that bothers you, and even as it bothers you, you speak it. “You have to be prepared, okay? If anything happens, you have to get everyone out of here.”

You know you’ll be the closest to danger, so you have to worry about the rest of them first. It makes the most sense.

“But…” The gears in Chanyeol’s head are already turning, because he’s gaping like a fish. “No. No way. You’re asking me to leave you if something goes south? No.” He’s ridiculously adamant, his hands moving around vehemently. “None of us would…we can’t…no.”

You slap a hand to your forehead. “Look, this could definitely go south. We’ve had plenty of things go wrong on jobs before, and you’ve literally left each of us behind at least once, right? So there should be no problem here. Suho’s existence is kind of at stake.” You shake your head, still kind of pissed that this is the assignment they want to pull off – there’s a lot of risk here. Again – why was this the job they picked? “And if he’s exposed, we’re all dead.”

“He’s not going to be,” Chanyeol insists, shaking his crop of black hair as he moves his head. “We’re careful. We’re always careful.” Then his arms fold across his chest. “And I’m not going to leave you. If we are blown, we’re all dead, anyway.”

You try to be reasonable. Honestly, you’re not associated with the team anymore, so if they get busted, you’re probably better off as a separate entity anyway. You’d “gone dark” if the media was to be trusted, so why would you suddenly be a suspect if the crew got made? Even as Suho’s arm candy, there would be no real link to his criminal undertakings, if you played your cards right.

But Chanyeol continues, huffing out a breath. “I’m not letting you go. I’m not leaving you behind. You can leave me all you want, but I’d never do that to you, not now.” The sincerity of his eyes is the first thing you catch, but you can only glance to the side, lamenting. This is something like a prodigal son situation – you came back, and now they want you more than ever, because you just had to go and leave them in the first place. Well, that point stands for about half of the group.

And those ones are so scared to lose you again that they won’t even let you breathe.

Xiumin’s the only one who makes sense. He wants to be with you, so he’ll go. He’ll leave, just like you left.

So…maybe they aren’t so attached to this lifestyle – maybe there’s a spark of hope? You’ve always tied the two together; the gang that’s Exo is the same as the people that make up Exo.

What if it doesn’t have to be that way?

What if there’s a possibility you can all be safe and normal together? Like, can’t you all just “go dark,” together? But there are sure to be complications, just as there are with everything you get into. 

“I missed you too,” you say, nodding sharply. Chanyeol’s eyes widen. You half smile. “But I’m still a person, and this is still a job, Yeol. At this point, we all have to do what it takes to see it through.”

He looks down, slightly chastised. “It didn’t feel right.” You tilt your head, trying to decipher his meaning. He glances back up at you, quirking a small smile that causes his ears to twitch slightly. “The van. It was silent without you.”

You can’t help the exasperated but fond smile that slips across your face. Chanyeol’s not exactly a fan of silence, so you interpret it the only way you can: you were missed too.

Chanyeol holds out his arms, the long, incredibly sturdy things that they are. “Come here.”

You hesitate – oh, Lord, this feels like trouble – but you close your eyes and allow your face to fall into an expression of defeat. The way your arms slide under his arms, the way you only come up to about his shoulder… It’s like being surrounded by a comforting, protective tower. And this time, you’re okay with his embrace. And he’s wearing more clothing than before, which is equally comforting.

“Promise me.” You mumble, knowing very well that he may not hear you. “Promise me, you’ll get Sehun out first. He’s the one I’m really worried about.” Kai’s outside, Baekhyun’s outside, D.O. can take care of himself and Suho…so, Sehun’s the one you’re really concerned for. If he’s made, you have no idea what you’ll do.

Chanyeol doesn’t speak for a moment; you’re not even sure he heard you, muffled as you must be against his shoulder. But his voice, quietly, comes around again. “Okay.” So it’s Sehun, then? Or… Baekhyun? “What’s with you and Baekhyun?”

You sigh, pulling away from the embrace.

Because you know Chanyeol so well, you know how he looks at things. As much of a gentle giant as he is, he loves competition. Or hates it. Honestly, you can’t tell for sure. And as much as he loves Baekhyun... something has him on edge. About him and you, together. About secrets that might be shared without him, like you’d leave him out of the loop“Nothing.” But you want to tell him. “Well.” You breathe in deeply through your nose. “It’s a long story. As much as I love Baekhyun, he’s the worst. The worst and the best all at once. Sometimes I hate him and sometimes I adore him.” You smile, because you’re ninety percent sure that’s about how Chanyeol is with Baekhyun too. “You know we grew up together, but he...look, it’s about my mom, okay? You know how I’ve been looking for her for so long? Baekhyun is why I can’t find her.” 

Chanyeol’s eyes are wide. “Wait, what?” 

“He got her out of the country.” You shake your head. The reminder - it hurts. It’s been hurting you, but it’s nice to have someone you can talk to about it. It’s not like you could walk up to your father and say ‘Hey, remember my best bud Baekhyun? Yeah, he helped mom leave us, so that’s a thing.’ “Got her papers and everything. I hated him for a little bit, even if it was in her best interest. He made sure it was dead near impossible to find her, too.” You wave your hands. “It’s like I want to thank him and then kill him.” Well, you have other reasons for wanting to murder him too, but they’re not as personal. 

“Look, I know this sounds impossible, if he’s really done such a good job,” Chanyeol starts, toying with his ear, “but I know everyone leaves a trail. I can find her.” His eyes are bright with hope, determination, and okay, yes, yours probably are too. “If we make it out of this.” 

You blink at him, comfort settling in your chest. Nothing has changed. With you and Chanyeol, nothing has changed. It’s the first clear moment you’ve had in a while. Suho’s gotten clingy, D.O.’s gotten oddly sentimental, Chen has turned into some version of a flirt, Xiumin’s harder to read than ever, Baekhyun has begun to be more perplexing than usual...and your relationship with Kai? A mess. Sehun... well, you don’t know yet. 

But Chanyeol is constant. Weirdly constant. For all his usual energy, he seems settled into this, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Like he did know you were gone, he was aware, but really didn’t care about that - just about you. Just like he did before. Just like you did for each other. 

The revving of an engine interrupts the thoughts swirling around your brain. It’s the start of a migraine, but you push it away in favor of looking toward the Lamborghini Veneno that is occupied by leader Suho. Or is he Junmyeon now?  

“Ready?” He looks oddly cheery for someone who may be about to blow his golden rich boy image to smithereens. 

“Sure.” No. Now you’re actually getting scared. Butterflies are carving into your stomach like cannibals. But that’s okay - being nervous will help your cover. 

Chanyeol looks at you; you stare back. You’re trying to memorize his face. In case something happens. It’s been so long since you’ve worried about this. 

And then it’s like - why did you leave them? You weren’t much help in a fight, maybe, given your smaller stature and size, but you still could have been a measure of protection. Somehow.  

You never think things through, do you? 

Because their safety is as much theirs to worry about as it is yours.

But I thought-?

No, stupid, stop thinking!

But...

Now you start to wonder - can you leave them again? Knowing that you may never see them again? Knowing that one day, a con could be too much, and suddenly snatch them up, suddenly decimate them? Knowing they could be- 

Chanyeol tugs you close again. This time, though, he presses a gentle kiss to your forehead, dipping down just slightly. 

And you think to yourself: great. Stupid stupid stupid. Attachment attachment attachment

But you’re only human. 

A human looking on through a broken mirror, through a broken looking glass. Can you put the pieces back together? That’s the real question. 

 

——

 

Suho’s sweet when he talks, but you’re used to it. 

He’s nice, too nice - if that’s something that can apply to a lying, secretive son of a - 

“I’m going to introduce you to father, okay? He can’t react too badly, given the presence of so many important guests.” He’s Kim Junmyeon now, and that’s all you’re allowed to call him. “But there’s only one person you should care about. The host, Kim Junho.” It’s not a name you’re extremely familiar with outside of the con, but it sounds oddly remiscinet of something. 

It takes a moment.

Yesung.

Your unofficial mentor in all things grift-related. The former actor had some odd connections - not just Sehun’s favorite bounty hunter, Donghae, and Baekhyun’s wacky weapons supplier, Heechul - even such characters as quality tactics experts like U-Know and explosives specialists like MAX. 

But where did Kim Junho fit into that mess? 

“As you know, he’s the senior manager at the more local branch of ____ _____ Bank.” 

And as you have known for days, this looks to be one of the biggest bank heists pulled off in centuries. 

Even as Junmyeon rattles on, driving with as much speed as possible while giving Baekhyun and Sehun enough time to be in place for their jobs, you can’t help but worry. 

This is a big hit. 

It could be a huge score. 

Or a huge loss. 

There’s no telling with these kinds of things. These kinds of cons are straight up games of chance. You could gain it all or lose it all - and to win, a lot of the burden rides on you. 

