Somebody Loves Somebody

“I need a girlfriend.”

Taeyeon looked up from her book as Tiffany sat down beside her, dumping her bag onto the table and letting out a deep sigh.

“What?”

“I need a girlfriend,” Tiffany repeated, giving Taeyeon a look. “I’m sick of being so lonely all the time.”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow and blinked. “Lonely? I think I might be offended, since you spend all of your time with me.”

Tiffany sighed again and looked away. “You know that’s not what I mean, Taeyeon. I need another kind of intimacy.”

Following a brief pause, Taeyeon slipped a bookmark between the pages of her book and carefully laid it on the table beside her empty coffee cup. She crossed her hands over each other and took a moment to consider.

“And you don’t mean just physically, do you?” she asked.

“Nope,” Tiffany replied nonchalantly. She fiddled with the strap of her handbag. “More than that. Although that is a factor.”

Taeyeon nodded. “I see. Well. How do you propose to achieve this goal?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes. “Here we go. Time for geeky, logical Taeyeon. Give me a second, I’ll go get some coffee.”

Taeyeon watched as Tiffany pushed back her chair and left for the counter. Geeky, logical Taeyeon was the one who always helped Tiffany solve problems. The simple, straightforward, almost scientifically methodical approach made everything clear and plausible. Throughout the years, dilemmas about school, family, career, and relationships had all been put through the Taeyeon thought machine and resolved to within a satisfactory outcome; but truthfully speaking, Taeyeon had no idea what she was doing – in a case like this, especially. Having never been in a relationship, never felt love for anyone but Tiffany, she felt unqualified for this situation. Regardless, she was prepared to fulfil the stereotypical role of the helpful best friend who carried her unrequited secret love.

From the moment they had met during the warm evening many summers ago, Taeyeon had known she would fall in love with Tiffany and would live the rest of her life in that way. Somehow she knew Tiffany would flit between boys and then girls but never fall back onto her silent best friend. She had felt, already, from that first sighting of Tiffany’s beauty both external and internal, that she was going to have trouble holding on to gravity for every day of her future.

“Let me guess, we start with Step One, right?” Tiffany returned with her cup and got settled again beside Taeyeon. “A proper description of the actual goal including benefits and time frame.”

Taeyeon nodded absently, her eyes drawn to the movement of Tiffany’s hands as she ripped open the tiny packet of sugar and stirred it into her coffee. “Right. Step One.”

Tiffany took a deep breath. “Well, I need a girlfriend. So the target is a girl, the benefits are love and intimacy and all those other relationship things. I’m not getting any younger so let’s say within one month. How’s that?”

The way the foam of the coffee brushed against Tiffany’s lips as she took a sip was like a meeting between clouds and angels. Taeyeon would cringe at this thought later, but to her Tiffany’s lips were nothing short of heavenly and no cheesy words would diminish this feeling. With an effort, she directed her eyes away from Tiffany’s face and played with the little teaspoon from her own finished coffee.

“Be more specific about this person. Or would any girl do?”

Tiffany scoffed. “Okay, good point. I’m not that desperate. But I don’t really have a particular type either, so how would I be more specific?”

Taeyeon left the spoon alone to one side and carefully folded her napkin into a tiny triangle as she answered softly.

“What is love, Tiffany? How do you know when someone loves you – when someone is in love with you?”

Tiffany bit her bottom lip and frowned slightly. She lifted her coffee to her lips before pausing and lowering it again, deep in thought. Taeyeon unfolded her napkin and started folding it again slowly.

“Why do you always ask such difficult questions?” Tiffany sighed, taking a sip from her coffee and looking dejected.

Taeyeon laughed. “I’m sorry. Well, don’t rush yourself for an answer on that one. No matter what people think love is or how to see it, love can always come in some unexpected form from someone you never would have thought.”

“So I’m looking for love with no idea what I’m looking for and it could end up being something else entirely? Great.”

Taeyeon looked up, and reached over to tuck a strand of Tiffany’s hair behind her ear in a familiar motion. Tiffany leaned her head slightly in Taeyeon’s direction at the affection, and seemed a little less gloomy.

“Everyone is stumbling through life as blindly as you, Tiffany,” she murmured. “Some find love along the way.”

Her fingers travelled from behind Tiffany’s ear, along her jawline, and stopped at her chin. With the pad of her thumb, she gently wiped away a tiny bit of foam from Tiffany’s lip. The actions made Tiffany lick her lips self-consciously and bite the inside of her cheek. Taeyeon removed her hand. She re-organised the things on the table and they sat together in companionable silence for a while.

“So, did you hear about the party tonight?” Taeyeon asked. “You should go. There’ll be people there.”

Tiffany smiled at Taeyeon’s wording. “People. Right. Well, I don’t know if I feel up to it anymore.”

Taeyeon looked up, frowning. “I didn’t get you all depressed now, did I?”

Tiffany didn’t answer, though her lips became slightly pouted and she fiddled with her coffee cup. Taeyeon grinned. Never in all her life would she get tired of that cuteness, this she knew for a fact.

“It’s not like it’s hopeless now. I just meant you should perhaps be looking around with an open mind, without expectations, with more awareness. By no means should you feel obligated to stop looking.” Look at me.

Tiffany turned her gaze back to Taeyeon, still looking doubtful. “Really?”

Taeyeon blinked and took a deliberate breath. “Really. Come on, let’s get some dinner before we go.”

There were indeed people at the party, as she knew there would be, and though she came with book in hand to keep her comfy in her solitary corner, she knew she would be keeping an eye on Tiffany all night – as she had done for so many nights already. As was bound to happen with a social butterfly at her side, she spent the first several minutes smiling at a range of vaguely familiar faces and laughing at the small talk before it was deemed that their arrival at the party was complete.

Taeyeon checked out the people around them intently.

“Well, you should be able to get a good start here,” she said to Tiffany. “Have fun.”

She turned to leave Tiffany to her socializing, but she was stopped by a hand on her wrist.

“Wait. You’re just leaving me to do this alone?”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow at her. “Um, that’s kind of how it is, you know. You’re looking for a girlfriend, which makes the total amount of people in that equation exactly 2. No awkward best friend there.”

Tiffany bit her bottom lip, and Taeyeon’s knees went very weak very fast. She mirrored the action briefly, knowing Tiffany wasn’t looking, before taking a silent shaky breath and stabilizing her heart again.

“But, I don’t know what to do… I’ve never tried to, you know, deliberately present myself like this to strangers…” Tiffany’s voice drifted away.

Taeyeon considered this for a moment. Tiffany stayed staring at her feet, still holding on to Taeyeon’s wrist, and bit her bottom lip again. Without another moment’s hesitation, Taeyeon spoke.

“Tiffany. If you’re looking for someone to fall in love with you, the advice ‘be yourself’ has never been more applicable.”

The eyes that met hers were blinking in surprise. But in them she saw the familiar sparkle that lit up any darkness, and a smile reached her lips.

“You’ll be fine,” she murmured. “Come get me when you’re ready to go home. Maybe we can get some ice cream somewhere before we sleep. Okay?”

Tiffany beamed and her grip on Taeyeon’s wrist tightened considerably for a moment. “Okay. Thanks, Taeyeon, just really… thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she whispered. So very welcome, to everything that I am.

She saw Tiffany again an hour later, laughing by the beer keg, resting her hand briefly on the arm of a tall, athletic young woman who was clearly utilizing a few choice pick-up lines that Tiffany chose to respond to.

Taeyeon checked the time on her phone, played one of its games for less than a minute, and returned to the pages of her book.

“Tae,” came the curling voice a long time later. “Tae, can we get ice cream now?”

Tiffany was drunk, more than just a little, but she was happy. Taeyeon could almost see the slip of paper with its scribbled digits burning a hole in Tiffany’s pocket, because the smile on that face was undoubtedly one of excitement, warmth, satisfaction, an afterglow of well-done flirting that made Taeyeon go down a brief slope of disappointment.

“So how’d it go?” she asked, the obligatory enquiry that fell from her lips more than enough times in the past. Zero would have been enough. She became used to it.

Tiffany paused in the consumption of her double-scoop vanilla ice cream cone and pondered, eyes on the table, gaze on the memory of that other girl’s face, mouth curving a ghost of the smile. She stayed silent for a while, and then she took a deep breath – it was enough to make Taeyeon close her eyes briefly in anticipation of what was to come, because it was the kind of deep breath that came from a reminiscence of delight.

“It went,” Tiffany said, smile growing, “well. It went great, actually. She’s great.”

Taeyeon nodded, paying attention to her own ice cream for longer than was strictly necessary.

“I got her number,” Tiffany supplied unnecessarily, conspiratorially, like a sneaky schoolgirl about to lapse into giggles after kissing a classmate behind the gym. “She seems really cool.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows, focussing again on her ice cream. “Cool. Hmm.”

Tiffany echoed her expression. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Taeyeon shrugged, keeping her eyes directed securely at the table-top between them. “Nothing.”

The atmosphere that followed their exchange illustrated that it was anything but nothing. Tiffany cleared her throat so pointedly that it surely held the daggers that would soon be in her eyes.

It wasn’t the first time they had that conversation. Though Taeyeon resigned herself to the life of the unnoticed best friend who was tortured and toiled to make their love happy without receiving a wish, there was always this instinct to scoff whenever Tiffany found someone else. Usually it didn’t appear until Tiffany was about to get more serious with someone, but it was late and Taeyeon was tired, and she didn’t know why she’d suggested ice cream when it was winter, because now she had an ache in her skull.

“It didn’t sound like nothing,” Tiffany said, right on time, voice frosty. Her ice cream was done.

Taeyeon shrugged again. She finished her ice cream, wiped her hands, stared at the ceiling for a good few moments. “It’s nothing.”

Tiffany huffed, and crossed her arms across her chest. “It’s never nothing, Taeyeon. What is it this time?”

“Nothing,” Taeyeon insisted, “It’s just…” she trailed off.

Tiffany stared at her. “Yeah? What?”

“Well,” Taeyeon said, stretching out the word, gesturing vaguely. “You know.”

Tiffany glared. “Don’t give me that again. What is it?”

“It’s just…” Taeyeon said again. “She’s ‘cool’, right?”

“Yeah, and?”

“Well you know how cool people are,” Taeyeon said, trying to push it all out as fast as she could. “The kind of people who end up described as ‘cool’… they do tend to be jerks, don’t you think?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes. She got up off the couch – with only a slight wobble, a sign of her lessening intoxication – and started pacing over the carpet of their shared apartment.

“So now you’re saying she’s a jerk,” she said, tone slicing through the air, “right after I told you how great I think she is.”

Taeyeon shrugged, but Tiffany wasn’t intending to let her speak.

“Is this another one of your system theories?” she pressed on, waving her hands, rolling her eyes again. “Another little method you come up with for disapproving of everyone I’m interested in – you know you said you would help me find someone, you know how much I want and need this, you said you would help but then the first thing you do when I find someone is you put them through your little computer head and cough out a little lab result that says cool people are jerks. What if I had said she seems like a sociopathic serial killer, would that have come up with a higher grade, like sociopathic serial killers tend to be puppy-saving firefighter nuns, would that have been good enough to pass through your little frame?!”

