Brainless. 2; Code

Tiffany slouched in the chair. The room was cold, and overly bright, with light blue stone walls and one painted door. She let out a lengthy sigh and crossed her arms over her chest. Her arms were most sensitive to the cold, because she was still wearing the sleeveless dress from the club. It was the middle of the night, and she was not happy.

The door opened and Yuri walked in, eyes carefully trained on an open folder in her hand, and she didn’t look at Tiffany until the door snapped shut behind her. Then she smiled.

“Well, well,” she said coyly, “you know if you want to talk to me, you can just call. No need for all this effort of getting arrested for,” she glanced at the writing in the folder, “internet fraud.” She raised her eyebrows. “That’s new.”

Tiffany grunted, unamused.

Yuri seated herself across from Tiffany, comfortable in her surroundings, seemingly unperturbed by the chill temperature. The folder lay open before her, and Tiffany saw a small picture of herself along with some print-outs of e-mails. She closed her eyes briefly, cursing Taeyeon.

“Okay look, I can explain,” she said, fixing an earnest stare on Yuri’s face. “I didn’t do it.”

Yuri laughed. “Hey don’t worry, Tiffany. You’re working for us. This is a good sign! You’re becoming part of their organisation.”

Silence followed her statement. Her smile dropped and she looked unsure.

“That is what this means, isn’t it?” she asked.

Tiffany sighed again. She ran a hand through her hair, and she shifted in her seat. Here and now she was presented with options; she could pretend that initiating these scams was part of some acceptance with the organisation Yuri was targeting, or she could admit Taeyeon was framing her for it on the orders of the big boss. Being framed most likely meant that the organisation knew she was reporting to the police. Telling Yuri she really didn’t do it would mean she was telling her that she had no cover, and the game was up. Pretending she did it would send her back to the mercy of Taeyeon and her boss.

Not really an enticing set of options.

Taeyeon didn’t seem so bad. A little messed up, all too willing to follow her orders, possibly nice but maybe not very sincere. After all, she was polite enough to Tiffany but she felt nothing about framing her, simply because she was ordered to. She offered to share her coffee but it was bitter and cold. Tiffany always saw her that way.

As for the big boss, this was him giving her a test, perhaps. If she took the fall for this, then she would seem like less of a threat. Surely he knew she was working for the cops, but if she didn’t turn Taeyeon in for this then he would think she wasn’t totally on the wrong side. And she may be allowed to live another day, so to speak.

So she gulped, and looked at Yuri again. “Yeah, okay, it was me. But can you please cut back on the detectives flashing their badges in my club and pounding on my office door? It’s a bad look, you know. Guys go there to watch women take off their clothes.”

Yuri laughed again, worry gone. “Whatever. You know this is how we do it. So listen, it’s clear to us already that the evidence we have on you isn’t concrete, so if this were to go to trial it would most likely be a waste of time. We’ll set you loose, but we’ll have to tail you. Ongoing investigation, and all that.”

“Well, hopefully I won’t give you enough cause to get a warrant for my laptop, right?” Tiffany said dryly. She was calmer now, reassured by Yuri’s attitude. She was almost one of them, and almost one of the others.

Yuri shrugged. “We do have the best computer forensics squad in the country.”

“Right. Am I free to go?”

“Sure, sure. We can’t keep you here. Need a ride?”

Tiffany grimaced. “Not from you and not from any other cop.” She paused. “I’ll call a friend to pick me up.”

Yuri nodded. She flicked through a few pages to the back of the folder. “Would that friend be Taeyeon, by any chance? How are you getting along with her?”

Tiffany squirmed uncomfortably. “She’s alright. Look, I’d really like to go. Can we leave the questioning for some other time? Give me a call or something.”

Yuri watched her for a moment, thoughts indiscernible, before smiling nonchalantly again and getting up to leave. “Sure,” she said again. “Follow me so you can make that call somewhere less unpleasant.”

Taeyeon didn’t seem surprised to get a call from Tiffany, and she arrived at the police station quickly. She must have already known where Tiffany had gone. They sat in the parking lot of the station for a while in silence after Tiffany got in.

Tiffany couldn’t figure out what Taeyeon was feeling. She must have guessed that Tiffany had taken the blame for the scams because otherwise she wouldn’t be in the car, but Taeyeon’s face was blank and she was quiet.

The wind outside started howling, signalling a pre-dawn storm in the darkness, and Taeyeon started the engine of the car. Then she sat unmoving again for a moment before turning to Tiffany.

“My boss isn’t happy with the way you treat some of your customers,” she said.

Tiffany blinked. “What?”

“That’s why he did this,” Taeyeon continued. “He wants you to provide some allowances for certain VIPs, and he wants you to know that you can’t take us lightly.”

“Who said I was taking you lightly? And what kind of allowances are we talking about? I already said –”

“Not that,” Taeyeon interrupted. She frowned. “Don’t worry about that. He means drugs. Give them drugs. The ones that sit at the tables with the roses and I talk to them sometimes. They’re important business partners for the organisation.”

“And he wants me to give them drugs?” Tiffany asked. “And he made you frame me for this other stuff so that I don’t disobey him? Why?”

“Why the drugs or why the arrest?”

They stared at each other for a long time. Tiffany wanted to ask if the boss actually knew about her duplicity, but she was afraid to mention it. If Taeyeon wasn’t going to talk about it, it was better that Tiffany didn’t either.

“You know what, never mind,” she said eventually. “I don’t care. I’ll do it, it’s fine. Let’s just get out of here.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything. She manoeuvred the car onto the street.

A light drizzle of rain started, the thin veil of water hitting the windshield of the car softly but enough to make Taeyeon put the wipers on at the lowest setting. They made their way through the empty, orange-lit streets in silence. It was tense. Tiffany was getting nervous.

“Do you do everything your boss tells you to?”

Taeyeon glanced at her, eyes glinting in the light from outside. She didn’t answer at first, and then she said, “Why are you so nervous?”

Tiffany looked away, deliberately staring at the storefronts they drove past. “I’m not nervous.”

“And I’m not an idiot,” Taeyeon said. She didn’t go further.

In a way, it could have been an answer to Tiffany’s first question, too. She looked at Taeyeon again, wondering. Of course there was room for more under the exterior she was shown; not just a lackey following orders but someone with a dangerous darkness inside. Like cold, bitter coffee. Tiffany frowned; she needed to stop comparing Taeyeon to that coffee.

“Do you have any hobbies?” she asked, feeling her anxiety ebb away purely because Taeyeon hadn’t tried to kill her yet. “What do you do for fun?”

Taeyeon slowed the car to a halt at a red light, and frowned at her. “What?”

“Well sometimes you seem just like a normal person,” Tiffany said, still looking at her. “Until I see you doing something illegal or being kind of scary. So surely you do some normal stuff too, right?”

Taeyeon blinked at her. “Crime is pretty normal.”

Tiffany rolled her eyes, turning to face forward. “Okay, never mind. Just making conversation.”

They sat without speaking again, and drove on when the light changed.

Music was pumping a heartbeat for the club when they arrived and the bouncers grinded out their cigarettes at the sight of the familiar car. They nodded respectfully at Tiffany and didn’t hesitate before doing the same for Taeyeon as she followed. Inside, it smelled of people and alcohol, and a few cigarettes that made trails of smoke through the flashing red and gold lights.

On the way to her office, with Taeyeon tight on her heels, Tiffany took notice of those special tables marked with red roses. Tonight there were two of them occupied. One seemed like a businessman, the other a thug. She held back a sigh, and jumped when she felt a hand on her back.

“You’re good at not asking questions,” Taeyeon said into her ear, not bothering to lower her voice under the loud music. “And sometimes that gets you all the answers.”

Tiffany stopped, trying to seem casual as she turned to Taeyeon and leaned closer. Maybe someone would think she was getting too intimate with Taeyeon, and maybe it would seem like they were having a conversation in a noisy place.

Taeyeon glanced around, furtive for the first time since Tiffany met her. She followed Taeyeon’s line of sight and saw the men at the rose tables both keeping an eye on them.

“Not allowed to get close to me?” asked Tiffany, smiling at Taeyeon. “Would your boss disapprove? I find you so interesting though. A little creepy maybe, but interesting.”