Hooray

You feel like asking if Suho understands your opinion - if maybe he could see the appeal of a simpler lifestyle. One that doesn’t involve so much risk. 

But that’s part of the problem, you know. 

Junmyeon does want a simpler lifestyle; he thinks he’s found that in Suho. Like being Suho means he has his freedom from things forced upon him. Being Suho is his own choice

Has he never stopped to realize that it could be even more simple? More subtle? More normal? 

Because that’s all you want for him: the best. 

Because, with you, hate and love are very fine lines. There’s not as much space in between as you’ve tried to convince yourself there is. 

“Everything’s in place, boss.” Chanyeol’s voice echoes through your head, through the earpieces lodged near enough to your eardrum. 

Junmyeon pulls the car up to an elegant mansion. It doesn’t impress you. Firstly because you’ve seen so many of these places before, and secondly, this display of wealth is something you care nothing for. 

Baekhyun greets you both formally as D.O. appears out of nowhere. 

He looks every inch as rigid as a bodyguard should be, and, as cliche as it is, he’s wearing dark sunglasses. You’re just a tiny bit surprised that he’s not laughing, even if it might end up being a bit derisive in the end. 

Junmyeon tosses Baekhyun the keys to the Veneno without really acknowledging him: exactly how a rich brat might treat the hired help. 

Then he opens your door, extending an arm. “Shall we?” 

He’s really not asking as though you have a choice - so you take his arm, as planned. 

Sure, stick to the plan. 

And yet a million things from here on in will have to be on-the-fly, or go-with-the-flow. 

D.O. trails after you, and you let your eyes wander as Junmyeon leads you up a wide staircase to the big double doors at the top of the stairs. Other people tread upward nearby, but you avoid staring in order to avoid drawing attention.

Junmyeon is about to make a grand announcement anyway. 

Jun tucks his hand in yours as the butlers waiting at the entrance to the mansion open the tall oaken doors. Another couple hurries in and you carefully follow, taking care to keep your fingers twined with those of your new “husband”. 

Some people stare as you walk down the hall to the grand ballroom, but that’s normal, probably. It’s not like you’d know. You’re not the child of a rich economics whiz. 

You’re just careful about the eyes, smiling like you mean it. As much as you might want to loosen yourself from Junmyeon’s side, you can’t. Not if you want to get this right. 

“Securing the perimeter now.” Kai’s voice, oddly somber, resonates through your earpiece, and you watch Suho nod absently. 

A few people bow back in his direction, likely assuming he means to greet them. 

Inside the large residence, there are so many people: wealthy businessmen, CEOs, presidents of different companies, and leaders in the entertainment industry. 

But who are you most concerned with? Kim Junho. 

You’ve memorized his face, just as you’ve memorized what he does. He has a lot of trust from the CEO of the banking company he works with, and furthermore, direct access to the local branch of the bank as executive over the financial management of the group’s subsidiary. 

It’s not hard to spot him in the crowd, needless to say, but there’s another obstacle in your way: Professor Kim. Rather, Junmyeon’s father, Kim Yongha. You’ve never met. 

He has Masters in economics, finance, and insurance, is a professor at a prestigious university, and has served as a financial advisor for countless companies, probably including a vast majority of people in the room. 

As for his own million dollar company? CEO-led, until Junmyeon is ready to take over. Like he has any say in the matter. 

You glance at your partner, noting how his eyes stray toward his father. Your fingers squeeze his, and you offer him the softest, most domestic smile you can manage.

His eyebrow arches, but you’re sure he understands: hey, I’m sorry about your father’s rotten company-related plans - also, did you notice our target standing next to him?  

And with that, Junmyeon leads you into the group, coming up right next to his father. 

“Hello, father.” The formal usage makes sense in public, but it’s also likely to be used at home in this particular case.

“Junmyeon,” his father greets, as they acknowledge each other. “I’m glad you could make it.” He eyes you, and under normal circumstances you might be surprised by his immediate warmness. “Ah, and your lovely wife is here as well.” 

You smile pleasantly, tipping your head toward the professor; you’re immediately quite interested in be situation. You weren’t aware that there had been any communication about you - and your relationship with Junmyeon - with Professor Kim.

A woman on the arm of a nearby businessman cuts in. “I wasn’t aware that you were married,” she starts, greeting you with the fakest smile you think you’ve ever seen. “Congratulations to both of you.” 

Her partner echoes the sentiment, raising the glass in his hand, as if to celebrate the utter surprise of a marriage you’d conjured up. 

The professor leads you and Junmyeon around, introducing you to the immediate circle of people. 

“...and this is Mr. Kim,” Junmyeon’s father concludes, directing your attention to Kim Junho as he politely refers to the gentleman. Like clockwork

Mr. Kim - one of many here tonight, you suspect - bows toward you, with a hand extended toward your really-quite-fake-husband. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” 

“And yours as well,” Junmyeon returns, equally as considerate. His polite, gentlemanly smile exudes confidence. 

Junmyeon lets out an almost pleased huff as introductions are finished. Then D.O. leans toward him, whispering something quickly before moving back into a stiff position. 

It’s a Suho smile that resumes on the leader’s face as he looks out at the group surrounding his father. “If you’ll excuse us, I have my heart set on finding Siwon.” He grinned lightly, believably excited about the prospect of seeing CEO’s son Choi Siwon. 

In reality you suspect it’s a tactic to allow your trio to observe and roam around the host’s immediate area. You want to get a feel for your mark as well. 

Professor Kim dismisses you both, though his eyes linger on you. 

As soon as you’re out of earshot, you tug on Junmyeon’s arm. “You told your father about us?” Even you can hear how frosty your voice sounds. 

Your leader just smiles a long-suffering grin, probably having expected this. “Why not? I had to prepare him for the expectation. Besides, I have to think he was rather pleased about the whole thing. He’s always wanted a daughter.”

“And when the con’s over?” You keep your voice low, a smile plastered on your face as other guests walk by the pair of you - and D.O., of whom they seem slightly more wary. “What then? Early divorce?” If his father hadn’t been involved at all, maybe you would have gotten away with it.

“Guess you’ll just have to stay with me then.” He says airily, but you’re ninety percent sure he’s teasing you. His eyes move toward you and he leans in slightly. “If marriage is “grand,” what is divorce?” 

You’re thrown off by the sudden question. “What the heck are you talking about?”  

Junmyeon smiles wider. “A hundred grand. Or more.” The way he continues the dead-in-the-water pun without missing a beat is fascinating, really fascinating. 

He’s crazy. 

“Okay, none of that, thanks,” Chanyeol says through your earpiece as he seems to understand what Suho was reaching for. He sounds very much like he’s rolling his eyes. 

Sehun adds a gagging noise, clearly also pretty disturbed. “I know you think you’re funny, but no. Just no.” 

“That didn’t even make sense,” you further. “Like...what? Did you make that one up?” It’s not like you haven’t been subjected to his jokes before, but he usually puts in a little more effort than that

“Just trying to lighten the mood,” he sings through gritted teeth as you both smile at a passerby. 

“Kim Junmyeon!” The entrance of a very huffy voice attracts the attention of both of you, and you try to find the source of the higher-pitched, feminine tone. 

The approaching young woman has dyed blonde locks, strategically wavy and resting on her shoulders. Her heels clack on the floor as she moves into your space. “Is it true? Say it isn’t so!” She sounds like she’s in the middle of some kind of elaborate romantic drama. Her eyes catch yours and she glares. “So this is the absolute who-” 

“My wife, yes,” Junmyeon interrupts with a decisive frown. It’s not like you were oblivious to the insult she was trying to aim for. 

She snorts, looking you over. “Gold digger,” she seems to determine, echoing her words with a sly sniff. “How old are you?” She glares, inspecting you with a tilt of her head. “What does your family do? What’s your go-to clothing brand?” You blink, trying to keep up with the litany of questions. “What’s your makeup budget? How many cars do you own?” 

“Would anyone care for a glass of champagne?” This second interruption is more welcome. 

The boys, when they’re at home (ah, their home, you remind yourself), would be more included to soju, but Sehun’s all dressed up to be serving out glasses of finer delicacies. 

He extends his tray toward the group as Suho beckons. For a moment, your unwelcome guest looks stunned to have been interrupted, but one glance at the server has almost literal hearts suddenly forming in her eyes. 

Yep, everybody’s attracted to Sehun. Male, female, younger, older - for the most part it doesn’t even matter. The only reason you hate it so much is because they don’t know him. Then again, if they did, maybe they’d actually love him. 

Wait. 

What? 

Sehun eyes you as Junmyeon accepts a glass, carefully removing it from the tray. You tilt your head away, considering your own train of thoughts.

Well, yeah, so what? Other people and their affections have nothing to do with you. 

