And I’ll use you as a warning sign
That if you talk enough sense then you’ll lose your mind
- Amber Run, I Found
–– six months ago ––
‘Stop running away, you damn chicken!’
A silver soup ladle still bearing evidence of pureed tomatoes whipped past Jisung’s nose and the beads on his nose ring tinkled as he jerked his head back, wobbling on his very precarious perch.
‘Fuck you!’ he screeched in response to the white-blond assassin snarling at him from the balcony.
Knowing exactly what Lee Felix’s next move would be, Jisung’s hands were already uncoiling the wire he had around his thigh and fastening it to the stem of the huge light fixture. He saw Felix scrambling up onto the balcony rail just as he leapt off the crystal chandelier, swinging across the ballroom and screaming as he slid down the cord dangerously fast. Danger, of course, was Jisung’s middle name so the shrieking was more for effect than –
The wire was almost jarred from his grip as a solid weight hit the top of it and Jisung didn’t have to look up to know Candyfloss Man had joined him, no doubt hurtling down towards him at a truly reprehensible speed.
Jisung also knew the chandelier would not be able to hold both of them and so did not hesitate, on his next upswing, to release the wire and hit the ground in a forward roll, rising and continuing his flight in one smooth action. He didn’t look back as he heard the rumbling crunch of the chandelier detaching from the ceiling, sprinting towards the outside balcony. The sudden outbreak of playful fighting amongst the other guests would hopefully slow Felix a little.
Ah well, hopefully Kwangsik wasn’t too attached to that particular chandelier.
Then the main doors slammed open and the noise levels doubled as Kwangsik’s small private army poured into the room behind him. Even over the increased racket, however, Jisung could hear heavy footsteps thumping far too regularly to be anyone except Felix in hot pursuit.
Knew there was a reason I chose this dress, Jisung thought, spinning past a pair of women, one of whom had the other in a headlock. The thigh slit in the long skirt of his gown allowed for an excellent amount of movement.
He reached the balcony doors and skidded through them, feet slipping on the smooth stone, gaze darting around for – There! The rose trellis that someone, without fail, used every year to escape. Considering that last time Jeongguk – or was it Hyunjung? – had set it on fire, the roses were doing remarkably well.
The iron trellis was only a couple of metres from the edge of the balcony and Jisung jumped the gap easily, swearing violently under his breath as he grabbed two fistfuls of thorns. His bare feet had fared no better but there was no time to worry about that (he’d landed on much worse before anyway). He skittered down the groaning trellis, pushing off and dropping the last bit, landing in a crouch in the flowerbed.
A brief glance back revealed a flash of pale hair over the stone balcony and that was all Jisung needed to get running again. This was not the time for stealth and besides, Felix wasn’t stupid, there was only one way Jisung could have disappeared that quickly.
Now, Jisung was expecting to get caught – it had to happen sooner or later and Kwangsik’s mansion was a sort of neutral ground. Outright killing each other was strongly frowned upon by their host, making it a pretty good place to settle petty feuds and grudges without casualties, intentional or not. Not that Jisung was going to make it easy for Mr Snowflake.
Of course, there’s distantly acknowledging one’s imminent capture and then there’s being confronted with the cold reality of it. In this case, very cold – less than a second after grabbing a yelping Jisung’s waist with a steel grip, Felix swung him around and hurled him straight into the lake.
The first licks of summer warmth clearly had yet to reach this godforsaken body of water, Jisung realised as he broke back through the surface, spluttering and shivering beneath the clear night sky. It was absolutely fucking freezing.
‘Do you know how much this dress cost?’ he spat, staggering towards the shore, mud squelching softly between his toes. ‘No amount of dry-cleaning will ever fix this.’
Felix didn’t even blink, standing right on the edge of the lake, breathing hard as he watched Jisung approach. ‘Don’t steal my fucking identity again and I won’t have to throw you in another lake,’ he growled. ‘If you do do it again though, I’m chucking piranhas in with you.’
Jisung snorted, the water at ankle depth now –
In a whiplash-fast movement, Felix darted forward into his space, hand going for his throat or hair –
But as far as Jisung was concerned they were on equal ground now, his debt repaid, and he ducked below Felix’s arm, sliding a thin knife out from his thigh sheath and whipping it up under Felix’s chin, pausing just as Felix’s other hand braceleted his raised forearm. Neither of them moved, eyes locked on each other’s. It would be just as easy for Felix to snap Jisung’s bones as it would be for Jisung to slice open Felix’s throat.
‘Don’t touch my shit,’ Felix murmured, lips barely moving.
‘Don’t touch me, pretty boy,’ Jisung hissed, wrenching his arm back, blade held lightly in his hand. ‘And if you don’t want to be randomly chosen in a situation like that again, I suggest losing the ice cream hair.’
‘Your suggestion has been duly noted and disregarded,’ Felix said, his tone bored but his attention riveted to Jisung’s knife.
Jisung hawked and spat into the water at his feet, trying (and miserably failing) to rid his mouth of the taste of the lake. He sloshed up onto the bank, giving Felix a wide berth.
‘Well, if you’re done ruining my very expensive dress, you can be on your way now,’ Jisung sniffed. Then a thought crossed his mind and he smirked, tilting his head slyly and waggling his eyebrows. ‘Unless you had another reason to try and get me out of my clothes.’
Felix did not take the bait, only fixed Jisung with a heavy stare that made his hackles rise – it was far too knowing, inciting a visceral urge to punch the pretty boy in his stupid pretty face.
‘Don’t play that game with me,’ Felix said seriously.
Oh and now he sounded patronising. Last time someone had spoken to Jisung like that, the assassin had drowned them in a bathtub of overpriced red wine. Only the no-casualties rule stopped Jisung from taking a stab at Mr Snowflake because he was fairly certain neither of them would stop when they ought to.
Me, being responsible? I deserve a fucking medal, Jisung thought, even as he said, ‘You’re really lucky I haven’t put this knife through your throat.’
Felix looked irritatingly unconcerned. ‘I would’ve kicked your ribs in if I thought there was any real danger of that.’
Jisung twitched. ‘Not if I cut your hamstrings first.’
Felix arched a brow. ‘Bit hard to do that with a crushed windpipe.’
‘I’d’ve gouged your eyes out before you even tried,’ Jisung scoffed.
With a snort, Felix slipped his hands into the pockets of his slightly muddy slacks and started walking backwards towards the mansion, his dark eyes unwavering as they watched Jisung.
’Sure you would, Han, sure you would.’
In a shocking display of carelessness, recklessness, or quite possibly both, he turned around and kept walking.
‘Remember!’ he called, before Jisung could decide whether to actually knife him in the back or yell something
stupid witty at him. ‘Don’t touch my shit and you won’t end up in another lake!’
Jisung’s jaw dropped in outrage but then Felix disappeared past the treeline and he was alone. He teetered on the edge of chasing after Mr Candyfloss but eventually decided against it – his dress was already fucked and he didn’t want his pretty nose ring to meet a sticky end too.
–– present day ––
‘This is great and all,’ Jisung said, idly flicking through the eyes-only dossier on his side of the varnished walnut desk, ‘but I have no experience in a ring. I can break someone’s nose and I can break someone’s ribs, but anyone who’s seen a fight before, scripted or otherwise, is going to be able to tell the difference between me and the other guy.’
Kim Chungha leaned back in her leather seat (had to have cost five figures at least) on the other side of the desk, the Gangnam Business District skyline glittering and gleaming behind the glass wall of her office. Her evenly parted, straight black hair fell neatly over one shoulder, her expression coolly impassive.
‘That,’ she replied, ‘is why you have a partner.’
Jisung arched a brow, leaned forward in his own chair (probably no more than four figures). ‘Oh?’
The quiet knock on the door was perfectly timed.
‘Come in,’ Chungha called, raising her voice only slightly despite the fact that the door would no doubt be as soundproof as the rest of the room.
Jisung held her gaze as the door opened and Tzuyu’s pristinely polished voice said, ‘He’s here, Sir.’
‘Send him through,’ Chungha said but Jisung was hardly listening, his mind suddenly working a thousand miles a minute.
They were playing the pronoun game with him. Why? Who was about to walk through that door that Chungha would keep him in suspense until the last second?
Heavy footsteps sounded as someone walked into the office.
Oh, fuck no.
The footsteps moved over to the wall, still behind him, then there was the sound of a chair scuffing over marble flooring. Lee Felix, goddamn ice cream hair and all, deposited the chair a couple of feet from Jisung and sat down, immediately hooking an ankle over his other knee.
‘You’ve got to be shitting me.’
The words were out before Jisung had time to think. Not that he would’ve stopped them if he’d had the chance.
Turning in his seat, he demanded, ‘Are you stalking me or something? This is the third job in half a year that you’ve been my partner for.’
‘No,’ Felix replied, not looking very surprised either at Jisung’s presence or outburst.
‘You expect me to believe this is a coincidence?’ Jisung whipped his head around, looking towards the equally calm Chungha. She’d always been smooth as a snake but as far as he knew, had no reason to set him up.
And if that was what had happened, well, she wouldn’t be the first snake he’d skinned.
‘You’re so paranoid,’ Felix sighed, interrupting Jisung’s momentary mental breakdown.
Okay, maybe that was true but ouch.
‘Comes with the territory,’ he snapped, huffing to get his fringe out of his eyes (he’d dyed his hair plain old brown after the carrot-orange fiasco last month). ‘Why are you here?’
Felix tipped his head to the side, watching Jisung with a gaze that was nowhere near as lazy as he was pretending.
‘I know how to fight in a ring,’ was his answer.
Despite himself, interest spiked.
‘Lee-ssi will take care of the public fight,’ Chungha said, drawing their attention back to her, ‘and subsequently your primary target. Han-ssi, you will take care of Wu’s men in the crowd before they remove Lee-ssi from the equation. Wu has never been one for subtlety and that district is in the heart of his territory so the two-thousand-odd potential witnesses won’t phase them. There will also, of course, be the clean-up crew to handle.’
Jisung huffed. ‘So Mr Snowflake here only has to deal with the guy in the ring while I have, what, ten plus goons to take down? My pay check better be twice as large as his.’
Chungha’s red lips twitched up into a slight smile. ‘Lee-ssi’s task is not quite so simple. Not only must he beat one of Korea’s best fighters in the underground circuits and not appear to be winning from the very start, but also the target must not die until after the fight.’
‘How long is the match?’ Felix asked.
‘Seven minutes. You are free to end it earlier but you’ll have to give Han-ssi enough time to dispatch the target’s security.’
Despite the obvious opening, Jisung resisted the urge to ask why there were so many hoops to be jumped through. If Chungha didn’t offer the information freely, it was either irrelevant to the mission or they’d find it out later. Besides which, he didn’t particularly care – the important part was that he got to stab people.
Relaxing back into his chair, Jisung allowed one of his trademark grins to slide across his face, all gleaming teeth and sharp eyes.
‘When do we start?’
A week later saw Jisung and Felix down the other end of the country in Daegu. They were making their way on foot through the backstreets of Dalseo-gu to the club that served as the entrance to the underground ring. Down so far from the gleaming skyscrapers of the central city, the shadows were long and a few street lights had flicked on, though they wavered uncertainly beneath the heavy clouds.
The hitmen would be arriving before anyone else except the staff. The venue didn’t permit broadcasting but fans would no doubt be keen to take their own videos of the man going up against the one and only Lee Chan, or as he was professionally known, Dino. Felix would be posing as a reasonably unknown fighter trained by an underground champion of fifteen years ago, to ensure Wu wouldn’t be tipped off when he didn’t recognise Felix’s face or cover name.
‘So, you used to be a fight club kid, huh?’ Jisung asked, adjusting his facemask to make sure it was sitting high enough on his nose.
Felix didn’t so much as blink, his gaze roving the street ahead (and above), distinctive hair hidden beneath a beanie.
Jisung frowned at the lack of a response. ‘Obviously I know you’re a hand-to-hand specialist but this is new!’
‘It’s not that hard to find out,’ Felix muttered from behind his own mask.
‘Just because it’s there doesn’t mean I’ve dug it up yet. These things are much more interesting to hear from the source, anyway.’ He’d found over the years that, when talking about themselves, people often gave away just as much in what they didn’t say as what they did.
‘Can you be nosy on your own time and shut up for now? That’d be great.’
‘Ooh, do you have a headspace you go into for this? Are you still a fight club kid? When was your last match? Would you fight me?’ Jisung pestered, tugging on one of the straps of his backpack.
A muscle in Felix’s jaw jumped but his hands remained loose and relaxed at his sides as he growled, ‘Not unless you have a genuine death wish.’
Jisung’s pride hissed. ‘You may have bigger muscles than me but –’
‘If we fought without weapons, I guarantee I’d put your head through a wall inside of thirty seconds.’ He glanced at the affronted assassin briefly. ‘Like you said, I used to be a fight club kid.’
And then there was no more time for chitchat because they’d reached the club.
The dark grey building loomed over them at two storeys high, all the windows blacked out and neon graffiti covering the walls. An unobtrusive side door opened just as they reached it. A burly man with tattoos covering every visible inch of his skin except for his face gave them a onceover before beckoning them inside.
Inside the club was deserted except for a young woman wiping down tables on one side of the long, low-ceilinged room, opening hours still some time away. The tattooed man led Jisung and Felix through to a room behind the well-stocked bar, where he swept back a thick black curtain and unlocked the door it revealed.
Jisung heard the thudding bass before the door was even open and he suppressed a grin as he followed the others down the steps.
The staircase gave way to a narrow corridor and another flight of stairs, which opened out into a huge underground arena. There was a raised platform in the middle, hundreds of seats rising up and away to the ceiling. Large screens suspended above the ring would no doubt show each fight in satisfactory detail for the spectators further back. Some English rap song or another pounded through dozens of speakers around the empty room. If it weren’t for all the secrecy, they might’ve been here for an MMA match.
The tattooed man stopped and gestured for them to go on to a corridor on the other side of the arena.
Jisung pouted. ‘Not coming any further?’
The man shook his head and his hands blurred through a series of movements that would’ve been meaningless to a casual observer.
‘He said –’
‘I know what he said,’ Jisung interrupted sharply, not looking at Felix.
It’d been a while since he’d last practised KSL but he’d understood the message well enough – I am only the doorman – and signed back, Thank you.
As their guide started back up the stairs, Jisung turned to Felix and promptly ushered him along. ‘C’mon, time to get you out of sight, pixie.’
Things were a lot livelier through the next door, presenters and staff and assorted others bustling about, yelling to each other over the top of the music. The hitmen adjusted their postures and manner of walking on automatic and were stopped almost immediately, a sweaty man stuffed into a too-small suit identifying Felix as “Kang Yuchan”.
Jisung, who was clad in a staff tee under his unzipped jacket and had a badge clipped to his lapel, accompanied the pair to Felix’s dressing room. Or, rather, undressing room. Drinks of all kind were on offer from busty women whose eyes were as cold as their smiles were inviting. There were mirrors, a punching bag, and more rap. All in all, everything a fighter might want to prepare for his match.
Ostensibly making himself useful by getting a needlessly finicky drink for Felix from one of the ladies, Jisung heard the over-enthusiastic official leave shortly after.
‘That’ll be all, thank you, girls,’ Jisung said with a twinkling grin, tipping his head towards the door. ‘Yuchan-ssi here prefers to get ready alone.’
The redhead who’d whipped up the drink he held rolled her eyes but sashayed past him, the other women following her out of the room. He barely waited for the door to shut again before taking a swig of the colourful concoction, shuddering at the... interesting mix of flavours.
Spinning on his heel, Jisung offered, ‘Want a drink?’
Felix didn’t pause in his slow pacing around the room, running his eyes over everything, beanie discarded on a chair. ‘No. Less in the stomach means less to come out of the stomach.’
‘Fight club teach you that?’ Jisung asked brightly, hitching his backpack a little higher and perching on the edge of the drinks table.
Coming to a stop in front of the punching bag, Felix tested its weight, pushing against it with his fingertips. He made no answer but Jisung didn’t push, simply watched the blond man settle into a slightly deeper stance, balancing on the balls of his feet.
Quiet fell for a single second, a momentary lull between one song and the next, and Jisung felt the air go still, found himself holding his breath –
Felix’s arm blurred, his fist colliding with the punching bag and jolting it sharply backwards. Halfway through its downward swing, Felix danced a step to the right and swung his left leg up, kicking the bag with serious force and sending it swinging up in another direction. He didn’t move as it swayed towards him again, simply reached out and clamped his hands around it. The chains fastening it to the ceiling rattled as the bag’s forward momentum was abruptly halted.
‘It’s time for you to go,’ Felix said, low and serious, still holding the punching bag. ‘People will be arriving soon.’
Jisung blinked and hopped down from the table. He was tempted to stay but Felix was right.
‘See you after the fight,’ he said cheerfully, sauntering over to the door. ‘Break a leg and all that.’
He glanced over his shoulder in time to see a wolfish grin flicker across Felix’s face.
‘Maybe I will. Been a while since I last got to snap someone’s bones.’
Cruel excitement curled in Jisung’s gut but he forced himself out into the corridor, shutting the door and pointedly reminding himself, Now is not game time, Han. Get your business face on, you’ve got work to do.
‘And now, for the fight you’ve all been waiting for! It’s the national champion, Dino, versus Def Soul’s star pupil, Kang Yuchan!’
The crowd roared their approval and Jisung watched from one of the narrow catwalks, hidden from below by the glare of the lights, as Felix leapt lightly over the ropes into the ring on one side and his competitor on the other. Dino wasn’t tall but his shoulders were broad and, clad only in shorts, his body’s impressive musculature stark beneath the harsh lights. To have gotten this high in the rankings, there was no doubt Dino could move quickly but given the alarming width of his arms, Jisung thought the fighter’s strength (pun absolutely intended) likely lay in his ability to punch through concrete walls.
Dino faced the crowd, fists raised high in proud greeting, and they screamed and stomped in return. Extensive tattoos adorned his body, easily visible to Jisung through his tiny, high-powered telescope.
Then he turned his attention to Felix and his breath stalled in his chest.
Felix was also stripped down to a pair of shorts only and suddenly the whole “fight club kid” thing made more sense. Jisung was plenty strong himself, his body lean and hard from years of brutal work, but Felix was heavy with muscle, akin to Dino. The major difference was that he had no tattoos to cover all the scars, of which there were a lot. He had the body of someone who had unapologetically fought for years for the right to live.
Jisung’s interest in him deepened.
Thunder rose from the crowd again and Jisung blinked, scolding himself for getting distracted.
In the ring, Felix and Dino threw themselves at each other, their raw ferocity magnified tenfold on the screens.
Jisung scanned the enthusiastic horde below him, looking for four men who didn’t fit. They’d either be somewhere near the back or on the narrow walkway connected to the catwalk by a short set of stairs, partially hidden in shadow by the railing. The walkway would be even harder to see from the audience because the lights did not shine up that high. Jisung had his money on the walkway because sharpshooting from inside a crowd was nigh on impossible but it wouldn’t do to discard –
Long sleeves, turtleneck, a spot of calm in the storm –
His eyes flicked back to the walkway and – yes, that was one of them. Honestly, had no-one taught this man how to blend in with civilians? He wasn’t even dressed like a security guard.
Clearly, the men (and Wu) had no qualms about standing out to anyone with half a brain because this was their home territory. And fuck if there was anything that pissed Jisung off more than careless arrogance.
Resisting the urge to shoot the enforcer with the suppressed Desert Eagle sitting pretty in his under-the-jacket holster, Jisung mentally highlighted the man’s location and kept looking. He had them all pegged in under half a minute, pleased that none of them were actually in the crowd. That would have made everything so much harder than it needed to be.
Pocketing his scope, Jisung crawled swiftly back along the catwalk, eyes fixed on his first target. He stayed low and stepped softly down the stairs but no-one was paying attention to anything except the match, making it ridiculously easy to get within five metres of Wu’s man.
Jisung assessed the man as best he could from where he was crouched, pressed against the shadowed curve of the barrier. The enforcer was tall, well-built, didn’t appear to be wearing any body armour, and had a gun holster (and the weapon itself) strapped to his thigh.
Chungha really hadn’t been kidding about the disregard for subtlety.
None of this was hugely important. The most crucial thing was that the man’s stance was relaxed, his focus on the ring. No doubt he was a perfectly capable thug but Jisung had no intention of letting him get a hand anywhere near his weapons.
Slipping a two-and-a-half-inch knife from one of his wrist sheaths, Jisung gripped the T-shaped handle firmly between his knuckles, took a breath, and moved.
Two long strides low to the ground, two higher as the enforcer’s attention shifted to Jisung and his hand went to his thigh – too slow too slow – but he was sluggish in his surprise and Jisung was already taking advantage of this. Jisung’s free hand shot out and grabbed the side of the taller man’s neck, hauling him down and slamming his temple into Jisung’s knee. Stunned, the enforcer collapsed to his hands and knees and a second later Jisung had one gloved hand around the man’s mouth and was driving his lethally sharp knife deep into the side of his throat, severing the carotid.
Blood immediately welled up and Jisung yanked the knife out, facing the man towards the back wall because, yep, there went the arterial spray. The thug groaned loudly and tried to struggle but Jisung had a firm grip on him, one booted foot crunching a wavering hand to the ground.
Thirty seconds later and the man was out cold, his pulse weakening by the moment. Jisung laid him down and grimaced at the huge puddle of blood, some of which was dripping over the back edge of the walkway down to the ground behind the bank of seats. He had some on his trousers and gloves but that was unavoidable so he ran on, mentally measuring the distance to his next target.
The second enforcer went down as easily as the first and when Jisung poked his head over the barrier for a moment, he was pleased to see the huge mounted timers report that it’d taken him barely over three minutes to get this far. He glanced at the screens, just in time to see Dino kick Felix’s feet out from under him. Not missing a beat, Felix’s hands smacked into the ground on either side of his head and he jerked his legs up, flipping over into a crouch. The quick movement impressed the audience into another full-throated roar.
Fists flew but Jisung ducked down and continued on before he saw whose landed.
Unfortunately, the third thug glanced in Jisung’s direction just as the assassin was about to run at him and Jisung faltered for a split second. Cursing himself, his face twisted into a snarl as he leapt forward, ducking under a swift punch inside the man’s guard and blocking the fist that shot out towards his ribs. Jisung stomped on the thug’s foot and stabbed him in the gut, then twisted out of his grasp as he gasped and staggered. The enforcer’s hand went to his gun and Jisung slammed his fist into the man’s solar plexus, winding him. Jisung gave him no opportunity to respond, reaching up to seize the man’s hair and jerk him down to his knees so Jisung could slit his throat, blood gushing out from the wound.
The thug’s dying gurgle was drowned out by the feverish yelling and stomping of the crowd. Jisung stayed only long enough to make sure the man was beyond saving, then headed after his final target.
To his momentary alarm, the fourth of Wu’s men already had his gun in hand, though it was pointed at the ground. The man was speaking into a small walkie-talkie, his attention still riveted to the ring, and Jisung presumed the odds must be tipping decisively in Felix’s favour.
Jisung waited until the walkie-talkie was being tucked away before pulling out an identical knife from the sheath on his right wrist and flicking it so that it clattered onto the metal walkway not far past the enforcer. The man’s head whipped in that direction, his torso twisting, and Jisung darted forward on silent feet, slapping his hand over the thug’s mouth and sharply jerking him back in one smooth motion. The thug barely had time to lift his gun and then Jisung’s knife was ripping through his carotid and jugular, blood soaking them both.
With his knife hand, Jisung caught the gun before it could fall to the floor, the muscles of his left arm and abdomen straining as he fought to keep the man still and silent while he died. When the enforcer sagged, body going utterly limp, Jisung laid him on the ground, quickly cleaned his blade on the man’s clothing, retrieved the knife he’d thrown, and re-sheathed both.
Then he unzipped his jacket, shrugged out of the backpack and jacket, turned the latter inside out, and pulled them both back on. His lips curled back at the unpleasant sensation of blood-wet fabric on his skin but the inside was designed to look like an outside and it was far too messy to have on the other way.
The walkie-talkie crackled, so Jisung grabbed that too and lifted it to his ear as he stood and started casually walking away from the dead body and spreading pool of blood. He heard the voice on the other end of the walkie-talkie get progressively more worked up that no-one was replying and smirked faintly.
Down in the ring, he saw Felix sweep his leg up in a roundhouse kick too fast for his opponent to avoid and Dino went to the ground hard.
The sea of bloodthirsty spectators screamed in tandem with the voice by Jisung’s ear and he heard something about backup being on the way. That was really all he needed to know so he tossed the walkie-talkie and watched Felix kneel over Dino, pinning the fallen fighter’s arms to his sides, and punch him straight in the jaw. Dino’s head bounced with the force of the blow and, when he didn’t stir within ten seconds, a buzzer went off to signal the end of the match. Jisung’s eardrums nearly shattered at the resulting din.
Time to go, he thought.
He made his way around the arena until he was near the main doors. There the walkway had a descending set of stairs going down to the narrow aisle between the seats and the wall. Jisung waited until none of the lights were pointed his way before slipping out one of the doors.
Part one of the night was complete, presuming Felix had succeeded in his job. Now came part two – getting out before Wu’s men found them and spirited them away from the public eye to be as mercilessly executed as the four men Jisung had left behind.
The door to Felix’s backstage room was unlocked so Jisung didn’t have to break in which was great because there were already staff members appearing and he really didn’t want them to see all the blood on his clothes.
He knew there was precisely zero point trying to clean himself up (these trousers were going straight in the incinerator) but he did stride over to the sink by the drinks counter and rinse his gloved hands so at least they weren’t fucking dripping blood. Then he grabbed the water pitcher and drink half the jug in one go. Killing people was thirsty work, alright?
It would take Felix at least another three minutes, probably five, to get away from the ring and back here. Backup was likely no more than five minutes out as well, Wu having a nest of bogies two blocks away. The info package Chungha had given them suggested that they’d have a minimum of ten thugs arriving to not-so-politely haul them away.
Well, to haul Felix away – they didn’t know about Jisung. Yet.
Still, Jisung wished they could’ve rigged all the entrances with cameras so he could get some live intel but Chungha had been adamant that they leave nothing behind. This whole op was meant to be in and out and they weren’t exactly going to have time to stop and dismantle any tech if they were fleeing a hail of bullets.
Mentally taking stock of all his weapons, Jisung went over to the laminated floor plan taped to the wall, the emergency exits marked in red. He’d seen a copy of this in the briefing, as well as one of the two aboveground floors, but there was no harm in going over it again.
There weren’t many viable routes out of the arena. The main exit would be jam-packed with spectators – great for blending in but also shit because Jisung was covered in blood and Felix was far too recognisable now. Even with his beanie, a facemask, and a full set of clothes, it would take just one person to make the connection and then they’d be trapped. Then there was the back entrance they’d used but Jisung was pretty sure that was the one Wu’s men would be coming through. And lastly the two emergency exits – one would put them right in front of the club but the other brought them up around the back, so that was the route they’d be taking.
Jisung didn’t know a whole lot about Wu but if he were a competent albeit arrogant kingpin who was dealing with an unknown number of assailants inside a building for which he knew all the exits, he’d have the place surrounded. That way if the men sent inside didn’t find their quarry, they’d be flushed out like rats.
He scowled at the map. For Wu’s sake, he hoped the thugs sent against them were prepared for rats with very sharp teeth.
Three precise knocks sounded and Jisung wasn’t surprised when Felix slipped inside and shut the door firmly behind himself. He was a little less prepared for all the muscle, littered with purpling bruises (if Felix’s ribs weren’t broken, they were definitely cracked) and traces of blood. Red was smeared across the blond’s split lip and scraped raw knuckles. All in all, he had the appearance of someone who’d just gone toe to toe with a bulldozer and won.
Jisung pulled his backpack off and unzipped it, pulling out new clothes for the half-naked Mr Snowflake. About to make a pithy remark and toss over the garments, Jisung stopped, Felix’s expression one he’d never seen on him before. His face was tight with focus and probably some pain, which wasn’t unexpected, but –
But his eyes.
Felix caught Jisung’s gaze and Jisung saw fire, like someone had lit a blazing inferno inside him.
Felix’s attention dropped to the clothes in Jisung’s hands and he didn’t say anything, just strode across the small room, taking up more than his fair share of space, and tugged them from Jisung’s lax grip. Blinking out of his stupor, Jisung barely caught himself before he awkwardly cleared his throat.
‘If you look this bad, I’d hate to see the other guy,’ he said lightly, as though an explosive kind of tension wasn’t hanging around Felix like a thundercloud.
‘He’ll be dead of a brain bleed by morning,’ was the brusque reply, rumbling even lower than usual as Felix dressed himself in a matter of seconds and tugged the brim of a baseball cap low over his eyes.
Very aware of their rapidly shrinking window of time, Jisung left it at that and asked, ‘Are those ribs going to give you trouble on the way out?’
It wasn’t an indication of personal care and Felix didn’t treat it as one.
‘I can handle it.’
Jisung believed him and threw him the backpack as soon as he had his shoes on. ‘Good, because we’re about to have company. Your dusters and Glock are in the bottom.’
Felix pulled out the gun and a pair of sleek knuckle dusters before shoving his discarded clothes in the bag and zipping it up. He went to put it on but Jisung snatched it back from him and continued on to the door.
‘None of the blood on me is mine so I’m carrying this,’ he said firmly.
One hand on the handle, he listened for a second – didn’t sound like anyone was there. Jisung glanced over his shoulder, saw Felix flexing his hands, metal gleaming over his fingers. The gun was nowhere to be seen.
Felix looked up and his eyes met Jisung’s again.
The fire had not lessened.
Suiting actions to words, Jisung pulled the door open and peeked out. He made sure both ends of the short corridor were clear before stepping out, gesturing for Felix to follow.
Under the incessant rap (Jisung was tempted to shoot every speaker he saw until the so-called music shut up), noise from the arena was quite audible as the audience started leaving and staff made their way backstage. Whether or not Wu’s men were on the scene yet, someone would have orders to detain Felix. Thus, Jisung went right, deeper into the warren of narrow corridors and featureless doors and away from the arena, Felix hot on his heels.
They jogged down the empty hallways, slowing to a swift walk and ducking their heads when others bustled past. In the distance, the sound of raised voices reached them.
‘This’d be so much easier if I could throw a grenade,’ Jisung grumbled under his breath as they turned the fourth corner, stairs leading to their exit waiting at the end of the corridor. ‘That’d draw most of them off.’
‘It would also be the opposite of “subtle”,’ Felix muttered. ‘Besides, I thought you liked challenges.’
They reached the foot of the staircase, checked the corridor it connected to, then hurried up it.
‘I do,’ Jisung continued, voice barely wavering from the exertion. ‘If we walk out that door and there’s an army waiting for us, though, that’s not a challenge. That’s just no fun.’
Felix huffed, which might have been due to the pain he was in or it might have been a restrained snort. ‘We’re in Kevlar, aren’t we? Don’t be a chicken, Han.’
Manfully resisting the urge to kick Mr Candyfloss back down the stairs, Jisung refrained from replying as they stopped on the small landing by the door. The internally-lit green exit sign glowed brightly in their dim surroundings.
‘There an alarm?’ Felix asked, sliding the Glock out of his hip holster.
Jisung shook his head. ‘Building specs indicate negative.’
He retrieved his own gun and bent an ear to the door, not that that did much good.
Glancing over his shoulder at Felix, he murmured, ‘Remember, we’re in an open yard. Cover from the dumpster on the left, next building is at two o’clock, thirty metres.’
Felix nodded sharply, the shadow cast by the brim of his cap rendering him even more grimly menacing than usual. ‘Go low and left, I’ve got the upper right.’
