She likes the darkness.
It isn’t revered by many since it holds danger, and you only really walk out onto the empty streets at midnight if you had a death wish. People still roam the area in the evenings talking and smiling, as though there is no war to be fought, no deaths to grieve.
Everyone knows it though, especially with the many Japanese guards patrolling nearly every inch of Gyeongseong with stony faces and unsettling guns that this isn’t normal, and it isn’t anywhere close to normalcy either.
But they pretend that it is.
It’s understandable though, that everyone pretends it’s normal just for the sake of ‘blending in’ and to avoid any unnecessary trouble. Those who showed any sign of rebellion or suspicion were immediately arrested and taken away to God knows where, never seen again and no one wants that. Not now.
Ryu Soo-Hyun likes the darkness, since it supplies her with the best coverage she needs when carrying out orders. She could do it in broad daylight if she wished, but then what would be the point if she was caught during the act?
Realistically, she’d be tortured into revealing the organization’s inner workings, operations, headquarters location and most importantly, who the leader was but of course, Soo-Hyun would never give in and of course, she’d be killed.
The Joseon Youth Alliance could do without a sniper, she thinks sometimes.
Even if they really needed a sniper, they had plenty of other fighters who can be groomed into the role, just like how she was by Shin Yul, but that would only give them additional trouble which isn’t what Soo-Hyun wanted to be responsible for, so she decides against it and gets on with it.
A night finds her slipping out of the party within Carpe Diem. It’s their last celebration before The Operation; the charity event in which many government officials and financiers of the war are to assemble, allowing the organization to strike and eliminate as many figures as possible.
It’s no question that their comrades would also join the death count, be it being gunned down by the enemy, or taking their own lives in fear of being captured and tortured for information but she dreads it anyway.
Not many of them are left. Numbers dwindled from mission to mission and now, there are only thirty-seven of them left. Thirty-seven fighters ready to fight against the government, the Japanese – all for a better and liberated Joseon. If they lived to see the day, that is, but judging by the long speech that Shin Yul had read out to their comrades earlier, she could already tell.
This celebration is different, and is likely going to be their last.
Yet, many of the fighters still expressed their hopes and dreams of what they would do in a liberated country and Soo-Hyun could only smile as she listened to the animated discussion. Her heart was full from hearing their confessions, but the pit of her stomach twisted into a knot because who knew just how many of them would live out to see their wishes, or even live out to see old age?
She breathes a sigh as she finally moves outside, feeling the cold air greet her warm body like a long-lost lover as she lowered herself to sit on the steps. The atmosphere in Carpe Diem is a little too much for her to handle right now so some fresh air and silence is appreciated, plus it helps her relax even if it was for a second.
A fellow comrade, Myung Hwan, had shouted excitedly to her earlier and it was so sudden that it startled her out of her reverie.
“Our sniper, you should say something!”
Her cheeks had started burning when eyes swiveled around to look at her perched on a stool, everyone expecting an uplifting answer and it didn’t help that Shin Yul had jumped in immediately after, asking her the same question that had been going around the bar.
“What would you want to do in our independent nation?”
Her throat dried up right there and then, and she flushed even more under the scrutiny of her leader, who had turned around in his seat to watch her.
“Well…I haven’t really thought about it,” was what she replied with, and in her defense it’s true. She didn’t want to think too much about the future when they barely even had it in their grasp.
Yes, of course she hopes and strives for a free country. She hopes for a day when she could start to dress as a woman without ever feeling anxious. She hopes for a day where she could enjoy a nice meal at the bar without feeling like she owed people something. She hopes for a day where she could relax with her two most trusted friends and not have to worry about tomorrow. She hopes for it so much, that she has to stop herself from thinking with her hands clenched tight until she knows that she won’t break there and then.
But she doesn’t know what she would actually do when the day arrives, no.
Everything that she has done up to this point was for the organization and their main goal; for their country to be free again. All other things, including what she would do when they actually reach their goal is flung to the back of her mind. They aren’t as important right now. Or at least, not a priority as of yet.
