Yes. (2; Drop Dead, Gorgeous)

2; Drop Dead, Gorgeous

 

“Step aside, short stuff,” said Sooyoung, craning her head over the crowd in front of them, “I’ll find her.”

“You don’t know what she looks like either,” replied Taeyeon, frowning. “Just hold up the sign, okay?”

They had to stop by a stationery store in the airport on their way to Tiffany’s terminal so that they could buy a sheet of cardboard and a permanent marker, with which Taeyeon craftily made a sign that said ‘Tiffany Hwang’ upon it. Sooyoung now held it in her hands, just above the heads of the people swarming around the place where passengers from Tiffany’s flight would exit. Taeyeon hopped nervously on the balls of her feet, eyes glued to the glass doors a short distance from them, her view getting blocked intermittently by the taller people.

Sooyoung noticed her friend’s antsy behaviour out of the corner of her eye, and she hid a smile as she raised the sign even higher.

The doors slid open electronically and passengers leaked out, just a few at first and then the main body of the group. Taeyeon jumped in the air a little, then realised she was being ridiculous and tried to relax. Sooyoung kept her gaze on the passengers, expecting every second or third young woman trailing a suitcase to be Tiffany.

“She must have been stuck at luggage collection for a long time,” remarked Sooyoung. “She called us the second she stepped off the plane and said she would be getting her bags while she waited. People from that flight are only just now getting through.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “It’s nothing new. All four of the times I’ve been on a plane, I’ve had to wait almost forty minutes for my luggage to get through.”

“Must be hard for you unlucky people. It only ever takes me ten minutes.”

Taeyeon shot her a distracted glare. “Whatever. Make sure the sign is visible.”

“When I told you to make sure your handwriting was legible, you nearly bit my head off,” Sooyoung murmured without malice. “Oh, that one’s got a glint in her eye at the sight of your shaky scribble. I think it’s her.”

Taeyeon’s heart fluttered. She saw Sooyoung beckoning to someone, and then she was steered by the elbow to a point slightly away from the crowd. The disappearance of pressing bodies sent some relief to her lungs, and she breathed more freely until the moment she turned in the direction Sooyoung was looking and got her first sight of Tiffany Hwang.

Taeyeon struggled with words at the best of times, but the moment she laid eyes on Tiffany her entire vocabulary of some forty thousand words flew out of her head at the speed of a neutrino particle, and she barely even remembered where she was or what it felt like to be in a human body. She wasn’t sure if Tiffany was actually coming closer step by step or if her brain was just melting and her eyes were popping out of her head. But then Tiffany came to a halt in front of them with a friendly smile on her gorgeous/beautiful/stunning/dazzling face (and Taeyeon’s vocabulary started slowly trickling back), her curious gaze shifting from Sooyoung to Taeyeon and back.

“I’m Sooyoung,” said Sooyoung, holding out a hand for Tiffany to shake. “I’m Taeyeon’s assistant. She’ll be with you in just a moment. Her systems are rebooting.”

Tiffany’s smile widened at this statement, amusement playing on her features as she glanced at the unmoving Taeyeon. She shook Sooyoung’s hand and said, “Nice to meet you. Both of you. Does this kind of thing happen often?”

“Oh, yes,” Sooyoung said nonchalantly. “But she’s not quite as slow as some of the older-model androids. And she has a built-in game of Pacman.”

Taeyeon’s hand lashed out and whipped Sooyoung on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t go around telling people I’m an android. A lot of people actually believed you last time.”

Sooyoung just grinned. Taeyeon looked at Tiffany again, fighting the barrage of words that scrolled across her brain as their eyes met (amazing, gorgeous, friendly, humorous, beautiful, gorgeous, gorgeous, real, present, nearby, real oh my god real) and offered a smile that shook slightly.

“Hello,” she said, and cleared her throat. “I mean, hello.”

She resisted the urge to raise her arm, remembering Sooyoung’s comment about her robot wave. Tiffany’s smile stayed on her lips and her eyes softened as they watched each other for a while.

“Nice to meet you, Taeyeon,” she said. “Thanks for coming to pick me up. And thanks for taking on my case. I’m grateful that an investigator of your calibre was willing to help me out.”

Taeyeon blushed, even though she had always been confident and open about her superior detective skills and never minded when others complimented her before. But then, she rarely stood face-to-face with people who were saying such nice things to her, and those people never gave her such a tingly, fizzy feeling just by acknowledging her.

“Oh my would you look at the time,” Sooyoung said blankly. “I forgot I’m meeting someone for dinner. Hey, that’s a great idea, you two should go have dinner, so Tiffany can relax and re-energize with some hearty Korean food. You guys go ahead. Bye!”

And she turned on her heel and strode away without a second glance. Tiffany blinked at her receding figure until she was out of sight, and then saw her own confusion mirrored on Taeyeon’s face when they looked at each other. Taeyeon pursed her lips, awkward, and rocked back on her heels for a moment.

“So, um, do you want to go have dinner?” she asked quietly. “I mean, we don’t have to, because you’re probably tired and you just got off a long flight and you probably ate on the plane so it’s not like you’d be hungry or anything…”

One half of her slapped the other half of her and she shut up. It was difficult to be in the middle of a process of changing her habits of social interaction, as if she was a street that used to be only one-way and recently split into two opposing lanes so now head-on crashes were happening all the time. She wondered if there was a remedy for this kind of occurrence and was already mentally conducting an information search through traffic news history before she realised she was actually still in the middle of a conversation with Tiffany. Her eyes widened as her brain returned to the situation and she panicked briefly, quickly analysing Tiffany’s facial expression to see if her spacing-out affected the flow of socialization.

Tiffany still had the amused smile on her face, her eyes seemed to be gazing at something far away even though she was looking at Taeyeon, and her eyebrows seemed relaxed, her cheeks and jaw soft, the corners of her lips not tense, and she was so utterly lovely that Taeyeon’s analysis was cut short by a lengthy line of gibberish. She lost track of the conversation again, and was brought back by the sound of Tiffany’s voice.

“You know, I wasn’t expecting you to be so… fascinating, now that we’ve met in person,” she said. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. You seemed like an interesting person from our online correspondence, but now that I actually have you here in front of me… I don’t know. I’m glad I came to Seoul.”

Taeyeon’s face slowly blossomed into a blush, and she wondered why she was suddenly so vulnerable to these uncontrollable visual expressions. Half of her shut down the other half and she cleared her throat, straightened her spine, and felt the blush recede.

“I’m glad you came, too,” she said, with only a hint of stiffness in her tone. “So… dinner?”

Tiffany seemed to ponder for a moment, lightly biting her bottom lip and looking at her watch. It wasn’t early, but it wasn’t late. She could last a while longer before she had to deal with jetlag. She gave Taeyeon a glittering smile, and said, “Sure. But no Korean food just yet, please… I’m the mood for a burger.”

It wasn’t until they reached the car that Taeyeon wondered how Sooyoung would be leaving the airport without her, but she knew Sooyoung would figure something out, so she just wrestled Tiffany’s suitcase into the boot of her car. Normally she would have let Tiffany struggle with it herself, or if she was in a hurry she would have helped in order to save time. But now here she was, not in a hurry, not with one of her long-time friends, and just the mere thought of Tiffany having to grapple with her suitcase was enough to make her jump into the situation instead. It was unusual. But Taeyeon had considered all possibilities of what it would be like when Tiffany arrived, so her behaviour wasn’t entirely surprising, merely intriguing. This was like an experiment, research into advanced social connotations. Then she held the door open for Tiffany to get into the front passenger seat, and she stopped her line of thought. She shouldn’t think of this as an experiment, at least not all the time. She just had to live the experience.

They were quiet as she drove them out of the airport, but when they stopped at the first set of traffic lights, Tiffany spoke up.

“So, how did I manage to lure the great reclusive detective all the way out here just to meet me?”

Taeyeon froze, her eyes glued to the red light ahead. The tone of Tiffany’s voice was partly playful, partly hesitant, and partly genuinely curious. She wanted to know, but she didn’t want to make Taeyeon uncomfortable. Taeyeon relaxed. She appreciated that.

And then she tensed again, because how would she answer the question?

“I heard you only interacted with clients through online messages,” Tiffany continued, fiddling with the dials on the car’s air conditioning system. “And that you don’t even do phone calls. So… well, I’m not even sure what I was doing when I told you I was thinking of coming to Seoul.”

“You were probably feeling deprived,” Taeyeon answered automatically, eyes on the road as the traffic moved. “Incomplete. You’ve missed your mother for a long time, and the constant thoughts of your mother became associated with thoughts of your heritage in Korea, and the ongoing search for your mother here led to a connection between your emotional emptiness and the chance of finding your mother which would theoretically fill the void, culminating in a combination of human elements relating to family, heritage, and problem-solving or reinstating familiar social structure. You felt like coming here was something you absolutely had to do. Right?”

Tiffany blinked. Her stare was locked onto Taeyeon. Her hand hovered near the air-conditioning. She nodded slowly.

“So you mentioned to me that you were thinking of coming to Seoul, hoping for justification of an inexplicable urge. There is no logical reason for you to be here if we just consider the case, but the sentimental aspects explain a natural desire to be here right now.”

There was silence for a while after Taeyeon stopped speaking. The only movement came when she shifted gears. Then Tiffany let her hand drop onto her lap, and she looked out the window. Taeyeon became worried at the lengthy drop in conversation, and reconsidered her lax attitude in speaking. She thought if she just went with the flow of conversation in order to experience everything, then she would present a more natural and comfortable image, which she had found in the past made a vast difference in social interactions. Now, she thought again about everything she just said, and saw the possibility of overstepping the line.

“Um,” she said unsurely, “I apologise if I’ve offended you.”

“No,” Tiffany replied. She turned back to Taeyeon, looking thoughtful. “I just… I don’t mean to be rude, but I suppose I wasn’t expecting you to be so… emotionally aware. I heard you were quite awkward, socially.”

“Ah.” Taeyeon nodded. “No, you’re quite right to think so. I’m trying something new. In the past, I would have thought all those things in my head and maybe felt sure about the formulation of words in about two hours, by which time of course the moment would have passed. But then we would be sitting here in awkward silence instead of awkward discussion.”

A smile quirked the corner of Tiffany’s mouth. Her eyes remained contemplative. “Something new, huh?”

Taeyeon knew there was another layer of connotations beneath what was visible, but she had to drive the car, not analyse Tiffany. So she returned the smile briefly and half-heartedly, before turning the car into the entrance of a parking lot.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said as she parked the car. “I made an assumption of where you wanted to eat based on what you said at the airport. Is this place okay?”

Tiffany saw the big yellow and red sign and grinned. “It’s perfect. Exactly what I was craving.”

Taeyeon opened Tiffany’s door for her.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Tiffany said as they walked towards the restaurant. “Opening doors for me.”

“I insist,” Taeyeon replied, doing exactly that again. “You’re my guest. I have observed other dynamics for these situations, and this is what I feel is best.”

And it made her heart flutter a little every time Tiffany gave her a small, grateful smile as she stepped through the open door. But Taeyeon knew it would not be productive to mention that at this time.

Tiffany rattled off her order at the counter and Taeyeon requested a soda. They sat down at a table by the window when Tiffany got her food, and Tiffany sighed in relief as she bit into a French fry.

“This is just what I needed,” she said, gesturing to her food. “Thanks, Taeyeon.”

That memorable blush crept along the edge of Taeyeon’s jaw again, and she looked out the window as she nodded in acknowledgement. For a while, she observed the people inside the restaurant as she sucked on the straw of her soda, until her observations were interrupted.

“So, Taeyeon, I need you to be honest with me,” Tiffany said, wiping her fingers with a napkin before making eye contact.

Taeyeon gulped. She let the straw pop out of her mouth and put her soda down on the table between them. “What’s up?”

Tiffany paused for a moment. She crumpled the napkin into a tiny ball.

“How’s the search for my mother really going?” she asked delicately. “Is there any hope?”

Taeyeon was good at lying online, on the phone, and sometimes in person. But she knew enough of the practice to know just by judging the look on Tiffany’s face that she would not be able to pull off another lie. She briefly envisaged the possible outcomes of her actions; she lied and Tiffany caught her out, she lied and Tiffany fell for it, she told the truth and Tiffany hated it, she told the truth and Tiffany accepted it externally but struggled internally. Unfortunately, none of these visions were particularly appealing. She pursed her lips, fiddled with her glasses, inspected a spot on the ceiling for three intense seconds, and then she answered.

“There is hope,” she said slowly. “But… how do I say this… I’m not sure how to explain what I want to say.”

Tiffany sat back in her chair, and patiently watched Taeyeon.

“There are some extra considerations,” Taeyeon began. “I didn’t mention them before. Um, has your mother ever mentioned a man called Daniel Lee?”

Tiffany frowned slightly. “No, I don’t think so. Why? Who is he?”

Taeyeon tapped her fingers on the table. “He’s a criminal, in a word. Your mother knew him in high school. Well, she dated him in high school. He was her first boyfriend, and their relationship was quite intense. Now, this is where the extra considerations enter.  She might have gone back to him when she left your family, which is where these options come from. If she isn’t with him, a plausible lead is exhausted and this will put me back a few steps.”

She hesitated, running through some sentences in her head, and then spoke again.

“If she is with him, she would be hard to find. And… she might not want to go back to you.”

She tried to say it as gently as she could, mindful of tone and timbre and the intensity of the consonants she vocalised. She kept her eyes on Tiffany’s face, looking for reaction to her statement, but Tiffany’s expression was unclear. Taeyeon made a note that Tiffany sometimes hid her feelings while they were being processed.

“I understand,” Tiffany said in an even voice. “It’s… it’s something I thought of. But I haven’t thought of it for a long time.” She took a deep breath. “It’s okay. Thanks for everything you’re doing, Taeyeon. Whatever you find, at least I can get some closure.”

Taeyeon ran some brief calculations in her head and produced a smile, aiming for it to be comforting, but it probably looked a bit odd because Tiffany gave her a weird look before smiling in return.

Hoping to avoid an awkward gap in conversation, Taeyeon picked up her soda again and said, “So, where did you hear that stuff about me?”

“Ah.” Tiffany looked down bashfully, letting her hair fall into her face. “I did a little research about you. Before I sent in a request for you to take my case, I put your name into a search engine to see what came up. There are sites where people discuss private investigators and cases like mine, and I found a few mentions of you from past clients of yours.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows. “Really? Hmm. I didn’t realise people were talking about me. What did they say?”

Tiffany looked up again, and smirked a little. Taeyeon blinked. She guessed Tiffany had been shy about telling her because she was unsure how Taeyeon would react and was now confident in continuing because Taeyeon expressed interest without distress. Interesting.

“They all said you were the best investigator they ever hired,” Tiffany said. “Some of them had been struggling with different investigators for years, then you took on the case and it was solved easily. A few other investigators don’t like you very much.”

Taeyeon scoffed. “Nothing new there.”

“And they said you were very reclusive,” Tiffany continued. “None of them have ever heard your voice or seen your face, and you remained strictly professional in your messages.” She smiled. “And now here I am, watching you drink soda with a straw, in a fast food restaurant.”

