14. Because metaphors aside, responsibility is a weapon as much as it is a burden.
Hyoyeon opened her eyes with a start. She lay still for a few seconds, vision adjusting to the red glare of the alarm clock on her bedside table. It cannot seriously be four in the morning right now.
She squeezed her eyes shut again, willing herself to go back to sleep, but her brain was already too awake. So she tried to remember why exactly she had woken up in the first place.
Six or so hours ago, Sunny had texted the pictures of all the files she, Yuri, and Yoona had managed to find. Seohyun had replied seconds later, saying that she would start filtering through all of the files to see if any could give a clue as to what exactly the conversation Seo Jisoo had overheard had been about. Hyoyeon had felt the urge to comment that Seohyun was using up her precious skin regeneration time, but she resisted — just barely — when Taeyeon had actually spoken her first sentence since she’d stepped into Hyoyeon’s apartment (even if it had just been a complaint about how she’d seen first graders draw better blueprints than the ones that Sunny had sent pictures of).
Hyoyeon was suddenly aware of a smoky odor drifting from outside her half-open door. She leapt out of bed and burst into the hallway, dashing into the kitchen.
Taeyeon turned and smiled, giving a wave with her free hand, the other busy holding a roll of newspaper to the flames of Hyoyeon’s gas stove. “Oh hey, you’re up early.”
“Are you crazy?” Hyoyeon demanded, grabbing the singed newspaper and throwing it in the sink. The sheets hissed faintly as they landed in a bowl filled with water. Hyoyeon relaxed slightly, and then blinked. “Hey, I thought I washed all of the dishes before I went to bed.”
“You did,” Taeyeon agreed. “I just put that in there to put the flames out if they got too out of hand.” She snorted. “You really thought I’d burn down your apartment or something?”
Hyoyeon’s lips thinned. She cleared her throat and put her hands on her hips, letting out a loud exhale. “Look, Taeng, I know you pretty much lost everything in that fire, but — ”
“Not at all, actually,” Taeyeon interrupted cheerfully, reaching into the sink to retrieve the extinguished newspaper. She carefully examined it, and then brought it up to her nose to take a cautious sniff. “If my whole tortured-artist vibe was nonexistent before, I think I’ve definitely leveled up a few times by now.” She shook out the soaked paper and held it out in front of her. “What do you think? Does this convey the absolute despair of construction, but also the fragile spark of wishing to start over?”
Hyoyeon closed her eyes. “It’s a wet newspaper that’s a bit too well-done on the edges.”
“Well, yeah, but what is it really?”
“Kim Taeyeon,” Hyoyeon groaned. “It is really past four in the morning. Be grateful that the smoke detector didn’t go off. Do I have to tie you to my bed and force you to actually get some sleep? Because having you out on the couch was clearly not a good idea.”
“Okay, okay.” Taeyeon balled up the newspaper and chucked it in the trash bin. “No more fire. Got it.”
Hyoyeon sighed and leaned against the counter, reaching out for Taeyeon’s phone. “Any updates from maknae or anyone else?”
Taeyeon shook her head. “They ended up getting a lot of files. I imagine it’ll take a while for Seohyun to sift through them all. I think Tiffany’s also going through some, but the rest decided to get some sleep.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Hyoyeon frowned. “But we pretty much only have twenty-four hours to somehow prove Seo Jisoo’s innocence. What if these files aren’t what we need?”
Taeyeon shrugged. “We’ll just have to hope that they are. And considering our luck so far, I think we have a pretty good shot.”
Hyoyeon raised her eyebrows. “Didn’t think you’d be the one to talk about good luck right now.”
“Well, you know.” Taeyeon hobbled over to lean next to Hyoyeon. “I’m lucky that bookcase just squished my leg and nothing else. I’m lucky I wasn’t in my place when it burned down. I’m lucky I have a friend who doesn’t mind if I set fire to newspapers in her kitchen.” Hyoyeon rolled her eyes. “Okay, a friend who doesn’t mind much,” Taeyeon amended with a cheeky grin. “But I mean, if you just think about it, the fact that we all made it this far with just us…it’s pretty incredible, right?”
