(Chapter 2 of the Living in Shadows series)
“I can’t believe we just left her in Las Vegas,” Eeteuk said several days later. It was the early morning and he had just entered the flower shop, coffee in hand. “How do we know she’ll show up? For all we know, she convinced her boss to turn Cirque du Lune into a travelling circus.”
“Stop being dramatic,” Youngwoon said as he continued about his business, creating another flower arrangement for another customer for pick-up.
“Remind me again why we left her after flying sixteen hours back and forth,” Kyuhyun grumbled as Sungmin entered the shop, holding his phone out so he was staring at the screen. He held it up for the others to see Kyuhyun giving them a nod from the screen.
“He’s grumpy in the morning,” Sungmin explained,
“I am not grumpy,” Kyuhyun muttered as he disappeared from the screen momentarily,
“He also has a class to teach this morning, so he’ll be on conference call,” Sungmin said as he walked to the counter and propped his phone against the cash register,
“It also starts in about ten minutes, so I won’t be on screen, but I have a mic on so I can still talk with you guys,” Kyuhyun said as he popped into the screen again, “But, seriously, I’m going to kill her the next time I see her. I hate flying.”
“Kill who?” Junsu asked as he came into the shop, “Should I lock the door?”
“No, I got it,” Youngwoon said as he took out a small remote control from his green apron. Pressing a button, shutters suddenly came down, covering the front windows and even the door’s window. A quiet click signalled that the lock was activated.
“Nice,” Sungmin whistled with appreciation,
“Kill who?” Junsu repeated,
“Taeyeon,” Sungmin said,
“You mean the same Taeyeon who is watering flowers?” Junsu asked,
All attention suddenly focused on the potted plants in a corner of the store. A slender, short figure straightened. When Taeyeon turned around to face them, she had a spray bottle of water in hand and an oversized, green apron on.
“All of you were worried about attendance and she was the first one here,” Youngwoon lightly mocked as he put the half-finished arrangement into one of the holding cases.
“You have anything to say now, Kyuhyun?” Taeyeon asked, pointing the spray bottle at the phone,
“Please keep in mind that you won’t be hurting him, but hurting me,” Sungmin said, blocking his phone with his hand, “It is good to have you back on home land.”
“I’ve been back for days,” Taeyeon rolled her eyes as she pointed the spray bottle at him. She sprayed his face lightly, “I was on the same plane as you guys.”
Sungmin wiped his face with his sleeve, “I knew there was a reason I became a recluse.”
“Can we get this meeting under way?” Junsu asked as he leaned his hip against the counter, his gaze briefly touching on Taeyeon before looking at Eeteuk.
Eeteuk nodded as he put his coffee cup onto the front counter. He pulled out a small data stick and with a glance at Youngwoon, the florist pressed another button on his remote control. A part of the counter moved, revealing a hidden door on the top and then a small and sleek projector with a touch-screen controller rose up. As Eeteuk inserted the data stick into the projector and began to start it up, Youngwoon noticed the others staring at him expectantly.
“Did you even leave The Sector?” Junsu questioned,
“Just because I retired doesn’t mean I can’t have a few toys,” he shrugged.
They grew silent as the projector shone a screen onto the wall behind the cash register. Using the touch screen, Eeteuk accessed the information saved on the data stick. Several graphs appeared on the screen on the wall.
“About six months ago, statiticians in the NIB realized that in-the-field accidents were on the rise,” Eeteuk revealed; “And, I’m not saying a paper cut and stubbed toe here in there. I’m talking about seasoned agents suddenly getting serious limb injuries and near-fatal accidents. And, I’m not saying once in awhile, I’m talking about almost every mission taken during those six months.”
“So, that rules out targeting specific agents,” Sungmin spoke up,
“That’s stating the obvious,” Junsu countered,
“Who are you? Kyuhyun?” Sungmin questioned,
“Well, someone has to be his voice when he’s preoccupied,” Junsu gestured towards the phone, the screen showed rows of florescent lights, “Apparently we’re facing the ceiling.”
Both began to sputter as a spray of water hit them. They turned narrowed gazes at the only female on their team.
“You two have not changed,” Taeyeon shook her head. “Please continue, Eeteuk-sshi.”
“An internal investigation began,” Eeteuk said as he took out several data sticks and laid them on the counter, “Those are copies of all the information for this case. Do not lose them; do not let them out of your hand. Even my copy will no longer remain with me in case someone tries to break into my files. Youngwoon will take mine.”
“So, I’m assuming after the internal investigation began, a leak was found?” Kyuhyun’s voice was as soft as a whisper, but almost immediately he said aloud, “The next time I see a note being passed in my class, I’m reading it out loud for everyone to hear!”
“A leak was not found, interestingly enough,” Eeteuk answered as the others men smirks at Kyuhyun’s split attention. “Until this day, there is still no leak found in the NIB. There have been suspicions and even extended families and mere acquaintances of agents are having their backgrounds checked. Still nothing.”
“That’s when The Sector came into play?” Junsu asked,
Eeteuk pressed on the touch screen and several photos appeared on the wall, “I was approached to take the investigation further. Since it was the NIB themselves being internally investigate, they eventually needed The Sector to take over. It is assumed that the leak is isolated to the NIB because even though The Sector had taken on the case, only NIB agents were still being targeted during missions.”
“Until now,” Youngwoon spoke up, immediately drawing his teammates’ attention.
Eeteuk nodded, “Until now. I took up the case four months ago and personally picked the team to carry out the missions involved for this case. It is assumed that, at the very least, NIB agents’ identities are being compromised by this leak. Unfortunately, that means we’re not sure how far this leak stretches.”
“So, we don’t know who’s involved nor how much information has been given out,” Sungmin murmured. He suddenly swore when more water was sprayed at his face, “Taeyeon! Quit it!”
“Well, quit being so redundant,” she snapped, “Meetings would go a heck of a lot quicker if you and Junsu stopped given your two cents every two minutes.”
