She’s worked many obscure jobs in her time, and this one hardly counts as obscure. But then again, she supposes that it must be, because she’s never had a target like Kang Seulgi before, and hopefully, with her skill and a of luck, she never will again.
It’s not like Kang Seulgi is outside of her typical range of scope; she’s been trained to be of use, to be deadly, in all different kinds of situations, by all definitions of the word. Her usual targets are politicians who, if one were to ask a member of Seoul’s working class, perhaps would be described as corrupt. Naturally, these particular men and women would almost always have bodyguards with them, and she could dispose of them with ease, no trouble required, hardly a breath spent.
She muses to herself as she pulls her scrubs on, pulling her hair up into a high ponytail, not letting a single strand of hair remain in vision.
She can’t help but wonder how this one will play out.
Because she’s always had a plan before, and they’ve always been executed with near flawlessness— that’s not to say that they’re perfect every single time, but she’s quick on her feet and remains level-headed in even the most stressful of situations.
Still, it’s the first time she’s ever had a target who could make her plans go awry.
Oh well. She doesn’t have the time to worry about that right now.
She smiles at the other nurses she passes as she makes her way down the hallway, a clipboard tucked securely under her arm. She checks her phone briefly, eyes flashing across the time, making sure she’s in the right place.
She fixes her name tag that reads “Jeon Irene,” pinned onto her pristine, spotless lab coat, before painting a friendly smile on her face. The perfect nurse, with the perfect personality. She’s the perfect person to be Kang Seulgi’s personal nurse, and she needs to make Seulgi believe that. Because this is her job, and Seulgi is her target; because she thinks in advance.
She is smart. Very, very smart.
And as she pushes open the door to her new patient’s room, Irene is smart enough to realize that Secret Agent Kang Seulgi, the government’s secret weapon and essential lapdog, has the potential to make everything go wrong.
That’s okay though.
Irene just won’t allow that to happen.
“So you’re the infamous Kang Seulgi I’ve been hearing so much about,” she teases lightly, leisurely making her way across the office space, stopping right in front of the exam table Seulgi is perched on. She gives Seulgi a look over, taking in the traditional black suit the young woman wears, typical of an agent — Irene would know, she’s taken down several lower ranked agents before.
She hums to herself, leafing through the files she’s already scanned more than ten times over. “The government’s highest elite, yes?”
Seulgi beams brightly, charmingly, and Irene is almost caught off guard by how unusually bright it is.
“That’s me,” Seulgi replies cheerfully and it almost sounds like she’s singing. “And you’re Nurse Irene, the woman who’s taking over for Nurse Jessica.”
“Correct,” Irene nods. “I’ve been screened and cleared by your higher ups, so I’ll be the one you come to after all of your missions for the routine check ups.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Seulgi chirps, and Irene raises an eyebrow at how nonchalant she sounds about the whole thing. It’s suspicious, even though Irene’s done next to nothing to garner such suspicion. She can’t really blame the woman for being too careful though, so good on Seulgi.
Still, such reservation won’t do for Irene’s purpose. Mentally running through her options, Irene quickly makes a decision to try and alleviate the distrust.
“I’m not a public audience,” Irene says with a chuckle instead, sticking her pen behind her right ear before pinching her thumb and index finger in a pulling motion. Seulgi immediately understands the request, shouldering off her suit jacket and carefully folding it, placing it very neatly on the empty space beside her. Irene nods in appreciation, observing the taut muscle that had clearly been the result of many hours of workouts.
“You don’t have to be so tense around me,” she continues, finally taking a step back and retrieving her pen again. She deftly spins it around her fingers before jotting more notes onto a clipboard.
Seulgi her head innocently.
“Tense?” If Irene didn’t know better, she’d think that Seulgi sounded genuinely confused. Seulgi’s good at sounding like an open book, definitely possessing the face for it. “What do you mean by that?”
She keeps her expression level as she shrugs, adding perhaps more perceptive than anticipated to the end of her bullet-point list.
“You don’t exactly need to sound excited to visit me,” she tells Seulgi frankly, bites back a giggle at the way Seulgi blinks, caught off guard by how blunt she’d been. “I can understand why you’d think your check ups are a waste of time. Don’t worry, you can trust me.”
“They’re not wastes of time,” Seulgi insists, and Irene takes notice of how her voice drops a few keys. “I’m sorry,” she sounds genuine this time. “I didn’t mean to offend you with my tone, it’s just how I speak sometimes when I don’t know how else to act.”
There’s honesty there. Irene can tell by the subtle way Seulgi’s face relaxes, telling her a harmless truth. It’s useless information right now, so to speak, and Seulgi knows it, even if she doesn’t know who Irene is in particular.
So it’s not just with me...
“You don’t really trust anyone with your thoughts, do you?” Irene muses aloud, and Seulgi raises an eyebrow, though she doesn’t give anything away. Irene simply flashes a smile of reassurance Seulgi’s way. “It’s okay, it’s understandable in your line of work. Some thoughts are better left unsaid anyway.”
To her credit, Seulgi never falters in her delivery.
“I just don’t want to disappoint anybody with needless talk,” the agent merely says smoothly, and it’s Irene’s turn to raise an eyebrow at that. So Kang Seulgi proves to be just as interesting as she’d imagined.
A people pleaser, Irene writes down into her notes, bullet-pointing the new addition before plastering on a charming smile of her own and resuming her casual talk with the agent.
She’s back in her apartment, picking idly at her caesar salad with a fork when her phone buzzes, and a familiar, unassuming ringtone fills the empty space, ringing through the dead air. Irene stares blankly at the cellular device for a solid two seconds before wordlessly reaching for it, bringing it to her ear.
“Who am I speaking to?” The smooth male voice on the other end of the line asks.
“This is Jeon Irene,” she replies.
“Put my friend on the phone for me, would you kindly?”
“What do you want, Siwon?” She asks, keeping her voice neutral, knowing that the foul man wouldn’t be calling her without a reason. “I already told you that I don’t need help with this one— I’ve never needed your help before and I surely don’t need it now.”
“Ever the welcoming one, POI43,” Siwon says, his voice a rumbling warm hum laced with a joking undertone, pleasing to the ear in its own right. Irene can virtually see the way his lips curl over her code name, the letters and numbers she’s been addressed by since the age of seven, and she scoffs.
Siwon himself has no effect on Irene anymore though; she’d grown up with this man, dealing with his teasing, not feeling bad in the slightest when she had been chosen as the superior assassin over him. Siwon had taken it in stride, easily resigning from his position as a killer and essentially doing the organization’s desk work, giving up what little freedom he had and storing away his previous codename, POI25. Now everyone just calls him by his real name, Siwon, and he takes the calls, gives them the missions from the higher ups, and annoys Irene at every opportunity that presents itself.
“What do you want?” she musters out through gritted teeth. As much as he irritates her, she’s yet to snap at him, or at anyone for that matter.
“Just calling to check in,” Siwon says with a lilt to his tone.
“Well, all is good.”
“You haven’t strangled anyone in that hospital yet?” He continues to .
Briefly, Irene thinks back to the few patients she’d been introduced to today, recalls the way they lie in their hospital beds, some of them lazily, others just weak with hopelessness. Without a doubt, the other patients would be the least of her problems.
She fleetingly considers responding to Siwon’s jokes with some bite of her own before ultimately deciding against it, not seeing the point in provoking him.
Instead, she only tells him no, they’re no trouble at all, before hanging up the phone, stabbing at her salad to consume its remains, and falling into her bed, allowing herself to dive into a deep sleep.
The second time she sees Kang Seulgi is right after Seulgi’s latest mission, and Irene pushes open the door of her office to find the agent already seated up on the examination table, leisurely swinging her legs back and forth, awaiting Irene patiently. She cradles her arm casually against her torso, and Irene’s quick to spot the white gauze bandages tightly wrapped around Seulgi’s wrist.
“You’ve got something for me to fix?” Irene asks jokingly, keeping her tone light.
Seulgi quirks an eyebrow in amusement, lifting her injured arm up higher for Irene to see more clearly.
“Something like that,” she says, the corner of twitching. “I think I accidentally sprained it during the mission.”
“Oh?” Irene hums in interest, taking note of the injury before quickly scanning the rest of Seulgi’s figure for any other abnormalities. Despite knowing full well that Seulgi’s government-assigned missions were meant to be completely secretive, Irene can’t help but be curious. “So how are things going at work?”
“Smoothly,” is Seulgi’s automatic response, but Irene sees the slight wince, so small that most would miss it, not from pain, but rather from being seen through so easily when Irene fixates her with an incredulous look.
She gingerly picks up Seulgi’s injured arm, her hands looking that much smaller in comparison to Seulgi's.
“If things were really going smoothly, then you’d be out of here by now and I wouldn’t have to carefully undo your gauze-wrapped wrist you made a makeshift cast for,” Irene states plainly, thumbing the ends of the bandages before beginning the process of unwrapping. “You don’t have to tell me the whole story or anything, but as your nurse, I think I at least deserve to know the actual state of your wellbeing.”