Taeyeon waited, but Tiffany gave no indication of how she felt to be sitting here watching Taeyeon drink soda. She frowned slightly, staring at Tiffany, and Tiffany stared right back.

“Is that… okay?” Taeyeon ventured finally.

Tiffany laughed briefly. “Yes. It’s okay.”

The straw was a bit mangled when Taeyeon put down her soda again, and she realised exactly how anxious she was about Tiffany’s opinion of spending time with her. And now here they were again, at a familiar impasse in the conversation where she didn’t know what to say, but unlike the time it happened online, Tiffany made no immediate move to spur it on. So they sat in silence, glancing at each other, until Tiffany finally cleared her throat.

“Tell me about Daniel Lee,” she said.

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “There’s not much to say. He seems like a bad guy.”

“Where are you on the case?” Tiffany asked, serious. “I mean, what are you investigating right now?”

Taeyeon glanced around. The restaurant was almost empty, the clock on the wall ticking at a later hour than she had realised. The fluorescent lights hummed faintly. The employees who were previously at the counter had disappeared to the back of the restaurant. A young man and woman two tables away from them were trying to hold in their laughter as they pulled funny faces at each other. A lone old man on the other side of the restaurant flipped the page of a newspaper and reached for his ice cream.

“Let’s go,” she said. “I’ll drive you back to the hotel and we can talk in the car. We shouldn’t be talking about this in public.”

Tiffany looked around at the people, trying to see anything suspicious, and then she nodded. “All right.”

Just as they got up to leave, the window beside them shattered. A second later, Taeyeon registered the sound of a gunshot, and in the onslaught of glass fragments she threw up her hands in a defensive posture. Tiffany stumbled in her shock and fell to her knees, covering her head with her arms. Taeyeon forced her eyes open, squinting between her fingers, searching outside for the source of the danger. It was too dark. All she could see were vague shapes of cars in the car park.

As the glass quietened around them, the chilled breeze from outside seeped onto her skin. It stung. She winced as she glanced at the red, bleeding little cuts over her hands and she felt another on her cheek. Dismissing her injuries when she couldn’t see any serious lacerations, she hopped over the table and helped Tiffany get up.

The restaurant was now empty, and Taeyeon tried to remember if the other customers had screamed. She nearly slid on the cleanly polished floor in her haste to move, and realised a dripped line of blood was tracking them.

“Tiffany, are you okay?” she murmured, keeping her gaze locked outside as she stopped them just around the corner from the glass entrance, pressing against the wall.

Tiffany was shaking visibly, arms still covering her head, and Taeyeon tightened her hold around her.

“Are you hurt anywhere?”

“I don’t know,” Tiffany whimpered.

She gathered herself slowly, lowering her arms and taking shaky breaths as she checked her body for injuries. There was a big slit in her shirt, on her shoulder, and a sizeable amount of blood had formed a red cloud, but it didn’t seem to be causing the drip.

Tiffany looked up at Taeyeon, and her eyes went wide. “Taeyeon, your cheek…”

“Hmm?” Taeyeon reached up, and her fingers came away slick with blood. “Oh… I thought the cut was smaller than that. Is it dripping?”

Tiffany nodded. She pulled the edge of her long sleeve over her hand and pressed the heel of her palm against the wound. “We need to put some pressure on it.”

“We need to get out of here,” Taeyeon replied, looking outside again. “I wonder… I could have sworn it was that couple, but I’m sure they screamed.”

“What are you talking about?” Tiffany asked, following her gaze.

“One of the customers was in on it. They must have sent some sign when they heard us talking about Daniel Lee. Otherwise no one would risk shooting at us in a public place. Well, I say ‘us’ but they only shot once. Perhaps they were just sent to kill one of us.”

Tiffany frowned at Taeyeon. “Are you okay? You’re on the verge of rambling.”

Taeyeon closed her eyes, and took a deep calming breath. “Right. Okay, we need to get out of here.”

She glanced outside.

“They only shot once. Even when we were scrambling to get away from the table, they didn’t take another shot. So either they’re waiting, or they left right after shooting.”

“Well we’ve been standing here for quite a while,” said Tiffany. “Maybe they’ve left now even if they were waiting. Surely someone has called the police.”

“Good point. You know what? Let’s just run and see what happens.”

Tiffany barely had time to be surprised before Taeyeon took her hand and pulled her along as she dashed through the entrance and their feet hit the carpark. She gulped in air as they sprinted to Taeyeon’s car, expecting a gun to go off at any moment, snapping her glances between the ground beneath them and all the dark cars around them.

Taeyeon skidded to a halt when they reached her car, staring at the windshield.

In the distance, sirens started up and they could hear cars racing towards them.

On the smooth surface of the windshield on Taeyeon’s car, the smudge of red lipstick glared at them in the shape of big, spiky words.

Drop dead, gorgeous.

Yes. (1; Warm Coffee Caramel)

1; Warm Coffee Caramel

 

“Are you the private eye?”

“The private what?”

“Private eye. Private investigator.”

“I am a private investigator.”

“But are you the private investigator I’m looking for?”

“I’m not sure how you expect me to answer that, sir, as I do not know who you are looking for.”

“Okay, sounds like you. Listen, back off. Forget about finding the Hwang woman. Just leave it. You got that?”

“Do you have a reason for recommending this option?”

“Just stop looking for her or I’ll kill you. Understand?”

“Um… No, not really. I see no logical reason to stop. Your desire to kill me does not seem related to the case at hand – unless you would care to explain further.”

“Look, you little weirdo, just stop looking for her or you’ll be killed. Isn’t that enough?”

“What, the threat of bloody death at the hands of an emotionally unstable stranger?” Taeyeon considered for a moment. “No. Excuse me; I have a middle-aged Korean lady to find.”

Taeyeon liked to smear cream cheese on her bagel. Not too much, but enough to give her a good taste that could make her mouth water even while she was eating. With little concern about the threatening phone call she just received, she began to carefully spread the cream cheese over the halved, warm bagel on the plate in front of her.

She was shortly joined in the quiet café by a tall young woman who dumped her purse onto the table and fell into a chair, looking disgruntled.

“Why are we working on my day off?” she grumbled, shooting a glare at Taeyeon.

Taeyeon smiled. “Good morning, Sooyoung. Today, you are going to have a lovely day as my assistant, I guarantee it.”

Sooyoung stared at her for a while longer, eyes narrowed in suspicion and defiance at being required to actively use her brain before noon on her day off. Then she reached out, snatched the other half of Taeyeon’s bagel, and began to eat.

“Keep talking,” she said, mouth already full. “And start putting more cream cheese on your bagel, this is pathetic.”

“Or you could just get your own bagel,” Taeyeon mumbled. She pouted slightly as she finished her own half of the bagel, and sighed. “How long have we known each other, Sooyoung?”

Sooyoung shrugged. “Seven years, I think. Why?”

“Do you think it takes a long time for me to open up to people?”

Sooyoung snorted. “Yes, and that’s putting it lightly. More like it takes you three years to actually say more than ‘hello’ in a quiet voice with an awkward robot wave.”

“I’m that socially awkward, huh.”

“You’re socially inept,” Sooyoung corrected. She stopped eating and regarded Taeyeon seriously. “It’s not the end of the world. You’re a wonderful person, and only those who take the time to get to know you should be allowed to have you.”

Taeyeon just shrugged. She tidied the table, straightening the knife on the plate, folding the napkin precisely. Sooyoung watched her with a little smile.

“Why do you ask?”

“A client is coming to Seoul. She’ll be here for two weeks, and she wants to, y’know, talk to me. As in: actual face-to-face verbal communication.”

“Ah, and you’re worried she’ll think you’re rude?”

Taeyeon shrugged again. “Never mind that for now. I set up a meeting with one of my rats from the south-east district. Wanna join?”

“You’re really going to follow that lead?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, don’t you think the result might be a little unfavourable? Not to mention how dangerous it is, but I know that won’t stop you.”

“Unfavourable? I suppose I can see the potential for the client’s disappointment, perhaps, but I did mention the possibility of an unhappy conclusion when I sent her the contract. I’m sure she knows what risks are involved here. Besides, there’s no guarantee that this line of questioning will lead me to find Tiffany’s mother.”

Sooyoung watched Taeyeon for a moment longer, before narrowing her eyes. “Is Tiffany Hwang the one who’s coming to Seoul?”

“Yes.”

“That explains so much,” she replied, leaning back in her chair and grinning. “You’re finally going to meet your crush!”

Taeyeon blushed immediately, and quickly glanced around. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, you strange child. So do you want to join me today or not?”

“Of course I do. I think with this case, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Especially when she gets here.” Sooyoung giggled mischievously. “I can’t wait!”

Taeyeon gulped nervously and pulled some cash from her pocket to toss onto the table. “Come on, let’s go.”

“You can’t pay like that, this place doesn’t –”

“Hush. We have a mystery to solve.”

The rat from the south-east district seemed bored, as if the constant visits from the small private investigator were taking up time he could be using to pursue his hobbies of smashing windows and robbing people. He momentarily seemed interested in the nails of his left hand as he inspected them closely, clicked his tongue in disapproval, and went back to staring into space.

Taeyeon appeared from the darkness, the black shadows dissolving behind her as she stepped forward silently. He jumped in surprise, then realised who it was and looked disgruntled.

“Why do you always make me wait, shorty?”

Taeyeon consulted her Despicable Me wristwatch. “I’m on time. Perhaps your watch is fast.”

He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. What do you want?”

“I’m looking for a middle-aged Korean woman,” Taeyeon started, “about this tall,” she held a hand above her head, “with black hair, brown eyes, lovely eye-smile, wrinkles here,” she indicated the sides of her mouth, “and here,” she mimed crows-feet by her eyes, “probably using the surname Choi, and she has a voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day.”

The rat blinked. “What?”

“Have you seen her?”

“Warm coffee caramel?”

“On a cold rainy day, yes. Or so I’m told.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Have you finally lost your marbles or what?”

“I haven’t had marbles since I was four years old and they were mostly my brother’s.”

“Well that makes sense. Look shorty, I don’t know what game you’re playing here but -”

He squealed when Sooyoung rushed forward from around the corner, the shadows dispersing from around her with less finesse, and she came to a stop beside Taeyeon looking out of breath.

“Sorry I’m late, I got a bit lost,” she said quickly. After a few deep breaths, she straightened up and tried to look tough. “Listen, scum, when the detective asks you a question, you better answer.”

He threw his hands in the air. “Fine. Whatever. No, I haven’t seen a typical middle-aged Korean lady with a voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day. Can I help you with anything else today? I’m getting sick of you two weirdos ruining my days.”

Taeyeon took a piece of paper from the pocket of her jacket and skimmed the pencilled writing. “How about a guy called Daniel Lee?”

“Yeah, I know him, so what?”

“Do you work for him?”

“I helped one of his crews on a gas station bust a couple of weeks ago, but he’s not my boss.”

“A gas station? Why would he waste his time with a gas station? They don’t carry enough cash or expensive goods to make it worth his while.”

He shrugged. “I was just a lookout. I didn’t see what they were doing there.”

“Was that the gas station two blocks east of here?” asked Sooyoung.

“Yes.”

“Okay, final question,” said Taeyeon. “Do you know where I can find Mr Lee?”

The rat snorted. “No, I don’t. Well, since that’s the end of this lovely little sideshow, I’ll be leaving.”

He didn’t bother trying to look cool with the shadows as he left, choosing just to stride through them as if he had better things to do with his time. Taeyeon turned to Sooyoung when he was gone.

“You would think he would be nicer to us, considering we’ve known him since high school.”

Sooyoung grinned. “You know how he is. The wonderful Heechul – sorry, I mean ‘Heenim’ – would never bum around with someone as lowly as us. By the way, what’s with the description?”

“What about it?”

“A voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day? Did Tiffany tell you that?”

“Yes, she did mention it once. Why? Is there a problem?”

Sooyoung eyed her friend with amusement. “Have you ever heard warm coffee caramel?”

Taeyeon blinked. “No. But that’s not to say you can’t get that feeling from hearing her voice. I wouldn’t know. I trust Tiffany’s description of her mother.”

“Oh, my dearest little boss,” Sooyoung sighed, looping her arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders. “You’re so cute when it comes to Tiffany. I seriously cannot wait for you two to meet.”

Taeyeon blushed again. “Well, since you’re being so entertained by me… How did you even get lost in the short distance between the car and here?”

Sooyoung’s face went blank. “It’s easier than you think, okay? All these shadows and corners and thin alleyways. Anyway, do you plan to go after Daniel Lee now?”

Taeyeon nodded. “He’s the only link we have at the moment. He may only have been her high school boyfriend, but a lot of people go back to their first loves during times of internal crisis. And the threat of death I received this morning suggests that at least one gangster is under orders to silence me; that gangster may well be one of Daniel Lee’s men.”

Sooyoung hummed thoughtfully. “I wonder what he was doing with that gas station. You know the one, right? That bust was in the news. They stole nothing, or so it seems. Just broke in and left.”

“At the time, I offered to go investigate, but since the police don’t like me very much, they wouldn’t let me go within two hundred metres of the crime scene. Actually, I’m still not allowed within two hundred metres. So I’ll never be able to use that station and of course the crime will never be solved.”

Sooyoung grinned again. She pinched Taeyeon’s cheek. “You’re so cute when you’re cocky.”

Taeyeon spent the rest of her day at home, going through old files and news stories on the internet and messaging her contacts in search of a clue as to Daniel Lee’s location. Sooyoung watched TV in the living room, getting emotionally involved in the drama, and shovelled popcorn into her mouth.

1 New Message from: Tiffany Hwang

Taeyeon whimpered slightly at the notification. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure Sooyoung was still in the living room crying over a character’s imminent death. With slow hands, she moved the mouse to click on the message.

Hi! Thought I’d let you know, my flight is all booked and so is my accommodation. I’m all set! I’ll be in Seoul on Saturday night. Super excited! (:

“Ehehe.”

“What are you giggling about?”

Taeyeon yelped at the sudden appearance of her assistant. Sooyoung narrowed her eyes at the reaction and quickly rushed forth from the doorway. She glimpsed the message before Taeyeon had a chance to close it and immediately beamed.

“Oh, I see, you got a message from your crush! Way to go.”

“Please don’t make fun of me when she gets here,” Taeyeon pleaded. “She won’t take me seriously as a private investigator if she sees my assistant teasing me!”

“And look,” Sooyoung continued, “she’s super excited to see you!”

“She’s excited to see Seoul, not me!” Taeyeon squeaked.

“Saturday night is a good night for dating, you know,” Sooyoung commented. “Are you gonna pick her up at the airport?”

“I… I don’t know… It hasn’t been discussed…”

There was a pause as they locked eyes. Taeyeon held her breath. Then Sooyoung leaped forward, blocking Taeyeon’s access to the computer as her fingers flew over the keyboard. Taeyeon flailed her arms desperately, her mind racing as she thought of all the things Sooyoung could be typing, but she failed to get past her assistant before the final tap of a key was heard. The message had been sent.

She peeked around Sooyoung’s arm to read it.

That’s awesome! How about I pick you up from the airport? It would be much more comfortable than struggling with a taxi driver after your long flight. 😉

Taeyeon gasped. “No! You used the winking emoticon! That’s far too risky!”