“Thank you.” Those are the only words you can quite think, and you’re saying them for Junmyeon, not for you, but you nod at Sehun nonetheless. 

He winks, but it’s barely there. Something in you suspects it’s just his way of letting you know he’s here, keeping his eyes open for the sake of the mission. “My pleasure.” And then he whirls away just as quickly as he came in. 

“...well, nice to see you, but we must be going.” Junmyeon is in uber-polite mode, but that doesn’t stop him from sounding a bit irked with your unexpected female rival. 

As soon as the opportunity for escape presents itself, he whirls you away, hand sliding around your arm. 

“Everything looks to be secured by keypads.” D.O. speaks up, once you’re out of range of any prying ears. You almost forgot he was with you during that altercation - that’s how silent he’s been. “Chanyeol? Anything you could do about that?” The unbothered bodyguard slips off his sunglasses, looking thoughtful. 

Chanyeol’s voice buzzes through the device in your ears. “I’ll take a look. Depends a lot on what kind of security system he’s got. It’s not like this place was our first priority. That stupid bank has the full nine, though. It seems more relaxed here, but only just so.” 

You ponder your options for getting close to the mark. “If I can get close enough to find his weaknesses, getting into the security system is the next step.” Distraction is your main goal here, until the later parts of the assignment. And in response to the mini monologue? You hear Chanyeol starting a drum beat with his fingers. “Chanyeol?” 

“It’s cool. We’re on an isolated frequency. Just you and me,” he explains with a rather audible grin in his voice. 

“Why?” You roll your eyes, glancing at Junmyeon, who doesn’t seem fazed in the least. Maybe he assumed you were directing your thoughts to him, or D.O. 

“Because I have some info. Like, did you know that this guy has some pretty famous paintings stored on the lower levels of this place? It’s supposed to be some kind of private art gallery.” His tone is oddly excited, and growing more so. “Oh, wow, get this! Rumor has it he’s got a pretty big haul of diamonds in his personal vault. All legal stuff in his hands, but man, that would be cooler in our hands.” 

“Mission first, okay? Side notes later. Although, the art gallery is interesting. Rich people somehow always have time for that stuff.” You keep your tone down, trying to avoid offending Junmyeon. 

It’s at that moment that the man in question nudges your side, just lightly. “Hmm, did you say something?” 

“Nothing much,” you return, scowling as Chanyeol hisses a laugh on the other end of your communication device. 

He releases your arm suddenly, nodding in true leader fashion.“I’m going to greet a few business partners.” You interpret it as an attempt to do some recon of the interior of the host’s residence, while Kai is scanning weaker points on the outside. 

Maybe Chanyeol knows something you don’t - maybe they are planning a score here. You can imagine the temptation diamonds offer. 

“Why don’t you go mingle?” Suho suggests, and that’s the identity he assumes now. With a raise of his eyebrows, he disappears, closely followed by D.O.

The latter stops briefly, head tilting back in your direction. His eyes are wide, full of something, some important thing, unreadable as they are. “Be careful.” And then he moves off, following the leader. 

You’re left alone, readying a strategy. Except...not really. You work the best when you’re allowed to wing it. And right now, you feel it - confidence, understanding, assertiveness. It jumps under your skin. 

“I’m going back to the main line now.” Chanyeol’s voice, quieter than before, comes again. “I just...look, don’t stick your neck out, okay? You, Xiumin, Suho, and Baekhyun...you guys are weird, it’s like you all have some kind of inherent instinct to sacrifice yourselves for other people. Just, don’t do it this time, okay? Otherwise I’ll literally come in there, guns a-blazing.” 

At that, you laugh. Maybe it’s weird, because to everyone else, it would look like you’re indulging in a joke with yourself. But picturing Chanyeol toting around heavy firearms is just such an interesting image.  

And then you get your perfect opportunity - Kim Junho is walking toward the tasteful little bar set up at one end of the room, perfectly unaccompanied. Unmarried, about five or so years older than Suho, remarkably wealthy...you’re honestly a bit surprised the women aren’t hanging off of him. For all Suho said about his preferences, you have a slightly different picture. Maybe there’s something about him that’s off, personality-wise. 

You won’t know until you get a bit closer, so that’s what you’re going to do. 

You trail after your mark, smiling serenely and admiring your view of the room. When you reach the bar, he’s in conversation with one of the servers.

Sehun pops up suddenly from behind the bar, and you act as naturally as you can. “Whoa, did not see you there.” You’re playing a young woman, a bit nervous, a bit college-fresh. 

“My apologies, miss.” Sehun says as formally as possible, but his amusement is clear, if only to you. His tongue sweeps over his lips before he speaks again. “Is there something I can get you?” 

Kai’s warning about avoiding heavy drinking resonates in the back of your mind. “If you have any baekse-ju, that would be lovely.” You’re not really a fan, but a lot of younger people are, so it makes a good choice in terms of your character. 

“Of course.” You barely pay attention to Sehun’s assembly. It’s not like you’d really know if he was doing things correctly, because you’re really not into alcoholic beverages. 

When he does slide the glass your way, you’re forced to take a sip, if only because of the continued presence of your host. You ordered the drink; you’re not about to shirk your polite duty in consuming it. 

As you do so, the clearing of a throat catches your attention. You swallow cleanly, schooling your face so you don’t cringe, and turn. 

Got ‘em. 

“Greetings,” Mr. Kim starts, bowing. You follow his action, tilting your head forward. “You’re Kim Junmyeon’s lovely wife, is that right?” He says, referring to you by the name Professor Kim had given earlier. “No wonder Mr. Kim has been keeping you a secret for so long.” His words are accompanied by a charming smile.

You can only react with a laugh. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Kim,” you admit, nodding your head to the senior bank executive. 

“In our world, perhaps,” he comments, sounding amused. “Although, perhaps...is this the kind of world you come from?” 

He’s very forward, you’ll give him that. Still, in the interest of politeness, you give him a warm-hearted smile, trying to tread in comfortable territory. “Not exactly. My background is relatively unimpressive.” 

“Interesting,” he remarks congenially, and you’re wondering if you’re going to lose him...except for that fact that you’ve already baited him for another question. “How did you meet your husband?” 

There it is. “I was a history major at the university. I had a very interesting run in with this really nice guy and it turned out to be the best mistake of my life.” You laugh, as if you’re caught in the memories. “He was visiting his father that day, and it was like fate, you know? The weirdest crossing of paths ever. One minute, I was absorbed in realist paintings by Shin Yunbok, and the next moment I was colliding with the man of basically everyone’s dreams. Funny how life changes.” But then you feel Sehun’s eyes on you and your chest tightens in awareness. 

Your attention turns back to the mark: now he looks interested, and you silently thank Chanyeol for his tip. Art gallery to art history, here we go. “History? I see. So you studied art?” 

“Of course. History itself is a work of art, the way I see it,” you start, laying it on thick. “There’s so much to learn from, so many people of so many different cultures and backgrounds and characters. It’s the rich coloration of life.”

His eyes practically sparkle. Kim Junho is eating this up.

You sip lightly from your glass as he starts detailing his adventures at BNU, a Chinese university you’ve definitely heard of. It’s noted for its prestigious name, and you keep that in mind as he goes on and on about his career. He’s interested in baseball of all things, but plays soccer on and off as part of a charity league. 

An all-around good guy, it seems. Nothing about his character immediately screams unapproachable. But you wonder if that’s because you’re quite used to educated people - quite used to all sorts, really. If girls in this walk of life are anything like the woman who had approached you and Junmyeon earlier...they care about little other than prestige. Little other than making it far. 

It’s...sad

And knowing Suho comes from this?

You might understand him better now.

As you move away from the bar, admiring his home in casual remarks, your conversation with the mark drifts to Junmyeon naturally. “He’s really invested in leadership,” you praise, and that’s not exactly a lie. “The telecommunications enterprise is booming and there are new investors lining up every day. His experience in business is always so underestimated, but he handles himself well. Finically speaking, the company generates quite a bit of capital. I think Jun will do well when he does take over the majority of company functions.” And maybe it’s because you’re good at talking circles around people, but the words just seem to keep flowing, even though you’re really quite lacking in understanding on these topics. 

Mr. Kim ducks into a more secluded alcove, and you’re okay with it. Your mark is growing more comfortable around you. “If you’re ever looking to patronize a well-known, stable financial institution, ___ ____ Bank is highly recommended,” Mr. Kim reminds, smiling placidly. “You seem to have a skilled command of business yourself.” 

The college-esque, shy girl image you’ve conjured up beams with pride. “Thank you.” 

“But it’s not that particular business I’m interested in.” Mr. Kim adds, continuing in the same casual tone as he leans in slightly. “There are bigger things at stake, I think.” 

His hands dart out, reaching for you. Now you’re not so okay with being alone. You’re about ready to cry out for help - any of the boys might come running - but it turns out that his intentions aren’t quite what you’d imagined.