“Thanks,” Taeyeon muttered. “He knows.”

“He knows I find you interesting?”

Taeyeon moved closer and tilted her head, breath brushing over the line of Tiffany’s jaw as she said, “He knows about you and Yuri.”

Tiffany froze, the blood draining from her face. She pulled back slightly to look at Taeyeon, whose expression was empty.

After a moment, Tiffany glanced at the rose tables again; only the thug-looking man was still watching them as he took a sip from his drink.

Tiffany rested her arms on Taeyeon’s shoulders and leaned closer again, but she found she couldn’t speak. She didn’t know what to say or what to do. She felt like asking questions, finding out more but she couldn’t.

“Are you afraid?” Taeyeon asked. She didn’t move to return Tiffany’s embrace, but rested their cheeks together.

Suddenly Tiffany felt angry. She tightened her grip on Taeyeon, making them sway slightly. “Do you want me to be? You little freak.”

Taeyeon didn’t respond. Tiffany closed her eyes, taking a moment to wish that everything would be gone when she opened them. Taeyeon’s body was warm against hers as they got closer in the dark corner of the club, and she wondered if she could get Taeyeon in trouble by making it look like they were kissing.

“I have to go meet with the men at the rose tables,” Taeyeon said. “You’re good at not asking questions.”

“Have any more answers for me?” Tiffany replied, keeping Taeyeon from moving.

“When my boss wants you to know you shouldn’t take us lightly, there’s a reason,” Taeyeon murmured. “We hurt people, and we make them cry, we make them beg, whether they’re begging for their lives or their deaths. We break. We shatter. We make people bleed what they owe us.”

Taeyeon pulled away, stepping back and detaching herself from Tiffany. In the fluctuating red and gold lighting that pooled the club, Taeyeon’s face was hard to decipher and her eyes changed with the things they reflected. But she smiled, a slight and secretive smile, before turning and disappearing into the belly of the club.

Tiffany felt cold.

Brainless. 1; Four One Nine

Taeyeon’s shoes crunched on the gravel as she stepped out of the black car. She came face to face with the small brick building, a sign flashing its name in dark red, standing out in the dim light of late evening. She took her time to inspect the exterior, eyes tracing the lines of the letters in the sign that spelled out Smooth in Rouge, and the jagged corners of the rough red door set in the stone wall. She tilted her head to one side, and blinked.

The door of her car made a click as she shut it behind her, and she strode up to the entrance of the club.

It rattled as she knocked.

The burly bouncer who opened the door was scruffy and unshaven, his eyes ringed with red, and he burped smoke before pulling the cigarette from his mouth.

“We’re not open yet, kid.”

Taeyeon regarded him thoroughly, running her gaze from top to bottom, before nonchalantly lifting her right hand to inspect her nails. The jagged scar that ran lengthwise over her middle finger, rippling through her knuckle, caught the light and the bouncer almost choked on the smoke of his cigarette.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” he gasped, immediately stepping to one side and bowing deeply, holding the door open for her.

She stepped inside without another glance at him, already inspecting the inside of the club.

Two women were practicing a dance routine on the small stage against one wall, waving their bodies and swinging their hips while chatting and laughing. The tall bartender was watching them intently, swirling a dirty rag on the inside of a beer glass with little enthusiasm. Taeyeon grimaced. The bar was backed by a purple light, setting it aside from the redness that lit the stage and the dimness of the floor full of small tables. There were unlit candles in small glass bowls, laminated menus, and a couple of tables had blood-red roses held up in thin vases in their centre. She made note of the positions of these tables.

The bouncer was straightening up his suit, tightening his tie, when she turned back to him. The cigarette had been discarded and he had tried to fix his hair. He shot to attention when he realised she was looking at him.

“Take me to Tiffany,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The corridor that led to the back office was behind a thin door in the corner next to the bar, and it was small and stuffy and dark. She coughed as they made their way past a few doors before reaching one that had a smoky glass window inset and the word Office scratched in gold.

The bouncer raised his hand to knock but she stopped him. With a nod in the direction they came from, she dismissed him. He hesitated before bowing and disappearing. She waited until she heard the door at the far end click shut before she turned to the office door.

She leaned closer, almost pressing her ear against the glass. There were some faint noises on the other side; shuffling paper, rustling clothes, and then nothing for a while. She tried to place the structure of the room. She stared at the glass. Someone inside sighed absently, disheartened. She pictured a young woman going through the financial reports of the club, which she knew were bleak because that was how her boss had been able to buy it so easily.

She stood upright again, waited a moment, and then knocked twice on the glass part of the door.

“Come in.”

She looked directly into the woman’s eyes when she entered the office.

The woman blinked in surprise. “Can I help you?”

Taeyeon eyed her for a moment, just staring at her face, before she inspected the nails of her right hand again.

“My name is Taeyeon,” she stated, and raised her eyes again.

She watched the woman’s expression fall at the sight of her scar, and then it was hidden behind blank politeness. She cocked her head to one side.

“You must be Tiffany,” she said. “You know why I’m here.”

Tiffany closed the folder that she had been perusing and turned to store it in the filing cabinet. “Yes. I know.”

Taeyeon moved to sit down on the couch against the closest wall. She glanced around the rest of the room, eyeing the landscape paintings on the walls, and got comfortable. Then she looked at Tiffany again.

“We won’t have any problems,” she said. “I think we can get along just fine. I’m sorry to hear of your family tragedy and the effect it has had on this business. Unfortunately it’s quite easy for establishments such as this to fall prey to certain predators.”

Tiffany sighed. “Whatever, Taeyeon. Let’s not waste energy pretending to be friendly.”

Taeyeon frowned but didn’t say anything.

Tiffany eyed her intently, taking in the youthful face, caramel-coloured hair, Iron Man t-shirt, jeans, sneakers. Taeyeon let her, keeping her gaze locked on Tiffany’s face.

“You seem kind of young for this job,” Tiffany murmured, meeting her stare. “Are they letting kids take over strip clubs on behalf of criminal organisations now?”

Taeyeon smirked. “I’m a few months older than you, and I’m only following orders from my boss. And if we’re going by appearances, I never would have guessed an elegant, beautiful young lady such as you would become the owner of a strip club.”

They stared at each other in silence for a long time. Eventually Tiffany looked away and stood up, moving to stand in front of the desk.

“One thing,” she said, leaning back against the desk and crossing her arms sternly. “None of these girls are going to be prostitutes. I told that to your boss when we made the deal. Don’t you forget it.”

Taeyeon smiled kindly. “We’ll get along just fine, Tiffany.”

Taeyeon tapped at the keys of the laptop unenthusiastically. She was bored. After two hours of intent concentration, she had produced 50 templates and began distribution. She tweaked some content to make them a little more appealing or specific to the group of marks, and clicked send. And then she pulled up another one, and did it all again. E-mails were whizzing out from her location towards people all over the world, people with money and morals and emotions that she could toy with and profit from. Who would feel sympathetic for the poor young woman who was trying to escape the corrupting clutches of ‘our supreme leader’ and needed to be saved from the life of poverty and despair with a simple loan of only a few thousand dollars to pay the fare to get the almighty and glorious US of A, where a hefty trust fund prepared by a defected relative could be claimed and shared.

After sending another batch, she clicked over to the inbox to check for any replies. Sometimes they bit the line quick, sometimes they thought about it for a while because it was big decision after all, and sometimes they replied with a cute lecture about scamming innocent people instead of getting a real job.

Taeyeon smirked. She reached for the cup of coffee on the desk beside her laptop, and took a sip as she skimmed through an email. It was cold already, the coffee, and a bitter chill that she savoured. Sometimes the emails threatened to report her to the police but she knew two-thirds of people like that didn’t even know who to contact anyway. There was a special organisation dedicated to tracking and reporting scammers but everyone just tapped ‘delete’ on those funny little scam attempts and went on with their lives, and Taeyeon got another few thousand in her pocket after some well-practiced deceit on those more gullible.

When she first got into this game, sending lies through e-mail, she didn’t think it would work at all. She knew some people managed to make good money off it but she thought they just got lucky. How could people fall for it? It was all so obviously shady, and yet on they went and walked right into it thinking they were doing the good thing.

