Jeno thinks twenty-two is too young to have such flaring knee pain when he stands. Too young for his joints to crack and protest his movements. Too young to have survived three years of rigorous training combined with another six years of missions that have had him doing everything from parkour to jumping from the top floor of a burning building. All those years have taken their toll on his body. His agency will use him until there’s nothing left; of this he has no doubt. They’ll squeeze every last drop out of his youth until he’s washed up and broken. It doesn’t matter. Jeno won’t stop. Not until he’s dead.
“Quit whining,” grumbles his handler, Doyoung. Once upon a time, Doyoung was like him, before a mission gone wrong mangled his leg so badly he couldn’t have any hope of remaining in the field. “You’ll be my age one day. Then we can talk.”
“But hyung,” he says with a grin, “then you’ll be even older.”
He hears Doyoung titter in his ear. “You’re lucky I’m not there right now. You little brat.”
Jeno grins as he walks along the street, putting enough of a sway into his step that it looks more like he’s listening to music. The sun is warming his skin, an ocean breeze kissing his face, and he feels freer that he has in a while. Something about the Busan air does that to him. Eases the stiffness in his bones and brings back the spring in his step. If he could he would bottle it and take it with him, to remind him what sunshine feels like when he’s stuck for weeks on end in a safehouse after a job, or he’s turned nocturnal because he’s staking out one criminal or another, and his eyes have forgotten what light that doesn’t come from a bulb actually looks like until it’s burning his fragile retinas.
Times like these, he remembers why he chose this. Why it makes him feel like there’s nothing else he could do. No ties and cufflinks and eight hours at one desk tap-tap-tapping at a keyboard. He can hardly find the thrill of a shoot-and-run from pushing paper.
“Stop whistling and keep your head on the task.”
Jeno lowers the frames of his sunglasses, watching the reflection of the cars lining the pavement up ahead. He knows how to tail someone without looking like he’s doing it, hands in the pocket of his jacket as he eyes up a passing posse of girls dressed in beachy dresses and shorts, grinning when they blush and burst into whispers. He can’t resist making a show of it sometimes, just because he can. Too many brushes with death have taught him that sometimes you have to enjoy the small things.
“What do you see?”
Jeno waits until the mark turns a corner, down a narrow alley. “He’s tense alright. Walking like a damn robot.”
“Looks like it is Kang’s place he’s heading for after all.”
Jeno hums. Earlier he had brushed past the man, dropping a small GPS device into his pocket. They never suspect him. He’s too young, too shiny. Too much like a young thing just out a for a good time, all slicked back hair and leather jackets. Pretty enough to be distracting, is the mantra, but not enough to stick out. One of SM’s many tightropes that Jeno has learned to walk over time.
“Careful,” warns Doyoung, reading him too well after so long together. “They’ll be on the lookout and you’ll be on your own.”
Jeno waves him away even though he isn’t there. He’s leaning against the corner, chewing gum as he scrolls through his phone. Lifting it up with his mirror camera on as if he’s fixing his hair, he uses it to watch the entrance to the back of the chicken restaurant as a cook carries out a plastic bag and dumps it in the overflowing waste bin next to the door. Standing there is a massive guy wearing a cheap black suit, arms crossed one over the other. Not suspicious at all.
“You want the info or not?”
“Personally? Eh.” Doyoung yawns. “But neither you nor I are getting paid tonight if you don’t.”
They speak about pay, as if its withholding is the worst punishment they could possibly face. Jeno doesn’t say anything, merely saunters down the alley as if he has all the time in the world, and what he wants to do with it is spend it in grimy places like this. The bouncer tilts his chin at him, raising a brow, and Jeno flashes him a winning smile. Enough to be temporarily off-putting.
Then in a flash he strikes out, punching him square in the face before he can even open his mouth, only managing a choked off grunt. He hits him again, and already off balance, the man topples to the ground. Jeno shakes the blood from his fist and presses his foot into his throat, watching his eyes bulge and his fingers scrabble at his leg. Finally, his grip slackens and his arms flop by his sides. Jeno gives him a kick for good measure but no, he’s definitely unconscious.
“Dead?” Doyoung says in the voice of someone asking about the weather.
Jeno grabs a cloth from inside the torrid heat of kitchen, wrinkling his nose at the overpowering stench of friend chicken. “Nah,” he says, wiping at the blood and tossing it to the side. “At least I don’t think so.” They’re both so desensitised to these things by now, if only for their own sanity.
He comes to a staircase and pauses, looking around. “Say, if you were a mobster would you be more likely to conduct your business upstairs… or down?”
There’s the sound of clacking keys over the line. “Hm. Kang’s a prideful man. He’s more likely to meet upstairs rather than hide in the shadows, I think.”
“Right.” Jeno traipses up the stairs, letting the quiet seep into his bones. It makes him pause on the upper landing, peering down a grey corridor with a series of doors. There should be more noise, he thinks. Whispered voices. Creaking floorboards. Something to catch his senses. The lack thereof leaves him unsettled, muscles tense as he creeps down the corridor until he reaches the first door.
No matter how gently he turns the knob, the hinges still creak as he pries it open and he winces, breath catching. His gun is in his hand as he steps inside and then he stops, straightening. The room is empty. There’s a glass of half finished whisky sitting on the table, next to an open newspaper. When he gets closer he sees it has today’s date on it. Strange.
There’s a creak and he whirls, jogging back out to the corridor. The door at the other end is closing and it distracts him enough for a body to slam him against the wall, knocking the comm from his ear. He throws his elbow up, ready to fight back, when a familiar voice whispers in his ear, “It’s been a while, Jeno.”
It goes against all the instincts hammered into him by years of training to freeze but he does. The sunlight from the window dapples a handsome face, black lashes and hair darker than the honey brown he remembers. A little taller, a little leaner, but still the boy he remembers, with a grin that can make his stomach flutter. “Jaemin,” he breathes.
Jaemin steps back, hands in his pockets as if it will hide the blood spatters around his wrist. Spotting his shirt. Jeno’s gut twists, hand tightening around the gun hanging from his dangling fingers. Jaemin sees it, eyes lowering, and his grin sharpens into something that can cut. “You gonna shoot me?”
“Why–” something catches in his throat “–why are you here?”
“Did you miss me?”
A heavy feeling settles within him, like a lead weight dragging down his limbs. “Where have you been? It’s been two years.” He tries not to look too affected, not when Jaemin’s so casual, so bright, but from the predatory tilt to Jaemin’s head he can tell it’s not convincing.
Jaemin shrugs, rocks back on his heels. “I’ve been around. You know? Keeping my head down.”
“I thought… I thought you were dead.”
Something softens then, cracking the hard mask. “I should have been. I would have, so I had to leave. I wish I could have kept in contact but I didn’t want to compromise you.”
“Compromise? What do you mean?”
There’s a rumble downstairs, the thump of footsteps, and loud voices. Jaemin looks away, breaking their locked gaze. “Looks like I gotta go. You should probably get moving too.”
“What do you mean, you should be dead? What are you talking about?”
“If you haven’t worked it out by now, golden boy, then what’s the use?”
But he’s already halfway down the stairs, pausing before his face disappears out of view to stare at him. Then he’s gone as quickly he came; a phantom haunting Jeno from beyond the grave. Because he hadn’t been lying – he genuinely thought Jaemin was dead. What other reason could he have, for not contacting him for two years? Two long years, in which he threw himself into his work even worse than before, until even Doyoung warned him to take a step back.
Doyoung. He needs a voice of reason right now. Picking up his comm, he marches over to the door opened by just a crack and throws it open, stopping at the sight. Squeamishness left him a long time ago but he can’t help the instinctive flinch at so much blood. At the lifeless body of his mark sprawled across a nice blue rug, crimson surrounding him in a ring. The other bodies around him are in a similar condition.
“–Jeno? Jeno, answer me right now!”
“I’m here, hyung.”
“What the hell, Jeno? You scared me! What’s going on?”
“What do you mean, dead?”
The voices are getting louder, thumps rowdier. Jeno needs to leave and he needs to do it now. “I mean they’re bleeding all over the furniture. Looking a little pasty, too.” He takes the steps two at a time, heart thumping. He’s managing a conversation but the only thing on his mind is a constant looping play of Jaemin’s alive, Jaemin’s alive, Jaemin’s alive.
“Who killed them?”
Jeno pauses on the threshold, thinking of the too casual way Jaemin had spoken and the slight widening of his eyes. I could have kept in contact but I didn’t want to compromise you. He opens his mouth to say, Agent Thirteen, but what comes out instead is, “I don’t know.”
Doyoung sighs. “Get back here. We need to debrief right away.”
It’s about three hours from Busan to Seoul. Jeno skips out the back alley of the chicken restaurant as the first scream starts and he takes off as fast as he can pull off without drawing attention, thinking. It’ll give him enough time to decide what to do, if he can only get his thoughts to settle. Three hours to decide what he’s going to do about Jaemin.
It doesn’t seem like enough time to deal with his entire world shifting on its axis, but it’s all he’s got.
Like most of the assets that cross SM’s doors, Jeno is scouted as a boy. He’s bright, he’s athletic, scoring in the top of all his subjects while participating in a different club every night. He just has to be doing everything because it’s never enough. Eleven, twelve, thirteen and he wants more. Knows he’s capable of it and he’s just chasing opportunity after opportunity until he finds the satisfaction he craves.
Like most of the assets that cross SM’s doors, Jeno has no parents. He lives with an aunt, working in her shop when he’s not at school to ease some of the guilt that takes a permanent place in his chest at being such a burden. When the offer comes in the form of a black suit and stoic face, to live in dorms and train to serve his country, Jeno doesn’t even take the time to think. He’s packed and gone with a meagre bag of his things that very night, Seoul’s neon lights in his sights and a dream of all the things he could be.
In those early days he’d been so hopeful. So optimistic. In those early days he had dreamed of being Superman. Captain Korea. In those early days there had been a vision for the project dubbed as NCT.
It’s under this project that he meets Jaemin, on his very first day of training, surrounded by a horde of other young boys and girls who look fierce and fragile in equal measure. Like they don’t know how to hurt someone yet but are just waiting for the moment until they do. The instructor rakes her stare across the room and purses her lips. “Only 5% of you will make the final cut,” she says, commanding them to run another lap. Jeno’s lungs are bursting, his legs on fire.
“This is quite the place, huh?” says a voice behind him.
It belongs to a boy as young as him, fresh of face despite the sweat beading on his brow. He grins and in an instant becomes Jeno’s best friend in this strange warren of grey walls and empty halls, a bright spark amongst the darkness.
“I’m starving,” he says back. “Do you think they’ll know if we skip the diet for a burger?”
Jaemin just grins. “Only one way to find out.”
They do know. SM knows all. But it’s worth the scolding the get, to fill their empty bellies with fat and grease and endless chatter about nothing. What really fills him is satisfaction. Is belonging. Because in one moment they click like lifelong friends, two puzzle pieces that just fit.
And the rest is, as they say, history.
“What’s up with you? A little blood doesn’t normally shake you this much.”
Jeno forces himself to meet Doyoung’s gaze head on so as not to seem suspicious. Over time he’s become an excellent liar, but not to someone like Doyoung who has been mentoring him since he was fifteen. He forgets, sometimes, that before he chained himself to a desk Doyoung was like him, out in the field every day with the knowledge of how it feels to walk the eternal precipice, knowing one wrong step could send him tumbling over the edge. He forgets, sometimes, that beneath his softness and comforting words that Doyoung is a trained killing machine.
“I’m just tired, I guess? I just got back from Manila and after that dragged on so long I was hoping this operation would get me back on track.”
Doyoung’s lips curl and he reaches out to ruffle Jeno’s hair. “Hey, hey. We couldn’t have predicted this would happen.” He cracks his knuckles, a vicious grin coming over him as he spins in his chair back to his desktop and three monitors that circle around him. “We just need to find the bastard.”
Jeno gulps. “Yeah, of course. I’ll leave it to your expertise.”
Doyoung snorts. “You’d best get moving. Irene has something to discuss with you young’uns.”
“Well I don’t know, do I? Off you go. I need peace to work.” Already his fingers are flying over the keys, lines of code dancing across the screen that Jeno can’t hope to interpret no matter how much training he’s had.
So he scampers off towards the conference rooms, his footsteps echoing through the empty hall that connect the tech labs to the main office of SM’s headquarters in Seoul. He’s still sluggish, body protesting the lack of sleep, but he pops a caffeine pill and soldiers on. No rest for the wicked, they say, and Jeno has enough blood on his hands to know.
By the time he reaches the glass doors to the offices, marching across the stark, clean lines of the reception towards the lifts that will take him to the right floor, he’s already worked his mind up into a frenzy. With a deep breath he forces himself to cleanse his mind, washing away all the panicky thoughts with a recollection of what he’s walking into. Under the NCT project there are currently twenty-one working assets, with a few in supporting positions like Doyoung. At its head is the indomitable Irene, a former soldier turned intelligence officer herself. If she’s requesting he come in it has to be something important; she’s too high level for anything less.
By the time he finally stops dragging his feet and enters the conference room, he is surprised to see a few familiar faces. He slips into a seat beside Renjun, a Chinese asset he trained with when he first entered the agency, and flashes him a smile. It’s been a while since they last saw one another, not since they shared a mission in Ho Chi Minh City a little over a year ago. To his surprise Renjun’s youthful face has sharpened, features more refined, and as they share a quick meeting of gazes, he wonders if he has changed too.
At the head of the table Irene clears her throat and he snaps to attention, as do the other assets in the room. “You may be wondering why we have gathered our current NCT assets here today.” At Jisung’s muttered interjection, she sighs and adds, “Yes, there are a few of our agents that are still in the midst of important operations, under which it would be too dangerous to remove them right now. I trust all of you will be able sufficiently deal with the problem at hand.”
She clicks a button on the remote in her hand and a face appears on the projector screen. Jeno swears under his breath, going cold, and he feels the weight of Renjun’s eyes upon him. On the screen the familiar face of Na Jaemin is smiling brightly, eyes shining, his brown hair styled back and his honey golden skin warm in the sunshine. Something in his gut lurches, grip tightening on the table, and he focuses on steeling his gaze the way he has been trained as Irene talks.
“Some of you may remember Agent Thirteen from your time as trainees.” Jisung tries to catch his eye but he ignores him. “Real name Na Jaemin, born in Seoul on 13 August 2000, age twenty-two. He had been an operative under the NCT programme for six years when he went off the grid two years ago, presumed to be dead.” Irene pauses, letting the word hang in the air.
“However, some of our informants have spotted Jaemin days ago, in Daegu.” She clicks the remote and the image shifts to a blurry photo of a figure with dark hair under a face mask. Hunched under a thick coat, a hat covering most of his head, the figure shouldn’t be recognisable, and yet. And yet, Jeno could probably recognise Jaemin in his sleep, by sheer gravitational pull. The feeling in his gut says, that’s Jaemin, and that’s all he needs to know. He’s spent too many years honing his instincts not to trust them now.
Renjun’s voice is so soft when he speaks that he has to repeat his question. “How has he managed to escape our radar for two whole years?”
He’s not easy to read but Jeno knows that they kept tabs on every piece of news they could find, if only for old times’ sake. He knows because they met up once, not long after Jaemin went missing, just to get really drunk and reminisce. He remembers waking up with the worst hangover in his life and even that hadn’t been enough to drown out the ache in his chest at thinking Jaemin was really gone.
This life always catches up to you, Doyoung had warned him once.
Now he watches Irene’s expression pinch and doesn’t know how to feel. SM don’t make mistakes. They train ruthless agents, able to make decisions in a hair trigger of a second, whether to kill or run. It trains the sharpest of spies, able to blend into any crowd; to steal information in the most secure places in front of the security’s watching eyes. So it’s heavily embarrassing that something like this could happen. That someone could slip their radar and stay undetected for two years. If anyone could do it, it’s Jaemin.
Jeno doesn’t know how to explain the nervous energy bubbling through him; a perpetual agitation that has his fingers tapping against his thighs, unable to sit still.
“After the mission in Innsbruck went wrong, he must have found somewhere off the grid to hide,” Irene finally manages, expression smoothing out. “What matters now is that Jaemin has been working rogue, selling information to the highest bidder. He no longer answers to SM, nor is he considered to be an NCT agent any longer.”
Jeno’s gut sinks like a lead balloon. There is only one thing that happens to ex-assets that have had the kind of training they do. Still, like a child slapping their hands over their ears, he waits in naive hope that he will be told something different.
“Which means that priority number one is locating Na Jaemin. I am pulling each of you that are not currently assigned to operations to track him down. All of SM’s resources will be behind you.”
Jeno shares a look with Renjun.
“And if we find him? Do we bring him in?” asks a boy Jeno vaguely recognises as Chenle.
Irene purses her lips. “If possible. If not, eliminate him.”
Jeno sinks back in his seat, a whistling noise ringing in his ears. He doesn’t hear the rest of the conversation, voices nothing but white noise floating around him. Before he knows it, the other assets are rising from their seats to leave. To go out into the world and track down the boy Jeno used to call a friend. The best and brightest and most ruthless that SM has to offer.
“I really thought he was dead.”
Jeno startles from his sleepwalking to blink at Renjun. “So did I.”
Renjun nods, eyes scanning his face. “I had to be sure.”
“Sure of what?
“That you didn’t know.”
Jeno pauses, until Renjun prods him in the back to keep going. “Why would I know? Renjun, you were there when we met, remember? We got wasted that night. You cried.”
Renjun scoffs. “I did not.” A beat. “I don’t know,” he says, too softly for anyone but him to pick up as they exit the building, out into weak sunlight from the courtyard, “I just kind of got the feeling that Jaemin trusted you.”
He doesn’t know what to call the emotion that flips his gut. “He might have, once. When we were trainees. But it’s been years and we don’t trust.” It’s something that’s beaten out of them, through every assault course and boot camp. Through every simulated mission and failure before they’re allowed out into the world again. Jeno lost nearly three years of his childhood to solid training. That’s just how thorough SM is as an agency.
“Hm,” says Renjun. “Do you want to see Donghyuck?”