He fumbles for a moment, reaching for your ears. He tugs your earpieces out as you try to shove him away. As the buds sit comfortably in his hand, he continues his previous thoughts. “You would know, wouldn’t you, Queen of Hearts?” 

Your heart stills in your chest, but you quickly tilt your head, narrowing your eyes. “I’m sorry, what?” He can’t know – how would he? You giggle slightly, ready to play this off as you reach for your earpiece. “Sorry, that’s for the bodyguard to keep in contact with me. Junmyeon –”

“Suho, you mean?” Mr. Kim’s lips quirk to the side, devious. His fingers pinch the device, and then he slips it into his pocket gingerly.

You think you’re about to die, right then and there. This…your mind races. How? How does he know such details? The reason for the code names in the first place is to prevent something like this from happening. Suho is Suho – for jobs, for team purposes – but with his father, with the company, he’s Junmyeon. There’s no reason for the two names to cross.

They never have, of that much, you’re certain.

So how does he know?

“Who’s Suho?” The way he’s phrased it makes it impossible for you to recognize the words as anything other than a reference to a name, but that doesn’t mean you can’t redirect such attention from your supposed husband. “Mr. Kim, please, I need that. That device belongs to my husband. If we are disconnected, he may become concerned.”

Mr. Kim clicks his tongue, as is apt of elders, but you suspect he does not have the same sense of disapproval that usually accompanies the sound. “He did say you were quite the actress. I suppose the media praised your skills enough, too.”

He? For the incredible amount of information packed into that sentence, that’s the word you linger on the most. 

“If you’ll accompany me, I think I can shed some light on the unfortunate situation you’ve found yourself in.” Mr. Kim waves for you to follow him.

Still keeping up your ploy of confusion, you move after him, questions pouring past your lips. “Where are we off to, sir? I should probably let Junmyeon know where he can find me, especially if you’re insistent on keeping my earpiece. I apologize if it worries you.” You frown at his back as he faces away, tempted to stick your tongue out. “Sir? Is there something in particular you’d like to show me? I heard you had quite an art collection – that would be wonderful to see.” You gush as much as you can, laying on the sweetness, the innocence. But he’s taken away your method of keeping in contact with the team.

That alone should concern them all enough – especially Chanyeol, who prides himself on getting the best toys – but you have no idea how to help them figure out the circumstances that surround your disconnection. Getting back to Suho’s side would be the best method, but it may be a problem at this point.

Mr. Kim turns suddenly, extending outstretched fingers your way. “If you’ll follow me, please.” It seems his smile is firmly plastered in place, because he’s returned to acting like a gentleman.

He’s leading you down a stairway. “Mr. Kim, sir, this is highly irregular.” You look around, hoping to spot Sehun, because he should be subtle enough to help you out of the situation without raising extra suspicion. “Please, Junmyeon will be looking for me.”

“If you ever want to see your mother again, I would advise holding your tongue.” He bites out, fingers tightening around yours.

The words stop you short – it takes a moment before you can compose yourself, and by then, you’re okay, because why can’t you be surprised about his sudden insertion of your mother into the conversation? You don’t have to be, roleplay or no roleplay. “I’m sorry?”

Without turning around, Mr. Kim continues, his tone even, almost mock-concerned. “Quite confused, aren’t you? I know where your mother is. I understand you’ve been looking for her for quite some time.”

You hit the bottom of the staircase, nearly falling over. How to play this? Innocent schoolgirl? Mature and hopeful? Maybe you can get information out of him without leading your team into danger. Widening your eyes, you make them as large as you can. “Sir? You know where my mother is…” You suck in a breath, lost more in the con now than your own emotions, dedicated to making this work well. “I have been looking for her, yes. How did you know? Can you tell me where she is?” Now you appear desperate, folding your hands together and aggressively bowing in the executive’s direction.

Mr. Kim huffs out a laugh, probably thinking he’s won you over. “That depends on how much you can do for me.”

You furrow your eyebrows, expressing confusion, wondering what he’s asking for. “I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

He’s remarkably silent for a moment, leading you down a hallway. As much as you’d like to escape, you’re determined – firstly, to save the con, second, if you can’t save it, you’ll take him down - or go down protecting the rest of the group, and third…well, yes, you’re actually curious to know whether his knowledge of your mother is truly a bluff or not.

He pauses in front of a door on the left, rifling around in his pocket. It’s an opportunity to you – a moment where he’s distracted, and you can retrieve your earpiece. Then you can at least warn the others of the impending issues, and maybe form a wider plan. 

“Don’t even think about it.” As if he’s heard the gears shifting in your mind, Mr. Kim eyes you with a scowl. “I’m not that unprepared, my oblivious little con artist.”

You raise your eyebrows. “Sir – are you sure you haven’t mistaken me for someone else?”

Mr. Kim straightens up, a key in hand. He unlocks the door, and his expression shifts into something cocky, arrogant. Like he knows exactly what kind of game you’re playing. “I’m sure this is going to be quite the devastating experience for you, my dear, but when I first saw you, I did think you have an air of naivety around you.” He smiles a poison smile. “That interests me immensely.”

For a moment, you wonder if you’d accidentally achieved an unwanted objective. Even though he appears to be aware of your identity, Suho’s identity – maybe even your whole team’s – maybe you’ve unwittingly done what Suho originally wanted, and unintentionally seduced the mark. Is that what this is? I-know-who-you-are-and-if-you-don’t-remain-with-me-I’ll-expose-your-team? You shudder. Well. Eww.

For whatever he may think he knows about you, he should know better than to isolate himself in your company. If he knows anything, he should fear putting himself in a situation like this. You’re certainly not above self-defense.

“As much as you interest me, you’re not exactly part of Exo any longer. They’re my concern, primarily.” He speaks lightly, and then pushes the door open.

You weren’t sure what to expect; surprise hits you as you realize he has brought you somewhere you’ve already spoken about. It’s the private art gallery you mentioned only moments ago. You turn to him, eyes full of questions, real ones, but only in the interest of playing the con out.

”Is this what you’re interested in, perhaps? Or is it my diamonds?” Mr. Kim looks unabashedly smug, quirking an eyebrow. He waves a hand. “It no longer matters. My informant was remarkably concerned about your welfare, so I made some arrangements.” He smiles slowly. “You help me catch Kim Junmyeon and his little gang, and I’ll let you both go free.” 

Both? Both? Who is this informant? How do they know so much about... 

No. 

Fucking no

Because at that moment, it hits you, square in the chest: the informant, the ultimate betrayer, the Judas Iscariot - it’s one of them. One of the team. 

Your mind races. It can’t be Suho himself, based on the way Mr. Kim has continued to reference him. But who? Who would do something like this? They’re all...they’re all brothers. You may have seen many things potentially going wrong with this con, but not this. Not a switch like this. 

And before you can make any determination, before you can react in any way other than offended shock, the catch on the door to the gallery clicks.

A figure slips inside, back turned to you immediately. 

But when he does turn...

impossible. 

It’s utterly impossible

 

“Ah, yes. Welcome to the party. I just made my offer. Shall we have an answer, then, my dear?” The mark asks a question, but you barely hear it.

Dark eyes bore into you soberly, but it feels like you’re drowning, rising water pulsing in your ears. 

 

Because he’s right here. 

Right here. 

The betrayer is...

Xiumin

Your mind goes blank. 

Chapter Text

Part XI. 

Yes. He was your favorite person ever almost impossibly quickly. 

You still had guilt-filled anxiety attacks for the longest time early on - pain flooding your chest, your throat tightening up, the hurt overwhelming you in impossible ways. Missions were dangerous, and even before that, deep inside, you always felt unworthy, unloved, and plainly wrong

There was only one voice that could calm you down: Baekhyun’s dulcet tones had become the reliable source of comfort. 

But he wasn’t around one day when it all became too much; he and Chanyeol were out “borrowing” some hardware from an electronics company. 

The others all tried to pull you out of the dangerous headspace, watching your face contort as you tried to breathe normally, listening to your trembling pleas of Just let me die, I don’t deserve to live. I failed everything, I failed everyone, I’m sorry. 

In order of age, they all reached out their hands, reminding you that you were okay, that you were safe, that you were more than enough. It was never quite enough. But when Sehun finally came to your side, something shifted. An understanding was born. 

I know what you’re going through, I know what it’s like to feel inadequate, to feel broken, to be lost. 

And, unexpectedly: But it’s not true. You aren’t broken, you’re not messed up, you don’t deserve to suffer. 

Thumb sweeping your cheek - You’re perfect. You matter. You’re just right. To me, you’re more than enough, okay? Worth more than all the stars in the sky. 

It wasn’t long before you were repeating those words as you held his hand and worked him through his tears. 

 

You realized you were more similar than you’d thought.