With a grunt of acknowledgement, Jisung crouched, pistol held down by his thigh. He used his free hand to slowly, gently release the door’s catch, heard it click, and pushed it open a fraction. Through the thin gap, night had visibly fallen but the yard was illuminated by a street lamp and he could see no-one.
He eased the door open a little further and when neither a person nor a barrage of bullets appeared, Jisung poked his head out, ready to withdraw it at a split second’s notice. The yard, however, appeared to be empty, though from this vantage point he could by no means see it all. Voices rang out but they were further away, somewhere around a corner or two, and he deemed it safe enough to emerge.
Jisung widened the gap just enough to slip out, darting around the edge of the door and moving close to the side of the dumpster. Knowing Felix had his back covered, the brunet chanced a glance around the edge of the large metal bin up the alley to the front of the club. Quick, heavy footsteps sounded and he glimpsed three hulking men jogging towards the entrance, heard more yelling and then another pair of thugs started down the short alleyway. Jisung jerked back into the dumpster’s shadow, boots making crackling noises as he turned on his toes.
Felix was already looking at him from several metres away, crouched near the door. Felix jerked his thumb behind him and made an okay sign, before pointing at Jisung, who shook his head and held up two fingers. Jerking his thumb back again, Felix made a thumbs up, silently asking if they had time to go that way. Jisung returned the thumbs up and pointed in Felix’s direction twice, indicating they should move quickly.
They were both moving before he’d even dropped his hand, keeping low as they hugged the wall to stay out of their inadvertent pursuers’ line of sight. Twenty metres before the building’s back corner, the yellow light of the street lamp bathed them but no-one called out so they kept moving.
Ten metres from cover, a man shouted, ‘Hey, what are you two doing?’
They froze. Running was a last resort, next to lobbing a grenade and diving for cover, as it would attract almost as much attention.
Much easier to deal with the problem quickly and quietly right here.
They straightened up as one, surreptitiously holstering their guns. Jisung’s fingers itched for his blades and he saw Felix’s hands clench into fists before he spun around, a wide smile on his face.
‘We were just leaving. The match is over, time to go home, yeah?’
The two men approached with long strides, wary suspicion etched into their expressions, hands straying towards their still-pocketed weapons.
Jisung’s smile broadened. That oversight would cost them dearly.
The taller man began sternly, ‘Why aren’t you at the main –?’ but was abruptly cut off as Felix stepped swiftly past Jisung and punched the man in the nose, dropping him like a sack of bricks. The shorter thug barely started to draw his gun when Felix whirled around, grabbed the scruff of his neck, and kneed him in the gut. Wheezing, the thug offered scant resistance when Felix ruthlessly snapped his neck.
In the interests of not blowing their cover sky high, Jisung refrained from whistling at the violent display as he crouched by the feebly stirring man on the ground and slit his throat. Blood sprayed but most of it missed Jisung and he ignored it, admiring Felix’s uncharacteristic ferocity. Perhaps the evening’s adventures had brought up unpleasant memories for him.
Not even slightly out of breath, Felix glanced at the brunet (burning, his eyes were burning) and jerked his head towards the velvet darkness outside the street lamp’s pool of light.
Their job here was done.
Rising, Jisung looked briefly over his shoulder, seeing lights and people and hearing their noise. No-one else turned down the narrow backstreet, so he turned away and jogged after Felix into the shadows.
‘You pathetic waste.’
Jisung is in a familiar room, back pressed against a familiar wall. He breathes and feels the familiar pain of the knife between his ribs.
‘You really can’t fucking accept what you are?’
His brother’s face, twisted with mocking disgust, cruel hatred, is an inch from his own and Jisung feels him push the knife in deeper. A broken cry breaks free of Jisung and he bites his lip sharply to cut it off. His brother needs no fuel with which to torment him.
‘You feel like you have to come back and kill me to give your feeble life some sense of meaning?’
Jisung sees his death clear as day in his brother’s cold eyes and the child he hasn’t been in so long rears its tired head, worn to almost nothing after nearly two decades of abuse.
‘Don’t hurt me,’ he whimpers, much too late.
Leaning in closer still, his brother whispers harshly, ‘I don’t understand why you were ever born.’
Then everything goes off-script.
‘Do you really think you can protect anyone when you can’t even stop this?’
Deeper goes the blade and Jisung is seconds from screaming, his head swimming with pain.
‘You couldn’t even save him.’
Jisung looks over his brother’s shoulder and sees a familiar young man with dark hair and darker eyes, too pale and too thin. Jeongin presses a hand against his belly, failing to stop the blood flow from his bullet wound. He looks down at his bloody hand, then up at Jisung, pleading.
‘Help me,’ Jeongin begs hoarsely, unmoving from the doorway through which Seungmin was meant to have come.
Jisung struggles, desperate, but his brother twists the knife and he screams –
Jisung sat bolt upright in bed. He had the hunting knife tucked between his mattress and bedframe in hand even before his eyes were open, senses straining to detect any hint of danger. His heart pounded like a stampeding herd of horses in his ears, sweat cooling rapidly on the bare skin of his back and chest, breath coming in short, tightly contained pants.
Kicking away the mess of sheets tangled around his legs, Jisung rolled out of bed and padded on silent feet across the little bedroom of his primary Daegu residence to the single window. He had a couple of safe houses dotted around the sprawling city, hidden places where he could wait out any storm, but no-one was actively trying to kill him right now (as far as he was aware) so he’d come here. This apartment at least wasn’t underground.
The solid heft of the knife was a comforting weight as he looked out through the blind slats at the road several floors below. Nothing moved in the early, early morning darkness, the nearest streetlight two buildings away.
The feral restlessness under his skin lessened slightly and yeah, maybe he was paranoid but he had a hundred fucking reasons to be.
His heartrate gradually slowing to something vaguely healthy, Jisung walked a quiet perimeter of the apartment. He checked all the security systems, peeked through every blind. He didn’t turn on any of the lights, relying on the weak light filtering in from the surrounding city, and he didn’t shut any of the doors; closed doors meant secrecy, potential threats. In his safe houses, Jisung very rarely shut any door but the ones leading outside.
He returned to the bedroom twenty minutes later, no longer itching to rip off his own skin. The routine always helped him calm down after a nightmare.
‘You couldn’t even save him.’
His hand clenched around the handle of the knife. Sometimes he wished Seungmin hadn’t finished off his brother, had kept him alive so Jisung could kill his own personal bogeyman. So Jisung could tear him apart piece by tiny piece until he was but blood and flesh under Jisung’s hands, an untouchable force of terror no more.
Burning pain between his ribs.
Jisung sat down hard on the edge of the mattress, his empty hand rising to the scar on the left side of his ribcage, the skin clammy to touch. The final, most enduring mark of his brother’s presence in his life.
Well, that and the nightmares. Han Jihyun was a frequent character in them.
Dark hair and darker eyes, too pale and too thin.
Fuck. For all that Jeongin was a skilled hitman in his own right and had been for a few years, the more broken pieces of Jisung’s psyche insisted on looking out for the younger man, even now. Their mental scars were too similar. Sometimes he could hardly tell Jeongin apart from him of ten years ago – so bruised, so angry, and still so young.
Jisung glanced at the digital clock on his bedside table. Half three. A magical part of the night where time didn’t really exist. His attention reluctantly shifted to the phone next to the clock.
He shouldn’t. He really, truly shouldn’t. But he knew he was going to anyway and he was too tired to make himself wait until urgency was a razor’s edge scraping him raw, just to spite himself.
So Jisung leaned over and picked up the phone, keeping his hunting knife in hand. He shuffled back onto the bed until his shoulders hit the cool wall, pillows soft and still faintly warm against his lower back. Dialling a familiar number, he held the phone to his ear, hoping Jeongin wasn’t in the middle of a job or –
‘What do you want?’
Relief settled in Jisung’s bones and he shut his eyes, the beginnings of a smile curling up one corner of his mouth.
‘I can’t check in on my favourite protégé?’ he asked, smothering the residual strain of his nightmare with a playfully indignant tone.
‘No. And don’t try that shit on me, I’m your only protégé, willing or otherwise.’
The smile widened a fraction. ‘I heard you were up in Iceland on a hunt. How’s the snow treating you?’
‘I haven’t been able to feel my toes for thirty hours.’
‘Aw, did you forget your socks?’
Jisung knew his grin was audible as he said, ‘Sorry, you’re not my type.’
Jeongin spluttered in outrage on the other end of the reasonably secure line and Jisung finally started relaxing. In his experience, there was no better cure for baseless, subconscious fears than hard evidence against them.
Winter had its icy teeth sunk deep into the world’s flesh when Jisung was offered his next major job.
He strolled into a bar nestled in one of Incheon’s inner market districts, quarter of an hour after he’d watched his potential employer and said employer’s security detail enter. Jisung moved confidently through the busy room to the stairs at the back, tipping his head in greeting to the barkeep, who nodded in return.
On the landing at the top of the stairs, the smiling woman who guarded the door opened it for him. He counted a minimum of three semi-automatic pistols under that prim jacket of hers, flashing a grin in thanks as passed.
This room was much quieter, about half the number of people here as there were below and every one of them was here on business similar to Jisung’s. The nameless bar was neutral territory, a (somewhat) safe place for hitmen and their clients to conduct business. That was no reason to be careless, however, and Jisung saw a smattering of facemasks and deep hoods before zeroing in on a table at the back; not only was it rude to stare, but given the number of twitchy killers in the room, it could also be very bad for one’s health.
The lighting was dim up here, the tables spaced widely apart. Neither of the tables nearest the one Jisung approached were occupied. It was an eight-seater, three on each side, one at each end. The client, a thick-lipped man with a long fringe by the name of Lee Taemin, sat at one end, two bodyguards flanking his chair. At a glance, he looked like someone with too much time and money on their hands, a weak-willed butterfly being babysat by his escorts.
Jisung was not fooled – he’d heard from an occasionally-reliable source that Taemin had once killed three attackers with a silk ribbon. The sharp intelligence in those veiled eyes gave weight to the rumour.
The only other person at the table was seated on one side in the middle chair. Jisung didn’t even curse when his eyes landed on ice cream hair, only sighed and sat opposite him. Felix calmly met his eyes for a moment before returning his attention to the head of the table.
Taemin had an elbow propped on the varnished table, a thick glass with two fingers of what looked like water and smelled like petrol held loosely in his hand.
‘You’re late,’ he informed Jisung, like he wasn’t perfectly aware of this, and sipped his drink.
‘Better late than never, right? Unless this is an elaborate, well-constructed ploy to kill me in which case both of us would much rather I’d never come at all.’
Felix’s eye-roll was practically audible.
White teeth glinted between plush lips as Taemin smiled at Jisung, tapping the tip of his forefinger against the glass he held. ‘If I was trying to kill you and all of this was just bait – I would be glad that you came at all.’
Jisung raised a hand, gesturing for a server. Then he leaned back in his seat and grinned at Taemin, charming as you like.
‘You don’t look like someone ready to die today so no, I don’t think you’d be glad,’ he countered, before turning to the young woman standing a respectable couple of feet away. ‘I’ll have an orange juice with ice. Put it on Taemin-ssi’s tab.’
The server was definitely judging him but she nodded and headed off to the bar.
‘Confident and contradictory,’ Taemin mused, snapping Jisung’s attention back to the red-suited man. ‘You fit your description to a T, Jisung-ssi.’
Jisung’s smile took on a lethal edge. ‘Han,’ he corrected.
One pristine brow twitched up a fraction. ‘Oh?’
He didn’t move at all, just held Taemin’s gaze, feeling a crackling tension start coalescing over the table.
Said tension was shattered when the server returned with Jisung’s drink and Taemin broke eye contact to glance over at her, tilting his empty glass. She returned a moment later with a bottle of something Russian and, stepping around the motionless bodyguards, poured him another three fingers.
‘I’m beginning to see why Hyerim-noona pointed me in your direction... Han,’ Taemin said slowly, eyes flicking to Jisung’s again as he sipped his paint-stripper.
Jisung plucked one of the ice cubes from his drink and popped it in his mouth, delighting in the crunch it made as he shattered it between his teeth. In his periphery, he saw Felix give in and pinch the bridge of his nose. Amusement kindled in his veins and he inhaled to speak but then –
‘What is this, a family reunion?’ Jeongin commented drily as soon as he reached the table, looking less threatening than usual due to the fluffy blue scarf and pompom-topped beanie he wore.
‘Damn, how many people did you book?’ Jisung asked of Taemin, only to whip his head around and pin his protégé with an indignant stare as he pulled out the seat between Felix and the end of the table. ‘You’re sitting next to him instead of me?’
Jeongin and Felix both levelled Jisung with a look so unimpressed he was sixty-seven per cent sure they’d been practising together beforehand. Pouting mightily, he slumped back in his chair and crunched on some more ice.
‘Well then, now that we’re all finally here,’ Taemin began, sitting up marginally straighter and setting his glass down, ‘we can get to business.’
Felix started cracking his knuckles, one by one, drawing an are-you-kidding-me look from both Jisung and Taemin. The man in the red suit took a pointedly long sip of his petrol-smelling drink. Felix ignored them both and Jeongin smirked. Jisung was gripped by an inexplicable urge to bury his face in his hands or possibly smack his head against the table until he lost consciousness.
‘I have five targets for you,’ Taemin abruptly resumed and one of his bodyguards pulled a stack of thin folders out from under his coat, handing them over.
Taemin separated them into three piles and slid them across the table to each assassin. Jisung flicked the top one open, saw a photo with the vaguely familiar face of a sleek businessman. Jung Yunho, according to the file.
‘All but Kim Junsu need to die within the next six weeks.’
‘And what happens to Junsu?’ Felix asked, a soldier seeking mission parameters.
‘You bring him to me, alive.’ Taemin dipped his middle finger in his drink and ran it around the rim of the glass once. ‘Preferably unconscious.’
‘They’re big names,’ Jeongin said, flipping through the folders. ‘Getting to all of them will be difficult. I presume they have a connection of some sort – one goes and the others will be wary, but two go and they’ll know they’re being hunted.’
‘The details of that are in the document but suffice to say they’re long-term business partners. As for reaching them, well.’ Taemin looked smug. ‘They are rarely all together in person but a little birdy told me that they gather at one of their houses every couple of months for a very hush-hush meeting.’
Jisung wondered how much screaming the little birdy had done before they gave up their secrets.
‘Your little birdy tell you when the next one is?’ Jeongin asked, folding his arms over his chest.
‘Alas, he did not know. You will have to find out for yourselves.’
‘Any preferences for manner of death?’ Jisung asked, committing the five faces and names to memory. Given how seriously these men took their security, if the info Taemin had given them was correct, any attempt to take them all on was likely to end up a complete bloodbath.
Taemin downed his drink, hissed, and met Jisung’s eyes, his shadowed stare bright. ‘Make it hurt.’
Bloodbath it was, then.
The next fortnight was a busy one and Jisung was actually really glad Taemin had hired all three of them for the job. It wouldn’t have been humanly possible to get as much done as they did in those two weeks with any less people.
Not to say they or he or whoever was hypothetically given the mission wouldn’t have done it, what with these assassins being well-versed in performing feats that weren’t humanly possible. They might’ve had a heart attack from sleep deprivation though.
The trio holed up in a dingy, throwaway apartment that’d been signed to one of Jisung’s aliases for the last half a decade, empty and unused. This was their base of operations, which mostly meant it was where all of Jeongin’s computers were kept and where they slowly thrashed out a plan as more intel came in.
The arrangement certainly took a bit of getting used to. Jisung rarely shared his space with anyone for long. Even Jeongin hadn’t spent more than two nights in a row in one of Jisung’s hidey-holes after those first few months when he’d been in recovery.
And now he was sharing not only with Jeongin, but also Felix? Mr Ice Cream Hair? The one who threw Jisung in a lake last spring? Sure, that was all water under the bridge now and he’d absolutely had it coming (when did Jisung not have it coming, really?) and sure, they’d done several missions together since then, but that didn’t mean they were friends or anything. Sure, this was an awesome job that would pay very well (both in terms of cash and sheer thrill) but that did not mean Jisung was down for a sleepover spanning fuck knew how long.
Jisung valued his alone time, goddammit.
So maybe he’d been a bit extra snippy for the first week, snarking at the others at any given opportunity. Well, more Felix than Jeongin. Mr Snowflake hadn’t done himself any favours by simply not responding to Jisung’s harassment. Now, Jisung would sooner let someone hug him than admit how much he thrived on attention but at the end of the day, that was the fucking truth. Ignoring him didn’t make him go away, it just made him push harder.
There was only one time he’d gotten a real reaction from Felix.
It was on day seven of the three assassins’ extended stay together. They’d all been indoors for at least eight hours. Jeongin was battling tirelessly against the online security of their targets and Felix murmuring into his cell as he made call after call (Jisung heard him switching between Thai, Cantonese, and Korean). Jisung was tracking down every face that wasn’t Kim Junsu or his high-flying friends that showed up in photos alongside them. He’d discovered they had some very powerful friends and wondered if Taemin knew quite exactly who he was dealing with.
Then Felix disappeared from the room for a moment and upon his return announced, ‘I’m going out. I’ve got a mole to meet.’
Jisung looked up from his computer just in time to see Felix run a hand through his eternally-fluffy blond hair.
He didn’t even think before scoffing, ‘What, you gonna seduce them with that ridiculous vanilla ice cream mop?’
And Felix... flinched.
The action was so unanticipated that Jisung simply stared, frozen in surprise. Felix’s head jerked in Jisung’s direction, his expression oddly stricken for a long moment. Then the shutters slammed down behind his eyes and he strode out without another word.
Jisung felt weirdly wrong-footed and he blinked at the door, uncomprehending. He hadn’t actually expected the comment to find any traction.
Why’s he so hung up about his hair?
‘I swear to all the gods, if you don’t stop being a little bitch immediately, I’m going to fill your shoes with snow,’ Jeongin said suddenly.
Jisung’s hackles raised on automatic.
Glaring, he asked in a definitely-not-defensive tone, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Jeongin didn’t look away from his screens, fingers never pausing in their tapping. ‘You know damn well what that means. I get that you have the emotional maturity of a five year old still learning what it means to share, but you agreed to this job, same as us. Stop being so bratty before someone loses their temper.’
Biting back the instinctive urge to snarl that he was not a child (and thereby proving Jeongin’s point), Jisung gritted his teeth.
‘And apologise to Felix.’
At last, Jeongin put his laptop down and turned to face Jisung, sloping eyes wide and serious.
‘Yes,’ he countered firmly. ‘You clearly upset him. I refuse to be the fucking piggy in the middle and at the rate this is going, you’ll be giving me notes to hand to him so you don’t have to talk to him.’
Jisung’s scowl intensified but Jeongin was somehow immune to it and he stared grimly back. Blowing out a frustrated breath, Jisung flung himself back onto the sofa he was draped over.
‘Fine,’ he conceded moodily. ‘I’m not saying the s word though.’
‘The s – oh my god, you mean sorry?’ Jeongin exhaled a slew of swears. ‘You’re such a child. Whatever, I don’t really care how you do it, just fix it before we start taking each other out instead of Taemin’s lot, alright?’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Jisung grumbled, slamming his laptop shut and pushing to his feet. ‘I’m going for a walk.’
He returned some considerable hours later, by which time Felix was already back and, according to Jeongin, asleep in the room he’d claimed. Jisung wordlessly placed a takeaway cup of hot chocolate (with marshmallows) by Jeongin’s knee, then went and left a can of peach green tea outside Felix’s locked door (he’d noticed Felix drinking it several times).
Nothing more on the matter was said and things – well, they went a bit smoother after that.
On day seventeen, somewhere between two a.m. and five a.m. – magical part of the night, remember – they learned the date and location of the next secret meeting.
‘Hey,’ came Jeongin’s hoarse voice from the computer room. ‘Guys, get in here now.’
Jisung had been throwing knives at a target pinned to one end of the apartment’s narrow corridor. At Jeongin’s call, he stopped, leaving the blades where they were, perfectly ringed around the bullseye. He walked into the main room just as Felix entered from the other side, coming out of the map room, its walls covered in timetables and lists and building specs and profiles.
Standing to one side of where Jeongin was sprawled in front of a laptop and surrounded by no less than three large monitors, Jisung asked, ‘What’s up, Innie?’
For once, Jeongin didn’t respond at all to the nickname, just clicked something on the laptop and then a blown-up image of a mobile communication appeared on one of the monitors. It had a date, time, and location on it.
‘Those are the details for next meet,’ Jeongin said. ‘Sent three hours ago through a private chat server with pretty good security.’
‘Which is why you didn’t have it three hours ago, right?’ Felix’s voice was deadpan but there was a lightness to his expression when the other two glanced back at him.
‘Right,’ Jeongin grinned.
Jisung whistled. ‘Nice going, squirt.’
Jeongin glared at him but did not otherwise retaliate, simply saying, ‘That’s the address for Shim Changmin’s primary residence in Busan. Guarded gated community and all that.’
‘As expected for a district as flashy as Haeundae-gu,’ Jisung sniffed.
‘How much land between the houses?’ Felix asked, squatting down in front of the screens.
A few taps of the keyboard and a page of info came up on another monitor, including several pictures of the community itself.
‘Half an acre each, approximately two thousand square metres,’ Jeongin answered.
‘At least there are some trees,’ Jisung muttered, eyeing the limited amount of cover between properties.
‘We can tranq the guard and put a loop through the cameras,’ Felix commented, pointing out the little guardhouse by the community’s main gate.
‘If the meeting’s not being held till ten thirty, there’s unlikely to be much traffic coming through, especially on a Wednesday night,’ Jeongin added.
‘Would be better to get passes in so we can set up shop without having to wait for them all to arrive first,’ Jisung said. An idea came to him and he suggested, ‘How about Innie goes in with a pass earlier so at least our sniper’s all set up, then Snowflake and I follow after the five are in and take care of the guard?’
To his minor irritation, neither of his companions took the bait, merely nodding, although he concluded that this was possibly because they were all running on three winks of sleep and an excess of caffeine.
‘Well, we’ve got ten days to get everything sorted and we’re not going to get much done up here,’ Jeongin sighed, pushing himself up into a seated position and stretching his arms behind his head. ‘I’ll book us KTX tickets for midday and then I’m going to sleep. I suggest you both do the same.’
The dismissal was clear, Jeongin’s attention narrowing in on his laptop.
Felix returned to the map room without another word but Jisung decided to take Jeongin’s advice and go to bed. It had been about fourteen hours since his last nap, after all, and it wasn’t like he was going to get much rest on the train.
The tiny room he slept in was on the far end of the apartment and he was reasonably sure neither of the other two would approach it while he slept. That didn’t mean the walls weren’t soundproofed, the locks on the door extensive. Jisung might trust them enough to fall asleep in the same building as them but nothing more. There was exactly one person alive in this world whom he trusted any more than that, and he was shacked up in Sangju with his pretty-faced boyfriend.
Felix has a pretty face, he thought, quite unexpectedly.
Jisung paused halfway through throwing the deadbolt on his bedroom door, puzzled by the random observation. Nothing followed it, though, so he shrugged it off and made his way to the futon, a small lamp the single source of light in this windowless room.
Perhaps the thought had crossed his mind because, as he was now well aware, Felix had been a “fight club kid”, which denoted a certain level of raw violence and it was unusual that, beyond a slightly bent nose and a scar just above his jaw, Mr Candyfloss had managed to maintain –
Why am I still thinking about it? Jisung demanded of himself, glaring in confusion at his hands as he prepared to pull the heavy blanket over himself, clothes and all.
Exhaling sharply, he forcibly threw all such thoughts from his head and lay down, curling up small. He was asleep in seconds.
A few hours later saw the three men and their duffel bags on the KTX to Busan, each seated in different carriages. The four hour trip gave Jisung plenty of time to stare out the window and plot murders most foul.
Jeongin was still working on getting the building specs for Shim’s house but they already had lists of the five men’s favoured bodyguards, had an idea for how many people they might be dealing with on the night. On account of their tight schedule and the need to tread very lightly so as not to alert their quarry, the trio hadn’t conducted intensive background checks on all security personnel. As far as Jisung’s research showed, they were all from high-end private security firms and most had been there a long time.
Three faces he recognised, all of them from a Colombian drug cartel he’d had a nasty run-in with a few years ago. And by “nasty run-in” he meant he’d killed several of their members, they’d tried (and failed) to kill him in return, then he’d burned down an entire warehouse of ready-to-be-shipped cocaine and been chased all the way across the North Atlantic to Portugal.
I’ll just have to get them before they get me, Jisung reasoned.
Besides, he’d hardly be announcing his identity to them. If they were on location on the night, it was more than likely that they’d be dead before they saw his face. Still, he’d keep an extra eye out; people always fought harder, meaner, dirtier when it was personal.
And, okay, maybe it hadn’t taken him as long as he’d said it had to find this information and maybe he’d spent the rest of the time digging into Felix’s past. He was curious, alright? It was practically his job to stick his nose where he shouldn’t. There’d clearly been attempts to hide the info but that was their mistake – the efforts were obvious and Jisung had found quite the treasure trove without even trying that hard.
Of course, he wasn’t completely without manners – he’d only gotten the key details, the rough idea before backing out. That was still plenty interesting enough; who knew both he and Felix were guilty of patricide?
The train pulled into a busy station and Jisung focused himself on the here and now, collecting his bags and making his way to a taxi stand. He made no attempt to link up with Felix or Jeongin – the less they were all seen together, the better. The address he gave his driver was for a drop-off point near a place of Jeongin’s. Jisung was thankful that the Busan-born man hadn’t decided he hated his home city enough not to create several hidey holes here. He wasn’t sure he trusted Mr Snowflake enough to sleep in one of his safe houses.
The apartment building was on a backstreet, away from the crush of day-to-day pedestrian traffic, particularly tourists. Jeongin was waiting by the time Jisung arrived and Felix arrived not a minute later. All present and accounted for, Jeongin led them up many flights of stairs to the door of an unassuming flat, where he punched in a long code and held his thumb against the final number for an extended moment.
Fingerprint scanner, Jisung noted, mildly impressed.
Inside, the apartment was sparsely furnished, nothing more than some basic necessities. Jeongin strode out of the entryway into the main room, connected to a kitchenette at the back.
‘Pick a room, drop your shit, then come help me set up these damn computers!’
Felix and Jisung exchanged a shrug and did as ordered. Each of the tiny bedrooms bore a fold-out bed and a stack of thick blankets, nothing more. This was clearly not a place meant for long-term stays. Jisung was pleased to see a reflective film layered over the sole window and a heavy-duty lock on the door. Nothing a bullet would have much trouble with, of course, but it’d do.
The faint hum of the lights Jeongin had switched on suddenly went quiet, the apartment blanketed in shadows, and Jisung smirked at the string of curses that came from back up the corridor. He left his bags on the mattress and made his way to the main room, where the floor was covered in wires and screens, plus the odd hard drive and keyboard. Jeongin was in one corner, hunched over a panel he’d opened, tiny screwdriver in one hand and penlight in the other.
He didn’t even look around before grumbling, ‘Shut up.’
Jisung grinned and started connecting monitors to cables as he said lightly, ‘Been a while since you last visited, hmm?’
The muscles on Jeongin’s back visibly tightened.
‘Do you want a hand over there or –’
‘I will throw you off the roof if you don’t shut up right this second,’ Jeongin snarled and then the lights flicked back on.
Jisung threw up his hands in faux-celebration. ‘And the boy genius said, let there be light!’
He managed to dodge the screwdriver thrown at his head but only because he’d been expecting it. Toppling to one side, he cackled at the disappointed look on Jeongin’s face.
‘I’m not the boy genius in this room,’ Jeongin snorted, replacing the front of the panel.
‘Han’s a what now?’ Felix asked dubiously, appearing in the doorway to Jisung’s left.
‘Oh, you didn’t mishear,’ Jeongin said, irritation immediately switching to sly delight.
His eyes glinted in an entirely too-familiar manner and Jisung suddenly regretted ever telling the mischievous little shit anything at all. He trusted Jeongin not to reveal something really inflammatory, like the fact that Jisung had learned how to skin a man at the hands of the legendary Kim Namjoon, but the private schooling? The personal tutors? All of that was fair game. That, of course, could lead to questions about his childhood which Jisung had no interest in giving answers to, least of all to Lee Felix.
This is your own fault for teaching Innie to be a professional pain in the ass, Jisung scolded himself, thinking briefly back to those three years when Jeongin had been his wide-eyed shadow.
Said pain in the ass was currently opening his mouth to spill whatever secrets of Jisung’s he’d decided were acceptable for public consumption, so Jisung hurried to interrupt him.
‘Remember the conversation we had about being nosy on your own time?’ he asked Felix loudly, lunging across the floor to wrestle Jeongin into a headlock.
Felix raised a brow as Jeongin twisted in Jisung’s grip and threw himself backwards, crushing the air out of Jisung’s lungs.
But Jisung had never lost a fight to his protégé and he wasn’t about to now – he bucked his hips up, using the momentum of Jeongin’s throw to roll them over so Jisung was curled over the top of him in a crab hold. Jeongin immediately pushed up but Jisung put a knee against his spine to hold him down, one arm hooked around the younger’s throat.
Jeongin snarled but Jisung tightened his grip and the olive-eyed man relented, grumbling, ‘Yield.’
‘Damn right,’ Jisung replied smugly, taking care to make no direct skin contact as he released his captive.
‘Try not to break anything,’ Felix said drily, side-stepping them to reach the mess of wiring on the floor.
Jeongin made an indignant noise, rolling to his feet and retrieving a multi-socketed power pack which he connected to a port in the wall and flicked on.
‘Would you damage any of your precious knuckle dusters or guns if you were being assaulted?’ he demanded, shoving plugs into the power pack with more force than necessary. ‘Unless you were drugged up to your eyelids and losing half a litre of blood a minute, I think the fuck not.’
‘That is... oddly specific,’ Felix commented.
‘Ask me no questions, I’ll gut you with no knives,’ Jeongin replied ominously, standing the monitors upright and switching them on one by one.
‘Hey, isn’t that what happened to –’
‘Say another word and I electrocute you in your sleep,’ Jeongin interrupted loudly, not turning away from his task.
Jisung laughed at the thought and shrugged, dutifully shutting his mouth. This was Jeongin’s territory and as much fun as it was to needle him, Jisung didn’t want to spend the next week and a half hyper-alert to avoid being zapped.
Felix passed Jeongin a hard drive, serious eyes flicking between the other two. ‘You guys have been working together for a while.’
It was not a question, simply a quiet observation, but Jisung inclined his head, leaning back on his hands.
‘That’s old news, blondie, everyone and their dead grandmother knows it,’ he said.
Shrugging a shoulder, Felix murmured, ‘I don’t put much stock in what I can’t verify for myself.’
And there he went again, piquing Jisung’s curiosity. Not that he could say exactly why he was so intrigued. Maybe it was because he’d done his homework on Mr Ice Cream, knew there were other, more familiar points of interest lying in Felix’s past. Or maybe Felix was doing this deliberately, seeking to reel Jisung in like an especially sharp-toothed fish.
‘A wise approach,’ Jeongin said distractedly, cutting through Jisung’s wildly spinning thoughts.
A faint hum started up as the computer came to life and Jeongin whooped, clapping his hands.
‘We’re back in business, boys!’ he exclaimed, looking at the others with a renewed spark in his eyes. ‘Han, you said you know someone in the area who knows something about weapons – go talk to them, you know what we need. Felix, you’re on recon duty. I’ll get you hooked up with a spy cam and mic and give you some little ones you can whack on walls for me. Try not to look like you’re there to beat someone up, okay? I wouldn’t put it past a twitchy housewife to call security on a suspicious man loitering outside the gates.’
‘Who made you team captain?’ Jisung protested, but he was already up on his feet.