Taeyeon blinked. This was new. It wasn’t the first time they had talked like this where she implied disapproval of Tiffany’s chosen interest, but it was the first time Tiffany flipped out and ranted about it. In the past, she got frustrated, they ignored each other for a couple of hours, sometimes Tiffany said that Taeyeon would be proven wrong, sometimes they just pretended there was no disapproval and eventually the attempted relationship fizzled out.

This didn’t fit into the frame Taeyeon had become comfortable in, the template for the process of Tiffany’s romantic ventures. So much for solving a problem.

Tiffany threw her hands up in exasperation. “And now you’re silent again. You know what Taeyeon, sometimes it’s worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing, and you’ve just been doing both this whole time.”

Taeyeon blinked again, rapidly. “W-what? What whole time? What?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes again, waved her arms with frustration, stamped her feet heavily for a moment, and then she stepped forward, reached out, took hold of Taeyeon by her jaw and pulled her up – and she kissed her.

Taeyeon’s brain melted faster than her knees. She struggled to stay up, weak, confused, so incredibly warmed by Tiffany’s glorious mouth. Who knew it felt so amazing to kiss Tiffany? It felt amazing to have her right there, pressing against her, holding her up, kissing her with all of her focus, and finally Taeyeon caught up. Her knees locked into position and she closed her eyes.

She was still trying to remember how to breathe when Tiffany pulled away, at which point it all came rushing back, literally, and they both stood with slightly too heavy breathing and stared at each other.

“…What?” said Taeyeon again, baffled.

Tiffany’s eyes widened, and then she relaxed into a smile and tucked her arms around Taeyeon’s neck to lean on her. “Need a repeat?”

“I- Well, yeah, but also – clarification?” she sounded uncertain.

Tiffany sighed. “I always thought you were smart, Taeyeon. You’ve been here for me for so long, being somebody I can lean on, helping me out with your calm, level-headed rationalism that cleared up so much confusion and stress. I wouldn’t be here without you. And yet, you keep thinking you’re not worth as much to me as I think you are. You’re not just my best friend, Taeyeon, you haven’t been for a long time. I just wanted you to convince yourself of that, build yourself up, believe you can do that thing that you always thought was crazy – reveal your true feelings to me openly and honestly.”

Taeyeon gazed at her. “Oh?”

“But I got impatient. You’re a bit of an idiot sometimes, aren’t you?”

Taeyeon thought about it; all the time she spent constructing her little box of a best friend doomed to unrequited love, and settling into it quite comfortably but for the odd straying of a limb that still wanted to reach higher. And she thought about where she was now, standing in their apartment, with Tiffany right there in front of her – on her – waiting to be kissed.

And she nodded decisively. “Yeah, I’m a bit of an idiot.”

Tiffany grinned. “And now you’re mine. Right? Do you get that now, that I’ve been wanting you to let yourself love me?”

Taeyeon smiled. “Yeah, I get it. Maybe you should take over the advisory role, I think your system is much better than mine.”

“Oh, and what system is that?”

“The grab and kiss system.”

It didn’t take long for Tiffany to agree.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Drunk.

A/N: For the anon who called me senpai.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Tiffany is feeling weak today. It’s barely past noon when she has her first sip of vodka. She relishes the kick and the burn, the way it takes over her body even if it’s just for the moment it takes to slink down her throat and settle in the darkest depths of her heart.

She wants to be drunk.

For days and nights, she has controlled. She stopped her thoughts, steered them away, replaced the images in her mind with others, because she needed to have that control, she needed to stay in one piece. She needed to breathe. But when it comes to being drunk, she doesn’t have to have any control. It takes the control away. She can feel lighter, and she can see Taeyeon right there, in all the places she used to be.

Vodka is good when it’s cold; when the glass is chilled, the liquid so icy it can bite Tiffany’s jugular between its teeth.

Every time she does this, sitting in her frozen house, a little more of her gets sapped away, trickling into the air. It goes to Taeyeon, wherever she is, because these are parts of Tiffany that belong to Taeyeon whether she wants it or not.

When Tiffany is drunk, she can feel Taeyeon’s lips on her again, as clear as the cut of the spirit in her mouth. Those lips, she doesn’t remember them as soft and light though they often were, but she remembers them as taught and strong, as if Taeyeon was pressing her entire self to Tiffany every time they kissed.

Those damn kisses.

She puts down the empty glass in her hand, and eyes the bottles behind it. Thick, heavy. Beer.

They used to drink champagne, some times for no reason, just fun, just happiness, just bubbles that could take them and carry them away together.

Never champagne.

Tiffany was a social drinker, once upon a time for the longest time, so she goes to a place with a lot of people, orders a shot and a beer. And she steadfastly ignores the people writhing around her because she’s seeing Taeyeon again, next to her, hand on hers even as she reaches for a drink, and then she’s gone again, a wispy love.

“Hey, Tiffany, long time no see!”

She looks up to see someone she really hasn’t seen in a long time, to the point where she does not remember that person’s name. But while parts of her are gone, sent to Taeyeon, out of control, soaked in alcohol, there is still a part of her that lights up a flickering smile and says, “Hello, fancy running into you here.”

“It’s been ages since you were around here,” the person presses, gesturing an order to the bartender and leaning against the bar by Tiffany. “Heard you’ve been having a rough time.”

It was pretty rough, the cut in the core of her existence, a jagged river that ran dry. Tiffany shrugs. “I’m okay.”

The person nods, takes drinks. “You’re strong, eh? Well it’s nice to see you back in your natural habitat. Wanna come join us? We’re just over in the corner.”

Tiffany follows the glance and sees them, the people that she knows, but in the corner of her mind, Taeyeon tugs at her. She shows another smile at the person and says, “No thanks, I should be getting home.”

The person nods again. “Alright. See you around then, right?”

Right. Strong. Natural habitat. Social drinking. Drinking, drunk.

Tiffany is drunk.

She stumbles down a street – is it the right street? – and eyes the way her heels scrape over the pavement, which seems to be either really shiny or just wet from rain that has dissipated. Has it? Her cheeks feel wet. She reaches up, swipes at her face, looks at the smeared makeup on her fingers. Makeup.

She lowers her hands, and glimpses the bundles of bodies gathered around cigarettes. The flames of their lighters flick up into the air and singe the paper and tobacco. Tiffany remembers – can still feel – the way vodka burns her. It leaves scars in her, inside of her body.

Her hands are cold, so she stretches the fingers. She waves her arms around a bit – staggers but stays up – and her wrist bumps into a tall, cold pole. A street sign. This is the right street, after all.

Her grip stutters on the lock, handle, wood of her front door, but she manages to fall inside and practically melts into the couch.

She counts the number of times she’s talked to Taeyeon in the past two months. Friends, or not even that, and she even tried to shake her hand, what was she thinking. With every word they exchange, Tiffany sees the clarity that meets her at the bottom of every glass. She wants to be drunk.

She’s alone. In her cold house, her cold body can feel a little warmth, a little love, from the flow of vodka, beer, right through her, forming a shape that could be Taeyeon.

Tiffany wants to hold her again. She wants to have Taeyeon in her hands, her favourite heart beating with her own.

She closes her eyes, then opens them again and reaches for the nearest bottle. She doesn’t know what it is until it’s in her mouth, the blanketing feel of beer at room temperature, and then she squeezes her eyes shut and presses her face into the body of her couch.

She wants to be drunk when she wakes up. She will wake up, she keeps waking up, because she isn’t dead yet. Her pain hasn’t killed her. She isn’t stronger.

Tiffany is just alone, and she’s drunk.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Love is so bad. (Part 3)

Reality, Hallucination, Love

Taeyeon was afraid to fall, and in retrospect she couldn’t help but think that she was right to be so. Why did she let go of that fear of loving, losing herself to another person? She reached a point where she wasn’t afraid to fall; she jumped.

She considered it as she stood on the roof of the hospital and stared at the air. Not the sky, not the ground, not the scattered few people below or the thinly shining stars above, but at the air that was thick around her eyes with tears she was keeping stored there.

She knew it, that she reached a point where she decided she would love Tiffany. There were buts and ifs at first, and then there were none, and she just loved Tiffany with all of herself and none of her fears. How did that happen? And how did she let it?

There were no answers, she felt, as a weak breeze failed to push at the air around her. She did it. Tiffany did it, or so she thought – and once again she wondered if Tiffany had ever even loved her, and if she did, then she wanted to know what made that love go away. Taeyeon wasn’t naïve, she knew well enough that love wasn’t forever, but as far as she knew, there was always a reason why it all ended and why love disappeared. There was a reason her breath was cut off when Tiffany ended it. She knew there was. There had to be.

And if there wasn’t, then the world was really just that much crueller than she had thought.

That Dance
The dance floor was crowded, the circle around the newlywed couple breaking and expanding into a pool of guests plodding in a politely party-ish manner. It was the development of a formal occasion in an intentionally casual environment. People gave it a try but not really. The music was neutral; nothing too scandalous, but nothing too outdated. The room was dimly lit, with neatly lined lights in different colours around the edges and Taeyeon was only thankful that there was no disco ball.

She was also thankful that Tiffany was currently attached to her. Their arms were linked as they stood on the edge of the dance floor and watched dubiously as middle-aged professionals made an attempt to go wild without relaxing.

“You know what these people need?” Tiffany whispered in her ear, causing a ripple along Taeyeon’s skin which culminated in an automatic grin. “I think they need a couple of young, attractive women to liven up the dance floor.”

Taeyeon turned to smile at her. “Oh? I didn’t realize there were young, attractive women at this wedding, you must point me in their direction immediately.”

Tiffany raised her eyebrows, and then she laughed. “Nice try. Now, I know this is my uncle’s wedding, but I never see ninety percent of the people in this room, so I would like us to blow their socks off with a killer dance and then we shall go home.”

Taeyeon gazed at her for a while, and then she held out her hand. “Shall we?”

They ventured unobtrusively onto the dance floor, and then they stopped and shifted awkwardly.

“Uh, do you want to lead or –”

“Oh, I don’t know – well, maybe you –”

“You know what, I’ll just lead and we can switch later.”

Taeyeon thought about it for weeks at a time, the differences and similarities in how she held Tiffany and how Tiffany held her. The softness, the tenderness, the solidness. They watched each other, and they laughed, and they kissed, and they switched leads as they danced. Then they went home, and it truly felt like it.

Taeyeon found reality was still there when she woke up. The room was the same, the world was the same, nothing had changed from when she went to sleep; and that was reality. Except she didn’t want to accept reality.

She was back in her apartment, her name left behind on about three different watch lists, Sunny set to drop by every day basically just to make sure she was still at least partly alive.

After much pushing on Sunny’s behalf, Taeyeon also agreed to regular drug tests. This decision surprised not only Sunny but also herself, because it was so sudden, partway through an argument, dull and soulless – but then Taeyeon realised it was because it didn’t make any difference. Drugged or not, reality was reality. Or at least it seemed so. Truly, the drugs provided the same sort of useful hallucination that sleep did, but just like sleep, reality was still reality when she woke up.

So she found herself fine with the choice to avoid drugs and be tested for them, simply because she did not care either way. Life still sucked. The drugs were only temporary, from the very beginning.

The beginning.

She sighed.