Taeyeon shook her head, and deleted a few of the lectures. She made a mental note of how many she got and which batch they were in response to; while two-thirds of them would never report her, she had to keep track of how many there were in the other third.

The door rattled as it opened and she looked up as Tiffany dragged herself inside. Taeyeon checked her watch; it was almost four in the morning. Tiffany looked exhausted and her expression did not improve when she saw Taeyeon sitting at her desk, on her chair, using her laptop.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

She didn’t sound upset, really, just tired. She closed her eyes for a moment before taking slow steps and slumping down in the chair in front of the desk, letting out a sigh.

“Just some extra little tasks,” Taeyeon said. She pushed her cup towards Tiffany. “Want some coffee? It’s cold.”

Tiffany squinted at her. “Is that supposed to be appealing to me? Cold coffee is gross.”

Taeyeon shrugged, and pulled her cup back. “Okay then. Busy night?”

Tiffany sighed again. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Like, more helpful and club-related? What do you even do, anyway?”

“I follow orders from my boss,” Taeyeon said simply.

Tiffany stared at her. “Well, you’ve been doing that for two weeks already and I see no difference in the state of this place.”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “Good, there shouldn’t be any noticeable change. This place is useful to us in the state that it was when we got it. If you want to make changes using our budget, like improving the décor or whatever, I can pass it along to the boss. But it would need his approval.”

Tiffany considered it for a moment, then waved her hand dismissively and closed her eyes again. Taeyeon figured that meant she would think about it later, and went back to typing on the laptop.

After a few minutes of relative quiet as she tweaked and sent and received and made notes on a piece of paper, Tiffany opened her eyes again.

“What are you doing on my laptop?”

She sounded more awake.

Taeyeon logged out of the e-mail account, closed the browser, turned off the laptop, and tucked away the paper full of treasures before she responded with a smile. “I’m following orders from my boss, of course.”

Fault

Have you ever been in a long-distance relationship? How did you survive it? I’m going crazy without her.

Tiffany begins the day at 8am precisely, reaching for the mobile phone on her bedside table as soon as her eyes are open.

The message lies nestled in its usual place. It has been there for almost a week now. The words ramble around her head on a daily basis, and yet she can’t turn them into an answer, even though the first step is simple.

Yes, Tiffany has been in a long-distance relationship, but she feels like she doesn’t even really know with whom. They met online, they talked online, they developed together online, and they had barely begun to mention the possibility of meeting face-to-face when it all faded away. But it still counts, right? It was a relationship. Tiffany’s not so sure, and if she’s not so sure then how can she help someone else who is just as uncertain?

She closes her eyes again, lets the phone rest on her chest, and she thinks of Taeyeon.

It was anonymous, at first. Tiffany often takes in anonymous messages on the internet and answers – but not totally as herself. She uses a different name, gives away very little about herself, and sometimes gets a little paranoid that she would leave some sort of clue leading back to her real life. And in this way, she talks to people from all over the world without ever knowing each other’s name, face, voice, or anything at all. It’s perfect. Ideal. It makes the conversation almost smoother in a way; no pre-existing judgements cloud the words exchanged.

One night, she got a message from Taeyeon. She didn’t know it was her, she didn’t know anything about who was on the other end at all, but when she looks back on those messages now, they’re full of Taeyeon without a trace of unfamiliarity, easily identifiable amongst the blankness of the messages that remained anonymous. That part of her past has become Taeyeon’s, no longer the free flowing current it was meant to be with the anonymity they treasured at the beginning.

It started with a joke. Someone else asked something, Taeyeon asked a follow-up, and she toyed with Tiffany. Then she blew it off and asked about the name Tiffany used. And she was playful; apparently they already knew each other elsewhere online, apparently Tiffany guessed her identity wrong, apparently they weren’t meant to be. They kept talking. Friendly, funny, serious, deep, random, nonsensical, overly sweet and it grew and grew until they talked privately and knew each other’s names, locations, ages, hobbies, occupations, opinions, morals, histories, dreams, fears and then came the pet names and the flirting became more intense and then it was a relationship. They were happy together, they worried together, and they relied on each other.

Maybe it was too much, too fast, too weird. They never saw each other. What is the definition of a relationship? Maybe neither of them could handle it, and that’s why they drifted apart. That’s why Taeyeon said she thought they should stop and Tiffany was relieved because she wasn’t sure if she could go on down the path they were treading.

But it was Taeyeon. It was special.

Tiffany looks at the anonymous message again, and the words take a turn around her mind one more time. She knows why she hasn’t answered because she knows the answer.

Yes. I didn’t survive. I’m going crazy without her.

Nocturnes

“Well, I hate to be the one to say it yet again, but… Kim Taeyeon, you’re failing this course.”

Big.

Fucking.

Surprise.

No one had ever known a more apathetic response than the reaction given by Taeyeon when hearing of yet another failure in her academic career. And it wasn’t as if she cared about that, either. She yawned, and plucked a bit of stray lint from her pants, and turned her blank, uncaring stare to the world outside the window.

For nine months now she had wandered around the university campus, hitting a pass on a test here and there and dropping every other assignment like a piece of hot coal. Consistently attempting schoolwork was not something that happened easily with Kim Taeyeon. Just like making friends, or socializing in general, was not something that happened easily. She patiently sat her way through group projects, quiet and definitely a bit weird as seen by her classmates. Seasons passed and through every kind of weather, she floated to her classes, spaced out during the lessons, and floated away again. Attendance was worth ten per cent of her final grades; somehow she had managed to keep her course results at a minimum of ten per cent for her journey thus far.

Outside, a bird flitted from one tree to another. How interesting, she thought.

“Look, Taeyeon, I understand if you’re struggling. But you’re a smart girl; I’ve noticed how intelligent you are. You could easily achieve everything that is required of you and be out of here with your qualification in no time. If there’s something holding you back, making it hard to do the work, let me know. I’m here for you.”

“I just didn’t have the time,” Taeyeon replied absently. She could see the bird had settled on a low branch and was cleaning its feathers busily. “Some other things came up.”

There was a brief silence. The bird finished cleaning itself, ruffled its feathers, and looked off into the distance. Taeyeon heard the sigh from inside the room at the same time that the bird took flight, and imagined it was the sound of wings fluttering and stretching to reach higher. She closed her eyes for a moment. She thought about how the bird would soar once it reached the free sky. A small smile curved the corner of her lips, imperceptible.

“Is there something wrong in your personal life? Are you in trouble, or in danger? I can help you, Taeyeon.”

“Hmm.”

It was the only reply that she gave. After a moment, her eyes opened again, and she blinked before slowly standing up and stretching her back.

“Well, I have to go. I apologize for the inconvenience I’ve caused, Mr Lee. I’ll do my best to recover from my failures.”

She saw the bird again on her way to the bus stop, in a gutter on the side of the road, where it lay with bones broken. Her feet came to a halt beside it. Its eyes were closed, a fact she was thankful for as she gazed down at the crushed little body below, and a disgusted shudder travelled along her skin. Then she sighed, imitating the sound of wings aiming to soar, and tilted her head to one side.

“Hmm.”

The coffee tasted sour. She sat at a corner table in the small café, and pulled a face as she looked at the cup in her hand. It seemed the same as always, black and hot, but the familiar harshness that would scratch at her throat just enough to gain her attention was tinged with an almost painful aftertaste. She set the cup down on the table, and gently pushed it away.

“Taeyeon!”

“Oh, hi Tiffany.”

Taeyeon shifted, moving her chair slightly to one side, allowing Tiffany room to put her chair. She knew Tiffany’s habits well, her preferred place to sit in the café they visited frequently, and she could easily accommodate her mannerisms. Tiffany knew Taeyeon’s habits well too, the way she would often go out of her way to do something seemingly unimportant just for her.

“Fany, wanna go see a movie?”

Tiffany stared at Taeyeon. “You mean right now? I just got here! I’ve barely taken a seat.”

Taeyeon grinned. “Okay, you can sit for a while if you like. Hey, I’ll go get your coffee.”

And she shot away, heading to the counter. She already knew what kind of coffee to get. Tiffany watched her go, and sighed, slouching in her chair. Every time she met up with Taeyeon in the past few weeks, the girl seemed jumpy and wanted to do something different every five minutes. She knew it would be barely a quarter of the way into the movie before Taeyeon fidgeted right out the door.