“Hyung!” Sungmin turned his gaze to Youngwoon, “Take that spray bottle away from her!”
Youngwoon snorted, “You try it first.”
“I remember all of those agents,” Sungmin commented, “One of them even went through training with me and Youngwoon.”
“Please continue,” Taeyeon spoke over them both,
“The team I chose had narrowed the suspects down to just five suspects two months ago, but then accidents began happening for the team. Not The Sector at large, but just the team,” Eeteuk continued; “The team began to encounter their own accidents and, then, the first death. Death by peanuts.”
The ex-agents suddenly stood straighter, their previous demeanours suddenly melting away until all jokes were put aside. Taeyeon even put down the water bottle. They were all business now.
“The team worked even harder and were able to narrow it down to one suspect last month,” Eeteuk revealed, this time showing a single picture on the wall; “This is John Kwon. He was born in the United States but moved to Korea with his father after his parents divorced when he was thirteen. He has been living here since. He was top of his graduating class in high school. He continued his education at Busan International University with a degree in business finance with double majors in macro and micro economics.”
“It’s always the perfect ones,” Sungmin commented,
“I wonder if he’s smarter than our Kyuhyun,” Junsu murmured,
“Say that to my face,” Kyuhyun’s voice was a low growl from Sungmin’s phone before he snapped loudly, “Did I say you can raise your hands yet?”
“When did he join the NIB?” Taeyeon inquired, crossing her arms to fight the urge to spray both comrades with the water again,
“Oh, he was in it the moment he left high school,” Eeteuk answered, “His father worked for the government and, so, it was easy enough for him to get a position with the NIB, regardless of how low on the roster. He worked in the NIB doing menial tasks as he went through university, steadily gaining small promotions here and there. Even now, he’s just a secretary in the NIB’s finance department. He’s been trying to get one of the manager positions, but has been denied twice.”
“How old is this guy?” Junsu questioned,
“Thirty-three,” Eeteuk answered; “Unfortunately, the basis for him being a target is very weak. It was narrowed down to him because he had the most motive.”
“Revenge for not getting the promotions?” Taeyeon prompted,
Eeteuk nodded, “That’s the assumption… unfortunately it’s the closest thing we have to a lead on who the suspect is. The team was grasping at straws to find the leak. So, they began to do undercover work on him; they did rotating shifts to stalk him. He was almost never out of their sights day and night unless he was at home or at some other private residence.”
“They found nothing?” Kyuhyun asked,
“Not a single clue that he could be the true criminal. However, what kept the team on his trail was that another agent died,” Eeteuk pulled up several photos showing a car crash between two vehicles. In one of the photos, one of the cars was completely covered in flames. “Each of these deaths were seen as an accident and no clues were ever found to assume otherwise. One of the agents found a potential clue at this car crash: traces of oil on parts of the car that shouldn’t have oil residue. However, they could never submit this to the actual investigators because it would reveal The Sector’s hand.
“Not long after this crash, one of the agents was shot dead in their bed,” Eeteuk announced, a set of crime scene photographs replacing the previous ones of the car crash.
“And that’s not considered foul play!?” Junsu exclaimed,
“Oh, it definitely is suspected even though it was covered up by the perpetrator as robbery,” Eeteuk replied; “It’s still being investigated by the local police department and even the NIB has taken it on this past week, but that doesn’t change much when they can’t find any clues linking back to anyone in all of the NIB; that includes John Kwon.
“That happened at the beginning of the month. The last two deaths happened two weeks ago,” Eeteuk continued, “One agent was tailing Kwon on foot. It was night and Kwon had just left a friend’s birthday party at a restaurant. The agent was hit by a drunk driver that drove onto the sidewalk and sandwiched her against a building. The driver drove off immediately afterwards and the car has still not been found.”
“It’s probably at the bottom of the Han River by now,” Sungmin murmured,
“Two days later, the fifth and final agent of that team was killed,” Eeteuk stated. He looked at Youngwoon, “This happened the morning before I told you I wanted to reunite your team. The agent was the perfect picture of health and, yet, he suffered a heart attack while in his own driveway. The autopsy report came back and, although there are signs that his heart did arrest, the reason as to why it happened could not be found; his vessels were clean.
“We need to come up with a plan and come up with one fast. If that team had been found out, it won’t be long before Kwon or whoever it is behind this gets info on The Sector. If that gets leaked out then the government has lost their last secret defence,” Eeteuk explained as he shut down the projector and removed the data stick; “From this moment on, I will not be present at every meeting. It took the perpetrator four months to find my team, it won’t take much longer for them to figure out I’m the one at the desk for this case. I need to go off radar, but I will help you all as best as I can. I’ll still have access to my computer files from home, it’ll just take me a bit longer to get things done.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Sungmin asked, turning his gaze to Youngwoon,
The older man blinked as he was handed the original data stick, “Me?”
“You were our leader before retirement; that doesn’t change now that we’ve come back,” Junsu prompted,
“Oh, stop acting like you didn’t know you’re still the team leader,” Kyuhyun’s voice was an annoyed drawl,
“Well, we go on from where the last team left off. We find out if Kwon really is the perpetrator we’re after; we find out what information he has and what he’s done with it so far. Then, we stop him,” Youngwoon decided,
“Ah, the usually breaking-and-entering combo,” Junsu grinned,
Youngwoon shrugged as he controlled the projector to return to its original hidden space and the shutters to move from the windows; “Why fix something that’s not broken? A little B-and-E into Kwon’s life will be easy.”
“Don’t get arrogant,” Taeyeon’s voice was like a quiet dagger; “Someone just managed to wipe out an entire team. Not just NIB agents – Sector agents. If we’re not careful we could be the next ones to go.” She palmed one of the data sticks, pocketing it as she broke away from the group, tossing her apron onto the counter where the projector had once been.
“Be back here in three days,” Youngwoon called out,
“Yeah, yeah,” she waved away his words as she slipped out the door, not a single glance given for the others.