Does he? All these faces from the past popping up all at once is starting to feel like a deluge and Jeno is drowning. Still, it’s been so long that he can hardly turn the offer down. Not now. Not now when the past is coming full circle again, reminding him of where he came from and what he went through to get here. Not when he’s got a splitting headache from popping caffeine pills and no idea when he actually slept last.
Not when Jaemin is suddenly alive again and Jeno doesn’t know what it is that's made him come out of hiding now.
With a defeated sigh, he says, “Why not? Let’s go and visit our full sun.”
A familiar voice is yelling the moment he steps in the room of the sixth floor apartment, and beneath that is the sound of keys clacking rapidly beneath someone’s hands. Technically Renjun should not be sharing one of his safehouse locations, not even with another SM agent, but technically they’re all working the same case now, so Jeno keeps his mouth shut. Doyoung will probably chew them all out later about not following proper protocol but Jeno will face it when it comes.
He sees a mop of silvery brown hair and several monitors curving around the person’s head, still yelling despite the headphones pressing down his curls. When he rounds the tangle of wires running along the floor his gaze lands on a face he recognises, leaner with age but still dewy skinned, tinted blue with the glow from the screens. Dark eyes pivot and fall upon him, widening as round as dinner plates. The headphones are whipped off and Donghyuck nearly falls off his spinning chair in his bouncing excitement.
“Lee Jeno, as I live in breathe! Just look at you!”
“Hi, Donghyuck. How are you doing?”
Donghyuck waves him away, but not before his expression shutters slightly. A painful leg injury has taken him off the field for the foreseeable future, so he’s currently chained to a desk. Since he trained with Renjun the company had put them together, figuring if anyone could deal with Donghyuck as their handler, it would be Renjun. Jeno hadn’t been sure, and he still isn’t, but he’s not the one making the decisions.
“I’m more interested in you, huh.” He looks at Renjun. “How did he get so tall? Those shoulders? What did Lee Jeno do to deserve the karma that we didn’t?”
“It might be that time you took the rounds out all of the guns in the armoury so we couldn’t do our target practice and we all had to run extra laps for hours," he says.
“Or that time you hacked the alarm system and changed the klaxon to Shinee’s Ring Ding Dong,” adds Renjun.
Donghyuck pouts and Jeno laughs. Some of the tension in him eases at the sense of familiarity. It really has been too long since they were all last together. But there’s still someone missing. It feels like the last piece to a jigsaw puzzle, leaving a gaping hole that stops the picture from feeling complete.
“So,” says Donghyuck, taking a swig out of a can with a radioactive green label, “I’m assuming this is about Jaemin.”
Jeno and Renjun share a glance. “You knew?”
“You don’t think I wasn’t listening in to your little call in session? Listen, no one calls in my agent and then doesn’t tell me what’s going on. Tabs at all times, motherfuckers. I’m on top of this game.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to spy on the agency, Donghyuck,” says Jeno, suddenly concerned about bugs. He’s paranoid, he knows, but he has good reason to be. If the company hear them talking this way, he doesn’t think much of their prospects.
Donghyuck shrugs. “What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em. Like the fact that Jaemin’s in Shanghai.”
Jeno looks at Renjun again, his own stunned expression mirrored across his elfin features. “What do you mean, he’s in Shanghai?”
Donghyuck whips around one of his monitors, pointing to some grainy CCTV footage. “Your conversation got a little boring around the middle. I mean, does Irene think we forgot who Jaemin is? So I did a little digging. Now that he’s resurfaced he doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to stay low.”
Jeno peers over Donghyuck’s shoulder, squinting at the figure bundled up in a face mask and cap with his hands in his pockets. Even from a fuzzy picture, Jaemin still radiates the energy of someone who thinks he owns the world. And with him speaking seven languages, having been to every continent in the world before he even turned eighteen, being proficient in several forms of martial arts, with a knowledge of hacking, surveillance and of course, killing; Jaemin kind of does.
Donghyuck shrugs his shoulder until Jeno backs up, swinging in his chair to narrow his eyes at him. “I don’t really think we owe you anything, you know.”
“Donghyuck,” says Renjun.
“We could lose our jobs for this. Scratch that. We could lose a lot more.”
Jeno’s brows furrow. “What?”
“I mean, just because we all trained together does not mean anything. You know this. I need to look after my asset, Jeno.”
Renjun sighs, looking out the window into the Yoengdeunpo street. “I was going to offer anyway. I don’t want things to get messy.”
Donghyuck scoffs, raking his eyes up and down his form. Jeno feels like they’re having a conversation in another language, for all he understands. And Jeno speaks five languages, so it’s a pretty rare feeling.
“Fine,” Donghyuck seethes. “A day’s head start. But that’s it. I don’t care about anything else, if SM start sniffing we’re all fucked.”
Jeno looks from Donghyuck to Renjun and back again. “Care to explain?”
Renjun smiles softly, bathed in muted light from the grey sky beyond the window. “We’re giving you a little extra time to go and find Jaemin. I think you need to talk to him. Try and work out what’s going on in his head. Maybe get some closure.”
Jeno’s hands clench into fists. “Closure? He’d not dead anymore. Jaemin’s alive! Of course we’re going to find out what’s going on.”
Donghyuck and Renjun exchange a look that turns him cold. “Jeno,” says Donghyuck, picking over his words. It’s a bad omen if ever there was one. Donghyuck does not tiptoe around his words. “Jeno, Jaemin has gone rogue. You know what happens to rogue agents.”
“I know but it’s Jaemin. There has to be an explanation. There has to be –”
“This is why we’re giving him a day,” says Renjun, talking over him again. “You know as well as I do that he’ll fight me on this.”
“And you don’t want to fight Jeno,” says Donghyuck, slumping over his desk with defeat.
Jeno looks between them, still feeling lost. Donghyuck makes a shoving gesture with his hands. “Go on, then. Go to your boy, if you have such faith in him.”
Jeno hesitates, waiting until Renjun meets his gaze. The conviction in his eyes strips Jeno bare. “Thank you,” he says, unable to explain why this means so much to him. “Thank you both.”
Then he’s out the door and he’s running. First stop, Incheon airport.
The last time Jeno sees Jaemin is five months before the fateful incident in Austria. They don’t cross paths much – assets tend to work in isolation, their only contact their handlers – and with their work taking them all over world, they don’t much have the time for socialising. Besides, the less personal contact they have, the better for slipping into identities unnoticed. They were chosen precisely because they have no families to worry for them.
So it’s a strange coincidence that sees the two of them in the same city at the same time. Jeno stumbles back into the hotel room he’s renting at two in the morning, clutching at the ragged knife wound on his abdomen as he batters through the room in the darkness looking for the mini fridge. He yanks out a complimentary mini vodka, rifles about his bag for his First Aid kit, and proceeds to sew up the cut while he bleeds all over the couch, grunting as the vodka stings tender flesh.
It’s only then that he registers that something in his room is not as he left it and his eyes draw to the piece of paper lying on the coffee table, now splattered with Jeno’s blood. He picks it up with shaking fingers and scans a rough scrawl he vaguely recognises, from a lifetime ago.
To a friend, it reads, if you fancy a catch up I’ll be in The Dream at 10pm tomorrow. For old times’ sake and all that.
It’s not signed but it doesn’t need to be. Jeno knows who it’s from.
The paper scrunches beneath his trembling hand and he can’t tell whether it’s blood loss or anticipation settling in his stomach that’s at fault. Too many life or death situations have blurred the line between fear and thrill and now Jeno thinks he’s too fucked up to tell the difference. So he folds the note up as delicately as he can and slips it into his pocket, trying to talk himself out of it when he knows he’s not allowed to have contact with anyone that’s not Doyoung, Irene or a mark that’s part of his current operation.
Social calls aren’t allowed. But what SM doesn’t know won’t hurt them Jeno reasons as he throws on a baseball cap and a black jacket and heads out into the bustling street beyond his hotel, the muggy heat hitting him like a physical force. He tries not to show his slight limp as he makes his way downtown, threading through the crowds the way only someone who can make themselves invisible can master. The chatter of so many voices swirl around his head, threatening to overwhelm him when his head is still spinning. Maybe it hadn’t been the best call, he concedes.
By the time he reaches The Dream, he’s soaked through with sweat and his abdomen is aching, itching beneath the fresh bandage he applied that afternoon in between bouts of not so much sleep as pure unconsciousness. He doesn’t feel rested. It’s why he’s so twitchy pushing open the door to a bar, the stench of alcohol and sweat hitting him like a physical force. It’s the kind of place that looks grimy under daylight, but the gloomy mood lighting and the neon signs cover the worst of it. Besides, he’s seen worse.
His eyes scan the room but he’s greeted with only locals playing cards in the corner and a few patrons nursing their drinks at the bar. He’s not sure what to do with the disappointment or his growing nerves so he orders a drink and a shot, barely tasting the tequila as it burns his way down his throat. Smacking his lips, he clutches his beer to his hands, thumb flicking at the label, and pretends he doesn’t feel the eyes upon him.
“Hard liquor already? Has it been one of those days?”
Jeno doesn’t startle per se, but he does jump up from his seat to find his gaze level with a familiar set of dark eyes and a wide grin, brown hair cut shorter than the last time they had met, maybe… Jeno can’t remember the last time they met.
For a long beat they simply stand there, staring. It’s like time has frozen, just to give them this moment to appreciate how much it has ravaged the both of them. Jaemin looks taller, leaner, his cheeks shaved of their baby fat. There’s something sharp about him, almost angular, like a lifetime in the business have refined his natural senses into those of a predator. The dark circles under his eyes are new, Jeno notes, and wonders what Jaemin thinks of him as his eyes rake over his form.
Then Jaemin sits and it’s like he’s commanding time to flow again. With a gesture of his finger the bartender deposits a beer in front of him, condensation rolling down the side, and he takes a swig, throat swallowing. “God, Jeno, how long has it been?”
“I… don’t know.”
“Yeah, me neither. Crazy, huh?”
“Yeah,” he echoes, falling into his own seat. His beer is warm, and tastes like piss, but it dulls the edge of the situation.
“I was surprised, when I found out we would be in the same city at the same time. It really is a small world, isn’t it?”
“How did you know I was in Havana?”
Jaemin blinks at him, almost the boy he remembers, and then the easy grin slips back on. He taps his nose. “A magician never tells his secrets.”
Jeno is already tired of the mysterious act. It just feels so distant. “Did you keep tabs on me?”
“Me? Little old me?” At whatever Jaemin reads on his face, he sighs so deeply it folds him over the bar, clutching at his beer. “Maybe I did, Jeno. Maybe I like to keep an eye on all of you.”
Jaemin’s grin falters. “Aren’t we… friends?”
His voice is so small that Jeno’s heart shrinks a size. “I… We never see each other. I just missed you, I guess.” He spits the words out and replaces them with beer, gesturing to the bartender for another.
“Aw, did you really? That just warms my heart.”
Jaemin leans into his space, so close Jeno can feel his beer-stained breath against his cheek. “I missed you, too,” he whispers and a full body shiver takes him.
Jeno coughs. “So, you’re on a mission right now?”
Jaemin tuts. “Have you become a rule breaker in the past few years? Whatever would SM say if they knew you were asking me to spill state secrets?”
“Oh, I’m just messing with you.” The signature grin is back but it’s lost some of it’s lustre. “I can’t help but remember how competitive you were, back then. You were so determined to come first in every test but then little gangly limbed Jisung beat your best time at the assault course and you were devastated. You would have thought someone had kicked your puppy.”
Jeno relaxes, smiling despite himself. “He was only, what, thirteen?”
“Twelve, I think.”
“He was not!”
They draw attention of the locals playing cards and Jeno ducks his head as Jaemin snickers. “He was such a brat, that kid. I’m glad he’s doing alright.”
“You’ve seen him?”
“Six, no seven months ago? We were in Tibet at the same time. He’s so tall now, I swear. Taller than me.”
“Jaemin, you’re not that tall.”
Jaemin gasps theatrically. “You take that back.”
As the night wears on, the beer bottles stack up, soon followed by rows of shot glasses. Over cheap tequila and beer, Jeno soothes some of the lonely ache in his heart as he remembers the happier memories of their training days, back when he had first discovered for the first time in his life, what it felt like to belong.
He’s not naive; he remembers the pain of training sunrise to sunset, collapsing into bed so exhausted that he passed out until he had to get up and do it again. But when he thinks of the dream they all were aiming for, to get out there and be heroes… he’s not sure ten hour stakeouts, fake passports, and the ability to assemble a handgun in his sleep look like what he envisioned.
“You ever get tired, Jeno?” Jaemin slurs.
“Tired? ‘M tired right now.” His head is drooping over the sticky surface of the bar, too tired to hold up.
“No, I mean… of this life. Of all of this.” Jaemin gestures around him, as if this hole of a bar in Havana exemplifies life at large.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
The look in Jaemin’s eyes will haunt him for years to come. “Don’t you?”
The noise of the bar drains away, the TV rumbling in the background nothing but white noise. The fan behind the bar rattles on, pushing out nothing but more hot air that makes sweat drip from his temples and bead on his brow. There aren’t any words he can say. Not when the alcohol has stripped back every veneer Jaemin has coated upon himself to reveal the terrified boy beneath. And he is just a boy, still in his teens. He should be worrying about his next exam, or whether his job is the right career for him. Not running himself ragged on two hours of sleep a night to try and prove himself. Not remembering how it feels for blood to dry between his fingers; the way it flakes and peels off.
Jeno is struck by the sudden need to pull him in and hold him close but he would never dare.
“I think,” Jaemin begins, the two of them the last remaining patrons left in the bar and the bartender beginning to throw them looks more frequently. Jeno gives Jaemin a moment to collect his thought, peeling a few notes back from his roll and planting them on the bar. He’ll say that about SM – they give him enough cash to bankroll a small state. Can’t be traceable when he’s not supposed to even exist.
“I think,” Jaemin breathes into the night air, shuddering despite the wall of heat that hits them the moment they step outside. The lamplight hits his face and illuminates the curve of his cheekbones, deepening the shadows beneath his eyes. They flutter shut as he raises his face to the sky and Jeno briefly considers the possibility of just running away, just the two of them. They’re smart. They know how to hide.
But SM taught them everything they know and they know how to find them.
“I think the thing that worries me most is how I’m not tired of it.” When Jaemin turns his eyes are hollow, like two black holes in the yawning quiet of the night. “I couldn’t give it up, even if I wanted to. What do I know about being normal, Jeno? About white picket fences, nine to five in an office and two point five kids? I can’t even get in a car unless I’m fleeing for my life. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
And Jeno gets it. He’s been there. Two pints of blood down and nothing but a false name on a passport grinning through his swollen gums as he mashes his foot on the pedal of a stolen Lotus. Driving a Prius to the supermarket just doesn’t have the same lustre to it. But sometimes he dreams of home and what it might feel like to finally fill that ragged hole in his chest.
Jeno is always running and he’s tired of running.
“Maybe we’ll figure it out somewhere along the way. We’re still young.”
Jaemin snorts, grabbing his arm to cling on when he can’t seem to put one foot in front of the other. The trees lining the road streak as Jeno leans into him and a thousand different potentialities spin out before him. He reaches out as if he can grab them.
In the blink of an eye they’re gone, replaced by a blurry street light. Jeno aches but he doesn’t know why.
The flight to Shanghai is too slow and too quick all at once. Time seems to stretch out until it has no meaning anymore, Jeno tapping his fingers to the beat of the music coming from his headphones. When he’s up in the air it seems to take forever, playing out every possible scenario in his mind. But the next thing he knows he’s being corralled through customs and then he’s dumped out on the bustling Shanghai street with nothing but the bag he took on the plane, wondering where to go next.
Over the years he’s built up a fair network of contacts but he knows that as soon as he begins pulling strings Jaemin will know he’s after him and he might scatter. Still, if he remembers the warmth of that one night in Havana, it’s all futile because Jaemin is keeping tabs on him anyway. Maybe. He’s not sure when it went from invasive to comforting but the thought that Jaemin might not care enough to do it anymore lodges something in his throat. He pulls out his phone and scrolls through his contacts.
“Yukhei? Hey, you busy right now?”
“Jeno?” the voice crackles over the line. “Dude, it’s been too long.”
“I know,” he says. “It’s been a rough couple of months.”
Yukhei laughs, deep and rich. “Try a couple of years.”
Jeno winces, flagging down a taxi. “Sorry. Time gets away sometimes, you know?”
“Don’t I know it. Listen, if you’re in town you should swing by. A few beers, some good music, and I’ll let you try some of my toys.”
He slumps against a leather seat, the air conditioning cooling his sweat. “Text me the address?”
Wong Yukhei, known on the black market by the alias Lucas, is an arms dealer that operates out of various cities in China but mostly bases himself in Shanghai. After spending some time with the triads in Shenzen, Jeno met him down on luck and down on cash, in desperate need of a way to arm himself before he was gunned down by some angry mobsters. One brand new military grade assault rifle later and they formed a friendship that has lasted a span of the past few years, mostly confined to the odd image of a particularly beautiful gun he’s run into on the road, or the occasional beer in Yukhei’s homeland of Hong Kong.
The taxi driver dumps him a few streets from where he’s going, this side of town notorious for gang strife, and Jeno throws some bills at him, tugging his bag over his shoulder and making the rest of the walk with his hand gripped tight on his pistol. It never pays to be too cautious; not even when he radiates the same kind of energy as a tiger on the hunt. Some men are fools for their pride.
The bar is hard to miss unless you know what you’re looking for. Jeno turns down a side street, neon sign flickering, and shoves the door open. He’s been in some dives in his time and this one is no different, stinking of alcohol and other indeterminate smells he’d rather not dwell on. A trap song blasts out from the speakers, the place so badly lit he can barely see where he’s going. He follows the neon strip lighting behind the bar, hand still on his gun.
“Lee Jeno, as I live and breathe!”
Jeno turns, the grin spreading across his face on sight. “Yukhei!” he exclaims, exchanging a handshake. “Nice to see you.”
Yukhei flags them down some beers and then gestures for him to follow, out through some kind of kitchen and then up a flight of stairs. The second floor is more horror film than gangster noir, lights flickering overhead. There’s not a lick of air, heat almost like a physical force, and he’s sweating through his shirt.