When Taeyeon returned with the coffee cradled in her hands, her expression had totally changed and she looked as if she was about to cry. Tiffany blinked in surprise.

“Taeyeon? What’s wrong? Did something happen?”

Taeyeon looked up as she sat down, and her face broke into a wide smile. “Nothing. I just have a headache from thinking about stuff. Here’s your drink.”

Tiffany barely spared a glance for the cup that was laid in front of her, keeping her eyes trained on Taeyeon’s face, but her friend seemed determined to keep up her mask, and she didn’t get another glimpse of the pain she had seen.

“How much sleep did you get last night?” she asked quietly, lifting her coffee to her lips to take a tiny sip.

“Hmm, maybe just over three hours, I think. And you?”

Tiffany didn’t reply at first. She waited a moment, before placing her coffee back on the table. Her hands smoothed out her skirt carefully and then she finally returned her gaze to Taeyeon’s face.

“Taeyeon. You know that’s not enough sleep. When’s the last time you slept for longer than five hours consecutively? I recall that’s your record time so far this year.”

Taeyeon shrugged disinterestedly. “I don’t know. But how about you, Tiffany, did you sleep well?” Her eyes flicked upwards to lock onto Tiffany’s.

Tiffany just held the stare, and didn’t answer. For a long time, they observed each other intently in a sizzling silence. Eventually Tiffany pointedly looked away and took another sip of her coffee.

Taeyeon frowned, her expression showing the hurt she felt at being ignored, but she knew Tiffany was feeling hurt too. She could see it in the tears just beyond the edge of her silence, and that familiar truth just made her hurt even more.

She took a deep breath. “Well, I know what you’re going to say. I had that meeting today. They’re putting me on academic probation. If I don’t pass anything this semester, they’re kicking me out. And don’t worry; I know exactly how you feel about that. So, do you wanna finish that coffee or go see the movie now?”

Tiffany blinked. “If you know how I feel,” she murmured softly, “why don’t you ever care? You just wave away my concern for you. Taeyeon, do you even care about me?”

Taeyeon scoffed. “Please, Fany… don’t get me started. I could never explain exactly how much I care about you, and you know that by now. So please… let’s just go see that movie now, okay?”

She was up and away in a moment, already heading out the door. Tiffany bit her bottom lip. Briefly, her mind toyed with the idea of just letting her go. But it was an idea she had gone over many times during her friendship with Taeyeon, so with a familiar finality she gathered up her belongings and followed.

The movie was a simple, clichéd romantic comedy, the sort that they would normally go see so that Taeyeon could laugh derisively at all the sweet moments and yawn at the attempts of humour. Its plot consisted of hate-you, love-you, finally-decide-to-date-you; and Taeyeon was asleep in the first ten minutes.

Tiffany watched her friend doze off beside her. The flickering light from the movie screen provided her with a dim, inconsistent view of Taeyeon’s sleeping face. She thought of all the times in the past when she had made plans with Taeyeon only for them to be broken by Taeyeon’s sudden disappearance. Days would go by with no contact from her, no way to reach her, no sign of her. Then suddenly she would show up again, and for a while Tiffany would be uber-aware of the dimple by the corner of Taeyeon’s mouth when she smiled before they were back at square one.

Fingers met skin. Tiffany lightly, gently traced Taeyeon’s jawline, moving up slightly to reach the corner of her mouth. Her eyes examined Taeyeon’s bottom lip first, its shape and size and position, the way the light made it seem so unique and special. Then her fingers followed the route of her gaze.

“Tiffany.”

Taeyeon opened her eyes and turned her head. She took Tiffany’s hand in hers. Her eyes flickered in the dim light.

For a long time, they stayed silent and kept their gazes locked. Taeyeon’s thumb started to gently stroke Tiffany’s hand at the same time that her eyes flicked down to Tiffany’s lips.

“Come on, this movie sucks. Let’s go do something else.”

It was getting dark outside when they reached the streets. Taeyeon walked fast, one step ahead of Tiffany, and was determined to keep their fingers intertwined. They dodged a few people who were making their way home before eventually reaching a more quiet area, where Taeyeon slowed down. It was visible in her shoulders and the straightness of her back as she relaxed. Her arms swung back and forth, taking Tiffany’s hand along.

The pavement wasn’t totally up to scratch, and had started to crumble in a few places, Tiffany noticed as her feet crunched over the surface. She sighed and hitched the strap of her handbag higher on her shoulder. She turned her gaze upwards to look at the late evening sky. The first few stars were distantly making their appearance.

“What if I told you,” Taeyeon murmured softly, “that I wanted to get drunk tonight.”

“If you told me you wanted to get drunk tonight, I would disapprove because I know you have class tomorrow, and you would completely disregard common sense and do it anyway. And you would sneak into my room at two in the morning through my window which I will leave open even though I know I shouldn’t enable you like that.”

Taeyeon nodded. “Well, that sounds about right. Drink with me?”

At this, Taeyeon stopped them both and turned to face Tiffany. Her eyebrows were slightly raised; she bit her bottom lip.

“Taeyeon…”

Taeyeon lifted Tiffany’s hand, lips rested against the inside of her wrist and there came a whisper of, “Please.”

When Tiffany came to her senses again, they were already in her room. From the corner of her eye she saw her blurry alarm clock ticking around near the number two. She was lying on her back on her bed, and she knew she was definitely drunk. It wasn’t the first time that she had gotten drunk with Taeyeon despite her best intentions, and time always flew faster when it happened. Taeyeon sat on the edge of her bed, cradling a bottle in one hand and staring at the floor in silence.

The clicking of the alarm clock was the only sound, becoming harsher and harsher with each tap against Tiffany’s head. She huffed and shifted, twisting around to lie on her side.

“I hope to one day be able to live a peaceful life,” Taeyeon breathed into the night. “Even if just for a moment. Before I die.”

Tiffany hesitated. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t even think clearly but after a moment she moved anyway, sitting upright and wrapping herself around Taeyeon from the side. With one hand, she knocked the bottle from Taeyeon’s grasp and pushed even closer against her. She clutched at her, squeezing her in her arms as tightly as she squeezed her own eyes shut.

“Let me help you,” she muttered, “please let me help you, Taeyeon.”

“Help me with what?”

“Let me help you find peace in your life. Please.”

When Taeyeon turned her head to face Tiffany, their cheeks brushed together before she pressed her nose against Tiffany’s cheekbone. She sighed, her breath tickling the skin of Tiffany’s neck.

“Tiffany…”

Her fingers tangled with Tiffany’s hair, slowly and deliberately she pushed Tiffany’s head closer from behind.

“My beautiful Tiffany. I hope I’ll still have time to tell you.”

“Tell me wha-”

But her words were replaced by a small noise of surprise as Taeyeon’s teeth clutched at the skin of her jaw. She moved her head, frowning slightly. Taeyeon bit harder at the skin just beneath her jaw, sending a ripple of pain along her body.

“What are you doing?”

“I want you to be open. You always hold yourself back, Tiffany. You don’t know what to do with me so you don’t show yourself to me anymore. Wake up. Wake up for me.”

“Wh-”

She broke off as Taeyeon’s tongue ran along the marks on her flesh.

“Taeyeon why are you doing this?”

“I hope I have time to tell you one day.”

And then she slowly turned Tiffany’s face to her with the hand on the back of her head and pressed their mouths together. Tiffany realised she had stopped breathing and suddenly gasped into the kiss, feeling her heart thump in her chest and her whole body shake.

So many times had she imagined the confrontation, the point they reached where she asked Taeyeon what was going on in her head and Taeyeon finally responded. Never in all of her thoughts would she have expected Taeyeon to kiss her so deeply, so intently, and with more commitment to a single act than she had ever witnessed. She had wondered briefly before, what Taeyeon’s kisses would feel like; if her lips were soft and agile and if she exuded a comfortable warmth from her being, if she became somehow different, fully showing that side of her that Tiffany had only been able to glimpse so rarely.

Now, sitting on the edge of her bed, she could only feel. She felt Taeyeon’s touches, Taeyeon’s lips, and Taeyeon’s breath, Taeyeon actively absorbing her and giving herself to Tiffany to be absorbed in return.