“Will she show?” Eeteuk asked warily,
“She’ll show. No one is more loyal than her,” Kyuhyun said, appearing once more in the telephone’s screen,
“No more class?” Sungmin raised a brow,
“I dismissed them a half hour ago… they were being idiots and I didn’t want to get a dozen calls from parents that I yelled at their kids,” Kyuhyun replied.
“She was already planning,” Junsu revealed, picking up his own data stick, “I saw it in her eyes… something you said triggered an idea. Oh, yeah… she’ll be back.” He gave them a two-finger salute, “Gentlemen, I’ll see you later. It’s about time I go open the store.”
“Since the next meeting is on a Saturday, I’ll be there,” Kyuhyun announced. He gave them a small wave before disconnecting the call.
Sungmin pocketed his phone and a data stick. He turned to leave when Youngwoon called his name. Looking over his shoulder, he waited.
“While we’re on this case, I want you to stop your other… business deals,” Youngwoon managed to sound cool and calm even as his hands fisted at his sides and his jaw ached from grounding his molars together.
“Alright,” came his quick reply,
“And, all that other stuff, too,” Youngwoon said.
Sungmin stared at him for several endless seconds. He gave a curt nod and left without another word.
“And, now?” Eeteuk prompted when the florist returned his attention to him,
“And, now, my team begins training again. Two years is a long time to be out of the field and out of practice,” Youngwoon replied, taking out the flower arrangement he had been working on earlier;
“No, Youngwoon. I mean and, now, you tell me the rest of it,” Eeteuk said, placing his hands on the counter and leaning forward, eyes slightly narrowed; “You tell me that they’re just like you.”
Taeyeon sat in the motel room that she had rented during her stay in Korea, the data stick deposited onto the side-table momentarily ignored. Regardless of what Youngwoon had said to her, she would not be staying once the case was closed; she had already said goodbye to her former life. After her run-in with her former team mates on the roof, she had left the next evening without seeing them even though they had been on the same flight. In the time in between, she had quit her job with Cirque du Lune and tied up all her loose ends. She had dispersed her money into several accounts and kept a large sum of cash on her. She had several stashes of money, passports, identification cards and clothes all spread out in various places. She would always be prepared for an impromptu escape.
She sat on the queen-sized bed against the headboard and unrolled a black mat before her. Securely strapped into the silk interior were several throwing knives and daggers of various lengths and widths. It had been a long time since she had laid eyes on her precious weapons; too long. The moment she had packed up and left Korea two years prior, she had been certain to never let her two lives meet. She had to be sure to completely cut herself off from her life as an agent and, so, hadn't even touched a knife since then other than for cooking.
With a reverence she had long withheld, she reached out and ran her fingertips along the different handles. Her eyes fluttered close, focusing her attention on her fingers as if absorbing each detail, committing each surface to memory. There was a time when she was able to identify each blade with a mere touch of her hand and, although some tactile memory was still intact, she had some revision to do. She began to reach for one of the daggers when there was a knock at her door. Her gaze flew towards the door, narrowing. Immediately, she grabbed two of her smaller daggers and quietly padded over to the door. Looking through the peep-hole, she sighed, lowering her daggers even as her body remained tense.
"How did you find me, Junsu?" She asked as she opened the door.
"I followed you after you left the shop this morning," he shrugged, obviously waiting for her to let him into the room.
"I hate how you walk. Why are you here?"
"Aren't you going to let me in? At least put down your knives," Junsu suggested.
Taeyeon stared at him for a moment, annoyed that he knew that her hidden hands held a blade each. Reluctantly, she let him into the room, retreating to the bed to replace her knives.
"Why are you here?" She repeated, sitting against the head board once more, pretending to be preoccupied by staring at her weapons.
"Two years of no contact and that's all you can say? You think I didn't realize that you haven't said a single word to me once today? You've barely even acknowledged my presence," Junsu said, pulling a chair up to the bedside and plopping down, crossing his arms over his chest.
"What's there to say? We both retired, you broke up with me and I left," she shrugged nonchalantly, taking out one of the blades under the guise that she was inspecting it,
"I didn't break up with you, you didn't want me around! You kept pushing me away!" Junsu exclaimed, sitting straighter in his chair,
"You told me to leave!" She defended, finally putting down the blade to glare at him, "You told me to just leave and I did just that!"
"That's because you didn't want me with you! I tried to be with you, tried to comfort you after that last mission, but you kept pushing and pushing," Junsu stated, "You were so determined to have me leave you alone, what else am I supposed to do?"
"Fight for me!" Taeyeon exclaimed, ignoring that her eyes now burned and her vision was blurring at the edges; "When I walked away you could have fought for me... could have came after me..." her words trailed, her voice becoming impossibly soft, "I waited for you to come."
"How can you expect me to find you when I couldn't find out where you went? Every time I tried to call out to you, you were silent!" Junsu stood up abruptly causing the chair to fall back. Running his hands through his hair he stated, "It took Youngwoon months to even get you to respond."
"Because he kept trying," came her whispered reply; "It's very hard to ignore a voice in my head for months."
"If I had come, if I had kept calling out to you, where would we be right now?" Junsu asked then, an emotion passing through his eyes that she didn't want to acknowledge or speculate on.
"Look, I was in the middle of something, so, if that's all you came to talk about, then it's about time you leave," Taeyeon said, abruptly standing from the bed, not realizing the knife she had been inspecting sliced against her calf as she crawled off the bed. She was at the door by the time Junsu realized she was bleeding.
Looking down, she shrugged as she opened the door, "Please leave, Junsu."
"At least stop it," he urged as he closed the distance between them.
Exasperated, she wiped her palm across the blood, taking it away. All that was left on her calf was blood residue; the cut gone; "There. Gone. Leave."
Junsu sighed heavily as he stood in the open doorway, "You can't ignore me forever, Taeyeon... we're on the same team for however long this case goes."