The conversation between them immediately comes to a halt, and Irene purposely heaves a deep sigh to convey the apparent disappointment, but she says no more, figuring that Seulgi’s silence would speak for her.
The air is heavy, and while Irene’s no stranger to quiet rooms, she can’t help but feel frustrated. She needs Seulgi to trust her. She needs the agent to open up and let her in, show Irene what her vulnerability looks like—
“It was a little rough this time around, and I was caught unprepared. There's this specific assassin we've been told to look out for,” Seulgi finally admits after the moment passes. “You might've heard of them, they're called the Nova Killer. At least, that’s the name that the agency has decided to give them, and that's the name that's been going around on the news.”
Irene nearly stills in her work, ears perking in almost amused intrigue at how surprisingly easy it had been to get Seulgi to talk as she continues to unwrap the white bandages.
“Oh, I think I've heard of them before,” Irene says, pausing with meaning, a thoughtful frown marring her features. “I think I must've heard it while listening to the radio on the drive back home.” Not a lie, there had been an entire segment on the elusive Nova Killer last night after she'd left the hospital. “I only caught a part of the broadcast though, since I usually listen to music stations. What makes the Nova Killer such a big upset for the agency?”
“They've been targeting mainly politicians and other large significant figures of influence, particularly those with governmental influence,” Seulgi further explains, not even flinching from any pain when Irene gently touches her injured, bruised wrist, smoothening ointment over it. “The agency knows as much as the public does about them— that is to say, next to nothing. Just that they're extremely skilled at being evasive, and their methods of murder are effective, imaginative, and virtually untraceable. They're very thorough. The last person they murdered died in an office of polluted, poisoned air— no one even laid a hand on them.”
Ah, that kill had taken some creativity, Irene recalls. She thinks back to all the nights where she'd laid awake, ideas circulating through her head for how she was to take her target at the time. The man had been a lawyer, and a healthy one at that. Understandably, it takes more thought and planning to prepare for a healthy person's death.
She’d ended up taking advantage of the youthful secretary at the law firm who'd harbored a crush on him, getting her to light him a faux candle of incense that had permeated through his room, effectively spreading the poison to his lungs and eventually leading the man to death's doors.
“The Nova Killer's methods are so different for every victim that under normal circumstances, we'd probably think that a different murderer had been at each site,” Seulgi continues, frowning. “The only reason we know it's the same killer is because they leave a small sun insignia behind, one that they allow us to find.”
Irene smothers down a smirk. She'd spent a whole night in her youth designing that little sun insignia.
Instead, she allows a worried expression to overtake her face.
“This Nova Killer sounds slippery,” she murmurs, fiddling with the velcro of the brace she'd taken out for Seulgi's wrist. “Sounds scary.”
Seulgi flashes her a tired smile of reassurance.
“I wouldn't be too worried, Irene. I doubt you're anywhere on the Nova Killer's hitlist.”
“Wonderful,” Irene says dryly, fully knowing that Seulgi had been trying to lighten the mood and responding in kind.
The agent merely grins, white teeth glinting, and she allows Irene to slip the brace on without further ado.
“I think I had a run in with them today,” Seulgi says, wiggling her fingers around the brace.
I doubt that, Irene thinks. I've been in the hospital all day.
“You think?” Irene asks aloud.
Seulgi nods. “Chased them down an alley, and they ducked under the roof of a dilapidated building. I tried to go after them, but I ended up twisting my wrist and they got away.”
Inwardly, Irene tsks. It had definitely been one of the newer members of the organization.
“They slapped a yellow sun insignia on the lock before they made their escape.”
Oh? Irene resists the urge to roll her eyes. Now she knows exactly who had been evading capture at the hands of Seulgi, and it certainly had not been herself.
“Well, luckily, your sprain should be all healed up in a day or so,” Irene says instead. “And then you'll be back to chasing persons of interest all you want, on your dangerous missions and whatnot. Just rest a bit until then.”
“That's it?” Seulgi's charming smile is far too much for Irene to handle right now. “I don't need to get it amputated or anything?”
Irene only plasters a coy smile on her lips.
“Well, I'll make sure to offer it as an option next time.”
Seulgi’s eyes gleam before she abruptly gets serious.
“But really, I'll be alright, yeah?”
Irene only nods.
“Don't worry. You'll be okay, Kang Seulgi.” For the time being.
“Thank you, Irene.”
The sun is setting when Irene hoists herself atop the brick wall on the outskirts of the city. It’s a decently high vantage point, and Irene had scaled a modest lowrise in order to reach the location that allowed her to climb it.
“What do you think you’re doing, using my sun insignia?” Irene drawls lazily as she makes her way across the top of the brick wall, balancing herself with ease, stepping one foot after another with the grace of a gymnast on a balance beam. “I’ve told you before, no using what’s mine without permission.”
The other person who had been perched languidly on the wall, a youthful female quite a few years before Irene’s time, startles at the sudden intrusion, immediately sitting up straighter the moment she realizes she has company.
“Why?” The girl asks, aiming for apparent nonchalance, and Irene snickers to herself, taking a seat beside the other female. Irene gets a glare shot her way. “And I’m helping! I’m just adding to the Nova Killer’s body count.”
“Well, for starters, you didn’t actually kill anyone today,” Irene states in an overly compensating manner, as though she were patronizing a child. The girl a few feet away huffs and crosses her arms, and Irene presses on. “Agent Kang Seulgi is still very much alive, as is the CEO whomst she was accompanying. Second, you aren’t even the Nova Killer. Even if you had completed an assassination, the only body count you’d be adding to is your own, Yeri.”
“Don’t call me that,” Yeri snaps. Irene snickers again, and Yeri scowls. “I’m POI17.”
Irene snorts. “Don’t be proud of that number. You’re not even supposed to say it out loud in the open like this. I’m just going to call you Yeri.”
Yeri’s scowl deepens.
“That’s not even my real name.”
“Close enough.” Irene shrugs. “You should hold onto your real name while you can, by the way. You might even miss it when it’s gone and by then, it’s too late to remember.”
Irene can see the way Yeri’s interest perks at that.
“Do you remember your real name, POI43— er…?”
“‘Irene,’” she supplies.
“Do you remember your real name, Irene?” Yeri corrects.
“Of course I do,” she replies.
And with that, Irene rises from her seated position, spinning on her heel and beginning to walk away.
“Don’t play with my sun insignias ever again!” She calls over her shoulder in a sing-song way and a dramatic wave of her hand, leaving Yeri grumbling about the unfairness of it all behind her.
There’s a time when Seulgi walks into her office with bruises on her knuckles, as well as one splattered like paint over her right eyes.
Irene whistles, raising an eyebrow when she sees the damage. She doesn’t need to know the details to know that the young woman had clearly gotten into a fist fight, and a rather violent one at that.
“Do I want to see the other guy?” Irene jokes as she carefully picks up Seulgi’s bruised hand, running her thumb gently over the brazed skin there, testing how tender they are.
“I can give you their prison cell number,” Seulgi replies, chuckling. “It’s been awhile since I’ve had a good fist fight. How am I looking?”
“Well, you haven’t broken any fingers, so that’s a good thing,” Irene says lightly. “All in all, besides the black eye and bruised knuckles, you’re pretty much good to go. I can give you some ice and ointment, and you’ll be fine.”
Seulgi visibly perks up at that.
“No need for amputation?” She teases, and Irene laughs.
“No, not this time.”
“Nice,” Seulgi hums. “Good to know I can still hold myself in the ring.”
“Have you ever lost?” Irene questions.
Seulgi shakes her head, her small smile doing all the talking for her, and Irene chuckles, nodding in admiration.
“I should’ve guessed that,” she says.
Seulgi smirks, shrugging off her signature black suit jacket.
“Well, I couldn’t just be your standard little nobody.”
“So you grew up to be a scrappy little nobody instead?” Irene’s voice is playful.
“I mean, that’s what happens when the government chooses to train a kid from off the streets,” Seulgi jokes.
“You’re an orphan,” Irene suddenly blurts out, surprised. She internally curses herself a moment later. She’s not supposed to slip, she can’t afford to show any cracks in her facade. And yet—
Seulgi flinches, looking caught off guard. It’s the first time Irene’s ever seen her appear so, given how despite the agent’s stellar ability to appear open, Seulgi clearly still has walls, as invisible as they may be. Yet Irene can’t help but be intrigued, wondering if it really is a heartbeat of frustration that flashes into Seulgi’s eyes, that leaves as soon as it came.
The silence that echoes between them is so short that most people wouldn’t catch it. However, Irene’s been trained to look for those breaches of normalcy, been taught to use them to her advantage. Usually, she makes the first move here.
This time, Seulgi does.