“So what can I do for you? Handgun? Rifle? Bazooka?”
Jeno waves his hand. “I’m looking for a person. The problem is, he’s difficult to find. Last he was spotted, it was in Shanghai, and I figured…”
“I know what goes on in my city.” Lucas grins, wide and handsome.
“So who is this guy? I have a few contacts I can probably hit up.”
From his wallet Jeno unfolds a photograph with worn corners, creases breaking Jaemin’s wide grin as he beams at the camera, the Han river gleaming in the background. He passes it over, almost reluctant to part with it, and bites his lip as Lucas scans the photo. His eyes widen and he nods.
“Yeah, I know him. He’s pretty well known on the network these days. They say he can do any hit, for the right price.”
Something lodges tight in his throat. “You’ve seen him?”
“He came to me for some gear.” Lucas whistles. “Pricey gear but he had the cash. Said something about an important job. Say, he a friend of yours?”
Jeno looks away for a moment, playing with the label of his beer bottle. “Something like that.” Beyond the gauzy curtains drawn over the window lights shine from a car’s headlights, making their shadows dance along the wall. “Can you help me find him? Maybe put me in touch with a contact? I can pay.”
Lucas snorts. “I know you can, buddy.” Clapping him on the shoulder, he pulls out a business card for Wong’s Firearms – and isn’t it a laugh that in front of all the illegal arms dealing is a legitimate business – and scribbles a number on the back. “This is for Sicheng. He’s got eyes in every country there is. He’ll know how to find your guy.”
The card is cream, thick between Jeno’s fingers. “What do I owe you?”
“You’re still in touch with Renjun, right?”
Jeno clinks his bottle against his teeth. “Huang Renjun?”
Lucas just shrugs. “What can I say? That was one unforgettable night.”
Jeno picks himself off the bed, pocketing the business card. With a salute, he says, “I’ll pass along the message. I can’t guarantee he’ll respond but–”
“Can’t hurt to try.”
And if that isn’t the sentiment driving his whole mission here, Jeno doesn’t know what is.
“Hey, Jeno, this is all worth it, isn’t it?”
Jaemin gasps as he catches his breath from the floor, sweat curling his hair. His chest rises and falls in rapid movements, his face flushed with colour. They’ve sparred so many times that Jeno has lost count. Right now the scored is tied.
Wiping his face with his shirt, he holds out his hand. “What else do we have?” he replies as he hauls Jaemin to his feet, their hands warm and damp where they’re clasped. He lets go a heartbeat too late, ripping his gaze from Jaemin’s dark eyes.
There’s something about SM that breeds a certain kind of zealousness in the kids they train. The ones that stick it out, that is, and don’t crumble in the face of every hour spent honing them into perfect weapons. Their numbers have thinned considerably in the two years since he joined but Jeno hasn’t once considered dropping out. Here he is important. Here he is achieving something great. Here he has purpose.
Besides, anything that comes easy isn’t worth having at all.
“I’m so tired,” whines Jaemin, bones popping as he rolls his shoulders. “Carry me to the shower.” He clings onto Jeno, nuzzling into his shoulder.
This kind of contact isn’t allowed but there’s something so thrilling about the simple intimacy of touching that Jeno can’t bring himself to shove him away, wrapping a hand around Jaemin’s waist and hauling him to the communal showers. Any shame he ever had in his body has been stripped out of him. Now it is nothing but an object he wields. It is nothing to be ashamed of.
But things have been a little different lately when he’s with Jaemin, like he’s suddenly aware he’s a person once again. Like he’s aware he inhabits a body of flesh and bones. It’s hard not to be when the hot water pours over him, releasing some of the ache tensing up his muscles, and he feels Jaemin’s gaze before his eyes snap open to meet it. His throat dries up, hurt thumping without really understanding why. There’s something about Jaemin sometimes. Something predatory, like he might just snap at any moment and lose control.
What he’ll do then, Jeno doesn’t know.
“You’re not as scrawny as you used to be,” says Jaemin with a snicker as he raises his face to the spray, giving Jeno a moment to admire him in turn.
Jaemin, too, has filled out, all lean muscle and sharp angles where once was softness. This is what SM has done to them. It has turned them from boys into men at the peak of physical fitness. Into idols. Into weapons. Into reapers.
“Do you ever imagine what life might have been like, if we hadn’t ended up here?”
Jeno imagines it sometimes. Studying history, or maths, or medicine. Getting a degree and a job and maybe a wife. Children. Thinks about the kids he sees on the streets sometimes, passing bottles of stolen beer and playing loud music, their smiles bright as they skip along in the summer sunshine. It’s not that he wants to be somewhere else, or that he wants to give up. It’s more a chasing of the potentiality. A possible alternate reality.
In this reality Jaemin is there, too. Sometimes they’re roommates, meeting on the first day of term. Jaemin drags a shy Jeno out to a party on his first day and they hit it off. Or they get paired for a group project and don’t quite see eye to eye at first, until it finally clicks. Sometimes they meet under the flashing lights of a club, Jaemin’s dark eyes catching his in a crowd, and they’re drawn to one another like magnets.
“Honestly? Not really,” says Jaemin, cutting through the vision. “I’m here now so why worry about it?”
Jeno doesn’t say anything else, his ears filled with the roar of the water around him.
“How’s my favourite dongsaeng getting on?” singsongs Doyoung.
Jeno winces. “Sorry I haven’t called. But I’m making progress.”
“Oh, of course. It’s not your job to inform me at all times, or anything like that?”
“Sorry, hyung. I got a little excited, I guess.”
There’s a pause, the click-clack of Doyoung typing through the line. Jeno drops onto a bench opposite a block of flats that overlook the park, raising his face as if enjoying the sunshine instead of watching the windows as he’s really doing. There’s only one with the blinds drawn despite the gloriously sunny day it has turned into, the rest of the windows open, towels and shirts draped from their tiny balconies.
“Jeno,” says Doyoung and he immediately sits up at the tone of voice. “Do you think maybe you’re a little too involved in this? Maybe it might be better to let Renjun or Jisung take care of it.”
“No,” he says before Doyoung can even finish his sentence.
“He was your friend, wasn’t he? I understand if you think it has to be you that brings him in but you saw it yourself. He’s gone rogue.”
“We don’t know the whole story yet. I want – I need to hear it from him first.”
There’s another pause, Jeno’s stomach coiling itself in knots. “Could you do it, if you needed to? Could you put him down?”
“Jeno, it’s my job to look after you. No, it’s more than that I–”
A figure exits the building, draped in an oversized sweatshirt with the hood masking his features. He glances left, then right, then left again before he turns right, hands shoved into his front pocket. It has to be him. He matches the description Yukhei gave him.
Kinda short. Delicate features. Spends most of his time indoors. Don’t underestimate him, he’ll kick your ass.
Jeno wonders if Renjun did get in contact with him, after all.
“Listen, we’ll talk later. I need to follow this lead. I promise I’ll inform you later. Don’t worry.” His hands are sweating when he pockets his phone, lowering the baseball cap over his head as he trails after the hooded figure through the park, the sweet fragrance from the flowers in the gardens drifting on the breeze. It’s too nice, saccharine sweet, and it makes his nose itch. He pinches it to stop himself from sneezing.
They reach a tunnel beneath a bridge and Sicheng disappears into the gloom. All of Jeno’s senses heighten as he plunges in after him, squinting in the dim light. Suddenly there’s a fist in his face and he barely ducks in time, swerving out of the way. The man is too fast for him to land a hit, dancing around him on quick feet. He strikes out, catching Jeno on the jaw, and in return Jeno lands an elbow to the gut. Scrapping and clawing, the two of them go tumbling into the wall, Jeno using his broader figure to pin the man down.
His hood falls, revealing fine features like those of a porcelain doll. The man pulls his head back as if so smack Jeno on the forehead and he releases his hold, palms up.
“Dong Sicheng? Lucas sent me here.”
Sicheng blinks, hands dropping to fists at his side like he hasn’t quite decided whether the fight is over or not. “What for?”
“I’m trying to find someone. I was told you’re the best.”
Eventually Sicheng nods. “I can find anyone.”
Jeno rocks back on his heels, rubbing at his bruised jaw. “Just name your price.”
Jeno has always known it would come, like the impending rain cloud of parent’s night at school with no parents to come for him, but that doesn’t mean he’s fully braced for what it means to take a life.
It’s not even a hit. Jeno is working his second solo mission, Doyoung’s voice guiding him in his ear as he slips through the facility in search of biochemist Son Seungwan’s research on a new nerve agent, when a black figure appears in his vision.
He’s done this enough times in simulations that he just reacts; doesn’t even think about what he’s doing. His gun goes off, the bang reverberating through the high ceilings of the building. The recoil hums through him, hands fizzling with energy. The bang is so deafening he doesn’t hear the body hit the floor; only sees the shape sprawled out on the white linoleum, a pool of blood spreading out around his head.
Jeno drops the gun with a clatter.
“Jeno,” Doyoung says in his ear. “Jeno, are you alright?”
His ears are ringing, a shrill siren that makes his head spin. The blood just keeps going, so close to him he could take a step and splash in red. His hand shakes. “I just – just – he’s dead.”
There’s a sigh of relief on the other end. “You did the right thing.”
“It was you or him.” Doyoung’s voice is firm. “You know the rules: always choose yourself.”
“Right.” His stomach roils.
“Listen, Jeno. I know this is going to be difficult but I need you to continue the mission. If the security is dead, it won’t be long before more come.” At Jeno’s quivering breath, he says, “Keep calm. It’s okay, I promise. Just follow my voice and we’ll get you out of here.”
To this day Jeno still doesn’t know how he manages to get through it, a mindless zombie following Doyoung’s command to the word as he finds the locked cabinet, picks the lock, steals the documents, and then flees. As he’s climbing the fence he hears a klaxon wail, red lights flashing, and then he’s running through the woods towards where the helicopter idles. With Doyoung in his ear, he manages to hold himself together until he’s flown himself back to the city, bumping onto a rooftop with a judder so heavy it rattles his bones.
Then he’s stumbling out to vomit over the ground, chest heaving. Behind his eyelids he sees empty eyes and a pool of blood and tries not to think – family, friends, partner, kids – and exhales out a shuddering sob. The next thing he’s in his hotel room with a bottle of vodka, barely tasting it as it turns his veins into fire.
A knock on the door startles him and he stumbles against both walls before he finally crashes into the door, having just enough frame of mind to peer through the peephole before he’s yanking the door open. His jaw is on the floor to see the fidgeting figure at his doorway, hood shading his features from hotel cameras. He looks up with a soft smile and says, “Hey, Jeno,” and then Jeno is yanking him inside.
“Jaemin? What are you doing here?”
Jaemin throws back his hood, revealing a series of bruises down the side of his face and an eye swollen and bloodshot. “A little birdy told me you made your first kill.”
Jeno sucks in a breath, hands coming up to cradle Jaemin’s face. “What happened?”
Jaemin shrugs. “Just a messy job. You know how they go.”
“You’re face… does it hurt?”
“It’s fine. Really. I’m here for you.”
Jeno collapses onto the sofa, half empty bottle of vodka sloshing in his hand. “Me? I’m fine. More than fine. I’m doing great. How are you doing?”
Raising a brow, Jaemin sits himself down on the coffee table. Too close. He’s far too close, leaning into Jeno’s space, and Jeno feels like he’s drawing Jaemin’s air into his lungs.
“Are you drunk?”
“Drunk? Who’s drunk? Me? I’m drunk on life.”
The sun is sinking behind the line of skyscrapers on the Vancouver horizon, painting the room in rosy hues. Like this Jaemin glows, honey skin gleaming and his eyes sparkling with that twinkle he always seems to have. His hand reaches out to take his, warm and dry, and he rubs circles into the place where his thumb meets the rest of his hand. Jeno heaves a breath that turns into a sob.
And then he’s breaking.
“Shh. Hey, it’s okay,” Jaemin murmurs into his hair as he presses Jeno into his chest, his warmth a comfort after the coldness of death. “It’s okay.”
Jeno cries and cries and cries. Until his eyes are stinging and his throat feels raw. Until Jaemin’s shirt is soaked through from his tears and Jeno no longer has the strength to cry. He pulls back and before he can wipe his eyes Jaemin is catching his last tears with his fingers, smile so gentle it cleaves Jeno’s chest in two.
“Yeah,” he says, and he does feel soothed. Jeno killed a man to save himself and the world hasn’t ended. Jaemin isn’t looking at him like he’s a monster. “Sorry about your shirt.”
“This old thing? I was gonna bin it anyway.”
Sense trickles back into him, bit by bit, and he stares at Jaemin’s bruised face. “How did you know where I was? How did you get here? Aren’t you supposed to be on a job right now?”
“Wow, chill. I just had a feeling. I always know when it’s you, Jeno.”
Jeno just looks at him.
“Doyoung might have said something to me, alright? Besides, my job is done and I had nowhere to go. Maybe I wanted to see you.”
Jeno snickers, watching the dusky sun paint Jaemin’s cheeks with a natural blush. “Don’t get greasy on me.”
“Me? Greasy?” Jaemin shakes his head, grin softening into something delicate. “It really has been too long. I feel like I never see you anymore now that we’ve started working.”
Running a finger gently along Jaemin’s cheekbone, he hums. “This is what we worked for, isn’t it? We’re out here fighting for our country.”
Jaemin catches hand, squeezing his fingers. “These are the hands of a super spy.”
Jeno’s veins are still thrumming with the alcohol and it makes him want to do something stupid, like reach out and pull Jaemin close. Idly he wonders what his lips would feel like against his. How his body would feel pressed against his own and the sounds he might make, if Jeno would only reach out and touch him.
Jaemin’s eyes dart to the clock on the wall, the tick-tick-tick suddenly deafening in the silence, nothing but Jeno’s slight sniffling to disturb it. “I should probably leave. They’ll be expecting me back soon.”
Jeno nods, biting his lip. “Yeah. I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble.”
Jaemin’s thumb caresses his cheek. “You sure you’re gonna be okay?”
“I’m fine,” he says, because he wants to be. “I’m just…”
“This is all worth it, isn’t it? We’re doing the right thing? I know it’s for a good cause but killing people–”
“You can’t talk like that.”
Jaemin’s eyes are wide and he’s looking all around him, as if searching for cameras. Bugs. Jeno gets off the couch to grab Jaemin’s hand, trying to calm his suddenly frantic energy.
“Jaemin, calm down. What’s wrong with you?”
“You can’t talk like that, okay? Just, promise me you won’t.”
Jaemin looks so upset he can’t help but nod. “Okay, I won’t.”
The last thing he sees is the crease between Jaemin’s brows and his dark eyes before he closes the door behind him, so gently it barely clicks. Jeno is left to an empty hotel room and his rattling thoughts.
“So, I think I found something,” says Sicheng, hunched over his multiple monitor screens, fingers flying over his keyboard. “But I’m not so sure you want to see it.”
Sicheng’s space is cluttered, papers and games and books stacked high on his shelves, on his desk, on his floor. Jeno has to pick his way across the floor to reach the desk he sits at, two huge monitors alighting his eyes with blue light as he stares at the screens. At his right elbow is a Russian dictionary and on top of that is an even larger one, in Mandarin to Korean.
“You might as well just show me. You know what they say, just rip it off. Hurts less, right?”
Sicheng arches a fine brow. “Does it?” The corner of his mouth is bruised.
Jeno doesn’t feel bad. His ribs are going to hurt in the morning. “I’m a big boy. Show me the damage.”
Sicheng taps at his keyboard. On the right screen a series of images pop up, fuzzy but recognisable. Bodies. Autopsy reports by the Chinese authorities. Jeno’s Mandarin is decent enough but he can’t decipher all the medical jargon, squinting at the photographs attached to the files of three notable Chinese politicians. All three supposedly died of cardiac arrest, which seems ridiculous.
“It’s the Chinese way,” says Sicheng, pulling up another feed on his left monitor which shows CCTV footage of a train station. “Too embarrassing to admit to the money laundering these three were involved with. All connected to a notable triad, of course. Much easier to pass it off as an accident.”
“All three within days of one another?”
Sicheng shrugs. “No one’s going to question it.”
“And the footage?”
Just as a dark clad figure pushes his way through the crowd, Sicheng hits his keyboard and the video pauses as the man turns, revealing a familiar profile. It’s Jaemin. He hits play again and Jeno watches him get on the train, hands clenching around the back of the chair. “Where’s–”
“It goes to the airport.”
“Where’s he going?” What is he doing?
“I looked into it. It took me forever, by the way, but Yukhei vouched for you so…” When Jeno says nothing Sicheng sighs, throwing his hands up. “I searched all the flights departing from Shanghai Pudong airport that night and found this.” The next thing he pulls up is a Chinese passport, for an alias he doesn’t recognise. The picture is recognisably Jaemin, only with black hair.
“Where’s he going?”
Jeno’s already halfway to the door, stacks of Sicheng’s things scattering to the floor. “Don’t say thanks or anything!” he yells after him.
“Sorry! If you ever need a favour contact Yukhei. I owe you one, Sicheng.”
“Yeah, and I’ll collect!”
Jeno is already out the door. Next stop: Japan.
It’s been a couple of years since Jeno was last in Japan and he finds it little different from how he remembers. It’s a dense warren of buildings intersecting in power lines and traffic signs; the true urban jungle. Osaka is not Tokyo but it thrums with life all the same, neon lights rippling in the puddles he splashes through, a sudden downpour soaking him through in minutes. It’s the wet season, bringing with it never-ending rain, and Jeno trudges onwards to his destination with the air of the miserable.
His phone fills the gap that his memory leaves, a short train journey taking him to a quieter part of town, the walk to the shrine helping to clear his head somewhat. There’s a man outside dressed in shinto robes, sweeping leaves off the path with a rake. He doesn’t look up when Jeno trails across the neatly kept garden, numb hands stuffed into his pockets, but they both share an awareness of another. It’s in the posture; the slightly rigid tilt to the shoulders. Everything about this man is alert, poised for danger. After all, this is nothing but a suitable cover, a life he must keep up when he is not on the job.