"I'm not ignoring you, Junsu, I'm just done with you," Taeyeon replied,
"Tell me what you were thinking in the flower shop this morning," He insisted, suddenly grasping at any reason to stay with her, regardless of how flimsy the excuse,
Taeyeon sighed as she looked down at her blood-stained palm, "The way the last agent was killed... if the coroner couldn't find a reason for the heart attack, I can think of several ways to kill a person without leaving any traces in the body post-mortem."
"And, if we can figure out which way was used, we can trace the killing to a source," Taeyeon explained,
"And your knives? What were you doing with those before I came?" Junsu asked,
Taeyeon glanced over her shoulder at the bed, then, her expression suddenly soft and almost wistful, "I was relearning them."
"You haven't used them since we retired?" Junsu inquired, slowly inching his way back into the room when she walked back to the bed, picking up the knife that had cut her,
"No," Taeyeon replied quietly, carefully replacing the blade with the others and securely strapping it in; "When I went to work in the circus, I was tempted to be a knife thrower, but I thought that would be too close to what I had truly been."
"You mean, what you truly are,” Junsu corrected,
"And I wasn't sure if I could hold and use a knife without remembering... well, everything," she shrugged.
"Taeyeon," Junsu said her name softly, almost as if he were speaking to a skittish horse, "Regardless of what's been between us... regardless of what's happened between us... I hope you know that I will always have your back, even if it's just as a team mate."
Taeyeon hesitated, keeping her back to him to hide the sudden fall of her tears. She shut her eyes tightly, trying to control her breathing and stop the tears; "Thank you," was all she said.
Junsu waited several heartbeats in the doorway, seeing the slightest shake of her shoulders, her head bowed just a bit and knew, without a doubt, that she was crying. Worse, she was hiding it from him even though there had been a time when it was his shoulder where she laid her head and it was in his embrace where she cried her tears. Finally, he turned and left, shutting the door quietly behind him.
That evening, Taeyeon sat in her motel room, burger and fries laid out on the small table in her room. She sat at the table, her food untouched for the past half hour as she gazed unseeingly at the wall. All the while, her mind was going through every possibility of how the final agent could have died. She wanted to get her hands on the body but knew that that was not an option. When she finally began to reach for her now cold burger, there was a knock at her door.
Eyes narrowing, Taeyeon crossed her arms as she sat at the table. If it was Junsu come back to annoy her, she was going to pretend she was already asleep. Even if the curtain window showed light in the room, she could later plead that she had fallen asleep with it turned on. She wasn’t sure how long she sat there glaring at the door when, finally, the knock came again.
“Taeyeon, either you open this damn door or I’ll open it for you!” Came Kyuhyun’s muffled reply.
Taeyeon hurried to the door, opening it for the young man. Kyuhyun stood there dressed in slacks, a shirt and sweater vest, his hands in his pockets. He glared at her, pointing a finger directly at her nose,
“Why didn’t you answer the door?” He questioned,
She blinked, “I thought you might be Junsu… how did you find me?”
Kyuhyun snorted, “You return to Seoul and I know you’re not going to stay with any of the others. It’s obvious you’d rent a room and, the easiest place to secure is a motel room. That and it’s less noticeable than some fancy hotel.”
“Why are you here?” Taeyeon asked, finding she was asking that more often than she had previously expected. She should have known it was foolish to believe the others would leave her alone once she had returned.
“After work, I started going through the data that Agent Eeteuk gave us and I kept ruminating over and over and there feels like something missing,” Kyuhyun explained. He paused by the small table, “Ugh, you were going to eat this?”
“You’ve become redundant over the years,” Taeyeon noted drily, “Besides, of course something’s missing from the case – there are huge holes in it that the last team was unable to fill even after four months. We have almost nothing to go on and a suspect who is very likely to be the wrong suspect.”
Kyuhyun shook his head, “No, I feel like the other team was right about Kwon, I just can’t figure it out why right now.”
It was Taeyeon’s turn to snort, “What? Do you have premonitions like Sungmin, now?”
“Look, I need someone to talk this through with, someone to bounce ideas off of,” Kyuhyun replied,
“Oh? I’m sure Sungmin would love to be that someone,” Taeyeon stated casually even as her eyes lit with mischief;
“And, clearly you don’t intend to take care of yourself while here,” Kyuhyun ignored her commented and gestured once more to her food; “Come stay with me while we work on this case. I won’t tell the others where you’re staying.”
Taeyeon crossed her arms, “I tried to keep my location a secret before and that hasn’t worked so far.”
“I’ll cook for you,” Kyuhyun offered,
Taeyeon snorted once more, “You’re a horrible cook. I’ll be the one who ends up cooking for the both of us.”
“Junsu won’t find you unless either of us says anything,” Kyuhyun said,
“Unless he follows me again; that damn shadow walker.” She sighed heavily, “You have more motives than what you just told me, don’t you?”
“We were friends for five years before we retired,” Kyuhyun stated simply; “I always felt closest with you on the team because of that friendship. I know neither of us tried to stay friends after we left The Sector, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make up for lost time now.”
“Kyuhyun,” she sighed,
“Damn it, Taeyeon, stop being stubborn,” he threw his hands in the air exasperatedly, suddenly tired of playing nice; “The others know I’m smart but you know how my brain works. You know what helps me think, concentrate. You know how I think, so, you’re able to throw different perspectives at me, play devil’s advocate. None of the others can do that with me.”
Taeyeon raised a brow, “I clearly remember Sungmin playing devil’s advocate to you all the time.”
Kyuhyun let out a frustrated sigh, shoving both hands back into his pockets, “It’s because he likes to annoy the hell out of me.”
“You two fell in together pretty fast. You were talking on the phone when he came into the flower shop this morning,” Taeyeon noted casually,
“Do you know how easy it is for me to figure out all of your cellular numbers?” Kyuhyun questioned; “I called him because I knew he was closest to the shop and had a phone with video conferencing capabilities.”