‘I’ll do my best,’ was Felix’s deadpan response to Jeongin’s equally straight-faced ribbing.
‘If you get arrested, I’m not bailing you out,’ Jisung called on his way to the door.
‘Even if I give you the Semtex to do it?’
Jisung’s head whipped back around the doorframe at the unexpected riposte. There was a near-perfect look of innocence on Felix’s face and delight surged within him.
‘How much Semtex are we talking here?’
Felix actually grinned, lips curling up and the corners of his eyes crinkling.
Jisung had to take a second to ask himself why that expression on that face just made his stomach go into freefall without a parachute (inadvisable, the resultant injuries were rarely worth it).
Unfortunately, before he could even begin to come up with an answer, Jeongin said loudly, ‘No, no explosives for Jisung, he’s banned from using them until he learns what structural integrity means.’
‘It was one time,’ Jisung said indignantly.
Jeongin fixed him with a ferocious frown (he was adorable, help). ‘It was a twenty storey building! I nearly died eleven times in the span of three minutes!’
Felix’s eyes flicked between them like he was watching a tennis match and Jisung huffed, heading for the door again.
‘Whatever, see if I care! Bye, losers!’
He slammed the door behind him so he couldn’t hear Jeongin’s parting shot. Before he took off for the stairs, however, he whipped out his phone and sent Felix a quick message.
From: Me, obviously
Slide me some Semtex and I’ll bail you out anytime ;) (4:58 PM)
Oh and tell Innie to get the central heating on, the apartment’s freezing (5:01 PM)
Slightly under an hour later, Jisung pushed open the glass-fronted door of a small hairdresser’s, a bell jingling above his head to announce his presence. He shivered, the warm air of the shop welcome after the bitter chill of the street.
‘Sorry, we’re closed now!’ came a bright voice as a young woman with high cheekbones and a sloping nose emerged from behind the heavy black curtain at the back of the shop.
Her tired customer smile dropped away as soon as she saw Jisung, eyes widening.
He beamed innocently at her. ‘Hi, Wendy-noona.’
She folded her arms over her chest, leaning one shoulder against the wall and crossing her ankles. The bubblegum-pink high heels on her feet must have been four inches tall at least and Jisung kept half an eye on them, well aware of how capable Wendy was with heels.
‘Why are you here, Jisung-ah?’
Jisung’s expression didn’t falter and he stayed by the door, making no sudden moves. ‘I’m in Busan because I have business here and I’m in your shop because I need guns. And grenades.’
One of Wendy’s brows raised. ‘Sounds like a big job. Anything we should be worried about?’
He peeled his lips further back off his teeth, the grin taking on a macabre edge. ‘No.’ He’d made sure neither of the women who ran this place had any past or present dealings with his targets before coming here.
‘Hmm.’ Wendy’s gaze moved to one side, looking past him through the large windows. ‘Lower the blinds,’ she ordered.
As he did so, Jisung heard her yell into the backroom, ‘Seulgi! Get out here!’
The blinds were weighted and designed to look simpler than they were. No-one would be getting any accidental peaks into the hairdresser’s and Jisung was pretty sure these slats could mesh together to form a bulletproof barricade. He turned back around to see Wendy straightening the chairs in front of the mirrors, putting away brushes and combs, and throwing out empty bottles that had held all manner of hair products.
Then the curtain was flung back, rings screeching across the railing, and Seulgi appeared in the doorway, all pouty red lips and sleek black hair.
Dramatic as ever, Jisung thought, mentally rolling his eyes. Aloud, he said, ‘Hello, Seulgi-noona.’
Her narrow eyes widened and then her brows raised too, in a manner identical to Wendy’s.
Propping one hand on her jean-clad hip, she said, ‘Well, well, it’s certainly been a while, Jisung-ah. Not here for more running-in-stilettos lessons, are you?’
Memories of swinging from a chandelier and being thrown in a lake flashed through Jisung’s mind. He shook his head, saying, ‘Weapons this time.’
Seulgi waltzed past him and locked the front door. ‘Wendy hasn’t skewered you yet, so I guess you’d better come downstairs then.’
Jisung’s smile widened again and he followed the weapons dealers behind the curtain.
It was gone eight by the time he got back to the apartment, a duffel slung over his shoulder and a small suitcase trundling along behind him. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, he could have been any travelling young man.
Happily, Jeongin’s door accepted his fingerprint when he finished tapping in the code. He noticed with some delight that the heating had indeed been turned on in his absence, so it wasn’t as cold as a fridge in the apartment.
Jeongin’s muttering and typing could be heard from the entranceway and when Jisung poked his head around the doorway to the front room, it was to see a scene very similar to the one he’d left. The only differences were that Jeongin’s set up was looking a lot more organised now, Felix was sprawled on the threadbare couch instead of the floor, and there were several bags of takeaway taking up much of the free floor space.
‘And the third musketeer returns,’ Jeongin intoned without looking away from the tablet he was messing with.
Felix looked more relaxed than Jisung had ever seen him, making no move to get up despite the relative vulnerability of his position. Dark eyes met Jisung’s for a moment, then flicked down to his newly-acquired luggage.
‘Have we all been naughty this year?’ Jisung grinned, setting down the duffel next to the suitcase. ‘Cos what I’ve got here definitely isn’t for good boys.’
Felix stifled a snort and, serious as a dead fish, Jeongin said, ‘Felix, do me a favour and strangle him with a noodle.’
Jisung opened his mouth to retort but, unexpectedly, Mr Snowflake spoke up: ‘That would be a waste of a perfectly good noodle.’
An eruption of giggles exploded out of Jeongin before he could contain them and he seemed just as surprised as the others, clapping a hand over his mouth. Jisung’s jaw dropped and he stared in affront at the pair of them, Jeongin startled but still laughing and Felix unrepentant, a devious smile twitching up one side of his mouth.
‘I’m surrounded by assholes,’ Jisung sniffed, striding over to one of the takeaway bags, snatching a container of jajangmyeon and a pair of chopsticks, and sitting in the doorway with a huff.
‘You did ask if we’d been naughty,’ Felix pointed out, a touch of smugness in his tone.
Jisung paused in the act of ripping the lid off of his noodles. ‘I concede the point,’ he said, jabbing in Felix’s direction with his chopsticks, ‘but that doesn’t make you any less of an asshole.’
‘Moving on,’ Jeongin interjected. Having recovered from his fit of giggles, he was now munching on a dumpling from the box next to him. ‘Your meeting went well?’
The question was directed at Jisung, who nodded around a mouthful of noodles.
Gulping the food down, Jisung replied, ‘Nobody died and they threw in the suppressor for your rifle for free.’
‘Dragunov SVDK, yeah?’
Jisung nodded, inhaling more noodles. ‘Remind me what happened to your last one?’ he asked.
‘No,’ was the firm reply.
Felix whistled, pushing himself upright so he could reach for another takeaway bag. ‘Your supplier must have quite some reach to be able to pull one of those up for you at the drop of a hat.’
Jeongin audibly gritted his teeth and mashed keys on the board balanced on his lap, camera feeds and datasheets and profiles dancing across his screens.
‘That they sure do,’ Jisung replied, pleased. ‘I’ve got all the requested goodies and more. Hell, I was considering buying a rocket launcher for a second, just to make things really exciting.’
Felix’s brows rose. ‘On a mission this big, with this many variables, I don’t think we’ll need any help making it exciting.’
Jisung made a dismissive noise in the back of his throat. ‘Anyway, how’d things go on your guys’ front while I was out shopping? Clearly, no bailing out was required.’
Jeongin turned to look at him. ‘You haven’t even shown us what you got yet.’
Glancing between the two hitmen before him, Jisung thought they resembled children waiting for presents, their eyes wide and expectant. Amused at the thought (he couldn’t imagine Felix being a child, ever), he put down the jajangmyeon and dragged the suitcase and duffel over. There really wasn’t much room left on the floor but he made do, pushing miscellaneous cords and wires out of the way.
He spun the combination lock on the suitcase and unclipped the fastenings. Fitted in the case and surrounded by protective foam, was Jeongin’s new, disassembled sniper rifle, complete with a scope and suppressor. Lifting the foam frame out of the suitcase, Jisung handed it over to an eager Jeongin. Filling the bottom of the case was a lot of ammo and half a dozen very carefully stored grenades.
While Jeongin cooed over his gun, Jisung dealt with the padlock holding the duffel bag’s zips together and opened it. He pulled out two wrapped packages and offered one to Felix, who eyed it warily for only a moment before unwrapping it. Jisung had acquired a PP-91 KEDR for each of them, the Russian submachine gun a favourite of his. The rest of the bag was packed with box magazines.
For Jisung and Felix at least, their new guns were only part of what they’d be carrying with intent to use. Subs worked awfully well as a first attack when everyone was still off-guard. They’d both have their own handguns, spare ammo for which was in the suitcase, and weapons more appropriate for close quarters.
Inspecting his sub with a critical eye, Felix pursed his lips and nodded. ‘Your suppliers are good, Han.’
‘So glad you agree,’ Jisung said magnanimously, leaving his own gun wrapped up for now.
‘I need to do some target practise,’ Jeongin muttered, turning over the pieces of his rifle in his hands as he examined them.
Leaning back against the doorjamb, Jisung asked, ‘Where’s the nearest firing range?’
‘There’s a private one for residents in one of the basement levels,’ the younger man replied. He glanced up, looking positively cheerful. ‘I’m not the only interesting one with an apartment here.’
‘Excellent,’ Jisung purred. ‘You should give us a tour sometime.’
‘Yes,’ Felix agreed, loosely wrapping up the submachine gun again. ‘It’s been a while since I used one of these. I’m more used to an M4 carbine.’
‘Got an eye for the American brands, huh?’ Jisung asked, reaching for his noodles.
Felix shrugged. ‘They do the job.’
Packing away his Dragunov, Jeongin said, ‘I’ll show you the range in the morning. I’m not done here.’ He nodded towards his computers and popped another dumpling in his mouth.
Jisung cocked a brow. ‘Speaking of which, you two still haven’t said anything about that.’
‘Nobody was arrested, the cameras went up, and now I’m analysing traffic patterns going in and out.’
‘Any sign of Shim or anyone from his household?’ Jisung asked.
Jeongin shook his head. ‘Not as far as I can tell but we don’t have enough info on who lives in this location yet to say for sure.’
‘His wife’s in Seoul this coming fortnight for a fashion event but she usually stays down here,’ Felix added. ‘Most of her family is in Busan.’
‘Do we know if she took the daughter with her?’
‘Not yet,’ Jeongin said. ‘But neither of them are camera shy – I’ll know by tomorrow if the kid’s in Seoul too.’
Jisung grunted in acknowledgement and stuffed another mouthful of jajangmyeon in his mouth. He hoped the girl wasn’t still here. It was unlikely she’d cause them any trouble on the night if she was, but quite frankly that was not a chance Jisung wanted to take.
He really hoped her mother had taken her up north.
‘The daughter’s still here,’ was the first thing Jeongin said to Jisung when he stumbled out of his room at nine the next morning.
Half-conscious at best and sporting some impressive bed-hair, Jisung took a second to understand exactly what Jeongin was talking about. Then it clicked and he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms, groaning.
‘Of course she is,’ he sighed, making his way to the kitchen in search of coffee.
He shivered as the cool air snuck under his sweatpants and long-sleeved tee and grabbed one of the few mugs from the cupboard. While his drink brewed, he wandered to the main room and leant against the doorjamb, hands jammed under his armpits.
On one of Jeongin’s monitors was a grainy but distinct shot of a young girl sitting in the back of a sleek black car leaving the gated complex.
‘Fuck,’ Jisung muttered. ‘That her?’
Jeongin, lying on the hard floor with a cup of steaming hot chocolate balanced on his sternum, nodded. ‘Uh-huh. Shim Chaerin, six years old.’
Jisung sighed again and slouched back to the kitchen to pour his coffee. He stirred two teaspoons of sugar in, took a sip, and hissed at the scalding heat.
The moment he stepped foot in the front room again, Jeongin held up a hand and said, ‘Knife, please.’
Jisung didn’t blink, just slipped a short blade from his wrist sheath and passed it over. Jeongin stayed on the floor, moving his mug to the floor and picking up a large hard drive of some sort. Using the knife’s tip as a screwdriver, he removed one side of the box and began fiddling with the wires inside.
‘Presuming the kid’s there on the night,’ Jisung began, perching on the sofa armrest, ‘she’s unlikely to be a problem. I doubt Shim’s going to have her in the study with him and the others, so she’ll probably be asleep in bed.’ He gestured broadly with his mug. ‘We make sure she’s still there and jam the door. Simple.’
Reassembling his hard drive, Jeongin muttered sceptically, ‘Mhm, sure, easy as that.’
‘Hey, it might be, don’t be such a pessimist,’ Jisung protested.
‘Whatever you say, Mr Where’s-the-lifeboat.’
Jisung choked on his mouthful of very hot coffee and coughed, nearly dropping his cup.
‘We agreed never to talk about that again!’ he wheezed, glaring at Jeongin with watery eyes, lungs burning.
‘No, you agreed never to talk about that again,’ Jeongin snickered, sitting upright and grinning mischievously. ‘Now, go and see if Felix is awake. I’m not waiting around all day.’
Raising a curious brow, Jisung cocked his head. ‘What’s your rush? Not like we’ve got anywhere to be.’
‘The firing range, obviously. He wanted to practise, right? Go get him.’
With that rather abrupt dismissal, Jeongin took a gulp of his hot chocolate and turned back to his monitors.
Jisung considered refusing out of sheer spite but he hadn’t been awake long enough to muster the willpower to go toe-to-toe with Jeongin (whom he wasn’t entirely sure had actually slept last night), so he only huffed before doing as ordered.
Of course, Felix’s door was locked and the assassin within had little interest in responding to any of Jisung’s demands. It took Jeongin threatening to turn off the heating in his room to rouse Felix and when at last he deigned to grace them with his presence, his dead-eyed glare could have melted steel. Jisung helpfully told him that the coffee hadn’t long brewed and in impressively hostile silence, Felix stomped off to the kitchen.
Jisung whistled softly. ‘I didn’t know they even made death stares that strong.’
Snorting, Jeongin headed off towards his own room, calling over his shoulder, ‘Get your sub – it’s time for target practise.’
Wednesday evening rolled around without any hiccups.
Jeongin left the apartment at eight and the others followed an hour later, everyone wrapped in Kevlar and armed up to the eyeballs. The plan was simple, the getaway vehicles were in place, and they all knew what to do if things went belly up.
At precisely ten p.m., Jisung watched through his scope as two black SUVs arrived at the gate and were swiftly admitted.
‘Shim’s home,’ he murmured into his comm, ‘and he’s brought plenty of muscle.’
‘Copy that,’ Jeongin’s tinny voice replied. Quiet fell for a minute, then: ‘I’ve got eyes on Shim and four, no, five guards. Three are starting a perimeter patrol.’
Five guards. They could handle that; they’d been expecting it, after all. The other members of this little quintet would no doubt be bringing a favoured bodyguard or two as well. That was also fine. What would not be fine was if Park, Kim, Jung, and Junsu brought their own private armies too. It seemed unlikely, but if they did, Jisung was really going to regret not buying that rocket launcher.
Four and a half minutes later, Felix broke the silence. ‘Silver SUV just turned onto the street. At least three people inside.’
‘I see it,’ Jisung replied, tracking the ubiquitous vehicle to the gate. ‘Jeongin, incoming.’
‘It’s Park plus two guards. They’re all going inside.’
And so it continued. By twenty five past the hour, all the targets had arrived and there were ten guards accounted for. Jisung and Felix were expecting a couple to have already been on-site before Shim’s arrival, whom they’d probably encounter on their way to the study. Neither of them moved from their positions until quarter to eleven; there was a lot to be said for lulling one’s prey into a false sense of security. Then, with Jeongin a quiet presence in their ears, they converged on the gatehouse.
Felix took care of business inside while Jisung stood watch. He was glad it was winter – meant he had an excuse to have his mask pulled high and his hat pulled low. The looped roll of footage Felix was feeding through all the cameras right now would buy them some time if shit got messy at Shim’s residence but there would be no erasing their presence from the record. Thus, the old-fashioned disguises.
Not long after he’d darted inside, Felix emerged as unruffled as ever. Only his eyes were visible between the brim of his own hat and mask, and there was a coldness to them that Jisung recognised. Not only on Felix, but also from the mirror.
‘Gate’s down,’ Jisung murmured. ‘ETA three minutes.’
‘Copy that. There’s at least one guard on door duty.’
They made their way down the wide street towards Shim’s house as unobtrusively as possible. According to the community’s specs, there was more than one family living here with spoiled, delinquent sons; if anyone happened to twitch open a curtain and catch a glimpse of Felix and Jisung, they’d likely discount them as a pair of over-moneyed, would-be hooligans.
Shim’s house reared up out of the gloom and Jisung walked close to the hedge fence of the neighbouring house, letting the shadows cling to him. He paused in a semi-crouch near the edge of the hedge, hearing Felix do the same behind him, far enough that the guards hidden on Shim’s front lawn wouldn’t be able to see them – as long as they didn’t do anything sudden, of course. Reaching back, he slipped a thermal imager out of one of his backpack’s side pockets and scanned the property. Amid the mess of yellow and orange smears, two vibrant red blobs appeared; one by the gate, one near the door.
‘Two,’ Felix whispered, no doubt having done his own scan.
Jisung’s nape prickled at Felix’s proximity and he ruthlessly clamped down on his discomfort; if they were going to pull this off, he needed to be completely focused.
‘Two,’ he agreed, just as quietly.
They quickly put away their equipment and very carefully approached the metre-long gap between this property’s hedge and Shim’s. Jisung exhaled, then took two smooth strides and froze in the shadows of the hedge, listening, waiting. A minute passed and no alarm was raised, no-one approached his hiding place or opened the gate. Turning back towards Felix, he raised a hand, beckoned, and a moment later Felix joined him. When it seemed they were still undetected, they moved forward again, taking it one slow step at a time.
Here was where things got tricky – the door guards had to be removed without alerting anyone else on the grounds. They’d have earpieces and a periodic scheduled check-in time; ideally, the assassins would subdue the guards shortly after a check-in to give them the maximum possible time before improvisation was required.
The guard nearest to them was a prime target for listening in on but that required crossing another gap in the hedge, this one made by the gate, which was no doubt being regularly glanced at. As Jisung was in front, it made sense for him to be the one to cross over, leaving Felix to cover the other side. So he tracked back a little and walked out onto the road, steering clear of the pools of streetlight and making sure he was on the far side of the centreline before crossing the gate’s line of sight.
Seungmin would probably call him paranoid (again) but Seungmin wasn’t here, so that didn’t count for much.
Jisung returned to the shadows of the hedge as soon as he was clear. Pulling out his thermal imager again, he lined himself up with the guard over the other side till all that separated them was a foot-thick wall of greenery. Then he listened and waited, keeping half an eye on his watch.
Two minutes later, at precisely ten seconds past the hour, the guard shifted in place, grass rustling underfoot, and mumbled, ‘Nothing to report, all quiet.’
Satisfaction curled in Jisung’s gut; he’d been right about the eleven o’clock check-in. It made sense, after all, for it to be at an easy time like that. The next one was unlikely to be any sooner than quarter past, which gave him and Felix a nice long window to get inside.
Reaching back into his pack’s pocket again, Jisung replaced his scanner with a tiny, low-powered, red LED torch. He aimed it in Felix’s direction and blinked it twice – go time. Pocketing the light, he unholstered his trusty Desert Eagle, suppressor screwed on and scope attached, before glancing to his right once more. Felix had a much more difficult target to hit and as the guards needed to be taken out simultaneously, he’d be calling the shots.
The double wink of a red light came – five seconds – and Jisung turned back to his own target. Seeing through leaves in the dark was never fun, but his scope’s night vision was top notch and the foliage wasn’t too dense. He squeezed the trigger with confidence as his mental countdown finished and heard the thud of two bodies hitting the ground a moment later.
Now they had to move fast. They didn’t bother trying the gate; Jisung simply stepped one foot up onto the edge of the low wall on which the hedge grew and launched himself over it. He landed in a crouch, eyes straining for any signs that anything was amiss. But no-one came running around the house and the man at his feet was very dead. Up ahead, he saw Felix check his own target before stashing the corpse behind the line of shrubs against the wall. He beckoned Jisung, who scuttled over to join him.
‘Is the door locked?’ Jisung whispered.
Holding Jisung’s gaze, Felix reached out and pushed the handle down. The door clicked and opened.
Rolling his eyes, Jisung murmured, ‘Heading inside. How’s things with you, Jeongin?’
Felix closed the door gently behind them and they ventured deeper into the house as Jeongin replied, ‘Fine. Three guards patrolling the grounds and they’re good, so stay alert.’
After that, they were silent, eyes and ears peeled for any suggestion that they had company. The headed for the stairs; the study was on the second floor, Chaerin’s room likely on the first. To avoid passing a long line of windows, Jisung and Felix had already decided to cut through the kitchen instead. They were halfway across the room when footsteps too light to be an adult’s sounded and a little girl suddenly appeared in the opposite doorway.
Chaerin’s sleepy eyes widened in shock and Jisung froze, horror turning his blood to ice, Felix a stone statue in his periphery.
Make it hurt. Those had been their instructions and Jisung was paid to follow them, not to shy away when the going got tough.
‘Who are you? Why are you in my house?’ Chaerin asked, quizzical but unafraid. Clearly, she felt safe here.
Make it hurt.
Felix was looking at him now, he could feel that heavy stare burning a hole through his temple, but Jisung didn’t dare look away from the child before him. Calmly, he holstered his gun and pulled his facemask down so it only covered his mouth.
Then he crouched and said softly, ‘We’re magic people from the Moon and we’ve come to visit your mother, Chaerin-ah.’
Chaerin gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth. ‘Really?’
Jisung nodded. ‘Really. Do you know if you mother is here?’
‘She’s not,’ Chaerin replied in a hushed tone, shaking her head. ‘She went away. But she’ll be back.’
‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ Jisung sighed. ‘We’ll have to come back when she gets home then. Now, shouldn’t you be asleep in bed? It’s very late.’
‘I got thirsty,’ she explained mournfully. ‘Daddy’s working, so I have to get water by myself.’
‘Well, I’m sure I can help you,’ Jisung said, making an effort to smile. ‘How about you show me where your cups are and I’ll get you some water?’
Chaerin smiled, delight shining sweet and innocent in her expression. ‘Okay, Moon Person-ssi.’
She pointed Jisung in the right direction and as he filled a pink, clear plastic cup in the sink, he gritted his teeth and glanced over at Felix, who had not said a word. Indeed, he had scarcely moved a muscle, his whole body rigid, eyes wide and still fixed on Jisung. Raising his brows in challenge, Jisung deliberately turned back to Chaerin, who was waiting with her hands clasped behind her back.
‘You know, Chaerin-ah, you remind me of the Moon princesses and they must always be carried everywhere. Would you like me to carry you back to your room like a Moon princess?’
She hopped up and down in place, nodding furiously. ‘Yes please, Moon Person-ssi, yes please!’
Biting back a curse at her volume, Jisung quickly scooped her up in one arm, holding her cup in his free hand. He left the kitchen, Felix hot on his heels, and whispered, ‘You must be very quiet now, alright, Chaerin-ah? Moon people a secret, so we can’t let anyone see or hear us.’
‘Okay, I’ll keep your secret,’ Chaerin promised, leaning against his shoulder and wrapping a small arm around his neck.
Fighting to breathe evenly around the crushing weight of her trust, Jisung paused at the foot of the stairs. ‘Are there any other people up there? Remember, we don’t want to be seen.’
Chaerin shook her head and yawned. ‘No, there’s only me.’
Exhaling in relief, Jisung carefully went up the stairs, wary of creaking steps. Chaerin guided him to her room and he carried her in, while Felix kept watch from the doorway. As she tucked herself into bed, Jisung swiftly retrieved a small plastic bottle from in his bag, unscrewed the cap, and tipped a tablet into his palm. He dropped it into the water, where it promptly began to dissolve, and packed away the container.
‘What’s that?’ Chaerin asked conversationally.
‘Magic,’ Jisung told her. ‘It’ll give you wonderful dreams about the Moon, dreams fit for a princess.’ The tablet finished disintegrating and he handed over the cup. ‘Drink up, Chaerin-ah.’
She did so, gulping down half the water before lying down and looking up at Jisung.
‘Good night, little Moon princess,’ he said gently, rising from the edge of the bed.
‘Wait, Moon Person-ssi, I have a question,’ she whispered before he could make for the door.
‘And what’s that?’ He forced himself to be patient; her eyelids were already drooping.
‘Why doesn’t your friend talk at all? Is he alright?’
Holding back a snort, Jisung replied, ‘Yes, he’s alright. He’s just very shy.’
‘Oh. Okay, then.’ Her words began to slur together. ‘Good night, Moon Person-ssi.’
‘Sweet dreams,’ he murmured, watching as she drifted off into a deep sleep from which she would not rise for eight hours at least. Only then did he step out into the hallway and close the door behind him.
‘Fuck,’ Jisung muttered on an exhale, letting his eyes close for a moment as the stress of the past five minutes finally drained away. When he opened them again, he saw Felix still staring at him, and his hackles rose. ‘What?’ he hissed. ‘I don’t care how much I’m paid, I won’t –’
‘You didn’t hurt her.’ Felix sounded... surprised.
Jisung reared back in affront. ‘No.’
Yeah, they had their orders, but Jisung had made the decision not become a complete fucking monster years ago after the first (and last) time he worked with Yanan. He’d thought of himself as truly heartless up until that point, and perhaps he’d been heading in the right direction – but it only took one job with the so-called Pale Man for him to realise that the abyss was a lot deeper than expected and he was, in fact, nowhere near the bottom. After that, Jisung had given Seungmin strict orders to put a bullet in his brain if ever slid down to Yanan’s level.
‘Hallelujah, Han isn’t utterly soulless,’ Jeongin’s tinny voice interrupted. ‘Now, can you two hurry the fuck up?’
‘Yes,’ Felix answered, back to his usual emotionless self.
He sidestepped Jisung and led the way to the next staircase. Jisung followed without comment.
Sure enough, they found no-one else on this floor and made their way up to the second floor, guns out, footsteps soundless. Only the corridor which led to the study had lights on and Jisung was entirely expecting there to be a guard posted outside. It wasn’t the easiest thing to check, however, as the corridor ran in a straight line, the study door at the far end; if either of them poked their head around the corner, they’d be seen immediately.
‘We’ll have to lure him away from the door,’ Jisung whispered when they’d retreated far enough away that they would not be heard.
‘How do we do that without raising the alarm?’ Felix asked.
Jisung chewed on the inside of his cheek. What would draw the guard and not make him suspicious enough to inform the others?
‘Shim has a dog,’ Jeongin offered. ‘A King Charles spaniel.’
Jisung had forgotten that and he brightened at the reminder.
Felix was more sceptical. ‘What if it’s in the study with him?’
‘It’s not. At no point since I’ve been here has a dog entered the room.’
‘Fantastic,’ Jisung whispered. He looked at the little side table a few paces back up the hall. ‘Felix, play an audio clip of a spaniel barking, I’ll knock a picture frame off, and hopefully this works.’
‘Why do I get the dog bit and you get the killing bit?’ Felix complained.
‘Because I fucking said so,’ Jisung retorted, slipping one of his short T-handled blades out of a wrist sheath. ‘Jeongin, if this goes wrong –’
‘I’ll just start shooting and leave you two to catch up.’
Astonishingly, the ploy worked and a few moments later, Jisung was lowering the guard’s rapidly exsanguinating body to the ground.
Now they really had to hurry, though – the guard may not have raised the alarm, but he had audibly alerted whoever was listening in to his earpiece that the dog was making a racket and he was going to put it away. Fortunately, only the final hallway lay between Felix and Jisung and their targets.
‘Junsu will be on your left when you enter the study,’ Jeongin quickly rattled off as they approached the door, handguns holstered, machine guns out. ‘I’ll be shooting to your right.’
‘Copy that,’ Felix replied.
‘Are any of the guards under your tree right now?’ Jisung asked, already rocking his weight onto the balls of his feet.
‘No. Three shots should take care of the glass; come in then.’
‘Ready when you are.’
A muffled crack was heard over the comms, followed immediately by a crunching sound behind the door. Voices had barely begun to rise in alarm when two more cracks rang out and the crunching became a shattering and then Felix kicked the door open and the carnage began.
It had been a while since the last shoot out Jisung had participated in and he’d forgotten how quickly everything tended to happen. He was swiftly reminded, however, when he pointed his gun at two guards and they collapsed, one silent, one shouting in pain. Then a bullet whizzed past his nose and his survival instincts kicked in.
He ducked and skittered around the room, killing Park Yoochun in a quick burst of machine gun fire and diving behind the heavy wooden desk as a nozzle swung in his direction. His mask slid down partly as he crashed into the carpet but there was no time to think about that, footsteps already thundering towards him.
The guards were doing a great job, Jisung decided, as he darted out of the way of a hefty potted plant hurled at him and the bullets that followed; it wasn’t their fault they had so many people to protect and Jisung, Felix, and Jeongin had so many targets.
Kim Jaejoong went down with a fatal case of exploding skull (Jeongin’s armour piercing rounds were ferocious) and Shim Changmin screamed only briefly as Felix used him as a meat shield. Jisung gunned down the stocky man shooting at Felix, then swore and collapsed onto all fours as the back of his Kevlar vest caught a bullet, leaving him breathless. He rolled over immediately, raising his gun again without shooting (can’t kill Kim Junsu can’t kill Kim Junsu), only to see a vaguely familiar face that was definitely not Korean.
The Colombian seemed to recognise him too, eyes going wide and gun... lowering? Before Jisung could capitalise on the moment, the man whipped his other hand forward, hurling a distinctly grenade-shaped object at Jisung. Then he turned and ran.
Chanting an endless string of curses in his head, Jisung scrambled behind an overturned chair, half expecting the roof to cave in with an explosion. Instead, smoke poured into the air; perfect cover for escape – or a surprise attack. Lips drawn back in a snarl, Jisung shouted a warning to Felix, rolling to his feet –
Only for Felix to burst out of the blossoming smoke clouds, dragging a semi-conscious Kim Junsu by the throat after him.
‘They’re all down,’ Felix panted, fringe showing under his askew beanie. ‘Time to go.’
And just like that, barely two minutes after Jeongin had fired the first shot, they were done. The missing Colombian was a niggling thorn in Jisung’s gut but Felix was correct – the most important thing for them right now was to get the hell out of here.
‘Jeongin, we’ve got the cargo, targets are down; your status?’
No reply. Not even any ambient sounds, no scratchy sounds of a fight.
Jisung swallowed, rushing after Felix and Junsu back through the house to the back door. ‘Jeongin,’ he tried again, gun still held ready in his hands as he kept an eye on their six. ‘Jeongin, can you hear me? We’re leaving.’
Shouldering open the door and hurrying out into the back garden, Felix growled, ‘I know.’
There were only two bodies near the tree Jeongin had been holed up in – which put the missing people count up to three. Jeongin and two Colombians. Jisung’s blood ran cold when he spotted a Dragunov sniper rifle lying in some rather flattened bushes not far away.
‘Keep it together, Han,’ Felix ordered, voice hard as stone. ‘If we’re not gone in three minutes, we’re going to be trapped here and we’ll be useless to Yang.’
With lights already on in neighbouring houses and faces starting to appear at windows, there was no denying this. Jisung did so hate it when Felix was right.
Jeongin wasn’t at the primary get-away car and he didn’t get in touch as Felix hit the accelerator, eschewing the backstreets for the camouflage of late-night traffic out on the main roads. Jisung sat in the back with a now-unconscious, bound and gagged Junsu in the footwell and stared at his phone, an awful theory forming in his mind.