She put down the glass of water she was holding. She meant to sip from it ten minutes ago, but once again she got lost in her thoughts. Were they thoughts, or were they feelings? She was losing the ability to differentiate. She felt angry and she thought angry thoughts. She felt empty and her thoughts were empty. She felt sad and thinking made her sad.

Talking to the psychiatrist at the hospital had been long and pointless, and very quiet. The psychiatrist was a composed-looking middle-aged woman who asked her general questions and was probably only half-interested in any answers she may have given. She didn’t give any answers. She supplied sentences as general as the questions, and Sunny vouched for her when they informed the psychiatrist and the hospital of Taeyeon’s agreement to stop taking drugs and doing harmful things. So in the end they let her go, and Taeyeon would never be going near a psychiatrist again if she could help it.

Although, she didn’t really seem to be able to help herself at all. This became clearer when she realised she was sitting in her car, across from Tiffany’s apartment.

She gazed at it, identifying the window in the building that was covering Tiffany’s living room. She remembered being there for the first time, and the last time, and she started dreaming of how that last night could have been different.

For one, Tiffany could have answered her damn questions. Why? It was apparently impossible for her to answer that one. Why was it so sudden, why was it happening at all, why did it have to be the way it was.

Taeyeon blinked at Tiffany’s apartment.

Are you cheating on me? She could have asked. After all, Tiffany said she found someone else.

Did you ever really love me? But she didn’t really want the answer to that one. Or maybe she did.

Are you sure? Just in case Tiffany was undecided and could change her mind. It could have happened.

Could you love me again?

Please?

 

That Eternity
Taeyeon felt helpless. It was two years now since she started dating Tiffany, and during that time there had been ups and downs and they were all so different from anything she had ever experienced before. They were bigger, deeper, heavier, and they all left a mark on her heart whether they were scars or fingerprints. By all accounts it was a mostly happy relationship, and they had problems and arguments and they talked through it. Taeyeon knew communication was undoubtedly one of the most important factors of a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

So this kind of silence from Tiffany made her feel helpless.

In all the two years that they’d been together, there had never been a down like this, and she could only hope that there could be an up.

She sat down beside Tiffany on the couch, and hesitated for the first time in a long time before putting her arm around Tiffany’s shoulders and bringing their bodies to rest together.

“Do you wanna talk about it?” she murmured, nuzzling the side of Tiffany’s head gently.

Tiffany didn’t answer, but she angled her head slightly to be closer to Taeyeon. After a while of careful stillness, she turned and let Taeyeon kiss her mouth.

The kisses were different, weaker, only half as presnt as they usually were. Taeyeon could feel the way Tiffany’s lips lost tension partway through their kiss, and the way she moved her head back a little before trying again; she was absent, but she didn’t want to be.

Taeyeon pulled back, staring at Tiffany, and she wondered if there was any way that she could articulate what she was feeling now. But apparently she didn’t need to, because when Tiffany’s eyes met hers, there were suddenly tears, and then Tiffany was letting it all out. Her crying escalated, and they wrapped themselves together.

Losing a family member was hard, and that was an understatement, and Tiffany had already gone through that devastation as a child. Losing a friend was a similar kind of hurt. It was the kind of pain that was stinging, and pulled your heart in a direction you couldn’t follow. It brought emptiness, a gap where that friend would be, a silence where their messages would have arrived, and the kind of soft dissolving of another connection fading.

Tiffany cried for a long time, feeling the loss of her friend, and Taeyeon held her and felt the pain spilling over into her own heart. And that was exactly how she wanted it to be. She wanted to be there to catch Tiffany’s pain when she was overflowing.

Even death would never stop her.

Taeyeon knocked on the door of Tiffany’s apartment five times, quickly, shakily, not meaning to do it the way she did but her arm was uncontrollable. She gulped. She stared at the door, hearing her breath stop in her throat.

There was no movement, no sign of life.

She knocked again, harder, erratic.

She turned away, taking deep breaths to calm down her faltering heart. She checked her watch – it was 7.23pm. What day was it? She scuffled with her phone. A Thursday. Tiffany would normally be home, surfing the net with her TV on in the background.

Taeyeon closed her eyes, and then she squeezed them even tighter shut.

Tiffany could ignore her calls easily enough, but there was no way she could know it was Taeyeon knocking on the door. And there were no sounds of footsteps or anything. Tiffany really wasn’t there.

She turned and lashed out a foot, kicking the door with a sharp jab that reverberated down the hall. It wasn’t satisfying. She kicked it again, and again, feeling the anger rising at the back of her skull. It made her so, so mad that Tiffany wasn’t there. She was supposed to be there. It was a time when she was normally there, when she would be right there and Taeyeon would know where she was, and she could see Tiffany again and know that it was all right.

She smashed her fists against the door over and over, and kicked it, and tried her best to make it break and shatter so that it could suck the world away as it disappeared.

Tiffany was supposed to be there. Tiffany should have been there. Taeyeon came here because she knew Tiffany would be here. And then she could get questions, and answers, and she could get another glimpse of Tiffany’s face and smell her scent and bask in the warmth of her glow.

She missed Tiffany, and the ache reached out from her heart and pulled the blanket of anger from her mind.

She slumped against the door.

Tears cracked through her eyes. She let the sobs take her.

She turned, angling her face upwards to blind her eyes with the brightness of the light in the ceiling. She slid down the door, feeling the back of her jacket ride up and the harshness of the door scrape against her bare skin.

Tiffany wasn’t there anymore. How did she know this was reality? Reality was supposed to be different, it was supposed to be a world where she could go see Tiffany and know she was still there, still real.

What if it was all a hallucination?

With an absent hand, Taeyeon wiped away the wetness on her face, her lungs calming down and smoothing out her breaths. She looked at her shoes, not really seeing them, and wondered if anything was real.

But if this could be a hallucination, this world where Tiffany was no longer here, then what if everything was always a hallucination? What if Tiffany had never been real at all, just a dream that Taeyeon thought up while she slept and that kept her warm during the night and then left her when she woke up.

She closed her eyes.

She was tired.

All she ever wanted, in reality or in hallucination, was Tiffany. Tiffany was her hallucination and her reality.

But Tiffany wasn’t here anymore.

And Taeyeon was losing her grip on reality and her hallucinations.

Yes. (6; Tightening the Knot)

The day dawned normally, going from black to a beautiful blend of dark blue and deep grey. This was the sky that rested above Taeyeon and Tiffany as they sat in Taeyeon’s car, tucked away in an alley across the street from the Pink Flamingo hotel. The city buildings were quiet, unmoving, and tall around them. The first sign of life was the staff bustling in and out of the hotel, followed by a tired-looking businessman paying off his taxi driver before dragging himself inside.

Tiffany uncapped the thermos and poured some coffee into the cup, which she held out to Taeyeon.

“Thanks,” Taeyeon said, fighting a blush. She was getting better at controlling them. She took a sip and picked something conversational to say. “You don’t seem to mind being up this early.”

“Normally I would hate it,” Tiffany replied, pouring herself some coffee in another cup. “But this is important, and while I may not be willing to get up this early for most stuff, I’m always willing when it’s important.”

Taeyeon nodded, and trained her eyes on the hotel again.

“How about you?” Tiffany continued, glancing at her. “Do you do a lot of stakeouts at dawn?”

“Ha, no. I’ve done it a few times, but only when absolutely necessary. Sometimes if there needs to be a stakeout arranged when I can’t get the information otherwise, I ask Sooyoung and Yuri to do it for me. Well, usually just one of them, otherwise they distract each other. Actually Sooyoung is best at it.”

“Isn’t kind of weird though, sitting in a car, staring at something for hours?”

“Well, yeah. But it counts as work. I’m working. As a licensed private investigator, I’m just doing my job; as a random civilian tourist, you’re kind of weird sitting in car staring at something for hours.”

Tiffany laughed. “I see how it is. But it’s not exactly the most exciting part of investigating, is it.”

Taeyeon grimaced. “No, I don’t like it very much.”

Tiffany smiled. “You really don’t like doing things outside for your job, huh?”

This time, Taeyeon blushed self-consciously. She kept her gaze firmly on the hotel; a maid came out to collect something from the back of a car parked on the side of the road before going back inside.

“How do you even manage to do all that investigating just on the internet?”

Taeyeon shrugged, unable to get rid of her blush. “It’s not just the internet. Well, I also use the internet for communication with real-life humans. I use them for information; sometimes they do things for me… It’s kind of hard to explain. I get the case, and I start thinking, and I examine all the information I have and I go searching for more, and I form theories and test them and so on. It’s easier to do from home than most people realise. Usually. This case is… special.”

Tiffany shuffled around and made room at her feet to put the thermos back in the bag. Taeyeon was checking the time on her watch when Tiffany stopped and said, “Oh my god, this is adorable!”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened and she panicked, because Tiffany sat up and in her hand was a slightly blurry polaroid of –

“Oh,” Taeyeon said, reluctant, panicky, and feeling faint.

Taeyeon, aged 17.

“Is this you in high school?” Tiffany asked, grinning widely. “You’re so cute!”

“Ah, really,” Taeyeon half-laughed nervously, “what on earth is that doing here,” and she hid her face behind the camera and muttered darkly, “Sooyoung.”

Tiffany was giggling, possibly because of Taeyeon’s reaction and possibly just because of the photo, and Taeyeon felt herself erupt into a mega-blush and tried to be absorbed into the camera that she was pressing into her face as much as she could while wearing her glasses. She hammered her finger onto the button a few times and took out-of-focus shots of a lamp-post, the edge of the hotel’s roof, an abandoned disposable coffee cup, and a wispy-looking tree.

“What are you doing in this photo?” Tiffany asked, sounding amazed as she stared at it, still beaming.

It was a reasonable question to ask because in the photo, Taeyeon was frying an egg on her forehead. Or at least that’s how it seemed.

“Oh, I don’t really know,” Taeyeon said off-handedly, holding her camera on her lap and fidgeting intently with it. “I think I had just finished exams and my brain was overheated.”

Tiffany laughed again, so hard it drifted into soundlessness and she dropped the photo and clapped her hands together a few times, startling Taeyeon. “That’s great! Overheated… You’re so funny, Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon nervously arranged her face into a smile, eyeing Tiffany to see if the laughter was with her or at her. It seemed to be appreciative laughter, enjoying the joke of a brain so heated from study that it could fry an egg. A success, then, Taeyeon decided, and relaxed a tiny bit. She averted her gaze again, conscious of the fact that Tiffany was absolutely radiant when she laughed, and eventually the car settled into a warm silence.

A man in black clothes came sprinting around a corner, heading towards the hotel. Taeyeon quickly took off her glasses, picked up her camera, held it up to her eye and aimed it at him, tracking his progress. She caught a few snaps of him as he jogged towards the service entrance. When she lowered her camera again, she frowned. He was probably just a staff member who was late for work.

Tiffany was still silent and Taeyeon suddenly realised it was important. Tiffany was thinking about something, hesitant to say it, and Taeyeon was becoming terribly conscious of the tension.

She fiddled with the buttons on her camera, sharing her gaze between it and the sleepy hotel across the street.