Taeyeon blinked. When she opened her mouth to speak, he held up a hand for silence.
“Before you ask, yes, I’m that good,” he replied. His tone had no smugness or haughtiness; he was stating simple fact. “Can you just start packing your bags before I do it for you?”
Taeyeon sighed heavily as she trudged over to her suitcase and opened it, “You know… you’re really making it difficult for me to stay apart.”
“You weren’t the only one hurt by the lack of goodbyes, Taeyeon,” was all he said.
Once she had everything packed again, Taeyeon walked over to the bedside table and pocketed the data stick. Before they left the room, she hesitated in the doorway. Kyuhyun looked over his shoulder at her, a silent question in his eyes.
“I… I just don’t feel good about this case,” she admitted quietly.
Then, together they left.
Sungmin was running again. Why did it always seem like he was always running? Why couldn't he be nonchalantly strolling or, perhaps, even just standing still? But, no, he was running. The heat around him was so oppressive, it felt as if it were pushing against him like something tangible. He could feel sweat beading at the nape of his neck, but he ignored it as the urge to run overcame everything else. He couldn't see anything around him, couldn't see any colours or details, all his attention was focused ahead of him, his periphery vision a complete failure.
Suddenly, he was plunging forward; had he tripped? He met the ground, his hands automatically going out to stop his descent. He found himself on all fours, his fingers spread out against the soft ground. As he was about to look up, something caught his eyes just ahead of him.
There lying on the ground was a butterfly, its wings the colour of polished sapphires. Hurriedly, almost as if his life depended upon it, Sungmin scrambled towards it, not even bothering to stand up. Once he reached it, his heart seemed to stutter in his chest when he realized it was unmoving, not even a flutter of a wing. Tentatively, he reached out a hand, his fingertips grazing a wing. It felt like a flower petal against his skin - soft and deceptively fragile.
When he withdrew his hand, he was startled to find his fingertips red. Drawing his hand closer for his inspection, he rubbed his fingers together, his heart practically stopping all together. There was blood on his hand.
Sungmin woke up with a start. He felt as if his heart was trying to escape from his body, it pounded against his ribs painfully in a rapid tattoo. He had sat up when he woke up, his blanket falling to his waist. He glanced around his room to regain his bearings, to centre himself after his dream. Since it was early fall, it was still warm enough that he slept with minimal clothes on. Even so, he could feel the dampness of his skin as if he truly had been overheated like in his dream.
After a quick shower to cleanse the perspiration from his body, Sungmin dressed in black jogging pants and black shirt. He didn't even attempt to go back to sleep; he never did after a dream. Instead, he abandoned his room and journeyed through his sprawling, empty house to the ground floor where his study was. Once there, he pulled out his laptop computer and used the data stick he had hidden, having retrieved it before going to his study.
As his computer started up, he walked over to the side table and poured himself half a balloon of red wine. Taking his drink with him, he sat at his desk, glass in hand and began to sift through the sparse data he had been given the other morning by Agent Eeteuk.
The data before him was so lacking that it frustrated him that that was all the former team was able to obtain prior to their misfortunate murders. That was what he considered them regardless of the lack of proof: murders. He couldn't fathom what kind of challenges lay ahead for him and his former teammates. Yes, they were all considered elite of the elite of agents, but the others had been out of practice for years. One of the reasons he had become a mercenary was to keep his skills up-to-date.
Even if they started actively working on the case, they would all have to undergo some kind of individual training to bring their skills up to par if not up to their past performance levels. Furthermore, could they even still act as the team they once were? Their team work had been seamless, as if they were parts of a whole. In the past, he could be standing before Taeyeon and she could throw a dagger at him and he would be able to anticipate it, moving so that the dagger passed him to the target in front of him. But, now? Now, she was more likely to plant a happy dagger in his back. Before, he was able to read Kyuhyun like a book. The younger man had been a part of their team for just a year, but in that time Sungmin had been able to learn him rapidly. Now, he was beginning to question whether or not Kyuhyun was still the same. It bothered him to even think that he didn't know the younger man as well as he did in the past.
Sungmin slowly sipped the wine, letting the liquid touch every tastebud before he swallowed. He knew a pot of coffee would perhaps have served him better during the early morning hours when morning was still dark. However, he needed the wine after his dream. His dreams had always affected him in a way they didn't normal people. No matter how many times he had had his special dreams, he always awoke as if he had been running a marathon, as if his body were running on adrenaline and ready to collapse in a heap. His dreams could seem harmless or be blatantly disturbing but they all nagged at him persistently and gave him horrible migraines afterwards. Wine after one of his dreams helped relax his body and take the edge off of the stabbing in his head.
He glanced at his phone lying on the desk beside his computer. The compulsion to follow his habits was strong and he found himself gripping his glass even tighter in an effort to stop himself from picking up the phone. Several times over the past two years he had had to stop himself from doing that very thing after being waking from a dream. He had become too reliant in the years prior to retiring from The Sector and, so, even after he quit the team, his body refused to quit its habits.
He knew it was easier to call without using his phone, but he already had a headache and didn't want to add to it by straining his mind further. So, finally, he relented, put down his wine and picked up the phone. His friend's number was number one on his speed dial.
"Go take some medicine before we talk," were the first words his friend said.
Sungmin smiled in the darkness of his study, "I already did, Youngwoon. My head's still pounding like a jackhammer, but it's dulled somewhat."
"Not enough I can guess. I bet you're sitting in a dark room somewhere in that mansion of yours nursing a bottle of wine," Youngwoon said, half of his words turned almost non-intelligible by a yawn; "Not to mention the fact that you're using a phone to call me."
"I always use the phone to call you. You're the one who wants to save on your phone bill and use the other way," Sungmin countered.
Youngwoon chuckled sleepily before asking, "So, what was the dream? Since you're calling at four in the morning it must have been quite the dream."