Furthermore, the way he viewed you was just as platonically as you looked at him. 

The first time it really dawned on you that this was mutually okay was the day you’d woken up half naked and found Sehun snoring next to you, in an equal state of undress. 

Was it weird? Sure. You were pretty confused as to how things had worked out that way, but it didn’t bother you...because it was Sehun. If it had been any of the others - okay, namely Baekhyun - you would have been alarmed. But his hand brushed against yours as he stirred, and the feeling was comfortable, warm, familial. 

He liked cuddles, you liked cuddles - despite the blankness you often both showed on the outside. But it was so simple, without being awkward. Without all the bothersome questions. 

He woke up, blinking at you, but then he smiled. Because it was you...because it was okay. 

 

You held hands a lot too, both before and after that; it wasn’t because you needed to, it was out of a simple want. It was a desire to be in contact with someone you cared about. 

But you just wanted to be with him like that, and he never suggested anything otherwise. 

He’d dance around, poking fun at you during the day, wasting moments of silence with talk that would probably not make sense to anyone else but the two of you. At night, he’d often crawl into bed with you. Just because. And it was okay. 

The one time Baekhyun seemed to realize what was going on, starting prolific protests, Suho shut him down. Sehun must have said something to him too, because he never brought it up again. 

Nothing ever happened, not really. Because it didn’t have to. 

He’d always look after you and you’d always look after him: forehead kisses, shared blankets, carefully applied bandages, food sneakily changing bowls. 

That was that. 

That was Sehun. 

That was you. 

And that was perfect. 

 

——

“Oh, man, this is not good.” Chanyeol’s panicked voice echoed through the minimal space of the team’s van, parked in a nice, hidden area not too far from the initial site of their perfectly-planned crime. “This is really not good.” 

“Chanyeol? What’s going on?” Sehun’s voice is somewhere between concerned and confused. 

Baekhyun speaks up next, a light jangling sound accompanying his voice. “Hey, what’s up? Are you okay?” 

“What’s the problem, Chanyeol?” Suho asks, a little more directly than anyone else. 

Chanyeol blinks, listening harder. Still static. “So, uh, does anyone have eyes on our girl? There’s nothing but static on her end...and I haven’t heard her speak for about two minutes.” 

He hears some mild swearing from Kai, before D.O. lets out a thoughtful hiss. “Saw her about ten minutes ago on a rotation through the room. She was with the mark.” 

“They were in sight about five minutes ago,” Sehun adds, sounding slightly breathless. Chanyeol figures he must be moving, and he instantly gets up from his seat in the van as well, remembering his promise to go in, guns a-blazing, if anything happened to you. 

“Sehun,” Suho warns, “don’t leave your post.” The youngest protests, but the leader cuts him off. “D.O. and I can handle it. Everyone, maintain your positions unless I say otherwise.” With that, Chanyeol sinks back down, sighing. 

There’s a fair amount of grumbling. “If she’s offline for more than ten more minutes, I’m coming in,” Kai threatens. “You did say I could pop in for a few minutes anyway,” he reminds Suho. His voice is harder than normal, a little panicked and a little pouty. 

Suho doesn’t reply, not fully. The most they get is an affirmative snort before the leader starts planning. “Chanyeol, please tell me you have eyes on this place.” 

Chanyeol monitors his screen closely, but there’s no sign of her anywhere on hacked security cams. “Sure, but I can’t seem to find her. It’s not like I have access to all the cameras, though. There are a few excess security measures I haven’t gotten through on some - private office, private bedroom, vault, art gallery...”

Wait a minute. 

“I have a weird hunch, but I don’t like it,” Chanyeol mutters. “Someone might want to hike it down to the art gallery, two floors below the main room.” 

“On it,” D.O. breathes out, exhaling like he’s about to engage in some kind of elaborate fist-fight. 

“Don’t engage until you understand the situation,” Baekhyun advises. For some reason, he tends to become more level-headed the more the group is in danger. “We don’t want to add any unnecessary risk.” 

Sehun snorts. “What is there to understand? She wouldn’t have gone static without giving us some kind of sign if she’d planned it.” Some loud thumping noise reaches the ears of the team through their devices. “Something’s wrong. I can feel it.” 

At that one, Baekhyun bristles, Suho makes a clicking noise with his tongue, Kai snorts, and on D.O.’s end there’s nothing but steady breathing. 

Chanyeol, for his part, just shrugs. “Look, I think what he’s trying to say is that he’s worried, okay? We all are, so let’s just figure this okay and get my...lord, lets just get our girl back.” Taking ownership of you just feels wrong, so he can’t quite give himself complete authority there. 

“Mm,” Kai starts, sounding disgruntled. “Were you about to-?” But Chanyeol cuts himself out of the mess that’s bound to be brewing on the group comm channel, focusing solely on his connection to you, although there’s really nothing there. 

“For goodness sake,” he mutters, all to himself. “I told you to avoid sacrificing yourself, so if I find out later that that’s what this is...” He trails off, not even sure what he’d do except hug you to death. 

He sighs. 

“I did promise you, though...” 

And I’m not going to keep it. 

——

“I don’t know what either of you are talking about.” There’s ice in your voice as you try to convince them that you’re completley unaware. 

Maybe it’s too icy. 

Xiumin looks unfazed by your immediately innocent tactics - like worming your way out of this could be impossible. 

Mr. Kim raises his eyebrows. “I may have forgotten to mention that I have several of my men posted around your mother’s new residence.” 

Crap

First Xiumin, now this. What’s the game? What’s the sacrifice? Your mother...the team... 

You bite down on your own tongue, briefly. Just to ramp down quick replies. “Look, I’m not sure what you’re going on about, or why you’re dragging my mother into this, but I think there must be another way to resolve this whole thing.” You turn on your doe eyes, blinking back tears. In your mind, they’re just tears of anger. 

Like how the actual heck could Xiu do this? Your genuine, mind-reading friend, partner-in-crime, the companion who wanted to stick so close to your side through everything - he had turned traitor? 

“Or I could post as sniper at your mother’s home. Last I heard, she was outside gardening. What an easy target.” Mr. Kim hums slightly, thoughtfully. There’s a dark shadow crossing his face; it’s the result of the power imbalance, like he thinks he’s won. 

“I’m sorry.” It’s the first time Xiu’s spoken since he was revealed as the team’s Judas. “Just...give it up, please.” He sounds weary, surprisingly. “I told him everything.” 

You breathe in through your nose, trying to calm yourself. Everything. He told him everything. Why

“It’s a long story, but it’s nothing personal against the group,” Xiumin says quietly, drawing your attention. 

Oh - you’ve unintentionally spoken aloud. Crap. Your eyes flash to Mr. Kim, and he smirks. 

“Just know that I’m doing this for us.” Min’s words direct your focus back to him - but you don’t like them. “You didn’t want this either, remember? So I’m getting you out of it.” 

Finally, you can’t keep it in any longer. Does Chen know where you are?” You can’t keep the immediate bitterness out of your voice. 

Hey - you can spill your guts now, right? Now that Xiumin’s told him everything

“There she is,” Mr. Kim remarks, sounding highly pleased. “I’m honestly a bit surprised you held out even that long. What loyalty.” His words are punctuated with a satisfied smile. “I just want to shift that loyalty, just tweak it a bit.” 

You eye him, skeptical, then glare at Xiumin. “Honestly. Honestly. What the actual fuck is wrong with you?” 

Xiu doesn’t have to come up with an answer; Kim Junho moves closer, approaching you with care. “I would start asking myself the same question, dear.” The dismissive pet name has you already swearing under your breath. “You know, when I learned your real identity I did some digging. Found out plenty about your story, about your family and your activities with Exo.” He sneers slightly. “Had a rough childhood, did we? Turning to a gang, becoming a member, did that seem particularly smart to you? You had to know it would all end eventually.” 

Your eyes flicker towards him, back and forth between him and the traitor. “So what? What’s your point?” 

“So why did you join?” Mr. Kim questions you, squinting in your direction. “Why Exo? Was it Baekhyun, perhaps? Your childhood friend? Or was there some other motivation?” 

You roll your eyes, shifting your posture slightly. “It’s not that complicated.” Your hand moves to your hip; the sass of the Queen of Hearts is yours to command. “I was abandoned by my mother. I hated my father. Someone said ‘let’s go’, and I went. Sorry I couldn’t make it a more interesting story for you.” 

There is one thing you note: there is no way Xiumin could have told him everything. He doesn’t know everything. Not every detail, not every thought. Some of it is yours still. 

“Mm,” Kim Junho mumbles, pacing in front of you. Xiumin stands awkwardly to the side. “I just can’t help but think that someone who has such simple interests could be persuaded to change her tune...for a profit, of course. Especially as you were planning on abandoning Exo in the end anyway.” The executive nods his head understandingly, his choice of words purposefully biting. 