But now that she’s alone and had a moment to clear her mind, Soo-Hyun thinks hard.
In a liberated nation… she’d want to move away from the area. Live somewhere peaceful. Dance, even if she can’t do it well. Take long walks. Read great novels. Be able to love freely.
Her mind creeps towards the one spot in her mind that she tries her hardest to ignore. This isn’t the time, she tells herself, stop thinking about it. She clasps her hands together. Unclasps them. Clasps them again. It isn’t a taboo to think about him, but right from the start she knows that doing so is completely futile, and not to mention foolish on her part.
Soo-Hyun may be a great sniper, but she feels like a clown in front of Seo Hwi-Young.
Seo Hwi-Young, her leader.
Seo Hwi-Young, her comrade.
Seo Hwi-Young, her friend.
Seo Hwi-Young, her…
She shuts her eyes in an attempt to erase the vision of the suave, yet very intelligent playboy quickly forming in her head but the memory of her and him hiding from the men who wanted her dead for killing their leader begins playing in her mind.
She didn’t expect anything when she pulled him down to meet her lips as part of a ruse she made up on the spot as a distraction. Soo-Hyun thinks back to the moment when he began to respond to her sudden move, how his taut lips softened as the shock wore away, his lips parting slightly to her satisfaction as it made it a lot more believable to anyone walking past; that these are lovers who were in love – not the wanted leader of a rebellion and a sharpshooter part of said rebellion.
It also made it a whole lot easier for her to go along with the act. But she’d be lying if she said she didn’t feel a small flicker of emotion in her appear then, and maybe it’s because his mouth was warm and tasted like cinnamon, although she knows it’s something else that she should not be feeling.
She had expected him to stay still in their position because, you know, this is just a sham to throw their pursuers off their scent until they were undetected and could make their escape. Who would come up to a couple clearly enamored with each other, thinking that one of them must be the shooter who shot their leader dead a few minutes ago anyway?
But of course, Hwi-Young caught her off guard.
With one drop of his beloved glasses, his arms had swiftly moved to grab her petite body, pulling her closer to him. He was really kissing her then, lips moving fervently against hers and Soo-Hyun had immediately gone from being composed and collected straight to being in complete bewilderment – because this wasn’t part of the plan.
She had refused to shut her eyes when she first moved to kiss him hoping to refrain from accidentally indulging in the deed but now, her eyes widened in shock and confusion as her mind scrambled to understand what was actually happening. He surprised her even more when he did it again, gripping her more firmly and his hands sort of hugging her to him – so much that Soo-Hyun realized there and then that their bodies were fully pressed against each other, and that Hwi-Young was kissing her hard, urgently.
As if he’s been holding back until now. As if he’s wanted to do this for so long. As if he had feelings for her.
She remembers her eyes finally fluttering shut and fiercely returning his kiss, simply because her mind had done a U-turn and decided to the hell with it; by that point, Hwi-Young had slowed the pace considerably, just taking his time to kiss her thoroughly like he wanted to memorize how she felt like and tasted like.
His hands were splayed out over her back, securing her in his tight embrace and all reminders of why they were there in the first place was thrown out the window which in a way, it felt almost too good to be true.
She relished it, knowing that this was likely the only opportunity she had with the detached leader – despite his actions being anything other than detached in that moment, but she wasn’t taking any other chances and besides, no one would know anyway. It was a stolen moment that they chose to give in and indulge in for once.
And then it ended.
One moment there were men shouting in the distance and the next, Hwi-Young had stopped, pulled away and coolly bent to pick his discarded glasses up as though they were only strangers who had bumped into each other on the street by accident.
“I won’t charge you for the kissing lesson,” he had drawled with a slight smirk. “Or do you want me to review it with you one more time?”
Forcing herself to remain unfazed, she had moved to pull his father’s pocket watch out from her pocket and dropped it in his hand before telling him to not take what they had just done personally.
“Just consider it as a revolutionary tactical strategy.”