Sometimes Jeno thinks it’s the hardest part. The in between. The liminal space between one false passport and another, where Jeno knows exactly what role he needs to play in order to get the job done. The time between jobs feels like the agonising drag of watching the clock. Waiting.
“Are you going to keep standing there all night?”
“Are you going to keep me waiting here all night, Yuta-hyung?”
Yuta glances up, hair falling over his appraising stare that does nothing to soften the intensity. “You’re in Japan, kid.”
“Yes,” says Jeno, glancing to the shrine beyond them, “I did notice.”
Yuta sighs, leaning his hands on the rake. “Would you like to come in for some tea?”
These games they play are always strange. Jeno feels like an actor following a script when he smiles. “Yes, thank you.”
So they kneel on tatami mats at the tokatsu, steam wafting off the tea that Yuta pours, fragrant Jasmine that warms Jeno to the core. He sips delicately, savouring the silence while he is afforded it. But the itch will only go so long without being scratched and out of the two of them, his patience runs on a shorter thread.
“I suppose you know, this being your city and all.”
“Mm. I believe the orders were to take him in. Any means necessary.”
Jeno’s finger twitches on the cup. He sets it down. In the time since he left Seoul, things have escalated. He supposes three murders would do that. “Have you –”
“Evidently not. I’m still sitting here, aren’t I?” Yuta’s eyes gleam. “Little bastard slipped in past my nose.”
“Well. He always did have a lot of friends.”
Yuta bristles, steam from his cup rising round his face. “They must be desperate, if they’re sending everyone.”
“Just the ones that are free right now.”
Yuta waves him away. “It means they fear him.”
Jeno pauses with his cup halfway to his mouth. “Do you think?” There’s still a part of him, years later and world-weary, that is still a little bit in awe of SM. Of their power and influence. Of their ability to know and see all across the world. To stop threats before they can become full-blown disasters. If he didn’t know how it all worked – if he hadn’t seen behind the curtain – he would assume some kind of precognition.
“The question is, who will find him first?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” says Jeno, his cup clinking as he puts it on the table, tea splashing out. Wiping it with his sleeve, he grins at Yuta in the way that unsettles most people, all teeth and curving eyes. Too sweet for an assassin and distracting enough to be the perfect honeypot.
Jeno stands. “It has been lovely to catch up but I really ought to be going.”
“What? You’re not going to ask me to leave this to you?”
“I wouldn’t dare. I know you wouldn’t agree.”
“No, but this is personal.”
“Mm.” Jeno slings on his jacket, locating his shoes at the door. He hears the click of the safety and raises his hands, a thrill running down his spine. “Thanks for the tea.”
Without looking back he walks out the door. Yuta doesn’t shoot, just like Jeno knew he wouldn’t. It doesn’t stop his shaking hand as he answers his ringing phone, heartbeat still hammering inside his chest. “Did you find anything?”
Doyoung makes a sound from the back of his throat that he only does when he’s frustrated. “I can’t find the link. I mean there’s the jopok-triad connection, if you want to be obtuse about it, but neither of the gangs had any solid connection with one another. Gangsters in Busan and politicians in Shanghai? It doesn’t really make sense.”
“Maybe it doesn’t need to make sense,” Jeno says, standing in the shelter of an overhang, watching the rain dash off the streets. His clothes are still damp and he shivers. “Any sign of his movements?”
“I’m still checking all the feeds from the airport but he just disappears into the crowd after reaching Kansai Airport Station. There is one thing, though.” He hears typing. “He makes a stop at a locker and picks up a bag. I’m guessing it’s his payment but you should probably take a look. I’ll call you once I’ve found where he went.”
Jeno hangs up and stares out at the pouring rain with a heavy sigh. The sky is black with clouds; it’s not going to stop any time soon. Rivers run through the streets, the air dewy with the smell of it. He’s going to have to suck it up and go but it doesn’t stop the shock of icy water pounding against his head as he dashes out into the street, heading for a busier district where he can find a taxi that will take him to the station.
By the time he manages to flag one down he’s soaked through, hair clinging to his skull, and he grumpily reels off instructions to the driver, sinking down against his seat with weary bones. His own reflection in the window is pale and haggard, water dripping down his cheeks like tears. Dark shadows linger beneath his eyes, a by-product of his lack of sleep. Jeno is tired but he can’t stop.
If he stops now someone might find Jaemin first.
The station is a rush of activity, people wheeling cases all around him. Weaving between the brightly dressed tourists clinging to their maps and the business people in their sharp suits, he makes a beeline for the rows of lockers, looking at the grainy image Doyoung had sent to his phone until he finds the one he’s looking for. Number Thirteen, of course. His hand lingers in the air. Jaemin was here less than a day ago, standing the exact same place as he does now. His heart pounds, wondering how he felt. Was he scared? Was he nervous? Jeno doesn’t know. It’s been a long time since he felt he really understood Jaemin, if he really ever did at all.
Shielding the CCTV camera with his back, he pulls a toolkit from his jacket pocket and works the lock with numb fingers, taking more attempts than normal because they’re so stiff with cold. Eventually he prises it open, heart wrenching when something catches his eye. One sheet of white paper, lined, folded in half. He slips it out and pockets it, inspecting the locker with his hand to make sure there are no hidden compartments. Skin thrumming, he shuts it and walks away as calmly as he can muster to find the bathrooms.
They’re as grimy as any other station bathroom but he hardly cares, slamming down the lid and scrabbling with the door lock. With shaking fingers he pulls out the piece of paper, damp thanks to his clothing. There’s a few lines scrawled in messy Hangul, as distinguishable as ever.
Should I be flattered that you’re chasing me? The line is followed by a blushing emoji.
I told you that if you didn’t get it you should just let it lie. Go home before you get hurt.
Jeno reads it over five times before he scrunches it into a ball and shoves it in his pocket, fuming. Fucking Jaemin, always messing with his head.
Well, Jeno’s going to find him now. He’s going to find him and give him a piece of his damn mind.
Jeno’s first time in Japan is only his second clean up job. He’s sociable, naturally flirtatious and good looking enough to be good at seduction, unassuming enough to be a deft hand at infiltration, and under Doyoung’s tutelage his hacking skills have improved exponentially, but SM believe their assets should be well rounded.
At the age of nineteen he’s made more than a few kills but this one is different. This time it’s one of them. The worst part is he can’t tell anyone that Hansol is slated for death, the secret sinking into his gut like a ticking bomb waiting to explode. The worst part is that no one ever knows, not all these years later, that Jeno is the one sent to kill him, chasing him down to a quiet suburb in the frozen hellscape that is Sapporo. The worst part is that he has to face him, in his quiet little home surrounded by pictures of his wife and smiling kids, as he sits quietly on the sofa like he knew death was coming for him all along.
Of course he did.
“Hello,” he says. “You must be one of the second generation. A Dreamer kid, I’m guessing?”
Jeno’s hand falters as he reaches for his gun. “Second generation?”
“Of the NCT Project. We were the originals, you know. Trained to be good at everything. Only the best of the best made the final cut, so if you’re second gen I know you must be good.”
It’s said so matter-of-factly that Jeno is taken aback. “I… don’t know what you mean.”
“They deliberately don’t tell you much,” says Hansol, eyes distant. “They want you loyal. They want you hanging on their every word, begging for any scrap of attention. But, you know, the minute you’re no longer useful, well…” His finger taps the arm of the chair, a sad smile flickering across his features. “I only wanted to be good enough but I never was.”
“I don’t care what you did,” he says. It’s true; the more Jeno knows the worse it is. At the end of the day only one of them walks out of this room.
“I didn’t do anything.”
Jeno has heard those words too many times to count. Too many times for them to mean anything to him.
“You know it will happen to you too, don’t you?” says Hansol. “Once you outlive your use, you have to go. You know too much.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“You know enough.”
“What does it matter? I’m not leaving. I’m not going to sell SM out.”
Hansol snorts, eyes flicking to a framed photograph of him cuddling a little girl with pigtails. “I only wanted to live some of the life that was stolen from me. My family – they are safe?”
Jeno nods, drawing his gun. His hand only trembles once, then his arm locks straight. Normally he has more of a fight. His body is strung up with adrenaline, ready for a battle and it doesn’t know what do when it’s not getting one. The energy has nowhere to go so it rattles around inside of him, needing release.
“This life always catches up to you,” says Hansol and Jeno’s finger slips on the trigger.
Too long. He’s let this drag out too long. Perhaps this is Hansol’s game; psyche him out until he’s so unsettled he can turn the game around on him. He can’t forget that this man – this quiet, family man – is dangerous.
“I’m sorry, but I have to kill you now.”
Hansol nods. “This is how it works. It will be you someday, staring in the face of some baby-faced kid. You’ll remember this conversation when you have something to lose. When you have someone you love.”
Jeno sucks in a breath and shoots. The shot reverberates in the tiny living room, a pile of snow sliding past the window.
This life always catches up to you.
Only Jeno walks out of the house.
“The bodies are starting to pile up.”
Jeno nods even though Doyoung can’t see him, stolen lanyard swinging around his neck as he surveys the detective on the scene of the crime. Pushed off a roof. Most likely it will be ruled as suicide, if the authorities wish to keep it hush.
“He was a billionaire. Started with a small tech company that grew into an empire. Such an intelligent man,” says Doyoung in his ear, clicking his tongue. “What a shame.”
“Why, though? Why would Jaemin want to kill him?” he murmurs, pretending to swab the ground for forensic evidence. “Gangster connections?”
There’s a beat of silence that stretches out too long and he stiffens, ducking under the police tape and marching away from the sirens, hands shoved into his pockets. The lanyard slaps against his shirt and he rips it off his neck, tossing it into the bushes before peeling off his latex gloves.
“Doyoung? Yukhei, mentioned something about him doing any hit for the right price.”
“Yukhei?” says Doyoung, slightly breathless.
“Oh, the arms dealer. I forgot what it’s like, being on a first name basis with criminals.”
The jab lacks its usual bite. Jeno’s mind spins, landing on a memory from a few years ago. We were the originals. The NCT project, phase one. Doyoung used to do what he does now but he’s never really asked him about it.
“Doyoung, what is it?”
“I think… this man invested in SM’s technology, Jeno. I think, maybe… the weather is going to turn. The forecast is predicting a hurricane.”
Jeno frowns, pausing. That’s their code for when Doyoung thinks they’re being listened to.
“It’s out of season,” he responds, phone clutched tight in his hand. In the distance the sirens still flash, the police tape flapping in the wind. Sweat is slick on his palms and he swallows the lump around his throat, his stomach tying itself in knots. Something must be very, very wrong if Doyoung is talking to him in code.
“Do you remember when we talked about holidays? About where we would like to go?” says Doyoung suddenly, tone trying for conversational.
“I’m thinking about booking a flight to the postcard I have above my desk. It’s supposed to be nice this time of year.”
Jeno walks over to the side of the road, eyeing the flow of traffic. When a taxi turns the corner he jams out his thumb. It screeches to a halt in front of him, wheels churning up grubby sleet. “Hyung, I have to go. You’ll get in touch, right?”
Jeno hangs up, throwing himself into the taxi.
“To the airport,” he says. Next destination: Thailand.
Taped to the corner of Doyoung’s third monitor is a postcard of a sunrise over the skyline of a city, gold fading into pink and violet. On the back is one line, scrawled in Hangul so messy its barely legible. To the ones who survived. Remember there’s always another sunrise. The writing is followed by the number 10 in Arabic numerals.
Jeno taps his phone, already purchasing his ticket to Bangkok.
When he lands in the bustling metropolis that is Suvarnabhumi airport, his phone pings with a notification. Its an email from an unknown recipient, with no contents but a jpeg attachment. He’s risking all kinds of viruses and malware by clicking on it but he knows with a bone deep certainty that it can only come from Doyoung. When it loads on his screen he finds the baffling image of two dice, face up on the five spots.
“Two fives?” he says aloud, stopping so suddenly that a woman with a suitcase crashes into the back of him. She curses him in Thai and he flashes her an apologetic smile that seems to appease her, turning back to his phone. “Ten?”
Ten. Of course. The information broker that operates out of Bangkok is a contact Doyoung has referred him to before, although where the connection came from Jeno can only guess. It’s not hard to make friends with shady figures, when in the business of secrets and lies, but even so. It’s not like Jeno really knows how to get hold of Ten, anyway. The last time Doyoung set up the deal and Jeno made the exchange with one of Ten’s guys, never meeting the man in person.
You don’t become the type to know everyone’s secrets by revealing your own, Jeno supposes, making his way into one of the packed airport cafes and ordering the strongest coffee he can. Then he dumps himself into a corner table, pulling out a notebook. He jots down the names of the kills, drawing links to any connections, with SM the sun in the centre of their orbit. His pen pauses on the circle, staring at the two letters as if they’ll suddenly make sense to him.
The memories are difficult to keep at bay, whenever he thinks of Jaemin. So Jeno slumps over on his arms, eyelids heavy, and lets himself remember.
The moment he knows isn’t some big, epic event. In fact, it’s the total opposite. They’re not even doing anything special, it’s just some training course on surveillance that has them cramped up in the back of a car as they observe their mark’s apartment in the stillness of night, Jeno’s eyes threatening to droop with the lack of action. There’s only so long he can go on a few hours of sleep and absolutely no movement, his knees tucked up beneath his chin. The rain starts up, pattering against the window, and tucked warm and cosy into the car he feels his head nod. A yawn escapes him and he’s quick to stifle it behind his palm.
“Aw, are you tired?” Jaemin’s eyes crinkle as he coos. Suddenly a hand reaches up and then he’s running his fingers through Jeno’s hair, scritching behind his ear.
On instinct Jeno’s eyes close, a small pleased sigh escaping him. Jaemin’s hand stills and his eyes snap open to them leaning in far too close, Jaemin’s eyes wide and shining in the darkness. There’s something reverent about his gaze, like he’s looking upon some mighty monument and not a rumpled, sleep deprived Jeno.
“Um,” he manages, cheeks flushing.
Jaemin flashes him a wink and then he’s doing what they were told not to do; flicking the handle and stealing into the rain. Jeno sits up, wide awake now. He cranes his neck, trying to see where Jaemin went to, but he’s too good at disappearing into the scenery, nowhere to be seen. Anxiety rippling through him, Jeno ducks his head when a man walks by with his dog, biting his lip as he waits. Why on earth would he just vanish like that and leave Jeno all alone?
“You didn’t fall asleep did you?”
Jeno startles at the icy cold prickles of rain against his skin as Jaemin opens the door and slips inside. Clutched in his hand are two paper cups, one quickly pressed into his with a grin. It’s hot, steam wafting up into the air, and the aroma of coffee fills the cramped space of the car. Jeno breathes it in, his heart doing a series of complicated somersaults in his chest as Jaemin pops the lid on his and stirs it with one of those wooden sticks.
Jeno just stares at his, not having enough control of his limbs to even take a sip.
“Is it not alright? I thought that was your usual.”
Jeno meets Jaemin’s earnest gaze and his mouth flaps uselessly. “It’s, uh,” he says, voice cracking, “it’s great, thanks.”
“You okay? You look a little peaky.”
“I’m fine.” It’s a lie.
Before he can stop to contemplate the way his world is shifting in front of his eyes, in this tiny car on a Seoul street in the middle of a rainy night, with a takeout coffee that’s more precious to him than the meagre bag of his belongings he brought with him to the SM dormitories, Jaemin’s shoving his head down and peeking up over the window.
“That’s him! That’s the mark! Let’s watch him.”
But as much as he should be watching his mark, Jeno’s eyes never leave Jaemin. It’s as he takes his first sip and the rich, earthy taste of coffee hits his tongue, that he knows.
It’s Jaemin and it always has been, from the moment they first locked eyes on that first desperate day of practice. It’s Jaemin and it’s always going to be, now and forever.
“Where are you right now?”
“Is this line secure?”
“I wouldn’t be calling you otherwise.”
Jeno sighs, rubbing at his eyes. The incessant ringing of his phone had invaded dreams of being strapped down to a chair as Jisung told him he had to kill him and it had taken him too long to wake, sleep wrapping bruising arms around him and dragging him back down. Eventually he had managed to wrestle himself up, thumb his phone to answer, and then roll out of bed to the window to see the sun setting across the shining skyscrapers like he has stumbled into Doyoung’s postcard.
“I’m in Bangkok, like you said.”
“Hyung, what’s going on?” He’s managed maybe four hours of sleep in the past few days and it’s starting to catch up with him.
“There’s not much I can say right now. But if we’re going to be talking about the agency… They won’t take well to Jaemin targeting them.”
“You don’t know that’s the truth.”
“It’s what it looks like.”
Jeno pinches the bridge of his nose, watching the colours bleed in the sky. The room is washed with cerise, painting his skin in shades of red. Shades of blood. “Do you think I’m a fool for pursuing this? You think I should give up on him.”
There’s a brief pause, something rustling. “No, I don’t think that. No matter what, its your job to catch him regardless. But no, I don’t think you should ignore your gut instinct.”
Something warm fills him then, at the conviction in Doyoung’s voice. “But I–”
“Whatever your feelings, they don’t come into play right now.” And there’s the handler he knows, all business. “I have a contact for you to meet. He goes by Hendery and he is one of Ten’s.”
“Is Jaemin here? Is he in Thailand?”
“According to the intel I have, yes. But we need to stop chasing him all over the place. It’s time we go to someone who has eyes everywhere. We need to figure out what he’s doing and where he’s going next. Getting ahead of him is the only way we’ll catch him.”
Biting his lip, he taps his finger against the window frame. “And Ten will know this, will he?”
“Believe me,” Doyoung says, amusement rippling through his tone, “he’ll know.”
“Alright. Send me the details.”
On he goes.
Ten’s contact is not what Jeno expects. When the young man enters the cafe Jeno takes him for a student, or the son of some wealthy family, well dressed and neat. Handsome. The way he carries himself is a little skittish, eyes darting around, and when they land on Jeno he pauses with his coffee halfway to his mouth, disbelieving. A smile spreads across Hendery’s face and he waves like they’re old friends.