“Silence. I know what I’m doing.”

Sure, that would be great! Thanks (: I’ll send you my flight info.

Sooyoung patted Taeyeon on the shoulder. “My work here is done. Now it’s up to you!”

Taeyeon gazed at her computer screen. The fact that Tiffany actually seemed happy about meeting her was making her heart swell with anticipation, but she kept eyeing the message Sooyoung had sent. It seemed so confident, so casual, and so normal. Although she was still unsure about the use of the emoticon, the message seemed to flow better than anything she had ever written, or perhaps she was too aware of how awkward and nervous she had always felt while typing those messages compared to the ease with which Sooyoung just knocked out words and sent them. She sighed.

Sooyoung patted her on the shoulder again, more comfortingly this time. “You’ll be fine. Just be yourself. I have a good feeling about this Tiffany girl, I think she’ll be more understanding and welcoming than you think.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything, staring down at the letters on the keyboard in silence. Sooyoung gave her one last pat on the shoulder before going back to the living room.

Another message flashed on the screen.

1 New Message from: Info890515

Daniel Lee will be in the Pink Flamingo hotel next week, Room 105, booked for Monday to Saturday.

Taeyeon smiled. This informant was always reliable and useful. And Taeyeon felt most comfortable here, on the internet, dealing with online informants and clues and investigations. She was in her element. Sure, she could go out every now and then and talk to people, ask questions, matter-of-factly gather information physically, but she gulped at the thought of meeting Tiffany at the airport on Saturday. And what did Sooyoung mean by saying it was a good night for dating? Should she take Tiffany to have dinner somewhere? Did people still have dinner on dates? Some people watched movies or saw concerts or went skydiving on dates. Why was she even taking Tiffany on a date? Was Sooyoung trying to make her brain explode?

Taeyeon shook her head rapidly and blinked. She focussed. Daniel Lee was going to be in that hotel and she was going to go sort this whole thing out right away. Perhaps, she thought with an unconscious little smile, she could sort it all out swiftly and Tiffany could just spend her holiday with Taeyeon and without any worries. Oh that would be lovely.

With a little slap on her cheeks to bring her attention back into the right place, she went back to her search for information so that she was fully prepared to confront the crime boss. And also Tiffany.

“Knock knock –”

“Who’s there?”

“Uh – Taeyeon.”

“Taeyeon who?”

“….What?”

“Oh, is this not a joke?”

“No, it isn’t. Could you please help me carry this stuff?”

Sooyoung sighed in disappointment and got up from the couch to take one of the plastic bags from Taeyeon’s full hands. The smell of fried food followed Taeyeon into her living room and she got to work laying out the takeaway containers on the coffee table right away.

“I was totally going to be casual,” Taeyeon muttered, polystyrene squeaking as she popped open a container. “I was going to be like, ‘knock knock, I brought back some food,’ in a nonchalant, cool manner, before you interrupted me so rudely.”

Sooyoung eyed her carefully. “You didn’t rehearse it in your car again, did you?”

Taeyeon scowled, nearly ripping another container as she opened it. “So what if I did? You’re the only one who finds that weird.”

“I’m not, you know,” Sooyoung replied, already chewing. “Yuri was laughing too.”

Taeyeon paused, looking at her. “Oh, that’s what she was laughing about?”

“How is Yuri, by the way? I haven’t heard from her in a while,” Sooyoung said, changing the subject smoothly and hoarding multiple containers to her side of the table with the same smoothness. “She said she would send you some e-mails from America.”

The couch jiggled slightly as Taeyeon threw herself onto it with a huff. She cuddled a container to her chest and glumly started to eat. “She sent me one last month. America is wonderful.”

“You don’t seem too pleased about that.”

“Well, she was only supposed to be there for a couple of weeks. It’s been two months already. How much longer does she need to be there?!”

Sooyoung chewed thoughtfully, putting more food into her mouth like popcorn as she watched Taeyeon for a long while. Taeyeon felt something different about the silence and looked up, confused. She blinked.

“What?”

Sooyoung swallowed before speaking. “You miss her, don’t you? You always suck at admitting when you miss your friends. You’ve just gotta say it, Taeyeon, just let it out. It’s perfectly fine to tell your friends you miss them.”

Taeyeon winced. “You’re not going to snuggle me again, are you?”

Sooyoung sighed and turned to face the TV, reaching for the remote. “No, buddy. Not this time.”

They watched TV in silence, letting the noises wash over them as they ate.

Taeyeon did find it difficult to tell her friends that she missed them, in the same way that she found it difficult to tell them anything about what went on in her head even though she’d known them for such a long time and felt more comfortable with them than with anyone else. It took her long enough to think about what she thought, and think to about what she was thinking about what she thought, and on the odd occasion to think about what she thought about what she was thinking about what she thought. The added time it took to formulate any of it into something she could communicate to another person in a way that satisfactorily conveyed the connotations made it an arduous process that she struggled with. She’d been meaning to practice it more often, make it a habit so that she could fine-tune the process and become familiar with it, but she just found other things more appealing; like work, and video games, and books, and developing more efficient ways to fold t-shirts, and imagining what her neighbour’s cat would look like if it were human. Practising advanced social communication skills was not high on her list yet.

She checked the time on her watch. In a little under three hours, Tiffany’s plane would land.

“Hey, how come you didn’t just use a photo, by the way?” Sooyoung asked, swallowing.

Taeyeon looked at her. “Huh?”

“A photo,” Sooyoung repeated, “of Tiffany Hwang’s mother. You described her but you could’ve just used a picture.”

“She left a long time ago so Tiffany didn’t have any super recent photos,” Taeyeon said, reaching for the remote. “And I want to get more of an idea of what Daniel Lee has been up to before I get into details. No sense rushing in now, making it obvious who I’m looking for. If he’s sure I’m looking for her, and she really is with him, he won’t hesitate to kill me. This way I can scope out my chances before getting into it.”

Sooyoung shrugged. “Okay. I’ve seen this method work before so I guess it’ll work this time.”

Taeyeon paused between channels. “You think I’m wrong to do this?”

“Well, not wrong exactly. But Daniel Lee is pretty big. Like, one of the biggest criminals in the country. And scary. So I guess I’m just worried that what has worked in the past won’t be enough against him.”

Taeyeon hesitated for a moment before she went back to flicking through the channels. “I know. I’ve considered it before. Maybe I’ll consider it a bit more.”

Sooyoung’s reply was prevented by the ringing of Taeyeon’s phone. Taeyeon tossed the remote to Sooyoung and answered it.

“Hello?”

“Ah, hello? Is this Taeyeon?”

It was marvellous. The voice was warm, and sweet, and it curved the letters of spoken words with a comfortable flow that surprised Taeyeon. She had to push herself to stay attentive to the dynamics of normal conversation.

“Uh, yes? Yes, this is Taeyeon. With whom am I speaking?”

“I’m Tiffany Hwang. Sorry for the surprise call!”

Taeyeon’s heart stopped beating around about the second syllable of Tiffany’s name. Her eyes widened, and her breath caught in her throat for a few moments before she spluttered a response.

“N-No, that’s fine, it’s not a problem. Um, why… is everything okay?”

“Oh, yes, it’s just that my flight landed early. I was wondering if you could perhaps come pick me up now if that’s convenient for you? I still need to get my luggage so you don’t have to rush if you can’t make it right away. And I can hang out at a café for a while.”

For a bizarre reason that was no doubt illogical and nonsensical, Taeyeon felt as if the clouds above her head had parted – even though she was indoors – and something was beckoning. All her concerns about social intricacies or the dilemma of how to act around Tiffany, everything just disappeared. True, she didn’t have an answer to her dilemma or relief from her worries, but she knew one thing and it was simple. Step one: Get in the car and go pick up Tiffany at the airport. She forgot about Sooyoung, who was watching her with interest, and who would no doubt find some way to move the situation along once they reached the end of the first step, but Taeyeon didn’t care very much at the moment. It was time for the first step, and the first step was all she needed. At first.

“Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon blinked. And then she screwed her eyes shut and berated herself internally for a brief moment. She cleared her throat before answering. “Ah, yes, that will be fine. I’ll go now. I should be there in about half an hour.”

“Awesome. Thanks so much, Taeyeon. I look forward to meeting you.”

Taeyeon blushed. “Th-thank you. I mean. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”

She hung up the phone and hung her head. She took advantage of a few seconds of silence to run through the entire conversation again, editing bits and pieces here and there, imagining how Tiffany looked and acted on the other end of the line. Finally, with a sigh, she looked up and met Sooyoung’s expectant grin.

“So?” Sooyoung asked. “How was it? Hearing her voice for the first time?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Taeyeon stated. “How do you even know it was her – I mean, how do you even know who it was?”

Sooyoung rolled her eyes. “Please, Taeyeon, give me a bit more credit. I am your assistant, after all. You think I never learned a few things about observation? Although you are so obvious even a barnacle would know.”

Taeyeon cleared her throat again. “Okay then.”

Sooyoung raised an eyebrow, giving Taeyeon a chance to elaborate, and when no continuation came, she said, “So you’re admitting it was her?”

Taeyeon stood up and started to clear away the remnants of their food. “Come on, we should go pick up Tiffany at the airport.”

When she was finished tidying up, Taeyeon patted her pockets for her car keys, and went to the door.  Sooyoung got up to follow her, still smiling.

“Something tells me you have a better idea of what warm coffee caramel sounds like now.”

 

Yes. (Prologue)

Taeyeon pondered. She eyed the keyboard cautiously. After a long moment of consideration, she tapped twice.

Her stare moved to the screen in front of her, where the thin black line flickered next to a symbol. She bit her bottom lip, and a small frown creased the skin between her eyebrows.

😉

“Now, is this one just happy or is it flirty?” she muttered to herself. “I’ve seen other people use that one. Then again, this person doesn’t use that one. Maybe I should just stick to the one they used.”

She erased one of the symbols and replaced it with a slightly different one. Then, before she could dally for too long, she rapidly clicked a button and watched the message finally post.  After a quick breath in and out, she took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes. It was tiring to keep up with such things; the social complexities of typed emoticons were difficult to get a hand of in the first place, and in her opinion these subtleties changed far too quickly.  She preferred to send messages without emoticons, but as part of her effort to be more talkative she had decided to attempt these little additions to her communication.

The computer chirped and she looked up. A new message flashed in the corner of the screen.

1 New Message from: Tiffany Hwang

Inadvertently, before she could stop herself, Taeyeon blushed. She glanced around as if to check that no one saw her reaction – which was pointless because she was alone in her bedroom – and hurriedly opened the message.

Hi! Any luck today?

Tiffany only used emoticons when she was socializing. This was not socializing.

Taeyeon glanced sadly at the thin, pitiful looking folder on the desk beside her bed.

Not today. Sorry.

She sent the message and then she wondered if she should send a sad emoticon. She hadn’t had much of a chance to use one of those yet. But before her fingers could settle on the right keys, Tiffany replied.

That’s too bad… Are you getting any closer?

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows and sucked in air through her teeth. Regretfully, she answered the question. And she lied.

A little. Don’t worry; I’m sure to have something for you soon. Her fingers paused. A fleeting rush went through her head; she saw every possible continuation of her response and tried to analyse their appropriateness as fast as she could. She settled for that uncertain little winking emoticon and belatedly hoped it didn’t make the whole thing seem creepy. 😉

And then she panicked; surely that wink did make everything creepy and Tiffany was sitting on the other end of the internet looking confused, or scared, or disgusted, or all of those at once –

You’re always so nice, Taeyeon. Thank you for everything that you’re doing for me. (:

Taeyeon blinked. She blushed. She pumped her fist triumphantly; one successful use of an uncertain emoticon, scored. At least, it seemed successful. She didn’t know much about Tiffany, having never actually met her, but from their interactions online she gathered Tiffany always preferred to say the honest thing in a nice way rather than puffing up her messages with hollow words.

Encouraged by this small victory, her fingers flew to reply.

No problem. I really hope to be able to help you, Tiffany. Your case means a lot to me.

After sending it, she realised she hadn’t used any emoticons, and this disappointed her for a moment before she assured herself that the message was more impactful without it.

Haha, I’m sure you say that to all your clients. 😛

Taeyeon snorted. She most certainly did not. She had a reputation for awkwardness – she caught herself; she was changing her reputation now, of course, so while she had yet to talk like this to all her clients, it was in her plans to try. She clicked her tongue doubtfully. It was unlikely in her mind that she could ever be like this with other clients.

After rereading Tiffany’s message, she thought. Slowly, she answered.

Not at all. For some reason, your deep need to find your mother has really affected me. I’m always sad and disappointed when I go another day of searching without finding her, and I cannot imagine how you must feel. So, never fear, Detective Taeyeon is here. 😉

Taeyeon’s hands shook after she sent the message. Her heart was thumping, and she felt weak. That was one of the longest and most complex messages she had sent in a situation like this. An analysis after the fact showed that there were at least six factors involved: the initial blunt response to Tiffany’s message, the element of honesty, the level of actual personal information revealed, the relation back to Tiffany, the cute quip of reassurance, and lastly, of course, the emoticon.

She bit her lip again as her eyes traced the message. Tiffany’s words had been formatted more jokingly, so Taeyeon hoped her blunt beginning to her response wasn’t too harsh. And while she was usually honest in her messages, this situation was somewhat different to her usual messages, so she wasn’t sure if she should have been honest about the meaningfulness of the case. In addition, revealing her personal feelings about it was a bit risky. Her attempt at precise empathy had come up short; Taeyeon had never hired a private investigator to find her long-lost mother so understandably (in her opinion) she couldn’t really feel how Tiffany was experiencing it at all. As for the final sentence, well… Taeyeon had the grace to look embarrassed about that.

Idly, she calculated what time it was in Los Angeles. Tiffany always contacted her at a time that was good for Taeyeon but not really a reasonable time in America. It was 5.56pm in Seoul, so it would be just before 1am that morning in Los Angeles. Taeyeon hummed in disapproval; she didn’t stick to a strictly healthy sleeping pattern herself, but she wanted Tiffany to take better care.

A chirp from the computer came as a pleasant surprise.

You really do seem like a lovely person, Taeyeon… I’ve had a long week, so I’m not sure if your words are supposed to make me so emotional or if I’m just tired, but I’m really thankful.

Taeyeon smiled pleasantly. Everything seemed to be going okay. But then she frowned again, for this was the point she often reached in conversations where there was no possible response. She couldn’t think of anything to say at all. Should she reiterate some of the earlier sentiments? People often did that, and while it annoyed her to be on the receiving end, it didn’t seem to annoy everyone. Or perhaps she should change the subject entirely, but what to?

Tiffany sent another message, which relieved Taeyeon immensely until she read it.

At the end of the month, I’m taking my annual leave from work. Two weeks. I’ve been wondering if perhaps I should go to Korea. What do you think?

She floundered helplessly. Her first issue was capacity; was Tiffany asking her as client to detective or was she asking as American to Korean or as acquaintance to acquaintance? In terms of the case, it was unlikely that her presence in Seoul would make any difference. As a tourist to a native, Taeyeon was not much help as she preferred to avoid crowded tourist spots. She had no idea how to respond in the acquaintance scenario – and then she reached the next level of consideration. Namely: what did she think?