For once, Jisung didn’t actually want to be correct but –
His head jerked up and he met Felix’s steely gaze in the rear-view mirror.
‘Get out of your head. Yang isn’t new to this; we can think about him later. Right now, you need to call Taemin so he’s ready.’
Breathing wasn’t working out too well for Jisung presently, his lungs crushed under the weight of his dread, so he simply nodded. He knew he was reacting badly, he knew Jeongin was perfectly capable of looking after himself but goddammit all, he could no more stop worrying than he could stop hating his brother and that man had been dead for years.
‘Don’t make me pull over,’ Felix threatened.
Jisung blinked rapidly, snapping out of his reverie and making the call.
Taemin answered on the third ring. ‘Good evening.’
‘The birds have gone south and the egg is safe. ETA thirty minutes.’
A brief pause.
‘Excellent. I’ll have the nest prepared. Now, what’s the catch?’
Jisung’s grip on the phone tightened. ‘There isn’t one.’
‘That is patently false, Han, and you are much too intelligent to try and lie to me about it. Tell me.’
He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing his voice to remain steady. ‘Jeongin was taken.’
Another pause, slightly longer.
‘I see. By whom?’
‘Colombians, two of them.’
‘Hmm. We’ll continue this chat when you arrive.’
The line disconnected.
‘Wait, you know who took him?’
Jisung lowered the phone at Felix’s abrupt question. ‘Well, yeah. Didn’t you notice there were two guards missing?’
‘Sure, but I couldn’t have said off the top of my head that they were from South America, let alone Colombia.’
‘Look, I told you both that I’d run into them before when we were doing the background checks,’ Jisung snapped defensively.
Felix’s eyes flicked up to meet his in the mirror again, borderline accusatory. ‘And this “run-in” of yours wouldn’t happen to have any bearing on why they’d go to all the trouble of kidnapping an enemy? Do you know how hard it is to catch a sniper?’
That look of recognition on the Colombian’s face flashed through Jisung’s mind. Yeah, he was pretty fucking sure he knew why they’d gone to all that trouble. And no, he didn’t want to tell Felix but it was a bit late to avoid it now.
He exhaled sharply through his nose. ‘I may have killed some of the members of their cartel and sent half a shipment of cocaine up in smoke. Guess they really know how to hold a grudge.’
‘You what? You didn’t think this was important to mention before we went into a hostile situation against them?’ Felix bit out.
‘It wasn’t relevant!’ Jisung protested. ‘I figured I’d just shoot them before they shot me.’
‘And how’s that strategy working out for you?’
Jisung scowled at the acidic sarcasm. ‘Fuck off. I know I made a mistake, alright? If anything happens to Jeongin, I will kill every one of them.’
And then possibly himself, if anything really happened to Jeongin. His so-called protégé made up approximately sixty per cent of the remaining shreds of Jisung’s conscience and he’d never, ever forgive himself if Jeongin was hurt because of him.
‘Half of them.’
He blinked. ‘What?’
‘You can kill half of them,’ Felix growled. ‘I get the rest.’
Jisung was so surprised at the declaration that he could only stare at the back of Felix’s head, wordless.
The rest of the trip passed in tense silence.
Half an hour later, Felix pulled off the main road onto a long, winding driveway that culminated in a lavish estate. Jisung thought his mother would have called it tastefully modern; maybe that was why he instantly loathed it. The car was parked right outside the steps leading to the front door, all of it illuminated by bright lamps protruding from the house’s façade.
No sooner had Felix turned off the engine when the door opened and out stepped Taemin, dressed in a white silk suit that appeared far too thin for the bitter cold. He was followed by three more appropriately dressed men who looked a lot less like hired muscle and a lot more like the kind of people Jisung was used to working with (even if one of them did have more colours in his hair than the average rainbow).
‘Felix, Han, so good to see you.’ Taemin opened his arms in welcome, his smile hungry as he languidly descended the stairs.
Felix leaned against the side of the car, hands in his pockets, and simply nodded in greeting. Taemin then turned to Jisung, who stood by the open back door, Junsu still in the footwell.
‘Bring him out, won’t you?’ Taemin asked lightly.
Jisung was none too gentle as he reached down and hauled the stirring man out of the car by the scruff of his neck, letting him fall to his knees. Seizing a handful of his hair, Jisung tipped Junsu’s head back. Junsu groaned, struggling to open his eyes, flexing his zip tie-bound hands behind his back.
Taemin’s smile widened and he approached, the rainbow-haired bodyguard shadowing him. He crouched in front of Junsu and ghosted his fingertips over one of the injured man’s cheekbones.
‘Hello, Junsu,’ Taemin purred.
Junsu jolted in Jisung’s hold, coughing violently when he tried to speak.
‘Yes, it’s me, I’m afraid,’ Taemin agreed. His tone was so soft, so gentle, one almost missed the ice under the surface. ‘You lot should have stuck to trying to sabotage my company. That I can forgive; you’re business men, after all. But then you had to hurt a person I hold very dear and, well, what did you think would happen?’
He sighed theatrically and it dawned on Jisung that the other two bodyguards were standing as though they expected someone to fill the space between them. Someone other than the rainbow-haired man, other than Taemin.
Make it hurt.
Suddenly the instruction made more sense.
Taemin straightened up. ‘Jinki, take our guest to his room.’
The red-haired bodyguard strode over, stopping in front of Jisung and meeting his gaze in silent expectation. The look in Jinki’s eyes was very flat, Jisung thought as he released his grip on Junsu, to the point that it was almost reminiscent of Yanan. Not quite, though – Yanan’s stare was dead, but Jinki’s brimmed with repressed rage.
Jinki disappeared back inside, all but dragging Junsu behind him, and Taemin turned his pristine smile on Jisung.
‘Ordinarily, now is when I would pay you,’ Taemin said conversationally, his third bodyguard joining the rainbow one, ‘but we aren’t quite finished, are we?’
Felix came over to flank Jisung, just as the latter folded his arms and stated, ‘You have information on Jeongin.’
Taemin tipped his head to the side, shadows falling long across his face. ‘Not him, but a pair of Colombian mercenaries looking to get out of the country quickly with unusual cargo.’
Every muscle in Jisung’s body locked, the taste of ash filling his mouth, and he was more grateful than he cared to mention when Felix smoothly interjected, ‘How good is your intel?’
‘Very. I have no reason to lie to you, especially not after what you’ve done for me.’
‘And how much do you want for it?’ Jisung asked, voice a little raw. At least it held steady.
‘Well, it was rather expensive to acquire so fast but I’m feeling generous. Half of your cut for tonight will do, Han.’
‘Done.’ There was no other acceptable answer. ‘What do you have?’
‘They’re going to Gimhae Airport and from there to Jakarta,’ Taemin replied. ‘Private charter waiting for them, I gather.’
Which meant they had serious money backing them, maybe even the purse of the drug cartel.
‘And they have a big head start on us, so we won’t catch them here,’ Jisung concluded.
Taemin glanced between the assassins. ‘You are both determined to follow the Colombians, then?’
Felix straightened, hands falling to his sides. ‘Yes.’
Glancing towards the gap between Taemin’s bodyguards, Jisung said softly, ‘Surely you, of all people, Taemin-ssi, understand that we will move mountains to see Jeongin returned.’
‘It is common knowledge that there are ties of history between you and Yang, Han, but Felix too? Here I thought you were just a sharp-shooting bruiser.’ He sounded delighted at having been so wrong.
Felix ignored Taemin’s words and asked, ‘Do you have anything more for us? Otherwise, we have a plane to catch.’
Taemin huffed a laugh, rocking back on his heels. ‘It’s not every day I find hitmen with a mind so similar to my own. The next flight to Jakarta is in six hours; you’ll have to leave the guns behind, but there will be tickets waiting for you both.’ He looked back over his shoulder at the dark-haired bodyguard. ‘Minho, pay them.’
Jisung was very out of practise with expressing gratitude, so the words got stuck on his tongue, but Felix saved the day again by thanking Taemin.
Adjusting the collar of his silk suit, Taemin bid them happy hunting before turning on his heel and striding back indoors. Minho only stayed outside long enough to show Jisung and Felix evidence of their having been paid on his phone screen. They nodded in acceptance and then he followed the others inside.
‘Oh my god, it’s so cold,’ were the first words out of Jisung’s mouth as soon as they were alone.
Felix shot him a withering look, already pulling his door open. ‘Get in.’
By the time they were back on the road, apparently every unit in the Busan’s branch of the KNPA had been called to Haeundae-gu.
Jisung whistled as the fifth police vehicle in three minutes barrelled past, lights flashing, sirens blaring. ‘We should probably change cars.’
Felix didn’t reply, but they were soon pulling into the driveway of a garage. It was shut, of course, but the gate opened after he reached out the window and tapped a code into the little display screen. He’d flicked the headlights off already, letting the street lamps guide them, and he drove slowly around to the back, where several unassuming cars sat. Felix parked and they both scrambled out, leaving the keys in the side of the door. They left their black jackets behind, swapping them out for long grey felt coat for Felix and a hip-length green one for Jisung.
‘What about these?’ Jisung asked, gesturing to their backpacks, full of assorted weaponry that he didn’t particularly fancy giving up.
‘Leave them,’ Felix murmured. ‘It’ll all be taken care of.’
Jisung pouted. ‘I’m not abandoning my Eagle with strangers.’
‘You are if you want to clear airport security.’ When Jisung continued to whine, Felix arched an unimpressed brow. ‘Look, you can come back for that, okay? These guys don’t trade out personalised shit.’
Somewhat mollified, Jisung zipped his favourite handgun up in the bag and quickly started shedding his extensive set of knives. By the time he was done, Felix’s second brow had risen to join the first.
Jisung scowled. ‘Which car are we taking?’
Felix passed over the first car in line but paused at the second, pointing out the red sticker stuck to one corner of the windshield. He peeled it off and Jisung climbed into the passenger seat (the first time Felix had let Jisung behind the wheel was also the last time Felix had let Jisung behind the wheel).
Then they were back on the road and settling in for the hour-long trip from Geumjeong-gu to the airport. It wasn’t the most comfortable of rides – neither of them were interested in talking and the radio held little appeal, so they drove in heavy silence.
But amid his turbulent emotions, there was a question rattling around in Jisung’s head, to do with something Taemin had said.
‘It is common knowledge that there are ties of history between you and Yang, Han...’ Apparently the knowledge really was common if the bloody Colombians knew about it; Jisung could safely say that he, a, hated that and, b, was going to have a fucking word with someone about it after this. Everyone in this feral extended community of murderers had history with someone else which meant somebody had been telling tales about him behind his back.
‘...but Felix too? Here I thought you were just a sharp-shooting bruiser.’ Yeah. Well. For all his interest in Mr Snowflake (purely scientific, for the record), Jisung had to admit he’d thought something similar to Taemin. Felix was the quintessential hitman – closed off, all business and no play, childhood trauma up to the eyeballs. But it would seem that this bruiser had more layers than realised. And just which of those layers concerned Jeongin and a hare-brained scheme to chase him to South East Asia at the drop of a hat?
This job for Taemin was the fourth Jisung and Felix had worked together on in a year and for none of the past ones had Felix stuck around longer than two seconds after they’d been paid. So far as Jisung could make out, Felix was even less sociable than him – but a month-odd of enforced proximity with Jeongin was enough to crack the ice?
It didn’t really add up and, right now, Jisung was open to any distraction from his haemorrhaging emotions.
‘So, why are you coming along?’
The atmosphere in the car, already tense, suddenly became charged as though struck by lightning. Jisung forced himself to stay relaxed, not turning to measure Felix’s response.
After a solid half minute, Felix replied, ‘You heard my answer when Taemin asked that.’
‘You didn’t say anything when he asked.’
‘Exactly,’ Felix countered coolly.
Silence lapsed once more as Jisung tried to think of the fastest way to extract an actual answer from him.
‘To quote you, less than an hour ago – “Yang isn’t new to this.” You hardly even know him, anyway, so why go through all the trouble?’
The steering wheel squeaked under Felix’s grip. ‘I also said that we can think about him later. Now is later.’
Making a sharp noise of irritation, Jisung turned in his seat and glared. ‘But why? Apparently the whole world and their mother know Jeongin occupies a unique spot in my life but when the hell did that become true for you?’
‘What does it matter?’ Felix snapped, scowling fiercely at the road ahead. ‘Unlike most people in this business, he’s not a raging psychopath. It’s a pleasant change of fucking scenery and I don’t especially want to see him hurt. Now, thanks to you, he’s going to be. So yeah, I’m coming with you.’
‘Hey, I’m not the one who kidnapped him,’ Jisung protested, a little weakly.
‘Maybe not, but you’re definitely the one who didn’t give him the information he needed to protect himself.’
Felix’s tone said that he was done with this conversation and Jisung couldn’t bring himself to keep arguing, not when he’d just been sucker punched in the gut with guilt. The absolute worst bit was that part of him whole-heartedly agreed with every word coming out of Felix’s mouth.
Jisung settled into a brooding silence again, miserably contemplating all the hours he was going to have to suffer with only his thoughts for company – five before their flight took off plus a further nine in the sky, where he couldn’t punch anything or anyone. Gods above, he was going to be in such a bad mood by the time they reached Jakarta.
They boarded the plane at six a.m. along with a slew of half-asleep passengers. The good thing about that was that a fair portion of them, including all the children, drifted off within the first thirty minutes. Thus, Jisung’s homicidal urges lay quiescent for about two hours. Then they all started waking up again and he had to exercise serious control not to start snarling like a rabid raccoon.
He was also neck-deep in his post-mission adrenaline crash but he could hardly sleep while stuck in a tightly packed tin can thirty six thousand feet up in the air, could he? Jisung would sooner die of sleep deprivation. Fortunately, he’d had plenty of practise staying awake for forty eight hours plus at a time. At least his hands had stopped shaking before boarding.
None of this meant he was feeling anything less than utterly awful.
Jisung was meant to be one of the best hitmen in all of Korea and yet he’d let one of his partners get kidnapped. He’d let Jeongin get kidnapped. And of all the people who could’ve taken him, it just had to be drug dealers. Jisung might be deathly allergic to trusting people, but Jeongin’s biggest nightmare was drugs. Considering his childhood, that was hardly a surprise.
Jisung’s lip curled at the reminder of Jeongin’s so-called family and he glared at the ceiling, hard enough that if there was any justice in this universe, it would have burst into flames.
‘Stop that,’ Felix ordered from across the narrow aisle, speaking in bastardised Cantonese. ‘You’re scaring the passenger next to you.’
‘Good,’ Jisung grumbled in slightly more civilised Cantonese, his stare unwavering.
A bitten off sound of irritation came from his left, before Felix tried again. ‘There’s WiFi up here, you know. Entertain yourself with that.’
Jisung scoffed. ‘Do you know how shitty the connection is? See if you can get it to work for more than a minute without crashing, I dare you.’
‘I’m just trying to help,’ Felix retorted. ‘You’re like a live wire right now and everyone around you knows it.’
Whipping his head to the side, Jisung opened his mouth to snap a reply when a flight attendant walked past and he almost got a mouthful of immaculately pressed skirt. When she had moved on, he met Felix’s heavy stare and hissed, ‘I don’t give a single shit. The only thing that will help is getting Jeongin back in one piece. Until then, I reserve the right to be as scary as I like.’
Turning away from Felix with a huff, Jisung decided that the only way he was going to get through this ordeal of a flight was with the power of sappy dramas. So he flicked on his TV screen, plugged in the provided headphones, and did his level best to tune out the rest of the world for a few hours.
By the clocks, it was early afternoon when they landed at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and Jakarta was the same hectic frenzy Jisung remembered it to be. He and Felix had agreed to meet up in eighteen hours at a certain hotel they both knew. Neither of them could tolerate much more of the other’s presence right now; Jisung’s fingers were positively itching for his knives.
Having none on him left him feeling naked, so that was the very first thing on his to-do list, even before finding somewhere to sleep. He hailed a taxi and made his way to a little library quite some distance from the airport, opting to walk the last stretch. That was partly because the traffic was just ridiculous but also partly because, well, he was a bit paranoid.
Trotting up the stairs and inside, Jisung went up to the front desk and said, ‘I need a basement key.’
The aged librarian looked disapprovingly at him over the top of their wire-rimmed glasses. ‘And what could you possibly need that for, young man?’
Jisung glared. ‘Mangoes. One hundred and twelve mangoes.’
‘Well, why didn’t you say so?’ they sniffed, rummaging through a drawer and producing a little silver key.
They handed it over and Jisung accepted it, striding away through the stacks without a word. He found the staircase down to the basement and followed it, inputting the simple four-digit code into the lock. There were a couple of other librarians down here but they paid him no mind as he strode past to the back of the room. There was another door, this one fitted with an unobtrusive retinal scanner. The room behind that was a long and dimly lit one with shelves upon shelves of safety deposit boxes.
The sequencing system for the boxes was as shitty as ever so it took Jisung a few minutes to find the one stamped with 112 and the detailed outline of a mango flower. He unlocked it and pulled out the drawer. This was one of Jisung’s more well-stocked caches and, accordingly, it had several rolls of rupiah notes stacked on top of a brown wallet, a Mark VII Desert Eagle plus additional ammo, two dozen knives of assorted lengths, and a fat, unassuming folder.
Jisung slipped off the backpack he’d brought into the country with him and transferred the wallet and half the money into it, as well as the gun. He then strapped no less than ten knives to himself, humming in satisfaction all the while.
After returning the box to its slot, Jisung reached into the bag to pull out a beanie and facemask but was forestalled by the sight of his phone. The knot in his gut tightened – there was a call he needed to make and he couldn’t put it off much longer. Lips pursed, he pulled the beanie on and hooked the mask over his ears before making his way back out of the basement, dropping the key off with the old librarian.
He didn’t take out the phone when he left the library, instead waiting until he’d reached a quiet alley that ran along the back of a couple of fast food restaurants. There, he sank into a crouch by the wall, a dumpster between him and the open end of the alleyway.
Don’t be a bitch. Call him.
So Jisung brought out the cell and tapped in the stupidly long passcode that didn’t matter because Jeongin could get in anyway. Fatigue dragged at his eyelids and he nearly mistyped the number. Finding somewhere to sleep would be his top priority – just as soon as he’d done what he needed to.
He hit the call button and heard it ring four times before someone answered.
Jisung swallowed and let his eyes close for a moment. ‘Minnie.’
‘...Han. What do you want?’
‘Jeongin’s been taken. By a drug cartel.’
There were several beats of silence before Seungmin spoke again and when he did, his voice was hard and cold.
‘Where are you?’
‘Jakarta. We just landed –’
‘Felix was on the job with us.’
‘Right. Do you have a timeframe or a location?’
‘No. I – I don’t know where he is or what they’re doing with him – they had a charter flight bring them here six hours before we left.’
‘What aren’t you telling me, Han?’
Jisung exhaled. ‘I know it’s about revenge. Something like that. I have – history with the cartel and this is a play to get to me.’
‘So they probably haven’t skipped country again yet. They’ll be waiting for you.’
‘...Yeah.’ Jisung’s critical thinking capabilities weren’t really firing on all cylinders right now.
‘Okay. Find what you can and lay low until I get there. I mean it, Han. If you do anything reckless, Jeongin could be the one to pay for it.’
‘You’re coming, then?’ He’d hoped but really, really hadn’t wanted to ask –
‘Absolutely. I’ll leave within the next twenty four hours.’
Thank you, Jisung didn’t say and then Seungmin hung up.
By the time Seungmin arrived, two days later, Jisung and Felix had managed to dig up some intel and none of it was good.
It turned out that the Colombians had branched out to Indonesia in the past few years and had at least eleven bases across Sumatra, Kalimantan, Java, Sulawesi, West Papua, and Seram, one of the Maluku Islands. That was six islands to be searched and didn’t include all the other hideouts and shipping ports they didn’t know about yet.
‘He’s likely being held at one of these sites,’ Felix told Seungmin, ‘and I’d bet it’s one of the seaside ones so they can get him out of reach quickly.’
‘If they catch wind of us looking for him anywhere near the right location, they’ll spirit him away,’ Jisung continued, glaring at the detailed map of Indonesia on the low table between them. ‘That could be to another base or offshore.’
‘So this needs to be a ghost operation,’ Seungmin concluded, leaning back against the threadbare couch and crossing his legs. ‘We don’t go in on anything unless we’re sure we’ve found Jeongin or it becomes that much harder to find him. Sound about right?’
The others nodded wordlessly.
‘Excellent.’ Seungmin uncrossed his legs and stood. ‘I need to call Hyunjin.’ With that, he went out onto the hotel room’s small balcony, cell already in hand.
This left Jisung and Felix alone, sitting at either ends of the couch, and the silence thickened quickly. For the day or so that they’d been here together, there’d been an underlying current of tension between them. Neither of them had mentioned it, of course, both pretending not to notice it but it remained a thorn between them, always niggling.
‘We need to find somewhere else to stay,’ Felix said abruptly.
‘Why?’ Jisung found himself asking, not looking away from Seungmin’s backlit silhouette. ‘We’ll be splitting up to go all over the country soon enough.’
He saw Felix’s mop of ice cream hair turn in his direction in his periphery.
‘This place is unsecured and we have to track down any other drug nests first. That could take weeks.’
Jisung forced his jaw to loosen enough that he could speak. ‘We don’t have that kind of time. They’ll lie low for a month at most and if we aren’t knocking on their door by then, they’ll feel confident enough to make their next move.’
‘Which means long days,’ Felix countered, still watching him, ‘and we’ll all need to sleep well.’
Jisung’s shoulders stiffened. ‘What’s your point?’ Like he didn’t already know.
‘You haven’t slept since we checked in,’ Felix answered succinctly.
Well, that was true but honestly Jisung thought he’d managed to keep that a secret and he was pissed off by Felix’s keen observation. Obviously, he had to step up his level of discretion.
The veranda door opened then, letting in a gust of insufferably muggy night air and Seungmin, and saving Jisung from having to answer.
‘How is dancer boy doing?’ he asked brightly. ‘Does he miss me?’
Seungmin shot him a withering look. ‘Worried, but otherwise fine. And no, he doesn’t.’
Jisung pouted and then Felix, unexpectedly, asked, ‘Does he know why you’re here?’
Seungmin cocked his head, his expression calm and the lines of his face relaxed in an impenetrable mask that worked so well because it didn’t look like a mask. ‘Yes. I don’t keep secrets from him.’
Raising a sceptical brow, Jisung said, ‘Didn’t think he had the stomach for your kinda stories, Minnie.’
‘I tell him what he wants to know,’ Seungmin said, effectively confirming Jisung’s supposition, ‘which isn’t a whole lot. But this...’ He nodded. ‘Hyunjin likes Jeongin.’
Jisung’s stomach churned and he tried not to fidget in discomfort. He hated thinking about Jeongin’s current circumstances. He had too, though. After all, it was Jisung’s fault.
And for Jeongin’s sake, Jisung really had to stop being a petty asshole.
He straightened in his seat, exhaled sharply, and said, ‘Right. We need more secure lodgings to base this op. Who’s got a suitable safe house, then? And Min, if you suggest that goddamn shoebox of a place we used last time, I’m throwing you off the balcony.’
The following day, the three hitmen made their way to an apartment of Felix’s, the squat complex in the middle of a dense maze of tiny streets. Jisung couldn’t say he was thrilled at the idea but he didn’t complain (much). There was central heating, bolts on the doors, and not too many entry points, which was all he could really ask for.
Still, they weren’t there all that much.
Over the next few days, the trio worked busily to discover what they could about the cartel’s presence in Indonesia. It wasn’t hard to find out how the Colombians had managed to spread so quickly across the islands; apparently, deals had been struck several years ago between them and a couple of Indonesia’s largest gangs. With the effects of those deals still being sharply felt, Jisung, Felix, and Seungmin really couldn’t have picked a better time to be asking around – those who were profiting from the new presence in the underworld here made no effort to hide it, just as those who were dissatisfied because their own business was suffering were not shy with their anger. In turn, this meant that those who were keeping quiet or staying neutral stood out and could likewise be handled as necessary.
Of course, they still had to be careful, Jisung in particular. None of them wanted word of him getting back to the Colombians, so he could only approach the true malcontents who’d be more likely to help him when they realised he had a bone to pick with the newcomers too, or informants he trusted to keep their mouths shut.
By the end of the week, the trio had details on five more of the cartel’s bases. These ones were smaller and more well-hidden but also newer and less established; probably reserve caches as a security measure. It was much less likely that Jeongin was being held in any of those locations, so it was decided that the other eleven sites would be checked first. Eight of those were less than fifteen kilometres from the sea and those were the priority.
With time very much against them, the decision was made to split up to cover more ground faster. Jisung was to stay put and track down the three on Java, then check the one on Bali. Felix would cover Sumatra and Kalimantan up north, while Seungmin went east to Sulawesi, Seram, and West Papua.
Obviously, if anyone got a lead on Jeongin’s location, the others would drop everything and run.
They all dispersed from the apartment in the small hours of the morning, Seungmin and Felix to their transport off Java and Jisung to meet a contact who was even more paranoid than him.
‘Hey Jinho,’ Jisung greeted quietly, sliding into the rickety chair opposite his informant.
The pair were in a backstreet coffee shop that opened ridiculously early for those who were up with the dawn or had to travel for work. No-one in here was more than half-awake, making it as good a place as any to meet.
Jinho’s bright round eyes peeked up from under the brim of his ragged grey beanie, enormous winter coat rustling as he sat up a bit. ‘That’s hyung to you,’ he said reproachfully.
‘Sure, Jinho,’ Jisung replied placatingly. ‘Have you had coffee yet?’
Jinho shook his head, fingers fidgeting with the ends of his too-long sleeves.
‘Right, just a sec.’
All informants needed to be paid, but not all of them were interested in money. Jinho’s price just so happened to be coffee.
When Jisung returned to the table, he had two steaming mugs of rich black coffee and he set one in front of Jinho before retaking his seat. There was quiet for a short while as they sipped their drinks carefully, Jisung doing his level best to pretend he wasn’t about to crawl out of his skin with impatience.
At last, Jinho mumbled, ‘So, you want to know about the Colombians in town, huh?’
Yeah, Jisung paid his contact in coffee but he’d also once rescued the man’s little daughter from the sights of a sniper; it’d take a lot for Jo Jinho to sell him out and this was why he answered honestly.
‘Yep. Give me all the gory details.’
Jinho nodded slowly. ‘Jakarta’s definitely one of their larger ports. They market their wares through a couple of districts down by the sea. Semarang is their biggest base on Java, though.’
‘And Surabaya?’ Jisung prodded, naming the city east of both Jakarta and Semarang.
‘They’re newer there, still pretty small.’ Jinho’s big eyes flicked up to meet Jisung’s and back down to his hands, curled around the coffee cup’s warmth. ‘Not much spare room, you know.’
Unlikely Jeongin was being held there, then.
‘What kind of numbers are we talking? For Jakarta,’ Jisung asked, maintaining an impassive expression. He might not be as good as Seungmin or even Felix at being stone-faced but he wasn’t bad.
Jinho swallowed a mouthful of coffee and sighed. ‘Hard to say; they come and go quite a bit. And their guards mean business, what with their big guns and the way they walk.’ He hummed contemplatively. ‘Like you, Han, they walk like you. Proper mercenaries.’
Jisung repeated his question.
‘Well, maybe fifteen to twenty people onsite at any one time. They’re always busy.’
‘Does that include the guards?’
‘Oh, no, no. They’re at least another five, probably more. These Colombians remind me of the Chinese – straight to business, no messing around.’
‘And what about Semarang?’
Jinho blinked. ‘No less than twenty people there at all times. Closer to thirty, usually, not including the guards.’
Jisung asked several more questions pertaining to the layout. Jinho’s mug was empty after that, so Jisung reached into his inside jacket pocket, careful to avoid the sheathed knife there, and pulled out a package of high quality coffee.
He slid it across the table. ‘Enjoy.’
‘Is that all? We only had one cup.’
Jisung stood. ‘You’ve told me all I need to know, Jinho. Say hi to the kid for me.’
And with that, he was out the door.
Jisung spent the next three days infiltrating and exploring the Colombian base down at the city docks. They were nestled in the midst of a dozen other shipping sites for various companies and their cover was a South American company that produced automobile parts. That, at least, gave them an excuse for plenty of huge containers and lots of noise.
Once one got past that, though, the armed guards weren’t hard to spot. There were more than Jisung expected – at least half a dozen – but he supposed that was to be expected. The cartel was still fairly new to these islands, after all, and knew that not everyone wanted them here.
The strict requirements for stealth were a right pain in the ass and Jisung spent more time than he cared to mention squashed in tiny corners, behind doors, and under everything from vehicles to rubbish piles to broken wooden pallets to avoid detection. For one particularly exciting handful of seconds, he had to pretend to be one of the onsite workers and mutter a response in Indonesian to one of the Colombians. The face was not one he recognised and they paid him little attention, so hopefully they wouldn’t think about him again. Plus, their Indonesian was complete shit so there was no way they’d pick up on his iffy accent.
But in the end, he found no evidence of Jeongin being held here. The space here was by no means small, but it was full and busy. They didn’t have the room for a prisoner, certainly not a long term one. Jisung stayed as long as he dared to be absolutely sure of this and then he left, heading for a train station.
Jisung caught the last train to Semarang, which would get him there at about five in the morning. With six and a half hours of only himself and the mostly empty train for company, he had plenty of time to consider his next steps. Too much time, in fact. He’d already messaged Felix and Seungmin that Jakarta was a bust, so there was nothing to occupy him on that front either.
What this really meant was that there was nothing to distract him from his worries about Jeongin.
...but you’re definitely the one who didn’t give him the information he needed to protect himself.
Sliding down further in his seat, Jisung scowled at his reflection in the dark window, broken only by the flash of passing city lights. Felix’s words still stung like salted lemon juice on an open wound and he hated that he’d let them affect him so much. Honestly, fuck Felix. Who the hell was Mr Snowflake to come in and tell Jisung what he had and hadn’t done? Jisung did what he could and yeah, sometimes he messed up, but it wasn’t Felix’s place to pile on the guilt! He was handling that just fine by himself.
Gods above, there were some moments where Jisung kind of maybe really wished he was as dead inside as Yanan and this was one of them. If they didn’t get Jeongin back in one piece... well, let’s just say Seungmin was going to have a hard time stopping Jisung walking into open traffic.
After he’d murdered every single person who’d helped kidnap his protégé in the first place.
Heaving a sigh, Jisung scrubbed his face with his hands and tried to shove such thoughts from his mind. They’d find Jeongin and Jeongin would be alright. That was the only acceptable option.
The cartel’s Semarang port was quite a lot larger than the first one and Jisung spent half the day catching some much needed shut-eye. Then it was the better part of three days scouting before he slipped onto the premises under cover of nightfall.
There were still plenty of people about – at least thirty, and that didn’t include the security detail. To be fair, this might not be a usual occurrence – as far as he could make out, a ship had docked only a few hours ago and the goods were being unloaded and dealt to. As such, it took Jisung an entire night’s running around and even more hiding in dark corners to get around the whole complex. He was immensely thankful to all and any Indonesian gods that the humidity wasn’t too bad.
By early morning, he’d determined that Jeongin was not being held here either and he was consequently in a bad mood. Upon updating Seungmin and Felix, he learned that they too had had no luck yet and said bad mood soured further still.
Surabaya was Jisung’s next stop, but a contact had gotten back to him and was willing to meet up. She lived some ways south in Magelang, a couple of hours by bus, and Jisung caught the first one he could find, which didn’t even leave until mid-morning. He was surprised at how full the bus was and within the first quarter of an hour, was ready to shoot everyone on board or leap out a window – possibly both.