Maybe he’s a good choice for undercover work, Jeno concedes. He’s not really the type you would expect, drowning in his fairisle jumper and carrying a satchel at his side like he’s stepped out of a movie from a century ago. It helps Jeno relax a little, easing back into his chair as Hendery sits down after ordering at the counter.
“Sorry I’m a little late. My bus got stuck in traffic.”
Jeno blinks, wondering if he’s stepped into a different reality where he’s not meeting the contact of an information broker, to find out where the assassin and former spy he’s chasing is currently hiding. This looks more like they’re about to pull their notes out and work on a class project, or something like that. Having never been to college, Jeno isn’t really sure. But it’s how he's always imagined it.
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Hendery.” He sticks out his hand.
“Jeno,” he replies, shaking it.
“I hope you’re enjoying Bangkok so far.”
“Ah, yeah, it’s fine. I’ve been before.” Jeno has been most places, it feels.
The serving girl sets down Hendery’s teapot, steam wafting from the lid. He takes his time pouring into the cup set on a porcelain saucer, the smell of macha hitting Jeno all at once. He makes a show of checking his watch, wondering if they can just get to the point before Jaemin has killed another important figure and fled the damn country.
“Ten is curious as to why you’re here. He says Doyoung was evasive when he contacted him but that it was important.”
“I thought Ten knew everything.”
Hendery raises his brows, sipping his tea. “He has his thoughts, of course. But why guess when I have you right in front of me?”
He’s so guileless Jeno feels like telling him everything. Maybe that’s why Ten picked Hendery. As he sits at the table observing him, he’s been wondering about it, but there’s something so disarming about a pleasant smile and gentle, aimless chitchat, like the rain that’s starting to run down the windows of the cafe. Jeno should know. It’s his game too, after all.
“I suppose if we’re going to be honest then I would tell you I am looking for someone.”
“Ten thought it might be like that.”
Jeno sips his drink, barely tasting it. The rain patters against the roof, growing in strength. Outside the sky is murky and grey, clouds gathering on the horizon. The sign outside wobbles in the wind.
Hendery chuckles, drawing his attention. “It is not difficult to notice, when someone makes big ripples in the water. It makes sense you would be looking for him.”
“Oh? Who would that be now?”
“I think you know that I know. But, fine, if we’re going to play it that way then I suppose I’ll start with this.” He reaches into his satchel and pulls out a pixelated photograph, sliding it across the table to Jeno.
Snatching it up, he looks at a blown up picture of CCTV footage, timestamped that very morning. In it Jaemin is looking behind him, face protruding from the hood he’s using to shade his features. The location around him is very green, boats dotted on water at his back with skyscrapers jutting from trees on the other side, but it’s too grainy for him to discern any significant details. He taps on it with a finger, wishing he could reach into Jaemin’s mind just by looking at the picture. Wishing he could work out what happened to make him lose control like this.
“The location in this photo is Lumphini Park. Na Jaemin was in Bangkok as of this morning.”
Jeno inhales sharply, putting down his coffee. The cup clinks against the saucer. “Ten is looking for him too?”
Hendery hums. “Ten is interested in his goal. He intimated that you might know.”
Jeno frowns. “I don’t know. Ten’s the intel guy.”
“But you know Jaemin.”
“I knew him once.”
They lapse into silence, the chatter of the surrounding patrons of the cafe a white noise that stops the situation from growing too uncomfortable. The rain pounds against the streets, some people running with bags over their heads past the windows, a few ducking inside. The bell chimes. Wind howls louder through the open door before it closes once again, cocooning them within the warmth of the cafe.
“Can you trace his movements from here? I need to know where he’s going to go next.”
“Ten is good but he’s not psychic.”
“He must have an idea.”
Hendery pulls his phone from his pocket. “Perhaps. But information comes with a cost.”
“I can pay it.”
Hendery’s eyes flick up to his, dark and cold. “Can you?”
Jeno shivers. Before he can answer, Hendery’s phone buzzes. Frowning, the man stands up, chair screeching against the wooden floor, and flicks to answer as he walks away in the direction of the bathrooms. “Hello? What’s going on?” is all he hears before Hendery is suddenly running for the door.
In a flash, Jeno drops a wad of notes on the table, grabs his coat, and bolts after him. Into the torrential rain he runs, the water battering into him and soaking him through in a matter of moments. It’s freezing cold despite the clammy heat building in the air, chilling him to the bone. Sloshing through the water running through the streets, he catches Hendery as he’s throwing himself into a huge black car and flings himself in after him. He sweeps his sopping hair off his forehead, smelling fresh leather upholstery, noting the driver through the partition.
“You didn’t get the bus, did you?”
“Ten is very invested in his security. He will not want you in his home.”
Hendery looks at his phone again, the car jerking as it weaves through city traffic at a speed that has to be illegal. “Maybe.”
“Is Jaemin involved?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Jeno shivers in his damp clothes as they turn up a hill towards a walled compound, passing through huge doors that require a scanned ID to let them past. Beyond are sprawling glass houses spread out amongst neat gardens, all sleek lines and dark panelled wood. Modern. Luxurious. If this where Ten lives, the business of secrets must be lucrative. Maybe Jeno should consider rethinking his job.
“Ten? Ten, what’s going on? We’re nearly here.” Hendery says into his phone.
The car slides to a stop by one of the houses, as grand and imposing as the others if a little smaller in scale. Unlike the others there is little glass, clean lines constructed from wood and brick to make it feel more secure.
Hendery leaps out, running. Jeno takes off after him, following him into a spacious hall with an impressive staircase up to the next floor and a chandelier dripping crystals from a high ceiling, glass panels above revealing the stormy sky. They both pause, hearing the sound of something crashing and then a yell. Then they’re thumping through the house, Jeno only feeling slightly guilty about his muddy footprints on Ten’s pristine cream carpet.
There’s a body slumped against the wall, a streak of blood marking his fall, and Jeno’s heart skips a beat until Hendery’s running past the suited man. Must be security, he reasons as he pulls out his gun. In the kitchen there’s three more, sprawled in various poses of assault, blood pooling around their bodies, and Jeno slows, gun raised in front of him as he steps past them, eyes scanning the room.
Another figure stumbles into the room and Jeno nearly fires but Hendery is shoving past him, helping the black haired man to walk over to a seat, his thin form slumping over him. A nasty gash across his forehead bleeds down the side of his face, bruises and scrapes adorning his cheekbone. Hendery flutters around him, inspecting his wounds, but the man’s dark eyes go straight to Jeno. He reaches out, hobbling out to place something in his hand. A phone.
“I put a GPS tracker on him.”
Jeno doesn’t even think, he bolts.
The phone leads him to a crumbling hotel in a poorer part of town, a few of the characters on the light up sign flickering in and out as he peers up. Striding up to the entrance, he approaches the bored looking receptionist examining her nails and smiles his brightest smile at her. She cocks her head, unamused.
“Hello, I’m looking for my friend,” he says in passable Thai. It’s one of the languages he’s never been great with, so he switches to English. “He arrived earlier I think. This is him.” He shows her the photo of Jaemin from his photo.
Minnie, as the name tag pinned to her jacket reads, fixes him with a level stare. “I’m not supposed to reveal customers’ identities.”
Jeno pulls out some bills from his wallet and passes them to her, turning up the wattage on his smile. “I really want to surprise my friend.”
She takes the money, stuffs it in her bra. “Second floor. Room 204.” Sliding a key over the desk, she turns back to filing her nails, painted a shimmering purple.
“Thanks,” he says, jogging to the stairs with the keys swinging in his sweating palms. He takes the stairs two at a time, pushing through to the second floor a little breathless. Anticipation coils tight inside of him the further he goes, pausing outside room 204.
On closer inspection, there’s a smear of blood on the metal handle and he swipes the keycard, pushing into the gloom of the room. “Hello?” he calls out softly, taking measured steps with his gun raised in front of him. “Jaemin?”
There’s a clattering sound behind him, something banging and falling, and then a light switches on. He hears the click of a safety and whirls just as Jaemin stumbles out of the bathroom, one hand holding a gun and the other clutching at his shoulder. His face is pasty white, shining with sweat, and his lips are colourless. Through his fingers blood drips, crimson drops landing on a carpet that’s probably seen worse.
“Jaemin!” he exclaims, jamming his gun into the waistband of his jeans as he catches him before he can fall, hauling him over to a ratty sofa. When he presses his hand against his forehead it’s hot and slick. “Jaemin, what happened?”
“Why – why are you here? I told you not to follow me.”
Jeno ignores him, gently lifting his shirt to inspect the neat bullet wound between the place where his collarbone and shoulder meet. “Hold on,” he says, leaving him there as he dashes to the bathroom, scrambling for something. In the cupboard he finds a small first aid box, coming back out to see Jaemin clutching at a bottle of vodka with bloody hands. He takes a swig, throat bobbing.
“Lie back. I need to get this out.”
Thankfully Jaemin seems a little too out of it to protest as Jeno pours vodka onto a set of tweezers to disinfect them. “Take another drink. This is going to hurt.”
When he plunges into the wound Jaemin screams and Jeno grips his hand with his free one, letting Jaemin crush his knuckles as he digs into the flesh for the piece of metal. He slips a few times before finally gripping it and yanking it out, Jaemin hissing like a punctured balloon and folding in on himself. Jeno makes quick work of disinfecting the wound and bandaging him up with his shaking fingers, murmuring to him all the way. He didn’t know what he expected when he imagined finally finding Jaemin again, but he should have expected this. This is their life.
Once he’s finished he wipes his hands with a towel and grimaces as he tosses it in the wash basket, dropping onto the coffee table so he can face Jaemin head on. For a while the silence lingers between them, so heavy he doesn’t think he can break through it. Just sitting there, looking upon Jamin with his dark hair damp and sweaty against his forehead; it’s already so much. He has so many things to ask he doesn’t know where to begin.
“So,” says Jaemin, looking perkier, “you found me.”
Jeno waves the phone. “GPS tracker.”
Jaemin blinks, fumbling through his pockets until he locates a small electronic device in his leather jacket, holding it up between bloody thumb and forefinger. “That bastard,” he says as he crushes it and then tosses it away. It bounces against the wall and lands on the carpet.
“I’ve been chasing you all over the world,” Jeno blurts, catching his gaze once more. “Jaemin, what the fuck are you doing?”
“I told you, didn’t I? Not to chase me.”
“And you thought that would work?”
Something in Jaemin’s expression shifts. From cold and closed off, his features rearrange into something dark; molten. His lips curl at the corners, just a hint of teeth between a parted mouth, and he leans forward into Jeno’s space in a way that makes his face heat. “Are you saying you miss me, baby?”
Jeno shivers, voice catching in his throat. His mind tries to fight his body but it’s hard. “Jaemin,” he warns, “I need to know what’s going on. What are you trying to do? Why are you targeting SM? Why aren’t you dead?”
Jaemin blinks, leaning back. “You’re going to hurt my feelings, you know that?” He sniffs and looks away. “I should have been dead. I nearly died, falling off that train. Injured my back so bad the doctor in Innsbruck thought I would never walk again.” Huffing a laugh, his eyes turn back to Jeno, and they’re not as cold as before. Somewhere inside, the remnants of the boy he once knew flicker.
“I thought you were dead.”
Whatever he hears in Jeno’s voice makes Jaemin freeze. When he thaws out again he says, “Yeah, a lot of people did.”
“At first. But you know SM. They find out everything, sooner or later.”
“So why didn’t you come back? You told me you weren’t tired of the job.”
Jaemin’s sudden laughter catches him off guard. There’s something haunted in his gaze now, as he looks beyond Jeno’s shoulder. Whatever he sees, Jeno can only guess. “You still don’t know, do you? Do you never wonder, why your handler never talks about the past?”
Jeno frowns. “What do you mean?”
“What do you think happens, when an asset is no longer useful anymore? Think about the word. Asset. As if we’re property. Something to be owned.”
“But we’re assets to the organisation. Because they trained us to be the best.” His voice comes out hesitant, like he’s treading unsteady ground.
“Right. They trained us to be the best. But I’m never going to be the best anymore. My back has seen to that.”
Something flickers around his skull. Echoes of past conversations. He thinks of Hansol’s dark eyes as they stared down the barrel of his gun unflinching and forewarned him of his doom.
“Do you know how many still remain of the original NCT project? NCT 127?”
Jeno’s frown deepens. Now that he thinks about it, whenever he’s brought it up Doyoung always skirts around the topic. Jeno always put it up to soreness at being taken out of the field and retired out of courtesy, but now he’s beginning to wonder.
“I don’t,” he concedes, to Jaemin’s triumphant grin.
“Because they don’t want you to know.”
“What happens to an asset that ceases to be useful.” Jaemin mimes a gun against his temples with two fingers and Jeno’s eyes widen in horror.
“But – but they gave Doyoung a desk job. He’s not–” Hansol, his mind supplies, a lump wedging in his throat that he can’t swallow away.
“You think I’d ever be happy with a desk job? Me?” Jaemin chuckles, shaking his head. “Besides, Doyoung is a genius with technology. He’s an exception that they know they can control because of what happened to Lee Taeyong.”
Now Jeno is even more confused. Lee Taeyong was the prototype for all they are. The very first recruit for the NCT project. So much of the training was developed around him, to the point where his scores were targets for the young trainees to aim for. Somehow even their brightest and best could never touch Taeyong’s scores. Even to this day he’s a ghost hallowing the halls of SM’s headquarters; a legend whispered from one mouth to another, his exploits growing more and more outlandish as they made their way around the ring.
“Lee Taeyong is dead.”
Jeno rubs at his temple. “I don’t understand.”
“Because you’re the golden boy. You’ve never been in trouble with them.”
“What are you planning to do? Wage war on an entire intelligence agency? You know you can’t win.”
When the grin spreads across Jaemin’s face, Jeno is reminded of how some animals bare their teeth in warning. “Can’t I?”
“And what happens at the end? Do you kill them all and stand victorious over their bodies?”
“Are you judging me?” Jaemin rises to his feet, pacing the room like a prowling tiger. “Are you seriously judging me when you’ve got just as much blood on your hands as me?” His eyes are two fires, blazing. “They’re not good people. They deserve to die for what they do to children. What they turn them into.”
Jeno follows him, unsure what he’s trying to do. “It’s not about them. It’s about you. Can you really find peace this way?”
“I’ll find peace when I’m no longer looking over my shoulder ever damn second!”
They both pause with only a few feet between them, gazes locked as Jaemin’s words echo out and fade. They’re still ringing in Jeno’s ears, shaking up the foundations on which he thought his world rested. Everything looks different all of a sudden. The strange, washed out light of the hotel room. The shadows beneath Jaemin’s eyes. The aftertaste of cheap vodka on his tongue. It’s all static in his head, all thoughts wiped clean.
“Jeno,” murmurs Jaemin, creeping closer. “Jeno, know that I’m trying to protect you.”
His eyes narrow. “Did you forget I’ve had the same training as you? Did you forget how many people I’ve killed?”
“No.” Jaemin’s fingers trace the curve of his cheekbones, so delicate its barely a touch, and as much as he tries to resist he leans into it. “You were always the best of us, you know? The one we all wanted to be like.”
“What?” he says, gaze flickering between Jaemin’s eyes and lips, trying to focus with his warm hands caressing Jeno’s face.
“Donghyuck… Renjun… even Jisung, I think. They all admired you.”
Jaemin smiles but it’s a soft, sad thing. “I think I did a little more than admire you.” Then he’s backing Jeno up until he hits the wall, Jeno moving easily under his direction. Jaemin presses closer, breath fanning over his face, and then he’s pushing his lips against Jeno’s, a leg nudging his thighs apart.
His mouth parts and Jaemin’s tongue dives in, the kiss deepening until Jeno is breathless with it. Jaemin’s hands roam down his neck, across his back, in his hair, clutching at every part of him until he’s burning up. Arousal pools in his belly and he pushes up against Jaemin’s thigh, whimpering into their kisses. He feels Jaemin’s lips part in a smile as he presses open mouthed kisses to his throat, grinding his hips against him in a way that’s excruciating; good but just not enough.
“Always so good for me, huh, Jeno?” Jaemin sounds breathless, a hand slipping beneath his shirt to splay across his chest. Warmth radiates from where skin meets skin.
“Jaemin, please.” He grabs him, presses them flush together, panting into his mouth. Jaemin has always made him weak like this. “Please, just…”
“Please what? What do you want?”
Jeno turns his head to the side, soft puffs of breath breaking the stillness of the room. “I don’t know,” he confesses, trying to catch something in Jaemin’s eyes. “I don’t know.”
Jaemin bites a swollen lip, gazing back as if trying to read the answer from him. “I’m sorry,” he rasps, finally, tenderly brushing Jeno’s hair from his eyes.
“Sorry for what?”
Before Jeno can react, Jaemin’s hand rises and strikes him in the neck. The sting of the needle is a shock and his hands clutch at Jaemin’s shirt, trying to speak, trying to fight it, but the drug’s already taking effect. The warmth of Jaemin against him is the last thing he registers before he drops off, consciousness eluding him in one fell swoop.
Fraternisation amongst trainees is forbidden, for the most part. It’s forbidden, except for when assets are supposed to learn the art of seduction. A quaking virgin doesn’t make for a very good honeypot, after all, so SM is known to turn a blind eye, in the interest of experimentation. Love means divided loyalty but sex is sex, at the end of the day.
“There’s always more in the unspoken,” says Sooyoung, trailing a hand up her arm. “A gentle touch here, a lingering gaze there. The most powerful flirtation is that which you do not notice at first. The body should pick up on it before the mind. That is how you lure someone in.”
Jeno doesn’t really know much about seduction but he’s always been good at charming his way into other’s hearts, so he views it as an extension of that, practising a coy smile in front of the mirror instead of a friendly once, and thinking about subtle things like body language as he takes lunch with the group of recruits that have become something like friends to him. He watches Yerim turn up her smile to skip the line in the queue and laughs behind his hand, thinking that perhaps it does not require as much thought as he believes.
“What did you think? About today’s lesson?” Jaemin asks later, when they’re sitting in his dorm watching a movie in a rare moment of reprieve. He shares with Jisung, who will still be training at this time in the evening, even on a rare night off.