The memory fades away, back to the corner of her mind as she pushes a loose strand of hair back beneath the fabric of her pageboy cap and the corners of her mouth curve downwards. Hwi-Young can be seen as nothing more than just a male friend, one of her closest hyungs.
Just someone to look up to, she thinks. That kiss meant nothing anyway; they had both mutually agreed to never bring it up again and there wasn’t anything else to be dwelling on.
But she senses it – the leader had been withdrawn and almost distant towards her lately, only approaching her when necessary but otherwise, he maintained his distance from her. It was fine with her in the beginning and she hadn’t paid much thought to it, only believing that he’d been more tired than usual since receiving new information from allies caused him to stay up later in the night, as well as be more serious about it.
However, he had spoken no more than a few sentences and mostly just brushed past her the last week, making it clear to her that it was more than just sleep deprivation and a focus for plans.
Even Shin Yul had no idea why his best friend was behaving so indifferently to their sniper and his attempts to find out why were always cut short by Hwi-Young’s intimidating aura that rose to the roof whenever Soo-Hyun’s name was brought up.
In the end she respected his wishes and stayed away, although she couldn’t help feel that it was because he had somehow discovered her true feelings and opted to squash them as quickly as possible by evading her.
Soo-Hyun’s attention shifts towards the street lamps dotting the area. The bright glow lighting up its dim surroundings seems almost like a source of hope and comfort, within all the pain and quiet nights like this with only lamps for company made living almost bearable.
Her lingering thoughts dissipate almost immediately when she hears the sudden squeak of the door to Carpe Diem and the sound of footsteps faltering.
Soo-Hyun turns to look, thinking that it’s probably one of her comrades coming out to call her back in or something for a random announcement, or maybe even Shin Yul coming to grab her so that she could get some sleep before the Big Mission.
Instead, she meets the eyes of Seo Hwi-Young and suddenly she’s on her feet taking a cautious step away from him.
The air instantly becomes awkward and she feels her self-consciousness creeping in as they regarded each other warily.
Hwi-Young looks relaxed, his hands tucked deep into the pockets of his trousers whilst his hair is still flopping over tired eyes, and his round spectacles glints at her in the dimness of the street. His white shirt is loose around his frame and pairs well with his usual beige suspenders. As much as Soo-Hyun doesn’t want to admit, he still looks extremely handsome even though she knows that he’s running on maybe an hour’s worth of sleep and his mind is constantly clouded with raid plans.
She sometimes hears him at night moving around quietly and the sound of papers rustling now and then. The sound of his pencil when he’s hastily scribbling something down. The soft but distinct sighs he does when he’s fully drained from planning.
Sometimes she wishes that she could take his place just so that he could remember what sleep felt like, even though with the circumstances that they’re in now, sleeping meant just shutting your eyes with a hand holding onto a loaded gun hidden under the pillow.
Hwi-Young studies her quietly, blinking lazily as though he’s waiting for her to say something, like she had called him out here to talk but she doesn’t say a thing and only stares back.
The silence grows between them, making her skin start to prickle. The streets are deserted and the only sound she could hear is the very distant noise of grasshoppers, leaving just the two of them. Why is he not saying anything? Soo-Hyun breaks her stare to look down at the ground. She goes for the icebreaker.
“I’m just,” she begins, voice surprisingly steady, “getting some fresh air.”
Of all things she could say to get a reply from him, maybe get a conversation going, she decides on justifying why she’s out in the cold and not enjoying the party inside, great job Ryu Soo-Hyun. Then again, she hadn’t been raised on small talk.
She may have been taught the basic etiquettes by Madam Sophia to use when audience members wanted to compliment Anastasia on her singing, but nothing has really prepared her for this. She doesn’t think anything will.
Hwi-Young sighs heavily, still watching her with pensive eyes.
“Then do that and come in later.”
He turns to make a move back towards Carpe Diem, hands still in his pockets and Soo-Hyun balks.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to avoid me anymore,” she says hurriedly, stopping him from shuffling back into the club. She takes a breath. “I’ve sorted my feelings out.”