This had to be Felix’s fault. Somehow. It had to be. Maybe Jisung was deprived of both food and sleep right now (he’d completely forgotten to grab something to eat before leaving the city) and therefore slightly more unreliable than usual, but he was also full of rage and couldn’t get that goddamn mop of goddamn ice cream hair out of his mind’s eye. Ergo, the fact that he was stuck on a rickety bus with two dozen squawking children and their families was Felix’s fault.
The bus arrived in Magelang at about midday and Jisung fled its confines like a bat out of hell, before heading further into town to meet his contact at a warung Tegal, the little family-run eatery one they’d both been to before. He spotted her sitting at one of the picnic tables set up outside, with two plates of ayam goreng in front of her, one of which was untouched. Jisung made a beeline for the table and sat opposite the small woman, grateful for the shade cloth overhead which provided at least slight protection from the lazy heat of the day.
Hyuna’s attention remained on her food and Jisung, who hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon sometime, was famished so he made no effort to talk, instead falling on his food with gusto. The deep-fried chicken was accompanied by liberal helpings extra-spicy sambal paste, all of which was bliss to Jisung’s empty stomach. He finished the entire plate in under ten minutes, heaving a deeply satisfied sigh when he finally came up for air.
Hyuna was already done, of course, resting her folded arms on the table and watching him with a faintly amused smile. She doesn’t look intimidating or threatening in the slightest right now. If he hadn’t seen it for himself, Jisung would never know from a glance that she was capable of snapping the neck of a man two feet taller than her using just her thighs. She hadn’t even broken a sweat.
‘Do you eat at all between our catch-ups?’ Hyuna asked in Indonesian.
He puffed out his cheeks. ‘It’s been a long couple of days, noona.’
‘When hasn’t it been?’ she countered, raising a thin brow at him, but she was already slipping into business mode, her expression turning serious though her pose remained relaxed.
Jisung waited for her to speak again, content to let her start where she chose.
She sighed, running a hand through her ponytail, eyes roving the street with practised skill before returning to him. ‘You want to know about any unusual cargo the South Americans have brought in recently, right?’
‘Yep,’ Jisung replied, likewise shifting to Korean.
‘Mmm, they’ve been sticking just to drugs pretty firmly so far. They haven’t been here long enough to include anything else yet, not without stepping on way too many toes. That’s why this stood out.’ She glanced around again. ‘A charter plane brought in a team of theirs to Java just a few hours before you got here – presumably they’re the ones you’re chasing – and they had someone with them.’
A muscle ticked in Jisung’s jaw.
Watching him closely, Hyuna continued, ‘Their plus one definitely wasn’t a friend. Way I heard it, the guest came in with a hood.’
‘Any idea where they went?’ Jisung asked as calmly as he could, while his nails cut into his palm under the table.
‘Off this island. Beyond that, I don’t know, except that they took a plane again, so not Bali.’
‘What about the flight records? Or how much fuel they took?’ he pressed.
‘The fuel is standard for domestic flights; that doesn’t vary depending on which island you’re going to. And you know that wherever they went won’t have publicly filed the landing, or it’ll be under something else.’ She leaned back and shook her head. ‘It’d be easier to do some island-hopping yourself than find that needle in a haystack.’
Jisung chewed the inside of his cheek, trying to look inscrutable as he processed the unexpected information, but a sharp inhale from Hyuna told him he’d failed.
‘That’s exactly what you’re –’
He cut her off with another question. ‘When did they leave?’
Hyuna pursed her lips and he thought she might not reply for a moment, but then she replied, ‘The day after they arrived. They were here less than twenty four hours.’
‘Right, that’s all I need.’ Jisung stood, slinging his backpack over a shoulder. ‘I’ll transfer your money today. Until next time, noona.’
‘This is important, isn’t it?’
The soft-voiced question stopped him in his tracks, barely two steps from the table.
‘It’s not... a job. Or... not an ordinary one, is it?’
Jisung exhaled through his mouth, turning on his heel to look back at the woman who’d taught him how to handle a sniper (both the gun and the person). He dipped his head a fraction. ‘Yeah. It’s important.’
Then he strode back up the street, in search of one of the many motorcycle hire shops around. With his blood thrumming hot in his veins, Jisung felt a little too impatient to wait for a bus right now.
‘Perfect timing, I’ve just got off the plane in Seram.’
‘Good. I’m going up to West Papua.’
‘...There’s no way you’re done with Java and Bali yet.’
‘A contact told me the team who arrived with an apparently hooded passenger left Java the next day on another private flight.’
‘Shit. Are they in West Papua?’
‘She didn’t know. Can you update the ice cream man? I have some arrangements to make.’
‘Ice cream – oh. God, will you ever grow up? Fine.’
‘You’re the best, Minnie-Min!’
The next available flight wasn’t until the following morning, so Jisung decided to bunk down in the airport overnight. It was hardly the most comfortable place in the world but Jisung found there was a higher level of anonymity inside airports than outside. Everyone had somewhere to go, everyone was in transit, everyone was focused on getting to their next destination. After getting through the security checks, you became invisible. Well, provided one didn’t start a riot or throw a bomb.
So, Jisung tucked himself in a corner on the floor (it was more comfortable than the plastic chairs) and once again found himself with an excess of time on his hands.
Four hours into his purgatory, his phone buzzed in his pocket and he jolted in surprise. He pulled it out and blinked at the caller ID. Felix. Mouth suddenly dry, Jisung answered the call.
‘Who else?’ He tried to keep his hands from shaking.
‘I’ve found him. He’s here in Kalimantan.’
The air left Jisung’s lungs and it was a long second before he could speak again. ‘Did you see him? How is he? What have they –’
‘I didn’t see him; I saw someone taking him food. They have him locked in a room that’s watched and guarded around the clock.’
Struggling to swallow past the thorns in his throat, Jisung said, ‘Okay. I’m coming to you. Have you told Min?’
‘Can’t get hold of him. He’s probably scouting Seram. Plus, the signal’s absolute shit up there.’
‘Okay. Okay.’ Pull yourself together, dammit. ‘I’ll find out when the soonest flight is. Send me a location to meet you.’
The call ended and Jisung didn’t move for – he wasn’t sure how long. He just sat there, phone still pressed to his ear, heart racing in his chest.
Jeongin had been found. Felix had found him. They were going to get him back. Jisung hadn’t lost him forever. Jeongin was alive.
In a burst of movement, Jisung surged to his feet and strode off in search of a flight board.
Mid-morning the following day, Jisung’s plane landed in Balikpapan, one of Kalimantan’s largest cities – and a major seaport. From the airport, Jisung made his way deep into the city till he reached a disreputable-looking, hole-in-the-wall inn. Raising a dubious brow at it, he let himself in and walked straight past the front desk without getting stopped. He took the stairs instead of the lift – those damn metal boxes were an ambush waiting to happen, seriously.
A couple of narrow corridors later and Jisung was outside a door numbered 159. He knocked and heard the sound of an old-fashioned bolt clicking before the door opened slightly. Candyfloss hair and a dark eye appeared through the crack. Jisung raised his other brow and the gap widened, Felix turning away and retreating into the room.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t very big inside. There was a single bed with a little side table and a lamp on the far side of the room, a tiny wardrobe set into the wall above the bed. The nearer side boasted two well-worn armchairs in front of a TV set on a cabinet. To the left, a microscopic kitchenette the consisted of a sink, some drawers, a microwave, and a small fridge. To the right, a door that presumably led to the bathroom.
That was it.
A sudden suspicion appeared in Jisung’s mind.
He tugged his facemask down and said, ‘Looks like this room’s taken. I’ll go hire another.’
‘No.’ Felix didn’t look up from whatever he was fiddling with in the bedside table drawer.
Jisung’s weight settled back on his heels, tension coiling in his limbs as he automatically prepared for a fight. ‘There’s one bed and two of us.’
‘I can testify that the floor is almost as comfortable,’ was the stony response.
His fists clenched and it was only with concentrated effort that Jisung managed to relax them again. ‘I’m not sharing a room with you.’
Felix sat back on his haunches and finally turned his attention to Jisung, still standing taut and unmoving in the entranceway. His expression remained inscrutable as he said, ‘You’ve been doing this job for years and you’re, what, scared to sleep in the same room as someone else. How are you still alive?’
Condescension dripped from that cold voice and Jisung came within a hair’s breadth of murder, his control over the most vicious part of him so very fucking tenuous. As it was, he didn’t react but for a slight twitch, every muscle locked to keep himself from launching across the room.
Perhaps Felix realised he’d pushed Jisung too far because his next words were almost conciliatory.
‘Turns out Balikpapan was the first city this Colombian cartel set up shop in,’ he explained. ‘They own half the districts here. Their eyes are everywhere.’
Jisung was having some trouble breathing through the chokehold his rage had on him, so it took him a minute to croak, ‘So what? I’m already in here. Moving to another room won’t change anything.’
Felix shook his head, pushing to his feet. ‘This whole area is tense – they’re all watching for something and I bet it’s you. The less contact you have with anyone, the better. Besides, two pairs of eyes to stand guard is better than one.’
Jisung wanted to snarl and growl and stomp out of this stupid room and back down the stupid stairs and book himself his own stupid room. He really, really wanted to do that. But the image of an abandoned Dragunov sniper rifle flashed through his mind and he could not.
Instead, he tossed his backpack onto the floor with a muffled thud and went over to the fridge, hauling the door open. It was as empty as expected.
‘Heard back from Min yet?’ he asked, enjoying the wash of cool air on his face.
‘Right.’ He slammed the fridge shut again and spun on his heel, which squeaked against the linoleum floor. ‘Then we’re going to be here a while. If I’m under house arrest, that means you are on food duty. I’m starving –’ he wasn’t, but that was beside the point – ‘so off you go.’
Felix stared at him, not quite able to hide the incredulity in his dark eyes and Jisung held his gaze defiantly, daring him to argue. After a long, long moment, Felix started towards the entrance.
Jisung waited till he was halfway out the door before muttering, ‘Good dog,’ in a tone just loud enough for Felix to hear if he was paying attention.
Given the way Felix froze mid-step for a split second, it was safe to say that yes, he was. The door banged shut behind him and Jisung smirked, feeling a lick of petty satisfaction loosen the knot in his gut.
Seungmin hadn’t gotten in touch by nightfall but Jisung wasn’t worried. As Felix had said, cell reception on Seram was patchy. If the Colombian den Seungmin was going through was in a dead zone (not impossible – they might be using walkie-talkies), well, he wouldn’t be much good for contact until he was done.
That didn’t mean Jisung wasn’t furiously impatient, of course. Sending Felix out of their shared room at the inn had been vital for the sanity of all parties involved but fuck. He’d been bored witless after that. Could he sleep? Absolutely not, ridiculous question. Could he go and do recon of his own? Apparently not. Could he mount a one-man rescue mission anyway? Big no on that front; he wouldn’t be able to keep Jeongin safe and fend off hordes of angry drug smugglers.
At least Felix was only out for a couple of hours and he had plenty of food when he returned. By this point, Jisung had resorted to watching drama reruns while sitting upside down in one of the armchairs, his hair brushing the carpet. Felix, paragon of tact that he was, didn’t say a thing about the arrangement, simply sat in the free chair and quietly slurped on a bowl of noodles and watched the show too.
Neither of them removed their boots, which said all that needed to be about how relaxed they were.
Midnight approached and Jisung couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so aggressively on edge. There was no way he’d be able to fall asleep in here with Felix. Maybe he could lock himself in the bathroom?
‘The lock doesn’t work,’ Felix said from somewhere in his periphery, clearly having noticed where Jisung’s attention had been focused.
Jisung, sitting upright by this point, gritted his teeth and glared at the TV without really seeing it. If they were here more than one night, he was going to be in trouble. He could go a couple of nights without sleeping, yeah, but it’d demand a steep toll and he wouldn’t be in any state to storm the cartel stronghold.
‘Steer clear of the waterfront if you go out,’ was Felix’s final comment before he flicked off the main light and Jisung heard him get into the bed.
The only light came from the TV, which was still playing quietly, and the street outside, seeping through thin curtains. Felix’s breathing didn’t take long to even out and Jisung wanted to scream. He wanted to shake the other man, demand how did he do it, how did he let his guard down with someone as dangerous as Jisung in the room? How could he let himself be so vulnerable? Jisung shivered in his chair, hugging his knees to his chest. He wouldn’t be catching a wink of sleep tonight, of that he was sure.
Jisung lasted less than half an hour in the too-small room with Felix still and quiet behind him. He skin was crawling terribly, so he left his backpack in a corner of the room (he had all the absolute essentials strapped to himself) and slipped out of the building. Mask firmly in place and cap pulled down low, Jisung was just another face in the crowd.
Not that there were any crowds to speak of. A city this big never really slept and certainly not before three a.m., but the number of people out had lessened considerably. And if you didn’t know how to see through shadows, how to look in a dark corner and recognise eyes looking right back at you – well, the streets would seem even quieter.
Jisung knew how to hide in the shadows, how to let them cling and misdirect people’s attention. So he glided through the slivers of darkness that stubbornly remained between the frequent pools of light, zigzagging his way around the city aimlessly until he came to a stop on a low, flat rooftop. He wasn’t entirely sure what building this was but the fire escape ladder hadn’t been difficult to access and that was all that mattered.
Crouched like a gargoyle, Jisung peered over the low wall around the edge of the roof. He was three or so storeys up and could easily watch the late night wanderers. A glance up only showed looming skyscrapers and light pollution, hiding the stars. Jisung looked down at his hands then, thinking. Even if Seungmin showed up out of the blue come morning, there was no way the rescue mission was happening tomorrow night. They needed some semblance of a plan, bigger weapons, and Felix would have to fill them in on the site’s layout.
All this meant Jisung needed to sleep. At some point, between now and go time, he’d have to. For Jeongin.
Felix’s face, full of disbelief and condescension, flashed across his mind’s eye and Jisung’s nails bit into his palms. He didn’t know why he’d expected anything less; how else would Mr Snowflake have reacted? But still, something elusive inside him hissed at the sting.
Jisung shook his head, trying to clear his mind. If it was just Jisung who needed to hide so much, perhaps he could kick Felix out. At least until he fell asleep. Whatever his real reasoning, Felix seemed dead set on rescuing Jeongin so Jisung supposed he could trust the other man not to slit his throat while his guard was down. He shivered again, loathe to even consider making himself so vulnerable, especially to anyone who wasn’t Jeongin or Seungmin.
That unknown thing inside him hissed once more, kindling a deep resentment in his bones, resentment at having been forced into this, resentment at Felix for demanding a level of trust Jisung wasn’t used to handing out. A level of trust he’d never intentionally handed out. Seungmin had earned it by doing the impossible, putting Jisung’s biggest nightmare in the grave, and Jeongin had just... happened. Jisung’s defences had never stood a chance against that frightened, angry, hurting boy with the fox eyes.
But Felix had always been trouble, hadn’t he? Right from the start, him and his damn ice cream hair. Jisung had thought the week apart from each other would let them both calm down a bit and they could go back to that weirdly polite working relationship they’d had from before Taemin’s job, but apparently not. They hadn’t lasted ten minutes before a madness of bloodlust and unthinking fury had boiled up in Jisung’s blood and he’d been so, so close to reaching for a knife.
Maybe they were just incompatible and had only survived so long in each other’s company because Jeongin had been around. Now, left to their own devices, there was only their self-control to rely on and, historically, that had never been one of Jisung’s strong points.
He just hoped he managed to hold it together until Jeongin was safe.
By the time Seungmin got in touch the next afternoon, Jisung was semi-seriously considering hopping on a plane to Seram Island and hunting the errant hitman down. There was an evening flight, which would get Seungmin to Balikpapan not long after three. From there on out, they’d be gearing up for the mission.
So when the time ticked around to nine at night, Jisung tipped his head back over the armchair he was in and said, ‘You’re sourcing the firepower this time, right? How about you go do that, like, right now.’
Felix had stripped off his outer layer about fifteen minutes ago, leaving him only in a muscle tee, and had dropped to the ground to do press ups. Perspiration gleamed on his skin and he didn’t stop.
‘Why?’ he asked, voice barely quivering.
You know this will go a thousand times smoother if you’re up front, Jisung firmly reminded himself, biting back a snarky because I said so. Instead, he replied, ‘I need to sleep. Can’t do that with you here.’
Felix lifted his head, shooting Jisung a look from under a sweat-damp fringe.
Jisung rolled his eyes. ‘I don’t mean stay out for the whole night! Just an hour or so. If I can –’ he swallowed, shoved the words out – ‘if I can get to sleep and you don’t wake me up... this should work.’
And the universe was getting two middle fingers up from him if it didn’t.
Heaving an almighty sigh, Felix flexed his shoulders and launched himself up into a standing position. ‘Fine.’
He stalked into the tiny bathroom, kicking the door shut behind him, and Jisung tried not to gnash his teeth at the trace of disdain in that acquiescence. He stared at the ceiling as the sound of running water started, Felix presumably cleaning himself up a bit. Jisung would never admit it out loud but he doubted he could do that many press ups without throwing up.
Felix emerged a few minutes later, grabbing his jacket off the bed and a facemask from one of his own bag’s pockets. ‘One hour,’ was all he said before striding out of the room.
Jisung waited until Felix’s thumping footsteps had faded away (how had he ever managed a stealth mission?) before exhaling sharply and pushing to his feet. He spun on his heel and stared at the single bed under the narrow window. It was just a bed, nothing to be scared of, but Jisung’s pulse was steadily picking up, his instincts ordering him to check the perimeter and barricade the exits. That wasn’t an option though, so he turned off the television and lights instead, giving his eyes a moment to adjust before reluctantly sitting on the very edge of the bed.
Abruptly exasperated with himself, Jisung shrugged out of his jacket and removed a couple of his knives from his person. They were unlikely to stab him while he slept but better safe than sorry. He had plenty of others, anyway.
He glanced down at his boots.
Just fucking do it, you idiot. He’s probably not going to kill you so you can damn well take them off.
As it was, it took Jisung a little more cajoling before he could quite bring himself to the deed. Then he tipped onto his side, wrinkling his nose at how hard the thin mattress was. Rolling onto his back, Jisung hissed as a well-placed streetlight bypassed the curtain entirely and stabbed him in the eyes. With an exasperated sigh, he shifted to his right side, nose inches from the wall. That put his back to the room, though, which kicked his simmering nerves into screaming high gear, so he hastily rolled back over onto his left side. It was too warm in here to bother with the blanket so he didn’t. It did add a thin layer of padding between him and the mattress, which was a slight win.
Go to sleep, Jisung ordered himself, deliberately closing his eyes.
It took him a while to relax enough for that to become even faint possibility. When his body was no longer tense and stiff, he tucked his hands under his chin and snuggled down into the pillow a bit, lengthening his breaths –
Hang the fuck on.
What was that smell?
Turning so his face was buried in the pillow, Jisung inhaled deeply and then froze. Oh, he knew what that smell was. It was the faint, sweaty musk of a human and as there was only one other person who’d been lying here –
Recoiling, Jisung threw the pillow onto the floor. Let Felix think he was being generous or let Felix think he was ridiculous, it didn’t matter. Jisung was not sleeping with that pillow.
Huffing irritably (Felix was still causing trouble and he wasn’t even here!), Jisung lay back down and shut his eyes again.
Sleep. It was time to sleep.
‘You pathetic waste.’
Jisung is pressed against the same wall he is always pressed against. The knife burns as it always does, lodged between his ribs, and his brother repeats the words Jisung will never forget.
‘You really can’t fucking accept what you are?’
The knife twists, scraping a rib, and Jisung whimpers, eyes closing for a second. When he opens them, the pain is still there but Jisung is on the other side of the room, standing in the doorway through which Seungmin once walked.
The figure pushed up against the wall is now Jeongin, pale and thin, and instead of a knife, he is pierced with a hypodermic needle.
‘You feel like you have to come back and kill me to give your feeble life some sense of meaning?’
‘Don’t hurt me,’ Jisung begs, only it’s Jeongin’s mouth that moves, Jeongin’s voice that wavers so small and scared.
‘I don’t understand why you were ever born.’
Jisung’s brother depresses the syringe and Jeongin goes limp, his eyes taking on an awful glaze as the drugs kick in.
‘No!’ Jisung cries, reaching for him.
But he could never really stand up to his brother, could he? The pain in his midriff keeps him pinned and he looks over his shoulder, desperately seeking Seungmin, the one his brother couldn’t hurt –
Only to see Felix standing there in his boxing gear, fair skin littered with old scars, and eyes so deep. Jisung cannot tear his gaze away and the agony in his side flares as that dark stare narrows in accusation –
Jisung woke abruptly, something ripping him out of the nightmare and leaving him dazed for an interminable second as he tried to focus, to figure out which reality he was in. Then he blinked and felt the familiar heft of the blade he’d drawn and when movement came in the dark, he threw it without hesitation or warning.
‘Jesus Christ, Han! Are you out of your fucking mind?’
Jisung trembled with the urge to draw another knife, the vestiges of his dream-panic clawing at him. He blinked again.
‘Felix?’ His voice was hoarse and he sincerely hoped he hadn’t cried out in his sleep.
‘Obviously,’ came the sardonic reply. A lamp flickered to life and Felix appeared in the gloom, scowling. ‘Kim’s on his way over. Rise and shine.’
Glancing around, Jisung realised he was still on the bed where he’d lain down some hours ago. He’d actually managed to sleep. He saw a knife sticking out of the wall above the television, near Felix. Oops.
‘Min’s ETA?’ he asked, reaching for his boots.
Felix leaned back against the wall, arms folded, and Jisung felt that heavy gaze on him as he moved wordlessly to the kitchenette for instant coffee. The taste might not be anything to write home about but the caffeine kick was exactly what he needed.
A whisper of movement behind him and he spun on one heel, blade coming up to throw or block or cut –
Felix raised a brow at him, still several paces away, holding out Jisung’s errant knife. Jisung felt his ears burn with heat and was glad of the dim lighting. He accepted the offering and slid both blades away, turning back to his coffee and resisting the sudden need to drown himself in his mug.
The quiet was thick as mud and Jisung drank his coffee at the counter, unable to face Felix for fear of doing something particularly rash, like throwing another knife or making a break for the door.
Happily, Seungmin wasn’t late.
‘You look like shit,’ was the first thing he said upon catching a look at Jisung, who scowled behind the rim of his mug.
‘Still prettier than you,’ Jisung grumbled, gulping down hot coffee.
Then it was down to business.
All three men armed with their caffeinated drink of choice, someone pulled out a map and spread it on the floor in front of the television. Jisung pushed back the chairs and they crowded around. Felix, the most familiar with the city, marked their location and that of the drug cartel’s base. Escape routes, bolt holes, no-go areas, numbers, and timing were discussed.
Daylight was creeping into the room when Seungmin asked, ‘What kind of firepower do we have?’
Felix nodded towards a duffel bag in the corner that hadn’t been there when Jisung went to sleep. ‘M4 carbines, an under-barrel grenade launcher, and assorted grenades.’
‘Suppressors?’ Jisung added.
‘Of course. I’d rather not alert the entire district of our arrival after the first shot.’
Seungmin glanced between the pair of them and Jisung was glad he didn’t comment, instead redirecting the conversation to security rotations and cameras.
Eventually, it was time to decide who was doing what. The primary objective here was to rescue Jeongin, which was a task that could be allotted to one person. So, what would the other two have to deal with?
‘We don’t want them coming after him again,’ Seungmin said, leaning back against the wall, fingers drumming on his folded legs. ‘We need to be able to get in and out and hit them hard enough that we’re not worth hunting down when we get out of their immediate vicinity.’
A thought came to mind. ‘How do you feel about me and explosives, Min?’
Felix looked up from the map, interested, and Seungmin’s expression visibly fell.
‘The thought is a terrifying one,’ he sighed heavily, running a distracted hand through short black hair, ‘but as an idea, it’s not bad.’
Jisung grinned. ‘So, Felix my friend – reckon you can get your hands on enough explosive to bring down this rat nest?’
‘Yes.’ Felix didn’t hesitate in his reply. ‘Not enough to collapse all their warehouses but enough to bring a few rooves down. It won’t be Semtex but I can get C-4.’
‘Shaped charges?’ Jisung added hopefully. They’d need less explosive if they could pack the C-4 into the strong metal angles that would direct the brunt of the explosions.
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘So I guess that answers the question of who’s doing what,’ Seungmin commented.
Jisung and Felix turned to him, silently questioning.
Seungmin raised a sharp brow. ‘Felix is the most familiar with the layout and Han is our demolitions expert, which means you two will be the ones laying the charges and keeping everyone down until I get Jeongin out.’
That strange little something hiding in Jisung’s gut hissed, flexing its claws at the thought of having to trust Felix again, but he knew how to be professional. ‘Sounds good,’ he said.
Felix met his gaze and nodded slowly, like he wasn’t quite convinced.
‘Great.’ Seungmin rolled to his feet smoothly. ‘I vote we take a food break now, then plot our route.’
Neither of the other two had any argument against that.
Amazingly, it only took them a day to get everything sorted out. By mid-evening, the plan was set, extraction routes were confirmed, and everyone was armed to the teeth. Jisung and Felix wore backpacks with a lot of carefully stored C-4 (and yes, Felix had been able to get them as shaped charges). Seungmin had hired a little car that afternoon which he used to drive them all to the drop-off point, a block out from the Colombian site down at the shipyard.
Here was where they split up – Seungmin to find a nest from which to watch and wait for Felix and Jisung to start the mayhem, and Felix and Jisung to, well, put down the groundwork for said mayhem.
Everything went surprisingly well until, unsurprisingly, it stopped going well.
Jisung and Felix had spent the better part of the last two hours sneaking around the warehouses slapping C-4 onto strategic steel beams and corners and concrete pillars. It wasn’t as difficult as it might have been – most of the warehouses were empty of people and security kept their patrols outdoors. There were also few cameras, making it easy pickings to steer clear of their line of site.
Then they walked around a corner and Felix almost collided with someone. For a split-second, nobody moved, all of them taking in what the fuck just –
The unknown man lunged at Felix, a yell rising in his throat, fingers clawing at Felix’s eyes. Sidestepping the man’s desperate lunge, Felix punched him in the throat and he collapsed onto all fours with an awful choking sound. Dropping to his knees, Felix pushed one hand under the man’s chin, arching his neck, and used a toothed knife to slit his throat. Blood went everywhere and Felix shoved the dying man away from him, straightening up and wiping his blade on his trousers before sliding it back into a thigh sheath.
Jisung blinked out of his surprise, automatically scanning the area, making sure they hadn’t been seen. Voices and footsteps sounded from one side, two guards coming into view around the edge of another building. There was no time to think and Jisung whipped up the assault rifle strapped to his front, inhaling calmly, and shot them both. One of the men died instantly, the other screaming as the bullet ripped through his ear. Jisung exhaled, pulled the trigger again, and this time the man went down like a sack of bricks.
‘Fuck,’ he spat.
‘My sentiments exactly,’ Seungmin snapped over the comms. ‘What the hell’s going on down there?’
‘We’re blown,’ Felix hissed, breaking into a run.
Jisung joined him, the pair hurrying behind the temporary cover of the next building.
‘There’s no way people didn’t hear that,’ Felix said quickly, gloved hands cradling his own rifle as he kept watch. ‘We need to get rid of the rest of the charges and detonate them before this lot get organised.’
‘We do,’ Jisung agreed, already shrugging off his backpack to unload –
Wait, why was Felix’s fluorescent bloody mop on display? Where the hell was his beanie?
Oh. The guy they’d almost walked into. He must’ve caught the edge of the fabric.
Should’ve worn balaclavas, the very small sensible part of Jisung noted, but that was swiftly drowned out by the rest of him, abruptly brimming with rage.
See, Felix had been stirring up shit in Jisung’s life since the very first second he walked in and quite frankly Jisung was at the end of his tether.
‘Please tell me you have another cover for your fucking snowflake hair,’ he growled, hands threatening to shake. ‘They’ll pick us out in a second otherwise.’
The silence that followed was deeply startled. Even Seungmin was quiet.
‘I don’t,’ Felix replied tightly, glancing back at Jisung. ‘Now get rid of the charges before they find us standing here.’
Jisung wasn’t entirely sure what he’d have done next if Seungmin’s tinny voice hadn’t said, ‘They’re mobilising. Soon as someone realises what’s going on, this place will become a fortress.’
His words cleared the haze of shivering fury clouding Jisung’s head slightly. They were here for Jeongin. Jisung couldn’t mess that up. He could deal with Felix later. So he ripped open his backpack and started haphazardly sticking the remaining charges to the wall, only taking enough care to ensure the blasting caps were still firmly inside the C-4.
Slipping the bag on again, Jisung ordered, ‘Let’s go.’
Felix broke into a jog, sticking close to the back of the warehouse, and Jisung shadowed him. It wasn’t long before they could hear a commotion up ahead, people on the other side of the building arguing, then quick footsteps. They reached the back entrance right where Felix had said it would be, just barely out of sight of anyone around the corner.
On light feet, Jisung followed Felix up the narrow metal staircase to the second storey door. Felix pulled a pair of bolt cutters out of his bag and got to work on the loop of chain fastening the door shut, while Jisung kept a sharp eye on the edge of the building, ready to shoot anyone who appeared. They were inside a minute later and Jisung slipped a fresh padlock out of a zipped pocket, drawing the chain links closer together so he could refasten it.
The second level of the warehouse ran around the edge of the building, the middle section open to reveal the ground floor. There were crates stacked all around them, providing plenty of leverage up to the massive blacked out windows near the ceiling.
That was half the reason they’d chosen this warehouse as the attack point – it gave them an excellent vantage point to pick people off and had way too much product in it for any cartel bosses to write off for the sake of catching Felix and Jisung. The other reason they’d picked this building was that it was opposite the main one, where the cartel’s communications and camera feeds were kept, the centre of command and organisation. Take that out of the equation and the whole thing got easier.
So the two hitmen scrambled up onto the crates and unlatched the windows, shoving them out enough to fit a muzzle. Felix loaded the under-barrel grenade launcher and Jisung retrieved a radio device from one of his zippered pockets. A couple of taps on this thing and every one of those shaped charges would detonate.
‘Min, we’re ready to go,’ Jisung murmured, eyeing the assortment of people, most of them visibly armed, going to and fro outside the building. ‘You set?’
‘Roger. Detonate at will.’
Jisung exchanged a glance with Felix (stupid ice cream hair) and input the blast command to the transmitter. Not a second later and –
Jisung’s pulse leapt in his throat and he saw everyone on the ground flinch and turn, as one, towards the massive explosion. They started to run and when they were about two warehouse-lengths away, Jisung heard the distinct click of the grenade launcher discharging. The front window of the command building shattered and then the rest of them followed suit as the grenade detonated.
Screams rang out and the door of the burning building burst open, several more people spilling out, a couple of them clutching at injuries.
The clock was ticking now and Felix and Jisung began picking off their targets, starting with those who were raising guns of their own, looking for the fight. It wouldn’t take long for the emergency services to get to the shipyard and while they’d no doubt be preoccupied with the first warehouses, cracked open to reveal their illicit goods, that wouldn’t last. So they had to make this short window of time count.
It didn’t take long for the Colombians to realise where the gunfire was coming from and immediately after, they started firing back. Jisung dived away from the window, ducking behind stacked wooden pallets as security gave up aiming for the tiny bit of him showing above the window ledge and started shooting at his body. The thin walls didn’t stand much of a chance against that.
Felix abandoned his own window a moment later, ducking behind cover. ‘You hold the door, I’ll stay with the windows,’ he panted. ‘Sing out if any reach the stairs.’