Jeno glances at him out the corner of his eye, at his attentive expression and the way his slouched posture has straightened. “Um,” he manages, feeling his heart quicken. The movie lulled him into a false sense of comfort, sleepy and sated at being able to rest his aching muscles, and it’s only now he realises how close they are. “It was interesting, I guess?”
Jaemin leans in even closer, eyelashes fluttering over dark eyes. There’s a slight curl to his lips, like he’s privy to some secret the rest of the world has yet to discover. A hand lands on Jeno’s shoulder, blisteringly warm, fingers curling into his shirt. “Interesting, how? Have you ever been with someone?”
Jeno swallows around a dry mouth, eyes flickering between Jaemin’s hand and his gaze. “No,” he manages. “No, I haven’t.”
“Oh.” His smile grows. “Me neither. But I think it would be good to try, you know? Before we have to go out there.”
Jeno’s heart is hammering now, blood rushing in his ears. He feels too warm. “Mm.”
Tilting his head, Jaemin says, “Jeno, help me out here. I don’t want to get the signals wrong but I–”
His hands grab Jaemin’s face and presses their lips together, little more than a stiff caress before he’s pulling back, flushing at his own brazenness. His stomach is in knots but it’s in a pleasant, fluttery sort of way. “I – you. With you, I mean. If I’m going to, you know.”
Jaemin’s face splits into a grin, thumbs tracing Jeno’s jaw. His eyes flutter, mouth parting on instinct. “You need to say it, baby,” he says, thumbing at his quivering lip as he inhales sharply.
Jeno’s eyes crack open, cheeks on fire. A hand fists Jaemin’s shirt. “I want my first time to be with you.”
“Why didn’t you just say so?”
And then Jaemin is on him, a hand stroking down his neck as he slots their mouths together in earnest, tongue flicking past his lips. It’s hot and wet and messy, their breaths crashing into one another, and his other hand slips up underneath Jeno’s shirt in a touch so light his muscles jump. Jaemin cackles into his mouth, trailing kisses to the underside of his jaw, sucking at the column of his throat. Jeno just clings closer, trying to feel as much of Jaemin as he can beneath his roaming hands until he’s practically in Jaemin’s lap.
He can feel the telltale hardness against his thigh and a shiver runs through him, beginning to throb with his own arousal. Jaemin’s lips are swollen red, his hair mussed from Jeno’s hands, and he’s looking up at him from beneath dark lashes as he scrapes his teeth along his collarbones. They shouldn’t be leaving marks – not when they get regular check ups – but wobbling on that knife edge sends a thrill down his spine, gasps leaving his lips every time he feels the sting of Jaemin’s bites.
The movie is quickly forgotten, Jaemin tipping them over until he’s hovering above Jeno, pausing just to watch him. Jeno is nervous, heart still racing, but it’s a good kind of nervous, like the anticipation before he begins a duel. It’s the euphoria of running as fast as he can, beating his best time. It’s the warmth of Jaemin radiating through him as he lowers himself down until the two of them are pressed together, grinding against one another in a sloppy, disjointed rhythm.
“I’ve got you,” Jaemin whispers in his ear as he works open his belt, hand sneaking lower. “I’ve got you,” he murmurs into his hair as he strokes and Jeno whimpers, nails digging into his back, chasing the pleasure. “I’ve got you,” he breathes between kisses as he works them together, his hair falling around his head and his eyes closed in ecstasy.
“I’ve got you,” he promises as they crash, one after the other, falling against one another in a heap of sweaty limbs, his hand sticky and shining. He wipes it with a tissue, peppering kisses to Jeno’s face.
Jeno sinks back into the bed, loose limbed and hazy. Each promise sinks into his bones as he drifts off, the warmth of Jaemin against his side better than any sleeping aid. For just a while, there’s a reality where they can be happy together, like normal young adults in the spring of their life.
For just a while there’s a reality where what he feels for Jaemin is allowed.
Jeno wakes to Doyoung leaning over him, eyes creased with worry. His black hair falls over his face, curling at the corners. Blank of thought, he blurts, “Hey, hyung, remember when your hair was that awful ginger colour?”
Doyoung straightens up, looking to someone on his left. “He’s fine.” Then, to Jeno, “Why did I even worry?”
“Because you love me?”
“Don’t push it.”
“How are you feeling?” asks another voice and he looks up to see a man with sharp cheekbones in a long white doctor’s coat, who lifts his lid to shine a light in both of his eyes. “Your vitals seem good.”
“A little sluggish, maybe,” he says, trying to sit up only to find his head spins a little. Around his bed are Doyoung, Hendery, the lithe dark haired man who has to be Ten, and the handsome doctor.
“That’s only to be expected. You should be back to normal pretty soon. The tests show it was an ordinary anaesthetic that you were injected with. There shouldn’t be any lingering side effects.”
Jeno jerks and Doyoung catches him, pushing him back onto the bed.
“Hey, Dejun, give us a minute, will you?” says Ten, a hand on his arm.
Dejun nods, exiting the room with Hendery trailing on his heels. Ten rounds on Jeno, dark eyes inquisitive. Beside him Doyoung looks equally questioning, arms crossed over his chest.
“So you found him,” says Doyoung.
Jeno winces. “I did. He, uh, managed to best me.”
Ten just tilts his head. “Did you get the chance to talk to him? Did he say what he was trying to do?”
Unsure how much to reveal, he looks between the pair of them. “He didn’t say much. He just made some comments about how he was no longer good enough for the agency.” His eyes widen as pieces click together one by one in his head. Hansol, disparaging. Once you outlive your use, you have to go. You know too much. “I think he wants to wage war on SM.”
Ten nods, as if this is what he expected. “So he was looking for their information, to protect himself from extermination.”
“What information?” he and Doyoung say at the same time.
“The hard drive he took from me had a lot of information on it,” says Ten, pacing over to the window. “One of the things it contained was information on every employee of the SM Intelligence Agency, including the directors. It also contains information on their families.”
“Why would you ever need that?”
Ten flashes Doyoung a grin. “You never know what might come in handy. Not when you’re a thorn in a powerful government agency’s side.”
Jeno forces himself upright, ignoring the way the room spins. “What does this mean? Where is Jaemin going next?” His stomach is roiling and he thinks he might throw up but he pushes it back down.
Ten’s gaze swivels around the room, tapping the window ledge as if contemplating how much to say. “Most likely he’s going to America.”
“Most of SM’s top directors hide their families under aliases in the US. And what better way to threaten the agency that wants to kill him, than to hold their loved ones hostage?”
The rain spatters against the tiny window Jeno sits at, waiting for the plane to take off from Bangkok to take him to Chicago, United States. Since it began the storm hasn’t stopped, lashing down with the force of a wrathful god. The lights of an incoming plane flash in the reflection of waterlogged tarmac, hypnotising him. He’s so tired he thinks he might just sleep through the flight.
Jeno lifts his shades, freezing as a familiar face leans over the back of the seat in front of him, grin as sharp as a knife. “Donghyuck? What are you… Renjun?”
Behind him the honey blond head belonging to Renjun appears, smile soft and deceptive. “We told you we would give you a day’s start, Jeno.”
“And you failed.” Donghyuck drops into the seat next to him, Renjun buckling in on his other side. “You found him, didn’t you? But you let him get away.”
“I didn’t let him do anything! He knocked me out cold before I could figure out what the hell he was doing.”
The overhead voice announces they’ll be departing shortly, reminding everyone to take their seats. A family trailing three huge suitcases trundle past them and then the flight begins to settle.
“I’m calling bullshit,” Donghyuck hisses, quieter this time. “You were always weak to him.”
“I hardly stuck my neck out and asked him to jam a needle in it.” He scrapes a hand through his hair, trying to remember the last time he washed it. “I’m trying to do this without bloodshed. Did you forget he was your friend, too?”
“We haven’t forgotten,” says Renjun, leaning over Donghyuck. “But a job is still a job. We’re not the only ones trying to find him.”
“And the others might not be so kind.”
Jeno swallows around the lump in his throat. “I’m not doing anything until I’ve tried to stop him.”
“What if you can’t?”
He turns from Donghyuck’s imploring gaze, feeling the vibrations beneath him as the plane reverses. His lack of response speaks louder than any words could, all three of them lapsing into a weighted silence. Jeno grips the armrests as the plane rumbles into take off, wishing he could squeeze his eyes shut and transport them all back in time. Back to when they were young and eager. Happy, or some semblance of it. Back when they were all friends.
These days Jeno can’t even tell friend from foe.
Before he leaves for the US Jeno pulls Doyoung aside, away from the listening ears of those around them. Dragging him into one of Ten’s shiny white bathrooms, he turns on the shower because no matter what Doyoung says, he doesn’t trust Ten’s sly eyes one bit.
“What’s going on? Jeno?” Doyoung rakes tired eyes over him, the bags under them purple and bruised.
Jeno doesn’t fold, crossing one arm over the other. “Tell me about the first NCT project. Tell me about when you were an agent.”
Doyoung’s eyes widen. “Where is this coming from?”
“Don’t dick me about now, I’m not in the mood. Just tell me. I’m not going to break.”
Sinking onto the closed toilet lid, Doyoung stares off at the far wall. “It’s not you I’m worried about,” he says, voice hoarse. “There are things I don’t want to relive. I’ve spent a long time repressing them, if we’re going to be perfectly honest.”
Ignoring the hot spray of the shower, Jeno perches on the side of the bathtub. “I’m sorry, but I need to know.”
“Okay. Yeah. Hm. Well, you know enough about the project in its essence. NCT stands for Neo Culture Technology. The initial idea was to train recruits from all over the world, to give them the best in the teaching of weaponry, martial arts, languages, history, and surveillance; to turn them into assets that could rival the CIA. You see, at the time of its beginning, it was a politically fraught time. Lee Soo-man was initially inspired by the tensions of the Cold War, fearing mutually assured destruction. After that came the minefield that was relations with North Korea, and the fear that–”
“I don’t need the history lecture, hyung. Tell me about it from your eyes. As an NCT asset.”
“Yes, well,” Doyoung coughs, averting his eyes. “127 was named for a simple fact. In the beginning there were 127 recruits, with the idea of whittling that significant number down to the top ten. Ten of the best assets, with different specialisations, able to find out any information, kill any enemy, and defend South Korea from global threats.”
Suddenly he rifles in his pocket, producing his wallet. From it he plucks a photo, dog-eared and bent, and hands it over. The picture depicts ten young men staring back at the camera, each of them holding themselves with the rigidity of a soldier. Jeno thumbs over Doyoung’s face, younger but still recognisable as the man he knows now.
“They only took male recruits back then. Women came in during the second generation, which they named Dream in the hopes it would be more successful than the last.”
“Mm. The problem was, that if you took some of the most intelligent youths the country had to offer, that they began to think for themselves. If you train these young men to be weapons and then lose handle of them… well, the consequences were dire.”
Doyoung sighs, raking a hand through his hair. “Some lost control, went mad from the brutality of the training and the constant killing. Others grew arrogant, got involved with gangs and despots behind the scenes. They had to be exterminated.”
“And Lee Taeyong?” Jeno doesn’t know which of the men he is but he’s heard the name.
Doyoung winces like Jeno just hit him, picking at a loose thread on his shirt. “Taeyong was the best of the best. The quickest draw, the fiercest fighter. He could insinuate himself into any scenario with the aplomb of an Oscar winning actor. He could do anything, be anyone. But he was soft of heart. Mostly, I think he joined SM because he was lonely.” His voice turns scratchy. Raw. “Taeyong, he – he wanted out after a while. He wanted to live life on his own terms.”
Jeno feels his emotion, hands tight on the photo. “SM didn’t like it?”
Doyoung’s eyes find his, bright and burning. “You don’t invest all that money in someone only to let them walk away. Not the living weapon that Taeyong was. Not with all the secrets he knew. Secrets that could bury them.”
Jeno is almost too afraid to ask. “What happened then?”
“He waged war on the entire agency. He even won, for a while. But you can only run so far from people who can see and know everything. Eventually… they found him.”
Jeno’s heart clenches at the expression on Doyoung’s face. He never realised; never stopped to wonder about his handler’s personal life. His life before he dedicated it to Jeno. “Which one is he? Here?”
“Front and centre.”
As he’s examining the faces, something makes him pause. A familiar set of round eyes and a mop of curly hair, cheeks chubbier with youth. He brings it to his face, mouth dropping open. “Is that… Donghyuck?”
Doyoung leans back, cocking his head. “You never knew? I suppose you wouldn’t have, would you? Donghyuck was part of 127. For a boy so young he was sharp. Clever. They saw something in him, our superiors, but some of them were unsure about trusting him to do his job when he was just a kid, so they used him to scout out talent from their new batch of recruits.”
“You mean, Donghyuck was lying to us all this time?”
He’s suddenly reexamining every moment of his past under a new lens. It leaves him reeling, fingers shaking.
“I don’t think he meant it to deceive you. He was simply helping Irene and Seulgi pick out the best trainees to see if they were asset material. If he chose you out of the crowd, he would have meant it genuinely.”
Jeno’s not sure he agrees but he’s too numb to argue the point. All this time, he thought Donghyuck part of their little makeshift gang. Now he doesn’t know what to believe and it leaves him unsettled, like he’s running on quicksand, struggling to keep his head above the line.
“How many are left?” He passes the photo back to Doyoung, who tucks it back into his wallet with a reverence he’s never seen from his handler. “Of 127, I mean?”
Doyoung considers. “Four? Yes, it must be. Me, Donghyuck, Yuta and Johnny.”
Shrugging, Doyoung says, “Not many made it past training. I never thought as much of it back then because I was so desperate to make something of myself, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you were really supposed to survive. Even the ones that live… they’re broken by the end.”
Jeno feels like he might be sick, stomach roiling. Is this what he’s worked for all this time? To look back at a photograph and cross out the faces of the friends he once knew? Will that be him in a few years down the line, empty eyed as he sits on a toilet seat and talks about what happened to Jaemin? His fingers curl around the white edge of the bathtub, feeling the porcelain cut into his skin.
He doesn’t want that to be his future but it’s rolling towards him with the inevitability of a freight train on his tracks and he doesn’t know how to throw himself out of the way.
There are fifteen missed calls on his phone when Jeno steps off the plane, reconnecting to his cell service. His stomach drops and he pauses with his luggage, ignoring the looks that Donghyuck and Renjun send him. He hangs back until they’re out of eyesight and then thumbs through his messages, all from Doyoung. His eyes catch on the last one and he feels his entire life uproot for the second time in his life.
Orders changed. Every available agent redirected to Jaemin. Kill on sight.
Jeno slams a hand over his mouth, fingers trembling. Every available NCT asset, not currently on mission, is now being deployed to kill Jaemin. I only just got him back, he thinks miserably, watching Donghyuck and Renjun as they linger ahead, waiting for him to catch up. Suddenly anyone and everyone has become the enemy and he doesn’t know what to do. How to act.
“Hyung,” he breathes into his phone, “how do we stop this?”
“I’m not sure we can,” says Doyoung and he pictures the way he had carefully folded the photograph of Taeyong and the others back into his wallet.
“There has to be something I can do.”
Doyoung pauses. “I have an old friend. An old contact. Johnny Seo.”
“He’s one of them, isn’t he? From your photo.”
“Yes. He’s been stationed in the US ever since the project was shut down to make way for Dream. It’s always handy, to have eyes and ears over there. If there’s a kill order out on Jaemin he’ll be hunting him down, so he’ll know where to look.”
Jeno catches Renjun’s eye and waves him on, walking slowly so they can’t overhear him. “But he’s trying to kill him!”
Doyoung sighs. “I’ll try to contact him. I can’t guarantee he’ll listen to me but Johnny is a reasonable guy. He’ll help you if he knows you’re one of mine.”
Jeno resists pinching the bridge of his nose. “I hope so. I really do.”
If he doesn’t then he’s stuck in a foreign country with a group of highly trained killers, all trying to take down the same man. The same man that Jeno is trying so hard to save.
When Jeno first hears the news he doesn’t believe it. He’s hunting down a cult leader in Bhutan when he gets the call. It’s not Doyoung who calls him; it’s a number he doesn’t recognise. How they managed to find the number for the burner phone he picked up at a shack a few days earlier, he has no idea, so he presses to answer with a wary, “Hello?”
“Jeno?” Donghyuck’s voice crackles over the poor connection. It’s been a while but he still recognises his nasally voice. “Can you hear me?”
There’s no teasing, no comments. Jeno sits up as he hears a sharp intake of breath through the line. “I have news. You better sit down.”
His grip tightens on the phone, stomach twisting itself in knots. “Tell me. What is it?”
“It’s not good news.”
“You’re making it worse. Just tell me what’s going on. Donghyuck? Where are you right now?”
“I’m in Seoul,” he says. “Listen, Jeno, it’s Jaemin.”
Jeno’s knees buckle and then he’s thumping onto a bench, heart hammering. He can hear his blood roar in his ears. “What about him? Where’s Jaemin?”
Donghyuck’s voice cracks. Donghyuck, who couldn’t be serious if you paid him. Even when he’s facing gangsters and mercenaries and despots, he’s never serious. So he knows. Jeno doesn’t have to ask but he doesn’t want to hear it, the stone in his stomach sinking so deep he thinks he might upend the contents of his breakfast.
“Jaemin is dead.”
This time it’s Jeno who’s sucking in a breath, eyes squeezing shut. When he exhales shakily, his breath fogs out around him in the chilly air. “No.”
He’s always thought of Jaemin as immortal. They all seemed that way, so powerful and young and full of life. They’ve had the best of training, the ability to take down any enemy. To turn anything into a weapon. To talk or fight or even fuck their way out of any situation. And out of all of them, Jaemin really shone the most.
“A few hours ago. Jaehyun lost contact with him on a mission in Austria. Something about a train, I think.”
“No. No, he can’t, Donghyuck.”
A smile appears behind his lids, attached to sparkling eyes. Despite the cold he remembers the warmth of hands on his face, cradling him like he was something precious. He remembers the hands that held him after his first kill, and the way Jaemin had murmured soothing words into his ear. He remembers long nights during their recruitment, training until they ached, or watching films on their precious down time, or simply talking. Mostly he remembers how he felt, back then. How Jaemin made him feel larger than life, like he could be so much more than some spare part that no one wanted.