“Should Tiffany come to Korea for two weeks at the end of this month?” she asked herself, having identified the question at hand.

Impulsively, she flourished her immediate response onto the screen.

Yes.

 

Embrace

She was back in prison, or the place she considered as such, the house with open doors, and she almost couldn’t cope with it. Almost. But there was something about walking in that building, stepping through the old-fashioned tidy living rooms with the lingering cigar smoke and the spoken words that hung from the ceiling lifeless now, and there was another thing about being able to do it without feeling afraid at all. The place stopped being a prison when she left – not her prison any more, at least – and the words that hurt her before had now done their duty and faded. The eyes that drew tears from her heart were gone. And they would never come back.

The doors were open because she didn’t know what to do with it. The house. She didn’t really want it. She wished it never existed in the first place.

In the muted silence, she strolled. Her rubber soled sneakers were quiet on the carpet. It used to be luxurious, thick fibre, so soft and warm in winters when she would smile at the feeling of her bare toes upon it. It thinned over time, a little worn, a little forgotten. Other things had pressed down on it too hard, stifling its comfort. She kept her shoes on, and the scuffs of dirt she left on it gave her no feeling at all.

Her bedroom was the same as it had always been. They hadn’t removed anything or moved any of it. She could dump an imaginary backpack on the ground by her desk and throw herself down onto the dense covers of her bed, and sigh, and be back in high school with her frown.

She could. But she couldn’t.

There were messages on the answering machine by the phone in the hallway. The blinking red light caught her eye and she frowned. There was no reason to call this place. There was no one to talk to here.

“Hey, Taeyeon?” a voice huffed, lilting with uncertainty. “I, uh, I don’t know if you remember me, I’m Tiffany Hwang. I- I heard about what happened. With your parents. I’m so, so very sorry for your loss. And… well, I know a little something about what you feel right now. Probably. So, um, calling this number was a long shot…”

Taeyeon drifted a short way down the hall as Tiffany’s voice fluttered through the house. There were pictures on the wall in dusty wooden frames. No brightness. Only tense indifference. They had taken down the pictures of the happiness that once they shared.

“… and I don’t know if you’ll even hear this, but I just wanted to – well, I just wanted to talk to you, I guess.”

She ran the tips of her fingers over the glass covering a black and white photograph. Traced the lines of the flowing white dress, tapped the grey rose in the lapel of a black tuxedo, and smothered the smiles because she couldn’t bear to look at them.

“Taeyeon.”

She halted. The care in that voice. The emotion, tenderness and sentimentality, made her eyes go wide. She turned, searching. And she remembered it was only recorded on the answering machine that was out of her sight. Tiffany.

“Taeyeon,” her voice repeated, “please talk to me. I think we both need it. We can just talk about… oh, I don’t know, we can talk about what you want to do with your parents’ house, if you want, but I just. I need to see you. I miss you,” and her voice broke.

Taeyeon closed her eyes. She listened to the amplification of Tiffany’s shaky inhale.

“You remember me, right?” the whisper barely made it out of the machine. “I always wonder if you’ve forgotten me.”

The muscles of Taeyeon’s lips twitched briefly. She didn’t need to say a thing.

“Call me, or – or just come over. I still live with my father. He’s… he’d like a visit from you. Um, okay, well, I should go. You know where to find me.”

There was a click and a little whirr, and then it moved to the next message. Taeyeon didn’t have a chance to let it all sink in – and there was so much waiting to be absorbed – before her lawyer spoke.

“Ms Kim, hello again. You said you would be at the house for a while so I thought I’d call you there. I just wanted to remind you of the deadline for finalization on your option to sell the house to your father’s business partner. He is eager to take possession of the property. He called my office twice this morning just to enquire about your decision. We’ve discussed it, I know, and I’ve given you my advice, but please make a decision before Friday so that we can commence proceedings before the weekend. Thank you.”

Nothing followed the final click. Taeyeon sighed. She looked around, not really seeing her surroundings, and wondered if she wanted to sell the house to the new director of her father’s company.

He was keen to have it, because he knew exactly what kind of profit he could get out of it in auction, and letting him have it would be by far the quickest solution. She could call her lawyer right now, tell him she wanted to do it, and it was only four o’clock so she would have enough time to go to his office and sort out the terms, and it was only Monday so the whole thing could be finished within a few days – she could leave soon, and never have to come back.

She didn’t want the place. She didn’t want to be there. So why couldn’t she just throw it away?

Opportunities arose for her escape since she arrived a week earlier to arrange the funeral, until now as she stood in the house that she received in the reading of the will a few hours ago. She could leave. But she didn’t seem to be able to do it.

She pressed the buttons to erase the messages, resisting the rising thoughts of Tiffany and her words, and she walked out to her car.

She zoned out completely as she drove, the mechanical movements of her body keeping the car moving forward at a moderate pace and stopping at the red lights. Sometimes the corners of her eyes would snag on the scene outside. There were a few people out, walking along the chilly grey pavements, some laughing with friends in a way that steamed their breath, and others digging their faces into scarves and day-dreaming about hot chocolate. The season was getting colder. Taeyeon liked it. She liked the bite of frost in the morning to nip her out of bed, and swathing herself in a thick blanket at night.

Winters in this place were more than some biting frost and chilly pavements. There would be snow, and when she was about fourteen there had been so much snow that she almost couldn’t walk. The frozen fluff came up to her knees. She remembered pouting at her legs – or what she could see of them – as she stood only a block away from her house with four blocks left in her journey to school. Other kids had rushed past, playing snow games with each other or curling up their shoulders and wishing they could move faster. At least they were moving. And it looked less like a struggle, the way the taller kids strode steadily through the snow.

Except for that one girl, whose height was similar to Taeyeon’s. A couple of inches didn’t make enough of a difference in the snow sea. She ploughed along, doggedly determined to make it to school on time and in one piece. She didn’t even seem to mind her soaking pants, and her shoes had to be full of slush. She just needed to get there.

Taeyeon had watched her make her way down the street, until they were level and the other girl stopped. They blinked at each other, equally surprised.

“Are you okay?” the girl asked.

“Eh,” Taeyeon said. She glanced down at her legs again, and then at the girl’s. “I’m okay. How about you?”

The girl shrugged. “I’m okay.”

They stared. Taeyeon gestured at the girl’s backpack, which hung haphazardly on one shoulder.

“Need help?”

The girl smiled. It was just a small curve of her lips, and Taeyeon knew she had a whole range of expertise when it came to smiles. “No, thanks. Do you need help?”

Taeyeon shook her head. “Nah, I’ll be all right.”

“You’re Taeyeon, right? I’m Tiffany.”

Taeyeon nodded. “From Bio. Yeah. Hi.”

“Hi,” Tiffany rebounded, and her smile grew a few notches. “So are you just hanging out here for fun, or what?”

“This is the hottest scene in town, didn’t you know,” Taeyeon replied, and beneath her confidence a light warmth brushed over her cheekbones.

Tiffany shoved at the snow with her knee. “Yeah. So hot.”

The warmth flared into heat and spread along Taeyeon’s face. Maybe it was the embarrassment of struggling with the snow, or the lameness of her wit, or maybe it was the way she had noticed how Tiffany’s knee was accentuated through her thin, ice-soaked skinny jeans. In fact, it was probably the sudden fascination with the bones of Tiffany’s knee, the way she wanted to examine its sharpness closely, that made her blush so deeply.

“Wanna walk to school together?”

Taeyeon had blinked. “Sure.” And then she looked away sheepishly. “Uh, it might take a while though. I’m kinda slow.”

“That’s okay,” said Tiffany, and she grinned an almost-full grin at last. Taeyeon’s heart skipped so many beats she paled at the thought that she might drop dead right there. “We’ll be fine.”

Now Taeyeon drove for hours, thinking and trying to stop herself from thinking and then thinking again about why she was thinking and why she was trying to stop herself from thinking. She parked at the hotel where she was staying, and got out of her car.

She stared at her shoes in the dim light that was about to become dark, and then she got back in the car and drove away.

It didn’t take long to reach Tiffany’s house.

Her feet crunched over the familiar gravel walkway, her fingers trailed over the rose bushes that lined the path, and she took a breath of the fresh air that she enjoyed so much when she was younger.

High school. She tried to forget it. For a long time, she tried to forget everything that ever happened to her in her whole life. She wanted to start anew, completely, without a past. And of course, it didn’t work. Every time she blinked, every time her shoe touched the ground on the way to Tiffany’s front door, she remembered.

There was a small smile on her face when Tiffany came to answer the ring of the doorbell.

For a moment, Taeyeon saw juxtaposition. Tiffany at age sixteen, her new school uniform neat but for the loosened tie and top button, frozen in a beaming grin, laughter waiting to burst – and Tiffany at age twenty-three, her pyjamas worn and comfortable, tired face stilled in surprise, questions slowly welling up.

“Taeyeon,” she said. An exact echo of the recording on the answering machine but with so much more impact.

“Hi,” Taeyeon replied, her voice sounding far away to her own ears. She cleared her throat, bringing herself back. “Uh, sorry to bother you so late. I didn’t really realise what time it was.”

Tiffany blinked. Her lips were parted slightly as she stared. Taeyeon could glimpse the edges of Tiffany’s white teeth. Tiffany seemed to be holding her breath at first, and then a small “hi” coasted out on an exhale.

“Come in.”

The house was slightly different. The CDs that lined the rack in the corner of the living room had more acoustic and classical music, the DVDs in the shelf by the television had more art films, and the newly ringed stains on the coffee table were from actual coffee mugs, right next to the memories of cold sodas and ice cream.

Taeyeon sat down on the couch she used to spill popcorn on. Across from her, Tiffany lowered herself onto her father’s armchair, and crossed her arms nervously over her stomach.

Taeyeon took a deep breath, thinking of what she wanted to say, all the things she needed to discuss. She held that breath for a while. And then she let it all out, and said, “I miss you too.”

Tiffany didn’t meet her gaze, looking instead at the floor. A tiny smile played across her lips. She relaxed in her seat and started to play with her fingers.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “So, how are you? How’ve you been?”

Taeyeon smiled. “Two very different questions. I’m okay now. But after I left, everything was pretty bad.”

Tiffany looked at her. It was that look. That look that showed she was tapping into the pain in the air. The way her eyebrows tilted up a little and drew together, and her lips parted slightly, and she seemed to be sitting on the edge of her seat, ready to go to Taeyeon. The sight of her warmed Taeyeon’s chest.

Taeyeon took a deep breath. “My parents didn’t speak to me ever again. Which was fine by me, most of the time. It gave me time to accept myself, which turned out to be pretty hard. I mean, I thought I already accepted myself, but everything… everything just seemed completely different. I spent a lot of time thinking about you, too.”

Their eyes met.

“You know it was you, right?” Taeyeon asked softly. She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again. “It was you.”

Tiffany bit her bottom lip. “Yeah, I know. I knew then, too. I wanted to see you before you left, but I just couldn’t do it. When I heard what everyone was saying about you at school, I wanted to run to your house. Somehow I knew you would be curled up in your bed, covering yourself, shaking with tears, because after all, your parents had just broken your heart. You thought they loved you unconditionally, and all of a sudden there was an obstacle. What they saw as an obstacle. A problem. Reason enough to send you far away from their warm hugs.”

Taeyeon got up suddenly, and knelt on the floor in front of Tiffany. Her eyes glistened as she looked up into Tiffany’s face, and after a moment of awkward hovering, she took Tiffany’s hands in her own, absorbing the ripple of electricity that reached her.

“Something I’ve always wondered,” she murmured, “could you tell me… On the day I told my mother, I intended to tell you, not her. What would you have done after I told you?”

“What would you have told me, Taeyeon?” Tiffany said. Her gaze, sharp and intent, melted into Taeyeon’s. “What exactly would you have said?”

Taeyeon, at age sixteen, was nervous. She fiddled with her own hands, she fiddled with her clothes, she fiddled with bits and pieces of everything around her. When she fiddled with the button in the car door that made the window whizz up and down, her mother clicked her tongue and snapped, “Don’t do that, please.”

Taeyeon wiped her palms on the fabric of her school uniform. She fiddled with her tie, loosening it and inhaling deeply.

“Um,” she said loudly, and then softened her voice. “Um, I need to tell you about something.”

They reached the school, and the car’s brakes squeaked as they stopped. Her mother glanced at her watch.

“Can it wait? You’re already late.”

Taeyeon looked out at the school, the students trickling into buildings, and sighed. “Yeah. Of course. Thanks for giving me a ride. I’ll see you after school.”

She wandered towards her class, fiddling with the strap of her backpack. She had been so close to saying it right then and there, which was not in her original plan, and after a few deep breaths she decided that it was better to stick to the plan, otherwise she might not get a chance to see Tiffany if her parents reacted badly. And that would be stupid, she scoffed. Tiffany first. After all, she had the most right to know.

The teacher’s half-hearted scolding when she walked in a few minutes late just washed over her, and she was already eyeing Tiffany who sat on the other side of the room and winked at her. Finally she sat down next to her, and beamed at her.

“Can we go off campus for lunch?” she whispered. She didn’t know the name of Tiffany’s perfume, but she knew it used to belong to Tiffany’s mother, and that Tiffany would always become quiet and go to another place in her mind when she thought of her mother. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

Tiffany smiled, a glint of anticipation reaching her eyes. “Sure. Now pay attention before you get scolded for real.”

Taeyeon did pay attention, but not to the teacher. She paid attention to the way Tiffany’s hair fell over her face as she leaned forward to take notes, the curve of her nose when she raised her face to watch the teacher writing on the board, the slight tension in her spine as she worked on the sheet of math problems they were given, and the relief that relaxed her body when she finished it.

The sight of Tiffany’s expression, proud of herself and her hard work, pushed Taeyeon’s heart over a few beats. She knew it all so well.

They went down the road and got ice cream at lunch time, and sat on the low wall by the school gates with their shoes barely brushing the pavement.

“So, what’s up?” Tiffany asked. She wiped absently at the ice cream at the corner of her mouth. Her glinting gaze was trained on Taeyeon. She was ready.

“Um,” Taeyeon hummed for a long moment. “I didn’t really plan the exact words here.”

They stared at each other. Tiffany laughed briefly and shoved Taeyeon’s shoulder playfully.

“Come on, what’s going on?” she asked, grinning. “Just tell me.”

Taeyeon’s breath hitched in her lungs. Her mind raced as fast as her heart. The muscles of her fingers clenched and unclenched, and she gulped air quickly. Tiffany’s smile dimmed, a light crease formed between her eyebrows, and she rested a hand on Taeyeon’s knee.

“What is it, Taeyeon?” she murmured. “You can tell me. Just do it.”

Taeyeon fell into Tiffany’s brown eyes, the warmth and comfort engulfing her. She found herself moving, shifting towards Tiffany, and they sank into a hug. Their hold on each other was loose, unmoving. Taeyeon could feel Tiffany’s heartbeat.

“Tell me,” Tiffany repeated. “In three, two, one…”

“I’m completely, madly in love with you, Tiffany.” The words slipped from her mouth as simply as that, rolling over her tongue and ducking between her teeth, brushing over her lips. “I’m so in love with you, I get dizzy. I’m in love with you.”