"Actually, it wasn't," Sungmin replied and, then, proceeded to describe the dream in as much detail as possible. Indeed, the dream itself was as lacking as the data they had for the case. Sungmin even stated that point.
"You think the dream is related to the case?" Youngwoon asked,
"Well, my dreams have always been quite opportunistic. It's as if whatever I'm focused on, my dreams will focus on that particular future," Sungmin answered, "If I'm working on a case, I'll dream about that instead of... oh, I don't know, who I'm going to see at the grocery store."
"Do you have any ideas on what it could mean? It's not as if there is a trail of butterflies we need to follow," Youngwoon inquired,
"You're being literal again, Youngwoon. After all these years do I still have to explain that not all my dreams can have literal interpretations?" Sungmin asked,
"Well, that still means some of them can," Youngwoon countered, "And don't snipe at me. You called me, Sungmin."
Sungmin sighed heavily, "I know and I'm sorry, it's just... you know how I can get with the dreams."
"I do. You get anxious and worked up, tiring yourself over trying to find connections in everyday life to your dreams," Youngwoon stated, "So, while you get yourself all wrung out, I'm here to drag you back for a reprieve."
"It's just so damn frustration. How am I to figure out what that butterfly means? Does it mean it's a person I'm going to encounter or already know? Is it a drawing I'm going to see at some point during this case?" Sungmin fired off his questions, revealing that he had already wondered those very things multiple times since having the dream; "And the blood... does it mean injury or death? Because it always means one or the other."
"Are you sure those are our only options?"
"After twenty-six years, yes, those are the only options for blood in my dreams," Sungmin answered with a cold confidence.
"Then, doesn't that mean the butterfly represents someone?" Youngwoon asked, "You said the blood happened after touching it."
"It could mean it's someone, but it could also mean that someone could get hurt or killed because of this butterfly or someone is hurt or killed after I see this butterfly. For all I know I could see this butterfly on a billboard and, right after I see someone having a heart attack," Sungmin explained,
Youngwoon sighed, "Is it just me or have your dreams become more difficult to interpret?"
"It's just you," Sungmin answered, a hint of amusement in his tone, "they've been just as bothersome since retirement."
There was a pause before Youngwoon stated quietly, "You never called me about any dreams during them."
"They didn't seem relevant anymore," he replied,
"You could have called me even then," Youngwoon said. When Sungmin didn't reply, "You know that right, Sungmin?" He questioned, hurt colouring his tone,
"Yeah... yes, I do," Sungmin answered, "It's just... good to hear the words sometimes."
"Are we having one of those girly moments when we talk about feelings?" Youngwoon asked and Sungmin could practically hear the smile in his voice,
Sungmin scoffed, "Don't be stupid. We would never talk about feelings. Only Junsu would do that."
Youngwoon laughed lightly in reply. After a pregnant pause, he asked, "You still awake?"
"Of course, my head is still trying to kill itself and take me with it," Sungmin replied. He sat back in his chair now, his eyes on the data before him,
"About Junsu and Taeyeon..."
"Whoa, whoa, don't go there, Youngwoon," Sungmin said immediately, "That's like poking an angry bear with a stick. Leave that topic alone."
"Well, aren't you curious about how this team is going to function with those two being... well... post-relationship?" Youngwoon questioned,
"Of course, I'm curious. I've been curious since the day we all went our separate ways and I noticed they had come separately and left separately. I noticed that Junsu had turned to talk to her and she had left without a backward glance," Sungmin admitted; "And, I'm especially curious after Junsu had his little tantrum in the bookstore. And, Taeyeon..." he hesitated. He hadn't told the others what had happened when he had spoken with Taeyeon briefly on the roof prior to the others joining them.
"And, Taeyeon?" The other prompted,
"And, she is so dismissive," Sungmin finished. He wouldn't tell the others that she had been so close to breaking down that moment on the roof. No, that was her secret to keep or tell.
"I don't like the thought that either of them will be hurting during this case," Youngwoon revealed,
"If they're hurting during the case, then it's pretty likely that they've been hurting all these years," Sungmin added,
"I think Junsu may have followed Taeyeon after our meeting yesterday," Youngwoon admitted,
"Oh, he most certainly did," Sungmin revealed,
"That he was going to follow her after the meeting? Yeah. You know I don't like disturbing the future... that's when bad things happen," Sungmin stated,
"And, him doing that won't lead to a bad thing?"
"Regardless of my future sight, you know that I try with all my might not to change the future, Youngwoon. Furthermore, you can't save the world... you have to let people make their own decisions, their own mistakes," Sungmin answered simply, "Trying to do otherwise would become more painful than interpreting my dreams."
Silence fell between them once more before, finally, Youngwoon asked, "Hey, Sungmin, are we any closer to figuring out that dream of yours?"
"Head still hurting?"
"Like a bitch."
"Do you mind if I get some more sleep before work?"
Sungmin chuckled softly, "Yeah, you were falling asleep on me anyways."
"You sure you're okay?"
He hesitated before answered, "Yeah." Before Youngwoon could hang up, he suddenly said, "Hey, Youngwoon?"
"Thanks for answering your phone."
"I always will."
The soft click told Sungmin that his friend had ended the conversation. Putting down his phone and pushing his wine away, he turned his attention to his computer.
“How’s Sungmin doing?”
Youngwoon didn’t even glance towards the bathroom door as he put down his phone and burrowed back into his blankets, “He’s fine. He’s been a recluse for so long that I think he’s shocking himself by being with us again.”
“I won’t regret bringing them back, will I, Youngwoon?”
This time, he did look over at the older man standing in the doorway. Eeteuk stood with a shoulder against the doorframe, a towel slung low about his hips and his skin and hair still damp from the shower.
“Regardless of any misgivings, they will all be professional, Jungsu,” Youngwoon insisted, using the other’s real name on purpose. He was the only person who remembered his real name.
