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.
“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.
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?”
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?”
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?”
“I think you mean yes.”
“I’m pretty sure you mean yes.”
“No, I don’t.”
“It’s okay. You do mean yes, though.”
“Want some cereal?”