Now Taeyeon rested her head on Tiffany’s knees, tracing the curve of Tiffany’s knee cap with the tip of a finger, remembered the way it had strained against the sodden jeans the first day they talked. She felt the heat of Tiffany’s body against her cheek, and she closed her eyes.

“I love you.”

Silence. Tiffany didn’t move at all. Taeyeon breathed slowly.

“Do you want my honest answer?” asked Tiffany. The vibration of her words reached Taeyeon’s cheekbone. “My complete honesty?”

Taeyeon nodded, rubbing the softness of Tiffany’s pyjamas against her skin. “Yes. I always want honesty from you.”

Fingers ran through Taeyeon’s hair, a light touch that carried tenderness behind fingertips.

“I would have panicked. For a long, long time I would have freaked out and said a bunch of crazy stuff while I tried to figure out what was going on in my head and in your head. I would have thought a lot about you, a lot about me, and a lot about everyone else. But you know what? That was exactly what I ended up doing when you left.”

Taeyeon’s head was raised by Tiffany’s hands on her jaw. Tiffany moved their faces close, so close that they could have kissed.

“I knew how you felt about me,” Tiffany said. Her eyes were flowing with emotion again, and Taeyeon read every little muscle on her face. “I knew how I felt about you. I knew how everyone else felt about you, and me, and the possibility of us. And I would have freaked out, and I would have hurt you, and I would have kissed you.”

Taeyeon smiled. She pulled her head away, and looked at Tiffany. “I see.”

“What are you going to do with your parents’ house?”

Taeyeon stood up and turned away. “Sell it. My father’s business partner wants it. I’ll make the arrangements, and then I’ll leave. And I’ll never come back.”

“I see.”

“How’s your father?”

“He’s…. He’s the same. He would like to see you before you go. He might not have much time left for clarity.”

Taeyeon gazed up at the ceiling. “He still remembers only the kid who walked his daughter to school in winter, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What would he have done, if I had stayed? If you had freaked out and hurt me and kissed me?”

Tiffany stared at the carpet, wiggled her toes in its fibres. “Maybe he would have been upset. Maybe not. To him, we’re always just kids, still trudging through the snow. I’ll never be able to leave this place.”

Taeyeon nodded. “I know. And I’ll never be able to stay.”

She turned around. They watched each other for a moment. Tiffany stood up, and stepped closer to Taeyeon.

“Couldn’t, could’ve, would’ve,” she said. “Let’s try something new, now. We’ll be fine.”

Tiffany hugged Taeyeon. It was a fluid movement. She took her sleeves and pulled her closer, and slid her hands over Taeyeon’s shoulder blades, one upwards to the back of her neck, her other arm cradling Taeyeon’s waist. She leaned her chin on Taeyeon’s shoulder, nose nuzzling the warm skin of Taeyeon’s neck.

Taeyeon took a deep breath, feeling like her lungs were going to burst. Her mouth moved on its own, bearing a wide grin. She wrapped her arms around Tiffany as tightly as she could, as if she could squeeze them together forever. Every curve and softness of Tiffany’s body touched her own.

“I loved you,” Tiffany said. “I was completely, madly in love with you. It made me dizzy. I wanted to talk to you. And now, I miss you.”

Taeyeon closed her eyes. In the rear corner of her mind, she was back in the winter of her fourteenth year, tripping in the snow, listening to Tiffany’s laughter that was as bright as the sun they couldn’t see. And she was fiddling with her backpack on the last day she saw Tiffany, psyching herself up to tell Tiffany the truth. Honesty.

“Here,” she breathed. “This is what I always wanted. Since the day I blushed when I talked to you. I just wanted this embrace.”

She shifted, adjusting her hands, gripping Tiffany with her fingers. Tiffany still wore the same perfume. She took a deep breath, feeling the way Tiffany’s breathing matched her own and moved against her own lungs.

“Thank you.”

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Steps

Note: I uploaded a chunk of this story last year, back when youmeanyes first began, on my old livejournal. So some of you might recognise it. I did change a couple of things in the beginning, but you’ll probably read it from the start anyway because it’s been so long since you saw it, right? Here we go.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Taeyeon didn’t waste time cleaning the table. She stacked the smudged shot glasses and picked them up in one hand before taking the bowl of pretzel crumbs and adding it on top of the stack. Balancing carefully, she tugged the cloth from her half-apron’s front pocket and began the equally delicate manoeuvre of wiping the table while avoiding the dark red hair of the lightly snoring woman whose cheek was pressed against the wooden surface.

She had passed out a while ago, stopping mid-sentence and fluttering her eyelids before clonking onto the table. Whatever she had been talking about must have drained the last of her energy, considering the physical requirements of exasperatedly waving arms and recovering from falling from chairs, and the emotional requirements of wailing about some man who apparently would not recognise a woman who was not a whore if she bit him on the ass. Taeyeon had considered this briefly, contemplating the nature of a woman who went around biting men on their posteriors, before deciding the statement was logically flawed.

With one last glance at the woman’s sleeping, slightly drooling face, Taeyeon took the remnants of the woman’s last round of shots and devoured pretzels to the bar. It was long past closing time and even the other staff had gone home, fed up with waiting for the woman to wake up. Taeyeon had taken responsibility for her; somewhat believing that it was possible to wake her up. This conviction had been mistaken, as the woman was far beyond any human contact.

Taeyeon dried the last shot glass, now clean, and added it to the collection of others. She gave a brief whistle as she tossed the cloth over her shoulder, not bothering to check if it landed in the little laundry basket behind the bar because she knew it always did.

She made her way over to the dozing woman. She stood by the table. She crossed her arms.

“If only my telepathic powers could work on demand,” she said sadly, tilting her head to one side. “I’m pretty sure that’s the only way to wake you up, lady.”

She reached out and poked the woman on the shoulder. The response came in form of a snort and renewed snoring.

“Or is that telekinesis?” Taeyeon wondered. “Maybe telekinesis would help.”

She poked the woman on the shoulder again and didn’t even get a snort this time. With a sigh, she straightened up and crossed her arms over her chest once again, regarding the unconscious woman like a Rubik’s Cube.

“Let’s see now. If I was drunk and asleep in a strange bar, what would wake me up?”

Taeyeon spent several minutes pondering the hypothetical situation before deciding it was once again logically flawed because alcohol made Taeyeon go all funny in the tummy so she would be in hospital getting her stomach pumped rather than sleeping in the bar.

Having reached this conclusion, Taeyeon decided to push the woman off the chair and see what happened.

A loud ringing stopped her before she had put her strength into the push, causing her to jerkily paw at the woman’s shoulder as she jumped in shock. Her eyes traced the source of the ringing to the large, expensive-looking handbag on the floor. Sensing an opportunity to leave the woman in someone else’s care, she pounced on the bag.

After much struggling with the bag, finding out a flap was actually just for decoration, yanking the zip in a way that made it jam rather than cruise open, sticking her hand inside only to be jabbed by some massive bunch of keys and finally almost ripping the bag in half out of desperation, Taeyeon located the cell-phone which was smothered in a pink cover.

Fearing the end of the potential call before it had even begun, Taeyeon almost broke a nail trying to open the pink cover and smeared her thumb all over the screen in all the possible ways that could answer a touch-screen phone call.

“Hello?!” she screamed, pushing the phone against her ear only to realise it was upside down, which made her scramble to turn it around and drop it and try to pick it up only to drop it again before she finally, at last, answered the call.

“….Hello?” came the voice from the phone. “Tiffany? Are you okay?”

“Um, yes, hello, this is Taeyeon,” stated Taeyeon. “The owner of this phone is kind of passed out here and I was -”

“Oh my god, did she just go get drunk again?! I told her that wouldn’t help! She could’ve at least told me!”

“Uh, yeah, but I was hoping that -”

“Look, don’t let her know how much she drank when she wakes up, okay? Finding out always makes her even more depressed.”

“Well, okay, but do you think you could -”

“Oh and make sure to take her shoes off before too long, her feet always kill her when she wakes up with them on.”

Taeyeon glanced at the unconscious woman’s feet. Noticing the exact height of the pink heels, she raised her eyebrows and was not the slightest bit surprised that such things would hurt. She shook her head, focussing back on the phone call.

“Could you just –”

“Anyway if she’s not going to be meeting me tonight then I guess I’ll just find something else to do,” there came a sigh.

“Ah but -”

“Tell her to call me back, okay?”

“Okay, um-”

But the mysterious caller had hung up some time after the letter “k” left Taeyeon’s lips and Taeyeon was left staring into space.

“Aha! I can call back!”

She took the phone away from her ear and eagerly looked at the screen. However, the screen had locked after the call ended and Taeyeon was faced with a small wall of numbers. With a dejected sigh, she gently closed the cover of the phone and safely stored it in the ruffled-looking bag.

She stood up again and dusted herself off before turning to face the woman again.

“Either you do this a lot or your friend is a bit of a frenemy,” she commented, accepting the sound silence that followed.

The woman even stopped snoring.

Taeyeon frowned and leaned closer, looking at her face.

“So, Tiffany, right?” she mumbled.

Quietly, she brushed a lock of hair from the Tiffany’s face. The woman was still sleeping, and it didn’t seem like she was any closer to waking.

Taeyeon smirked suddenly. “Hey there sexy, what’s a place like you doing in a girl like this?”

Then there was the sound of clapping and light wheezing as Taeyeon cracked up laughing, rolling on the floor.

A murmuring sound came from Tiffany, who shifted in her chair.

Taeyeon jumped up, eyes locked onto the woman. Tiffany shifted again, bringing a slow hand up to half-heartedly run through her hair. The other hand pushed against the table and she made herself sit up with difficulty, slumping backwards in the chair.

Taeyeon gazed at Tiffany’s face. The woman had fallen asleep again, sprawled over the chair, lips parted and arms hanging limply by her sides.

“So close,” Taeyeon whispered. “Why isn’t there a spell for waking up drunken ladies?”

Briefly imagining the world of Harry Potter with the addition of such a spell, Taeyeon released a little giggle. Then turning serious again, she looked at Tiffany.

“Sadly, Tiffany, I am short,” Taeyeon began. “I’m only saying this because I know you’re not listening. So anyway, I can’t carry you anywhere. And no, I’m not calling you fat.”

Taeyeon ran her eyes over Tiffany’s figure and silently declared that ‘fat’ was certainly not a word she would use to describe Tiffany’s body at all.

“Maybe the invigorating scent of Colombian coffee will rouse you from your slumber.”

With hope, Taeyeon produced a fine cup of coffee and placed it strategically so that the caffeinated fumes would envelop Tiffany’s senses. She waved her hands a little, blowing the coffee breeze a little stronger towards Tiffany.

To her delight, Tiffany stirred and blearily opened her eyes.

“Ugh, gross.”

And Tiffany clenched her eyes shut again and fell off the chair.

Taeyeon rushed to her side, helping her sit up again.

“Are you okay?” she asked worriedly.

Tiffany had a hand on her head, squinting around, and turned her squint to lock on to Taeyeon at the question.

“Uh, I don’t know,” she replied. “What….Who are you?”

Taeyeon grinned. “My name is Taeyeon. You’re Tiffany.”

Tiffany squinted even more, if it was possible, and looked a little lost. “Um…?”

“Oh, your friend called a little while ago. I didn’t catch her name. She says you should call her back and she seemed rather disappointed that you were unavailable to hang out tonight.”

Tiffany groaned, letting herself fall back onto the floor and covering her face with her hands.

“Whatever. What time is it?”

Taeyeon consulted her Toy Story watch. “About half past three in the morning.”

Tiffany groaned again. “Great.”

They shared a silence for a moment and Taeyeon’s muscles started to ache from her half-crouching half-kneeling position. She settled herself cross-legged on the floor and gazed at Tiffany.

“So, now that you’re awake, will you be able to go home?”

Tiffany sighed. “I guess.”

She parted her fingers to look at Taeyeon and a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.

“You look like such a kid. Who did you say you were?”

Taeyeon smiled, well accustomed to that comment. “I’m Taeyeon. I work here.”

Tiffany raised herself onto her elbows and regarded Taeyeon with that half-smile.

“Really? Well, thanks. For hanging around and letting me sleep here. And answering my phone, I guess.”

“Well, I had hoped your friend might be able to come get you, but she didn’t seem to think I might be a serial killer or something. Which is an okay perception to have of people generally but I would have thought in this situation it was a tad flippant. Is it that I sound like a kid over the phone, just like how I look like a kid?”

Tiffany grinned. “You don’t sound like a kid to me. You’re funny, Taeyeon. I heard your little pick up line, by the way. Cute.”

Taeyeon blushed. “Oh, um… Sorry about that. I’ve just always wanted to say that to a gorgeous girl in a bar. Figured it would be a nice change from the usual pick-up lines they must get.”

“It was,” Tiffany said softly. “I like it. Thanks.”

Taeyeon looked anywhere but at Tiffany, finding herself feeling nervous. “Should I call a taxi for you or something?”

Tiffany shook her head, starting to get up from the floor. “No, it’s fine. I recently moved in to a place at that apartment block right around the corner.”

“Oh,” said Taeyeon, jumping up. “Well, let me walk you home. I, um, I live there too.”

Tiffany grinned, a genuine full grin that made her eyes curve into lines and she clapped her hands together happily. “Great!”

Walking with Tiffany made the darkness easier to bear. Taeyeon noticed the difference, the way Tiffany made everything brighter and more fulfilling. Not that she had ever been displeased with her environment, but Taeyeon found something new in the way Tiffany hopped every now and then and smiled as she talked about the stars and cooed at a stray cat that ran across the road.

It was nice.

There was none of the anguish Tiffany carried with her when she entered the bar to drink herself away. Whatever had been plaguing her, it seemed forgotten as she walked down the block with Taeyeon. Sweet Taeyeon, who laughed at her jokes and paid attention to what she said and just calmly walked beside her with her backpack hanging over one shoulder and her Toy Story watch glinting in the light of the streetlamps.

“So how long have you lived around here?” Tiffany asked, running a hand through her hair and adjusting the strap of her handbag.

Taeyeon thought. “Must be almost five years now.”

Tiffany looked at her, surprised. “Five years? But then, you must have moved here right after high school!”

Taeyeon nodded. “That’s right.”

“To the very same apartment where you’re living now?”

Taeyeon smiled. “Yes, that’s the one.”

“Sorry, I’m just surprised…Those apartments aren’t expensive but they aren’t cheap either. Do you have roommates or something?”

“I had two. One moved out a while ago and the other is in New York for a couple of years.”

“Oh, wow… So you’re alone now?”

Taeyeon gave her a sly look. “Yes, I am. You sound like you’re about to case the joint.”

Tiffany laughed. “It’s not like that. I live alone too. We should hang out some time.”

Taeyeon took a long look at Tiffany as they neared the apartment building. This woman had gone from drunk and unconscious to bright-eyed and cheerful at an impressive rate. She thought of what had driven her to drink, and what her friend had said that made it seem like this wasn’t the first time she had been in such a situation.

“Yeah,” she said, cutting through her own lazy thoughts. “We should hang out.”