“I’m sorry, Jeno. I know the two of you were close. I know you–”
A sob hiccups out of him, shoulders shaking. The tears tracking his cheeks only invite the cold and he shivers, burying into his coat. His hands are numb, fingers stiff with the cold. Now that he’s broken the seal he can’t seem to stop, ugly sounds tearing from his throat as he folds over and buries his face in his hands.
Gone. Jaemin is gone. He’ll never see his bright smile again. Never lean his head on his shoulder as they ruminate on the world. Never get to tell him that…
“He wouldn’t want you to cry for him.”
Jeno scrubs furiously at his face, forcing some composure onto himself. “I know. I know.” His next sob turns into a laugh. “It’s so stupid but I just thought… I don’t know, it’s like Jaemin couldn’t die? Like he was invincible?”
“Yeah,” says Donghyuck, voice raw, “I know what you mean.”
“I suppose it’s just hitting me now, that we’re not. We could just die at any moment and that’s that. Now Jaemin isn’t coming back.”
“It comes with the job. He knew it was a risk.”
“But he was so young!” Only twenty years of age, with so much life to live, and now he’s been robbed of all of it. All he ever knew was pain and the hard ache of the life of a ghost, never settling from one place to the next. Always going wherever the next mission would take him.
“The life expectancy for us – it isn’t high.”
Jeno wipes away at another errant tear, staring out at the sprawling jut of the mountains. They’re magnificent – almost impossible to comprehend – and yet in this moment their splendour has no impact on him. He’s numb.
“I know that in my head but–”
“You hoped there was an after? Maybe for the both of you?”
His answering laugh comes out garbled. “What kind of after could there have been for people like us?”
There’s a long beat of silence. So long he almost thinks Donghyuck has left him, until he hears him breathing. “I don’t know if this is really living, Jeno. I’ve been more places this year than most people will see in their lifetime, but have I really lived?
Jeno utters a noise from the back of his throat. Until now he’s never really thought about it, so convinced of his own immortality. The situations he’s been in, the experiences he’s survived. His own luck has cursed him with a special kind of arrogance that has only been wiped by the news of Jaemin’s death. His hand buries in the fabric of his coat, twisting like the knots in his stomach. It’s hitting him all at once, like an avalanche rolling down the mountains, and he doesn’t know what to do with it.
“I wanted it with him. Something, I mean. I don’t know what. Just, something.”
“Jeno,” says Donghyuck, devastated. “Jeno.”
“Now it’s too late.”
And with that Jeno begins to cry again.
It’s one of those American style diners he finds himself in. The kind he’s seen on TV but thought weren’t actually real, surprised by red leather booths and a waitress chewing gum as she flips her notepad, wearing an old 50s style dress and apron. He orders and sits himself down, nursing a steaming coffee between his hands as he waits. Shaking Donghyuck and Renjun hadn’t been easy – not when the two of them seem determined to cling to him everywhere he goes – but he’s here now, with only two other patrons in the entire restaurant.
He’ll say something about the stretches of floor to ceiling windows, though. As exposed as they make him feel, he can watch the car pull in and stop with ease. He watches the tall man climb out and head in the direction of the diner, looking like any other American man settling for some cheap grub in a flannel and jeans. But there’s not many Asians this part of town and Jeno recognises the face from the photograph, even before he enters and his gaze lands on Jeno.
“Hey,” he says, nodding the waitress over to pour him a cup of filter coffee, “I’m Johnny.”
“Doyoung’s protege, huh?” His lips quirk, leaning back comfortably as he swigs at the mug in his hands.
“I guess so. You’re one of the first generation. One of the few to survive.”
Johnny pauses with the mug to his face, peering out over the rim with a guarded kind of curiosity. “And you’re one of the second gen. One of the Dreamies.”
“Now we’ve established who we are, maybe we should just get to the point.”
“Maybe we should.”
Jeno drums his fingers on the table. He’s never been very good at the whole cut to the chase. He’s easy smiles and a slow burn charm, not the cold blooded killer some of his fellow agents prefer to play. “You’ve seen the new order by now.”
Johnny pulls out his phone, swipes to the message. “A Na Jaemin, age twenty-two. Former SM asset gone rogue. Kill on sight. Current whereabouts unknown but it’s suspected that he’s here in the US.” He looks up. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with you, would it?”
Johnny raises a fine brow, looking amused. “Who you trying to kid here? We all know how this game goes by now.”
Johnny shrugs. “I’ve seen it happen. They want him dead. You don’t.”
Jeno’s hands tighten around his mug until white knuckles show. “I just want to be the first one to find him. This is your city, you’ll have ears to the ground.”
“I do. And I might have an idea.”
“But you won’t share it.” Maybe Jeno should have tried charm after all. But after everything he’s just so tired. “You want the kill for yourself?”
Johnny snorts. “I don’t care. I’ve just been left in this hole to rot,” he says, glancing at the waitress as she saunters by to pour coffee for the old man on the other side of the restaurant. “If my American identity didn’t make me useful, I’d probably be like the rest of them by now.”
“Aren’t you free? You’re so far from their watching eyes.” Johnny doesn’t have active missions, other than generic intel gathering. He’s a sleeper agent, only utilised when necessary. “It must be a pretty far leash.”
Johnny’s gaze turns distant, fingers drumming on the table. “I’m nothing but a ghost. On paper I don’t even exist. This name, this identity… the history is all fake. Close enough to the truth to fit in but it’s not actually real.” His gaze darts back, stripped of the ease. Jeno sees the cold blooded killer beneath as he drains his coffee, the mug landing on the table with a resounding clank. He grabs his jacket, stands up, and Jeno rushes to mirror him.
“I’ll be in touch.”
Johnny flashes him a grin before he slips on his shades. “I just had to meet you to know for myself why.”
The door swings closed. Jeno watches his stride back to his car, only realising as he begins to drive away that he didn’t pay. Forking out a bill he drops it on the table next to his half finished coffee and exits to the crisp bite of the Chicago air.
The second time – the last time – takes place in none other than Havana. It happens in a haze, Jeno caught in that pin perfect moment between the euphoria of the alcohol rushing in his veins before it catches up to him, still lucid enough to know what he’s doing when he catches Jaemin’s glittering gaze in the darkness and grins. They’re both laughing as he fumbles with his hotel keycard and then they’re stumbling in one after the other. Too close. The laughter stops.
“Jeno,” Jaemin breathes, looking at him like he’s the only person in the world, so close his body heat radiates over him in waves. In the cramped hallway they can barely fit all their limbs so it makes sense to be pressed together, he tells his thudding heart. They’ve never talked about that time. The first time. The only intimacy Jeno has ever treasured in his life.
“Jeno,” he repeats, taking another step until he’s crowding Jeno back into the wall. “Jeno.” There’s tequila clouding Jaemin’s breath but his eyes are still sharp, moves clean as he raises a hand to the wall behind Jeno’s head. “Jeno,” he says into his mouth before brushing his lips against his. A test. Jeno tilts his head back, eyelids fluttering.
Jaemin noses along his cheek. “Can I? Just for tonight?”
Jeno wants to say no. For forever. Even through the fog of the alcohol, he knows this is only going to hurt more. So his arms snake around Jaemin’s waist and grip tight into his shirt, chasing his lips. From there it’s all a blur, the two of them stumbling into one another as they pull at each other’s clothes, shedding shirts, shoes, jeans on their tumble to the bed. Their breaths are heavy in the room, broken only by low moans. A thin strip of light breaks the curtains to illuminate half of Jaemin’s face in golden street light and Jeno gasps, tucking his face into Jaemin’s shoulder.
Jaemin presses him down onto cheap hotel sheets, sucking and biting kisses down his neck that make him shiver, hands gripping tight in Jaemin’s hair. The whimpers fall from his lips unbidden, legs spreading wider to allow Jaemin in between. He’s so hot he’s burning up, hands roaming across the hard lines of Jaemin’s shoulders, to his chest, and then down, down, down.
A ragged moan startles him and Jeno locks gaze with a heavy lidded Jaemin, whose lips curl into a smile, hand teasing circles into Jeno’s naked thigh. “Always so good for me, aren’t you, baby?”
Jeno’s breath hitches and Jaemin’s smile turns vicious, fingers skirting over Jeno’s cock through his boxers. “Do you like that?”
“Please shut up.”
He should have known how greasy Jaemin would be in bed. He’s not sure what to do with the knowledge of how much it works for him, straining under Jaemin’s hands. His lip is trapped between his teeth, mirroring Jaemin’s movements as they grind together, riding a hidden rhythm only the two of them can hear, their pants and groans filling the room like music.
Sweat drips down his neck, gathering in his clavicle and Jaemin leans down to lap it up. Jeno’s hips buck up. “Why didn’t we do this before now?”
They both know why but he doesn’t say anything, only grips Jaemin’s wrists and flips them over, breathing into his mouth. “You’re so noisy.”
Jaemin’s legs curl around him, dragging him down until their cocks brush and he moans again. “You’re so hot when you’re being bossy.”
Jeno just kisses him to shut him up, hands moving to cup Jaemin’s face, tongue running along the roof of his mouth in a way that has Jaemin writhing beneath him. He’s so desperate now, needy in the way his hips snap, and just for tonight he wants to forget everything but the way Jaemin feels against him. Just for tonight he wants to pretend he can have this.
“Do you have any–”
Jaemin yanks a roll of condoms out of his pocket and a packet of lube.
Jeno wrinkles his nose. “Why do you carry those?”
Jaemin only waggles his brows. “You need to be prepared.” Before Jeno can dwell on the darker implications of that statement he rolls them again, straddling Jeno’s thighs. “Just in case you happen to run into a hot spy in Havana.”
“And what if said spy rejects you?”
Jaemin’s fingers grip the edge of his boxers, teasing with the fabric. “I don’t know, he’s looking pretty down for it.” He yanks down, cool air hitting his flushed skin. Jeno feels suddenly exposed, hard and leaking. “Hm?” Jaemin says, leaning over to kiss him as his hand wraps around him. “Do you want me to fuck you?”
Jeno whines, head lolling back on the pillows and Jaemin’s answering laugh is rich and dark. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it good.”
Arousal trickles through him, pooling deep inside him. The feeling builds and builds until he’s thrumming with it, hands tangling in damp hair and tugging hard. Jeno pants into Jaemin’s mouth as he’s slowly undone, riding the waves of Jaemin’s thrusts into him. It’s too much and never enough and just for the night he forgets all about past and present, everything coalescing down into one perfect moment of euphoria.
They don’t get much sleep, that night. Jeno wakes to an empty bed, but for a note in a familiar scrawl, his head pounding like a beating drum. The curtains flutter, a cool breeze washing over his damp skin, and he realises the window has been cranked open, warm sunshine spilling across the side of the bed Jaemin should occupy. He tries not to feel it, the emptiness that carves his chest open.
Something came up in Europe so I need to go to the airport. I didn’t want to wake you when you look that cute sleeping, I hope you don’t mind.
Until the next time,
Jeno crumples the note up in his fist and drops it. As he’s packing up his meagre stuff to head back to Seoul, he notices the flash of yellow on the floor and picks it up again, hesitating. Eventually he flings it in with the rest of his stuff, lets his eyes linger on the room one last time, and then he’s gone. Back to business.
Back to reality.
The call comes at three in the morning, Jeno having only just managed to catch an hour of sleep before he’s roused by the buzz of his phone. His hand chases the dresser until he finds it, blearily swiping to answer as he tries to wrench his body into consciousness. All the travelling is beginning to catch up with him, unable to tell what time is anymore.
“Hello?” he mumbles.
“You wanted to know where Jaemin is.” The voice is vaguely accented. Johnny, his brain eventually supplies, and then he’s suddenly alert.
“You found him.”
“A contact of mine spotted him just an hour ago. He can’t have gone far.”
Jeno’s stomach clenches. What’s he supposed to say now? He already saw Jaemin and it wasn’t enough. He couldn’t convince him to stop whatever game he’s playing. Didn’t even get the chance to offer that they just run away together, find some remote place to hole up in for a while. His hand trails the bruise on his neck, thumb pushing with just enough pressure to hurt, and it’s a strange relief for all the tension. Better physical pain than mental.
“Send me the location,” he chokes out. Scrambling for his jeans, he picks out the piece of paper he’s been carrying with him, of the addresses of the families of the most important directors and agents involved in the NCT project. It had seemed safer to use paper, when technology can be so easily intercepted.
His phone pings, sending him a point on a map. Jeno matches it to the addresses and gulps when he sees that one of them is only half an hour away, for an employee called Mark Lee.
“You thought moving them to America would keep them safe,” he murmurs, expanding the map so he has a decent idea of the street and all its vantage points. Desperate he might be but he hasn’t forgotten his training. He needs to be as prepared as he can.
As he’s throwing on his jacket and pushing out into the bitter chill of the early morning, sky still black, he tries to phone Doyoung only to find he won’t pick up. It makes him uneasy, not to have his voice in his ear or the knowledge that his eagle eye is watching all from above. But Jeno is a trained NCT asset and he’s more than capable of taking care of himself. He’s going to find Jaemin and then he’s going to stop him. After that, well, he’s not sure but he’ll figure it out.
Taking a right at the corner, he waits for the bus to pass, studying the location on his phone. There’s a square of grass and trees in the centre with houses all around it, providing him some shelter to get a look at the house before he does anything. Jeno doesn’t remember a Mark Lee when he was training through the programme but he must be important enough to warrant being watched.
The house is ordinary, nothing in particular of note but for a neat garden with a freshly mowed lawn. It’s one of many making up the street, clean and decently sized and the kind of place Jeno used to dream about growing up in with his nuclear family of two parents and one point five siblings. It’s exactly the kind of unsuspecting an important figure would use to keep their family hidden. The best kind of hiding is in plain sight, after all.
So once Jeno has ascertained that there’s no unusual activity going on, he breaks out of his hiding spot and strolls up the street, looking as casual as he can. He nods to an elderly woman shuffling along with her shopping bag wheeling behind her and then takes the stairs up to the house. He has no key but he’s willing to bet they keep a spare around, in case of emergencies. People never fail to be lax about their security in the name off ease; it’s saved him more than a few times.
After searching the mat, the plant pot dangling from a hook on the wall, and the window frame, he finally finds it beneath the feet of a worn looking gnome, chipped teeth grinning at him as he lifts it to pluck out the cool metal. Unlocking the door, he nudges it open gently, wondering if anyone is likely to be in at this point. He doesn’t want to knock in case he rattles Jaemin but he also doesn’t want to face the family of Mark when he’s essentially a trespasser.
The hall is as neat as the outside, a mirror giving him a flash of his haggard appearance before his gaze moves to the rug at his feet, a series of shoes lined on the rack beneath a row of jackets on hooks. It has the feeling of lived in and it makes Jeno pause, hit with some distant nostalgic ache that he doesn’t recognise.
Floorboards creak further down the hall and Jeno freezes, pulling out his gun. Someone is in there with him and he has no idea of knowing who it is. He shuffles as carefully as he can manage, testing his footing before he presses down with his full weight, and holds his breath as he steps into a homely living room, breath exhaling all at once. Atop the fireplace are photographs of an older couple with two boys. The couch is loaded with cushions, a TV mounted on the wall next to an assortment of trinkets upon a shelf.
Another creak has him whirling only to find himself face to face with Donghyuck. “Donghyuck?” Jeno’s first mistake is lowering his gun. He hears noises behind him and then out of the corner of his eye another figure. Renjun. Pointing a pistol at him.
“What in the hell is going on?”
Donghyuck’s brows are furrowed and he’s nibbling on his lip. “Look, I’m sorry, Jeno. But we all know this is the only way this is going to work.”
Jeno’s head darts between the two of them. “You set me up, didn’t you? Johnny’s phone call was a load of shit.”
Donghyuck shrugs. “Mark’s not really important enough to make Jaemin go after him. I mean, look at him,” he says, pointing to a photograph of a young man smiling with dark brown hair and high cheekbones. “We just needed a place that would be believable enough.”
“So now what? What are you planning to achieve?”
“You know he’ll come for you,” says Renjun softly as he guides him back into a chair, beginning to tie him up with rope. “It’s the only way we’re going to pin him down.”
“Before he can do something stupid. You know what he’s going to do, don’t you?” Donghyuck shakes his head. “He’s going to threaten the families of the higher ups involved in the NCT project. He’s going to kill them, if they don’t give him what he wants.”
“Why?” Jeno croaks out, trying to sort through the barrage of thoughts caused by the betrayal. He doesn’t know everyone involved – can’t stop to think about it – but despite everything he’s ever learned it still hurts. They’ve always been in this together. On this same dark, dangerous path. “What does he think it will achieve? Why are you willing to betray him?”
Donghyuck and Renjun share a glance that Jeno can’t read. “He’ll do it, Jeno,” says Donghyuck finally. “You know him. You know what he’s capable of.”
“But… I only just got him back. He’s alive! How can you do this now, when we all mourned him for two years?”
“Because he’s going to drag us down with him.” Renjun’s eyes look tired, bruises circling beneath them. “SM wants him dead because he’s a liability but we don’t need to die with him.”
Jeno wants to scream at them but he can’t find the words. The worst thing is, he can’t even blame them. It’s hammered into them to the point that it’s instinct: self-preservation. Survival runs in their veins. Of course Donghyuck and Renjun are going to protect themselves. Of course they’ll turn Jaemin in, otherwise they become conspirators. It hits him like a lightning bolt and he sinks into his chair, too dumbstruck to fight his bonds.
“We’re never going to be safe, don’t you see that? We’ll always be running. Always be fighting. If we don’t stick together they’ll get us one by one. Whether it’s a job gone wrong, or whether it’s a clean up because we fucked up, it doesn’t matter. There’s a timer above all our heads.”
Donghyuck shakes his head, looking away. “There’s no changing how things are now.”
Renjun looks thoughtful, glancing between them, but his brow is furrowed. “How do we even live a normal life? What do we know about normal?”