It was her dream that reminded her, with fluttering soft whispers and a heartbeat, of those words that had first left Taeyeon’s lips.

I hope I’ll one day be able to live a peaceful life… I hope I’ll still have time to tell you…

Before I die.

And a seed of worry burrowed itself in her mind; Taeyeon sounded as if she was dying and she knew it. Her thoughts threaded it all together, the apathetic attitude towards everything she tried to achieve, the inconsistencies in her behaviour and her expressions, the mystery of where her steps were falling as she wandered along her life’s path. Tiffany found Taeyeon to be the greatest puzzle. And she imagined, now, the puzzle was made of the shards of a shattered heart.

She awoke in fear.

Taeyeon was gone.

Yes. (9; Glacial [1])

9; Glacial [1]

 

“So that’s it, then?” asked Sooyoung, glancing in the direction of the bathroom door to make sure it was still closed. “She’s after Lee?”

“Sort of,” Taeyeon said. “She’s after Lee and this woman.”

“So there is definitely still a woman to look for,” Sooyoung said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Are you sure about this, Taeyeon? I mean, I was hoping that she wasn’t evil just as much as you, but this is not exactly ideal.”

Taeyeon sighed. “You don’t have to tell me how un-ideal it is, believe me, I’m aware. But it’s how it is and we’ll have to go with it. About the lipstick -”

“Oh let me save you the time,” interrupted Sooyoung, grimacing. “That was the most difficult task I have ever tackled, but I did it. It took me such a long time, inspecting every word in that magazine and hunting down every interview Yoona has ever given and anything ever written about her anywhere, but finally I found it. And then I couldn’t quite remember what you said I should be looking out for, but luckily you scribbled it down in your notes, so after deciphering your handwriting I -”

“Please, Sooyoung, you said you were saving me time.”

“Right, sorry. Yes, Yoona has recently started using Dior Addict Extreme shade 756 Fireworks. A few stylists commented it was rather a daring choice for someone with her skin tone and in her profession, but it does bring an interesting effect along with her new-found fame.”

“How recently?”

“She was first spotted wearing it approximately three months ago.”

Taeyeon looked thoughtful for a moment. “That was around the time Tiffany hired me. Maybe a little earlier, or later. Have you heard from Yuri?”

“She’s on her way back, don’t worry. Her flight will land here tonight.”

Taeyeon was hopeful that Yuri’s return could help speed up the progress of the investigation. She needed the police files and as much information as Yuri could get for her, and now that she knew the main focus was back on Daniel Lee she would need the police files for the gas station robbery he was responsible for, too. If he was planning something big, then that event could have been a large part of his tactical manoeuvres.

Despite her injuries, she really wanted to get up and go to that gas station to inspect it personally. She wanted to talk to staff, owners, regular customers – anyone and everyone. And she wanted to look at every part of the establishment even though the crime happened too long ago for there to be any spectacular evidence just lying around.

Unfortunately for her, the doctors at the hospital were not particularly hospitable towards her requests, and made an effort to emphasize exactly how necessary it was that she stayed in bed for a few weeks. She rolled her eyes as much as she dared but in the end she knew they were right; if she didn’t rest and let her injuries heal properly, she could be in an even bigger mess. But if she didn’t get this case solved as soon as possible, she would be in an even bigger mess anyway, so she allowed a small part of her brain to quietly begin formulating plans.

And so, she used Sooyoung as her avatar in the outside world.

“Are you really sure about trusting Tiffany?” asked Sooyoung, frowning. “She lied to you. And doesn’t her real reason seem a little…?”

“I know, I know. It’s true, I’m not sure what to believe any more, but considering the state this case is in right now, it’s not really surprising. I mean, this thing is so much bigger than just the woman who is with Lee. I can’t really trust anyone, but I’ll have to. I need to work with what I have. And yes, it does seem kind of odd that she would behave the way she did just to get where we are – not the hospital I mean, obviously.”

Sooyoung raised an eyebrow. “You don’t sound like you’re sure of what you’re doing.”

“I’m not. But I’m just going to do it anyway, okay?”

Sooyoung shrugged.

“It’s not like I’m going to get any answers by just lying here and letting things happen around me, that’s for sure,” she said decisively. “Tiffany stays and the case goes on.”

“Alright,” Sooyoung accepted. “Hey, is it true that you declared your undying love for Tiffany after the explosion?”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened. “Excuse me?”

“Well, I was chatting with that medic who brought you here,” Sooyoung continued in a conversational tone of voice, “and apparently you had some very interesting things to scream at the scene of the incident. Care to comment about that?”

Taeyeon groaned. “Oh no. Don’t even remind me. Just do not ever speak of that again. Never. Ever. Don’t even think of it. Nothing happened, okay?”

Sooyoung grinned. “Has Tiffany mentioned it yet?”

The possibility of having that discussion with Tiffany was purely mortifying – the casual or perhaps even sombre mention of the words, the spluttering brain-failure as she tried to explain it; it set off a range of thoughts that ignited off each other with sparks of phantom pain when she imagined how a conversation like that would go. So Taeyeon was very pleased that Tiffany had not mentioned it at all.

But she didn’t have time to say all of that to Sooyoung and she knew it would be better if she didn’t, because even though Sooyoung had cut down her teasing about Tiffany, she was clearly not completely past it.

“Okay, here’s what I need you to do,” Taeyeon said, her expression serious, and the change of subject made Sooyoung laugh very briefly. “Get me a meeting with Yoona. When Yuri gets here, tell her to get started on getting those police files for me – the gas station robbery and that time someone took a shot at me and Tiffany. After that, just anything else about Lee she can find. And find out where Hyoyeon has disappeared to, would you? She needs to explain why the hell I’m lying in hospital right now.”

The bathroom door opened just as Sooyoung nodded.

They both turned to look at Tiffany, who blinked back at them, pausing on her way back to her bed.

Tiffany came away from the explosion with less serious injuries, but as she still sustained a blow to the head she would be staying in hospital with Taeyeon for a few days to make sure there were no complications. The cut on her forehead was still pronounced, though she managed to avoid getting stitches.

Her face showed her exhaustion, and she seemed more wary than she had been since arriving in the country. Perhaps it was the multiple possible attempts on her life, or perhaps she was feeling cagey after revealing her true intentions to Taeyeon. Some of it still didn’t quite make sense – at least, it didn’t match the sense of character Taeyeon had formed from her perception of Tiffany up to this point; but she could have simply been incorrect. Now she would get to know Tiffany better, and find out exactly what was going on in her head.

“Am I interrupting something?” Tiffany asked, staring at them as they stared at her.

“I was just leaving,” Sooyoung said, giving her a pleasant smile. “The boss gave me my orders,” she gestured at Taeyeon, who rolled her eyes, “so I’ll leave you two to rest.” She took a few steps before turning back to them, and she winked. “Don’t do anything I would do.”

By the time Sooyoung disappeared through the doorway, Taeyeon had settled into her familiar cloud of embarrassment, and was even more embarrassed when she noticed that the pinkness dusting her cheeks was mirrored on the face of Tiffany.

They avoided making eye contact as Tiffany got back to her own bed.

It was hard to move around in a neck brace, Taeyeon was learning, but there were certain ways that she could angle herself just right to get in a good enough position to function. After much practice while Tiffany was asleep earlier, Taeyeon got the hang of how to be able to look in the direction of Tiffany’s bed. She would, of course, never admit that she was watching Tiffany sleep, because she was pretty sure that such behaviour was still frowned upon. And she had tried not to make it seem like she was watching her, which resulted in her movements being more like twitches and glances rather than constant observation.

Now she manoeuvred herself to look at Tiffany and was surprised to find her looking back. They both blushed again and Taeyeon’s blush deepened even more when she noticed that they were both blushing. It was possible that they were even both now blushing because they were blushing, and then her head started to spin. Telling herself that her head was spinning because of the angle she was forcing herself in to, she turned to face the front again.

She wasn’t sure if Tiffany was still looking at her or if the sense she got was just because of her anxiety.

She cleared her throat. “So, how are you feeling today?”

“Better,” Tiffany replied, and there was some rustling as she got comfy on her bed. “I should contact my hotel to let them know I’ll be in hospital for a while.”

“Yes,” Taeyeon said.