“So what is it you’re asking of me, exactly?” You cross your arms over your chest, following his short movements over the linoleum floor. “I help you catch Suho and the rest of the crew...how? And what happens after? And what kind of guarantees are you going to make me?” 

Mr. Kim smiles, eyes flashing dangerously. “I suspected you’d be willing enough.” You snort, but he’s not finished. “You’ll simply do as I tell you, and we’ll have the crew behind bars in a matter of days.” 

You tilt your head, considering. 

What’s there to gain? What’s there to lose? 

If you do this... your mother might actually be safe, you might actually be reunited. If you do this, your former team might all be imprisoned for life - maybe even killed. 

You’ve had this thought at the back of your mind for the past few days: Exo is more your family than your real family. 

There’s only one choice that makes sense: taking out both Mr. Kim and Xiumin. The knowledge of your crew dies with them. 

A muffled buzz breaks through your thoughts - the sound of a radio zapping a disgruntled voice through. 

Mr. Kim looks annoyed, but disengages the radio device from his side anyway. “Yes?” 

You turn away, forming your plan. You have no weapons, nothing but your fists and, dare you say, your nails. Also, teeth. But nothing with a bang. Without a way to call in the cavalry, it’s clear you’ll have to deal with this on your own. 

But that means you’re about to fight one of your instructors. One of the people who’s taught you at least half of the technique you know. 

You sigh. That can only end badly. 

But you have to try. 

“Pretty, isn’t it?” Said instructor is suddenly by your side, his voice quiet and gentle. It’s exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to hear right now. 

You’re silent - glaring, looking straight at the potrait hanging on the wall instead of him. 

“It’s a nice night.” He points to the name plaque that sits on the wall next to the painting you’re both directly in front of. 

It depicts a bright moon hanging over a dark field. Trees, devoid of foliage, stand in the field like immobile skeletons, framing the passive scene of a quiet graveyard in the foreground. Ironically, the piece is altogether peaceful. Perhaps that’s why it’s called - 

It’s A Nice Night

You stare at the name plaque, realizing that everything has clicked into place. 

Xiumin looks at you. You look at him. 

You smile. 

“I understand.” Mr. Kim’s voice echoes throughout the room. “I’m sorry to break up this reunion,” he says snidely, “but I need I’ll need a quick answer from you, my dear. I’m afraid we only have a short window. Your dear friend the bodyguard - D.O., was it? - well, he’s on his way down here. If you want him alive, if you want your mother alive, I suggest you make the right call.” 

With everything hanging on the line - with so many lives in the balance - you make the best call, the only call. “I’ll do it.” Your voice is grudgingly stern - you’ve been forced into this, right? 

“Wonderful.” Kim Junho grins. “You and I have become quite the best friends, then.” He winks, and you understand that this is part of the game. “Just play along with my lead.” 

You suddenly find yourself on his arm, as if he’s leading you around a ballroom in true gentlemanly fashion. 

He shoots you a fake smile, gesturing for Xiumin to remain in the room as he unlocks the door. 

Without much warning, he whirls you out into the hallway. 

You actively scowl, swallowing your temper down your tight throat. 

Mr. Kim half whispers, gritting his teeth as he leans against your smaller figure. “I said play along. And play nice. Don’t breathe a word to your associate, or you’ll force my hand in a direction I hope I don’t have to go. If I find out that you double-crossed me, this won’t be peaceful and I won’t hesitate to break my promises to my wonderful informant. This won’t go the way I’m sure you hope it will.” 

It’s already not, you think, ready to headbutt him against the wall. 

But there’s something else here. Something else going on. 

So fuck Suho is all you think for now. 

You’re uneasy as Mr. Kim whirls you back up to the ballroom. 

Who has he told? Who has he explained the intricacies of Exo to? Who would believe chaebol heir Kim Junmyeon is secretly leading a criminal unit? 

No one. Which is why he’s mentioned it to no one, you’re sure. 

He needs evidence. Hard evidence, the kind you can only find through footage or the actual catching of a culprit in play. 

Words only mean so much. You know that better than anyone. 

So. 

Is that the play here, Suho? 

You’re so absorbed in your thoughts, especially when Mr. Kim starts rattling on about who-knows-what, that you don’t even notice the initial contact when you slam into D.O.’s shoulder. 

An actress always keeps her wits about her, so your apologetic face is on the moment you recover, the moment you realize you’ve bumped into someone

“Oh, I’m sorry, I was lost in thought. I apologize for-” The words run dry in your mouth when you come to the awareness that it’s him. Your supposed bodyguard. 

You almost cry. “Oh, thank heavens. I got lost, wandering around a bit, and Mr. Kim helped me to find my way back.” Your smile is in the form of an aggressive beam as you tilt your head to view the bank executive. 

D.O. inclines his head stiffly. “Thank you for your assistance. Mr. Kim was concerned.” 

A sheepish smile crosses Kim Junho’s face. It’s not guilty, or smug, but there’s an ounce of haughtiness in his eyes. “Apologies for not returning her sooner. Mr. Kim is a lucky man to have such a beautiful, intelligent wife.” 

You titter out a laugh, which sounds genuine on a surface level. Deep inside, it’s more like an offended snark. “Your home is so lovely, I couldn’t resist the temptation to explore. And I find myself appreciative of the homeowner as well.” You untangle yourself from Mr. Kim’s side as gently as possible, feigning the hints of gratitude you spare as you give a benevolent, complementary smile. “However, if Junmyeon is so worried, I should be heading back to him.” You dip your head toward your host, your enemy, your ally. “My thanks and Junmyeon’s as well.” 

Mr. Kim waves you off, his eyes hard and warning for a moment before they soften as he gives a familiar wave. “Anytime, Mrs. Kim.” 

D.O. tugs you next to him as you meander up the stairs. “What happened?” 

Oh. Right. 

And your busted earpieces are still will Mr. Kim. 

To be fair, you don’t need them anymore. You know the two sides of the chessboard now. Does that make you more the queen or less? 

More

Always more. 

You have a decision to make. Both sides think they’ve made it for you, both sides think they have you - or a shadow of you - in their pockets. 

But you do have a choice. 

No

No, you don’t. 

The answer is obvious. 

“He must have seen the earpieces while we were talking,” you explain, referencing the initial tale you used on Mr. Kim. “He said he was concerned there might be a security breach, so I removed them and destroyed them. I explained that they were to communicate with you while he freaked out, but he settled once the buds were toast. He quite obviously believed the whole story. You should have seen the guy apologizing. That’s why he offered a tour, you see, ‘cuz he seemed to feel badly about the whole thing.” You smirk, feeling like you’re swallowing acid as you speak. 

D.O. gives you a once-over. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe you.

It’s concern

Several thoughts filter through: What, does he think I’m not competent enough to do this? I know it’s been a while but I’m not that rusty! And Wait, Kyungsoo has a heart? And Oh, no, more emotions! 

Yes, things have gotten more complicated. Yes, you’re a bit scared of the consequences. Yes, you do have choices. 

But, well, isn’t the choice obvious? 

 

——

Chanyeol dives into your arms, into your chest, when you’re back. “What happened?” 

What does he know of Chanyeol? What can Kim Junho have learned about this giant, overdramatic puppy? 

You’re angry, in a way. 

What was Suho thinking? 

Maybe the target only knows a little. Maybe it’s just the backstory. 

Just the basics of Chanyeol. 

In a weird way, it makes you jealous. No one should know anything. Not more than those basics, because they can’t know what you know. They’re not allowed to. No one is. 

I think I’m developing a complex. 

You sigh. 

But, like, you were right. You’re a pawn. A pawn on two sides. A pawn who picks the wrong side is torn to pieces. 

Finally, you give Chanyeol words. “Oh, not much.” You grate out an abbreviated version of the story as the others surround you, hands and arms and fingers all over your skin. 

They’re warm

They’re all warm. 

Baekhyun attaches himself to your side and refuses to let go, no matter how much you glare. “It’s the penance you pay for going offline,” he huffs. 

You are about to say you hadn’t meant to, about to say that it certainly wasn’t your fault, but you fear saying too much. 

Why, oh why, did you come back? 

Now your mother is at risk. 

Now your family is at risk. 

 

Junmyeon made excuses to get you to the van; you only saw your oddly thrilled fake father-in-law give a nod at the sudden exit and toss your dearest leader a significant look. 

As much as that raises the hair on the back of your neck, Suho’s idiocy - his secrecy and his lack of secrecy, in a complete contradiction - only makes it worse. 

You want to kill him right now. Or at least ask him how the fuck he plans on getting out of this mess. 

But, unfortunately, you are going to have to be a lot more careful than that now. 

A double agent only has her uses if she plays the way her supposed commander wants her to, and yours warned you not to breathe a word to anyone. 

Maybe he has ears on you, maybe he has ears on your crew. 