“I am,” she says, smoothly cluing Irene in without any apparent suspicion whatsoever. The way Seulgi fixes her gaze on Irene looks innocent enough, but the older woman knows better than to feel relaxed. “Why? You seem surprised.”
Irene immediately plasters a small smile on her lips, and she stutters her words, makes herself sound nervous, apologetic.
“Sorry,” she murmurs, reaching up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. It’s a habit she’s observed other women do; makes them seem endearing for some reason. “I was just taken back by your honesty.” Not a lie. “I’m an orphan too, actually.” What is she doing? “It’s encouraging to see someone similar to you doing well in the world, working their way up.”
Seulgi nods slowly, avoiding Irene’s inquiring eyes.
“Yeah, it is,” she says quietly. “It… It’s a good story for sympathy, growing up on your own.”
Irene chuckles to herself.
“You’re kind of the rags to riches story everyone with a heart will feel for.”
Seulgi shrugs, mouth twitching.
“I’m pretty sure the real rags to riches story is Batman.”
“So you’re the real life Batman,” Irene replies. Her words come naturally now, unforced, unthought. Rationally, she should be fearful of running — she’s already tread on several landmines during this entire conversation, so there’s reason to worry. She just can’t bring herself to care anymore.
And Seulgi can’t seem to hold back her laughter at that quip, so she throws back her head, looks at Irene with gleaming eyes.
“I’m pretty sure Batman hated working with the law,” the agent recalls. “Let alone the government.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Irene shrugs. “I’ve only seen the movies, I don’t actually know very much.” And now back to the lies; Irene’s been stealing editions of the numerous Batman comic book series from the local drugstore since the age of eight. “All I’m saying is that one day, you might find your likeness in theaters, potentially in Lego form.”
Irene can’t help but be pleased with herself, the way she makes Seulgi tip her head back and laugh.
“Well, I hope you’ll be there for my big screen debut as a plastic toy,” the agent says playfully.
“I’ll be first in line at the movie theater.”
The next time Seulgi visits, she’s staying overnight at the hospital after being exposed to radiation.
An hour of complete boredom into the stay, she flops over on her side, pushing herself up from the bed, looking across the room to where Irene types reports onto her laptop.
“Let me organize your office,” Seulgi says, and Irene blinks, glancing up from her document, wondering if she’d heard the young woman wrong.
“I want to organize your office,” Seulgi repeats.
“What’s wrong with it as it is?” Irene protests defensively.
Seulgi fixes her with an incredulous look.
“It’s a mess, Irene, and you’re clearly not going to be the one cleaning it up, so why don’t you let me?”
It’s a fair enough point as it is. It’s not like Irene has any of her legitimately important files lying around here— she’s not nearly daft enough to let them linger in any of the hospital’s walls. She’s really got nothing to lose.
And that’s how Irene ends up here, in the corner of her office, watching from her desk chair as Seulgi whisks around the room, picking up objects and files and books and disposing them elsewhere, tucking them away into drawers, positioning them in their rightful places on shelves, sprucing the space up and turning her office into more of an actual office and less of a glorified storage unit.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” Irene comments in an offhand manner, peering above the pages of the novel in her hand.
(Seulgi had found the untouched book as she was doing a sweep of her bookshelf, and had quickly dropped it into Irene’s lap upon noticing the older woman getting antsy from merely sitting and watching.)
“I do this kind of thing on my days off,” the agent replies as she dumps a handful of pencils into a glass holder. “I rearrange my apartment and whatnot. Everything has its proper place.”
“What?” Irene can’t help the disgust that seeps into her voice, and Seulgi lets out a loud laugh at the slip up. “Why on earth would you do this on your day offs?”
Seulgi chuckles lightly, shrugs but offers no formal explanation.
“Haven’t you ever been on a vacation or anything?” Irene continues.
“Have you?” Seulgi shoots back.
Irene pauses at that. She hasn’t. Ever since she’d joined the organization back as a child, there’s always been something to do, some new mission to undertake, some few dozen other coworkers counting on her to hit the mark on her targets, push their agenda forward.
(Now, what that agenda is, Irene’s not really sure anymore. She’s got to do another check in with that one. What was their vision again?)
Reeling herself back into the moment, Irene lets a shrug of her own roll off her shoulder with ease.
“Being a nurse is hard work,” she says simply.
Seulgi nods wordlessly and returns back to organizing her file cabinet.
“But,” Irene finds herself saying before she can prevent it.
Seulgi glances over her shoulder curiously.
“I kind of want one,” Irene finishes, and it sounds a little dumb to her, because who wouldn’t want a vacation? Theoretically. But for some reason Seulgi smiles at her like she’d just told the younger woman a secret, and Irene can’t find the words to say anything further, so she just closes and chews on her lower lip
Seulgi’s laugh is gentle, and it sends a warm breeze that spreads goosebumps down Irene’s arms.
“I think I kind of want one too.”
“How’s life at the hospital?” Yeri asks, and they’re back on that same brick wall, their backs to the cityscape, looking out as the sun sets behind the horizon.
Irene shrugs. “It’s fine.”
“What’s it like, being around all those sickly and injured people?”
“Dunno,” Irene says, because it’s the truth. She’s never really sure what she should be feeling every time she makes her rounds, checks up on all the patients in her ward. The innate need to make sure that they’re okay is there – she Googled it, and apparently it’s maternal, which is strange in itself because she’s never known the care of a parent before – but the urge to distance herself is also strong.
“And Kang Seulgi?”
“What about her?”
“What’s she like?”
“She’s—” Irene stops herself. An enigma. That’s what Kang Seulgi is. Open, but guarded; so willing to give, but never hesitating to withhold; a complete conundrum wrapped in a riddle with a nice satin ribbon on top. That’s what Kang Seulgi is. “I can’t really tell. I’m just doing my job.” Both of them.
Yeri nods slowly.
Do you, though? Irene wants to ask, but she doesn’t. Although she’s a member of the organization, just like Irene, Yeri isn’t usually given any of the more difficult missions— not from a lack of capability, but because Irene and a few other older members had made a deal that the youngest members were a last resort.
“Don’t worry about it,” Irene merely says. “I’ve got everything under control.”
The next time Seulgi visits, she’s wheeled in on a stretcher and Irene’s heart nearly leaps out from her chest— that is, until she steps closer and sees Seulgi’s annoyed face, hears the agent whining about how the stretcher was an overreaction.
“I mean,” Irene reasons fifteen minutes later, as she motions for Seulgi to roll up her shirt once again, “You were thrown onto a table and broke the wood in the middle of a gunfight. It’s a miracle you came out with only bruises on your back and splinters in your arms. I wouldn’t say it was a complete overreaction.”
“I could walk just fine,” Seulgi says defensively. She shifts slightly on the examination table, giving Irene access to her back, and her breath hitches only slightly as Irene’s cool fingers coated with ointment come to press against tender skin. “You did get all the splinters out, right?”
“Every last one of them,” Irene hums thoughtfully, only to pause briefly when her fingers graze over certain patches of Seulgi’s back.
Her brief break in her work is enough to catch Seulgi’s attention.
“Irene? Is everything okay?”
“Yes, of course,” she says smoothly. “I’m almost done, no worries.”
She steps away from Seulgi’s back a minute later, having finished applying the ointment to the bruised areas. Still, even as she returns to the other side of the room, her hand tingles with the faintest hints of electricity, having run her fingertips against the rough, imperfect skin.
“You have scars all over your back,” Irene comments, her voice strikingly neutral. She tries her best not to give away how intrigued she is, but she can't help the hint of curiosity that glimmers in her eyes. Seulgi seems to catch wind of it too, and Irene swiftly averts her gaze to her clipboard, absently scribbling down some minor notes in the traditional chicken scratch handwriting of doctors.
Seulgi regards her for a moment in silence, as though debating whether to take the bait.
Irene looks up to meet Seulgi's gaze evenly, remembering to keep her expression open and non-committing, her genuine intrigue causing her to not want to scare the agent off.
“I do,” Seulgi finally says steadily, albeit quietly, and for a brief moment, Irene sees a crack in Kang Seulgi's expertly crafted mask. “Those ones… they’ve been around for a very long time.”
Irene’s brow furrows.
“What are they from?”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Irene adds in haste, backtracking so to not push too far. “I’ll understand.”
The agent shakes her head, frowning. A hand comes up to run its way through her long dark hair, pushing it back from where it had fallen in her face.
“I got them from my training period in the agency,” Seulgi says quietly. She stares at the floor in contemplation, cracking her knuckles— a habit Irene's come to recognize as a sign of nervousness. “Back when I was a child. Those scars just… never went away.”
“You were a child?” Irene cuts in, somehow gripping onto that fact in particular.
A shrug rolls off Seulgi's shoulders.
“A lot of change happened when I was a child. It all happened really fast now that I look back on it. It felt much longer as it all occurred.”
“What did they do to you?”
“I don't know what you mean.”
“Seulgi,” Irene says sharply.