“I know you’re suspicious of me,” Tiffany said suddenly, turning to face her with a stern expression. “And I can understand that. I suppose this case is turning messier than you thought it would be, isn’t it?”

Taeyeon blinked. “Yes.”

Tiffany sighed, looking away. “I’m sorry.”

There was silence again for a moment before Taeyeon fumbled to change her grip on her camera so that she could reach out and tap Tiffany on the shoulder a few times, awkward but intended to be comforting.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to be sorry,” she stuttered, “unless, well, unless you should be sorry because you’re a villain of some sort.”

Tiffany’s eyes met hers and she smiled again. “Thanks. And no, I’m not a villain. But I should be sorry, for getting you involved in this mess. It’s true, I made this case seem a lot simpler than it really is, but only because I thought if it could stay simple from your perspective then it would be easier for you to find -”

The interruption came in the form of the squealing brakes of a big black van with tinted windows, wiggling its way down the street with very little smoothness and altogether too much swaying. It ground to a halt right in front of the hotel, and its doors sprung open.

Taeyeon raised her camera again, the sound of the flickering shutter accentuating what they saw. Three burly men stepped out, one with a nasty black eye, and took a good look around them. Taeyeon could tell two of them had small concealed firearms and the third had a large knife tucked into his left boot. She took photos of them all, making sure to get their faces and the locations of their weapons, and hoping desperately that they wouldn’t see her and Tiffany, because they were scary-looking.

The men grabbed a bag each from inside the van and made way for another man to get out; tall, thin, impeccably dressed –

“Daniel Lee,” Taeyeon said, snapping a few photos of his face before moving the camera to watch him.

One of the men said something to Lee and got slapped upside the head in response. Lee rolled his eyes as he turned away, the man scurried around to open a door on the other side, and Lee slipped on some sunglasses for no apparent practical reason as the sun was not high enough to be a problem.

Taeyeon started taking photos again, only vaguely registering the sound of Tiffany pouring some more coffee beside her.

As the group gathered all their bags and moved away from the van, a valet jogged out to meet them and had the keys thrown at him. And as the van left, Taeyeon froze with her finger on the button.

“Well,” she said, camera still pressed to her eye. “This is unexpected.”

“What is it?” Tiffany asked, leaning forward and squinting at their area of interest.

“See that woman?”

The group made their way inside the hotel, one man in front and the other two following casually behind Lee and a woman with long blond hair.

“Hyoyeon,” Taeyeon stated. “A journalist, of sorts.”

The group disappeared and everything was silent again. The sky was turning pink.

Taeyeon lowered the camera and put her glasses back on, and then she sighed as she stared at the hotel.

“Is something wrong?” Tiffany asked eventually.

“I don’t know. Hyoyeon is… well, she’s known for getting all kinds of controversial ‘inside’ stories from big criminals and a few celebrities and politicians. That sort of thing. It’s the stories about the criminals that have always been the most impactful, though, because she literally finds out every single thing about some of the biggest crimes of our generation; stuff the cops didn’t even know.”

“Oh,” Tiffany said, looking at the front of the hotel. “What’s she doing here?”

“Probably not anything good. I did hear rumours that she was working on another book… something big. And she always has the exclusives on this stuff, so if she’s here then no one else knows what’s about to happen.”

“How did you know Daniel Lee would be arriving at the hotel so early?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “He likes to avoid crowds. Partly because he’s a snob and partly because he has a short temper and would probably kill anyone who made eye contact with him.”

Tiffany paused. “Oh.”

“I was hoping that if there was a woman with him, it might be your mother,” Taeyeon said, picking up her coffee.

Neither of them said anything for a while as Taeyeon sipped her coffee, and it was a pointed silence.

She could feel Tiffany’s gaze on the side of her face, but she kept her own eyes on the sight before her, checking out the hotel and the street as the city woke.

“Are you testing a theory?” Tiffany asked quietly.

Taeyeon nodded.

“Look, it’s a complicated situation, and I wasn’t sure how much I should tell you from the start because all you really need to do is find her and the other information would just make it complicated – well, it is complicated after all – but –”

Taeyeon cut into her rambling, looking at her. “Just tell me; are you really her daughter?”

Tiffany froze, mouth agape, and eventually blinked. She stammered for a moment. “Wh- Taeyeon, you – that’s not the-”

“It’s a simple enough question, I would have thought,” Taeyeon remarked, ignoring the way her heart was racing. “I just want to know if you’re really your mother’s daughter.”

Tiffany hesitated. “Well, yes, I’m my mother’s daughter… I just…”

“Then it’s fine, we don’t have a problem,” Taeyeon said curtly, and she put her coffee in the cup holder and picked up her camera again. “Hey, can you do me a favour, grab the little notebook from the bag and make a note of what we just saw. Something simple. Underline Hyoyeon’s name a few times.”

She knew she was still being foolish, and she cursed herself for it as she half-heartedly took pictures of a window cleaner and listened as Tiffany got out the notebook and started writing. Taeyeon was still too eager to disregard her suspicion of Tiffany, too interested in sweeping it under the carpet so that it was no longer an issue that loomed over their every interaction. She wanted to be able to hear Tiffany laugh more and get unbelievably anxious wondering if Tiffany liked her too. She didn’t want to have to confront her about her suspicions, or accuse her of lying, and she didn’t want to find the truth if it was something bad.

Something slammed against the window on Taeyeon’s side and she let out a high pitched squeal. She whipped her head around and saw a familiar face grinning at her from the other side, hand still spread on the glass where it hit moments before.

“Hello, detective,” said Hyoyeon. She rapped on the window with her knuckles. “Mind rolling down the window on this piece of junk?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes and lowered the window. “Don’t be rude to my car. How did you know we were here?”

Hyoyeon raised her eyebrows. “We?” She peeked around Taeyeon and smiled when she saw Tiffany. “Well, hello there. I’m Hyoyeon, award-winning journalist by day, caped crusader by night.”

Tiffany blinked and returned the smile uncertainly. “Hello.”

“How did you know we were here,” Taeyeon repeated dully, staring at Hyoyeon.

“Relax, Daniel Lee won’t know you’re here,” said Hyoyeon, resting herself against the car comfortably. “I only knew because I recognised your car as I walked out of the hotel. It had to be you, because who else would be sitting in an alley in the early hours of the morning, staking out a hotel that now holds Daniel Lee. Speaking of Lee, what exactly are you investigating, investigator?”

“I don’t discuss my cases with journalists,” Taeyeon replied crisply, ignoring the increasing sweatiness of her palms. So much confrontation in one day already. “Well, we’ve got to get going, nice to see you, bye.”

She buzzed up the window and started the car, barely giving Hyoyeon a chance to step back before gunning the engine and shooting forwards. As she paused by the mouth of the alley to check traffic, she heard Hyoyeon yell out, “Hey detective, give me a call if you find out anything big, okay?!”

The car moved into the street and Taeyeon drove them along, away from the hotel, and then she relaxed.

The hush as they waited at a red light was broken by Tiffany’s soft voice.

“Shouldn’t you have asked her about what she was doing, or something?”

Taeyeon sighed. “Yeah. I’ll send her an e-mail later.”

“And… well, do you think she would tell Daniel Lee she saw us?”

Taeyeon shrugged. The light changed and she drove. “I don’t think so. Hyoyeon knows it would put me in a lot of danger if she did that; she’s not that cruel. At least she wasn’t last time I checked. Telling Lee that I was spying on him would be like signing my death warrant. If I’m getting too close to whatever they’re up to, she’ll tell me to back off before I get hurt.”

They stopped at another light.

“Are you two friends?” Tiffany asked, curious.

Taeyeon shook her head immediately. “No, not at all. We encounter each other every now and then, and we’ve stayed on each other’s good side, so it’s more like we’re not enemies. But not friends.”

“I see,” said Tiffany, and she definitely sounded amused. “I get the impression you’re like that with most people.”

Taeyeon tilted her head, sparing Tiffany a glance while driving. “Oh?”

Tiffany smiled, more to herself, as she looked out the window. “Yeah. You seem like someone who would rather have a few really close friends than a lot of mediocre ones.”

“Hmm.” Taeyeon considered. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”

They reached Tiffany’s hotel and Taeyeon parked on the side of the road. When she turned off the engine, they sat quietly for a moment.

“So what happens now?” asked Tiffany, shifting in her seat to face Taeyeon, who fought that familiar blush again at the eye contact.

“Now you go do tourist-y things,” she said after a moment. “I’ll have to figure out another way to see what Lee gets up to at his hotel. And I need to check out a couple of other things I’m checking out,” she finished lamely, struggling briefly with herself to be reminded that Tiffany was still under some suspicion.

Tiffany watched her for a long time, and then she let out a sigh. She reached for Taeyeon’s hand and held it, which caused Taeyeon to internally melt and recover about a million times before her head stopped spinning – but her heart was doing backflips.

Tiffany’s hand was wonderfully warm and cosy, soft and gentle. Taeyeon felt like she was about to start floating.

“I am keeping a few secrets,” Tiffany admitted. “There is something I haven’t told you about this case, and it is pretty big. But… it’s just better if you don’t know it, at least not yet, because the case may look complicated now but it’ll just get worse if you know this. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you in the first place. I figured if I kept it simple then it would be simple for you to do it. Right now it’s not looking like it was the best idea in the world, I acknowledge that, but I need you to trust me for a bit.”

She was stroking Taeyeon’s hand with her thumb – making Taeyeon’s brain start to burn; she could probably fry an egg on her forehead for real now. It was so comfortable, and comforting, and it was only a little bit of contact but it was enough to lull her into a haze of Tiffany.

So she nodded slowly, gazing at their hands.

“It’s just for a bit, okay?” Tiffany continued, leaning closer. “Heck, you might even find out soon anyway. You really are a good investigator; I’m seeing it all first-hand now.”

Of course, she was an investigator, Taeyeon remembered. And she was investigating something really weird. And she decided she would trust Tiffany to explain it all to her when the time was right, if she didn’t find it out for herself before then. Which meant – well, it actually meant that nothing had really changed in their situation. Tiffany was still sort of under suspicion, Taeyeon still didn’t know what was going on, and the investigation continued.

Except, Tiffany was holding her hand. That was new. And very nice.

“Okay,” said Taeyeon, looking up with a dazed expression that she was slowly starting to get self-conscious about.

What if Tiffany thought her reaction was weird?

Embarrassment latched its claws into her and dragged her back. She smoothly removed her hand from Tiffany’s and cleared her throat.

“Okay,” she repeated, putting her hands firmly on the steering wheel and avoiding all eye contact with Tiffany. “I’ll trust you on this. See you when I see you.”

She could see out of the corner of her eye that Tiffany was wearing that amused little smile again, and she deliberately shifted her scrutiny to her side mirror at the oncoming traffic.

“See you later, Taeyeon,” said Tiffany, her voice pleased, and then she got out and closed the door behind her.

Taeyeon waited a few seconds, and then leaned over to look out of the passenger window, watching Tiffany make it safely into her hotel.

Then she turned and banged her head against the steering wheel twice.

“Must you turn into an awkward little turtle so often,” she groaned at herself.

Half of her wanted to slap herself for being so weird, and the other half wanted to slap herself for so easily being dazed by even Tiffany’s slightest touch. If Tiffany was trouble, then Taeyeon was falling right into whatever web she was spinning.