Jisung didn’t reply, just crawled into position, lining himself up nicely with the double doors just as they burst open. Some complete idiot charged right in and was duly shot in the face. Three people dived through the door next. Jisung got one in the thigh and another in the arm, sending only the first to the ground as the other two disappeared further inside. A second shot polished off the wailing mercenary on the floor.
‘Heads up, Kim, you’ve got reinforcements on the way.’
Jisung was far enough away that he could only hear Felix’s voice over the comms.
‘Fantastic. How many?’
Seungmin might have said something more but Jisung had caught sight of a tentative set of head and shoulders poking out from behind a stack of crates. He shifted his rifle, lining up the sights as Hyuna had taught him to, and squeezed the trigger. The man didn’t have a chance to scream, the bullet catching him in the throat.
A bullet cracked into the wood by Jisung’s arm and he froze. The urge to recoil was strong but he knew the third merc probably couldn’t actually see him yet and was likely making an educated guess instead. Then two more people ran in and fired in his general direction. The growing fire from the building across the way cast a strong light that backlit the newcomers and Jisung had one of them felled seconds later. The second made a break for the stairs, weaving this way and that, and the gunman hiding down below gave them cover, shooting dangerously close to Jisung again.
Biting back a growl, Jisung extracted a grenade from his bag, pulled the pin, and hurled it through the railing down towards the shooter. He couldn’t immediately tell if they’d been hit but it ought to buy him a few uninterrupted moments. Straightening up, Jisung braced himself against the crates beside him and shot the man who’d just reached the stairs, catching him in the back of the skull.
The pace started picking up after that.
Jisung heard more yelling outside, another grenade detonating outside the warehouse. Felix warned him that mercs who’d run off towards the site of the main explosion were returning and Jisung barely had enough time to find himself a new vantage point before half a dozen people barrelled through the door, shouting in Spanish. He called Felix down to help him pick them off before they flushed him out and of course Felix’s hair was spotted by one of the sweeping torches. Naturally, this resulted in Jisung doing a lot more of the helping than he’d expected.
And then what they’d all been waiting for –
‘I have him. Han, Felix, I have Jeongin.’
Jisung felt a rush of relief so strong his knees wobbled.
‘How is he?’ Felix asked, all business as they crept towards the stairs.
‘He’s – not great. But he’ll mend. He’ll mend.’
‘Good.’ Was that relief in Felix’s voice? ‘We’re on our way out.’
And they were. They were leaving the warehouse and no-one was stopping them because they were either dead or hiding and Jisung was doing his best, he was really trying to keep his mouth shut but – but Jeongin was safe, the mission was done, and Jisung had fucking had enough –
‘Remind me what your no doubt flawless reasoning is for mimicking a vanilla ice cream whenever we have a mission?’
The words were out before he could stop them, not that he really tried.
Felix stopped in his tracks, the looming shadow of a shipping container not far from the Colombian shipyard blanketing them both. His shoulders were squared, his hands fists, but he didn’t turn around.
‘I don’t believe it’s any of your business, Han,’ he growled, and oh.
Fresh adrenaline flooded Jisung’s veins as he realised he was certainly not the only one spoiling for a fight.
‘That bloody mop of yours got us in serious trouble twice tonight,’ Jisung snapped. ‘So I disagree, Lee.’
Spinning on his heel, Felix pinned Jisung with a cold, cold stare and Jisung had just long enough to think that perhaps he’d pushed the other man too far before –
‘It’s a calculated risk I choose to take because the one person I have ever loved liked it,’ Felix snarled. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand anything about that.’
Jisung’s hands were definitely shaking now and his mouth tasted like dust as he retorted, ‘Oh? That’s a bit rich coming from you, isn’t it? Seeing as you were raised in the slums by an alcoholic. Didn’t you have to cage fight for your dinner?’
The caustic remarks found their mark and Felix flinched like he’d been slapped.
Then he took a deliberate step forward and spat, ‘I don’t think I want to take notes from someone who murdered their only brother in cold blood.’
All rational thought jumped out the window and Jisung cracked. In the blink of an eye, he’d crossed the space between them and had a knife he didn’t remember drawing held an inch from Felix’s throat.
‘Perhaps you’d like a demonstration of exactly how cold my blood is,’ he hissed.
In response, Felix kneed him in the gut and Jisung skittered back, breathing harshly. He had time only to unclip the cumbersome rifle from his front and carelessly toss it aside before the need to hurt, to kill gripped him tight and lashed out towards Felix’s face. Felix was armed with his own knife and he blocked Jisung’s slash, the jagged edge catching Jisung’s blade.
Lips peeling back in a snarl, Jisung disengaged and went low, aiming for Felix’s thighs, and he was better at this, he was faster, he –
Felix side-stepped the attack and his leg swung around in a powerful kick that would take Jisung’s head clean off his shoulders if it connected, forcing him to duck and roll. He came up on one knee behind Felix, who was already turning, but there was that split-second where his guard wasn’t up, his hamstrings vulnerable to a debilitating cut –
Felix’s knife slashed down, blocking Jisung’s blade with jarring force and what the fuck?
Both of them on their feet again, Felix settled his weight low, knees bent, and snapped, ‘Didn’t know you liked to play with your food,’ before launching himself forward with an attack that Jisung easily avoided.
Jisung didn’t deign to respond but his hackles were up, sheer rage pressing against the inside of his skin because what the fuck was going on? He did not like playing with his food so why the hell wasn’t Felix bleeding out on the ground yet?
Determined to shut Felix up once and for all, Jisung reapplied himself to the fight with increased ferocity, giving no quarter, feeling vicious satisfaction as Felix’s attack faltered and he began to give ground. His defence wavered and Jisung darted forward to take advantage of –
Pain bloomed in his upper arm and suddenly he was seeing a different kind of red.
They both sort of... froze. Stared at the neat cut in Jisung’s sleeve. Stared at the blood beginning to soak the fabric.
Jisung’s heartbeat was thundering in his ears and he swallowed convulsively. This had to be a nightmare. Maybe he didn’t wake up last night and this is just a really bad dream.
Light glinted off Felix’s knife as it moved and Jisung didn’t even think before whipping his blade up under Felix’s chin. For the second time. Just as he’d done just a minute ago. Why were they here again? How were they here again?
The knife threatened to tremble in his hold.
Felix met Jisung’s wide-eyed stare with a distressing lack of fear and said softly, incredulously, ‘You can’t do it, can you?’
All the air punched out of Jisung’s lungs.
He wanted to deny it. He wanted to laugh in Felix’s face and then stab him in the throat. But his body would not obey his commands and in the end he had to lower his arm before he dropped the damn knife.
Fuelled by a dangerous cocktail of adrenaline, fury, and humiliation, Jisung gritted out, ‘Maybe I can’t then, but you sure fucking can.’
Now it was Felix’s turn to look like he’d been kicked in the chest and for some reason, that made Jisung angrier.
‘Go on. You’ve already drawn first blood,’ he growled, the words sticking in his throat. ‘Finish the goddamn job.’
Felix’s jaw worked like he was chewing on something particularly unpleasant. Then he shoved his knife back in its sheath and snarled, ‘Damn it, Han, sometimes I seriously want to punch you in the face but – I don’t want to kill you.’
‘You what?’ Jisung demanded, privately wondering if the entire world had gone mad today.
Even in the low light, there was no hiding the red flush that washed over Felix’s face. He glanced away, frowning fiercely – but he didn’t take it back.
‘What the hell do you mean?’ Jisung nearly choked on the words, a weird kind of panic flooding his body. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I meant what I said,’ Felix muttered. ‘You infuriate me to no end, Han, you really do, but –’ deep breath – ‘that doesn’t mean I want you dead. I... I don’t. I don’t want you dead.’
Jisung staggered back, his head a mess of white noise, panting with inexplicable emotion. ‘Why – why would you even care if – why –’
Felix looked back at him, something almost sad in his expression. ‘I can’t kill you – I won’t – and I really... really don’t want to hurt you.’ He sighed very quietly, gaze dropping to the shallow cut on Jisung’s arm. ‘Why do you think?’
But Jisung could not think. He absolutely couldn’t think about what that reason might be because he, too, had been incapable of acting on his most violent instincts. And if Felix couldn’t kill him – if he couldn’t kill Felix – if Felix didn’t even want to harm him – then –
That meant –
That meant –
Jisung shook his head so hard his whole body moved in denial. He was backing away again, faster. Faster. He met Felix’s dark eyes once more and shivered at the uncharacteristic softness there.
‘No,’ he whispered, knowing Felix would be able to read his lips. ‘No.’
And then Jisung turned and gave into the screaming need to run, to run as far away from here as he could, to run so far and fast he never had to think again.
He felt relief when he heard no sounds of pursuit, no heavy boots thumping on the concrete behind him.
Yes, definitely relief.
-- interlude I --
‘Min, we’re ready to go. You set?’
‘Roger. Detonate at will,’ Seungmin murmured, watching the agitated men moving about in the yard below through his assault rifle’s scope.
No-one was running or waving their weapons around so the patrol sent off to investigate the disturbance (i.e. Felix and Jisung blowing their cover) must not have reached the bodies yet. Seungmin knew it would be “bodies” and not “body” because Jisung was incapable of doing things by halves and, quite frankly, that was the same impression Seungmin had of Felix.
Even Seungmin twitched at the explosion; he hadn’t appreciated quite how much C-4 they were using. Meanwhile, the mercs in the square at the end of the shipyard were already yelling and, yep, there went the running and the weapon waving. Seungmin was pleased to note that none of them ran into the building opposite his, where Jeongin was being held.
A second, smaller explosion rang out.
That’ll be the grenade, he thought, just as Felix’s voice came through his earpiece, saying, ‘Kim, go.’
Collapsing the rifle’s bipod and telescoping the stock to a more manageable length, Seungmin secured the gun to his front and swiftly made his way down from the warehouse’s mezzanine floor. At the door, he moved slowly and carefully, making sure no-one had lingered behind. When he was sure the area was clear, Seungmin crept over to the small building. He was a bit surprised none of the guards inside had stuck their head out to see what the racket was about, but perhaps someone had radioed them.
Pausing with one hand on the door, Seungmin considered how the next few seconds were likely to play out. Thanks to Felix’s intel, he was expecting two guards, so as long as he was quick and efficient, this shouldn’t be too hard.
Famous last words, he thought wryly. Then he raised the gun and kicked the door open.
Seungmin took a split-second to appraise the scene in front of him – harsh lighting, one guard in front of a locked storage unit – before squeezing the trigger and taking out the sentry with a bullet right between the eyes. A shout sounded on his left and immediately ducked and rolled further into the room, hearing the crack of an unsuppressed gun. He’d barely slammed to a halt on one knee before lifting the rifle and shooting. The guard staggered back, cursing, and Seungmin took aim again, this time clocking him in the head.
He stayed still for a moment, listening for a third sentry. When no-one jumped out or shot at him, Seungmin got to his feet and did a quick perimeter check of the open-plan room. It was fairly empty aside from the two corpses and the storage unit, so he walked over to the padlocked door and knocked heavily on it.
‘Jeongin, are you in there? Can you hear me? It’s Seungmin.’
Seungmin hissed out a breath. The fastest way he was going to get through this door would be to shoot through the latch. In fact, short of trying to break the lock with the butt of his gun, that was the only was he was getting through. He’d just have to hope Jeongin wasn’t in the line of fire.
‘Heads up, Kim, you’ve got reinforcements on the way.’
‘Fantastic,’ he growled, instinctively sweeping the room with sharp eyes once more. ‘How many?’
‘I’ll be sure to welcome them warmly.’
He would leave Jeongin where he was until he’d dealt with this lot. It’d be safer for him behind a locked door than out here, especially when Seungmin didn’t know what sort of state he was in. Switching the rifle’s firing setting from semi-automatic to burst mode, he shut the front door and settled into a crouch behind the corner of the storage unit. There was no other cover in here and gave him a good line of site.
Barely two minutes later, boots could be heard thumping against the concrete outside, coming to a stop near the door. Seungmin exhaled, heightening his focus, so when the door was kicked open again, he didn’t pull the trigger, knowing they were waiting for him to give his location away. This meant they had to look inside. As soon as a cautious head appeared around the edge of the doorframe, Seungmin fired. The rifle spat out three bullets and a wet crunch followed by a spray of blood told him he’d hit his mark.
Cries of dismay sounded and then two guns were shoved through the door, firing at random. Seungmin pulled back behind his shelter as bullets ricocheted around the room. The mercs stopped a minute later when they realised they were having no success and he immediately aimed at the doorway again. The two men dived through, one low, one high, covering different sides, but Seungmin expected this and he caught them both.
He almost missed the merc facing him, however, as a bullet clipped his shoulder and his arm jolted. As soon as the men crumpled, Seungmin checked the injury, relieved despite the burn that it wasn’t anywhere near as serious as it could have been. It’d have to be cleaned and bandaged, of course, but that could happen later.
There was no time to waste now. That door needed to open. He checked the three new bodies for keys, having not found any on the first two. No such luck.
We’ll do this the old-fashioned way then.
Seungmin switched the rifle back to semi-automatic, went up to the door, and aimed down. The bullet might not even make it through the door, if the barrage from the two mercs a minute ago was any indication, but he’d take no chances. One squeeze of the trigger later and the latch shattered in two. Flicking on the safety, Seungmin let the weapon hang against his chest and cautiously pushed the door open.
It was dark inside, that was the first thing he noticed. No lights on and a glance at the wall beside the door showed no switches either. Seungmin opened the door further, letting the light behind him pour in. The room (couldn’t have been more than five by two metres) was mostly empty – except for the shadowy, human-shaped lump at the back.
Stomach tightening, Seungmin unclipped the little torch attached to his gun and turned it on, careful not to point it directly at the curled up figure.
‘Jeongin?’ he queried softly. ‘Jeongin, can you hear me?’
Seungmin crept forward and sank to his knees a few paces away. With one hand he reached out and gently tipped back the person’s head and his breath caught. Yes, that was Jeongin, his black hair limp and greasy, his pallid face bearing the marks of half a dozen bruises and scrapes.
And those fox-bright eyes gone dull under a cloying, artificial haze.
Horror rippled over Seungmin, prickling his skin. He ran his gaze over Jeongin’s body, the knot in his gut coiling tighter at every hint of abuse. Jeongin had no jacket or shoes, and his skin was a patchwork of purple and yellow. Fading welts encircled his wrists but there was no tie there now and Seungmin could see why – Jeongin was too weak to even lift his head.
‘I have him. Han, Felix, I have Jeongin.’
A crackle of static that might have been a deep sigh of relief, overlaid by Felix’s question: ‘How is he?’
‘He’s – he’s not great,’ Seungmin replied, stumbling over the words as he met Jeongin’s vacant stare. ‘But he’ll mend. He’ll mend.’
Or Seungmin would personally hunt down every one of the fuckers who’d had a hand in this.
‘Good. We’re on our way out.’
Jisung remained quiet but Seungmin didn’t mistake this for a lack care. He thought it was rather more likely that Jisung didn’t know what to say. He was the most emotionally constipated person Seungmin had ever had the dubious pleasure of meeting but that did not mean he was emotionless. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Jeongin blinked lethargically and two fat tears rolled down his face. His lips twitched like he was trying to speak but could not.
Seungmin could all but hear his heart splitting in half and his voice wavered slightly as he murmured, ‘I have you, Jeongin. I have you. They won’t touch you ever again, I swear it.’
There was only six years between them but in that moment, he felt like he was talking to a child. A terrified, wounded child.
‘C’mon, let’s get you out of here.’
Seungmin watched the sun set through lowered blinds over Balikpapan’s skyline. The noise of the city could be heard but distantly, and it was quiet in the apartment. A glance at the huge chrome disc clock hung on the wall above the decorative wooden chest told him what he already knew – time to call Hyunjin.
He turned away from the veiled windows and sat in the black leather armchair by the corner of the bed, pulling out his cell. The chair hadn’t been precisely here when they’d arrived; Seungmin had moved it so he could keep an eye on the door, the bed, and the windows. Mina had chuckled and shaken her head, but she’d also cleaned Jeongin’s wounds (and Seungmin’s), given him the largest set of cotton pyjamas she could find, and asked no questions when the pair had shown up on her doorstep in the middle of the night.
Seungmin hit the call button and propped his elbow on the plush arm of the chair and let his gaze wander over Jeongin’s sleeping form as he waited for Hyunjin to pick up.
‘Seungminnie, hi. How are things going?’
The smile that curled across his face was an automatic, instinctive response to Hyunjin’s voice by this point.
‘Not too bad,’ he answered softly. ‘Jeongin’s finally resting. He hasn’t stirred in five hours.’
A gusty sigh. ‘Oh, that’s a relief. I don’t suppose you’ve had a break at all?’
‘You suppose correctly.’
‘Of course I do,’ Hyunjin grumbled. ‘Okay, well, you know I trust you to look after yourself. Just... please get some sleep. At some point.’
Warmth bloomed behind his sternum. ‘I will, Hyunjinnie, promise.’
‘And, um...’ A hesitant pause. ‘Any word from the others?’
Seungmin’s mind turned briefly to the earpiece in his pocket, where he’d put as soon as the arguing started.
‘Felix, briefly. He’ll be heading back to Korea on the soonest flight he can catch, I bet. There’s nothing more he can do here and... I don’t think he’d be very good at sitting around for hours, keeping an eye on Jeongin right now.’
He recalled how angry Felix had sounded when he’d called. Definitely not fit for invalid-watching.
Seungmin sighed through his nose, absent-mindedly tracing patterns on the leather with his fingertips. ‘Nothing. I’m not expecting to hear anything from him for a while. He’ll be off licking his wounds somewhere and probably figuring out how to bury his emotions again.’ He rubbed his temple, feeling ten percent more tired just thinking about Jisung and his not-so-tough heart of stone.
‘Okay. Keep me posted about, y’know, everything. Let me know how Jeongin goes and when you’re coming home. The bed feels too big without you in it.’
Seungmin snorted quietly. ‘I’m sure Kkami is delighted to have you all to himself again.’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ was the prim reply, swiftly followed by, ‘Oh, speak of the devil, look who’s arrived. Bet you’re ready for dinner, hmm, sweetheart?’
Amused, Seungmin listened to Hyunjin coo over his dog for a minute before interrupting, ‘Okay, I’ll call you tomorrow sometime. Sweet dreams.’
‘I’ll be expecting it, then. Be safe. Love you.’
‘Love you, too, Hyunjinnie,’ he murmured, ignoring the twinge in his shoulder as he hung up.
No, Seungmin hadn’t told Hyunjin about the bullet graze and yes, he was going to get in big trouble for that, but he knew how much his boyfriend worried, so he’d decided to leave that conversation until he got home.
A gasping little breath from the bed drew his attention at once, turning his head just as Jeongin sat bolt upright and swayed to one side, hands fumbling on the blankets as he fought to keep himself up.
‘Jeongin,’ Seungmin said, as clear and non-threatening as he could make it.
Jeongin still flinched violently enough that his elbow collapsed and he sprawled onto his side. Approaching the bed, Seungmin stood by the end and made no effort to come closer, hands raised slightly to show they were empty. His heart twisted in his chest at the look of bewildered alarm on that too-narrow face.
‘What – what’s going on?’ Jeongin croaked, scrambling to push himself back against the headboard, limbs curled up tight. ‘Where am – where –’
His voice cracked and he coughed harshly.
‘There’s water on the table,’ Seungmin told him, his own voice just barely wavering. ‘Or ice chips, if drinking hurts.’
But Jeongin’s panic only increased when he spied the two cups on the bedside table, one trembling hand reaching back to cling to the frame of the bed for support. ‘N- no,’ he hissed, shaking his head weakly. ‘No more. No more d- drugs.’
Seungmin’s breath froze in his lungs and it took everything he had to keep talking, keep reassuring, to pretend he was calm. ‘That’s right, Jeongin, no more drugs. There are none in the water, okay? I promise. It’s clean.’
Jeongin was still shaking his head, although now it had become more of a whole body sway from side to side. ‘Lying. Lying. Lying.’
A very real fear suddenly gripped Seungmin by the throat – did Jeongin recognise him? Could Jeongin actually see him or was he locked in his head, living out a nightmare as he had several times earlier?
‘Hey, Jeongin, you know who I am, right?’ he asked. ‘You know my face. You know my voice. I’m Kim Seungmin, someone who trusts you even though you bug me every time we meet.’
Jeongin’s head jerked up, fox-bright eyes (still a little cloudy) peering at Seungmin from under his fringe. ‘You...’ He licked his lips, gaze darting around the room and back. ‘You’re not real. I’m hallucinating again.’
Oh, what Seungmin would give for five minutes with the rest of the cartel. And a hammer. Possibly a sledgehammer.
‘You’re not hallucinating, Jeongin,’ he refuted evenly. ‘Felix, Jisung, and I mounted a rescue mission to get you last night. I personally shot your captors in their heads and broke down your door and carried you out. Presently, we are staying in my friend Mina’s apartment.’
Jeongin squinted suspiciously. ‘Where are J- Jisung and Felix then?’
‘Ah, well, they had a fight,’ Seungmin explained, worried Jeongin would think he was making it up. ‘After I found you, mind. They’re both off sulking somewhere now.’
Swallowing with some difficulty, Jeongin’s mouth twisted and he blinked rapidly. ‘I want to believe you,’ he mumbled. ‘But I d- don’t want to be tricked again.’
How could Seungmin solve this? His mind raced and an idea appeared.
He knelt on the edge of the bed and withdrew a short knife from its sheath. Jeongin froze when Seungmin offered it to him, hilt first.
‘You are not trapped anymore, Jeongin, and I am not a hallucination.’
Aware of the risks he was taking, Seungmin tossed the knife up the bed, light enough that if Jeongin didn’t reach for it, it would fall harmlessly onto the blankets. But Jeongin did reach for it, his arm snapping out to expertly grab the handle in a burst of movement that visibly startled him.
Seungmin kept his arm extended. ‘Cut me,’ he commanded. ‘Hallucinations do not bleed.’
Jeongin stared at him for a long, long minute. Then he beckoned Seungmin closer with a twitch of his hand. Walking around the side of the bed, Seungmin once more offered his arm. Wordless and watchful, Jeongin took his wrist in hand and pressed the edge of the blade to the back of Seungmin’s forearm.
Blood welled and he winced at the sting.
‘Seungmin,’ Jeongin gasped. His eyes were wide and his expression was crumpling. ‘Seungmin. You – you came for me.’
‘Of course we did,’ Seungmin said firmly, crouching by the bed as Jeongin’s hold on his wrist tightened. ‘We would have ripped all of Indonesia apart to find you if we had to.’
And Jeongin began to cry. He did not sob, though tears fell and his breathing was rough, and he refused to let go of Seungmin. In the end, Seungmin simply sat on the mattress beside him and hugged Jeongin to his chest, cradling the back of his head with one hand.
‘I have you now,’ Seungmin murmured, gently rocking them both side to side. ‘You are safe, Jeongin, you are safe.’
-- interlude II --
Mongolia in winter was no fun. It was cold. Very, very cold. Like, way below freezing cold, which made even staying alive a serious challenge.
Fortunately, that kind of teeth-gritting struggle was exactly what Jisung was after right now. So here he was, wrapped up in as many thermal layers as possible, sitting in the back of a tiny airplane that had to be at least twice his age, way above the Altai Mountains in northwest Mongolia. Oh, and he had a parachute strapped to his back.
‘Five minutes to the drop zone.’ The pilot’s voice echoed through the headset Jisung wore.
Jisung watched the scenery passing below them with a muted sense of awe. The country might leave you for dead just as soon as it would throw you a bone, but it always a beautiful sight to behold from above. The peaks of the rippling mountains were all dusted with snow, while lower down was bare, icy rock. The climate was too dry to produce much snow; everything was covered in permafrost instead, making it one of the most inhospitable terrains in the world, as far as Jisung was concerned.
But, again, he was perversely glad of this. It was why he was here on a job projected to last six to eight months (ten if it ran really overtime). Some (Seungmin) would call him a blatant masochist but Jisung wasn’t here to make himself suffer. He was here to clear his mind, to grind out all the unnecessary emotional chaff in his system, to hone his most murderous instincts and skills.
Jisung was here to pit himself against the deadliest enemy of them all, Nature herself, and remind himself what the most fundamentally important tenet in his life was – survival. It was a trial by fire, a do-or-die kind of mission that was almost certainly going to get him killed one day. As it had been nearly three years since the last one of these jobs, there was plenty of chaff to be cleared out.
I don’t want to kill you.
He ground his teeth together, glaring at the floor of the plane. This was exactly the sort of thing that he was here to get rid of.
And he would. Either that, or it would distract him at some crucial point or another and he’d die. Simple.
‘Clear to jump.’
A feral little smile curled up the corners of Jisung’s half-frozen lips as he removed the headset and shoved the door open.
This was going to be fun.
-- interlude III --
‘See how the pancake’s holding together now and it’s golden? That means it’s ready to be flipped over,’ Hyunjin explained, sliding the spatula further under the scallion pancake and demonstrating.
At his side, Jeongin watched attentively and nodded, twitching when a speck of hot oil leapt out of the pan and landed on his bare arm.
‘Ah, sorry, should have warned you about that,’ Hyunjin fretted, setting down the spatula on a prepared wad of paper towels and ushering Jeongin to the sink. ‘Here, the cold water will help.’
Jeongin allowed the fussing, not speaking until Hyunjin had patted his forearm dry with a tea towel.
‘It didn’t hurt that much,’ he said quietly, brows drawn together slightly.
Hyunjin stilled as he hung the tea towel back up on the rack, taking a moment to school his expression before turning back around.
‘And I knew how to fix it, so now it doesn’t hurt at all,’ he replied evenly. ‘Now, do you think you can mind the pajeon for me?’
Jeongin nodded again, picking up the spatula and prodding cautiously at the pancake sizzling away.
Keeping half an eye on his new sous chef, Hyunjin grabbed several small bowls from a cupboard above the bench and placed them in a row. From the fridge he then retrieved a couple of jars and plates on which he had an assortment of pre-prepared namul. Into the little bowls went stir-fried fern shoots, seasoned seaweed fronds, and oil-coated boiled bean sprouts, which he ferried out to the table in the small dining room. A fourth sitting cushion joined the usual three today, in anticipation of their guest.
A yelp from the direction of the kitchen had Hyunjin abandoning his incessant rearranging of the dishes to back into the other room.
‘Jeongin? What’s wrong?’
His expression distinctly mournful, Jeongin gestured to the singed, broken remains of the pajeon he’d been making just as Hyunjin caught the faint scent of burning in the air.
‘Ah dear,’ he clucked, taking the plate to scrape the ruined pancake into the scraps bin. ‘Not to worry, though. We can try again, hmm?’
‘Sorry,’ Jeongin mumbled, and honestly, how could he expect Hyunjin to be even slightly mad when he looked like a kicked puppy?
Hyunjin patted him on the shoulder, making sure Jeongin could see the touch coming, and suggested, ‘How about we do it together this time? This is your first time making pajeon so I should have checked on you before leaving the room. Nothing to be sorry about.’
The look on Jeongin’s face said he wasn’t too sure about that, but he dutifully followed Hyunjin’s instructions to prepare a new pancake. Hyunjin made sure to stay close for the duration of the process by and it went much more smoothly. By the time Seungmin had returned to the apartment, half an hour later or so, there was a neat little stack of scallion pancakes on the plate by the stove.
‘We’re back!’ Seungmin called from the entrance.
Ah yes, he had their guest with him.
Directing Jeongin to take the plate to the table, Hyunjin called back a greeting as he switched off the stove and put away the oil and empty batter bowl. A moment later, he heard footsteps behind him and turned on his heel, smile unfurling.
‘Something smells burnt,’ was Seungmin’s opening comment as he slipped an arm around Hyunjin’s waist and placed a bag of sparkling grape juice on the bench.
‘Don’t mention it,’ Hyunjin replied, pressing a quick kiss to Seungmin’s lips. ‘Jeongin was helping me with the food.’
Seungmin grinned, backing away to retrieve some glasses. ‘Oh, did he? Tell me about it later.’
Hyunjin was already walking to the door and the kiss he blew over his shoulder was a promise.
Across the tiny dining-room-cum-lounge, Felix was lingering near the entranceway, watching Jeongin arranging the dishes on the table. Hyunjin’s skin prickled at how thick the tension in the air was, but he’d had a bit of practise handling capricious, slightly unhinged hitmen over the past few months, so he didn’t balk. Besides, this was his first time officially meeting Felix and he didn’t want to make a bad impression.
‘Felix-ssi, welcome,’ he greeted.
Felix’s attention turned to him with such smoothness that Hyunjin had no doubt he’d been perfectly aware of Hyunjin’s location even before he entered the room.
Dipping his head, Felix said politely, ‘Thank you for having me. And – just Felix.’
Hyunjin nodded. ‘Alright then. Dinner is ready, if you’d like to take a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?’
Seungmin suddenly breezed past, somehow carrying four glasses of sparkling grape juice and the bottle. ‘He’s having this, don’t worry.’
Felix raised an eyebrow but didn’t protest, simply joining the others by the table.
As Seungmin focused on carefully setting down the drinks without spilling anything and Hyunjin counted all the dishes to makes sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, he heard Felix say, ‘Yang.’
Jeongin, settling on the cushion to Hyunjin’s right, stilled, then replied just as softly, ‘Felix.’
They said nothing more but Hyunjin would bet his left leg that they were having one of those nonverbal assassin conversations. Somehow, Seungmin remained oblivious to the fact that, yes, Hyunjin did know what those were.
The meal started well enough, if a tad awkwardly.
Then Seungmin asked, ‘So, Felix, how’s things? It’s been, what, a month since I last saw you.’
Lowering the bite of grilled fish he’d been about to have, Felix unexpectedly confessed, ‘I’ve broken a lot of walls. And doors. And a few... other things.’
He flexed his hands, the action unconscious, and Hyunjin automatically looked down at them and oh wow, had they always been that scarred? The silvery nature of the scars would indicate yes, but a few of them looked a little more raw.
He was also quick to notice that while Felix’s answer might have puzzled him, it seemed to make a lot more sense to the others, both of whom were nodding sagely.
‘Han?’ Seungmin queried.
Felix pursed his lips and stared down at his food for a minute, then nodded. ‘Han,’ he agreed.
‘He inspires such reactions from the best of us,’ Jeongin added, his tone almost... commiserating?
Hyunjin glanced between the three men at his table, hopelessly lost. Across from him, Jeongin caught his gaze and smiled faintly, no doubt seeing his confusion. Jeongin, who, Hyunjin privately noted, was looking much perkier than he had since Seungmin brought him here weeks ago.
‘Jisung is a little bitch,’ Jeongin stated cheerfully.
Well, that explained nothing.
‘What Jeongin means –’
‘He is,’ Felix interrupted, scowling at his drink right before he downed the entire thing in one go.
Hyunjin stared. Huh. So that’s what sort of a dinner this was going to be. He considered his own glass of non-alcoholic grape juice for a long moment. Making a decision, he cleared his throat, drawing three pairs of eyes to him as their conversation halted.
‘Felix,’ Hyunjin said carefully, ‘would you like some soju?’
Had relief ever been so apparent in the face of a man? Doubtful.
‘Yes,’ was the near fervent answer.
Nodding to himself, Hyunjin got up from the table and went back into the kitchen. He paused as he retrieved the soju cups, contemplating how many to bring out. In the end, he took four. As the hosts, he and Seungmin could hardly let Felix drink alone and Jeongin wasn’t taking any painkillers for his ribs (he’d damn near run up the walls when Hyunjin had offered to get some from the chemist), so there was no point holding back.