Seulgi only looks up at Irene with all-too innocent eyes.
Irene makes a show of sighing, slumping her shoulders.
“You know exactly what I mean,” she mutters.
The laugh that leaves Seulgi's lips is chillingly freezing, and for the first time in her twenty-eight years of life, Irene feels a chill run down her spine.
“Do you actually want me to admit how ed up I became?” Seulgi asks lowly, devoid of any emotion. She pushes her hair back once more, this time her hand getting caught in a few loose tangles, and she laughs again, the sound rattling in Irene's bones. “God, Irene! Where do I even start with what's wrong with me?”
Irene inhales abruptly.
“They took me in off the streets, Irene,” Seulgi says, her stare almost overbearing as she captures Irene’s eyes with her own. “I had been living in a dumpster, and they caught me stealing from a restaurant. I thought they were going to kill me, but they said they had an offer instead. I was young and naive, and I never imagined it would bring me here.” There’s something wistful there, and it grips Irene’s heart in a fist and squeezes it tight. “I thought they would teach me how to be stronger. I thought I had already faced the worst life could send my way when I was on my own. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think they could break me more than I was already broken.”
Irene clenches her hands into fists, nails digging into her palms and leaving marks there. She bites on her tongue to keep herself from expressing her disgust too loudly.
“I mean, it’s the government, for ’s sake!” Seulgi’s voice raises in almost hysteria. Then she calms down, chuckles hollowly, shakes her head. “If I didn’t reach a goal, I got hit. Couldn’t beat my best time? I got hit. Couldn’t make the distance? I got hit. That’s where all the scars came from, Irene. And not just from my instructors either, but from me forcing myself well past my limits.”
“That’s,” Irene whispers, not trusting her real voice to remain steady, “that’s awful…”
“Oh, I could handle the hitting,” Seulgi shrugs again, dismissively. “Maybe it even helped me— it increased my pain tolerance, y’know? Actually, don’t answer that. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to understand that sort of thing.”
Irene wishes that she could tell her otherwise, whisper that she understood, that she could feel Seulgi’s past more astutely than probably anyone else on this little green planet, wished that she could let Seulgi know that out of the 7 billion people currently in existence, that Irene was the one who truly could sympathize with her best.
“No, I didn’t really mind the hitting, now that I think of it,” Seulgi continues. “The scars are just reminders now— ones that make it look worse than it was. I don’t think you can physically see the real harm they did to me anyway.”
“They made me do a lot of literal heavy lifting, did you know? No, of course you didn’t know… No one does. They’re good at keeping that one a secret.”
Irene’s eyes are wide, and Seulgi smiles gently. Irene finds herself hating that smile, the one that looks so at peace, like Seulgi’s moved past it all, like she had just shrugged it all off like the superhero she is.
“There were days when I’d be tasked to lift and move heavy crates nonstop in the basement floors for hours on end,” Seulgi recalls. “There was no sunlight down there, just metal walls, grates, and a dim artificial light. Sometimes, I’d finish early, and my superiors would tell me that I did it wrong, that I moved the creates to the wrong spot, and then I’d have to start all over again. I’d be finished and leave, but then I’d return a few days later and it was like I never left.” She doesn’t even look up when Irene cautiously sits on the edge of the bed, right next to her. “They would always tell me, ‘everything has its proper place.’ Those words… they applied to more than just the crates. I couldn’t let them think that I belonged anywhere but the top.”
Understanding dawns, and Irene’s hands shake when she recalls her previous encounter with Seulgi.
“You said that phrase before, last time we met, when… When you rearranged and reordered my entire office.”
Seulgi smiles warily, fingertips tapping the mattress anxiously.
“Another result of my training, I suppose.” She tips her head back, looks up at the bright hospital lights through hooded eyes. “Sometimes – and don’t get me wrong here, it doesn’t happen often – I feel a sort of phantom pain in my arms and legs, even on days where I don’t exert myself at all. It… it doesn't happen often, but it hurts.”
“Seulgi!” Irene gasps against her wishes.
Seulgi shrugs helplessly for the last time, and that’s it. The next thing she knows, Irene’s cradling a trembling, shaking Seulgi in her arms, letting the agent bury her face into the crook of Irene’s neck.
“You didn’t deserve that,” she whispers, letting her fingers weave through Seulgi’s hair in an attempt to comfort her. “No one deserves to go through that.”
Seulgi’s bottom lip trembles.
“I was so alone,” Seulgi whispers, her voice breaking into a silent sob, and Irene pulls her in tighter.
And it's then that Irene sees— peers beneath the well-hidden cracks of the intricately decorated vase that is Kang Seulgi, dives deeper, deeper, deeper, delves beneath the surface and finally gets a glimpse – however fleeting it truly is – of a small lost girl who had been brought to a skyscraper made of one-way glass, expecting her dreams to come true, only to step inside and realize that everything was a nightmare.
(Perhaps though, the most terrifying thing of all is how painstakingly familiar the little girl looks, and it's like Irene can feel the child's pain as her own.)
Irene's own personal skyscraper of glass had actually been a lowrise of red brick and mortar, an oven that had been used to concoct only the most potent of recipes, producing some of the deadliest killers to walk the earth.
Irene had been one of them. Irene had been the best of them.
Or, perhaps not Irene, so to speak, but rather POI43.
She’s never really been “Irene” until now.
Last year, she was a secretary for a nuclear engineering company. Five years ago, she was waiting tables at a five star restaurant. A decade ago, she boarded planes as a flight attendant. Twenty years ago, an orphaned girl was pulled off the streets with nothing but the switchblade gripped in her right hand.
She’s lived through so many lives, went by so many different names, that she’s lost count. The only consistency through it all was POI43, the code name she’d been given back when she’d first been taken in by the organization.
They hadn’t even asked her what her real name had been before it had been stripped away. Now, she keeps it to herself, a reminder of what she once was. POI43 is nothing but a label for what she currently is.
Person of Interest 43.
She supposes that it’s ironic, given how she’d spent all of her years of training being taught how to stay as far away from interest as possible, how to blend seamlessly into the life of another, how to take on another name and remain below the radar.
She wonders if Seulgi had been lucky enough to keep her own name, ponders what would have happened if she had opened and sympathized, just as she had when Seulgi had admitted to being an orphan all those meetings ago.
She’d had her fair share of tragedies as a child too. Her youth had been full of change too.
She had been alone through it all too.
Something shifts in their dynamic after that day, after Seulgi had opened up about her scars— both the physical and metaphysical ones. It's as though there had been pressure building and building, ever since the day they met, and only now had it been released, enough energy to transform the loose-ended friendship they’d had into something else entirely.
A form that Irene takes no time whatsoever to deem much more dangerous.
There’s a whole lot more touching now, from both parties— Seulgi tugs Irene into a hug whenever they reunite, and Irene finds herself standing closer and closer every time she completes another examination of the agent.
Seulgi starts coming in on her lunch breaks whenever she’s in the area.
There’s one period of time when the agent is appointed as a bodyguard for a visiting health official who’s a keynote speaker at a medical convention taking place at the hospital for an entire week. This means that Irene ends up seeing Seulgi every day for seven days straight, and she both loves and loathes it.
“After this, I’ll be leaving on a mission overseas for one month,” Seulgi says on the last of the seven days.
Irene stills in her work, glancing over her shoulder from across the room, where she’d been reorganizing the many onhand medications present on the shelves.
“That’s a long time.”
“I know. I really need that vacation,” Seulgi chuckles, reclining in her seat, peering out the large glass window out to the blue sky above. “These lunch breaks have been my only breaks recently.”
“You should talk to your higher ups about giving you one,” Irene says, gently placing the jars of swabs back onto their proper places on the shelf. “After everything you’ve been through, especially all of the events from recent, I think you more than deserve it.”
Seulgi hums, bouncing her head back and forth lightly, pondering.
“I doubt they’ll let me any time soon,” she muses. “Especially because of all the recent attacks. Plus, the Nova Killer’s still out there. I doubt they’ll give me any free time.”
Against her will, Irene finds herself frowning.
“That’s not good,” she says, not thinking before she speaks. “You… You need to do something about that.”
Seulgi merely looks at her wordlessly, soft eyes conveying more than any amount of sentences could ever.
Irene resists the urge to squirm under her warm gaze, instead shifting ever-so-slightly from one foot to the other, swallowing down the primal fight or flight instincts that rise up from somewhere in her chest. It’s a scary feeling, with the way she’s come to acknowledge the strange effect Seulgi has over her— the one where she can somehow turn her into something gentler than anything she’s ever been before.
“Run away with me,” Seulgi says dreamily, leaning forward on an elbow.
Irene gapes at her, at a complete loss for words.
Then, Seulgi smirks.
“Just kidding,” she says.
Irene releases the breath she didn’t realize she was holding.
“Right,” Irene breathes. “Right, kidding.”
“I do want to go outside though,” Seulgi comments. “Get some fresh air.”