Screw Kim Junho. 

Really, can anyone blame you for being angry? You don’t think so. 

What you really need to do is talk to Xiumin. Subtly, if you can. 

It all makes your head spin: how many roles are you playing now? 

You’re the confused young woman with apparent romantic conflicts involving your coworkers, the half-orphan who was supposedly disgraced in college and was forced to return to her abusive father’s side to get back on her feet, the concerned mother-seeker who just wants her safety, the earnest friend of all and none, and now you’re triple crossing a few people. 

It doesn’t even sound simple. 

But you’re going to manage this. You’re going to make it out alive. You’re going to get the innocent civilian out alive. 

Sometimes you think of yourself as an anti-hero, and that’s about what you become in the moment. 

 

You’re so freaking lost in your thoughts as the van bumps along that you barely find the eyes on you: Chanyeol’s, Baekhyun’s, Sehun’s and Jongin’s. 

It takes so long for you to realize that you’re being watched that it’s a little startling. You used to be so in tune with your immediate surroundings. Of course, you could easily pretend to be unaware for the sake of humility or gentility. Neither of those qualities particularly suit you, though, so if you were being yourself (around them, more often than not), you were usually dropping into sarcasm, sass, wit, and colorful self-insults. 

But it has been a long time. And yet no time at all. 

Are you all worlds apart or is it simply in your head? 

You return each gaze individually, trying to breathe. 

You give no indication that you’re under any kind of external pressure - both unsure of how many people really know what’s going on and unsure of how many extra pairs of eyes might be on you. 

And - oh, let me be wrong. 

But even if one double cross is simulated, that doesn’t mean there might not be other cases of real betrayal. 

After all, you’re not sure that the crew has ever had a job this big. 

It’s tempting, in various ways, to find an easy out. 

Unfortunately, you know loyalty too well. 

You just pray that the rest of the crew does as well - or this could turn into a war

You lock eyes with the youngest last. He’s silent, stone-faced as usual. But then his lips twitch up, just barely, and you can’t help the slight twitch you make in response. 

His eyes narrow, glancing at the space where Baekhyun leans against you before his eyes return to yours. 

He blinks once, lazily, and then looks away. 

You don’t know what to think. About any of this. 

 

——

Not knowing, not understanding.

It’s a theme you continue to pursue throughout the night. 

When you’re all flooding back into the mansion, everyone in decent spirits since this stage of the mission had apparently gone well, you meet Xiumin and Chen near the front staircase. 

You school your face so you’re not glaring at the pair of them. 

How deep is Chen in on this? 

Both of them had simply talked to you as if everything was absolutely fine before the plan rocketed into motion.  

Well...maybe not. 

Maybe those conversations, those soft conversations you had with both of them, were meant to be your warnings. Like someone leaving behind a note for a loved one before they left for war. 

It makes you a bit sick. 

“I say we break out the soju,” Sehun grumbles, his eyes flashing over the group. “I had to stare at alcohol all night without having a single fucking drop.” 

Suho laughs, and you really want to strangle him now. 

“I second the motion,” Kai adds, waving his arm in the air. “And, to be honest, I think I had it worse than you,” he argues playfully, eyes narrowed on the younger con artist. 

The whole thing turns into a wild discussion of who suffered the most, even while you’re stewing and Suho’s gathering the lot of you in the kitchen for some kind of toast to “future good fortune,” which is mostly a subtle way of acknowleging the horrible possibilities the future has in store. 

You can roll your eyes freely. 

As bad of a plan it is, given that you probably need all your wits about you at this point, you indulge in something you never indulge in. 

Which is probably what really makes it a bad idea. 

But you’re ready to defy three or four institutions that you’re kind of at the mercy of: fate, Exo, Kim Junho, and your own stupidity. 

So you start collecting bottles, glasses, anything that’s tossed your way. 

Kai watches you intently, his eyes dark, but he says nothing. Xiumin drinks like tomorrow might not come. D.O. actually manages to eat something, which is probably why he looks slightly more sober than the rest. Chanyeol and Chen keep trying to steal your assorted beverages - after a while, you’re not sure if that’s concern or just jealousy. Suho’s eyes glitter, the room glitters, and Baekhyun tries to pull you onto his actually-rather-small lap so many times you get vertigo. 

Basically, if anything, you grow more depressed. 

And kinda intoxicated - but that’s how it works, huh? 

And more touchy. 

Like Kai predicted. 

It’s slow at first, because you’re still conscious of betrayals and lies and secrets and feelings

But you slide hands over everyone, and you tuck yourself against Chanyeol’s chest once or twice before you decide you like Sehun’s more. He’s just about the exact right height for you to bury your head into his chest and stay there forever. Chanyeol’s just a bit too tall - and you tell him so.

“Hi,” you mumble, planting your face into Sehun’s chest, which happens to be more covered than Chanyeol’s too. It works in your favor. 

His fingers adjust over your hair, sliding through your dark tresses. Your scalp tingles. “Hey.” 

You mutter base thoughts into his black undershirt, into his dark blue suit jacket. “Am I still alive? Sometimes I wonder.” 

A laugh rumbles against your face. “I’m guessing so. You seem alright to me. Unless we’re both dead.” 

It’s odd, the way that’s both a joke and not really, at least for the pair of you. 

You’ve been through emotions together, and sometimes the lack thereof. It’s funny how well you work together sometimes. 

“You’re alive,” you say quickly, things threatening to burst through your throat, and ideas threatening to blank out your head. “You’re warm, so you must be alive.” 

“Is that why you’re buried in my chest?” Sehun asks, then noses at the top of your head. 

You curl arms around his trim waist, fisting the dark fabric of his shirt in your hands. “Mmm, sure. Why not? I like you. I still like you. Should I not?” 

It’s both a valid question and your brain has turned to childish mush. 

Laughter rings out from somewhere, and you’re pretty sure that’s Chen singing, but your head is already spinning, so you can do nothing but stay here, warm and safe with Sehun. 

Sehun feels quiet, feels mild. “No, you should. You can. I like you too.” It’s almost shy, the way he says it, and that makes you draw back. 

You glance up, having to, always having to - all these freaking tall people - and he’s already looking down at you. 

His eyes are soft. So fucking soft. So pretty. 

It annoys you, how pretty he is. 

“You’re stupid pretty,” you say, taking your thoughts out for a Sunday drive. “Even I’m not as pretty.” 

He laughs again and you feel it through your arms, through your cloudy brain. “You are too, stupid. You’re beautiful. Don’t keep downplaying yourself.” 

That brings back memories. 

Years of shared comfort. Years of shared moments. And...years of shared beds. 

You giggle, flopping back into Sehun, arms tightening around him. “Sleep with me!” 

Thankfully, the words are somewhat muffled by clothing against your mouth. 

Only the intended target hears, and his whole body stiffens. “What?” He pulls back from you this time, actual fear in his eyes. 

You roll your own. “I’m cold and tired and confused. I want to snuggle.” 

He breathes out a sigh. “Oh.” He doesn’t exactly respond properly, just takes a swig out of the bottle he’s nursing as though it’s the Fountain of Youth. 

Chanyeol’s booming laugh echoes from somewhere behind you. Baekhyun’s high-pitched twinkling giggle comes next. Chen lets out a wicked shriek. D.O. unexpectedly guffaws, and it’s pretty genuine. 

No one fares any better than you, except maybe Sehun. 

 

And then, eventually he’s a goner too. 

He winds up in Chanyeol’s lap as you wind up in Xiumin’s, twisting to growl out your inebriated frustrations into his ear. “You’re mean. I was so scared. I was so mad. I still am.” 

He hushes you, petting your hair. “Shh, it’s okay, baby. We’ll get through this. And then we can do what I promised.” 

What he...? 

Oh, right. Leaving with you. Leaving the group and starting something new.

How new? 

“I don’t know if it’ll be right away, though. Suho says we have some things to clean up. Some old messes, from before you came to us,” he explains, saying more than might be necessary but really just saying the perfect amount, if honesty counts. 

It does. 

“Okay,” you breathe out, limbs turning to liquid from all the liquid you’ve consumed.

Xiu presses a careful kiss to your lips. It’s utterly chaste - nothing to it. You would only deny it if you weren’t completely dead in the water, because you’re really still so mad, somewhere deep inside. 

“Hey!” Baekhyun shouts from somewhere else. You’ve lost much of your awareness of distance, which is weird, since you tend to be more attuned to concepts like that on average. “Don’t kiss my baby.” 

Chen gasps, uttering a biting laugh. “Yours? Just because you were childhood friends doesn’t mean you can claim her.” 

Chanyeol hisses out something unintelligible before he tags on words that you never meant for everyone to hear. “She hates you the most, dumbass. You lost her mother.” 

There’s a brief silence, but you’re curled into Xiumin’s shoulder, wishing you could disappear. 