And that was where the conversation seemed to end but it didn’t seem right to Taeyeon. Conversations were not meant to just end like that, were they? And the atmosphere was definitely more awkward than usual, she was sure.

Awkwardness, blushing, running out of things to say – Tiffany was surely thinking about… it. The incident Taeyeon most feared would become an issue. Her not-so-little comment about how Tiffany drove her crazy in a good way and a bad way.

And how was she supposed to explain it? It was the truth. She never meant for Tiffany to know of it, and now she did, and it wasn’t something that Taeyeon could really elaborate on. It was what it was. Tiffany was driving her crazy, and it was because of something that could be bad, but in a way it felt good. Or it was because of something that was good but it made her feel like exploding. She was going crazy because either Tiffany was deceitful and plotting something malevolent; or she was going crazy because Tiffany had her own beauty, inside and out, a human being who she was falling in love with.

Love. Now that opened a whole new can of worms. Wriggling alien worms with three bodies each. Perhaps she should call it something else, because it certainly wasn’t right to call it love. She was falling in deep-interest with Tiffany. Or, because she didn’t know if it was mutual: she was falling in deep-interest of Tiffany.

And now that Taeyeon had successfully made a mess of her attempt to structure a response in case Tiffany brought up the topic, she decided to start an entirely new conversation, because running away was not an option.

She was still trying to think of something to say when there was a brief knock on the door followed by the bang as it was blown open.

It wasn’t really an explosion, though; through the doorway strode a young woman with long blonde-ish hair and an effortless air of cool indifference. She wore sunglasses despite being inside, and she was impeccably dressed in the smooth and simple fashion of someone with a taste for style and a mind for money.

Her shoes clicked on the floor and stopped when she halted at the foot of their beds, an equal distance between them, and faced them with an expression of disgust.

“Which one of you is Tiffany?”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows in surprise. If anyone was going to stride in here emitting an aura of pure power, she would have bet money that they were after her. Having spent so much time alienating people with her awkwardness or frustrating them with her investigations, it was almost a given that someone who was most likely rich and successful by slightly illegal or immoral means would be looking for her with an attitude like that.

She glanced at Tiffany, who mirrored her expression, and they both looked back at the unknown woman.

“I’m Tiffany,” said Tiffany

Instead of acknowledging her, the woman sent a small smile at Taeyeon.

“Good,” she said. Her voice was smooth, her tone clipped. “I gave you a chance to lie and you didn’t. We’ve gotten off to a good start.”

“Um –” Taeyeon began, and was immediately cut off.

“If you’re about to ask who I am, please don’t. It would only serve as a disappointment,” said the stranger, looking away dismissively. She turned to Tiffany and removed her sunglasses in a single sweeping motion. “Tiffany. My name is Jessica Jung.”

Tiffany blinked, and then realization dawned on her face, followed swiftly by disbelief. “Really? You’re –”

“Yes,” interrupted Jessica. “Let’s not waste time. I am really the Jessica Jung, the one and only, the one you’ve been looking for.” She paused. “Or rather, one of the ones you’ve been looking for, as I hear you’re chasing someone else. But we’ll discuss that in greater detail later. You want in? I can get you in. I want to get rid of Daniel Lee, and from where I’m standing, you and your detective here can help me reach that goal.”

Taeyeon bit back a question before it slipped out, remembering how she had been stopped earlier. This earned her an eventual smile from Jessica.

“You learn fast,” she said. “I like you. I’m the head of a certain organization which would benefit immensely from the cessation of Daniel Lee’s existence in this country’s underground. Tiffany knows this, and she tried to find me several months ago to offer me what I’m offering you, before she gave up and turned to you. Now I’m well and truly fed up with Lee, and I want to end him. You’re in a position to help me with that, and I’m in a position to help you achieve it.”

Taeyeon felt like her brain was going to burst. She was already juggling everything the case had thrown at her so far, and now there was this Jessica who wanted to insert herself into the mix. She didn’t know how much more she could take, and she started to dread everything else she was going to find.

Despite never having heard of Jessica by name, she was aware of some mysterious woman who ran a large up-and-coming organisation that wanted to take over the country in legal and illegal ways. She was known as determined, ruthless, cold, and very pro-active. If there was someone in her way, she would get rid of them two steps before they blocked her path. So being here, offering them an opportunity to get at Lee from another angle, was the next move in her game.

And it meant that whatever Jessica was planning would therefore be even bigger than what Lee was planning.

Taeyeon closed her eyes for a moment and gave herself a chance to calm her nerves. She had more than enough experience in her years of gaming to know that when a powerful character waltzed in and offered to solve a problem with a snap, then there was undoubtedly a catch, and usually it was unavoidable.

Jessica didn’t seem to care much whether Taeyeon was going to accept or deny her offer. Her eyes were focused on Tiffany again, with an expression she couldn’t decipher.

Tiffany glanced at Taeyeon, frowning, before matching Jessica’s gaze and masking her own expression.

“What’s the catch?”

Jessica just smiled.

Taeyeon and Tiffany waited, and waited, as unwilling to back down as Jessica was. Finally, Jessica sighed, her smile dropping, and she very briefly looked vulnerable before her face was blank. This time she met Taeyeon’s eyes.

“I need you to find someone,” she said quietly. “Just track her down and tell me where she is, and in return I will get you a contact in Lee’s organization who will help you with whatever you need, no problems. I know you’re one of the best private investigators in the country. Will you make a deal with me?”

They stared at each other for a long time. Taeyeon thought about the offer; for one thing, she didn’t yet know how hard it would be to find this person, how much time and effort it would take, but one of the first things that bothered her were Jessica’s intentions. She was reputed to be a heartless criminal, well-organized but as cold as any killer, and if Taeyeon were to tell her this person’s location, what would she do to them?

She decided to make her choice with all factors regarded in their extremes. Was she willing to track down a person Jessica wanted to murder, in exchange for access to the way of shutting down the biggest criminal in the country and solving the mystery brought to her by Tiffany? If Lee went unstopped, was there a chance that he would destroy too many innocent lives?

She took a deep breath.

“Yes.”

The Art of Motion

Sequel to Eyes, which is a sequel to Lips, and no I don’t think I will make it an ongoing.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

“Congratulations.”

Tiffany turned, and she smiled at the sight of Taeyeon leaning comfortably in the doorway of her studio. The artist was scruffy-looking today, her clothes rumpled and her eyes tired but glinting as she grinned.

“Congratulations?” Tiffany repeated. “What for?”

Taeyeon reached down and whipped out a folded magazine from the bag resting beside her on the floor. She smoothed it out so that she could show the cover to Tiffany, and she waved it around a little as she laughed.

“Congratulations for being you.”

The world’s hottest new young designer.

Tiffany gaped at it. It was only the biggest fashion magazine in the universe, the one designers and critics and celebrities used as some kind of a holy book for style and wearable art. The headline was clear, firm, a picture from one of the most recent runway shows inset above the words.

“Is that for real?!” She leaped forward and grabbed the magazine from Taeyeon’s hand, holding it up to her face and staring at it as if she could drill right through it. “Does that really say my name?”

Taeyeon placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Can’t you read? It really does say ‘Tiffany Hwang: the world’s hottest new young designer’.”

Tiffany looked up to meet Taeyeon’s warm eyes, still stiff with disbelief. They had only put less than a third of her new collection on display in the public eye in the past three weeks and already there were rave reviews from all over the industry. She could only imagine what would happen when the rest of her designs were revealed. She didn’t even have a definite name for the collection yet, tentatively labelling it ‘Lips’ for the time being, but she wanted to incorporate a deeper level into the name so that the concept flowed all the way through.

Without Taeyeon’s input, her collection would be only half what it was now.

She became aware of Taeyeon’s hand, now on her arm, and returned her genuine smile.

“This is amazing,” she said, absently stepping closer to Taeyeon. “Thank you for everything you’ve done with me on this little project.”

Taeyeon’s grin widened. “Little? I think it’s much more than that, don’t you? You’re the world’s hottest new young designer, and that world is going to go absolutely insane when your full collection is revealed.”

Tiffany blushed and looked down. The magazine was crumpled again in her grasp, but she didn’t worry about straightening it out again. Instead she found herself looking at Taeyeon’s uninteresting shoes and feeling the way Taeyeon’s hand stroked her upper arm.