Irene nods. She could use some air too.
“Let’s go to the rooftop garden?” She suggests.
Seulgi merely beams.
It’s too sunny of a day outside with too blue of a sky for a goodbye, no matter how temporary.
They stand beneath endless sky, far too close for what should be considered acceptable, simply breathing, inhale, exhale, watching each other try and put into words everything that should be left unsaid, that needs to be said, their hands searching ever more.
They find each other like sailors searching for a shore, and Irene lets herself be pulled in close, her face only a few inches away from Seulgi’s.
“I’m going to miss you,” Seulgi says quietly, and Irene can tell it’s the truth.
“I’m going to miss you too,” Irene murmurs. She feels like she owes her own truth to Seulgi too.
She can feel her heart beating, pounding in her ears, rumbling like an earthquake, and everything’s falling apart around her, heading to ruin, nothing to remain—
It all snaps into back into place when Seulgi’s lips meet her own.
For just a heartbeat in time, tranquility.
Tranquility, under a blue sky that goes on and on in every direction.
She wishes that it could last longer, this little pocket of theirs where she can feign obliviousness.
“Is this okay?” Seulgi whispers, her lips just barely brushing over Irene’s as she draws back, leaving only an inch of space in between them. She bumps her forehead against Irene’s gently, fondly, staring into Irene’s eyes with all the meaning in the universe, as though Irene means something.
This is the farthest thing from okay, is what Irene knows she should say. Seulgi might be looking at Irene like she’s the sun she orbits around, like she’s being drawn further and further into Irene’s gravitational pull, but Irene thinks it’s just the opposite. Irene’s the one flying too close to the flames. The game she’s playing is too dangerous, and the fire is too hot.
Why? Irene asks herself. Why am I like this?
“Irene,” Seulgi murmurs again, nudging their noses together, repeating her previous question with the same urgent care. “Is this okay?”
No, no, no—
“Yes,” Irene breathes.
Seulgi is blindingly beautiful in that moment, eyes glimmeringly lit up in the dying afternoon light, hitting her dark hair and staining it red, turning it aflame. Her cheeks have been tainted by the loveliest rosy shade, and the smile on her face blossoms into full bloom in a way that reminds Irene of a morning sunrise, rising high into the sky on a day without clouds.
Seulgi is beautiful, and Irene allows herself to get pulled into yet another kiss, her hands tangling into the sleeves of Seulgi’s sweater, fingers weaving themselves into the warm fabric.
She might as well have thrown herself into the sun’s embrace, her body set ablaze.
“I’ll be seeing you in one month.”
Irene’s lips are still tingling by the time Seulgi leaves the rooftop garden, slipping back into the stairwell after a short but sweet goodbye, a small smile etched onto the younger woman’s face and a twinkle in her eye.
Meanwhile, Irene remains seated on the bench, her hand still raised in farewell, lips slightly parted and cheeks nearly flushed. She hears her heart pounding loudly in her ears again, and it sounds like the bells on a death toll.
The shutting of the rooftop’s metal door is a shockingly loud thud back to reality, and Irene’s eyes widen, staring at her hands – the very same hands that had just pulled Seulgi closer, closer, closer – like they’d just betrayed her.
She shouldn’t have done that. She shouldn’t have let that happen.
She’s slipping— , she’s slipping.
And suddenly, the world around her is spinning, swirling around her, and , is this what it feels like to have vertigo? Irene’s never had it before, but she can’t imagine it feels worse than this. Her head, oh god, her head— it hurts so bad.
A sensory overload, that’s what it is.
She’s not supposed to feel like this, not now, not ever. Hell, she doesn’t even know what this is, but she knows that it can’t happen. Especially not with Seulgi— she couldn’t have possibly grown to care for Kang Seulgi of all people, could she?
The little voice in her head tells her yes, it was inevitable.
Irene winces, gritting her teeth.
Lord, her head hurts— and are these tears running down her face?
“You’re pathetic, POI43,” she mutters, fruitlessly at them with the back of her sleeve, taking a deep breath as she stares at the wetness that stains the white fabric. “A failure.”
Gather yourself together, get in control of your bearings, one voice says. Formulate a plan, you always have a plan. They’re stable, and rational, and yours are foolproof.
She tries her best to sift through the whirlwind of emotions that run in endless circles in her mind. Emotions that she can’t even recognize, emotions that she couldn’t label even if she wanted to. It’s so foreign, so un-her that Irene wonders if she’d even be able to identify herself if she looked in the mirror.
No, no this can’t be possible.
You’re still you, POI43, another voice tries to reason. You just have to remind yourself that you still are.
Yes, that’s it. A reminder. That’s just what she needs.
“Give me a target,” Irene demands the moment Siwon picks up the phone. She bristles when she hears his overly charming laughter ring from the other end of the line.
“POI43, you still have yet to cross off Agent Kang Seulgi from your list,” he reminds her. His tone is gentle, but to Irene, it grates against her ears condescendingly, and for some reason, it reeks of gasoline, effectively adding fuel to the flames.
“I know that,” she snaps. “So give me a target that won’t take long. I have a week of leave from the hospital, so just work with that. Just give me a target, would you kindly?”
“What's brought this on so suddenly, POI43?” He asks, his voice laced with something akin to cruel amusement, and Irene sneers. “You've never asked for a target amidst another mission before.”
“The organization doesn’t pay me for the pleasantries,” she answers lowly.
“No, they do not,” he agrees easily. In the background, Irene hears the faint sound of his fingers against a keyboard, the quiet click of a mouse against silence. He continues calmly. “I'm sending you the file of Lieutenant Park, a decorated elderly man who is being honored as a hero of war at a dinner party this Friday evening. I’m constructing your new identity as we speak. Can you get the job done?”
As if that were ever a real question. Irene’s never failed a task before, not ever.
“Don’t ask things you already know the answer to,” Irene simply says, abruptly jabbing at the screen to end the call.
Silence permeates throughout the empty apartment, and she takes a deep breath, expression hardening. She can’t let herself this up, she can’t let herself slip away.
She feels absolutely nothing as she watches Lieutenant Park choke to death from a distance. No satisfaction, no validation, no pride. No remorse, no sadness, no sympathy. Just nothing as she continues to stare at the dying man from behind the door of the storage closet, peering through the small window. Outside, Lieutenant Park falls to the restaurant floor, quickly being surrounded by waiters and other attendees alike, trying to save his life.
Nobody sees her slip out of the storage room, having picked up the bag of rice she’d been instructed to retrieve, and she returns to the kitchen to help with making the fried rice with the others. She carries on her job as usual, deep in thought as she mindlessly stirs the pan.
Around her, the kitchen bursts into chaos as the events from outside are conveyed back into the kitchen.
“Hyunjoo-ssi!” A sous chef nearby shouts over the noise, and she perks up at the sound of another one of the many lives she’s lived.
“Yes?” She asks, widening her eyes in shock, as though the ruckus was finally registering in her. parts in surprise as a pair of waitresses dash past them, and she looks up at the chef in fear. “W-what’s going on?”
She’s gotten too good at playing this type of role.
“One of the guests had a in the middle of his meal,” he explains, looking around frantically as if wondering where to even begin comforting his crew. “Just stay calm, it wasn’t the fault of any of us. An ambulance will be here soon, so just continue on with your work.”
She nods, biting down her lip, lowering her eyes and deliberately shifting on her feet nervously.
“It wasn't our fault. Just continue on,” he repeats, as if he’s trying to convince himself, and she resists the urge to laugh. “Just for a bit longer.” The look in his eyes grows far, and not for the first time, she wonders what it would be like to be in his mind, what it’s like to face fear, what it’s like to be powerless in the face of events like this.
Nobody had entered this dinner with the foresight that they’d see the guest of honor writhing on the ground in pain. Nobody had realized that pacemakers for a weak heart are extremely easy to hack. Nobody had thought that revered Lieutenant Park would be bested by a simple heart attack. Nobody knew that the first day of Kang Hyunjoo’s new job as a chef would be so chaotic. Nobody would question when Hyunjoo's letter of resignation would show up on the manager's desk the next morning, her having gone into shock from the events witnessed today.
Nobody but POI43.
And it’s almost strange, because for the first time in a long time, she isn’t being called Irene.
Right now, she's Hyunjoo, and she feels nothing.
Maybe there was something attached to that specific five-lettered name, something cursed, because it’s only when she’s being called Irene that she ends up feeling something other than nothing.
Or maybe it has to do with Kang Seulgi.
(She pleads for it to have nothing to do with that second option.)
She counts down the approximate number of days until Seulgi’s next scheduled visit. The hospital keeps her busy, and she continues her work there as a nurse like usual. It’s the longest she’s ever had to stay with a job— the most engaged she’s been with any of the occupations she taken on for one of these missions as well.
It doesn’t help that the other patients seem to love her either. They love “Nurse Irene” with a vigor that had initially caught her off guard— especially the children, which, needless to say, had been extremely unnerving, although she’d never said anything about it.