“Do you think I’m so cold that I don’t care about their emotional and mental well-being?” Eeteuk questioned, crossing his arms, “I may have been between a rock and a hard place; and I made a decision to reunite your team that no one involved liked; and I may have pushed you and the others about this, but in the end, I don’t want to leave any agent scarred in any way.”
Youngwoon sighed, “I know, I just…”
When the younger man couldn’t continue, Eeteuk promptly dismissed him. He disappeared into their walk-in closet and began getting dressed for the day.
“You’re going to work?” Youngwoon asked tentatively, aware that the other was angry at him.
“Clearly,” came the clipped reply,
“It’s just after four-thirty!”
“Also, another redundant statement,” Eeteuk replied,
“Stop being difficult,” Youngwoon finally huffed, “Why are you going to work when the sun isn’t even up yet?”
“Like I said yesterday, if Kwon got wind of the team, it’s only a matter of time before my name comes up. The only safe way for me to go to and from work is to go at sporadic and unpredictable hours,” he explained,
“Do you think they’ll come sniffing around our house?” Youngwoon asked,
“I was hoping not, but, now that you’ll be involved in the case, too, then I suppose the risk is pretty imminent at this point,” Eeteuk admitted as he finally came out of the closet, dressed in one of his many suits. “At least if they come at us here, we have this place pretty locked down, not to mention all of our escape plans and the sort.”
“Maybe I should move out,” Youngwoon murmured,
“Why!?” Eeteuk demanded, his voice suddenly stern and his almond-shaped eyes narrowed,
“Because we’ve kept our relationship hidden from the world and the world is coming way too close to finding out,” Youngwoon explained, “I don’t want to put your job at risk or have you ostracized just because you live with another guy.”
“I don’t just live with you, Youngwoon, I love you. That also means I get to tell the world to go to hell because I’m sure as hell not going to let you go,” Eeteuk stated angrily, stalking to the bed,
Sighing heavily, Youngwoon stood up and took the other’s face in his hands, “Fine, then we’ll announce it to the world after this case is done but, right now, with this case open and with the suspect having potential damaging information, it’s safer that we keep it under lock and key. We already know that the enemy isn’t above killing us in our own homes but, we can take some precautions by not letting them realize they can use us as ransom for the other person.”
“Fine,” Eeteuk threw his arms in the air exasperatedly as he pulled away from the younger man, “But, where will you go?”
“I’ll go crash at Sungmin’s place until the case is done. I’m sure he has more than enough room in that house of his,” Youngwoon answered,
“It’s disgustingly large,” Eeteuk muttered as he began putting his briefcase together, “But, are you sure he’ll let you?”
“I’m not sure even after the phone call we just had but, I can be pretty persuasive if I want to be,”
Eeteuk scoffed, “You would never use your stuff against Sungmin, or any of your other team mates.”
“Not if it would harm them, but this is harmless.”
Eeteuk sighed as he walked over to the bedroom door, “Fine, persuade him, but try not to get yourself killed in the process, okay? He may be your best friend, but he’s still volatile. And, I find I like having you around.”
“I’m making no promises,” Youngwoon grinned as the other left. Once he heard the distant sound of the front door closing, he crawled back into bed. The other may be going to work at an awfully early hour, but he would be like his flowers and get up with the sun.
"Oh, stop whining," Taeyeon stated as she and Kyuhyun entered the flower shop the next morning.
"I'm not whining, I'm stating true, solid facts," Kyuhyun snapped.
Youngwoon looked up from the stool where he sat, a book open on the counter before him. The two made a handsome pair. Taeyeon was dressed in a black, knee-length skirt with a red, silk blouse; the capped sleeves emphasizing how small she was. Her long hair was pulled back to the nape of her neck, secured by a tie the same colour as her blouse. She had no accessories on and, instead of her usual sneakers, she wore black pumps. Beside her, Kyuhyun was wearing black slacks and a dark blue shirt. His hair, for once, wasn't slicked back from his forehead, rather, he allowed his hair to fall in soft waves about his face. It was then that Youngwoon remembered how young the man really was.
"It was one night," Taeyeon rolled her eyes. She pulled a stool up to the counter and sat beside Youngwoon, adjusting her skirt accordingly as it rode slightly up above her knees.
"Can we stop talking about it now?" Kyuhyun questioned, blatantly gesturing towards the florist,
"Oh, no, please continue," Youngwoon replied, "I'm highly intrigued by this exchange."
"Women are supposedly the weaker gender and, yet, Kyuhyun's had his boxers in a bunch just because we slept together last night," Taeyeon replied, crossing her arms about her torso,
"Don't say it like that!" Kyuhyun exclaimed when the older man raised both brows,
"It's not a big deal Kyuhyun," Taeyeon insisted,
"Oh, yes, it is, especially once Junsu hears," Kyuhyun hissed, coming to stand at the end of the small counter, just adjacent to her. He ran his hands through his hair in frustration before shoving them back into his pockets,
"Once I hear what?" Junsu asked as he entered, Sungmin right behind him,
"It doesn't help that you two are dressed quite... nicely," Youngwoon muttered, "And, you both came here together."
Taeyeon gave a slight shrug of her shoulders, "That's because I wanted to stop somewhere on the way here."
"Once I hear what?" Junsu repeated as he stopped at the counter, Sungmin standing between him and Kyuhyun,
Before Youngwoon could answer, Sungmin interjected quickly, "You have to promise not to hit Kyuhyun."
Junsu raised a brow, "Why?"
"Promise and, then, Youngwoon can tell you," Sungmin said firmly,
"Fine, I promise," Junsu said,
"Was that really necessary?" Taeyeon questioned,
"Yes," Sungmin answered,
"I thought you said you don't ever try to change things," Youngwoon commented,
"I said I don't like trying to change things. Some things, however, are petty and unnecessary," Sungmin replied, "And, what Youngwoon was going to say is that Taeyeon and Kyuhyun came here together." He held up his hand when Taeyeon opened her mouth to speak, "Yes, he was going to find out where you were staying once he returned to your motel room and found you gone."