He doesn’t look at her but she knows that he’s still listening and can probably hear the sound of her heart thumping hard even though she somehow sounds calm. Hwi-Young was always the one who knew how to read people well anyway, and she was no exception.
Swallowing, Soo-Hyun looks away at the street in front of her again, but the words begin to drop from her mouth like mini grenades.
“If I were Maehyang, the best kisaeng from Myeongwolkwon, I would have given it a shot.” She smiles at this, suddenly feeling slightly silly and somewhat embarrassed at her confession. “But I can’t risk our country’s independence” she finishes quietly, still smiling although it doesn’t reach her eyes. Her cheeks feel warm despite the chilly air.
She slides her eyes back towards him to gauge his reaction, only to see a rueful smile gracing Hwi-Young’s features as he looks down towards his shoes.
His head bobs a little at her words and her heart feels lighter somehow.
Soo-Hyun feels a little bolder.
“But in our next lifetime, if we’re born again in a liberated Korea...” she murmurs and then pauses, only because even though she’s finally gotten the courage to say what she’s really thinking, it’s still scary to actually voice them out loud.
Hwi-Young’s looking at her again, and she meets his eyes.
“You have to see me as a woman then.”
There’s another pause.
Almost instantly, a small and indecipherable look finds its way onto the leader’s face and she thinks that maybe it’s surprise but then again, maybe it’s not. He doesn’t break eye contact with her though – instead, his eyes bore into hers and Soo-Hyun is one step away from eating the rest of her words.
“Don’t hesitate,” her voice gentle and soft. “Don’t put up a wall between us. Don’t lie and don’t be in pain alone. I… want you to be honest and tell me everything.”
A wave of emotion rushes over her suddenly and she fights hard not to show how affected the situation is making her by managing small smiles as she speaks, and she’s glad that you could sort of hear it in her voice.
It isn’t every day that she’s confessing something so close to her heart; yet why does this feels closer to a goodbye more than to a new beginning?
She blinks away the tears that are slowly forming, but her eyes are already tinged with pink. Her next words are, however, said with a smile in her voice. “Promise me that you’ll do everything you couldn’t do in this life in your next.”
Hwi-Young gazes at her steadily like a child attentively listening to his mother, his expression still aloof and cold. There’s a hint of a frown now though, as her words sink in and she sees his brows furrow.
“Why do you keep talking about the next life?” he finally questions, almost bites out vehemently, and Soo-Hyun falters.
There is no true malice behind his words, she knows, but the question catches her off guard and she loses composure for a moment, expecting him to scoff or laugh at her requests deeming it childish.
There’s no question about why she keeps talking about another lifetime when they haven’t even lived through this one yet. Until the day they reach liberation, the country comes first. Their emotions come second. She’d do anything to keep Hwi-Young by her side, but the duty that they had entrusted themselves with is worth so much more and she could not be so selfish as to ignore the nation’s people for her own desires.
That was not what her father had taught her, and definitely not what her values are built upon on.
If they had been in different circumstances, maybe then fate wouldn’t have been so cruel to them.
For now, she could only pray for another chance with Hwi-Young in a better world, with no wars to fight and no guilt to be felt when they wanted to forget the country for just a moment. A free type of love.
“Ah…just hurry up and promise me,” she says, eyes earnest with hope.
Hwi-Young takes in a long breath almost as if he was the parent now, reluctant to give in to his child begging for a last snack before dinnertime; there’s that flicker in his eyes again, but then he breathes out and his face begins to relax slightly – a telltale sign that he’s giving in to her.
“Then I want you to promise me something too,” he says, voice coming out hard and funny. She thinks he sounds strained, but her breath catches a little at the tone and really just at the fact that he wants her to make him a promise too. She waits.
"Make sure you come back alive. That is an order.”
Soo-Hyun’s lips part in shock as her body goes numb. This isn’t what she expected him to say at all, and she’s had maybe ten different scenarios of how this might turn out in her head.