They reached the lobby of the apartment building and stood together by the elevator, waiting for it to arrive.

“Thanks again, Taeyeon,” Tiffany said softly. “If it wasn’t for you, I hate to think what could have happened to me.”

Taeyeon cocked her head to one side. “It’s no problem. And there’s no need to make it sound like you were in some terrible danger.”

Tiffany grinned. “Still. You saved me. Thanks for helping me out.”

She pulled Taeyeon into a light hug. Taeyeon was startled, but found her arms loosely reciprocating the move anyway. It wasn’t that she was unused to this kind of contact, it was probably more the fact that Tiffany was really warm and soft and comfortable. In her mind, Taeyeon decided it was definitely most likely to be the best hug she had experienced to date.

The elevator arrived and Tiffany pulled away, and Taeyeon smiled.

“What floor are you on?” Tiffany asked, hand hovering over the panel of buttons.

“Third floor.”

Tiffany’s eyes widened in surprise. “No way. Third floor? I’m on the third floor too…”

Taeyeon frowned curiously. “Really? Wow… Why didn’t I ever notice you moving in?”

“It’s a pre-furnished apartment so I only had a few boxes… huh, what a coincidence.”

She gave a little laugh and jabbed at the third floor button. They stood next to each other as the doors closed and jointly eyed the numbers above the door as the elevator moved.

Taeyeon suddenly remembered again that the woman she was talking with had been passed out less than an hour ago, and she examined her from the corner of her eye. Tiffany was still smiling slightly, gazing up at the numbers quite happily. She stood straight and didn’t seem drunk anymore at all. Taeyeon raised her eyebrows in wonderment, just as the elevator came to a standstill. She thought perhaps Tiffany did get in these kinds of situations all too often.

They stepped out of the elevator and realised they were going in different directions down the hallway. Stopping, they faced each other again.

“Well, then, I guess this is goodnight,” said Taeyeon. “It was nice to meet you, Tiffany.”

Tiffany grinned. “It was nice to meet you too, Taeyeon. Thanks again for your help.”

“No problem,” Taeyeon answered, and she meant it.

Looking after Tiffany had been quite a task at first but she had no regrets about deciding to take responsibility for the woman’s safety when it became such an interesting little adventure. They stood together under the pale lights of the hallway and shuffled a little on the beige carpet.

“We’ll hang out again, right?” Tiffany asked, still grinning.

Taeyeon nodded. “Of course.”

Taeyeon gazed down at her scuffed Converse sneakers and felt her lips curling into a little smile. She felt Tiffany’s eyes on her. Neither of them was going anywhere.

“Unless,” Taeyeon began, glancing up at Tiffany again, “Unless maybe you’d like some hot chocolate. To help you feel better.”

Tiffany’s eyes curved with her response. “I think that would be very nice.”

Taeyeon blinked as she unlocked her apartment door and flicked on the lights inside. At some point, her mind reminded her that the person she was holding her door open for was a stranger she had met in a bar; but Taeyeon didn’t feel that way. It was nice to be with Tiffany, therefore she went ahead and showed her where she could leave her bag and her shoes, and led her to the kitchen.

“So, where did you go to university?” Tiffany asked, as they sipped on their hot chocolate, leaning against Taeyeon’s clean white-topped kitchen counter.

Taeyeon shook her head. “I didn’t.”

Tiffany raised her eyebrows, watching Taeyeon blow a little air onto her hot chocolate before taking a sip. Taeyeon noticed and gave her a smile.

“When I moved here, I needed to work full time to afford it, even with my room-mates,” she said nonchalantly. “I was never particularly interested in going to university anyway, so I felt no loss.”

“Oh. So, where did you work? Always at that bar?”

“No, I’ve only worked there for a year now. When I first came here I worked in a pet shop, then a book store, then a café, then a hotel, and finally the bar.”

“Wow, that’s quite a list.”

Taeyeon chuckled. “I like it. Sticking with the same job for too long gets boring for me. How about you? What do you do and what have you done?”

Tiffany took a quiet sip of her hot chocolate before answering. She stared down at the floor for a while and absently noticed Taeyeon’s kind patience.

“Well, I’m working at that big advertising company a few blocks away, managing the accounts,” she started, tucking her hair behind her ear as she spoke. “But, um… It isn’t really what I want to do. I don’t know what I want to do. I studied Business at university, but I don’t really know why I did that either.”

She laughed briefly, then bit her bottom lip, and took a gulp of her hot chocolate a little too fast. She gasped, almost choking, and felt the burn on her tongue from the drink. Taeyeon was suddenly by her side, holding out a glass of water, a tea towel in her other hand, and a determined expression on her face that made Tiffany want to crush her in a hug.

With a sheepish look, Tiffany drank the water gratefully, letting Taeyeon take her mug from her hand and gently wipe the tiny droplets of hot chocolate from where they had spilled onto her arm.

“It’s okay,” Taeyeon said softly. “Not everyone knows what to do.”

Tiffany examined Taeyeon’s face, taking in the peaceful expression and restful gaze, and felt her heart make a strange little extra-hard thump.

“Thanks,” she said, her eyes curving up again as she smiled. “Thanks for everything, Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon reflected the smile. “No problem, Tiffany. No problem at all.”

They stood in the hallway again, this time on the other end of it, by the door to Tiffany’s apartment. That side of the hallway had the token potted plant, huddled in the corner with its big greenish leaves. The apartment building was quiet, which was natural considering it was almost dawn, and Taeyeon watched as Tiffany put her key in the lock and turned it, but didn’t open the door.

“We should exchange numbers,” said Tiffany. “I really… I liked spending time with you, Taeyeon.”

“Me too,” said Taeyeon. “Next time we hang out, I look forward to finding out more about you.”

Tiffany looked down. Her immediate thought was that Taeyeon probably wanted to know what had happened that led to their meeting; what man had affected her in such a way that she wanted to drink to no end.

She bit her bottom lip, thoughtful. Then she kept her gaze on the carpet as she spoke.

“Um, he’s a guy from the company where I work,” she said quietly. “He’s the head of the department. He’s a really charming guy, really, but… apparently I’m not good enough to even be seen with him. He just played with me. And I’m such an idiot for believing everything he said again and again, for believing in the future he painted for me. God, I’m so stupid.”

Taeyeon gazed at the woman in front of her, who was letting her heart leak out little by little. She reached out and put a comforting hand on Tiffany’s arm, giving her a gentle squeeze and a warm smile.

“He’s the idiot,” she said. “He’s stupid, for playing with you, and for wasting a chance to be with you. I may not have known you very long and met you in a bar when you were unconscious, but even I can see you’re better than what he thinks of you and you deserve to be treated better.”

She moved her hand away again and shuffled awkwardly.

“So, um, don’t drink so much anymore,” she said. “It’s dangerous, you know? And he’s not worth it.”

Tiffany looked at Taeyeon with shining eyes that had not shed their tears, and grinned.

“It seems like I’m going to spend a lot of time thanking you, Taeyeon,” she remarked. “You’ve helped me once again. I never thought I would end up spilling my problems in front of someone I’ve just met.”

Taeyeon laughed. “I think it’s safe to say that we’re friends now, Tiffany. Now give me your number and go to sleep, you’ve had quite a night and I don’t understand how you’re even standing right now.”

As Tiffany collapsed on her bed a short while later, she thought of how different she felt after that night, and how memories of that man’s smirk was replaced with Taeyeon’s kind smile and the continuous cute look on her face.

Taeyeon had barely set her head down to rest when she was woken by the sound of raucous banging on her door. Or at least, it seemed like it had been no time at all and it seemed like the banging was a barrage of buffalos when in fact it was almost noon and someone was politely knocking on her door. Despite having had nothing to drink, Taeyeon often felt like an invalid when she woke up in the morning, always wishing she could have slept longer, and today was no different; in fact, staying up until almost dawn no doubt worsened her state.

She blearily made her way to her front door, bumping her shoulder against the doorway of her room, hitting her knee on the coffee table in her living room, and stubbing her toe against her shoes by the door.

She clawed at the locks on the door and eventually managed to get them unlocked.

The short blonde-haired girl on the other side raised an eyebrow at the sight of Taeyeon slumped against the door with her eyes almost totally closed.

“Can I help you?” Taeyeon slurred.

“Ew,” commented the girl. “Are you just waking up? It’s almost noon already, you know.”

Taeyeon huffed. “Cool. Is that all?”

The girl clicked her tongue. “It’s me. Sunny! Remember? Your bestest friend in the whole world?”

Taeyeon cracked her eyes open a little further and examined the person giving her a sarcastic smirk. She straightened up a little and huffed again.

“Nope, have no idea,” she answered carelessly.

Sunny rolled her eyes and slapped her on the shoulder. “Whatever. I’m back from New York for a month. Super surprise!”

Sunny spread her arms wide and gave Taeyeon a radiant grin. Taeyeon stared blankly at her best friend and only briefly glanced at the mental image of Tiffany’s radiant grin in the back of her mind. At another time she may have tried to compare the two, but in her half-asleep state she was pretty certain no one could compete with Tiffany.

She shot up, standing up straight and her eyes snapped open. Memories from the night before came rushing back and she found herself smiling, remembering that she had made a new friend who even lived on the same floor as she did and had the best smile and gave the best hugs.

Sunny let her arms fall to her sides. “Did something just bite you on your flat butt or did you finally realise how much you missed your sexy, hilarious, genius best friend?”

Taeyeon looked at Sunny. She waved a hand dismissively and stepped aside to let her in, watching as her best friend shook her head sadly and dragged her sleek black suitcase inside.

“You’re still a weird one, I see,” she commented, throwing herself onto the couch and kicking off her shoes. “How are you, kid?”

Taeyeon picked up Sunny’s scattered shoes and neatly placed them beside her own pair before joining her on the couch and flopping her legs onto Sunny’s lap. Sunny grimaced and tried to push them off, leading them into a playful tussle that ended with pinching each other really hard and hissing in pain before laughing.

“You shouldn’t call me a kid, you know,” Taeyeon said. “You’re more childish than I am.”

Sunny scoffed. “Oh please. You still have that Toy Story watch, right?”

Taeyeon pouted. “So? It’s a good watch. Buzz is really good at telling time.”

“And the Despicable Me pillow?”

“Those Minions are a really good shape for a pillow…”

“And the Harry Potter toothbrush?”

“It’s really funny to brush my teeth with a Firebolt, you know!”

Sunny grinned. “You are a kid.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Not everyone thinks so, I’ll have you know.”

“Sure, maybe people who’ve only known you for less than a second might think that.”

Taeyeon gave Sunny a shove. “Actually, people who’ve hung out with me for as much as two hours know that I’m not a kid.”

Sunny glanced at her friend, who was smiling quietly to herself and staring at her own hands. Her jaw dropped; she pushed at Taeyeon’s shoulder and then moved to latch on to her, putting her in a headlock and making her squeal.

“What the heck -”

“You met someone, didn’t you?!” Sunny exclaimed, almost strangling her.

“Could you not kill me pl-”

“You almost never make new friends of your own free will!”

“You’re really suffocating me yo-”

“I leave you alone for three months and you make a new friend?!”

“I can’t actually breathe so-”

“This is a momentous occasion! You have to tell me everything!”

“But I can’t speak bec-”

“I bet it’s a girl, you suck at making friends with boys!”

“Hey that’s not re-”

“She has to be a total dork otherwise how would this happen?!”

“Not really-”

“Where did you meet her, at the toy store?!”

Sunny guffawed loudly at her own joke and Taeyeon took the opportunity to have a little sulk before removing herself from her friend’s grip. She crossed her arms across her chest and moved to sit at the opposite end of the couch.

When Sunny finally stopped laughing, she moved over to Taeyeon and put her arm around her slumped shoulders.

“Okay, tell me all about her.”

Taeyeon shook her head. “No. You’re too mean.”

Sunny grinned and gave her a squeeze. “Come on, kid, don’t be like that now. You know I have to tease you, it’s my duty. I have a responsibility, a moral obligation to-”

“Okay, whatever, just stop,” Taeyeon interrupted. “You’re killing me here.”

She gave Sunny a particularly hard pinch on the hand that hung off her shoulder, watching triumphantly as her friend hissed and retracted her arm. In response to the subsequent death glare, she poked her tongue out in victory.

“Her name is Tiffany,” said Taeyeon, leaning back against the arm rest of the couch. “She was in the bar last night, and got a bit too drunk. By closing time she was still passed out at her table so I let everyone else go home and said I’d take care of her.”

Sunny looked dubious already. “This is how you met? Last night, while she was wasted?”

“Yes, but… Just listen, okay?”

Sunny shrugged and let her continue.

“So when she finally woke up, it turned out we lived in the same building so I said I’d walk her home. She’s really nice, you know, and she’s the one who told me I don’t sound like a kid, even though I look like one sometimes -”

“Wait, she actually told you that you look like a kid? Ha! I like this girl.”

“Shut up. Anyway, we talked and when we got here it turned out she lives on the same floor. So, we hung out for a while and she’s really cool and I’m not lame and if you tell me I’m a cute kid I will punch you in the gut.”

Sunny grinned. “Well, you said it, not me. So, you made friends with some random drunken lady from the bar? I am really surprised and confused.”

Taeyeon smiled to herself. “She’s really great, Sunny. I had a good time getting to know more about her.”

Sunny narrowed her eyes at her friend. She shifted closer again and gave Taeyeon a few deliberate pats on the head.

“You better be careful, kid, you’re actually growing up.”

Taeyeon frowned. “Just because I managed to make friends with someone without you forcing me to?”

Sunny smirked. “Something like that. So, she’s that great, huh? I would hazard a guess that she’s quite pretty.”

“She’s gorgeous! So beautiful, and when she smiles her face lights up and her eyes curve into these lines and -”

“Okay, kid,” Sunny interrupted. “Calm yourself. Introduce me to her while I’m here sometime.”

“Sure.”

Sunny took a long look at her best friend, making Taeyeon shift a little and look confused. Then she pulled her in for a tight hug and sighed.

“I’ll get back from New York and you’ll be all grown up,” she muttered. “What will I do? Who will I bully and prank and torture and tease -”

“Yeah okay, geez. Leave me alone.”

Sunny broke the hug with another grin and got up from the couch to stretch intensively. “Anyway, I’m all cramped from flying, so I’m going to go lie down. My room’s still the same, right?”

Taeyeon nodded. “Yeah. And I swear I didn’t touch your spare DS, as promised in accordance with your death threats.”

Sunny looked smug. “Excellent. I shall now retire, peasant. Try to at least get out of those fluffy teddy bear pyjamas at some point today, okay?”

She skipped away to her room, cackling, and left Taeyeon to sulk on the couch.

A hesitant knock sounded on the front door and Taeyeon looked up curiously. She glanced at the clock on her wall and supposed it wasn’t really weird to have a visitor after noon.

Tiffany gave her a bright smile as soon as the door was open, and she smiled even more when she saw Taeyeon in her teddy bear pyjamas.

“Good afternoon, or should I say good morning?”

Taeyeon followed Tiffany’s eyes and remembered what she was wearing. A blush rose on her cheeks and she cleared her throat.

“Hi,” she said. “Um, sorry about the pyjamas, I kind of slept late.”