Although, perhaps the most unnerving part about any of this is how she finds herself awaiting the end of the work days in trepidation, hating the idea of returning to her sanctioned apartment all alone, dreading the very thought of shedding “Irene” and returning back to “POI43.”
She’s able to start counting the days to Seulgi’s return on her fingers when everything becomes scarily clear, and she stares at the nine fingers she holds up in stunned silence, feeling like she’s been hit by a freight train.
Just like that, it’s as if she’s being transported back to that day on the hospital rooftop, her fingers intertwined loosely with Seulgi’s, and then her lips being pressed against Seulgi’s, Seulgi’s lips that had been so unfairly soft. Irene’s never felt anything quite like Seulgi’s lips, never felt such a warmth buzz in the pit of her stomach before.
It all empties out and Irene’s hands start to tremble.
She is Irene, and she loves Seulgi.
It’s the same conclusion she’d come to before, she just didn’t want to believe it.
It had been easy to deny herself while Seulgi was gone, yet it had also been a struggle to be away from Seulgi for so long. Seulgi, after all, had given her a taste of heaven, something so sacred and precious and warm and Irene hadn’t wanted to let it go either.
She’d indulged herself in a taste of heaven, fully knowing that it would be one of her only, if not her last.
She brings her head to rest in her hands, nails digging into her scalp.
“I almost wish I had come back more injured,” Seulgi jokes as she splays her legs out across the hospital bed playfully. Irene can only laugh lightly and shake her head fondly as Seulgi takes a pillow, fluffs it and makes herself comfortable. “Then you’d be stuck with me for more than just two nights.”
“You make it sound so short,” Irene says with a roll of her eyes, swatting Seulgi’s arm. “I spent all of today with you, and you’ll be with me for all of tomorrow and the day after that as well. That’s three whole days.”
Well, close enough.
“Three days doesn’t equate nearly to a whole month,” Seulgi protests, tugging on Irene’s arm, pulling her to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Well, then we’ll have to make do,” Irene hums, and Seulgi laughs, tugging Irene in, their foreheads brushing ever so tenderly, and Irene has to remind herself not to get lost in Seulgi’s bright, bright eyes.
“I still have to check your blood pressure,” Irene scolds, pulling away as Seulgi whines.
“The Nova Killer struck again while I was gone,” the agent sighs when Irene tightens the inflatable cuff around her bicep. “It was Lieutenant Park this time, a war hero.” She hesitates, before finally admitting, “I'll be honest in saying that I didn't always agree with his rather strong opinions, but… I don’t know, Irene. The Nova Killer had apparently hacked into his pacemaker, enabling a heart attack, and had left their sun insignia embedded into the code that had been altered.”
A well-practiced frown takes its place on Irene’s lips.
“That doesn’t sound good. Please tell me programmers are looking into making pacemakers more… un-hackable?”
“For everyone’s sakes,” Seulgi’s shoulders slump. “I sure hope they are.”
“Hey,” Irene murmurs, the frown she’d perfected over the years suddenly becoming real at the sight of Seulgi’s apparent sadness. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. You were overseas, this wasn’t your fault.”
“I know it wasn’t my fault,” Seulgi says strongly, although her voice wavers. “I think that makes it all the worse though. Even if I wasn’t overseas, I don’t think I would’ve been able to stop this. But do you know what’s even worse than that?”
“I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to stop it from happening.”
Irene’s eyes go wide at that.
“I don’t know,” Seulgi groans, rubbing her forehead with the palm of her hand. “These days, I’ve been questioning a lot of things. The more I think, the more I disagree. And I… I feel like I’m only going to keep fighting on behalf of these ideals that I no longer see myself aligning with, and… I don’t know what to do about that.”
“Seulgi…” Irene purses her lips, not sure what to do with this information.
“Run away with me,” Seulgi says breathily, for the second time.
And Irene can hear it— all the meaning in the world, pushed behind those four core words. Irene can hear it, the want, the longing.
But she can also see something different— the bleak knowledge that shines in Seulgi’s eyes, the inevitability that lies there.
And as Irene’s left hand comes to encircle around her own right wrist, rubbing at the slightly raised skin there, Irene knows.
Knows that neither of them could run away from their roles, these lives, even if they wanted to.
“Just kidding,” Seulgi whispers seconds later.
A small, bitter smile crosses Irene’s lips.
“Right,” she says. “Just kidding.”
She goes to see Yeri again that night, still perched up on that brick wall they’ve gotten so accustomed to.
During the days in between during the month Seulgi had been gone, it had been Yeri that had taken up giving Irene company, particularly in the evenings. Sometimes they’d sit in silence, and other times they’d talk about anything to everything.
Tonight appears to be the latter, as Yeri swings up a leg, carelessly swaying it over the cityscape as Irene hoists herself up to join her.
“Have you ever wanted to keep one of your identities?” Yeri asks, lieu of any greeting.
Irene takes her seat on the wall, her mind whirling a mile a minute as she tries to make a thought process, make a plan of action.
There’s so much she could say to this.
She doesn’t know which one sounds the least worst.
She could ramble on for days on end about how much she’d adored the few months she’d posed as a flight attendant, how she’d loved flying to different countries every week, seeing new places, new people, almost like a peek into a fresh start— it was one she’d never achieved, but the thought had been nice, now that she’d allowed herself to reflect on it.
Oh! She could mention that one time she’d taken on the role of a physical therapist— that had been fun. She’d been a fashion designer at some point as well, and it had been yet another fun role. Both had been rather brief stints, but they’d been exciting, that’s for sure. Her only real regret is that she’d never truly allowed herself to bask in the foreignness of it all, too caught up in her task at hand that she’d missed the few freedoms she’d been given.
Or should she just talk about how she’s not quite sure where “POI43” stops and “Irene” begins anymore? Should she reveal how she prefers this, how she actually likes being a nurse, how she likes how she can make her patients’ faces light up with her mere presence? How she can comfort them, be a force of good for once in her life, even if it really is all a ruse in the end?
Should she talk about how she likes “Irene” because when there’s an “Irene,” there also exists a “Seulgi,” too?
“No, I haven’t,” she lies instead, because she doesn’t know how to make this any easier.
“You look more tired than usual today,” is the first thing Seulgi comments after Irene arrives and they exchange greetings. Seulgi keeps her tone light as Irene steps around the room, jotting down notes on her clipboard.
At Seulgi’s words, Irene fights back a frown, working towards keeping her expression neutral.
“What do you mean by ‘usual’?” She questions.
Seulgi shrugs, not offering an explanation, probably finding it difficult to put into words.
Irene shakes her head and dismisses it.
“You’ve got a scheduled vaccination for today,” Irene says, and she smiles politely, courteously, the ideal nurse, the one all the patients in the ward want to have. Of course they do. It only makes Irene all the more positive that if she had been talking to any other patient, any normal one, they would’ve swooned and rolled up their sleeve for her right away.
Kang Seulgi has never played by the book, and she certainly isn’t starting now.
“It’s an important one, right?” Seulgi says with a grin that quirks from the corner of her lips. Irene likes that grin yet loathes it all the same— it means that Seulgi has decided to have fun, which means that Seulgi has decided to go against the grain yet again.
Irene decides to humor her, just as she has done all this time.
“Yes, it’s an important one. They’re all important ones.” But for Irene, perhaps this vaccination is the most important of them all.
“So, what you’re saying is that you can wait for me to take a shower first?”
Irene resists the urge to roll her eyes for a whole two seconds until Seulgi looks at her knowingly, as if she knows Irene’s holding back the second-natured impulse.
Then Irene rolls her eyes at the very idea that she’d ever need permission from Kang Seulgi of all people to roll her eyes.
“Yes, I can wait for you to shower first.” She shoos Seulgi off to the private bathroom with the wave of her hand. “Go, hurry up. Being a nurse is a hard work.”
Seulgi barks out a laugh and ruffles Irene’s hair as she passes by, much to the older woman’s chagrin. Irene’s about to protest when Seulgi leans in, pressing a soft kiss into Irene’s hair, effectively silencing the older woman.
“I won’t be long.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
She listens idly to the sounds of water pouring from the bathroom, of Seulgi humming lightly to herself as she washes.
Meanwhile, Irene stares at the vial in her hand, the potent liquid sloshing around as she shakes it. Through hooded eyes, she observes it, thinks back to her days in training, how long it had taken her to get the mixture just right.
She’s always been the best, after all. Blades, knives, and guns be damned, poison has always been her favorite method of finishing the job. It’s silent, and when it’s done well, works completely undetected— a whole lot like Irene herself, she now realizes.
Still, as she sits on the hospital bed, Seulgi still showering in the bathroom, Irene can’t help but think. Her mind feels more alive than ever these days. It was like Seulgi had been some sort of key that Irene had taken one look at and felt a connection; a key that single-handedly pried open a gilded gate to unleash a plethora of thoughts that Irene had done her best to keep at bay for nearly her entire life.