Hyoyeon laughed. “Sounds like you think we’re divine beings or something.”
“Nah. Just indestructible.” Taeyeon raised a fist and pretended to flex. Hyoyeon gave her a friendly shove, causing her to yelp and almost lose her balance.
“Yeah, totally,” Hyoyeon drawled, jerking her thumb towards the trash bin. “Pretty sure that newspaper has more strength than you do.”
Taeyeon’s phone sounded before she could retort. The older girl read the message that had appeared on the screen, smile falling from her lips. “Uh oh.”
“What? What happened?” Hyoyeon snatched the device out of Taeyeon’s hands. “You don’t get to say ‘uh oh’. We’ve had enough ‘uh oh’ moments to last a lifetime…”
“I thought so too,” Taeyeon said quietly. “But I guess not everyone agrees with that.”
Seohyun quickly ducked into an alleyway, trying to keep her breaths light even as her lungs screamed for air. She clutched a sheaf of papers tightly to her chest, her pocket dangerously light because her phone had slipped out of her pocket a few blocks back and she hadn’t had the nerve to turn around and get it.
I’m sorry, unnies.
Hours earlier, Seohyun had experienced a flashback to her university days, hunched over her desk trying to decipher the ideas of someone who supposedly understood the relevant subject better than she did. Except now, years later, she’d been doing it from the tiny screen of a tiny phone that had such a tiny memory, it couldn’t even store all of the images Sunny had sent at once.
Seohyun had then begun the tedious process of somehow connecting to the internet (thank goodness this flip phone still had that), and then had only briefly hesitated before sending the images to an email account she’d just created. Sure, it could probably be traced pretty quickly, but she figured they only had a matter of hours before their pursuers were breathing down their necks again, especially with the Woolen break-in and Taeyeon’s apartment already reduced to ashes.
Seohyun would always be a fan of paper over electronics, so once all the images had been emailed, she’d hooked her printer up to her laptop and begun to print out the blueprint photos. She’d gotten three pages in when the machine suddenly shuddered to a stop.
Because of course she would run out of paper, and of course there were no more packs of printer paper left in their apartment.
Jessica had, after a few tactful arguments from Seohyun, deigned to skip work another day, which meant that she was knocked out in her own bedroom and probably wouldn’t wake up until the next morning was almost over. So Seohyun had quietly grabbed her keys and a baseball cap before slipping out of the apartment, aiming to drive to her high school and use the printer in the counselors’ office.
The entire bus ride, she’d made sure her cap was pulled as low over her eyes as possible. Every person who got on or off (the crowd was a bit lighter this late at night, but not by much) was a possible threat, and Seohyun’s hands had been shaking by the time she got off at her stop. She’d barely been able to hold the key fob against the scanner long enough to get into the school building.
However, the rest of the printing had gone by smoothly, and Seohyun had decided to return to her apartment, on the off-chance that Jessica woke up and would actually be willing to help her sift through some of the papers.
Two blocks on her way to the bus stop, Seohyun had suddenly felt very nervous.
She’d turned the corner quickly, catching a glimpse of the street behind her. At two in the morning, there were still too many people out for her to determine if she’d gained a follower. However, after making several more sharp turns, she’d been able to pick out one person — male, sunglasses, dark hoodie, gray tennis shoes — who had been behind her each time.
Seohyun had counted one breath, two breaths, three breaths. And then she’d taken off.
Her phone parted ways a block or so later.
She couldn’t stay running forever, though. So now, with her heartbeat slightly steadier, she decided that she’d have to sift through all of the images on her own, even if she had to run all across Seoul while doing it. She paused, listening intently, before stepping out of the alleyway again and walking to the nearest magazine stand.
She quickly bought the first issue she saw — “Singles” or “The Celebrity” or something — and handed over her money to the vendor with a polite smile. Then she opened the magazine and slipped her papers inside before entering the nearest store.