Involuntarily, her eyes begin to water and she knows that they are definitely red now, but she doesn’t pull her eyes away from him. He had just asked for her to come back alive. Not to finish the mission, or even make sure she dies honorably for the country if the time came for it.
Her heart clenches when it clicks and she finally understands the true gravity of his words concealed behind the cover of a promise. A mix of emotions are going around in the pit of her stomach now, but it mirrors the same ones she sees in the darkness of his eyes and it kind of leaves her in slight awe at how serious he is about this.
Her lower lip begins to tremble and she really wants to say something but her mind is blank and the words don’t ever leave her mouth.
Hwi-Young stares back at her decisively, like he’s daring her to say no to him because no matter what their relationship, he’s still the leader and she’s still just a comrade under him. If any order is given to her, she usually carries it out without question only because she trusts his leadership and judgement.
Maybe this order isn’t for the greater good of the country, but she decides then that she can afford this promise just like how she chose to give in to the kiss they shared. She hopes that God and her country could forgive her for this last request that she selfishly wants to keep for herself and Hwi-Young, and that she would do everything she could in her power to bring liberation.
Hwi-Young eyes her for another moment before finally pulling his gaze away, lips set in a straight line, and it’s only then that it hits her how long and how intensely they’ve been staring at each other for and there’s some sort of relief that washes over her.
But when he looks up again, his eyes are completely devoid of feeling and blank, as though Soo-Hyun isn’t right there in front of him, she’s just a stranger and they hadn’t just confessed out here in the cold streets. Hands falling out of his pockets limply, he moves first.
The clacking of his shoes against the concrete ground is suddenly the loudest sound in the world to her and she nearly stumbles backwards in surprise, eyes following his movements as he advances forward in her direction.
She comes face to face with his broad shoulders as they enter her watery vision but she doesn’t move or even look up to glance at his face.
Maybe it’s pride stopping her from doing so, wanting her to keep her composed expression intact because she’s a strong woman and Hwi-Young’s few words weren’t going to break her so easily – letting him see that she’s been affected would not end well and she refuses to look so weak at a time like this. It's a stupid theory that she tries to believe in but of course, the cold reality quickly sets in like a splash of ice water over her head.
She doesn’t want to watch him walk away like this.
Surprisingly, Hwi-Young comes to a halt next to her, like he’s forgotten to say something and only just remembered it, but he doesn’t look back at her and when a few moments go by, it doesn’t seem like he’s actually going to say anything else.
But he’s standing very closely to her which is making it even harder for her to breathe, especially when she can distinctly feel the warmth of his hand although they aren’t even touching, yet their hands are so, so close to each other that if she reaches out just slightly, their hands will definitely meet. She feels dizzy, her body’s buzzing at the heat radiating off him and her eyes are still shining with unshed tears that are really just about to fall, but she waits. Breathes.
She’s trying to hold herself together by this point because being so close to Hwi-Young isn’t really helping her resolve to stay a distance away from him and all she really wants to do now is to grab him into a hug or really, just anything that they promised themselves not to do in this war.
They stand in tense silence for what seems like hours even though it’s only been seconds, nearly touching but never actually doing so. Soo-Hyun’s fingers move slightly, itching to reach out to grasp his hand tightly but she stops herself before it happens although unknowingly to her, Hwi-Young’s own fingers are twitching as well and he’s suffering just as much as she is.
It’s a joke, she thinks.
This whole thing is a joke and really, she just wants to cry now because her heart is breaking and she’s just so tired of not being able to make her choices freely, not in this life and especially not in this moment. Hwi-Young feels stiff next to her, and she knows without having to touch him just from hearing him swallow thickly; he’s trying hard too.
Just as quickly as the moment had begun, he finally steps away from her.
His hand brushes past hers fleetingly and the feeling shoots up her arm, nearly knocking the breath out of her. Instinctively, her fingers curl over but she’s still left holding nothing but air.
The sound of his shoes fills her ears again, this time louder than before but now, a desolate sense of finality follows it and as he walks further and further away from her, she can’t help but feel like a part of her is irrevocably broken beyond repair.
A tear finally escapes.