And now, as she stares at the vial in her hand, thinks about her life after this, it truly dawns on her—
Tired of being used as a tool for destruction; tired of never gaining anything of value from all the deaths; tired of living a life of no dignity, of living countless lives that are never her own; tired of not being able to receive any recognition for her deeds; tired of being constantly on the run, always having to hide; tired of everything she does not warranting anything in return.
There’s just no point anymore.
And she’s just so damn tired.
She thinks back to her talk with Seulgi all those months ago. She recalls the way Seulgi had chuckled heartlessly, devoid of all the usual light that would glimmer in her eyes as the younger woman had recalled her early memories from her days trapped in rigorous training regimens, the punishments that were dealt out should she fail.
“Do you actually want me to admit how ed up I became?” Seulgi had asked her, bitterness seeping into her tone, words as biting as the freezing cold nights on the streets Irene can recall as clear as day.
“You didn’t deserve that,” Irene had whispered, cradling Seulgi in her arms. “No one deserves to go through that.”
They had just been the instinctual words of comfort back then, or at least Irene had thought so in the moment— words that she had said in the spur of the moment in order to get closer to Seulgi, to get Seulgi less guarded around her.
The only thing Irene had been incorrect about was her assumption that her words had been meaningless.
No, she had been right— no one deserves to go through such pain, such trial. Not even Irene herself.
And with all that being said, Irene takes a deep breath, rising from the hospital bed.
Irene hears the shower head turn off, her acutely trained ears picking up on the rustle of clothing as Seulgi dresses herself.
She slips the vial of poison back into the left pocket of her lab coat before reaching deep into the right pocket, pulling out a syringe.
She can end this right now.
Seulgi must hear her before Irene even sees her.
But then again, it all happens in a flash. Irene’s well-known amongst her peers for drawing out her circumstances until the most ideal of moments in order to walk away with as little evidence left behind as possible— she always has a plan.
Now is not one of those moments, and the plans have been burned and tossed out the window, their remains left to scatter over the cityscape below.
Irene sees Seulgi’s back facing her as she dashes in, her footsteps loudly stomping, vibrating across the tiled bathroom, the syringe gripped in her hand as she lunges towards the younger woman. She doesn’t have time to see Seulgi’s expression in the mirror’s reflection.
Because Seulgi hears her first, and Seulgi whirls around first, and Seulgi pulls the trigger first.
A gunshot rings through the bathroom, and for a moment, Irene’s vision goes completely white.
The syringe clatters to the ground, the glass shattering with a crash. Water splashes from its contents, completely harmless.
Irene hardly spares it a look.
She coughs, blood splattering all across the floor, staining the otherwise pristine white tiles in flecks of red. With heavy eyes, she lets out a low groan as a throbbing starts to take place in her side, the wound in stinging pain from the bullet lodged into it.
Yet through it all, she can still see Seulgi standing there, her hands trembling, eyes wide with horror, and Irene curses as the taller woman’s outline seemed to fade in and out of blurriness. She chuckles to herself, slumping against the hospital bathroom wall, as the full extent of what Seulgi had done finally seeps into the agent's eyes. The clarity, the terror, is almost heartwarming.
So, she does care.
Seulgi drops the gun with a choked sob, and it clatters to the floor as she falls to her knees, crawling the across the expanse between them as she desperately takes the smaller woman into her arms. She shakes her head, almost in denial, tears flooding down her cheeks.
Irene wishes she could reach out and tell her not to cry.
“You've got a good shot,” she says instead. Seulgi swallows noticeably, rubbing at her eyes with balled fists. “Good reflexes in the moment.”
“I’d sure hope so,” Seulgi whispers, “Considering how I’ve been training for this moment my whole life. I'd been trained by the very best agents in the country.”
“They really did put you through the works,” Irene says, closing her eyes, figuring she'd rest for a moment. “You turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.”
“Don't fall asleep,” Seulgi's sharp voice cuts through the darkness.
The wounded woman forces herself to pry her arms open. For Seulgi’s sake, she reasons. One last thing.
“Why was the syringe filled with only water?” Seulgi sounds nothing short of heartbroken.
“I didn’t really want to kill you.” Irene shrugs. “I have a vial of my specialty though, it’s in my pocket. Do what you wish with it. But I didn’t want to kill you, and I needed a fake out to make sure this whole thing was over. Your quick reaction time really came to my advantage here… This was actually the intended outcome.”
“You wanted me to shoot you?” The agent’s voice breaks.
“I really did want a vacation,” Irene says, offering that as her explanation. She coughs again, wincing at the way the blood sticks to the corner of her lips, smiles ruefully as Seulgi wipes it away with a careful finger. If she's being completely honest, this isn't really how she had been expecting this to all pan out, not really. Seulgi’s stupidly perfect trigger finger, stupidly perfect voice, stupidly perfect attitude, hadn't actually been a part of anything, not until she changed her plans a few minutes ago and decided that she hated playing by the book too. “Did you know that? I really, really wanted a vacation.”
“I did too,” Seulgi says, and Irene can basically hear the lump caught in .
“We should both take one,” Irene continues. Seulgi's breath hitches, and Irene doesn't comment on it. “After all of this is over, y’know? We deserve it. It’s hard work being a nurse.” Seulgi’s short laugh of disbelief holds no humor. “That agency of yours better give you a long vacation after you get out of this hospital. I haven't had a break in years, not until now. Although, something tells me our destinations will be very different. I, for example, will be heading to somewhere where it's very hot, all the time.” She scoffs with what strength she has left. “It doesn’t matter though. I’ve been trained to handle the heat. All of those suns… I had stolen each and every one of them, after all.”
“You were the Nova Killer this entire time,” Seulgi whispers, putting two-and-two together and looking like the realization had just backhanded her across the face. “All of those murders over the years… It was you.”
“Took you long enough.”
“I’d considered it, but didn't want to believe… Why did it have to be you?” The agent shakes her head again, voice trembling. “Why you?”
“Trust me, I asked myself that same question every day,” Irene says, a smug smile on her lips until her chest breaks out into coughs one more, blood dribbling from the corner of .
“Stop talking,” Seulgi demands, but the way her voice cracks betrays her authority. She presses a hand onto the open wound, blood staining her skin crimson, but she pays no mind. “You’re going to be okay.”
“What if I don’t want to be okay?” Irene questions, tries not to think about how thin her voice sounds, how un-Irene she sounds. She can’t remember the last time she’d ever felt this weak. “If I’m okay, I’ll have to do more, and I just want a vacation.”
“I know,” Seulgi tries to say with a thick voice. “I know. We can— we can go on vacation together, Irene.”
Irene chuckles weakly. “Don’t be silly. You can’t possibly come with me, there’s not enough space where I’m going.”
Seulgi lets out a wet laugh, silent tears still streaming down her cheeks.
“How could there possibly be no space in the underworld for the both of us?”
“There’s only one throne down in hell.” Irene’s signature smirk is small— though, like it has any right to be bigger. She’s a failure, she failed in her mission, she’d let her higher ups down, couldn’t even keep herself together around a simple girl; she’s broken beyond fixing, tired beyond compare; she’s hurt so many people, ripped so many lives apart; after laying in the shadows for so long, living so many different lives, she really has no right to take anything as her own, but when she sees the corner of Seulgi’s mouth quirk upward, Irene can’t help but think she’s acquired the greatest thing the universe could have ever offered her.
“Besides, the underworld only has enough room for my sins.”
And now, as she lies on the floor of some hospital bathroom, dying in the arms of the woman she’s come to love, Irene knows that she’s free.
“Irene, please—” Seulgi grips her cold, cold hand tightly.
“Seulgi,” Irene says softly. She doesn’t even have the strength to squeeze Seulgi’s hand back. “Seulgi, I’m… I’m so tired.”
“I know, I know—”
“I just… want to rest now.”
“I—” A sob wracks through Seulgi’s body, and there’s a moment where Irene smiles gently, closing her eyes as she lets Seulgi cry, lets Seulgi cradle her closer. And Seulgi whimpers as she buries her face in Irene’s hair, placing feather-light kisses there.
She pulls Irene into one last kiss, and Irene allows herself to sink into it like a warm bath, the feeling engulfing her, numbing out the pain, a fluttering in her stomach that has nothing to do with the wound in her side, and she is drawn closer, closer, closer.
The feeling remains even when Seulgi pulls away slightly, still lingering nearby.
“Seulgi?” Irene asks, strained.
“Okay,” Seulgi whispers. “Okay.”
“Mmhm,” Seulgi says through sniffles.
“Don’t forget me when I’m gone,” Irene says.
“I could never.”
“Promise me you won’t?”
“No one has remembered me before.”
“I’m different from them, Irene.”
“It’s Bae Joohyun.”
