A small bottle of water tumbled onto the wooden table in front of her, bouncing and shuddering and rolling to a stop. She listened to the sound of her own breathing, heavy and harsh and desperate, and blinked away the trail of blood already smeared over her temple and trickling into her eye.
“Drink up. You must be thirsty.”
She raised her eyes, brow crinkling.
A kind face smiled back at her. The woman was tall, young, with long black hair stylishly tied back. She wore a simple, elegant suit, perfectly fitted to her form. Tiffany’s eyes traced the woman’s face and body; she worked out regularly, there were a few sugar grains clinging to her shirt, she had a slight tan, her muscles showed the definition of someone who grew up swimming; and her expression held laugh lines but had the form for a serious set.
The woman gazed at her.
“You’re shaking,” she remarked. “It’s okay now, Tiffany. The worst is over. Go on, drink some water.”
Tiffany looked back at the plastic bottle. It had a few dents. The plastic was soft, and cheap. The label was bland, simple, with the name of a popular cheap brand. She reached out – her hand shook as she touched the bottle, but her breathing slowed as she twisted off the plastic cap and raised the water to her lips.
The woman sat down on the other rickety chair across from her. She laid a beige file on the surface between them, and gave Tiffany another smile.
“My name is Yuri,” she said. “You’re actually a bit older than me, but we’re all friends here, right? So pardon my casual nature.”
Tiffany didn’t say anything. She swallowed the last of the water and lowered the bottle, settling it gently on the table. She stared.
“Now, you’ve had quite a shock, Tiffany,” Yuri said. She opened the file, flipping through the papers. “But it’s all okay now. We’re here to help.”
Yuri looked up at the word. Tiffany’s voice was hoarse, afraid. She smiled again.
“There are two answers to that question,” replied Yuri. “Let’s not choose one just yet.”
Tiffany was silent again. Her stare bore into Yuri’s eyes, but the woman seemed unfazed. She still had that small, quiet, kind smile on her lips. Tiffany gulped, feeling her body stop shaking and her heart rate slow down.
“What happened to your family,” Yuri murmured, “is terrible. Absolutely terrible. You have my deepest condolences, Tiffany.”
Tiffany blinked. She reached up and wiped away the blood that was persistently running down the side of her face, and she looked at the thick redness on her fingers. There was a shuffling sound as Yuri closed the file again and sat up straighter.
“There’s a way to fix this,” she said quietly, smile gone. “You’re here with us now, Tiffany. There’s a lot going on in this place. And I can tell already that you belong here. The way you checked me out like that, sussing out so much about me in one look. I bet you know a lot more than you make it seem. And that’s a damn useful talent around here, Tiffany.”
“I just want to go home,” Tiffany whispered, her voice uneven. She couldn’t meet Yuri’s gaze.
“That’s not your home anymore, Tiffany. That place where you lived, where you grew up with your family, that’s not home. They’re all dead now. But here, we can provide you with a new home. We can be your family now. Wouldn’t you like to have a family again, Tiffany?”
Tiffany closed her eyes. She clenched her jaw. “I just want to go home,” she repeated.
There was no sound for a moment. Then the chair scraped as it was pushed back and Yuri came to stand right beside Tiffany, resting her hand on her shoulder and leaning down. “Listen, Tiffany,” she said softly. “You have nothing else. You might as well accept it. This is your home now, and this is your world. But just remember something for me, Tiffany: not everything is as it seems.”
Tiffany’s eyes snapped open and she turned to face Yuri. She didn’t say anything, but the fear and confusion showed.
Yuri smiled. “Everyone is lying to someone else. In this world, there are two families. Two corners of a boxing ring. Two sides you can choose. Sometimes, there’s a bit of a cross. The lines blur. There are grey areas, and that’s where someone can lose their head, very easily. You look confused right now but you’re wary, still attentive. You’re not someone who can easily get lost in mind games, are you?”
Tiffany’s face was blank. Her breathing slowed until she was only taking shallow breaths. The light above them flickered slightly, and something tapped against the grimy window.
Yuri held up one hand. “The good side.” She held up the other. “The bad side.”
She brought them together and pointed at Tiffany with both index fingers.
“And then there is you.”
The corner of her mouth quirked up in a sly little smirk.
Tiffany’s wide eyes locked onto Yuri’s for a long time, not blinking or moving.
“It’s okay,” Yuri said. She stood up, on her way back to the other side of the table. “You can speak your mind. We’re safe right now.”
“You’re an undercover cop?” Tiffany asked in a thick voice.
Yuri froze, and she spun on her heel to face Tiffany.
Tiffany let out a long breath, feeling her shoulders relax. She gulped again, giving Yuri a different look.
“What do you want from me?”
“You’ve just lost your family,” Yuri said. “Sorry to be so harsh. You have nothing left. You’re smart. We think we can develop your talents into a very, very useful tool. You could save a lot of people by helping us.”
Tiffany hung her head. The constant reminder of the fact that her whole family was now dead and she was all alone was not particularly pleasant. She closed her eyes, and was immediately swarmed with flashes of memories. The screaming of her family members, the smashing of doors and windows, the shouts, the blood – she took a deep shuddering breath – the snap of bone, the shots.
“The people who killed your family will be interested in you,” Yuri continued after a pause. “Very interested.”
Tiffany laughed briefly. “You think they’ll recruit me?”
“We know they will.”
Tiffany raised her head slowly, meeting Yuri’s eyes. “Was that why they killed them? To get me?”
Yuri looked away. She half-heartedly shrugged one shoulder. Another tap came at the dark window, a succession of four rapid knocks.
“It’s time,” Yuri said simply.
She turned back to Tiffany. Her eyes were cold and sharp.
“Welcome to your new world, Tiffany.”
The yo-yo almost smacked against the cement before it spun upwards. Taeyeon clenched her hand around it tightly, trapping it in place a good distance from the ground it had just been face-to-face with. Her palm was sweaty. The blue plastic rubbed against her skin. The muscles of her fingers trembled. She let it drop.
It cracked when it hit the ground. She looked up, eyes blank.
She ripped the string from her finger and let it fall, before stepping forward and following Yuri through the glass doors and into the polished, sleek office building reception. She gave a polite nod to the secretary at the front who returned it stiffly, and then they were in the elevator.
Taeyeon tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans and stared at her reflection in the metal. Yuri glanced at her, and cleared her throat.
“It’s been two years now,” she commented. “Two years of good service. I think the boss likes you.”
Taeyeon didn’t say anything. After a moment she shifted to read the numbers flashing above the doors.
It was time.