Youngwoon opened a drawer in the counter and pulled out a small bottle of pills, "Something for your headache?"
Sungmin shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck wearily, "No, it'll go away on it's own... just... a lot all at once."
Junsu bit his tongue. He wanted to say so many things, but he knew what it cost Sungmin to reveal so much of his visions, especially if it meant changing the course of the future.
"For my sanity," Sungmin continued, taking the bottle of medicine even after having just refused them, "Just say what's really on your mind and let's not beat around the bush. We were all going to talk about what we thought about the data thus far, but Youngwoon wants to talk about something else. What is it?"
"Let me stay with you until the case is finished," Youngwoon prompted,
Sungmin glared at him. Of all the things he thought that his friend would talk about, he never considered that topic. His former team mates had learned quite fast that he secluded himself and he had gotten quite used to being alone. Sungmin was close to flat out refusing, when he hesitated. He dropped his gaze to the countertop, ignoring everything around him as he concentrated, awaiting for some premonition of the future to flit through his mind like a movie screen. When none was forthcoming, he stalled by taking two pills from the bottle, startled when he realized his hands were slightly shaking.
"Why?" Sungmin asked, further trying to stall until his gift or curse or whatever it was finally did its job.
"If we're found out, I don't want my home to be targeted," Youngwoon explained,
"And, so, my home will be collateral instead?" Sungmin questioned,
Eeteuk and I... Youngwoon's voice whispered through the mercenary's mind.
His friend said no more but, he didn't need to. It was all in his words, it was all in the way his voice sounded in his mind. He had suspected for several years about Youngwoon and Agent Eeteuk, but, despite how close they were, Youngwoon had never divulged any information to him. He realized then how pressing it was for Youngwoon to stay with him. Sungmin realized how important it was for his friend to have his way just this once, especially since it had cost Youngwoon his silence after all those years.
Sungmin tossed the pills into his mouth, swallowing them dry, "Fine," was his curt answer.
"Let Taeyeon stay with you, too," Kyuhyun suggested suddenly,
"What!?" Taeyeon and Sungmin said in unison,
"She needs a place to stay and it's cheapest if she stays with one of us," Kyuhyun answered,
Taeyeon raised her brow at him, "You were the one to ask me to stay with you and now you're kicking me out?"
Kyuhyun glared at her, refusing to speak aloud about the matter anymore, especially with Junsu staring daggers at him.
"I don't need this!" Taeyeon exclaimed, "I was perfectly fine staying at the motel!"
"You do need this," Kyuhyun said quietly, grabbing her arm to hold her attention; "The only way for us to bring you back into the team is for you to be with us. If you stay in your motel away from all of us you'll always think in terms of solo... you'll never let us truly be a team again."
"I'm not the only one," Taeyeon replied, not bothering to censor her volume, "Everyone here has settled into their new lives. Everyone here wanted to be apart from the others. Everyone here has been on their own, separated from the rest of the team these past two years. Why should any of that change just because we're working as a team again?"
Sungmin caught the peculiar glint in their team leader's eyes. "No," he said immediately, catching the others' attention.
"No, what?" Junsu asked,
"Youngwoon, I can guess what you're thinking and I want you to stop right there," Sungmin demanded, eyes narrowed,
"We need to be a team again, Sungmin. If we're going to succeed, we need to return to what we once were. I'm talking more than just our training, I'm talking about being a team and working together," Youngwoon stated firmly, crossing his arms; "We all have our specialties and we all have our weaknesses. But, as a team, we were perfect. We need to be perfect again."
Sungmin suppressed the urge to swear as he paced away, knowing exactly what he was getting at.
"We should all stay together until this case is done," Youngwoon said; "If not for the duration of the case, then, at least the first week or so until we are a team."
"You have no right to commandeer my home!" Sungmin exclaimed, turning back to face them, "I will let you stay with me since you're so desperate, but the whole team!?"
"You know I'm right and yours is the only place big enough to accommodate all of us," Youngwoon replied, knowing he was pushing his best friend and a part of him was worried that he was pushing too much. He was worried that he could push Sungmin over the edge and, then, he'd really never be able to get his best friend back; "Sungmin, we were all teammates... we were all friends once."
"And that's the point, isn't it, Youngwoon? We were all of that once, but we all let it go. We didn't just walk away from The Sector two years ago, we walked away from each other!" Sungmin exclaimed, "You are the only one any of us kept in contact with and that's because you wouldn't leave us the hell alone. But, the rest? We didn't bother, so why should we pretend like we care after we all dropped our friendships? Why play house when none of us gave a damn to pick up the damn phone just once over the past two years!?"
Youngwoon saw it then. It was there in Sungmin's fox-like eyes, in the way their dark depths seemed to churn with emotion. The feelings, the warmth - everything he once associated with his friend was all there, locked up from the world. Yes, Sungmin had changed, but his heart did not completely turn.
"Maybe it's time to pick up that phone, now, Sungmin," Youngwoon was startled to realize it had been Taeyeon who spoke. Indeed, looking around, the others were just as surprised.
"If you'll have me," Taeyeon continued, "I would very much appreciate it if you would let me stay with you even if it's just for a few days."
Sungmin hesitated to answer. He had used his seclusion as a safety blanket, wrapped himself in loneliness to ignore how his life suddenly lacked all it had once been. However, he did know Youngwoon was right, but that wasn't what moved him. No, it had been the fact that Taeyeon had agreed with their leader. He still recalled the haunted look in her eyes that night on the room. He remembered how she had pleaded to let her go. It chilled him that her need to escape was so great that she called upon a life debt. He knew they all carried demons from their past and he knew those demons had grown during the two years after The Sector. He didn't know hers, but, he had a feeling they were greater than any of them carried.
"You can move in tomorrow... all of you," Sungmin stated and, then, left abruptly, the original purpose of the meeting long forgotten.