The shop sold books, and luckily the sales assistants were too tired to do more than give her a cheerful greeting and a reminder that she could always ask for help if she needed it. Seohyun found a quiet corner to sit down and pretend to flip through her magazine.
The door to the store had a small bell hanging overhead, so Seohyun always looked up whenever she heard the small chime. It wasn’t until four sheets and ten chimes later that the man also entered the store. Seohyun casually got up and weaved through the shelves, thanking the sales assistant at the door before stepping out onto the street again.
She spent twenty minutes in a coffee shop, ten at a bar (she’d expected the noise and had been able to cope with it, but she could only take so many spilled beers over her precious papers before she had to evacuate the premises), and almost an hour at a cozy ramyun shop (she was getting hungry anyway, and worrying about her face bloating in the morning was last on her current list of priorities).
The man had to be given points for persistence, Seohyun decided. She briefly entertained the possibility that he was actually some bodyguard Sunny had sent for her safety, but she figured if that were actually the case, he would’ve at least come over to greet her instead of slinking in the shadows cast by the street lamps, trying — and fortunately failing — to stay completely out of sight.
Seohyun glanced at her watch as she took to the street once more. The sky was actually lightening (although she didn’t feel the least bit tired), and she knew of a library that opened earlier than the rest. The morning traffic appeared quickly, but she paid it little mind as she continued to scan files while walking.
Seohyun looked up slowly, taking in the person now standing in her way.
Yuri let out a breath, pulling an earbud out of her ears as she wiped a drop of sweat from her brow. “Do you have any idea how worried we’ve all been? Where were you all night?”
“Oh.” Seohyun suddenly realized how long she’d actually gone without contact with any of the others. She bowed her head. “Sorry, unnie. Something…came up.”
“I see.” Yuri paused to stretch, and Seohyun noticed belatedly that the older woman was in jogging clothes. “What’s that you have there?”
“Oh, I wanted to print out all of the photos Sunny-unnie sent, but then I ran out of paper and…” Seohyun trailed off. “It’s a long story.”
Yuri raised her eyebrows. “I bet. So you’ve been running around the city all night just to find a working printer?”
Seohyun jumped a little at the unintentional reminder. She glanced over her shoulder, but her stalker remained unseen for the moment. “No, unnie, um…can we talk somewhere else?”
She led Yuri to the library, explaining in hushed tones what had happened in the past several hours. Yuri sighed. “Well, I guess it was only a matter of time — we didn’t exactly make the cleanest escape from Woolen. Maybe we should warn the others, in case they have stalkers tailing them as well.”
Seohyun’s eyes fell to Yuri’s phone as the latter pulled the device out. “I…lost my phone. I don’t know if they picked it up. If they did, they’ll have all of your numbers.”
“Great.” Yuri squeezed her eyes shut. “Okay, well, let’s just trust in the others to figure this out, okay?”
Seohyun watched the other text a single command.
“Okay.” Yuri looked up. “So, if they have our phone numbers, they can probably track us, right?”
“Possibly — ”
Yuri threw her phone into the nearest garbage can. “That’s fixed. Alright, is the library far enough from here, or should we head somewhere else?”
“It’s still ten or so minutes walking,” Seohyun confirmed. “Want to help me look through some of these while we go?”
Yuri scratched her head as she looked down at the top sheet of the small stack Seohyun had handed her. “You know I almost failed high school chemistry, right?”
“Chemistry?” Seohyun straightened. “I actually haven’t seen any yet with chemical formulas. Most of them are just blueprints for device shells or very conventional weapons. Can I see, unnie?”
Yuri held out the paper for Seohyun to take. The youngest looked over it and inhaled sharply.
“What?” Yuri demanded, leaning over to take another peek, but the characters remained as foreign to her as English was.
“This is it, unnie,” Seohyun said, running a thumb over the printed formula on the page. “The next weapon of mass destruction.”