Then she looked up again, and bit her bottom lip, seeing how Taeyeon’s eyes followed the motion.

“Really,” she said, regaining Taeyeon’s attention, “you breathed life into these designs with all your talk of lips and sensations and eyes and the expression of a kiss. You created another thread of sensuality.”

Taeyeon’s gaze was scorching. “Define sensuality.”

By now, Tiffany was used to this game Taeyeon would play. The teasing, the toying, the motions of going closer and closer before springing away. And she was not going to let Taeyeon be the last to have a say.

Tiffany smiled. “You know,” she said, and stepped closer even more, so that the edges of their clothing brushed together and they could feel the ebbing heat of another body.

“I know?” echoed Taeyeon, her hand forming a grip on Tiffany’s arm. She was hooked. It showed in her eyes, the shape of her mouth, the rise and fall of her chest. Tiffany wasn’t even aware of she herself was displaying her perceptions of the sensations, because she found Taeyeon absorbing.

“Yeah,” Tiffany answered. She dropped the magazine, not caring that it fell on their toes, and her hands came up to touch Taeyeon’s neck and skim upwards to cup her face. “You know.”

“Maybe I don’t,” Taeyeon was quick to reply. “Enlighten me.”

Tiffany watched her for a long moment and felt how Taeyeon watched her too. She leaned into Taeyeon’s remaining space, and felt how Taeyeon’s body moved to accommodate her presence with pleasure.

“Sensuality,” she murmured, “is motion. It’s the motion of your heart beating and your breath brushing over the sensitivity of my lips, and the motion of your hand on my arm as the intensity of your grip on my flesh changes with the tension of your nerves. It’s the motion of your body as it shifts to fit smoothly with my own when I lean closer and closer to be right here with you as much as I can be, and the motion of your lips when I get so close that I may well kiss you –”

Tiffany stopped, raising her stare from Taeyeon’s lips to her eyes, and she pulled her head back.

“And it’s the motion of your pulse racing in the palm of my hand when I don’t kiss you,” she said, sounding a little smug.

Taeyeon grinned. “I think I’m getting the hang of it. Let me see. Lips, the sensations that make fireworks,” she moved her hands to hold onto Tiffany’s hips, “Eyes, the expression of a kiss,” she tilted her head, “Sensuality…”

“The art of motion,” Tiffany said.

“And the art of motion is…”

Tiffany blinked suddenly. “The name of my collection.”

Taeyeon froze. “What?”

Tiffany looked past Taeyeon’s head, into distant space. “I can use that in the name of my collection. Maybe something like: lips, eyes, motion…. ah, it’s missing something.” She squinted.

Taeyeon leaned back slightly, staring at Tiffany. “The name of your collection.”

“Lips, eyes, motion…” Tiffany repeated, oblivious. “Lips, eyes, motion.”

“Kiss,” said Taeyeon firmly. “Lips, eyes, motion, kiss.”

Tiffany returned her attention to Taeyeon, and her face cleared into a sly smile. “Kiss? Really? You think so?”

Taeyeon moved closer again, with a familiar wolfish look, and she kissed her.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Hotel Rooms and Rented Cars

The best place in the world to feel lonely is a hotel room.

The soft yet unfamiliar bed, the nice but somehow lacking view from the window, the mini-fridges with their mini-refreshments, and the impeccably clean bathroom with the tiny packets of soap and shampoo; these were the sights Tiffany was accustomed to, and it all made her feel lonely.

It was even worse when she was staying in an airport hotel. The sounds of the planes traveling through the air above her would echo in her head, somehow reminding her that she was far away from home.

But Tiffany didn’t know where to find her home anymore. She had an apartment, but it was so rarely used and only used because it was close to her office building, it hardly felt like a real, good, warm home to go back to at the end of a long work day.

And so Tiffany was lonely. She sat in the hotel room, perched on the end of the hotel bed, absently flicking hotel peanuts into the hotel ashtray some distance away on the hotel coffee table. The peanuts had seemed like a good snack at first, even at their expensive price, but to her they tasted like air and nothing more.

She had a meeting in less than twenty minutes. It was an important meeting, a fact which she was reminded of with every thick tick and tock of the hotel clock.

A month ago she had been in another hotel room, listening to the same ticking of a hotel clock. The sharpness had pervaded the midnight silence, but she didn’t mind it in the slightest, because she was staring at Taeyeon. Taeyeon, who had fallen asleep after much tossing and turning and quiet deliberating, whose closed eyes were now relaxed as she finally rested well. The stress still haunted her features, crinkling a little line between her eyebrows, and Tiffany resisted the powerful, almost overwhelming urge to reach across the bed and comfort her. She had to resist. Taeyeon was not from the same empty, routine world as Tiffany. Taeyeon had the freedom, the chance to find the happiness that Tiffany had somehow misplaced at some point earlier during her youth.

The rented car had no smell. She took a deep breath as she clicked the door shut behind her, but nothing was there. The files in her hand hit the passenger seat as the rest of her body moved through the motions of igniting the car’s engine.

I’m in a rented car, with a hotel room close by. I’m thinking of you because when I’m away from home, I think of home, and you are my home. I’ve never spent as much time in one location as I have in your heart. I miss you. I love you.

Next week she would be in another hotel room. It had been amusing at first, entertaining, to be able to travel so much at her young age. She was seeing new places, feeling new atmospheres. She would take a lengthy series of photos of every little thing in the hotel room, in the rented car, on the streets as she drove to meetings and conferences and those all-important career opportunities that kept her moving onwards and upwards. But after so many rolls of pictures, the excitement wore off and disappeared altogether. She knew these places, she knew these feelings, and they were not all that fascinating anymore.

Taeyeon,

Please stop contacting me. It hurts me to see you so hurt because I’m hurting you. Do you understand? Maybe it only makes sense to me because I’m drunk. These bottles are tiny and expensive but hotel liquor is not all that bad after all. Please stop calling me, finding out what country I’m in, using your credit card to come visit me. Just don’t. You know how much I miss you and that is all I can give you anymore.

Tiffany was good at what she did. Organisations right around the world wanted her expertise, her knowledge and ideas, her reputation for fixing and mixing and sending every business she worked with to the top. She thought she should stick to what she was good at, keep doing what she knew to do, because it was all she had in the end.

She was stuck in traffic again, staring at the blaring red light that kept her from her journey. Whenever she wasn’t moving, her thoughts turned to Taeyeon. It was simply the way it was. She needed to be moving at all times or else she would think about Taeyeon.

Taeyeon,

I’m sick of it. I don’t like the empty warmth of hotel rooms, the quiet throbbing of a rented engine. I like you. I like the way you hold me and smile at me and it’s been an eternity since I’ve seen you, and even longer since I’ve seen you smile. Smile for me?

When Tiffany got back to her hotel room late that evening, she tipped back a little bottle of something boozy and tossed her jacket over the back of a chair.

Then she got around to flicking on the light switch.

And then she answered the knock on the door.

And Taeyeon stood there, brighter than the day had been, grinning like a hooligan. She seemed to know exactly what Tiffany was about to say, because she hopped into the room before Tiffany could even think to close it, and she wrapped Tiffany in a warm, wonderful hug.

“I know you don’t think this is good for us,” she said right away, without wasting time on small talk or excuses. “I know you think this is an unhealthy relationship, being apart all the time with no end in sight. You’re right, in a way. But we’re not dead, and this relationship isn’t dead.”

Tiffany sighed. It was the weary sigh she always brought out, almost automatically now, whenever they discussed it. It was the sigh that carried her sadness, her love. Taeyeon knew it as well as she did, sound for sound, unspoken word for word.

She didn’t bother to continue with anything else. She simply circled her arms around Taeyeon and tucked them together.

Sometimes, a hotel room can be the best place to feel like being in a separate little world of your own.

________________________________________________________________________________________

Can we pretend nothing is wrong?

“Can we pretend nothing is wrong?”

Tiffany turned, leaned against the pale metal bars, and sighed.

“How exactly do you expect us to do that when we’re locked in a cell in a police station, Taeyeon? Should I pretend this is the honeymoon suite at The Ritz? I can totally do that. That bench against the wall being held up by two chains is a dead ringer for a four poster king-size double.”