But she knew it was far too late. She had known it for quite while already; Tiffany was truly irresistible. And she didn’t even really want to resist Tiffany. Specifically, she didn’t want to have to resist her. But then even if there wasn’t that overhanging suspicion and confusion, she would just get all weird and nervous every time they interacted anyway.

“Ugh,” she grimaced, “who was the idiot who decided to allow me into adulthood.”

And wasn’t it so charming of Tiffany to make a thermos of coffee for their stakeout? Taeyeon hadn’t even thought of that, but there it was. So thoughtful, and kind.

But wasn’t it also highly suspicious that she was definitely hiding something and (successfully) convincing Taeyeon to just go along with the deception? There wasn’t really any reason for Taeyeon to allow herself to ignore her suspicions anymore. It was confirmed, and in the open.

“Bleh.”

She shook her head rapidly, started the car, and carefully blended into the growing morning traffic.

When she got back to her apartment, having carefully kept her mind empty of Tiffany, she found Sooyoung sprawled on the couch with a bowl of cereal, watching television.

“Good morning,” Taeyeon said, crossing her arms and staring at her uninvited guest. “How nice of you to join me without being requested to at all.”

Sooyoung waved. “You’re welcome.”

Taeyeon sighed and threw herself down onto the couch, shunting aside Sooyoung’s limbs, and prepared to let the television numb her head.

“So how was your date?”

Or not.

She flicked her head to face Sooyoung, her face blank. “What date. It wasn’t a date. It was a stake out.”

“Right,” Sooyoung said, and winked. “A stakeout with a client at dawn. As if that’s a regular occurrence. Anything interesting happen?”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. The question wasn’t totally about her crush on Tiffany, so she figured Sooyoung wasn’t intending to be completely annoying today.

“We saw Daniel Lee arrive in his usual style, but with a surprise guest star. Hyoyeon was with him.”

Sooyoung sat up and looked suitably surprised. “What on earth was she doing there… do you think she knows something about what he’s up to?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Probably. I’m going to send her an e-mail later. She rumbled our stakeout so I’ll have to set up another monitor on Lee.”

“The plot thickens,” Sooyoung remarked, relaxing again and eating her cereal. “This is quite a case after all, isn’t it, and not just because you have a crush on your client.”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes; maybe Sooyoung was planning to be annoying after all.

“Have you heard anything from Yuri?”

Sooyoung shook her head. “Nothing. I don’t even know if she got my message; I had to leave a voicemail. I sent her an e-mail too, just in case.”

Taeyeon groaned, squeezing her eyes shut and throwing her head back in frustration.

She still had no idea what the lipstick was about. She didn’t know who was trying to scare her and Tiffany and Sunny. She didn’t know what Lee was up to. She didn’t understand what Tiffany was hiding and why, and how much more complex this mess could get. She really needed some answers.

She frowned, eyes still closed, as she ran over everything in her head more than once.

“Sooyoung,” she started, “have I ever been shot in the leg while in a restaurant?”

“… Pardon?”

Taeyeon opened her eyes and met Sooyoung’s inquisitive gaze.

“Have I ever been shot in the leg while in a restaurant? Ever since that darn lipstick became such a big part of my conscious thinking, I’ve had this dream and this feeling of being shot in the leg while in a restaurant, and there’s a woman who’s wearing the lipstick that was used to write the messages. So, have I -”

“That’s pretty weird, Taeyeon,” Sooyoung observed, watching her friend closely. “And no, you’ve never been shot in the leg while in a restaurant. Unless it happened before I knew you, which I doubt.”

Taeyeon sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

She leaned her head back again, let her eyes close, and they settled into relaxation again.

Then she raised her head again and said, “Oh and by the way, why was there a certain polaroid lying on the floor of my car?!”

Sooyoung immediately looked innocent. “What? I have no idea what you mean.”

“It was so embarrassing,” Taeyeon said, glaring. “I’m supposed to be a competent private investigator, but now she has seen me with an egg on my face. Literally.”

Sooyoung grinned. “I know. Isn’t it brilliant?”

“No!”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“I think you mean yes.”

“No!”

“I’m pretty sure you mean yes.”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’s okay. You do mean yes, though.”

“Sooyoung…”

“Want some cereal?”

“… Yes.”

Love More

 A/N: I just realised there’s a chris brown song with this name. this is not related. sharon van etten.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Taeyeon watched them from behind a glass wall, her eyes tracing over their faces moving in slow motion, the stretch of their muscles and the flash of their teeth as they screamed. Some had their eyes shut, some were wide and drilling her with a stare that was about to burn.

Tiffany stood next to her, turning her head as she examined them too. There was no sound, just their actions and the feelings they stirred in Tiffany and Taeyeon’s hearts, undeniable and human. Tiffany closed her eyes, blocking them, and inhaled. She listened to the sound of her own breath, quiet and measured.

Taeyeon leaned her head back, staring at the darkness above her and it was as if the darkness stared back, too. There were eyes everywhere, after all.

Tiffany let her chin drop as she opened her eyes again, and wiggled her toes as if they were making contact with something softer and warmer than the insides of her shoes.

They looked at each other, and smiled an instinctive smile, and then they meant it. Their hands came together, fingers interweaving, and they turned that smile to those on the other side of the glass that was not there. The yells and cries were piercing, their feet were on the hard stage, and they took off running, grinning, singing, laughing.

They’ll close their eyes later, still breathless from the energy they’ve given, and whisper to each other.

“Will this end?”

“Doesn’t everything?”

“They made me love it more. You made me love more.”

“Then maybe this will never really end.”

Yes. (5; the Blinding Sunshine)

5; the Blinding Sunshine

 

“Do you ever just randomly forget things?”

Taeyeon stopped spooning flavoured ice into her mouth and turned her head to look at Tiffany beside her. She raised her eyebrows briefly, and lowered her spoon before answering.

“Well, yes,” she said. “Everyone does. It’s a common feature of the human brain.”

Tiffany looked thoughtful for a while, pushing flavoured ice around in its small cup with her little plastic spoon.

“I forgot quite a lot of things about my mother after she was gone. I wish I didn’t. I wanted to remember everything about her.”

Taeyeon blinked, and then when she realised the seriousness of the comment, she swallowed. She wasn’t sure if she should say anything – and she didn’t know what to say if she were to say anything.

They had been shopping for most of the day, trailing from store to store, and in each ocean of clothing Tiffany would fawn over a few pieces and only flick the edges of some before moving on. Taeyeon was trying to establish a pattern in her behaviour in an attempt to figure out what she wanted. When Taeyeon went shopping she had a clear image and specifications of the main thing that she wanted, and a range of variables for other things that she would browse for. Tiffany didn’t seem to have a goal, and she bought clothes with no linear connection that Taeyeon could establish. For example, the two tops she bought so far were too different – one long sleeved, made of thick and soft material, and the other short sleeved and thin and wispy. The pants were one pair of tight black jeans and a pair of cut-off faux-denim shorts. She wasn’t buying for winter and she wasn’t buying for summer; she was buying for both. It was taking a while to get used to it. She wondered if Tiffany would forget about the things she bought for future seasons and end up not even wearing them when those seasons came around.

She didn’t even need to psyche herself up much before suggesting they break for refreshments, her need for rest and energy becoming more pressing than her awkwardness.

And she was still awkward; there was no doubt about it. They talked about the clothes, the atmosphere of stores and the shopping centre, the weather, Tiffany’s hotel, the number of people out shopping at this time of day, and with everything they talked about Taeyeon would overthink it and stutter a little. When she was talking with Sooyoung or Yuri, they talked about things, with purposes and practicality and development. When she was talking with Tiffany, it was like they were talking about nothing and everything at the same time – things she didn’t usually bother talking about, like the look on that man’s face when his kid pretended loudly that his flavoured yellow ice was related to urination. It was just a thing that happened; Tiffany knew it, and Taeyeon knew it. She wasn’t used to stating something that they both already clearly knew implicitly and didn’t have a further path. It was like stating the obviousness of something they both already knew and didn’t need clarification on for any purpose.

So when Tiffany brought up the topic of forgetting and her mother, Taeyeon was a little frozen and quite panicky. What did people do in this situation? Should she say something sympathetic, casual, sombre? Perhaps she shouldn’t speak.

She glanced at Tiffany out of the corner of her eye. No more words came; Tiffany was silent again, staring into her cup of pink ice as if she was gazing into a crystal ball that showed some far-off universe.

She went back to her own ice, shifting her gaze around and trying not to act as jumpy as she was starting to feel. On the one hand, the mention of Tiffany’s mother made her conscious of her awkwardness in this social situation, but on the other hand the mention of Tiffany’s mother’s disappearance also reminded her of the case.

Randomly forgot things. Like what happened when she left? It seemed a bit much.

She stopped being jumpy, closed her eyes for a moment, and sighed as quietly as she could. She was really starting to dislike the layer of suspicion that was blanketing her every action more frequently during the events of the past few days.

Her phone beeped. She checked to make sure it didn’t startle Tiffany out of whatever reverie she was in, and then she looked at the screen.

A message from Info890515.

I know you’ve talked to Seohyun. I agree, we should meet. Face to face. This afternoon, 4pm. I’ll send you the location thirty minutes before the meeting.

Taeyeon nodded to herself, and replied with a brief affirmative. She couldn’t avoid the case forever. It was better to follow that lead and get to work.

But she did still allow herself to hope that whatever she found in her investigation would not incriminate Tiffany.

She checked her watch – there was almost two hours left before her meeting with her informant. Tiffany was still looking at her ice, her eyes intent and tinged with longing. It was undeniable.

“Um,” Taeyeon said eloquently.

Tiffany looked up, still absent for a moment, and then her face cleared and she seemed to realise she had been on another planet for quite some time.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, how rude of me,” she babbled immediately, and Taeyeon could almost see her sweeping her thoughts under a carpet in her mind and bustling around to fill up the space with other things, normal things. “I didn’t mean to space out like that.”

She was fiddling with her cup, Taeyeon noted.

“It’s fine,” she said, giving Tiffany a smile. “You must still be jet-lagged, I wouldn’t be surprised. I have to meet someone in a while, so perhaps I should escort you back to your hotel now?”

“Oh,” Tiffany replied, no longer fiddling, absorbing the words, “Oh, alright then. Is it related to the case? My case?”

Taeyeon made a split-second decision. “No. One of my informants is being threatened by a local crime boss. I’m hoping they can give me some useful information that can lead to that crime boss.”

Not technically a lie. In a way, this was a case within a case – finding the would-be assassin possibly sent by Daniel Lee that was threatening her informant and launching pseudo-attacks on her and Tiffany. The connection to Tiffany’s mother was unclear.

Tiffany seemed to accept it.

They took off in the direction of Tiffany’s hotel, discarding their cups into a rubbish bin along the way.

“So how long have you been a private investigator?” Tiffany asked conversationally, running a hand through her hair as she spoke and briefly baring the side of her smooth neck as she did so.

“Uh,” Taeyeon dithered, and blinked in another direction. “A few years now.”

“What kind of cases do you get?” They crossed a street. “Like, I thought private investigators usually get stuck with divorce stuff – following someone’s spouse around to snap pictures of cheating. It never seemed particularly interesting in real life, compared to stuff on TV.”