The second, unopened bottle of sparkling grape juice on the counter caught his eye and he smiled fondly. Seungmin knew Hyunjin didn’t like drinking alcohol all that much, which was why the drink had been bought, but Hyunjin’s mother (and Minho) had educated him well about alcohol and etiquette.
It would be shameful of him to not give a friend (or... colleague of his boyfriend) the opportunity to get shit-faced when they were clearly in desperate need of it.
-- interlude IV --
‘Do you have any idea how to drive this?!’ Liu yelled from behind him as they landed heavily on the other side of a rocky outcrop that Jisung had just launched them over.
‘I fail to see how that’s very relevant right now!’ Jisung shouted back, wrestling with the wheel of the off-road vehicle as it threatened to skid on the shale-covered mountainside.
‘For someone who’s meant to be driving us to safety, you sure don’t see a lot!’ she fumed, just as the sound of gunfire reached them. ‘Ah, fuck. Try not to flip this thing while I get rid of these bastards!’
No promises, Jisung thought grimly, zigzagging through the fir trees at a speed that, under any other circumstances, would be considered truly suicidal.
In the one wing mirror that hadn’t been shot to shit, he could see the glaring headlights of the vehicles chasing them in the rapidly dwindling evening light. Mid-spring it might be, but Mongolia played by its own rules and apparently they involved an extreme lack of light most of the year round. The rear view mirror was obscured by Liu’s ass as she stood up through the hatch in the roof and a moment later the thud-thud-thud of her rotary machine gun started up.
A fallen tree suddenly loomed in the gloom up ahead, almost as tall as the truck even on its side.
‘Brace!’ Jisung screeched, whipping the truck into a handbrake turn that nearly rolled them right into the log.
He was pretty sure he could hear Liu calling his mother a whore, or perhaps it was him, but she didn’t go flying out through the roof or duck inside so she was probably fine. Bruised ribs never killed anybody, right? The immense crunching sound that followed a second later suggested that at least one of the vehicles pursing them hadn’t managed to execute a successful turn and Jisung bared his teeth in a grin. He stomped on the accelerator and they went hurtling down the mountain again.
Concern spiked as Liu suddenly pulled back into the truck, dragging her enormous gun with her.
‘What happened?’ he demanded, trying not get too distracted lest they end up pasted to a tree.
‘Been shot,’ she snapped. ‘Where the fuck’s the first aid kit?’
‘Under my seat. How bad is it?’
Liu swore loudly as he hauled on the wheel again, causing her to smack into a side door as he steered them into denser forestry.
‘Got me in the bicep,’ she growled, rummaging for the kit. ‘You’ll need to shoot.’
‘Are you going to pass out on me if I give you the wheel?’ Jisung asked.
He glanced in the mirror again and saw blood covering one of her arms as she used her teeth and other hand to hastily tie a bandage around it.
‘Doesn’t matter, does it?’ she retorted. ‘I can’t hold the gun, so I have to drive.’
She was right, of course. The only way they were getting out of this alive was if someone held back the tide of furious Mongols hot on their tail and someone else drove like they had nothing to lose. So they swapped positions, almost ploughing nose-first into a tree when Liu’s knee knocked the wheel.
The barrage of gunfire grew loud once more, lights reflecting in the mirrors.
‘If you lose my rotary, you owe me a new one!’ Liu shouted as he popped his head up through the open hatch.
Jisung’s eyes started watering immediately at the rush of cold air and the bright lights of the three trucks chasing them and he didn’t waste his breath replying. He hauled the gun up onto the roof, having fastened the belt around it to his waist in case it was jolted out of his grip. Crouching as low as he could without getting smacked in the face by the butt of the gun, he started firing, feeling his ears instantly begin to numb from the noise.
It didn’t take long, however, for him to realise that apparently there was somebody else on this planet with a driving style that could be summed up with one word – reckless. And it just so happened that this somebody else was now driving the truck he was half hanging out of.
Jisung didn’t even try to hold back his scream of horror-terror-outrage as he felt the truck suddenly go airborne – and then stay in the air for way, way too many seconds. The vehicle thumped back to earth and he had to slam his knees up into the roof to keep himself from rolling out. The rotary hit the rooftop a moment later and whacked him in the cheekbone, eliciting a string of curses in at least four different languages from him.
And Liu dares to complain about my driving?!
The satisfaction of watching one of the pursuing trucks hit a tree when Jisung finally took out the windscreen and driver was enough compensation for him to feel slightly mollified.
Then the car went into a sideways skid that just about flung him into the cold, hard embrace of a tree and thoughts of anything except how creatively he intended to gut Liu if they survived this were sent spinning into the void.
-- interlude V --
The digital clock in Jeongin’s – the spare room silently declared the time to be quarter to five. Time to go, then. Hyunjin would be up in half an hour for his early dance class and Jeongin wanted to be long gone by then.
He grabbed the rucksack he’d packed with a few essentials and slung it over one shoulder. On quiet feet, he left the little room that had been his for the past two months and padded down the hallway, through the dimly lit living room to –
‘Oh, there you are.’
Jeongin just about jumped out of his skin, spinning on one socked heel as his gaze shot to the dining table where Hyunjin was sitting. Hyunjin, in his pyjamas and armed with a mug of what might’ve been peppermint tea. Hyunjin, who looked one fifth awake at most.
‘You’re meant to be asleep,’ Jeongin blurted, his brain stalling.
Only one of the kitchen lights was on but it was more than enough to illuminate Hyunjin’s faint smile.
‘So are you,’ he countered.
Jeongin’s grip on the strap of his rucksack tightened and he blinked twice, unsure what to say. He didn’t want to upset Hyunjin but...
‘It’s time for me to go.’
Smile fading, Hyunjin interlinked his fingers and leaned forward in his chair, giving Jeongin his full attention as he asked, ‘And why’s that?’
‘Because...’ Because Jeongin had been here too long! His ribs had healed at least two weeks ago, so he really didn’t have any excuse to hang around anymore. Surely Hyunjin would be happy to have his and Seungmin’s personal space back.
‘This is your home,’ Jeongin tried. ‘Not mine.’
He’d never really had one of those.
‘Have I done something to make you feel unwelcome in my home?’
Jeongin gaped in shock at the question but Hyunjin looked quite serious.
‘No, no,’ he rushed out, shifting his weight anxiously from foot to foot. ‘Nothing like that, Hyunjin, really.’
‘Do you not like it here?’ was the next, equally baffling question.
‘Of course I like it here,’ Jeongin protested.
Sure, maybe once upon a time Hyunjin had struck him as a bit of an air-headed wilting pansy, but if the two months in this small apartment had taught him anything, it was that Hyunjin was kind. Indiscriminately, utterly, foolishly kind. Who else would let a semi-regular rotation of assorted miscreants into their home, feed them, and offer them extra bandages?
‘Then why are you leaving?’ Hyunjin repeated, uncharacteristically intent. ‘You don’t exactly look like you want to.’
Jeongin flinched and gritted his teeth. ‘You can’t just – just expect me to stay forever. I’m better now. I can look after myself. I won’t keep imposing on you and Seungmin.’
I feel lonely when I’m around you two. It hurts, seeing what I don’t have.
Hyunjin stood and crossed the room till he was toe to toe with Jeongin, who fought the urge to recoil.
‘Jeongin,’ Hyunjin said, soft and sincere. ‘You are not imposing on us. We both like having you here. And I know you’re completely capable of taking care of yourself but...’ He bit his lip, then ploughed on. ‘But there is a very large, very selfish part of me that wants to look after you. Please don’t think I’m pitying you, because I promise I’m not. It’s just – when was the last time you had a home to fall back on?’
A choked little noise escaped Jeongin’s throat and he thought it might be laugh. He should shake his head, politely sidestep Hyunjin’s concern, and leave. And maybe do what Jisung had done, which was run very far away so he didn’t have to think about all the uncomfortable, painful feelings rolling around inside him.
That was what he should do but it was not what he wanted to do, and with Hyunjin currently training his best puppy dog eyes on Jeongin, did he really have much choice in the matter?
‘Never,’ he mumbled, unable to look away from Hyunjin’s gentle gaze. ‘Home isn’t – something I’ve experienced.’
Even before he’d accidentally been swallowed by the underworld at the tender age of fifteen, “home” had never been anything other than a concept to Jeongin. As he’d once said, his family were straight-laced traditionalists. They had no interest in a so-called problem child like him, never mind that his autism wasn’t particularly bad. He could talk, perform fine-motor skills, interact with other people – but apparently his need for rhythm and repetition in certain areas, his tendency to fixate on things, and the trouble he had forming meaningful relationships was too much for his family to tolerate.
Hyunjin looked unbearably sad and Jeongin felt an unexpected urge to hug him, knowing that physical contact was the fastest way to cheer Hyunjin up.
‘Not even with... Jisung?’ he asked hesitantly.
Jeongin swallowed thickly. Shit, he hated talking about this stuff. But he owed Hyunjin some semblance of an explanation, so he shook his head.
‘Jisung was a mess when he found me. I might’ve been the one with a bullet in my gut but he was in just as bad a state. I think – I think I gave him something to focus on, something outside of himself.’ Jeongin paused, remembering those first months they’d spent together. ‘Jisung’s really important to me,’ he confessed, ‘but everything was very one-way with him. He gave me everything – shelter, security, skills with which to defend myself – and he accepted nothing in return. Nothing at all.’
Hyunjin sniffed. Loudly.
Jeongin’s heart plummeted. ‘Are you –’
‘Hush,’ Hyunjin hissed, hastily wiping his eyes with his fingertips. ‘You just – you just hush, okay, Yang Jeongin?’
Jeongin obediently closed his mouth, feeling wretched. He really hadn’t wanted to upset Hyunjin.
‘Now then,’ Hyunjin continued, clearing his throat and fixing Jeongin with a watery glare. ‘Here’s what’s going to happen: unless you can give me a very good reason for why I should let you walk out that door, you are going to hand over your bag, I will give you a hug, and then you will go back to sleep in your bed in your room. If, by the time I get back from dance, you have done anything more strenuous than get out of bed, you will be obligated to watch three Studio Ghibli films with me.’
‘The hug is optional, but everything else is mandatory.’
Was this really happening? Did Hyunjin want him to stay that much? Really? Suddenly, the idea of doing anything other than going back to bed sounded incredibly unappealing and Jeongin couldn’t think of one decent reason why he should leave. None of them seemed particularly watertight in the face of Hyunjin’s steely-eyed determination.
So Jeongin chose the only sensible option.
He slid the rucksack off his shoulder and said in a voice that may have wobbled, ‘I’d like the hug too, please.’
The first hints of autumn were in the air when Jisung walked off the plane in Daegu. Outside the airport, he took a moment to breathe deeply, enjoying the feel of being back on home ground. Then he flagged down a taxi and made his way to a safe house he hadn’t stayed in since that job for Chungha last year.
Nothing had changed. The apartment was as small and secure and dusty as ever. Home sweet home, as far as Jisung was concerned. Bag abandoned in a corner, he collapsed onto the bed with a satisfied sigh. After six months of running up and down mountains in near-freezing to sub-zero temperatures with that madwoman, Liu, he thought it was high time for a damn good nap. So that was what he did. Too exhausted for nightmares, Jisung slept soundly for approximately fourteen hours before being woken by the rumbling of his stomach.
Only after he’d inhaled half his weight in food and rediscovered the joys of hot water did Jisung slow down enough to think. Taking a set of small throwing knives, he went into his designated training room and found a sense of calm in the comforting rhythm of steel thwacking into rubber targets.
So. Here he was again.
His surroundings might not have changed but he had. That was kind of the point of his impromptu sabbatical.
Okay, not quite. The point had been to return him to his previous state. A tabula rasa, if you will.
But Change was a tempestuous mistress and apparently half a year’s worth of ice and stone and way too many brushes with hypothermia hadn’t been enough to turn back the clock.
Sometimes even Jisung lost in the grand game of fate and –
He stopped in the middle of the room, blade poised between the knuckles of his index and middle finger. When the fuck did he get so poetic? Why the fuck did get so poetic?
It’s called avoiding the subject, idiot.
Ah. Yeah. That sounded about right.
Jisung threw the knife waiting in his hand and, after a moment’s pensive consideration, started collecting the blades. He resisted the urge to lose an hour or three in the smooth satisfaction that came with knife-throwing. There was a reason he was in Korea again and it was not to play with his toys. He was out the door of the apartment not half an hour later.
First things coming first, Jisung had to find a bus up north to Sangju-si. He was mildly surprised upon stepping out of his apartment building to find that it was actually quite early in the morning. Beyond being a useful form of measurement, time hadn’t really meant a lot to him for a while now. Fortunately, the first buses of the day were just gearing up to go when he reached the station.
“Early” was a matter of opinion, anyway. At least, that’s what Jisung told himself when he made his way to a certain apartment upon arrival in Sangju-si. He smirked without meaning to when his attempt to break through the door lock failed; clearly, Hyunjin had upped his security since the last time Jisung dropped by. Deciding it wouldn’t kill him to play nice for once, he knocked and waited.
The door swung open a minute later, revealing a tired Hyunjin in some very rumpled stripy pyjamas.
‘Hi,’ Jisung said, hands in his pockets.
Hyunjin blinked. Then he aggressively rubbed his eyes and blinked again. At last, the expected shock splashed across his expression.
‘Jisung?’ he croaked, voice rough like he’d been yelling. ‘Jisung?’
‘That’s my name,’ Jisung agreed. ‘Don’t wear it out. Is Min in?’
‘Uh. Yes, but he’s not really, um –’
‘Oh, did I interrupt something?’ Jisung waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
As predicted, Hyunjin flushed furiously, immediately waving his hands in denial. ‘No, no, we were up late last night because –’
‘Hyunjinnie?’ Seungmin called from the depths of the apartment, sounding like he’d either just woken up or had gravel for breakfast (possibly both). ‘Who is it?’
Jisung shouldered his way past Hyunjin into the entranceway, despite the weak protests of his unwilling host. A glance to the right revealed a mess of blankets and couch cushions in front of the television. Seungmin, groggy as all hell, sat in the middle of it.
‘So I am interrupting something,’ Jisung said, delighted.
Behind him, Hyunjin sighed loudly and shut the door, padding off to the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Seungmin’s expression had gone very flat. ‘Han. I thought you were somewhere far away from here.’
His disappointment at having been disproven on that front could not have been more obvious, but Jisung only grinned.
‘Aw, did you miss me?’ he teased.
‘Not even a little bit,’ was the grumbled response, just as Hyunjin poked his head around the kitchen door and asked, ‘Coffee or tea, Jisung?’
‘Coffee, no milk or sugar,’ Jisung replied, ignoring Seungmin’s plaintive, ‘Why are you feeding him, Hyunjinnie?’
Leaning against the arm of the bare couch, Jisung spotted three game controllers pushed haphazardly beside the television and raised an inquisitive brow.
‘What did you play?’
Seungmin sighed, leaning back on one hand as he ran the other through his short brown hair. ‘About six hours of Mario Kart.’
A suspicion formed in Jisung’s mind, his gaze fixed on the third controller. ‘And who –’
The blanket-covered lump beside Seungmin suddenly groaned and elongated, an unruly black mop appearing from under the fabric.
‘What’s all the noise about, hyung?’ the mop mumbled, and Jisung’s brows nearly launched themselves off his face.
Seungmin patted the mop affectionately. ‘See for yourself.’
Grunting in confusion, the mop rolled over and Jeongin’s eyes widened comically at the sight of Jisung perched on the couch arm.
‘Jisung?’ he squeaked.
‘Oh, so Minnie gets called hyung but I don’t? Nice,’ Jisung pouted, folding his arms with a huff.
Barking suddenly started up somewhere deeper in the apartment, followed by the sounds of Hyunjin hurrying down the hall. Seungmin heaved another sigh and dragged himself from his cosy-looking nest, passing Jisung on his way to the kitchen.
‘When did you get back? How was – wherever you went?’ Jeongin asked, fox eyes bright as he sat up.
‘Yesterday and cold,’ Jisung answered succinctly, still feeling a bit put out about the hyung business.
Unimpressed, Jeongin glared at him, the effect slightly ruined by the fact that he was clearly half asleep. ‘You seem to have forgotten that it was you who told me not to call you that,’ he snipped. ‘Something about being “too young for that kind of responsibility”, wasn’t it?’
Jisung scowled, biting back a childish retort when Seungmin reappeared and handed him his coffee. He passed a cup of what was definitely hot chocolate to Jeongin, then took a seat in an armchair, looking a little sharper and more awake.
‘So. Han.’ Seungmin narrowed his eyes, fingers tapping absently on the chair. ‘What brings you here unannounced at nine in the morning?’
Sipping his coffee (and wincing when he scalded his tongue), Jisung noted with mild trepidation that Jeongin was doing a terribly good job of mimicking that irritating, not-quite-accusative-but-definitely-interrogative expression Seungmin wore eight times out of ten around him. Maybe it hadn’t been such a great idea to leave his protégé in Seungmin’s care last winter.
‘I wanted to find out how you were doing,’ Jisung said, nodding at Jeongin. ‘I admit, I wasn’t expecting to find you here, but it seemed like the best place to start looking.’
Jeongin squinted. ‘The Han Jisung I know wouldn’t admit care for another human being under pain of torture, so either you’re not Jisung or you’re lying.’
Seungmin miserably failed to stifle his snort and Jisung gaped, horrified at the ease with which Jeongin had just shredded him.
‘I’m – I’m not lying,’ he spluttered, because he wasn’t, he was just –
‘But it’s not the main reason you’re here, is it?’ Jeongin prodded. ‘Whatever the real reason is, it’s something so terribly awful that –’
He broke off, a wicked gleam in his eye.
Honestly, when the fuck had Jeongin gotten so good at intimidation? And at reading him??
‘Now, listen here,’ Jisung began hastily, but Jeongin had a devilish grin unfurling across his face now.
‘The running away didn’t work out so well this time, huh?’ Jeongin snickered.
‘That’s not what –’
‘Oh.’ Seungmin’s eyes widened in realisation. ‘So that’s what this is about.’
‘No it’s –’
Hyunjin walked in, a small dog in his arms, and raised a brow at the defensive way in which Jisung was rising from his perch. Then what could only be understanding crossed his expression and he said, ‘Ah, are we at the confrontation bit already?’
Why did this feel like a staged intervention?
‘Because it is one,’ Jeongin replied bluntly, and oh, Jisung had said that out loud.
‘Look,’ Jisung tried again, doing his best not to growl, hot coffee in danger of being spilt, ‘I came here to find Jeongin and –’
‘And see if I’m still alive and sane, yes, yes,’ Jeongin interrupted, waving a dismissive hand. ‘I’ve been fine for months, thanks.’
The tone of his voice gave Jisung pause and he abruptly fell quiet, searching Jeongin’s dark eyes for any hint of resentment or anger. Finding none, Jisung did not expect such a powerful wave of relief to crash through him.
‘Jisung.’ Jeongin’s voice was firm, his gaze direct and open. ‘You did what you could and it was enough. I’m not angry at you so don’t beat yourself up about it now, okay?’
Jisung’s mouth was very, very dry.
‘But don’t think that I’m not well aware of why you’re here, because I am and I know it’s not me.’
Well. Okay then. That was fine. Not like Jisung really needed lungs anyway. Why breathe when you could just – not?
‘Hey, hey, get that look off your face,’ Seungmin suddenly snapped, rising out of his seat and taking Jisung’s mug from him before he dropped it. ‘Calm down, Han. You’re fine. You’re okay.’
Distantly, Jisung was aware of Hyunjin and his dog leaving the room again, which he was deeply thankful for. This was mortifying enough with only Seungmin and Jeongin, the two people he trusted most in this world.
But that’s not quite true, is it?
He swallowed, strangling the little voice into submission, albeit a temporary one.
Seungmin crouched down in front of him, the cup safely out of the way. ‘Han. Jisung,’ he said quietly. ‘Just... talk to him. Alright? Go and find him and talk to him.’
‘I don’t –’ Jisung’s voice cracked and his hands trembled. He blinked, gaze flicking between the two staring intently at him.
I don’t want to, he didn’t say because the lie was crumbling on his tongue.
Gods above, this was why he’d rather climb a hundred Mongolian mountains in winter than so much as touch his feelings. It demanded too much vulnerability from him.
‘He won’t turn you away,’ Jeongin promised. ‘He won’t.’
‘If he wants to talk to me,’ Jisung gritted out, ‘then surely –’
‘You ran from him, remember? Not the other way around.’ Seungmin shook his head. ‘Go and find him. If you don’t, well – why did you come back?’
The question was spoken calmly, lightly, and utterly ruthlessly.
And that one, more than anything else, stuck with Jisung.
A week later, Jisung stood on a flat rooftop in Busan with his back to the sea, feeling the wind tousle his hair, catching the strong smell of salt and fish on the air. It was early afternoon, the sun high in the sky and warm on his skin. Down below, the streets bustled with life, but Jisung paid them no mind, his attention fixed on the door that opened up onto the roof.
He was waiting for someone. Not very patiently, true, but he was doing his best.
It was perhaps half an hour later that the old metal door was forcefully shoved open. Jisung straightened, tension coiling between his shoulders. Then the sun gleamed off a shock of white-blond hair and a familiar, heavy gaze ran into his.
Felix stilled, one hand on the door to push it shut.
Jisung tried not to crack any teeth with how hard he was clenching his jaw. He stayed in place, waiting to see what Felix would do. Waiting to see if Jeongin had been right.
Eventually, Felix closed the door and Jisung relaxed fractionally. Felix crossed the roof towards him with his usual confident, deliberate gait, but Jisung could have sworn he was hesitating in some way. Or maybe it had been a while since Jisung last saw him and he’d forgotten how to read that stony mask of an expression. Felix stopped outside of arm’s reach and a little part of Jisung wondered if that had anything to do with their last meeting. Mostly, though, he was too busy drinking in the sight of the bastard who’d refused to leave his thoughts for upward of six months, despite the considerable effort Jisung had put into mentally evicting him.
‘I’m here on a job,’ Felix said, and had his voice always been deeper than the ninth circle of hell?
‘I know,’ Jisung replied, pulse fluttering in his throat like a panicked bird. ‘I know.’
Don’t tell me to leave.
Regarding him silently for a moment, Felix nodded and moved nearer the edge of the roof, kneeling behind the low wall and pulling out a small, high-powered telescope. He lifted it to one eye and began scanning the lower levels of the building opposite, and for a brief, cold second, Jisung thought he’d been dismissed. But barely half a minute after pulling out the scope, Felix lowered it, glancing over his shoulder at Jisung. What little of his expression there was to be read did not say fuck off, but rather why are you still over there?
A dizzying mix of anxiousness, adrenaline, and anticipation flooded Jisung’s bloodstream, leaving him giddy. He went and sat by Felix. Well, near Felix; he left a good two feet of uninterrupted space between them.
Jisung leaned back against the wall while Felix peered over it, not wanting to distract himself with the goings on in the street. Instead, he occupied himself with stealing glances at Felix’s side profile whenever he was quite sure the outrageously bright-haired man’s attention was entirely focused elsewhere.
Felix didn’t seem to have changed that much either. He was still built like a human tank and he still had a two-digit maximum quota of words per day, apparently. Maybe his hair was a little longer, the fringe threatening to curl down in front of his eyes, but that was all. All that Jisung could see, anyway.
‘Even when you aren’t talking, you’re loud,’ Felix muttered out of the blue. ‘I can hear you thinking from here.’
Startled, Jisung turned in affront. ‘Well, I don’t mean to be.’
‘If you want me to fuck off, just tell me,’ Jisung grumbled, not quite realising what he was saying until the words had already left his mouth.
They both went still as the delicate balance of whatever the hell was happening here threatened to crack.
But when Felix shot Jisung a sidelong look, it was only to say, ‘No. Stay. Tell me what havoc you’ve been wreaking since Balikpapan.’
Refusing to let himself dwell on any the potentially devastating emotional impact of Felix’s first words, Jisung relaxed against the wall again and obligingly recounted his adventures in the Altai Mountains to a largely unresponsive, but somehow still attentive, audience of one.
Jisung didn’t sleep much that night, his mind spinning in overdrive, but perhaps that was for the best. He could only imagine what sort of horrors the echo of his brother would have lying in wait. Even Jisung’s subconscious version of Han Jihyun was incapable of letting his dongsaeng have anything nice without trying to destroy it.
And then the next day, Jisung went back up to the rooftop to wait.
‘Why do you keep your hair that colour?’
The question had been gnawing at Jisung for hours. At last, he decided that it was worth the risk of voicing it. Hopefully Felix wouldn’t throw him off the building for daring to ask such a thing. Jisung vividly remembered what had happened last time, but he’d been picking a fight then. Now, he was taking great care to ensure his tone was as unaggressive as he could possibly make it.
Felix kept peering through his scope as he said, ‘I’ve already answered that one.’
Okay, true. But –
‘Who were they? The person you loved.’
Quiet fell between them and Jisung forced his breathing to remain calm and even. At least he was getting some practise at being patient; there was really no other choice when dealing with Felix.
Just as Jisung thought that perhaps he wouldn’t get a reply, Felix turned to meet his gaze, and oh. Old, tired grief lay like a weighted shroud over him. Suddenly, Jisung regretted asking. He knew well that there were some memories best left in their box, bringing only pain when brought out into the light.
‘My little sister.’
The air in Jisung’s lungs turned to ice. Suddenly, Felix’s response to the very idea of Jisung having cold-heartedly murdered his brother made sense. Their relationships with their respective siblings could clearly not have been any more dissimilar.
Unsure how to reply without being mind-bogglingly tactless, Jisung simply nodded. Slowly, to show that he accepted the weight of this knowledge, that he understood the trust being placed in him.
‘Like you said,’ Felix murmured, his expression distant, ‘I – we were raised by an abusive alcoholic. I made it out. She didn’t.’
Ah. That explained the patricide.
Jisung did not fight the words that rolled helplessly from his tongue. Apologising was even worse than expressing gratitude in his book, but right now this was all he could say. All he could offer as recompense for the many, many times he’d needled Felix about his ice cream hair. Jisung would be the first to admit he was an asshole at the best of times, but this? This was so far beyond that.
Perhaps Felix heard all the words Jisung didn’t know how to say through his apology because he cocked his head and said, ‘I know you are.’
There was a desperate need in Jisung to make this right, to balance the scales just a little, so he dredged up a painfully defining memory of his own and asked, ‘Have you heard of Kim Namjoon?’
Felix blinked deliberately and, after a moment of consideration, inclined his head. ‘He’s something of a legend. Thought to be the best hitman in the world for twenty years.’
‘Do you know what happened to him?’
Felix paused. ‘I was going to say he disappeared and no-one knows what happened to him, but I get the feeling you have a different answer.’
Jisung swallowed, tongue darting out to moisten his lips. Why was he talking about this again?
Don’t be a coward.
The voice in his head was an unpleasant mix of his own, Seungmin’s, and Jeongin’s.
‘My family was his last job,’ Jisung began, digging his fingers into the concrete he sat on, anchoring himself to the present. ‘It was a long one, required deep cover.’
Inhale. Exhale. Continue.
‘I was –‘ unwanted, meant to be a daughter, not another son – ‘in his care from the age of eight to sixteen. He was my nanny, my tutor, my friend, and... the closest thing I had to a loving parent.’
Jisung broke eye contact, staring out over the rooves of other buildings instead.
‘Namjoon-hyung taught me –‘ everything – ‘how to defend myself. How to get by in a world as callous as ours. How to survive when your wits and your own two hands were all you had left. And then my father found out who he really was and had him killed.’
‘You know what we do with spies, boy.’ A cruel smile on his father’s face, a blood-wet knife staining the white cloth wrapped around it where it sat on the immense mahogany desk.
Aged fury and seething hatred bubbled up at the memory. But now was not the time to wallow in the past, so Jisung took a breath and pushed through it.
‘I walked out of the house and didn’t come back until I knew I would be able to put a knife through my father’s rotten heart.’
Setting the place on fire afterwards had been a side benefit.
Jisung let the silence hang for a moment, waiting for the memories to slide out of the spotlight in his mind before chancing a glance at Felix. There was a look of intense focus on his face, every shred of his attention fixed firmly on Jisung. Then he blinked and sat back slightly, understanding that Jisung had said all he would.
‘So, we both have the blood of our fathers on our hands,’ Felix murmured.
Jisung nodded jerkily, the knot in his chest tight.
Turning back to the building he was meant to be watching, Felix lifted the scope again, but paused before holding it to his eye. He did not look at Jisung as he said, ‘She loved the snow. That’s what the colour made her think of. She called me her snow fairy and... that was the name I used when I had to fight in the cages. For her, I became the Nun Yojeong.’
Then he refocused on his target and the conversation was over.
And the weight behind Jisung’s sternum gentled a little.
He slept that night. For a while, at least. It was around four when he called it quits and drifted to the practise room armed with a handful of knives.
The paranoia eased, his skin no longer two sizes too small for his body.
White-blond hair flashed through his mind and Jisung threw the next blade with a little more forced than necessary.
Maybe he should let Jeongin know he was right. Felix hadn’t pushed him away, despite having every right to. Jisung discarded the thought almost as soon as it arrived.
Not only would Jeongin be insufferable, but this was... private. His cheeks warmed immediately and the knife that sliced through the air wobbled slightly off centre.
Was this what it felt like to be a moth basking in the light of something so different from itself, drawn ever closer despite the danger?
Half a year ago, Jisung had failed to kill Felix and it had enraged him. He had not understood his inability to act. Felix had told Jisung that he did not want to hurt him.
Jisung wasn’t sure how much closer he was to understanding anything that had transpired that night, but he didn’t want to kill Felix anymore. He didn’t know why. It was weird.
What he knew for certain was that he did want to keep talking to Felix. And listening to him. And being around him. ...Oh hell. Did he mention how weird this was?
The last knife thwacked into a target and Jisung stood in the middle of the room, skin glowing with the warmth of exertion. Then he started collecting the blades to go for another round, only to pause with his hand wrapped around a hilt, ready to yank the blade from the rubber.
He trusted Felix, didn’t he? Somehow, sometime, someway, Jisung had placed his trust in the man who had once infuriated him by simply existing. But why? What was underlying it? Where did it come from? Jisung ground his teeth in frustration, jerking the knife free. He had the terrible sensation that somewhere, Jeongin was laughing at him, which was just rude. Jisung was new at this whole “be in touch with your emotions” thing and, quite frankly, he couldn’t stop thinking that this was exactly why he’d avoided the whole damn subject for so long.
Well – why did you come back?
Seungmin’s plain, take-neither-bullshit-nor-prisoners question was really all that was keeping Jisung going here. So he might as well make the most of it, right?
A week of hesitant rooftop conversations later, Jisung was no closer to cracking this puzzle than he had been when he started. Patience was beginning to wear thin. Irritation at the delay was setting in. Felix was no help on the matter either. Yes, okay, he was being lovely and non-antagonistic and vaguely friendly but he wasn’t helping. Surely he knew more about feelings than Jisung did?
Unable to believe he’d legitimately just had that thought, Jisung dropped his face into his hands with a groan. He could definitely hear the distant echo of Jeongin cackling madly at his expense. Jisung lifted his head and glared at the door on the roof through which Felix was due to walk any minute. This was maddening. Like an itch he couldn’t scratch, only it was getting worse.
When Felix arrived, Jisung was lying flat on his back, scowling at the sky. Jisung did not get up, but his gaze tracked Felix’s movements, watching him crouch by the wall and pull out his scope as he’d done every day they’d –
Very, very belatedly, Jisung’s internal bullshit alarm went off.
He jerked himself up onto his elbows. ‘How long ago did you finish this job you’re pretending to still be doing?’
Felix froze. A good long minute passed before he lowered the scope again and side-eyed Jisung.