“My real name. It’s Bae Joohyun,” Irene closes her eyes. “It’s been my reminder for all these years. Now, it's yours. It’s my real name, and you’re the first person to know it, so you can’t forget it.”
Seulgi bites back another sob.
“I never will. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.”
“Swear it on your life.”
“I swear on my life and beyond to never forget you, Bae Joohyun. I’ll remember you until the end of my days, and if I don't, you can come back and kill me,” Seulgi whispers. She presses another kiss to Irene’s hair. “Please wait for me.”
“I’ll hold you to it. I'll really kill you.”
“I know you will.”
“Don’t come too soon,” Irene whispers back. “Don’t miss me. Take your time, live your life, find love—”
“I love you. Please wait for me.”
The greatest gift the universe could’ve ever given her.
Irene's never been an optimist. She grew up surrounded by assassins, all bitter and pessimistic; men and women who saw death as an ending, a finality, the last page of a book lacking anything of excess, even an author's note. There was no way Irene could've thought any different.
And yet still, there's something about the young woman embracing her that makes Irene want to believe in an epilogue.
“I love you too. I’ll be waiting.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be okay, Kang Seulgi.”
“Thank you, Bae Joohyun.”
It’s all a messy blur after that.
Seulgi moves mechanically throughout it all.
There’s a young girl in black who joins her at the gravestone every night after Seulgi has it situated.
Seulgi doesn’t ask her to go away. In fact, they don’t talk much, not ever.
It’s not until the fourteenth night, a whole two weeks after the incident happened, that the young girl finally opens , and Seulgi can’t bring it in her to be surprised.
“Why didn't you turn her in?” The young girl in black asks, breaking the silence. “You discovered who she was, didn't you? Which means you knew she had been lying to you.”
“I know,” is all Seulgi can say, tracing the letters pressed into the stone with her thumb.
“Because I think,” Seulgi swallows, speaking slowly, deliberately, trying to process the whirlwind of thoughts that swirl endlessly through her mind. “I think—”
“It doesn't have to be complicated,” the girl says before Seulgi can even start enunciating her mangled thoughts. “Whatever you're about to say, don't. Just try again. I don't want to hear about the government, or the intentions of the organization she'd been a part of.” At Seulgi's wordless nod, she says again. “So tell me then. Why?”
This time, the words flow naturally, leaving Seulgi's lips before she can even think about them properly.
“Because she was the best thing that I'd ever had,” she says openly, honestly.
The girl nods.
“Irene was?” She asks. “Or POI43 was?”
“Joohyun was,” Seulgi corrects. Her encounters with her nurse, all the conversations they'd exchanged; Seulgi had fallen for Joohyun. Somewhere deep down, a small part of her just knew it had been Joohyun all along.
“Joohyun,” the young girl murmurs to herself, as though testing out the name on her tongue. She repeats it under her breath a few more times, appearing to mull something over as her gaze shifts across the tombstone. “That's right, that was her name. So you chose to go with her real name on her grave?”
“How did you know to come here if you didn't even know her real name? Let alone the name she'd be buried under?” Seulgi questions instead.
The girl waves her hand dismissively. “We're all given tracking chips placed in our left wrists. Besides keeping track of our locations, they all monitor our pulse. The organization was notified the moment her heart stopped beating. The tracking device still works though. I just followed it here.”
Immediately, Seulgi thinks back to the way Irene had been so adamant, despite her joking tone, at denying the mere idea of running away from the city. She shakes away any further thoughts, even as she realized that Irene has been more open than Seulgi had ever known.
“Just who are you?” Seulgi asks, not accusingly, but out of genuine curiosity. This is the girl who had kept her company for all these nights, yet there had never been a name placed to the face.
“POI17,” comes the girl's immediate response, but the moment Seulgi raises an incredulous eyebrow, the young girl slumps her shoulders rather uncharacteristically, plopping down onto the grass next to Seulgi, cross-legged on the cemetery lawn. “You can call me Yeri. It's not my real name, but it's closer, at least. Joohyun was… a close friend. She was my mentor, and I admired her a lot.” She hesitates. “You must've been pretty precious to her, for her to tell you her real name. She never told anyone in the organization.”
Seulgi swallows, her heart stuttering in her chest achingly. It's crazy really, how much she misses Joohyun, and it's only been a few days. In the back of her mind, she briefly wonders if Joohyun had missed her too, back when she'd leave on her long missions, if Joohyun would wait for her to return too.
Now it’s Seulgi’s turn to wait it out.
“I wanted her to go freely,” she murmurs, feeling the way Yeri’s gaze fixates on her intently, the young girl silently observing the way Seulgi’s hunched shoulders start to relax, twiddling of her fingers ceasing, the way she stares softly at a silent stone that can never talk back. “Without any baggage, without anything chaining her soul down to this earth.”
“That’s why you decided to put ‘Bae Joohyun’ on the tombstone,” Yeri concludes, and Seulgi nods. “And that’s why you never reported that Joohyun was ever related to the Nova Killer in any way.”
“She deserves to be free,” Seulgi reiterates, a small smile on her lips.
“You loved her.”
“I still do.”
“You even let her spirit live on.”
“I did.” Seulgi chuckles. “The Nova Killer lives on.”
Yeri fiddles with the wax seal she pulls out from her pocket, thumbing the Nova Killer’s yellow sun insignia thoughtfully.
“How did you know that we’d continue putting these little suns around in her place?” Yeri voices after a moment of silence, running the seal over her knuckles, passing it through her fingertips.
“I just got the feeling, really.” She doesn’t really know how to explain it well— she’d never met any of Joohyun’s coworkers in the organization before, not outside the occasional conflict, and Joohyun had never mentioned anything about having other friends during their time together in the hospital. Still, “She once told me that no one ever remembers her, and I… I just felt that for someone like Joohyun, who had such a big effect of on me… There’s no way someone like her wouldn’t have others who care about her too; others who would want her memory to be preserved, to live on.”
The look in Yeri’s eyes softens.
“I wish she didn’t go thinking that she’d be forgotten,” Yeri says, raw honesty there. It’s then that Seulgi realizes how impossibly young the girl appears to be. “So many of us… we all looked up to her so much. When she was alive, she didn’t let us use these suns, but… now she doesn’t have to carry the burden all by herself. The remaining lot of us just wanted to ease the weight off her shoulders. She… She was our hope, in a way. ”
“I’m sure she knows that now,” Seulgi says gently.
“I hope so,” Yeri in a breath. She picks absently at the grass, and Seulgi’s about to tell her to stop when the girl thankfully ceases tearing up the lawn on her own accord. “If you’re curious, you’ll be pleased to know that the organization is in a state of disarray after the loss of POI43. She was the backbone of the force, as much as the higher ups don’t want to admit it. You’re also a scary figure, in case you didn’t already know.”
Seulgi laughs to herself at that. Of course Joohyun would downplay her role to something miniscule.
“You guys are laying low then?”
“The organization is, yes.” Yeri ducks her head in the affirmative, not looking bothered in the slightest at the idea of downsizing the danger.
“And what do you aim to do with this new free time, Yeri?” Seulgi questions.
Yeri smirks. “I’ve been searching for new hobbies. I’m thinking of getting into some nice, harmless graffiti.”
Seulgi barks out a laugh.
“I’m sure Joohyun would approve of that.”
“Oh, I know she would. But what about you, Kang Seulgi? What are you going to do now?”
Seulgi hums, bobbing her head from side-to-side, a casual shrug rolling off her shoulders, and she tugs off her black suit jacket, about to start folding it neatly before she simply lays it on the green grass beside her, dirty and grass stains be damned.
“I’m going to take a vacation,” she finally says with another heartbeat of pondering, adding after another thought, “Somewhere warm, I think. Maybe somewhere where it’s hot, all the time. After that, who knows? I might even quit my job.” She doesn't even know if it's possible, but she'll find a way. “I'll play it by ear. I'm tired of being told what to do, especially when I don’t agree with the reasoning.”
“That definitely sounds like a plan, you should look into somewhere tropical,” Yeri replies, blatant amusement laced in her tone, a good-natured twinkle in her eye. Then, she tips her head back and lets out a wide yawn, before proceeding to stand up from her place, stretching her arms above her head. “Well, it was a nice talk, agent, but I better be going now. Maybe I’ll see you around?”
Seulgi chuckles, nods and watches Yeri take her first steps to walk away, back into the cityscape.
“Maybe, Yeri. Maybe.”
Yeri shoots her a small smile and waves nonchalantly.
Then she pauses, glancing over her shoulder for a final time.
“You'll be okay, Kang Seulgi,” Yeri says, and it sounds so much like Irene, like Joohyun, feels so much like the girl who'd whisked into Seulgi's grayscale life and stained it a whole sunset of colors, that she almost wants to cry.
But she doesn’t. No more tears.
She's not okay yet, but she will be.
“I know.” Seulgi smiles gently instead, figuring it must be a sign as she turns her gaze down to the gravestone before looking up to the new night sky of stars. “I know.”