Taeyeon smiled slightly. “Well, I’ve had my fair share of follow-the-cheater cases. They’re alright. Not very exciting but not always bone-crushingly boring. Sometimes they can be quite surprising. I was on this one case where the wife – middle-aged, stay-at-home, two kids – asked me to find out what her husband was getting up to every Saturday. He told her he was getting into golf, but she doubted him. He always hated golf. So anyway, I followed him when he left home early one Saturday – way too early for a golfer – and it turned out he’d been taking his son fishing.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet!” Tiffany gushed; face lighting up with her instinctive grin.

Taeyeon hummed a note. “No, no. His other son. From his other family.”

“O-Oh…”

“Yeah. She poured a bucket of fish on his head when she kicked him out of the house.”

They walked on in silence for a while after that, staring at their feet on the pavement. Taeyeon thought about all the notable cases she’d had so far. Most of them were dealt with from her own home, puzzles solved using her mind and her connections. She only took the follow-the-cheater cases when Sooyoung and Yuri convinced her she needed to get some fresh air. Even then, she tried to avoid direct contact with her client. She soon realised she was filtering her memories in search of another case that would make Tiffany go ‘aw’ with that lovely smile. There weren’t many options.

They reached the hotel without saying anything else, both lost in their own thoughts, and stood before the entrance.

“Thanks,” Tiffany spoke first, beaming at Taeyeon. “I had a good day today. You’re right; it was nice to get away from the case for a while, especially after getting thrown into it like that as soon as I arrived. I hope things will be alright.” She held up her bags. “And I got some nice clothes.”

Taeyeon eyed her for a while, not saying anything, and Tiffany lowered the bag, raising her eyebrows questioningly.

“I just want you to understand something,” Taeyeon said, her voice firmer than her conviction. “Things changed with this case the moment we got shot at. In fact, the moment you touched down in Seoul. This case is not the same. Now it’s dangerous, and a lot bigger than it seemed.”

She paused, and then she stepped closer slightly.

“When I find the woman you have asked me to find,” she continued, “this case better not blow up in my face.”

Tiffany frowned instantly, and for a moment Taeyeon was convinced that she had taken the wrong path and followed the wrong instinct – that perhaps Tiffany was innocent and unknowing. But then Tiffany didn’t respond. Taeyeon was a little disappointed.

“I’ll contact you,” she said, stepping away. “I suggest you don’t venture too far from your hotel, at least for today. You have my number in case you think you are in danger. And, um, I had a nice time, too.” She couldn’t resist.

She turned and walked away, leaving Tiffany to stare after her with the same frown. When she got on the bus to go home, she closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the window. Regret washed over her rapidly, gone as quick as it came. Her nerves settled slowly, no longer buzzing.

But it was something that needed to be done now, before it was too late.

She called Sooyoung when she got home and told her she would be meeting the informant later, so that Sooyoung would know there was a chance of danger and be able to know when something was wrong. But she wouldn’t be telling Sooyoung where the meeting was – she wanted to retain her informant’s trust. As long as Sooyoung knew the situation, she could track her down.

She played console games half-heartedly as the clock ticked along to three-thirty. She didn’t focus much on the gameplay, thoughts wandering between the case and Tiffany and her resistance to see them as the same thing. She hadn’t been seeing Tiffany as part of the case until recently, or at least not a vital part. Tiffany was the client. The client usually just placed the order; they weren’t meant to be an ingredient in what was served at the end. Tiffany was separate until now: Taeyeon felt like she could treat her differently. Which in other words meant that she could convince herself to socialize with her, and remember the way her hair moved over her cheek, and think about the way her pulse must have been making a rhythm in the softness of her neck, and that damned smile.

She sighed. This had never been a problem before. She’d had crushes, with no clear pattern, but this was the furthest she had ever pursued her feelings, and she wondered if it was because Tiffany was any different; if her feelings were stronger or just more addictive.

Tiffany was addictive, that was for sure. Taeyeon really needed to get her out of her head.

She realised her character had been sizzled by a laser blast and grimly stared at the screen that asked her if she wanted to start from her last save.

What did she even know about Tiffany? Nothing, as it turned out. Except that she was caring, emotional, friendly, warm, thoughtful, kind, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, and her beauty seemed to be so obvious at all times, as if she was just that gorgeous no matter what and she didn’t even know it, she wasn’t doing anything in particular to make it happen.

Taeyeon put a hand over her chest. She cursed softly. Her heart really just fluttered; since when was that even a thing that actually happened?

She threw the controller down beside her on the couch and stood, checking her watch. Five minutes until she would get the message about the location.

She scribbled down a few notes on what she wanted to talk about with her informant. The messages, any other threats, Daniel Lee – she decided she would venture a line of questioning into the gas station heist. There had to be something going on behind that. And the lipstick. And if things were going well, she would flat-out mention Tiffany and her mother.

Her phone beeped. She grabbed her car keys.

Info890515 was a petite, well-built young woman who kept her body deliberately small-looking; she hunched her shoulders, kept her hands firmly shoved into her pockets, and she was wearing the hood of her jacket over her head. Taeyeon could see her hair was short, and seemed kind of blonde. She was checking her out from inside her car, across the road, and she glanced at her watch. She would be one minute late. She looked again at her informant, who was glancing around and shifting her feet nervously as she stood outside of the library. The area around them was not deserted, but there were very few people wandering around.

Taeyeon got out of her car and cautiously made her way across the road. Their eyes met before she even stopped, and then they stood and watched each other.

“You can call me Sunny,” said Sunny, breaking the silence. Her expression was sombre. “I don’t like meeting people in person like this – it’s not like I’m a full-time informant. If people saw me telling tales, I’d lose a lot.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Okay, I understand. I don’t like meeting people either. It’s a shame our previous arrangement will most likely be terminated.”

Sunny sighed. “Yeah. I’m going to lose all my connections when word gets out that Daniel Lee has his sights set on me.”

“And does he? Are you sure it’s him?”

Sunny glanced around again, but more casually this time, and then she said, “Yes. I know a lot about the situation, and I’ll tell you right now that I won’t be able to give you all my information. I have to protect myself better than that.”

“Why are you meeting me at all?”

Sunny met her gaze again. “Seohyun told me you and your client were attacked. Lee wouldn’t kill me; he’s just determined to chase me away. And he might succeed. I want to at least give you a hand. I know you’re smart, you can figure it out.”

Taeyeon angled her head in acknowledgement. She whipped out the small piece of paper from her pocket.

“Alright, tell me about the message on your windshield.”

“The words ‘shut your mouth’ written in all capitals, red lipstick – Dior Addict Extreme, shade 756 Fireworks – steady hand, confident, surprisingly not particularly emotional. They were either given the words to write or they were writing those particular words for a reason other than aggression. I’d guess the writer was female. I’ll email you the photos of my windscreen later.”

Taeyeon mulled over this information for a while in her mind. Now she had the brand and shade of the lipstick. A simple check later would confirm if it was the same lipstick that was used on her car. She frowned. She still got that itching at the back of her mind; the name of the lipstick didn’t trigger the memory she knew was lurking there, but she knew there had to be something. She took a breath and looked at Sunny again.

“When did it happen, and where were you and your car?”

“The day after I told you where Daniel Lee would be,” Sunny said. “My car was in the driveway of my house. It was fine when I drove home from work, then the next morning when I was about to drive to work, it was there. No suspicious sounds or sightings during the night. I checked with my neighbours.”

“Alright,” Taeyeon replied, and she tucked her little piece of paper away. She stuck her hands in her pockets and cast a cursory glance over their surroundings. “Have you received any other threats?”

“Not yet. And I’d like it to stay that way, so let’s cut this short. Anything else you want to ask, do it now.”

Taeyeon had to make a choice; she could either ask about Tiffany’s mother or Daniel Lee’s gas station incident. She bit her bottom lip briefly, and pushed her glasses more into place.

“Daniel Lee is planning something big,” she said matter-of-factly. “What’s he after?”

Sunny scoffed and shook her head. “Of course you have to ask me the one question that could get me killed. Mr Lee is an ambitious man, you understand. I’ll give you one more question. Make it quick.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows but didn’t express her surprise. “Do you know anything of a woman with Lee? His girlfriend, wife, whatever?”

Sunny made a so-so motion with her hand before sticking it back in her pocket. “I hear things. But I hear all kinds of things. Maybe there’s a woman, maybe she’s calling herself Choi, but we all know that’s not very useful in this country. Look, people say a lot of things about Lee. I haven’t seen or heard her with my own eyes.”

Taeyeon let out a sigh. “Alright,” she said again. “Thanks for your help. That friend of yours from the hospital, she’s a good friend. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

She turned to leave before stopping and half-angling her body back. She gave Taeyeon a closed look.

“I know more or less what you’re thinking right now,” she said. “You’ve taken my words on face-value before, but know that you know a bit more about me, it makes you wonder more about how I get my information and how reliable I am. So you’ll take what I’ve given you and you won’t take it for granted but you won’t know how to take it. Obviously I can’t tell you where I’m getting it from, but please understand that it’s all true, and real, and serious.”

Taeyeon watched her for a moment, and then she nodded without a word.

“And maybe go visit that friend of mine from the hospital every now and then,” Sunny continued, in the same tone but with a different light in her eyes. “She’s a good kid.”

The corner of Taeyeon’s mouth kinked in a little smile. “Yeah.”

She watched Sunny disappear around a corner, and she went and sat in her car. The closed space muted the sounds of the outside world, and she stared intently at her steering wheel, thinking.

Sunny had said Daniel Lee was an ambitious man. Taeyeon clicked her tongue as a theory formed in her mind. She needed to find out more about that gas station.

Her phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hey, you okay?” Sooyoung.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Got some good information. Do me a favour, ask Yuri if she could come back a bit sooner? I really need her to work her magic with some police files.”

Sooyoung snorted on the other end of the line. “Her magic? Alright, alright. I’m sure she’ll love it.”

“Why do you both react that way?” Taeyeon asked, finally giving in to her curiousity. “What does she do to get information?”

“She talks,” said Sooyoung innocently. “You know, chatting. She’s very friendly. She’s charismatic.”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. “I see.”

“Do you really?”

“Yes, of course.” She didn’t completely, but she knew more or less which way the arrow was pointing. “She did mention in one of her e-mails that she was enjoying the people in America…” Taeyeon dropped, angling for a reaction that would answer her unspoken questions.

Sooyoung let out a laugh. “Of course she did. People. Wow, that girl is really something. So you want me to ask her to come back as soon as she can?”

“Yeah – wait! No!” Taeyeon’s jaw dropped as a light bulb lit up in her head. “She’s in America!”

The slow, uncertain blink was almost audible in Sooyoung’s voice. “Yes, she is.”

“Tell her to find out what she can about Tiffany and her mother. She might be able to talk to people better.”

“Ah,” Sooyoung replied knowingly. “Yeah, she can talk to people, all right. Okay, I’ll pass it on. Anything else? You want to have a briefing with Tiffany?”

Taeyeon frowned. “Why would I have a briefing with Tiffany? I don’t have anything to tell her yet.”

“Your informant didn’t tell you anything big?”