‘Five days ago.’
Jisung’s eyes went wide and a hundred questions rolled through his head, each shoving to be first in line on his tongue. In the end, what made it out was, ‘Why?’
Shifting to sit with forearms braced on folded legs, the pretence abandoned, Felix met Jisung’s confused stare and calmly countered, ‘Why do you think?’
The question echoed the one he’d asked Jisung in the middle of the night in a muggy shipyard, fire blazing and sirens blaring behind them.
Skin prickling at the reminder, Jisung licked his lips out of nervous habit – and saw Felix’s eyes dip to follow the movement. Butterflies exploded in Jisung’s belly, forcing the air out of his lungs on a faint gasp, and when Felix’s gaze focused on his, it felt heavier than it ever had before. Almost like a physical weight draped over his shoulders.
Pushing himself up into a seated position, Jisung fairly squeaked, ‘Why are you looking at me like – like that?’
Felix blinked, slowly, deliberately. ‘You know why, Han.’
Jisung shivered and the desire to run pressed up against the underside of his skin, urging him away, back to Mongolia where he could run wild and walk the tightrope of life and death without –
Well – why did you come back?
Jisung sucked in a ragged mouthful of air, unclenching his white-knuckled fists.
‘I’m not asking anything of you,’ Felix said, quiet but no less intent.
The line of his shoulders was tense, Jisung realised absently, the line of his jaw too sharp to be relaxed. Was Felix... worried Jisung was going to leave again?
‘Tell me,’ Jisung demanded, breathless. ‘Tell me what it is that you want from me.’
Felix recoiled slightly, scarred hands forming fists in his lap, and Jisung was startled at the open reaction.
‘Tell me why you keep running away,’ he bargained.
Jisung jerked his head in a nod, not giving himself time to consider the offer. ‘You first.’
‘I don’t want anything from you,’ Felix began, steamrolling over Jisung’s scoff. ‘I want you to – not hate me. Anything more than that is an unexpected bonus.’ The fair skin of his cheeks was rapidly reddening and though he opened his mouth again, no more words came out.
Jisung took pity on him, or possibly his own words couldn’t wait any longer, as with every one he said, a building sense of relief followed.
‘I’m scared,’ he admittedly more bluntly than he ever had in his life. ‘You make me feel like – well, honestly that’s bad enough on its own. Past experience has taught me it’s better to just. Nip that in the bud, rather than...’
Rather than open up or trust. But it was a bit late for that now.
Felix’s brows came together. ‘Yang and Kim are –’
‘Completely unintentional,’ Jisung interrupted. ‘Didn’t expect it, didn’t see it coming. And –’ take a deep breath, just say it, you’re literally such a chicken – ‘I don’t hate you.’
Jisung didn’t hate Felix. Jisung trusted him. The two states were inimical.
Felix stared at him until Jisung was sure he could feel butterfly wings brushing the inside of his throat as the critters fought to escape.
Then, very cautiously, Felix asked, ‘Can I touch you?’
Jisung became a stone statue between one breath and the next, every muscle in his body locking tight in instinctive self-defence. Touch never boded well; it meant pain and fear and desperation. But Felix didn’t move, staying right where he was and waiting for Jisung to calm down.
‘Why?’ The question was barely a whisper.
‘Because – well, it – I don’t want anything from you,’ Felix repeated in a tangled rush. ‘But I want to show you – no, to give you –’ He broke off with a frustrated huff, then tried again. ‘I don’t know how to say it. Let me just – let me show you. Please.’
When had Felix ever said please to him? Jisung chewed on the tip of his tongue. Felix wouldn’t hurt him. It would be okay. This whole thing was clearly as important to Felix as himself. Felix had said he didn’t want to hurt him. He’d even looked sad the one time he managed to.
Jisung dipped his head in a tiny nod.
Go lightly, he wanted to say.
His worry was unnecessary – Felix lifted only one hand and he kept his movements slow and easy as he reached out to Jisung. Jisung maintained eye contact with Felix, certain that if he looked away his nerve would break and he would bolt. Neither of them blinked.
A faint pressure, the sensation of roughened skin.
Jisung’s breath hitched and Felix gently stroked his cheek with the backs of his knuckles.
The touch lasted two seconds at most and it left a streak of white-hot fire down the side of Jisung’s face, his heart threatening to crack through his ribs.
‘There,’ Felix breathed, lowering his hand. ‘Do you understand?’
Jisung had not cried in a very, very long time and now was the closest he’d come in at least a decade.
‘Yes,’ he whispered.
All that agonising, for day and weeks and months. All for this. This was why he trusted Felix, why he was drawn in close like the moth to the flame.
Felix felt like safety.
‘Can I...?’ Jisung raised a tentative hand of his own.
An expression of immense relief crossed Felix’s face and he nodded.
Jisung did not reach for Felix’s face. Instead, with utmost care, he carded his fingers through the snowy hair just above Felix’s left temple, surprised to find it quite soft rather than brittle and dry. His fingertips brushed against Felix’s scalp and he got a sigh in response, those dark eyes slipping shut as Felix leaned into the touch.
The trust being placed in him was staggering. No-one had ever, of their own volition, handed over control to Jisung like this before and it cut him off at the knees. The feeling was... indescribable. He was breathless and giddy and on fire all at once.
And this was what he had almost thrown away out of fear. Through his cowardice, he had almost lost the opportunity to have Felix so pliant and warm under his touch. Not a mistake he’d make again.
Jisung dragged his fingers from Felix’s hair and down his cheekbone, just brushing his chin before Jisung withdrew his hand. His skin tingled and buzzed and Felix opened his eyes. The look in them made Jisung want to shiver, a response he just barely managed to contain.
Hope glowed in Felix’s face, bubbled up in his voice. ‘Did you – I mean, do you –’
‘Yes.’ Jisung did not need to know the full question, not when he could still feel the phantom warmth of Felix’s skin under his fingertips.
A beautiful smile unfurled and Felix slumped back against the concrete wall, his look of delight almost shy. Jisung’s heart squeezed dangerously tight, then resumed its ongoing attempt to backflip out of his ribcage.
‘I’m glad,’ Felix murmured. ‘I’m so, so glad.’
The fervent words made Jisung wonder how long Felix had been waiting for him, waiting for a chance to ask what he had. That, however, was a story he decided could wait for another day.
Jisung and Felix went on another job together. A relatively tame one with little chance of injury or kidnap, just breaking into some rich guy’s house, disabling his security team, and stealing a priceless artefact. And no, it wasn’t a date, thank you very much.
Although, in retrospect, it might as well have been. Jisung hadn’t pulled so many flashy stunts since his earliest days as a hitman. He wasn’t the only one showing off, either – Felix could have easily taken out his half of security from the safe end of a rifle, but no. He’d walked right into the room and thrown any hint of subtlety straight at the window by punching the first guy in the jaw hard enough that bones audibly cracked. Not to be outdone, Jisung nailed three guards in the eye with his throwing blades and took out several security cameras the same way.
The end was result was that they left behind a fair bit more carnage than they’d gone in expecting to create.
And maybe when they went to get a very early breakfast (or very late midnight snack) afterwards, Jisung may have kept his hands out of his pockets and walked fractionally closer to Felix than strictly necessary. If this resulted in a hand brush or two, well, that was neither here nor there.
Jisung still hadn’t said anything to Jeongin but did that stop the laughter in the back of his head? No.
The seasons were turning, the leaves on the trees changing from green to gold and red, when Jisung and Felix found themselves on another rooftop, this one far from the sea in a small town up north. Felix leaned back against the wall of the concrete structure that housed the door, one knee raised. Jisung sat close enough that his folded legs nudged Felix’s. They’d been enveloped in a comfortable quiet for a while, Jisung’s attention focused on Felix’s left hand, which he lightly played with.
Now that contact was on the table, Jisung found himself unable to keep his hands to himself, once more the moth drawn to a tantalising flame. Only this time, he couldn’t dive in headfirst. For all that he wanted to wrap himself around Felix like a living blanket, greedily hoarding him close, it still didn’t take much for Jisung’s defences to spring to violent life. A touch that last too long, that pressed too hard, that came without warning... All of these could (and had) sparked against the deep-rooted fear that lurked in his bones.
His skin prickled, not yet accustomed to hearing his name spoken by that low rumble of a voice. He hummed to show he was listening, fingers still playing over the scars and calluses on Felix’s hand.
‘May I kiss you?’
The hushed question had Jisung’s head snapping up, his body freezing in instinctive panic. Felix didn’t take back his request, simply went motionless. Together they waited for the terror to pass, and pass it did. When Jisung was no longer gasping for breath, Felix changed their handhold so he could stroke his thumb in soothing circles on Jisung’s skin.
Heart aching in his chest, Jisung met watchful dark eyes and he yearned.
‘Yes,’ he said, a shade hoarse. Please, he almost added.
Felix didn’t tell him to close his eyes, keeping the rest of his body scrupulously still as he tilted forward. Jisung tightened his grip on the hand in his, adrenaline buzzing in his blood, and his lashes fluttered down of their own accord as Felix’s breath whispered over his mouth. A hint of warmth on his lips and –
Ugly, vicious fear rippled through him and Jisung nearly choked on air as he ripped himself away, scrambling backwards. He rolled onto all fours and shuddered, sucking in great gulps of oxygen as he tried to hold himself together. When the haze over his head cleared, he peeked over at Felix, shame burning hot in his gut. Felix looked... stricken, a sort of horrified distress apparent in his expression, and self-loathing joined the shame.
‘I’m sorry,’ Jisung croaked.
He was, bitterly so. Would Felix think he didn’t trust him? Would he realise that actually Jisung was way more trouble than he was worth?
The words seemed to break Felix out of his frozen state and he shook his head slowly. ‘Don’t be.’
Jisung snorted before he could stop himself and oh gods, were those tears he could feel building?
‘I mean it,’ Felix interrupted seriously. ‘Don’t be sorry, Jisung.’
‘I – I want it, though!’ Jisung burst out, trying to swallow the tears back to whichever hell pit they crawled out of. ‘I want to kiss you, I – I know you won’t hurt –’
‘You kiss me, then,’ Felix interrupted, the words escaping him in a rush. ‘Cuff me, pin me to a wall, whatever you want.’
Jisung sat back on his feels and gaped, flabbergasted. The suggestion was utterly ridiculous – but it might work.
‘Really?’ he asked, a little weakly, a little disbelieving. ‘You’d – do that? You’d let me do that to you?’
Felix nodded sharply, eyes shining with unexpected sincerity. ‘I trust you.’
Well, sure, but there was trust and then there was – trust. Jisung wasn’t quite sure he trusted Felix that much. Not yet.
Incipient meltdown sidestepped so neatly Jisung had emotional whiplash, he threw caution to the wind and pulled a zip-tie out of his pocket. Felix looked distinctly unsurprised that he had such a thing on hand. Still a tad hesitant, Jisung walked behind Felix, who had shifted to sit on his knees, and took his wrists in hand.
‘You’re sure?’ Jisung murmured, tracing broad shoulders with his gaze.
A nod, bleached hair gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. ‘Yes.’
So, Jisung fastened the tie, making sure it was firmly secure before moving around to Felix’s front. He almost wanted to laugh at how absurd the situation was, but there was a shadowy hunger in Felix’s eyes and Jisung felt breathless again.
Floored by the trust he’d been given, Jisung knelt and trailed his fingertips down the side of Felix’s face, pleased when the action visibly drained some of the tension from him. Jisung closed the space between them, lightly knocking their foreheads together, exhaling long and smooth. Felix blinked lazily at him, like a big cat playing nice just for Jisung.
‘I’m going to kiss you now,’ Jisung whispered, cupping Felix’s jaw with one hand, bracing his other on a strong shoulder.
Jisung didn’t know whose eyes closed first but it hardly mattered as he tipped his chin and felt that soft warmth on his lips again, sending fireworks down his spine. There was no panic this time, only an incandescent joy that surely lit him up like a blazing star. He moved his lips, felt the eager response, Felix arching up into the touch. Sheer want kindled in Jisung’s bones and he sipped at Felix’s mouth, shivering when lips parted and sharp teeth nipped gently at his lower lip.
A shameless groan reached his ears and Jisung jolted when he realised it was coming from him. Felix’s mouth curved against his in what was no doubt a smug smile and Jisung really ought to pull away as punishment, but how could he when Felix was kissing him so sweetly?
In the end, it was only the pressing need for air that separated them, their foreheads bumping again as they breathed together. Felix’s mouth was slick and red, his eyes so bright, and Jisung felt a flush of pleasure redden his cheeks.
‘You catch on quick,’ Felix panted.
Jisung grinned, open-mouthed and delighted. ‘I have an excellent tutor. How are the wrists?’
‘Sore,’ Felix growled, the look on his face playful. ‘We’ll see how you like it sometime.’
Alarm threatened at the thought, but Felix continued, ‘And until that day, I will wear this tie as many times as you want.’
His tone was light but he was plainly not joking and Jisung’s chest felt tight again. He combed his fingers through Felix’s hair, cradled his head as gently as he knew how.
‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘Thank you, Felix.’
Felix turned his head and pressed a kiss to the palm of Jisung’s hand. ‘You are very, very welcome. Now, are you going to release me or kiss me again?’
And Jisung learned firsthand what laughter tasted like.
They went on another job together (still not a date, fuck you Jeongin), this one marginally more exciting than the last one. The client was some dodgy-as-fuck company that had a mole on the loose. The task was simple – find said mole and put him in the ground. Strictly speaking, having both Felix and Jisung on the job was overkill, but they’d presented themselves as a two-for-one package and the client had been quick to accept.
Hunting the man down wasn’t all that hard. He clearly had minimal experience being on the run and while he definitely had financial backing from another, similarly dodgy company, there was nothing to say they’d provided Shin Yujin with any other support. Not that that meant much and when the hitmen tracked Shin to the motel unit he was staying in, they went in expecting armed resistance.
So neither Jisung nor Felix were particularly surprised when they found a thug loitering at the front door and the back door, respectively. Jisung took care of his target with a suppressed bullet to the face, diving forward to catch the man before he thumped to the ground.
Quietly lowering the corpse to the tiled path, Jisung murmured, ‘Doorman down. You?’
‘All clear. Wait for my mark.’
The great thing about this motel was that the back doors hadn’t yet been fitted with electronic locks, making them that much easier to get through. Thus, Felix was on point, Jisung ready to blast the front door open if backup was required.
‘Shin’s not here.’
Jisung blinked. ‘Who’s there, then?’
‘No-one. The place is empty.’
Well, that was a surprise and nothing good ever came from surprises on three a.m. hits.
Jisung’s hackles rose. ‘If this is a trap, you’re right in the middle of it,’ he hissed.
‘I’ll let –’
The bang of a door slamming open, the crack of a gunshot, and a startled shout cut Felix off.
Jisung’s instincts roared at him, laced with an unfamiliar thread of panic. Two precise shots later and he shouldered the front door open, rolling into the room on the assumption that any opponents would be aiming higher rather than lower. A bullet thwacked into the door a second later, proving him right, and then he was up and –
– immediately bowing backwards as a meaty fist swung past his face. He bent his knees, raising his Desert Eagle as he dropped low to shoot his attacker in the gut without hesitation. The man yelled, collapsing to his knees, and Jisung kneed him in the temple just as he saw a muzzle glint in the dim light across the room. Knee still raised, Jisung jerked himself into a full spin, shifting out of the line of fire. A gun fired again – but it was in the next room, not this one. The room Felix was still in.
Yelling followed the shot, too many voices to tell if Felix was among them, and Jisung threw a blade at the man between him and the door. The thug had just broken into a sprint towards him and the knife only caught him in the shoulder. He snarled in pain but was almost on top of Jisung, arms reaching out. Jisung ducked under the man’s guard, wrapped an arm around his throat, and used his momentum to pivot, hauling the thug down onto the sharp end of one of Jisung’s throwing knives. Blood spurted from the man’s neck and he gurgled, panicking until Jisung ripped the blade out, at which point he stopped doing anything except dying.
Leaving the man to choke on his own blood, Jisung gripped his knife tightly in one hand, gun in the other, and ran on light feet to the door. He poked his head around the corner in time to see Felix hurl a thug into the wall, the generic painting above him skidding down to smash on the floor. The other two bodyguards launched themselves at Felix but Jisung’s attention was diverted by movement at the far end of the room.
Weak light filtered in through the blinds, illuminating the third man’s face and Jisung instantly recognised him as their target, Shin Yujin. The skinny man looked ready to hightail it out the nearest door, so Jisung wasted no time in sheathing his blood-slick knife and lifting his pistol – only to have his line of sight interrupted by Felix and the two men trying to get him in a headlock. Jisung hissed out a breath, lowering his gun before he accidentally pulled the trigger, and slid into the room, ready to make a dash for Shin while the others were occupied.
Jisung had not taken more than a single step, however, when he heard the thud of someone’s back hitting something solid. A glance revealed that a thug had rammed Felix and his head was bouncing off the wall with the force of the impact. The second thug drew back his fist and punched Felix in the solar plexus, making him choke and curl forward. Meaty fingers grabbed a handful of pale hair, holding him in place, and Jisung had never drawn and thrown a blade so quickly in his life. The knife slammed into the side of the thug’s kneecap before it could connect with Felix’s face, and the man shrieked.
They were both professionals. Jisung should leave Felix to sort out himself out while Jisung took care of the primary target. You know, the person they had been hired to kill.
Felix blocked a blow to the face and got his head crashed against the wall again.
A shivering wave of scalding fury swallowed Jisung whole and he had never cared less about a job in his life.
A blur of agonised screams, vicious blades, and dripping blood.
Jisung blinked a bead of sweat out of his eyes, breathing heavily, and realised the two bodyguards were lying on the floor around him in a mangled mess. Felix, still coughing for breath, shoved himself upright. Before Jisung could approach him, there was a whimper from Shin’s direction and Jisung barely spared two seconds to shoot him in the head.
Felix’s gaze flickered around the room. ‘Is that all of them?’
Jisung nodded sharply, too wired on adrenaline and a visceral need to protect to verbally reply.
Besides, they needed to clear out of here immediately. The fight hadn’t exactly been quiet. So Jisung grabbed Felix’s sleeve and towed him out the back of the unit, the pair of them scrambling over a fence to the adjacent parking lot. When Felix made as if to get in the driver’s seat of their car, Jisung hissed at him like a bad-tempered cat and shoved him around to the passenger’s side. Logically, Jisung was aware that a bruised diaphragm and mild concussion were hardly life-threatening injuries, especially for someone like Felix, but the more emotional part of him had usurped control of his brain and it didn’t care about logic.
The car pulled out onto the road and neither of them spoke until they’d exchanged vehicles in an underground parking garage.
Only then did Jisung ask tightly, ‘Are you okay?’
‘I’ll be fine. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before,’ Felix replied in a measured tone. ‘You didn’t have to –’
‘I know,’ Jisung said, just short of snapping. He took a breath, flexed his fingers on the wheel. ‘It just – happened.’
Heavy silence fell, interrupted only when Felix pulled out a cell phone to call the client. The conversation was brief and then the quiet resumed until they reached a vaguely trustworthy old hideout of Jisung’s. As soon as they were indoors, Jisung ushered Felix to the bathroom, which was about the size of a broom cupboard. He flicked on the lights and reached for the cabinet under the sink, only to come up short.
Had he taken a bath in someone’s blood?
‘I told you, you really didn’t need to do that,’ Felix said softly behind him.
Jisung swallowed, staring at his drenched jacket and red-painted hands. He’d known Felix would be okay but the compulsion to get to him had been so, so strong. The memory of what exactly he’d done to the thugs pinning Felix wouldn’t quite come into focus, leaving him with only an impression of unparalleled rage.
Pursing his lips into a hard line, Jisung stripped off his jacket and tossed it into the shower before scrubbing his hands in the sink until the water stopped running red. He retrieved the first aid kit from the cupboard and cracked it open, reaching for the bottle of rubbing alcohol and a cloth. Turning to Felix, Jisung raised a single brow, daring him to protest.
Felix only sighed and lifted his shirt, allowing Jisung to see the blossoming bruise and assorted scrapes on his chest. Refusing to let his attention drift to the hard planes of scarred muscle before him, Jisung focused on gently cleaning the wounds. He tended to the torn skin on Felix’s knuckles next, deeming them minor enough not to require wrapping. There wasn’t much he could do about the slight bump on Felix’s head, but he still checked to make sure it wasn’t bleeding. Something in Jisung relaxed that Felix permitted this without protest.
‘And you?’ Felix asked, when he was done.
Jisung shook his head. ‘They didn’t touch me. I’m fine.’
His hands were trembling, but that was something else entirely. Felix, however, noticed this and carefully cupped his hands under Jisung’s.
‘You’ve seen me in situations like this before,’ he commented quietly, not quite asking.
The adrenaline had long since faded from Jisung’s system. Now he just felt tired. Tired and in desperate need of – something. He wasn’t sure what.
‘I didn’t – didn’t care for you before,’ Jisung said, voice low and shaky. ‘You weren’t mine to protect.’ He lifted his lashes, met that deep gaze. ‘You can’t get hurt anymore. You can’t, okay? I just – I won’t be able to handle it rationally.’
Felix parted his lips to speak, but Jisung hadn’t finished.
‘You’re important to me, Felix, you’re – you’re precious and I can’t lose you. Not – not now, not when I’ve just found you, so –’
Thumbs sweeping over his skin, wiping moisture from his cheeks.
Jisung froze, startled, and Felix continued to wipe away his tears.
His breath hitched at the realisation and the tears came faster. Bewildered, Jisung tried to speak but a broken little sound came out of his mouth instead and his shoulders shook with the force of it.
‘It’s alright,’ Felix murmured softly, always so softly. ‘You’re alright, Jisung, just let it out. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.’
It was like the floodgates within him had been opened. Jisung’s vision blurred and his knees felt weak, threatening to crumple, and he sobbed, the sounds raw and ugly and real. Felix shifted a hand to his back, pressing lightly, encouraging Jisung to lean down into him where he sat on the stool, still crooning to him. Quite without meaning to, Jisung sort of fell into Felix’s lap and then Felix very gently embraced him, wrapping him in a bubble of warmth and security. Jisung clung to Felix, burying his face in the other man’s collar as he cried, pressing himself as close as he could get. In response, Felix’s hold on him slowly, cautiously tightened, until all Jisung could feel and smell and see was Felix.
After a time, the sobs quieted and the tears slowed. Jisung sat limply, his head resting on Felix’s shoulder, utterly drained. Felix was humming, he realised distantly, humming an unfamiliar tune while he stroked soothing circles on Jisung’s back.
‘That was horrible,’ Jisung croaked, voice rough as sandpaper. ‘I hate crying.’
He heard a soft noise that might have been a quiet snort.
‘Thank you,’ he mumbled, before Felix could speak. He blinked, felt his lashes try to stick together. Gods, his eyes stung. ‘I just... thank you.’
Fingers under his chin, tipping his head back, and Jisung could look into those beautiful dark eyes forever.
‘There is no need for thanks between us,’ Felix said gently, and Jisung’s breath hitched again. ‘As you care for me, Jisung, I care for you. You are...’ He swallowed. ‘You are immeasurably dear to me.’
A fierce ache kindled in Jisung’s chest and as he cupped Felix’s face, he thought this must be what love felt like. Wanting to share the blissful, devastating experience, he leaned in and pressed his tear-wet lips to Felix’s. They moved slowly, so slowly, the action performed not for its own sake but to convey powerful feelings they’d never learned the words for.
And it was enough. Words had never been their preferred language, anyway. They sat there in the cramped bathroom, holding each other close, and they swore their love to one another with sweet, silent actions.
The next time Jisung visited the joint Hwang-Kim apartment, he steeled his spine and hauled Jeongin in for a quick, firm hug, ignoring his squealing instincts. When he pulled back a second later, Jeongin’s expression was one of unvarnished shock.
‘I’m glad you’re happy here,’ Jisung said sincerely.
Then he ruffled Jeongin’s hair and went to find Seungmin, leaving his protégé frozen in complete surprise behind him.
Jisung found Seungmin in the little room he’d converted into a makeshift office.
Brows raising at his unexpected presence, Seungmin opened his mouth but Jisung beat him to the punch.
‘There is a person,’ he declared, heart thudding heavily in his chest though his hands did not tremble. ‘There is a person I would not kill for you, Minnie.’
Seungmin’s breath rushed out of him and his eyes went wide. After a long moment, he cleared his throat and his voice only wobbled fractionally as he said, ‘About time. About bloody time.’
The smile that bloomed across Jisung’s face was broad and true and endlessly delighted.
Somewhere between getting stabbed in the gut and unleashing absolute hell on the five gang members who’d jumped him, Jisung realised there was a certain irony to this. Here he was, a hitman of considerable repute across the continent, and his first major injury in seven or so years was from a bunch of idiots who had no idea who he was. If that wasn’t ironic, he didn’t know what the fuck was.
Or maybe it was poetic. Who could say. Probably not him, what with the mind-numbing pain he was currently in.
Despite his new impediment, Jisung did manage to floor all of his attackers, at least one of them with a broken neck. He was about ready to pass out at this point, but his phone was smashed beyond recognition on the grimy pavement of the alley, which meant he was going to have to walk himself back to Felix’s place. Awesome. At least it was just around the corner. That was about the only silver lining here. Although, the freezing cold winter’s night did mean there was no-one else about to see him staggering up the street to Felix’s building like a drunk snowman.
Jisung teetered through the doors and across the empty foyer to the lifts. Happily, there was one waiting and he wasted no time in getting in and promptly slapping the button for the tenth floor. The lift shuddered into action and Jisung snarled, slumping against the wall. He’d forgotten how shit these lifts were. It jolted again and he groaned, glancing down at his abdomen. The middle section of his coat was soaked in blood, of course, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it could have been. The stab hadn’t nicked anything essential and nor was it overly deep.
Still, a gut wound was a gut wound and when the lift clattered to a stop, Jisung very nearly fainted. Icy perspiration trickled down his temple as he wavered out of the hell-box down the corridor to Felix’s door. His fingers slick with blood to the point that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to type in the lock’s pin, Jisung simply leaned against the doorframe and knocked.
The door swung open seconds later, revealing a cosy-looking Felix wrapped in a snug blue jumper that Jisung may or may not have bought him. Felix’s expression of mild confusion swiftly changed to one of alarm as he zeroed in on the way Jisung was clutching his belly.
‘So, I know we said no more injuries, but I swear this was an honest mistake,’ Jisung slurred.
‘You’re bleeding out through a hole in your stomach!’
‘Tis but a scratch –’
‘I’ll show you a scratch,’ Felix hissed, clearly torn between outrage and horror.
‘– a mere flesh wound!’
And then Jisung collapsed.
He drifted in and out of consciousness for an indeterminable while, waking only when the fire in his abdomen seared hot and sharp, ripping ragged gasps and low moans from his throat. Jisung never managed to get his eyes open but he was dimly aware of Felix being nearby, his presence solid and reassuring, his voice soft and warm.
At last, oblivion beckoned and Jisung fell gratefully into its embrace.
‘You pathetic waste.’
The wall presses against him, hard and immovable. The knife slides in deeper, only this time it’s in his belly, not his ribs, and he hurts all over.
‘You really can’t accept what you are?’
His brother twists the knife and the fire burns so hot that Jisung cries out, a strangled yelp of pain. His head spins but hateful eyes and a cruel blade keep him upright.
‘You feel like you have to come back and kill me to give your feeble life some sense of meaning?’
Scorn shines bright in his brother’s cold gaze and Jisung pants, gasping for the breath with which to beg for his life. A fruitless, useless plea which will not save him.
‘Don’t hurt me,’ he pleads, broken and desperate.
Merciless, his brother snarls, ‘I don’t understand why you were ever born.’
The knife twists and the searing pain becomes a blazing agony –
But then –
But then –
The ghost of his brother melts into nothing, banished from the nightmare. The burn fades to a pulsing ache as the knife disappears, the awful room disintegrating around him.
‘Hush,’ a new voice, a different voice, a familiar voice rumbles. ‘Hush, Jisung. You are safe. No-one can touch you. I will kill them if they try.’
There is no script now, but Jisung knows this voice, knows these words and the overhanging tension fades, soothed by the violent assurance.
‘Rest well, Jisung. Your bad dreams cannot hurt you while I am here. You are safe.’
Jisung believes the voice and he sinks into its promise, allowing it to hold him close and warm. He is safe here. He knows this.
Jisung woke gradually, an unusual feat for someone who was normally ejected roughly from sleep by the horrors of his subconsciousness. He became aware of a dull pain in his belly and when he brushed a hand over it, felt a thick layer of bandaging. Felix’s handiwork.
Speaking of which –
Upon cracking open his eyes, Jisung found himself in a windowless room, the only light that which seeped under the door. He was sprawled in a bed he knew to be Felix’s, but he was alone. An attempt at lifting his head to glance at the alarm clock resulted in a sharp stabbing sensation in his abdomen and he quickly relaxed back into the pillows with a bitten off groan. For his second attempt, Jisung levered himself upright with his arms and that was much more successful, if a little dizzying.
The vivid red numbers on the clock read a quarter past five. Entirely too early to be awake on a recovery day. Hmm...
Slowly and carefully, Jisung pushed back the thick duvet and got to his feet, toes curling on the cool floor. He dragged the soft blanket off the end of the bed and snuggled it around his bare shoulders, then waddled out the door and down the corridor to the main room, where he expected to find Felix.
Sure enough, there Felix was, dressed only in sweatpants as he held a headstand in the middle of the room. Jisung took a moment to simply watch him, admiring the strong lines of his taut body, his fair skin and silvery scars. Felix’s face was flushed pink with the rush of blood, his eyes closed and his expression smooth.
Jisung felt a twinge of guilt at interrupting when he looked so serene, but goddamn was his abdomen sore. He cleared his throat and dark eyes flicked open. Felix’s descent was a smooth, controlled motion and his hair stood on end as he straightened up, turning to face Jisung with furrowed brows.
‘Why are you up? You should be resting,’ he scolded lightly, making as though to shepherd Jisung back down the hall.
‘The bed was cold,’ Jisung pouted, leaning into the arm Felix wrapped around him.
‘I can get more blankets, if you want,’ Felix offered, completely missing the point.
Nibbling at his lower lip, Jisung ducked his chin and peered up at Felix through his lashes. ‘Or... you could do the thing again...’
Felix blinked at him, confused.
‘Y’know, the, um...’ Jisung’s cheeks were warming and his voice dropped to a mumble. ‘The thing you did before. When – when I was dreaming.’
Inhaling sharply, Felix froze. He cleared his throat, abashed. ‘I, uh, didn’t think you’d remember.’
Leaning more heavily into his side, Jisung said, ‘You could have stayed.’
‘Oh.’ Felix’s lips shaped the sound of surprise quietly. ‘I wasn’t sure if you’d...’
Tilting his head up, Jisung kissed Felix’s cheek. ‘I trust you,’ he murmured against soft skin. He pulled back slightly. ‘Come to bed.’
Regarding him for a moment, Felix inclined his head.
They both returned to the bedroom and Felix helped Jisung lie down again, before climbing in beside him. Jisung rolled onto his side and his heart pounded heavily as Felix curled around him, chest fitted to Jisung’s back. A strong arm was draped over Jisung’s waist and he shivered, interlinking their fingers.
Felix’s breath tickled his nape as he asked hesitantly, ‘Is this alright?’
Jisung allowed his eyes to close as he melted into the heat of Felix’s embrace. ‘Yes,’ he whispered. ‘This is perfect.’
Soft lips brushed over Jisung’s skin in a delicate kiss and the smile that curled across his mouth was an instinctive response, his very bones humming in contentment.
Safe and warm in each other’s presence, they fell asleep.