Jeno tries to lift his hands, forgetting they’re strapped down. He bucks and thrashes, to no avail. “It’s got to be better than this, surely. The endless empty hotel rooms, never settling down, never making roots. No friends. No family. No love. I’m tired.”
“SM gave us a home when we had nowhere to go. I’d probably be dead if they didn’t.”
“I know but we can change. We’ve been given a chance–”
“I’m sorry, Jeno.”
Donghyuck and Renjun leave him, with one last glance behind them. The door clicks shut, sealing him in some idyllic picture perfect home, bait for a trap.
He hates how familiar those words are becoming to his ears.
Jeno has broken out of all manner of situations before. Once he dislocated his thumb to get out of cuffs, shot the guy who locked him up, stole the flash drive that was the crux of his mission, and stole the man’s car to high tail it out of the grungy warehouse he’d been locked up in before his cronies could find out what he’d done.
The difference is, Renjun has had the training to know how to do a proper job, the knots secure enough to make a sailor weep. Jeno can barely move an inch. The chair beneath him is completely solid and it’s been nailed down to the floor, so Donghyuck and Renjun and who else knows have been planning this for longer than he realised.
He’s fucked but that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that he has no way of warning Jaemin. The worst part is that he has no idea if Jaemin will turn up anyway. If he actually cares enough to want to rescue him. The rational side of him hopes for his sake that he doesn’t. The other side of him is at war, desperate just to talk to him. Maybe talk him down from the ledge, if he even can.
Day falls into night, shadows creeping up the walls, and Jeno starts to get tired. He’s used to long nights staking out criminals. Knows how to ignore fatigue and strain and hunger. That doesn’t make it any easier. Not when the clock makes its turn around the clock, the endless tick, tick, tick wearing him faster than the enamel of his grinding teeth.
He’s almost given up when he hears a soft bang above, followed by a muffled thump. Silence falls again and he commands his thumping heart to settle, hating how powerless he is in this moment. He knows what he wants but he’s afraid of it. So he waits, picking up faint squeaks of the floorboards, then the groan of the stairs. Someone is in the house with him and he can’t fight back. Sweat is staining his back where it’s plastered to the back of his chair, body locked with tension.
The door creaks open agonisingly slow and he can’t see more than a silhouette against the gloom of the living room. Then there’s a click and yellow light blooms, revealing the face of none other than Na Jaemin, a gun in hand. As soon as he sees Jeno he’s running forward, flicking out a butterfly knife so he can saw through the thick rope tying him down.
“Jeno, are you alright?”
“You need to leave,” he says. “This is a trap, Jaemin. You need to run.”
Jaemin snorts. “You think I didn’t know?” The last threads of the rope around his arms snap and then Jeno can help him with some of the endless knots keeping him to the chair. “I didn’t evade SM for two years by being dumb, you know.”
Jeno pauses to look him over, seeing the pale skin and heavy eyes. The dark hair plastered to his forehead, like maybe he hasn’t washed for several days. He looks washed out, a ghost of the man he knows, and it makes his heart ache. “Are you really going to kill innocent people?”
Jaemin blinks, knife poised halfway through the rope around his ankle. At this position he has to look up into Jeno’s eyes. “If I have to.”
“Jaemin,” he begins.
“If it would save your life, I would.”
It punches the breath from his lungs. Jeno can’t speak, gaze glued to Jaemin’s dark gaze, and he wants to say something but words won’t find him. His mouth is too dry, like he’s just swallowed a handful of sand and now it’s stuck in his throat. He can’t tear his eyes away from the impenetrable look Jaemin’s giving him, losing himself in the layers he wants to pull back with sight alone. But there’s too much unspoken between them, a gulf that’s become impossible to cross after the two long years that he put Jaemin to rest.
“You can’t see it, can you?”
“Can’t see what?” he grits out, blind to the fact that he’s free of his ropes. Only he’s not free because Jaemin has him pinned to the spot with his gaze alone.
There’s a scrabbling noise out in the hall and Jaemin’s head whips to the side. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, gun whipping out to face whoever is about to appear.
It’s Doyoung. Jeno tenses even further when Jaemin doesn’t drop his gun, gut clenching. He has no idea whether his handler betrayed him or not. No idea what to think as he stops in the doorway, eyes dark and cold. He looks wrecked, skin even paler than normal and his hair flopped all over his face.
“Jeno,” he says, gaze sliding to him. “It’s not safe here. You need to go.” In his hand is a gun but it hangs at his side, veins showing from how hard he’s holding onto it.
“You’re one of them,” says Jaemin, standing between Jeno and Doyoung like he’s a guard dog. Jeno wants to laugh but he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore, caught in the crossfire of so many lies and secrets.
“You want to save him?” says Doyoung, running a hand through his hair and ruffling it up. “You’re the one who dragged him into this mess. They think he’s compromised, because he was unable to bring you in. Now they want you both dead.”
“Did you come here to do the job? I won’t let you.”
But Jeno sees it, the defeat in Doyoung’s eyes. “I’ve done everything I can to protect you,” he says. “I couldn’t save Taeyong but I can save you, Jeno. So run. Hold onto him. The two of you together are smart enough to survive, if you keep your heads down. I’ll be here to cover your tracks. If I survive.”
Jaemin is already tugging him away but Jeno is limp, dragging his heels. “Doyoung,” he breathes. “Hyung, come with us.”
Doyoung shakes his head. “I know Johnny and Donghyuck. I can talk them down. They’re both former NCT assets, just like me. But you need to be careful. They’re not the only ones that have been assigned to kill you.”
Jeno blanches, looking to Jaemin. “Donghyuck, Renjun, Chenle, Jisung…” They’ve all had the same training. They won’t be easy opponents.
Jaemin grips Jeno’s hand tight. “Then we run. I’ve managed to hide for this long and I can do it again.”
So Jeno squeezes back, and with one last look for the brother who has protected him from his early teens, he runs.
For a long time Jaemin says nothing. The train rattles through the Rockies and Jeno can understand why they’re named such, breathtaking through the window of the California Zephyr, their craggy peaks dusted with snow. Exhausted but too wired to sleep, he presses his hand to the glass and watches his breath distort the view, wishing he knew what to say. He doesn’t know what it means, that they’re travelling together. That Jaemin came for him even though it was a trap that would have doomed them both if Doyoung hadn’t stepped in.
“Are you thinking about him?”
Jeno whips around to see Jaemin tilt the brim of his hat upwards. “About who?”
“Ah, a little,” he admits, sheepish even if he doesn’t know why. “I don’t get why he would betray SM for me.”
Jaemin’s gaze cuts through him. “Don’t you?”
With such simple words, the atmosphere becomes charged once again and Jeno loses his words. He plays with the hem of his shirt, trying to put pieces together from puzzles that don’t match. No matter how much he turns them in his mind, they just won’t click together to form a clear picture.
Jaemin snorts, settling back in his seat. “You really have no idea of the effect you have on people, do you?”
“What does that mean?”
“I came back for you, didn’t I?”
“You did,” he says, frowning, “but I don’t really understand why.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jaemin settles back in, hat shading his features from prying eyes on the train. Jeno is sure they look like nothing more than two tourists on their way across America but he can never be too sure. His ‘I heart Chicago’ shirt probably has them covered, grabbed from a train station stall, but he can’t break the habits ingrained by years of training, eyes darting down the carriage when someone brushes by to go to the toilet.
“Where are we going?” he says after a few minutes of silence.
Jaemin stirs. “San Francisco.”
“I know that. I mean, after that. Where are we going, Jaemin? What are we doing?”
Jaemin shrugs, rubbing at his eyes. But he’s pretending. Jeno recognises the signs – he knows Jaemin’s affecting a relaxed air but he tenses every time someone goes by, as wired as Jeno is. “I don’t have much of a plan. I hid for two years, how hard can it be?”
“You came back.”
“I needed the money,” he says, turning to look out the window. They rattle past a lake of pure blue, reflecting the heavy clouds above. “They found me because I made a stupid mistake. After that it became some kind of mission. I wanted vengeance. I wanted blood.”
“So you were going to kill innocent children? That’s not you, Jaemin.”
“No?” The hat tips off his head, light illuminating the ragged edges of his face. He looks raw; unhinged. “These hands have killed a lot of people, Jeno. That’s what they make us. Killers. If it’s going to save my life, why not turn it against them?”
Something churns in Jeno’s gut. “I don’t believe you.”
“Maybe you don’t know me as well you think.”
That accusation hurts more than any other. It’s true, probably. Two years of radio silence only for Jaemin to suddenly resurface have taught him that much. Still, they were something, once. He’s not sure what but he’s sure of that much. Maybe after all this time, he just wants it voiced out loud. Maybe he just needs to hear actual words to know he hasn’t been clinging to nothing for all these years.
“I love you, Jaemin,” he blurts. “I think I’ve always loved you.”
Once the words are out there, they become real. There’s no taking them back. His heart trembles in his chest, palms slick with sweat, but he doesn’t regret it. He feels more sure now, like he needs to say it in case. In case this life of theirs catches up to him.
Jaemin stares at him, mouth hanging open. For a moment Jeno is worried he has broken him, fingers digging into the material of the seat beneath him to keep him grounded. He feels breathless with anticipation, stomach roiling. He thinks he might be sick. Yet he feels so light he could float away, untethered with the feelings he’s been carrying around with him for so long.
Then Jaemin starts laughing. His shoulders shake, clutching at his stomach as he doubles over. “You sure pick your moments, don’t you?”
“I mean it,” says Jeno, squirming now. He’s always shied away from sincerity but the desperation loosens his tongue.
Jaemin sobers. Suddenly he stands up and grabs Jeno’s arm, hand clamped so tight around his wrist it hurts. Without a word he drags him down the carriage to the toilet, throws open the door and shoves him inside. The door lock snicks closed and then Jaemin’s turning, mere inches between them in such a cramped space. His gaze is intense; predatory. Jeno gulps.
“You have to know,” he breaths into Jeno’s mouth, gaze flicking between his eyes and his lips. “You have to know why I came for you.” His hand tucks his hair behind his ear so gently it’s barely a touch. “Why I could never let you get dragged into my mess.”
Jeno gasps, head tipping as his lips part. “You left. For two years.”
“You were safe. You always toed the line. I wasn’t going to give them a reason to kill you.”
“I would have fought SM for you too, you know.”
Jaemin smirks. “I know, baby.” And then he’s pressing his lips to Jeno’s, stepping him back into the wall. It’s grimy and disgusting but he doesn’t care, not with the way Jaemin’s body heat radiates into him as they crush together, breathing into one another’s mouths. His hands tangle in Jaemin’s shirt, in his hair, into his very being. They’re grinding together in a grubby train toilet and it feels like ecstasy.
“I love you,” Jaemin says into his ear, between nips and licks. “I love you,” he says, kissing down his neck, teething at his jugular.
Jeno whines, palming up beneath his shirt, pushing them even closer. He wants to make up for lost time. He wants to make use of the time they have left, however long that might be. He wants to hold onto Jaemin and never let go.
“Why did we wait so long?”
“You know why.”
Jaemin keeps kissing him, lips mapping out every inch of Jeno’s skin. When he’s breathless with it he pulls back and then tips their foreheads together, like this is the most romantic locale for a long overdue confession. “I’m done waiting. I’m yours, Jeno. If you’ll have me.”
“It’s always been you.”
Jaemin just smiles. Not his smirk. Not his easy grin. It’s a tentative unfurling of genuine joy that makes Jeno smile in response, fingers curling into Jaemin’s shirt with all the emotion he’s been bottling up for so long he doesn’t know how to release it. Jaemin looks just as uncertain, eyes raking over him as if he can’t believe they’re here, together, after all this time.
“Don’t leave me again,” Jeno says. “If we do this, we do it together.”
Jaemin takes his hand and squeezes. “Together.”
The word tastes like a promise when Jeno kisses it from Jaemin’s mouth.
By the time they reach the sunshine glinting off the water in San Francisco they’re both exhausted. Jeno can barely form words anymore, each blink heavier than the last as he trudges up endless hills in search of a safehouse Jaemin has hidden away somewhere in the midst of the city’s suburban section. He wants to sleep but he doesn’t think he’ll ever manage it again, for fear that when he opens his eyes Jaemin will be gone. That he’ll wake up to find this was all some dream and Jaemin is still dead.
“This is us here,” says Jaemin, pointing to one house of many that sits slightly lopsided on the steep incline of the hill they walked. The sun is starting to set, pink light glinting off the small panel of glass inset into the door as Jaemin unlocks it and nudges it open. “I haven’t been here in some time so I’m not sure what condition it’ll be in.”
Jeno grunts, following him into a sparsely furnished living space, heavy curtain draped over the windows that cast the room in gloom. Jaemin drops his bag on the floor and disappears in search of bedding, leaving Jeno to collapse onto a worn sofa, eyelids fluttering. Sleep deprivation is catching up to him, his body so weary, but he’s still reluctant to let go. Not until he’s secure that Jaemin will be there when he wakes up.
A pillow crashing into his face startles him awake and he realises he had been drifting off regardless. Sitting up, he watches Jaemin drape a blanket across the floor and frowns. “What are you doing?”
“There isn’t a bed, so I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“You can sleep with me.”
Jaemin freezes, gaze swivelling to his, and Jeno laughs. “What, are you a blushing virgin all of a sudden?” He pats the meagre space left on the sofa. “Come on, I won’t bite.”
Suddenly Jaemin is fluid again, taking the blanket with him as he nudges Jeno over and squashes in with him, a solid weight against his side. “What if I want you to?”
Jeno whacks him with his pillow. “Come on, let’s get some sleep. We both need it.”
So they curl up together, warm and safe in their tangle of limbs, and the next thing Jeno knows he’s blinking into a room pitch black, suddenly wide awake. He rips his mouth from where it’s plastered to his mouth, detaching himself from Jaemin’s grip. Something startled him from sleep and instinct has him reaching for the gun he left on the coffee table, not even managing to stand before a figure rounds the corner of the living room. His heart leaps into his throat.
“My, my, isn’t this cozy.”
He recognises the voice before the figure steps into the strip of moonlight spilling from the crack in the curtains and suddenly he’s hurtled back years as he stands over Hansol, looking upon his fate with resignation. This life always catches up to you
“Jisung,” he breathes. Bright eyed, sharp, voraciously ambitious Jisung. Of course he’s the one to find them.
“Hello, hyung,” says Jisung, taking a seat on the coffee table as if this is a pleasant catch up. Behind him Jaemin lets loose a snore and it’s so comical in its absurdity that Jeno almost laughs. Maybe he’s hysterical.
“You found us.”
“You didn’t make it hard. Love has made you both stupid.”
Something in him bristles at that. “Has it?” At Jisung’s raised brows he ploughs on, “Haven’t you ever loved, Jisung?” He’s still so young, face round with youth. It’s unfair, what SM has done to them. “Don’t you know how it feels to want to do anything for someone, just to keep them safe? Don’t you know how freeing it is just to let yourself feel? What we’re doing right now – it isn’t living.”
Jisung is silent, eyes raking over the pair of them like they’re some code he’s unable to crack. “It’s better than being dead,” he says finally.
Something sparks in his mind, an idea blooming. “Maybe it’s not.” Jisung stares at him and he waves him out. “Maybe there’s a way we can all get what we want.”
Jisung tilts his head, giving him a pitying look.
“Jaemin faked his death before. We can do it again, find some bodies that match our description in the morgue. That way you get to be the hero and we can go on with new lives.”
Jisung shakes his head, the hold on his gun unwavering. “Too risky. I’m sorry, Jeno, but I can’t let that happen.”
“Why? I’m begging you here, Jisung. For everything we survived together. For all the times we trained into the morning. When I used to buy you ice cream in the summer. Can you really just erase that for one order?”
“You know what will happen. You must know what happened to 127.”
Jeno thinks of a photo worn with creases, lovingly tucked into a wallet. There will be another project, after them. Once they’re all gone. Young, fresh blood to taint. The cycle will just continue and continue and continue. Jeno doesn’t want that to happen.
“It’s because I know what happened that I can’t go back to that. It’s not right.” Maybe Jisung was too young when it all began. Still developing, the first time they made him hold a gun. The first time they made him kill. “Please,” he repeats. “I love him.”
Something in Jisung shifts. His expression pinches and his hand quivers for a brief second. “It’s not like I want to do this. It’s not like I want to be staring my friend down as I pull the trigger.”
“Then don’t.” Jaemin’s voice is gritty with sleep, catching their attention.
Jisung startles. “It’s not that easy.”
“It’s the easiest thing in the world.” Jaemin’s hand caresses Jeno’s shoulder and Jeno watches Jisung’s gaze drop to follow the motions. “We don’t need to be what they made us. We can choose something else.”
“Maybe – maybe I don’t want to.”
“Maybe you do.”
“Shut up!” says Jisung, eyes shining. Jeno thinks it might be tears. There might be some in his own, from the way they’re stinging.
“Just give us a chance, Jisungie. Give us a chance to make a new life for ourselves.”
“It’s not fair, asking me this. It isn’t fair and you both know it.”
Jeno looks at the gun clutched between white knuckles and questions if that’s truly what’s unfair about this situation, but he can see it’s too precarious, dangling on a knife edge. Carefully, tentatively, he reaches out and wraps a hand around Jisung’s, guiding him to drop the gun down into his lap. He squeezes his hand, heart lurching when Jisung’s head ducks as if it will hide the weakness he is not allowed to show.
Jeno allows Jisung a moment to compose himself, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. Jaemin is silent beside him, his fingers still digging into the meat of Jeno’s shoulder in comfort. From behind him he feels Jaemin pull for his own gun in preparation and part of him wants to tell him to stop but he can’t. Not if it means they don’t get their shot at freedom. He hates that it has come to this.
Suddenly Jisung’s head rises and his arm matches it, gun wobbling in his hand before it steadies once more. “I can’t let you leave.”
There’s the click of the safety and then Jaemin is pointing his own pistol at Jisung. “We’re not asking.”
And just like that, Jeno’s fate rests on two boys who should never have learned to hold a gun in the first place. At least one of them is going to die here, in the name of a cause Jeno can’t figure out. It’s not fair. It’s not fair, and it hurts.
Jeno closes his eyes and counts to ten.