“She did, but it needs to be confirmed and developed. I still have nothing that indicates if Tiffany is involved with whatever this is. Oh, and we need to find out more about that gas station Daniel Lee hit.”

There was a long pause from the other end before Sooyoung said, “Okay. Hey, how was your date with Tiffany?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t a date.” She hesitated. “But it was nice.”

Sooyoung must have been grinning. “Oh it was nice, was it? That’s nice.”

A car sped by with a blare of its horn and Taeyeon’s nerves shot up. She glanced around through all her windows, on high alert, but nothing was happening. The car twisted around a corner and the street was quiet again. She waited, her heartbeat thumping in her ears, and she realised she had dropped her phone. She took a careful look around, assured herself there wasn’t anything to worry about, and picked up her phone again.

“-lo? Taeyeon, are you there?”

“I’m fine,” Taeyeon said quickly. “Just being paranoid. I’d better get out of here. I’ll talk to you later, okay? Remember, call Yuri.”

“Yes, boss,” Sooyoung said, her joviality tinted with uncertainty.

They hung up, and Taeyeon took a few more deep breaths before she started the car’s engine.

The streets were quiet in the areas she drove through, afternoon turning to evening and bringing a cold, brittle edge to the sky outside. She turned on the heater on its lowest setting and tapped lightly on the steering wheel in a simple rhythm. Her eyes were focused, checking everything, assessing every person in a car or on the footpath.

She glimpsed a banner advertising an event that occurred over the weekend and started thinking about the date. The weekend was almost over, and Daniel Lee was booked in at the Pink Flamingo Hotel from Monday to Saturday. She knew what she had to do.

A soft drizzle of rain started, dusting her windshield. She flicked on the wipers, a little faster than they needed to be.

She stopped her car at a red traffic light and whistled lightly to herself.

By the time she made it home, she made a decision.

A stakeout at the hotel at dawn the next morning, and she would be bringing Tiffany along.

Yes. (4; Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

4; Breakfast at Tiffany’s

 

Taeyeon dreamed of a restaurant. It was big, and busy, and too bright. The light was the first thing to hit her, causing her to squint her eyes as she stood by the entrance. The maître’d completely ignored her, choosing instead to face the wall and stoically remain unmoving.

She moved her gaze from the back of his head and swept over the restaurant before her. The brightness of the light made it hard to see clearly, the edges of some people blurred by the sharpness that infringed on their form. She would need to get closer.

There was a group of three figures at the nearest table.

She lifted her leg to step towards them and was hit by a searing pain in her knee. It made her crumple and squeeze her eyes shut as she grabbed at her leg. The agony was steady, starting hard and staying that way with no fluctuation, no sign of fading.

“No?” a voice said uncertainly.

Taeyeon’s eyes opened and she saw someone in front of her. At least, she assumed it was a person, because the shape was vaguely humanoid and the voice sounded feminine. The person was not moving, their body perfectly still, unnaturally so. There seemed to be a light in the ceiling right above them, because their face was nearly impossible to see.

“No, what was that?” the voice said again, still sounding uncertain.

Taeyeon frowned. The pain in her knee disappeared in a flash. She stood up, but it was as if the angle of her vision had not changed, for the person’s face was still blocked by the light. She leaned closer.

“No, what the hell was that?”

This time she could see something where the face was. A part of the lower face, the faint curve of a chin – and lips that moved with the words spoken.

Her eyes widened.

“The lipstick.”

She tried to look into the person’s eyes, screwing her eyelids nearly shut, and tears prickled with the pressure of the light.

“It’s you,” she said.

“No -?”

“I know this is a dream,” Taeyeon interrupted, frowning at those lips that were parted in mid-sentence. “But it’s you. Why do you keep saying that? I’m in a restaurant, my knee hurts, and you keep saying those words. Who are you? I know you. I know -”

Her head vibrated with the ringing of her mobile phone. The lips faded.

“I know –” Taeyeon mumbled, and she was shrouded in darkness again. “I know…”

The ringing came back and she opened her eyes slowly. She felt cooler, as if she just stepped out of a hot room into the chilly night air. She took a few breaths, breathing in the air that seemed fresher. And then she answered the phone that lay on her bedside table.

“Hello?” she sounded groggy, more asleep than she felt, and the haziness caught up with her again.

“Hey!” greeted a cheery voice. “Did I wake you?”

Taeyeon blinked, and frowned. “Yes, I suppose you did.”

“Well, I have good news for you.”

“That’s nice. Who are you?”

There was a sharp intake of shocked breath. “What? Really? I leave the country for a couple of months and you don’t know me anymore? Dear super-detective Taeyeon, you are in bad form.”

Taeyeon took a moment to process.

“Yuri?”

“And now you get it! Yes my dear comrade, it is I. Now do you want to hear the news?”

Taeyeon glanced at the dials of her wristwatch on the bedside table. “Not really. I’m quite hungry. I slept later than usual.”

Yuri sighed, the breathiness pushing through the phone to convey her wearying troubles. “So this is how it is now. I leave for a short trip and now you don’t know my voice, don’t have time to hear what I have to say –”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes, and rolled out of bed. She listened to Yuri’s lengthy dramatic prose about the dilapidation of their friendship as she made her way to the kitchen. With one hand, she pulled out a bowl and poured some cereal into it.

“- I bet you’ve even forgotten all those times I got you police information -”

“Speaking of which, I may need you to do that for me again,” Taeyeon interrupted as she reached into the fridge for milk. “I don’t have many options for obtaining police information when you’re not around. You have great skill in that department.”

“And I enjoy it, too,” Yuri said, the smirk audible in her voice.

Taeyeon frowned a little in absent confusion. She had never really understood how Yuri got the information she needed. After the first few times of being brushed off when she asked, she decided it was best she didn’t know. She shook it off as she stuck her spoon in her cereal and started to eat.

“Which brings me to my good news,” Yuri said brightly. “Guess who is coming back to Seoul?”

“The Dalai Lama?”

There was silence from the other end of the line for a moment. Taeyeon crunched her cereal.

“Close enough,” Yuri said at last. “I’ll be back next week! Isn’t that brilliant?”

“It is,” Taeyeon answered, smiling slightly. “But why next week?”

“Oh, I just want to do a few more things before I go,” Yuri said airily. “Anyway, I’ll let you have your breakfast. I’ll email you the details of my glorious return later. Oh hey, how’s your new case going? I almost forgot to ask about it. This is the one you ditched your other cases for, right?”

Taeyeon stopped eating and swallowed. “I didn’t ‘ditch’ my other cases. I finished them and didn’t take on any new ones, that’s all. I’ve been meaning to take a break anyway, so cutting my workload down to one is a good way for me to take it easy.”

“Mhmm. Sooyoung has told me about your crush, so don’t bother trying to pretend it’s just professional.”

Taeyeon pouted. “Whatever.”

Her phone beeped into her ear. She moved it away from her ear to check the screen, and then talked to Yuri again.

“I have another call coming in. Email me later, okay? And don’t do anything too ridiculously stupid.”

“Oh you don’t need to worry about that. All I have planned for today is some BASE jumping. See you next week!”

Taeyeon blinked but didn’t get a chance to answer before Yuri hung up. Her phone beeped again and she switched over to the next call, mind still imagining the act of BASE jumping with a little mental cringe.

“Hello?”

“Hey, super-detective!” It was Sooyoung.

Taeyeon gave up on her cereal, at least for now, and grumbled, “Why is everyone calling me super-detective all of a sudden? I still have a name.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“You and Yuri. Everyone.”

“You talked to Yuri?”

“Yeah, she called me to tell me she’s coming back next week. Anyway what do you want?”

There was a sigh from Sooyoung’s end of the line. “Sometimes your choice of words could be construed as rudeness, but I know you love me. How about we go get some breakfast?”

She eyed her soggy cereal. “Yeah, sure. You’ll pick me up?”

“Be right there.”

When they ended the call, Taeyeon found herself staring at her phone. She tapped to open its photo gallery and went to the dark and blurry picture she had taken last night of her car’s wet windshield. She eyed the smudged lettering, wondering and going through ideas in her head. Really she was just going over the same questions that hadn’t been answered yet; why those words, why that lipstick, what lipstick, why was it familiar, why her, why the shooting – several of which had possible solutions but nothing solid. She had nothing to go on.

Her dream trickled back into her thoughts. That restaurant, that woman, that lipstick. She was certain it was about a time when she had seen that lipstick, and that was why it all seemed so familiar.

She scrunched her eyes shut.

Why was it familiar? What happened that time? Where was she?

A phantom of the pain in her leg returned briefly and she lightly held onto her knee for a moment, eyes still closed. A restaurant where her leg had suddenly been hurt and the woman with that lipstick had said something to her – but her words, they seemed more like something that would be screamed, perhaps. She wasn’t sure where she got that feeling from, but it was strong enough to be considered a lead to the truth.

After a few more moments of pondering the wisps of clues, she looked at her phone again. She exited the gallery and went to her email, scrolling through past messages with no direct focus in mind. Tiffany’s name came up a few times, and she checked out a few of the messages as her thoughts turned to Tiffany.

She went all the way back to a notification email of one of the first messages Tiffany had sent her, the initial contact to request her investigative services. As she gazed at the words, she clicked her tongue. There was something that bugged her, and she knew what it was.

Quickly she went to her room, flipped open the file on the corner of her desk, and ran her finger down the top page. There wasn’t much there.

It was her attempt at a profile on Tiffany Hwang, which she had spent quite a bit of time on during the early hours of the morning, with little result. All her searches revealed little – Tiffany was a journalist at a growing Los Angeles newspaper and also did freelance articles for online media publications. This much Taeyeon already knew from their internet interactions. Other than that, her family was not noteworthy except for some shady dealings with a loan shark by her father to pay for their house; she left little trace elsewhere as she had no online social networking accounts; and neither she nor her family had a known tendency to use aliases – but obviously that didn’t mean that they hadn’t been using them unofficially.

She didn’t want to be suspicious of Tiffany, if not because of the strange fluttering feeling she got in her chest then because the added layer of duplicity would make the case too complicated. She wasn’t in the mood for an overly complicated case. When she said she needed rest, she wasn’t kidding. She just wanted to spend a few weeks playing video games and eating food, with less of the mistrust and dislike that came from complicated cases. She thought this case would be simple enough even with the factor of Daniel Lee, but she knew now that something big was going on and it was going to give her a headache.

She was still deep in thought about it as she showered and pulled on some clothes, and when Sooyoung rang the doorbell she just opened the door and walked back into her room to find socks, without a word.

Sooyoung knew the look. Taeyeon was thinking hard, and usually she would just let her do her thing but this time she wanted to talk.

“Oh hey, I see your phone’s screen survived the fall,” she remarked, gesturing at the device in Taeyeon’s hand.

Taeyeon stared at her, mind still somewhere else for a while until she caught up. “Oh. Yeah. It was a bit weird for a while, the brightness settings seemed to have a life of their own, but it survived.”

“That’s good,” Sooyoung said, checking Taeyeon’s face. “You want to talk about the case right away or shall we get some food first?”

Taeyeon considered for a long, hard moment. “Food. I have too much in my head right now.”

It wasn’t until they were in the car and merging into traffic that Sooyoung dropped the bomb.