“Understandable.  I only woke up a couple of hours ago myself… Anyway, um, are you busy?”

“Not really. I don’t have work until six so I was intending to lie around like a bum and eat all day.”

Tiffany laughed. “I don’t blame you.”

How Tiffany was even able to be up and beaming and happy was a mystery, but then Taeyeon realised the change in her own demeanour from her usual morning blob. Another look at Tiffany’s face set off a spark in Taeyeon’s chest that she guessed must have been fuelling her.

“Do you want to do something?” Taeyeon asked, shuffling absently. “Or something?”

“Something or something, huh? Tough choice.”

Taeyeon looked away and laughed briefly. “Sorry…”

Tiffany gave her a gentle look. “Don’t be so awkward, Taeyeon. I’d love to do something. Is there anything you have in mind?”

“Well, it’s around lunch time so how about we go get some food?”

“Sounds great. You won’t be wearing those teddy bear pyjamas, will you? Bit of a daring fashion choice but then again, it might become the next trend.”

Taeyeon laughed, tugging at the sleeve of her pyjama top. “I’ll go get changed. You can come in and wait if you want?”

“Sure.”

Watching Tiffany walk in and move around as if she was there all the time made Taeyeon smile. She noticed Tiffany’s curious glance at the new pair of shoes.

“Remember that room-mate I told you about? She’s back from New York for a surprise visit.”

“Oh? That’s great. Is she here now? I’d love to meet her!”

“She’s resting right now. Maybe after we have lunch we can come bother her, I would love to do that.”

Tiffany giggled. “We should do that.”

Once Taeyeon had changed into less of a fashion statement, they made their way down the hall and took the elevator. Tiffany was more than happy to spend the time chatting about how her friend had reacted when she finally called her back after waking up, and the way the conversation had mostly regarded the abandoned friend’s tragic fate of having to watch a really bad 80’s movie on TV since her best friend ditched her to get drunk. Taeyeon laughed and expressed her continued amusement at the friend’s lack of concern about Tiffany’s safety.

“Oh, she’s alright really,” Tiffany said quickly. “Jessica’s just a little… Well, she doesn’t do so well with expressing her feelings unless it’s a really big deal. But I know she cares about me. Leaving me at the bar last night… Well, maybe that was her little revenge for not being able to spend time with me lately because of…that guy.”

Tiffany looked down at the floor as they reached the doors leading out of the building’s lobby. Thoughts of that man made her steps falter and she became distracted as she remembered all the reasons why she had gone to the bar last night.

Taeyeon put a hand on Tiffany’s shoulder and gave her a warm smile. “Well it’s okay now. So, where do you want to eat?”

Tiffany returned Taeyeon’s expression. One good thing that had come out of her experience at the bar was her new friend, and no matter how bad she was feeling about that part of her past, the enjoyment of spending her present with Taeyeon brought her back.

Shaking her head, she brushed the thoughts away for now. Shooting another grin at Taeyeon, she lightly took hold of her hand and tugged her out of the building.

“I know a great place!”

Taeyeon wasn’t sure if it counted as a date or not, but by the fifth time they went out together she was pretty sure it was a date. In fact, she was pretty sure she could have counted all their outings as dates and that they were dating each other, which kind of freaked her out because they had all five dates in the space of two weeks and that seemed fast – perhaps too fast, considering they were only thinking of each other as friends just a short time ago – but then again they were moving fast since the moment they met. Not to mention the confusion, the insecurity, and some more confusion. Was Tiffany always okay with dating girls? All Taeyeon knew about her dating history was the man who played her and broke her heart. And if she was okay with dating girls, why would she be dating Taeyeon, whom she clearly (in Taeyeon’s opinion) outranked in every way? And were they even really dating or was this something else completely?

She replayed every moment of their time together so far. She opened the door for Tiffany at the café three times, Tiffany looked down shyly while she laughed fifteen times, Taeyeon touched Tiffany’s arm eight times, Tiffany brushed a lock of her hair behind her ear twelve times, and flirting – how much of their conversations could be considered flirting? And their body language must have been sending messages – Taeyeon’s head was spinning and she remembered why she didn’t find it easy to make friends. Her brain thought too much.

Taeyeon eyed Tiffany out of the corner of her eye. They were in the cinema theatre, a film running on the screen without Taeyeon’s attention, the flickering of the light casting playful shadows on Tiffany’s features.

Obviously she wouldn’t mind if they were dating, if she just took it so lightly, but she had gotten to know Tiffany quite well by now and there were a few things that worried her.

“Tiffany,” she whispered.

Tiffany didn’t hear, staring at the movie.

“Tiffany,” Taeyeon whispered again.

Tiffany frowned, turned her head but kept her eyes on the screen for a while longer, and then met Taeyeon’s gaze. “What?”

“Are we dating?”

Tiffany leaned closer. “What? I can’t hear you.”

“Are we,” Taeyeon started, and the paused for a moment to move her mouth next to Tiffany’s ear, “Are we dating?”

“Um,” said Tiffany. She moved away, eyes wide, and said again, “Um.”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened in response, echoing her expression, and she said, “Uh, wait, I, uh….”

“Um,” Tiffany repeated. “Yes?”

“Y-yes?” Taeyeon stuttered. “Yes, what yes? You mean… yes?”

“Yes.” Tiffany blushed so hard the redness was almost visible in the dim light.

They stared at each other for a long time. “Okay,” Taeyeon said. They looked away again, turning back to the movie.

Taeyeon tried to calm her racing heart. She started out with the intention of asking all the questions necessary to clear up the situation, but the effect of Tiffany’s first answer completely threw her off and left her with heat creeping up her neck and the constant need to swallow nervously. So they were dating. Taeyeon was dating Tiffany. Tiffany was dating Taeyeon. She brought a hand to her face and tried to cool her cheeks. She cleared her throat subtly and straightened her spine.

She sat there feeling giddy for the rest of their date. She had no idea what the movie was about, who those people were, what they were doing, how it ended – she just kept thinking about Tiffany. There were a few things that she knew she needed to consider, all those questions that still needed answering, but holy cow she was dating Tiffany. Tiffany whom she only met two weeks ago, but Tiffany nonetheless. Suffice it to say she was pleased.

They held hands as they walked home from the cinema, shy and light with their touches, and grinning like idiots.

“I can’t believe you just asked me directly like that,” Tiffany giggled. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and bit her bottom lip as she looked at the ground beneath their feet. “I was going to bring it up on the way home.”

“Ah,” Taeyeon replied, nervous, “Well actually I made a list of things I needed to ask you, and once I make a list it’s easier for me to just get into it.”

“A list?” Tiffany looked up, curious. “What’s on the rest of the list?”

“Uh,” Taeyeon hesitated, casting her eyes upwards as she went through the list again. “Why me?”

“Pardon?”

Taeyeon met her eyes again. She stopped walking, Tiffany stopping with her, and took Tiffany’s other hand too.

“Why, out of all the billions of people on this planet, are you willing to date me?”

Tiffany blinked at her. Then she frowned. For a moment Taeyeon panicked – what if Tiffany herself hadn’t considered this and the question just made her realise that Taeyeon was beneath her notice – and her grip on Tiffany’s hands tightened. Tiffany glanced down at their hands at this action, and gave Taeyeon a gentle smile of comfort.

“Relax, Taeyeon,” she said warmly. “Let me answer you. I’m not willing to date you. You make it sound as if I can barely stand to look at you. I actually want to date you. I want to be standing here right now, looking into those quiet, thoughtful eyes of yours as the light evening breeze sends shivers down my spine and your slightly sweaty palms spread warmth along my hands.”

Taeyeon blushed self-consciously. Her eyes darted away for a moment in embarrassment. “Sorry about that.”

Tiffany smiled. She leaned forward, barely giving Taeyeon a chance to avoid her if she wished, and she kissed her on the corner of her lips.

“Don’t say sorry,” Tiffany murmured, moving back slightly. “I’m still thanking you all the time, you know.”

“I won’t feel the need to say sorry if you don’t feel the need to say thank you,” Taeyeon said. “Deal?”

Tiffany grinned. “Deal. Now what was on the rest of your list?”

They started walking again, fingers more tightly entwined. Taeyeon brought up the confusion surrounding the apparently inconsistent gender dynamics in Tiffany’s relationship habits, and Tiffany hesitated before telling Taeyeon about the first girlfriend she ever had. Her first year of university was stressful, alien, lonely. The cute girl whom she paired up with for her first project was funny, friendly, comforting. She thought long and hard about what she was feeling, who she was feeling it for, what it meant for herself and her future, and decided she needed the warmth the relationship gave her. The girlfriend cheated on her in the second semester, Tiffany cried and figured life was pretty much over, and then she realised she could still have her future so she picked herself and went on. She didn’t look at girls the same way as she did before her girlfriend made her think so much, and she cast her eye over the boys again and found something similar there.

The apartment building was warm, the heat filling them up after their stroll in the growing coldness outside. They kept smiling at each other as they rode the elevator to their floor, and Tiffany pulled Taeyeon in for another little kiss when they stopped in the hallway.

“See you tomorrow?” she whispered, staying close.

Taeyeon kept from fainting. “Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

They saw each other every day, and at first it was awesome and then it was great and then it was sentimentally rewarding and then Taeyeon started to get worried. Something was different. Something didn’t feel right. Something made her concerned and a little bit afraid.

She thought back to their conversations about Tiffany’s past relationships. The most recent, the man from work, was a total jerk who toyed with her and threw her away as if she was nothing, while she was heavily invested and emotionally dependent on the relationship. The two boyfriends before him dumped her for being ‘clingy’ and the girlfriend from university cheated on her.

Taeyeon pondered. She contemplated heavily. Her mind raced over it all almost violently. The patrons sitting by the bar ducked out of the way as she swept it with her cloth, the arc of her movement entirely too furious for its purpose. Nuts went flying.

“Calm down there, Genghis.”

Sunny brushed away fragments of nut and seated herself on a stool. She regarded Taeyeon curiously.

“Trouble in Paradise?” she inquired. “You know, you should have introduced her to me ages ago; it’s almost time for me to go back to New York. I could have provided you with a thorough assessment which would no doubt have saved you some time and grief, judging by the pained expression on your face. Thinking of your lover?”

Taeyeon stared at her for a moment. Then she threw down the cleaning cloth and leaned over the bar to grip Sunny’s shoulders.

“You have to help me,” she breathed. “I don’t know what’s going on. I think… I think… I think Tiffany may have issues.

Sunny rolled her eyes. “You have no idea how hilarious it is to hear you, of all people, saying something like that.”

Taeyeon looked undeterred. She let go of Sunny and started pacing behind the bar. A patron called for a refill and she poured the vodka on his Blackberry. He didn’t even know how to react, and she went back to her pacing.

“I just,” Taeyeon began. “I just. I feel like she’s really. She’s really intense. You know? I mean, we met and I walked her home and we bonded over her tragic breakup and regrets about life decisions and all of a sudden we’re friends, and we started hanging out a lot, and two weeks later we were definitely in ‘dating’ mode, and now it’s been another two weeks and I just, I just feel like it’s all going really fast.”

“Taeyeon,” Sunny said, getting off the stool. “Wow, dude, just calm down for a second, okay? Come on, let’s go talk in the store room.”

Taeyeon followed obediently, plucking off her half-apron and tossing it over her shoulder. The Blackberry man barely dodged it, and still didn’t know how to react.

Sunny closed the door behind them and crossed her arms over her chest as she regarded Taeyeon quietly for a moment.

“Do you remember how much I teased you when you first told me you and Tiffany were dating?” Sunny asked.

Taeyeon blinked, and nodded. “Yeah. Annoying. What’s your point?”

Sunny sighed. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Taeyeon. You mean a lot to me. You’re my best friend – no, you’re my family. I’ve got to keep you on your toes sometimes. You don’t exactly get out much, and I know how much a relationship can stress you out, and I know you know that too, which often makes it harder for you to be sure when there’s a real problem. So I want you to do one thing for me. Okay?”

“Okay,” Taeyeon replied slowly. “You’re not going to make me dance on the bar and sing ABBA songs again, are you? Because you said that would ‘keep me on my toes’ too.”

Sunny rolled her eyes. “No, this is serious now. Listening?”

“Yes.”

“Taeyeon, please just take this relationship with Tiffany one step at a time. Okay? Don’t think about speed, or intensity, for now just think to yourself about each step that you are taking with her. One step at a time. Then think about how you feel about each step, and the step after, and what steps you think you are going to take or want to take. And then you think about how fast you’re stepping, how deep your steps go. Get it?”

Taeyeon huffed, and looked away as she thought about it. “I guess. Think about each step, right? I can do that.”

Sunny watched her for a moment. She stepped forward and took Taeyeon by the shoulders.

“That’s my girl,” she said, smiled, and hugged her. “Now go talk to Tiffany about everything you’ve been thinking about, okay? Talk to her about every step.”

Taeyeon panicked briefly at the thought of confronting their problems, the fear of losing Tiffany snaking around her chest. Then she made herself calm down and returned Sunny’s hug. “Okay.”

They held each other for a while.

“How about you sing ‘Dancing Queen’ tonight?”

The memory of dancing on the bar and singing ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ still haunted Taeyeon later when she was cleaning up after closing time. Somehow, Sunny was eternally capable of talking Taeyeon into doing ridiculous things, and sometimes she hated her for it and sometimes she loved her for it. As she dialled Tiffany’s number and asked if she could stop by when she got home, she took a moment to appreciate Sunny’s ability to talk her into doing ridiculous things like discussing her thoughts and concerns. Then she picked up the scrap of paper with a phone number on it, lying on the floor behind the bar where it landed when Blackberry guy threw it during the second chorus, and decided forcefully to remain neutral on the subject of Sunny for a while.

Tiffany was blinking away sleep when she opened the door, smiled drowsily, and pulled Taeyeon into a tight hug.

“Hey,” Taeyeon murmured, circling her arms around Tiffany’s waist as they stood in the doorway. “I didn’t realise you were sleeping.”

“It’s okay,” Tiffany whispered. She squeezed Taeyeon. “I’m happy to see you.”

Tiffany tugged Taeyeon inside, barely allowing her to close the door and kick off her shoes, and pulled her along to the bed where they fell onto the mattress and she wrapped her in a warm, comfortable embrace. Taeyeon found it easy to drift off towards sleep, as they lay in the dark stillness with only each other’s touch and breath. But something started to nibble at the back of her mind, and she remembered that they were meant to have a big serious talk about their relationship.

She rolled onto her back, separating her and Tiffany slightly, and turned her head to look at her girlfriend.

“We need to talk about something that’s been bothering me a bit,” she said softly, eyes tracing Tiffany’s face in the dimness.

Immediately, Tiffany froze, her body tense. She blinked, and looked worried.

“Did I do something wrong?” she whispered. Her fingers grasped Taeyeon’s shirt and she swallowed nervously. “Please don’t break up with me.”

Taeyeon softened immediately. She pulled Tiffany closer, holding her gently. “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you freak out. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not breaking up with you. I… I just want to talk to you about something. It-It’s not really easy for me to talk about some things, especially if I’ve been thinking about it a lot; it’s hard for me to have conversations about it. But I want to be honest with you, and be more open about what goes on in my head.”