Suho grumbles, which seems to awaken his sensible side. “Alright, I’m cutting everyone off. We’ve all had too much.” His reminder, casual as it is, stirs your mind into action. 

“Sleep,” it says, and so you say. 

“Good idea,” Suho approves, but you hear his next utterance with startling clarity. “But not you with Xiumin.” 

Min huffs out a breathy laugh, which blows into your neck. You shudder, sinking slightly further into him. “Is that jealousy I detect, boss man?” 

Chen laughs at the moniker, but no one else seems to be in such an amused mood. 

“Mmm.” Suho mumbles, which really doesn’t answer any questions, but that’s fine. You’re fine. Perfectly fine, and content, and happy and warm. And not at all concerned about looming death. 

How refreshing. 

“Sehun, can you take her to her room?” Suho’s voice echoes in your head again. 

Really? He’s calling it your room again? Not the “guest” room anymore?

Cool

It’s also obvious why he chooses Sehun - you’re both young and a little dumb and also very, very detachedly-attached. It’s a weird concept, but it fits the pair of you:  the platonic closeness you’ve always abided by is something that either results from complete disinterest or supernatural control thrown somewhere in the mix. 

Sehun breathes loudly, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. “Sure, hyung.” 

Reluctantly, Xiu releases you. “We’ll be okay,” he whispers, as he lets go of your slight form. 

What is he talking about? You’ve already forgotten.

Oh, right: the job. The complicated mission you’d actually love to forget about. You shake the thought from your head, trying to stabilize your mental coherency. There’s a bit missing, here and there, but it’s not so bad. 

Through glassy eyes, faces flash by as you’re pulled to your room - Kai’s, looking intimately worried, Chanyeol’s, sorrier than it’s ever been, Baekhyun’s, something like a kicked puppy’s, D.O.’s, a bit mellower than usual... and then you look up at Sehun. 

He’s still pretty. 

Like a dark angel. 

Only not really. 

He’s just like a best friend that you still trust (oh no) and you still believe in (OH NO) and you really, really want to tangle your limbs with his and steal all his warmth and his love and affection (oH nO). 

Love. 

Here it is again. 

Why does it always come down to this? 

Maybe because it’s as they always say...all’s fair in love and war. And the war is on it’s way, so why would love hide? 

 

——

You wake up, aching everywhere. Your head is a mess. 

A whole mess. 

It’s pounding harder and louder than your heart and you feel as though you might have been run over by a bus. 

Although, that would mean you might be in the peaceful afterlife, and as things come back to you, you realize that can’t be the case. It definitely can’t. 

You breathe in and out, memories flooding back in. Emotions that you don’t want to feel start surfacing, so you smoke them out of your head with images and physical feelings.

You’d...

You’d...

Oh no. 

Oh no, no, no, no. 

And then you blush. 

Some part of you was definitely coherent last night, and whatever part that was is the only part you’re mad at, and only because you let yourself go, maybe too much. 

Or maybe not

It could have been better. 

It could have been a sweet memory. 

The brief images your mind shuffled through are okay, though. A little debauched, maybe, and a little bit less vanilla than it could have been, but... 

It’s okay. You’re safe. You honestly can’t say you disliked it. 

Oh. You do love him. 

Really

Next to you, he stirs, the covers sliding around his bare shoulders as his lips slide over soft pillows. 

When he flips around, laying on his back, and stretches, the sheets slide down to his bare navel. “Morning.” 

It takes a brief second of recognition before his brain kicks back in. 

“Oh my g-we really...I’m sorry? Well, I’m not, but...we really fucked.” Sehun blinks like some kind of newborn baby chick peering out of his nest for the first time. 

Yes.

As far as your memory goes, yes. 

Plus, like, you’re both completely naked, so there’s that. 

This is new. New and unknown. 

But not bad. Not scary, like you were expecting. It’s warm

His eyes find yours, hesitant and careful, but not scared. Not regretful. “Are you okay?” 

You tilt your head back, sighing. “I feel like I’ve been doubly run over by a bus. Or maybe it was two buses.” Not so subtly, you glance at the length of his body under the blankets. 

For a second, he just stares. 

And then he utters an ugly, ungodly laugh, one that splits your head open and warms you up all at once. 

He takes your words and runs with them, like he has gained a new wind in his sails. “Man, I was scared for two seconds, but you’re definitely still acting like yourself.” He hums, amusement dying down. “You’re okay, though, right? I remember using a condom, not that either of us are like, unhealthy or anything.” 

So he does remember - although you can’t remember where said condom came from... 

Either way, you’re glad to know that it’s another shared memory, another shared thing, even if this is a little different. 

You still can’t say you hated it. You might even say you really kind of liked it. 

Certainly, better circumstances would have been ideal, but...

Circumstances can be fucked, your sliver of coherency made a choice and you’re sticking to it. 

Sticking to your too-freaking-pretty Sehun and his unusually large-

“I brought some painkillers,” Suho says abruptly, unexpectedly opening the door to your room with finesse. 

His back is turned to you, to the scene that plays out in your bed. He seems to be carrying some kind of tray, which is a bit out of place for the leader, but he’s always been kind to the younger members. 

Sehun stills completely, his heel kicking lightly against your calf as he tries to adjust before going rigid. 

As if by not moving, it’ll prevent Suho from noticing him, or something. 

You have a thought: maybe this is where Suho’s kindness runs dry, like a well that’s been depleted of fresh water. 

The benevolent leader sets the tray down, and you spot the glass of water and bottle of painkillers as he starts to turn toward you. “I imagine you’ve got a headache, but we’ve got work to do, so I suggest...” 

He sees you. And Sehun, too, despite the fact that he’s likely wishing himself into a state of invisibility.

Baekhyun would have shrieked and then killed Sehun within a day. 

Xiumin would have probably grumbled, pulled you away from each other, and then explained to you both that you were pretty freaking dumb, even if he did love you. 

D.O. would have been passively disappointed in your mutual lack of intelligence and immediate modesty. 

Chanyeol would have thumped Sehun on the head and then possibly beaten him to a pulp. 

Chen would have gasped, then pointed, then gasped again, and then, as a final measure, he would have complained or covered his eyes. 

Kai would have watched you both for a moment before bolting out of the room. 

But Suho is different. 

He doesn’t gape, but there’s surprise in his eyes. 

Because he’s known the two of you for so long as nothing more than friends. Nothing more than close companions who practiced mild skinship. 

Before he can say anything, there’s a gentle knock at the door. “You awake yet?” 

It’s Chanyeol, but you can faintly hear Baekhyun whining and D.O. asking them both to calm down. 

Suho immediately walks over to the door, hand twisting over the knob. He looks over his shoulder at the pair of you.

The pattern of your breathing, you notice, matches Sehun’s. 

“I suggest the two of you do your bests to make yourselves presentable while I clear away the crowd,” the leader intones, his voice as cold as frigid ice, like the waves of the northern seas. “After that, you both are expected to maintain your positions for the next phase of the plan.” 

And then he slips out the door, gone like a ghost in the wind. 

You blow out a breath. “Surprise, surprise, he hasn’t killed us,” you huff sarcastically. 

Sehun eyes you, his expression evening out. “I’ll talk to him. Make sure he understands.” He grimaces, briefly. “This is gonna be one hell of an awkward conversation.” 

You stare at him, thoughtful. “You don’t regret it...right?” The pain in your voice is hard to pin down, but it’s not desperation. That’s not your reasoning here. 

Sehun smiles, reaching out a hand. His fingers find yours, lacing them together. “No way. I...well, fuck, I mean, I’m not usually even attracted to people. Like, never, really. But it’s different with you. You’re...you know, you’re sort of like that too, now that I think about it. You just love everyone, but I’ve never seen you actually consider romantic feelings unless it was for a con.” His gaze turns into something profound. “Even though we all...” He coughs, trailing off. You know what he was about to say, without him even uttering the words, and blank fear courses through you. “I love you, okay? In plenty of ways. In plenty of genuine ways. Sometimes I think I’m missing something when you’re not there, like for those months you were gone.” His voice, incredibly deep in the morning, fades to quiet. “I’m not saying you have to be my girlfriend or whatever, and I’m not saying you have to decide anything right now...I’m just saying I’m here, okay? If that makes sense?” The shyness from yesterday makes its reappearance and a faint tinge of blush covers his cheeks. 

You lean into his shoulder. “Totally. You’re the best.” You blow a raspberry onto his skin and he shoves you away, finding his unnervingly distateful laugh in the back of his throat. “Love you.” 

It’s the first time you’ve said that and meant it in a way that wasn’t wholly - completely, utterly, totally - platonic. Because this is different; this is wildly different and you don’t know what that means, not yet. 

Sehun smiles, because he knows. 

 

And one of the puzzle pieces falls into place. 

 

{This is where the fun begins.}