“So,” she began, “this may or may not help with the ‘too much’ in your brain, but I think you’ll like or dislike where we’ll be having breakfast.”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. “Please elaborate.”

“Well,” Sooyoung said, drawing the word out. “I called Tiffany this morning to see if she was okay, and we were talking, and she mentioned you were having lunch with her later, so I suggested we all have breakfast together.”

The car was quiet as Taeyeon processed this information.

“And she said yes,” Sooyoung added helpfully.

Taeyeon groaned softly. “It’s too early in the morning for social anxiety.”

“Oh you’ll be fine,” Sooyoung said, waving her hand dismissively. The car swerved slightly and she returned her hand to the steering wheel. “It’s Tiffany. You two got to know each other yesterday, didn’t you? Before the whole shooting thing.”

Taeyeon sighed. “I don’t know. I’m not sure if I know her at all.”

“She’s still a suspect?”

Taeyeon grimaced. “Well the word ‘suspect’ is a bit harsh. I mean, we don’t even know what crime – if any – has been committed. I don’t have any real ‘suspects’ per se. Just persons of interest.”

“So she’s a person of interest? Other than your personal interest in your person of interest, you think she may be involved with this?”

Taeyeon shook her head furiously, still scowling. “That’s just the thing, Sooyoung. I don’t even really know what ‘this’ is anymore. Something is going on but I get the feeling it’s not at all what I thought.”

They reached the hotel before the discussion could continue, and Taeyeon was actually relieved, despite her earlier unease. She was starting to get the hang of the whole ‘socialization’ thing, and it would be a change from running her brain’s engine over-time while she tried to make sense of the puzzle at hand; a puzzle with pieces that didn’t fit, and some of them kept changing shapes. At least breakfast at Tiffany’s hotel would be less strenuous if she didn’t let her suspicions completely take over the situation. She could even use it as an opportunity to get to know Tiffany without the pressures of the case, if she played it right.

“You ready?” asked Sooyoung, giving Taeyeon a look.

Taeyeon rolled her eyes half-heartedly, and smiled ever so slightly. “I’m fine. Let’s just go.”

It was nice to have Sooyoung as her close friend and assistant. They knew each other better than most, and it took a long time to get there. She couldn’t imagine life without her, and she knew Sooyoung would always be someone she could count on and trust.

Taeyeon shook off the new coat of fear and suspicion she had been wearing since this case became weird, and they went into the hotel.

Tiffany was already at a table, perusing the menu, and she greeted them with a bright smile as they sat down.

“Good morning!”

Though she looked at both of them, it was obvious that her gaze lingered on Taeyeon, and Sooyoung did not mind at all.

“Did you sleep well?” Taeyeon asked politely, picking up a menu of her own.

“As well as I could, under the circumstances,” Tiffany replied soberly, and something flashed across her face.

Taeyeon frowned, and stared at Tiffany as Tiffany looked back at the menu with a reserved expression. Was there a hint of something other than what was to be expected, or were Taeyeon’s expectations just inaccurate? She knew she had told herself not to be suspicious during this meeting but there was something about Tiffany’s expression, the lilt in her voice, that glint in her eyes.

Taeyeon shook her head subtly, directing her eyes back to the surface of her menu and drilling her stare through the photograph of Eggs Benedict.  She daydreamed briefly and intensely of an event that involved Tiffany leaping onto the table as their complimentary toast arrived and ripping off her face to reveal the face of her mother, and some evil laughter as she whipped out a laser gun and shot a nearby pot plant.

Taeyeon blinked. She looked at the Eggs Benedict again. It was surely the after-effect of her strange dream. She pointedly ignored her imagination, and tuned back into her surroundings to hear Sooyoung asking Tiffany a question.

“So what happened after your mother left all those years ago?”

Taeyeon cringed inwardly. So much for avoiding the case.

“Like,” Sooyoung continued, “was there some kind of investigation? She left willingly though, right? You’re sure about that?”

Tiffany sighed, not out of annoyance but simply weary. “Yes. There was more than enough evidence that she left of her own will and absolutely no evidence of any alternative. She just packed a suitcase and left.”

Taeyeon looked up. “A suitcase? You didn’t mention this earlier.”

Tiffany blinked. “Oh? Well… is it important?”

Taeyeon frowned.

The waiter arrived, and was hastily waved away by Sooyoung, causing him to turn on his heel and smoothly carry on in another direction.

“Do you know what she packed in her suitcase?” Taeyeon pressed, still frowning.

Tiffany avoided her eyes, fiddling with her menu, and shrugged slightly. “Just clothes and stuff.”

There was a lengthy silence as Taeyeon stared at Tiffany, aghast. It was unthinkable to her that such a piece of information would be left out, overlooked, and considered unimportant. To her, it made an awful lot of difference, and this did nothing to dampen her levels of suspicion.

She had a rough internal struggle between questioning Tiffany further and letting it slide for the sake of getting to know her better, and during that time Sooyoung frantically gestured at the waiter to come back.

“Welcome,” he said warmly, as if he had not been ordered around by an agitated Sooyoung. “May I take your order?”

Taeyeon watched Tiffany’s lips move as she ordered, and at that moment she felt this strong sense; Tiffany was lying, and acting suspiciously, and the whole case was weird and difficult and soon to be horrible – but Tiffany was incredibly, infallibly attractive.

She quietly slapped her own face with her menu, just in time for the waiter to turn to her.

“Eggs benedict,” she rattled off, acting as if she did not just do that, and flapped the menu for him to take.

He smiled and bowed and went away.

A pause of slight awkwardness followed, and Sooyoung readily got up and excused herself to go to the bathroom.

Taeyeon and Tiffany were left alone.

The restaurant around them was half-full, and its patrons were sedate in the early morning. Between the clinking of cutlery on crockery, there was soft conversation and half-enthused laughter.

Taeyeon took the time to look around, thinking back to her dream. She squinted at the lights above and the tables around them, trying to imagine everything to be too bright and hard to see. She thought again of the pain in her leg and gently tapped her knee as she surveyed the place. It would seem to be a most memorable memory, or so she would think, because it was not often that she wandered into restaurants and got shot in the leg.

She stilled. Shot? That hadn’t been in the dream. All she’d felt was a sudden, inexplicable pain in her leg, followed by the appearance of the woman with the lipstick. It must have been another instinct, like her feeling that the woman had been screaming.

“Um, Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon turned her head to face Tiffany, and became slowly aware that she was still squinting, and her fingers were perched on her knee, and her body was tensely frozen. Immediately she relaxed and tried to look as normal as she possibly could, which wasn’t as much as most people but was pretty usual for her.

She cleared her throat. “Sorry, did you say something?”

Tiffany was smiling slightly, amused. At first Taeyeon only noticed the precise curve of her voluptuous mouth, the lines of her face, the way her eyelashes slightly brushed against her cheek as she blinked – then she took in what Tiffany was saying and managed to avoid getting caught staring at her. Despite everything, she found Tiffany to still be strangely magnetic and irresistible.

“I was asking what your plan is,” Tiffany was saying. “After everything that happened yesterday… what’s the next step?”

Taeyeon sighed. The case was unavoidable after all. “I guess I just keep investigating. I have some new leads. I just have to keep looking for answers everywhere.”

She looked at Tiffany.

“Anyone could be holding the answers I need.”

At that moment, Sooyoung returned, and bustled as she settled down again. “Hey, where’s our complimentary toast? I was looking forward to that.”

Taeyeon was a little frustrated, because so far that morning she had switched from case-mode to casual and back again, only to have to switch back to casual once again when she was only just getting into case-mode. Her life was giving her whiplash. She momentarily regretted upgrading her casual mode by trying to improve her social habits.

“I have no idea,” Tiffany answered, and there was a slight edge to her voice that made Taeyeon’s head spin a little.

Was that a hint of coldness?

Perhaps Tiffany was also disappointed by Sooyoung’s interruption.

Taeyeon blinked, half-smiled, and then blinked again.

Maybe it was Tiffany who was giving her whiplash.

They passed the meal with small-talk about Seoul and Los Angeles, tourist attractions and differences, and by the time they reached chatting about the weather, their bill arrived.

“Taeyeon insists on paying,” said Sooyoung instantly, handing over the bill to the person in question. “She has this thing about paying for things.”

Taeyeon stared at her. They both knew full well that Taeyeon’s ‘thing’ about paying for things was that she didn’t like to pay for things. But they also both knew that Tiffany was there and Sooyoung was getting plenty of enjoyment from exploiting that fact.

Tiffany, theoretically clueless unless she was hiding something else along with all her other suspicious activities, gave Taeyeon a dazzling smile and that was the end of it.

The weather was much as they had discussed, moderately sunny but not too warm, nor too cold. Sooyoung called it perfect walking weather and that was how Taeyeon knew what was about to happen.

“Well, thank you for the lovely meal,” started Sooyoung. “I must be off. Hey Taeyeon, why don’t you show Tiffany around? This weather is lovely for walking; you could give her a tour of the shopping district?”

“Oh that would be lovely,” Tiffany contributed, eyes curving as she whipped out a smile. “I’m hoping to do some shopping while I’m here; maybe you could show me some of the good places?”

Taeyeon’s eye twitched slightly as she carved out a smile, but she smiled nonetheless and stored away her homicidal feelings towards Sooyoung in the same place where she also buried her nervousness.

“Sure,” she said. “Shopping. Great.”

Taeyeon did not like shopping. She barely liked leaving the house most of the time, but she knew this was part of what she wanted to experiment with – the thing about shopping with friends and stuff – so she took a deep breath to psyche herself up, and she led Tiffany to the nearest shopping centre. She was sure she only imagined Sooyoung’s cackling as she left them to it.

“This is a place,” Taeyeon said as they stepped through the sliding glass doors and were hit with the sight of glittering shops. “It’s a shopping place.”

Tiffany giggled lightly, breathily, gazing around at the clothes in windows and accessories on stands. She almost didn’t seem to realise she was doing it, already engrossed by the mere potential that was laid out before her. She could spend hours here, and Taeyeon felt already that it was very likely that she would.

She bit back her groan and allowed herself to admire the way Tiffany tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. Her hands were fascinating. And Taeyeon could tell she was going to fall for Tiffany, hard.

She bit her bottom lip, watched as Tiffany brushed her fingers over a dress, and said, “Let’s forget about the case for a while.”

Tiffany looked at her, carefully expressionless for the time being. “What?”

Taeyeon swallowed. “Let’s forget about the case,” she repeated. “Just for now. For now, let’s just be two friends exploring the shopping district. I’ll be the more awkward one. You can be the one who likes shopping. For the next short while, we are not detective and client.”

Tiffany didn’t react as Taeyeon expected. She didn’t smile and agree right away, she took a moment to search Taeyeon’s eyes with her own, parting her lips without a word. This unexpected reaction made Taeyeon falter slightly, her own smile fading a little, and she felt as if she was being pulled closer, brought in by this unpredicted expression on this unpredictable woman’s unbelievably compelling face.

Then Tiffany smiled.

Taeyeon no longer felt as if she was going to fall for Tiffany. She got the unavoidable feeling that she was already falling.

Tiffany’s smile was no longer just charming. It was downright dangerous.