Another step.

Tiffany sniffed quietly and held onto Taeyeon. “Okay. What’s on your mind?”

“Don’t you think we’re moving a bit fast?”

Tiffany shifted so that they could meet each other’s eyes. They examined each other in silence. Then she burst into tears.

“I knew it,” she sobbed, “you want to break up, don’t you? I’m sorry, I’m so clingy, they all say that. I’m just so stupid.”

Taeyeon panicked. Tiffany was shaking with sobs, wailing about how she would never be loved and kept screwing everything up, and Taeyeon wasn’t sure how to make her stop. Clearly it wasn’t what she meant – she just wanted them to talk about whether or not the speed was likely to cause problems and if they could be prepared for it. She didn’t mean to make Tiffany think she wanted to end their relationship. But, considering Tiffany’s past relationships, Taeyeon wasn’t surprised that she was so convinced that Taeyeon wanted to leave her. And that was exactly one of the things that she was afraid would become a problem if they rushed into the relationship.

Sunny’s advice came back to her. The steps were the most important; then the speed and depth. This was a step they were taking in their relationship. Taeyeon opened up to Tiffany about her thoughts and feelings; Tiffany was (sort of) facing her abandonment issues. This was a crucial step for them if they wanted to continue. They could take this step together, and take it well, and then they could worry about how their speed might be dangerous. Once they took this step, Taeyeon thought, perhaps the danger of their speed would actually lessen. Now they just needed to step.

How?

“Uh,” Taeyeon hummed. “No, Tiffany, that’s not what I mea–”

“I knew this was too good to be true,” Tiffany wept, “it always-”

“Tiffany, that’s not-”

“Too clingy, too intense, too desperate–”

“Whoever said that stuff is a jerk, they’re all just jer-”

“I knew no one could ever possibly love me.”

Taeyeon was stunned. The gears in her head turned, and turned, and stopped and turned again. Tiffany sniffled and cried a little more. Taeyeon’s silence finally got weird and she looked at her again.

“Taeyeon?” she wondered hesitantly.

“I love you, Tiffany,” Taeyeon said. Her voice was firm, her tone determined. “Don’t you ever say stuff like that again. You can be loved, and I love you. You’re very lovable, you know.”

Tiffany stared. “But didn’t you just say we’re moving too fast?”

“A bit fast,” Taeyeon corrected. “I wasn’t complaining. I was just saying that I’ve been thinking about how fast we’ve been going, and it has worried me somewhat, because I’m scared of screwing up this relationship – me screwing it up – and losing you. So, I wanted to know what you thought about it.”

Tiffany blinked. Taeyeon smiled.

“I don’t want to break up with you, Tiffany. I want to focus on the steps we take together.”

Tiffany swooned. She never expected to hear such words directed at her. Her exes were jerks, Taeyeon was right, and she had no reason to think she would ever find someone who wasn’t a jerk. But she thought back to what Taeyeon asked her when they talked about dating, when she asked why Tiffany was willing to date her, and her answer. And she realised how similar their feelings really were. Neither could understand how the other could possibly deign to stoop to their humble level, and Tiffany for one always had a niggling feeling that it was too good to be true. She was all too ready to believe Taeyeon was leaving her, exactly as the others had.

Yet here they were. And Taeyeon had just said those three words that didn’t usually make an appearance after only two weeks of officially dating.

Taeyeon realised it too. “I don’t want to freak you out again,” she said hurriedly. “I do love you, but I know that’s another step we need to take together in the future sometime. So I’m not asking you to marry me or anything. I just want you to understand that you are worthy of love, and it’s happening with us.”

Tiffany just kissed her. She couldn’t think of a way to verbally express her feelings yet.

Steps? She could think about those all day long now. Taeyeon and Tiffany’s steps.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Everyday Love

It had been less than a week. Taeyeon still fell asleep at night in a cocoon of unshed tears and her dreams were full of memories. What else could she do? There was no escaping from it, and she didn’t even want to leave. After all, in her own little world, she could still love Tiffany every day.

She sighed, slouching in her seat at the bar, and tapped her glass against the counter to get the bartender’s attention. At the sight of her dark eyes, haggard face, and permanently downwards-curving lips, the bartender raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t you think you’re being a little over dramatic?”

Taeyeon frowned, as if all the pain of the world was being heaped on her shoulders again. “No.”

The bartender rolled her eyes. “It’s not like she’s dead or anything. Besides, she is literally on her way home at this very moment. Aren’t you happy?”

Taeyeon dropped her head to the bar and didn’t answer. She lay face-down, her forehead against the cool wood, and huffed again. It was the night before Tiffany’s plane landed, finally bringing Tiffany back. As far as she was concerned, that was way too long and the edge of sanity was awfully close without Tiffany. She tapped her glass on the counter again and ignored the reluctant grumbling from the bartender who filled her glass.

“You’re the most depressing friend ever,” the bartender remarked. “I thought you came here to support me at my new job, now all you’re doing is moping around and crying because your girlfriend has been gone for a few days.”

Taeyeon turned her head to glare. “You don’t know what it’s like, okay? We’re almost never apart for this long. I miss her.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Save it. Actually, that’s a good idea. Store up all your depressing, negative vibes and dump it all on Tiffany when she gets back. That’ll be a nice welcome, won’t it?”

Taeyeon sat up, narrowing her eyes. “What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying that you should spend your time getting ready to give her the best welcome home ever, rather than sitting around under a cloud of melancholy because it’s been two weeks since you last saw her.”

“Two and a half,” corrected Taeyeon, but the wheels in her head already started turning. “Best welcome home ever, huh? It is almost Christmas, too.”

She turned around in her seat, leaned back against the counter, and looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully.

They moved into their apartment in a December, she recalled, when an icy white carpet of snow decorated the grounds of the town they had recently made their home. They weren’t prepared for a real Christmas yet, their living room without a tree and their walls lacking decoration; in fact, all they had in those days was a bed, a laptop, and some food, but Taeyeon remembered it as one of the greatest times of her life. Why? Because she had the warmth of her soul mate to wrap around her when the nights seemed too cold to handle, and she had the most beautiful smile in the world to greet her every morning.

“Oi!”

The bartender poked her sharply in the back of her head. She turned, looking shocked, and rubbed the sore spot.

“What do you want?” she asked grumpily.

The bartender held out her hand, flat. “Money, money, money. Those drinks weren’t free, you know. You gotta stop daydreaming about your soppy love story and give me some cash.”

Taeyeon pouted. “You’re so mean to me.”

“Were you or were you not gazing blissfully at some rose-tinted little thought bubble that showed a sequence of tender and loving moments between you and Tiffany some time during a past December?”

Taeyeon chose to remain silent. She gathered some money and shoved it towards the bartender, and was met with a smirk.

“Exactly. And foolish love-sick idiots like you need a good poke in the skull every now and then.”

Taeyeon sighed. “I don’t know what to do. I want to give her the best welcome home ever, but how do I do that?”

“Listen, Taeyeon. One thing I know you’re capable of is showing Tiffany what’s in your heart. Does that give you a few ideas yet?”

The blank stare of reply was all that Taeyeon could think to show.

“Wow, I knew you were slow but this is unprecedented. You’ll figure something out, I’m sure, but go do it somewhere else, okay? You’re ruining business here.”

Walking along the crunchy pavement outside, Taeyeon found herself remembering the tingling of her palm when she held hands with Tiffany. She clenched and unclenched her fingers, clicked her tongue exasperatedly, and let out another dispirited sigh.

It would be physically impossible to show Tiffany what was in her heart – unless she took it literally, in which case Tiffany would probably be disgusted and Taeyeon would be dead – but Taeyeon knew exactly what was in her heart that she wanted to show Tiffany. Love. A whole lot of love, and it was there for Tiffany and because of Tiffany. But how could she possibly show that satisfactorily? All her ideas right now didn’t seem enough, didn’t convey her feelings well enough. She needed something big, something spectacular, something overwhelming to show exactly how much their love meant to her.

Then she realised something. Her mind had wandered over every moment she had spent with Tiffany, every morning, afternoon, evening, night that they were together. And she realised something spectacular, something overwhelming, the thing that had completely taken her heart. What she loved most about Tiffany – it was a tough competition – was the fact that their love happened every day. She could feel Tiffany’s love all day and all night, every day and every night. It was an ingrained part of her life. No matter where she was or where Tiffany was, she felt that incredible love.

Taeyeon smiled. She had a few new ideas for how to show Tiffany what was in her heart, and she would show her every day.

Tiffany returned to their apartment with exhaustion in her bones, eyes already closing as she dreamed of drifting off to sleep. She dumped her luggage at the door, dragged herself down the hall, paused for a moment as she remembered to remove her shoes, and almost walked into the wall as she made her way into the living room.

“Tae?” she called out, voice heavy with weariness.

“Be right there!” came the reply from the kitchen. “I’m making you some hot chocolate before you sleep.”

Tiffany smiled, and closed her eyes as she dumped herself face-first onto the couch. She breathed out a deep sigh and let her mind and body relax completely.

There was nothing she loved more than spending every day with Taeyeon in her heart.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Lips

“It’s her.”

“Woah, what’s she doing here?”

“Hey watch out, she’s coming this way.”

A sly smile curved the corners of Tiffany’s lips. Her heels clicked against the smooth hard floor beneath her as she walked through the bar, passing the people who whispered and stared. Locks of her hair flowed over one shoulder as she flicked it out of her face, exposing the bare skin of her shoulders revealed by her sleeveless top. A sharp intake of breath from someone nearby made her smirk.

“Afternoon.”

She sat down at the little table in the corner, shifted her chair closer to it, and kept her eyes away from the person sitting opposite her.

“Good afternoon, Ms Tiffany,” came the reply.

The waiter was by her side in less than a minute, whipping out his notebook and grinning. She spoke before he could even breathe and ordered a glass of pineapple juice. It was just past four o’clock. Tiffany removed her sunglasses, flicked them shut and lay them on the table, and dumped her purse onto the empty chair next to her. She sighed and ran a hand through her dark red hair.

“Let’s be quick,” she said.

“Of course, Ms Tiffany.”

An envelope was placed on the table and pushed towards her.

“An invitation. Your father would like you to attend his wedding on December the 1st.”

Tiffany eyed the envelope and clicked her tongue. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Right, right. Well I’ll be there. And?”

The waiter arrived with her pineapple juice. She knew acknowledging him would make it more likely that he would hang around, so she immediately lifted the glass to her lips and finally raised her gaze to see the person seated across from her.

Seohyun was flipping through a folder in her hands, skimming through the pages, her face perfectly composed in utmost serenity. She wasn’t a cold person, in fact she was cheerful and friendly, but she had some amazing internal balance that meant she could be like this, so straightforward and simple about professionalism.

The waiter awkwardly shuffled away.

“Three people have responded to your advertisement in the newspaper,” Seohyun continued. “One who calls herself Taeyeon seems most suited for your needs.”

“And why is that?”

“She wrote in her email – and I quote – ‘I know a lot about lips and I would like to see yours’.”

Tiffany almost choked on her juice. “What?! Is she some kind of pervert?”

“Apparently she gets that a lot.”

Tiffany set down her glass and ran a hand through her hair again. “Oh, I see, she’s eccentric, huh. One of the more socially awkward artists.”

“Perhaps. The way she worded her response suggests that she understands your intended concept very well. She would like to base the artwork on your lips, which would work well to keep your designs close to your identity as a designer while developing your original ideas.”

“Hmm. Okay, set up a meeting.”

“No need.”

Tiffany jumped at the new voice from right next to her and almost fell off her chair when she came face to face with a stranger. Literally this person was a few inches from her face and staring at her so intently she thought she might explode.

“What the f-”

“I’m Taeyeon,” she said, giving a friendly smile even while her eyes were still too wide for comfort. “You must be Ms Tiffany. I can tell by your lips.”

“Oh wow. Wow. Yeah, you gotta be Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon’s smile became a grin and she finally backed off. She waved cheerily at Seohyun, and then gestured at the waiter who was lurking not far away.

“Hey can I get a bottle of beer? Do you have Cass Fresh? Thanks.”

Taeyeon sat down in the other free chair, and looked at Tiffany again.

Tiffany blinked.

“I have to go,” said Seohyun, snapping the folder shut and standing. “That’s all we needed to talk about, Ms Tiffany.”

Tiffany reached out in the manner of a confused tourist who had become trapped in quicksand in the jungle, but to no avail as Seohyun left swiftly and without glancing back at either of them. Tiffany lowered her arms and turned to look at Taeyeon, who was accepting her bottle of beer from the waiter.

“So you’re sure you can do this?”

Taeyeon took a sip of her beer. “Absolutely.”

Tiffany eyed her for a moment. Then she sighed and got settled again. “All right, let’s start talking and doing some sketches. Did you bring your stuff?”

She hadn’t brought all of her stuff, but she pulled a ballpoint pen from one pocket and collected a swab of napkins. Over the course of a lengthy one hour and twenty minutes as well as three bottles of Cass Fresh and two glasses of pineapple juice, they produced almost thirty ink-smudged napkins showing various artistic sketches and fashion designs.

“Do you ever get overly conscious of your lips?” Taeyeon asked curiously, nursing her nearly empty bottle and gazing at Tiffany. “I do sometimes. You just suddenly realise there are these things, part of your face, that are moving when you talk and just kind of there, you know? That happens to me sometimes.”

Tiffany looked dubious. “Are you a druggie?”

“What? No! I get high on life, thank you very much.”

“Oh, you’re one of those,” Tiffany said dismissively.

“Yeah, I’m one of those. How about you?” Taeyeon leaned closer and lowered her voice. “What do you get high on, Ms Tiffany?”

Tiffany glanced at the smirk on Taeyeon’s face and echoed it briefly. Then she leaned forward, locked eyes with Taeyeon, and whispered, “I don’t get high. I make high.”

Taeyeon’s smirk faded, but not into a look of shock or nervousness like Tiffany had expected. Instead, something else appeared, something she didn’t recognise.

“You know, the thing about lips is,” Taeyeon murmured, “they’re so sensitive. Your bottom lip can tell the difference between all kinds of textures. Food, liquid, glass, plastic, cosmetics…” Her stare dropped on to Tiffany’s lips. “…bare, naked skin.”

Tiffany swallowed, keeping her eyes trained on Taeyeon’s face.

“And that’s what makes kissing so wonderful,” Taeyeon continued. A grin tugged at the corner of her mouth, briefly revealing a flash of a white canine tooth. “Sensitive meets sensitive. Senses connect. And that’s how fireworks are made.”

Tiffany let out a long breath. She sat back in her chair, fiddling with the straw of her empty glass, and smiled.

“You’re quite a smooth talker.”

Taeyeon grinned. “Thanks.” She straightened up, and finished off the last little bit of her beer with a swig. “Well, I’m off. Your assistant has my number, so just call me when you need me again.”

She grabbed her jacket, which was hung over the back of the chair, and got up to leave. Tiffany watched her exaggerated wink before she disappeared, and her lips slowly formed another smile. She traced her finger over one of the sketched designs in front of her.

“I’ll definitely call you, Taeyeon.”

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________