Taeyeon didn’t reply. Her eyes were directed at the cement floor. She tightened her hands into fists on her knees as she sat on that bench.

Tiffany sighed again, and turned to look out of the cell.

“You know how you always tell me I look cool every time I mow the lawn?”

Tiffany looked at her. “Yeah?”

“I know you only say that so I’ll be willing to do the gardening more often.”

Tiffany blinked. “So?”

“So, thanks. Thanks for that.”

Tiffany just looked confused, then annoyed, and then she looked away again. They listened to the sounds of the police station, the officers talking and phones ringing and computer keyboards clicking, before she glared at Taeyeon again.

“Why can’t you ever close a drawer properly?”

Taeyeon met her eyes. “What?”

“We’ve been living together for, like, a billion years, and every day when I go into the kitchen I have to close at least one drawer because it’s not completely shut. Why? Why, when you’ve already begun the closing process, can’t you just push it all the way?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess I just don’t care. At least it’s mostly closed, right?”

Tiffany scoffed. She stomped to the bench and sat down as far away from Taeyeon as she could, crossing her legs.

“Well how about you and the eggs?” Taeyeon said, reaching over to poke her on the shoulder.

“What about the damn eggs?” Tiffany replied through gritted teeth.

“Every time we go grocery shopping, you don’t take the eggs out of their carton and put them in the special compartment in the fridge. That thing is made to hold eggs, you know? Instead you just put the whole damn box on the fridge’s shelf and take up space.”

“Well sorry if I’m taking up space you would use for your stupid yoghurt!”

“Hey, what’s wrong with my yoghurt?!”

“I just don’t see why you need to buy so much of it! And what’s so special about it? Why do you need to buy the one that costs three dollars more? Is it made of freaking unicorn piss or something?!”

“It’s good for digestion! And you’re hardly one to talk; you always have to get the special tomatoes from Brazil or whatever, even though you know they are the most expensive and taste exactly the same as any old tomato!”

“Those ones are naturally grown, without any of those dangerous chemicals, okay? Do you know the effects of those chemicals? They’re so unhealthy!”

“Unhealthy?! You always, always eat snacks and junk food only to complain a few minutes later about how you’re not at your ideal weight! Why do you eat junk food if you’re just going to complain about the effects of junk food? And why, why for the love of god can’t you see that you’re perfect! You don’t even need to lose weight. In fact, if you lost more weight you would be underweight. Can’t you see that? Stop worrying about your weight!”

Tiffany opened and closed her mouth repeatedly, looking frustrated and confused, before letting out a wordless scream of irritation.

“See?! I can’t even say anything in response to that!” Tiffany whined. “You do this every time we fight! You suddenly drop some veiled compliment and I can’t be mad at you anymore and that makes me so damn angry!”

“I don’t even know why it’s like that! You’re just so complex, Tiffany, you make every single thing between us into some complicated troubling obstacle when it could all just be so simple! I just don’t run on that wavelength. I have no idea what to do when you get like that.”

“Why do you always have to do something? You always have to solve the puzzle, fix the problem, and find something to do to make it right! You talk about simplicity as if you’re some laid back, casual person who just goes with the flow but you’re not, not when it comes to me.”

“Because I love you!” Taeyeon shouted. “I just love you so damn much that it scares me, the thought of anything going wrong, the possibility of something bad happening – I just want everything to be right because I love you.”

“Then why don’t you spend more time loving me than worrying about that? Every time we go to the movies you fuss around making sure I’m comfy and I have popcorn and my favourite chocolate, when I just want to hold hands with you! When we walk in the park you’ll offer to give me your jacket and your scarf and your hat because it’s cold, but I don’t want to waddle around like some Arctic penguin because I’m wearing all your clothes when you could move closer and share your body heat with me! I just want you to love me, Taeyeon. Just love me.”

They both waited in silence, breath bated as if to see what else was about to come bursting out. Their thoughts were rushing, formulating without their input and then – a rattling at the door caught their attention.

“You can come out now,” said the police officer, giving them a stern look. “And I do hope you’ve calmed down, ladies.”

Taeyeon and Tiffany felt themselves go slack. The burning air that had been created by their conversation dissipated. They nodded meekly at the officer and followed him out of the cell.

“It’s just not polite to create a public disturbance, you know,” he said as he led them down the corridor. “I hope you understand why we had to get you take you away, arguing like that in a supermarket. You’ve sorted out your problems?”

They shared a glance. The link between their eyes was intense, smouldering with the embers of their words, and then a tiny smile showed itself more than once. They shrugged nonchalantly at each other and looked away.

“It’s a start.”

 

__________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Pieces of Peace

A/N: Part of the Choices compilation of TaeNy over at Soshified. Check out the rest if you haven’t already: Choices

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Pieces of Peace

The first thing she does is turn around. She walks into the shopping centre, her cell phone still pressed against her ear even though it’s no longer sharing a voice with her and its plastic rubs against her skin. Her legs move firmly, taking her straight to the ATM in the corner. She finally puts her phone away and scrabbles to get a card out of her wallet. Someone stops behind her, keeping a respectful distance, and lets out a little cough to let her know they’re waiting to use it too. The card slots into the machine. She taps in her PIN number. She presses a button – quick cash. Her card plops out again. Two bills slip from their slot and into her waiting fingers. She leaves without looking back, knowing there’s no receipt coming, and slips one of the bills into her pocket next to her bus card. The other is lightly folded in half in her hand, an old habit. Her shoes thud onto the pavement outside again, the glass doors closing behind her with a whisper. Her eyes lock onto the scruffy old woman sitting cross-legged on the corner, on top of a ratty old jacket, watching the people walk past.

She holds out the paper money. “Here.”

As soon as it’s in the woman’s hand, she turns around and walks away. She barely even hears the woman’s words of thanks, doesn’t see her expression as she unfolds the money, and she doesn’t look back until she’s already almost a block away. The woman is gone. She smiles; because she knows there’s a fast food restaurant just a few steps from where the woman was sitting and that money will be enough to buy her a meal there.

She jogs to catch her bus. She gives the other bill to the bus driver to put credit on her card, and she sits on a good seat to go home, and she feels empty no matter how much she overcompensates.

On the other side of the street, sitting on a low stone wall and fiddling absently with her camera, Tiffany’s gaze thoughtfully traces the steps from the shopping centre to the bus that was now gone. She swings her legs back and forth, the thick heels of her boots smacking into the stone every now and then, the contours of her knees well-defined in her skinny black jeans. She sees the homeless old woman coming out of the fast food restaurant and raises her camera to take a few snaps of the look on her face. She’s satisfied.

Tiffany smiles. She flicks the lens cover on and hops down from the low stone wall. Her bag rustles as she tucks away her camera and swings the strap over her shoulder, the fabric rubbing against faux leather. A breeze tickles the side of her neck, just below her ear, and she pulls up her hood.

Her steps echo on the pavement as she walks. She thinks about the petite girl she sees every other day, stopping whatever she’s doing to get some money from the ATM to give to whichever poor soul would be begging outside. One time the girl was intently flipping through a colourful brochure and almost tripped over the crumpled old man lying against the wall of the shopping centre. Tiffany takes a deep breath as she remembers the way the girl awkwardly bowed in apology and later ran out of the centre to give the man both her ten dollar bills. She always got two bills from the ATM and gave at least one.

Tiffany lets out the breath she was holding in, and rounds a corner to slip into a skinny alleyway. The breeze had picked up into a strong wind, blowing bits of paper and old food wrappers against her legs and under her feet.

This time the girl had been in a phone call. Her face was blank, then solemn, and then drawn in despair. Her steps had faltered as she turned her back on the direction in which the old woman sat, her shoulders twitching. After a few moments during which Tiffany’s finger stayed still on the camera’s shutter button, she abruptly spun around and entered the centre with the phone frozen in place.

Something was wrong, Tiffany thinks. Whatever the girl heard on the phone hit her hard. Tiffany sighs. She wants to get to know the girl, but she feels that the girl is more of a loner. She never walks with anyone, and she avoids people. Whenever she bumps into someone or gets in their way, she bows stiffly and keeps her eyes averted.

Tiffany halts in front of a shabby green door and raps her knuckles on the thin metal. Almost immediately it opens slightly and the glint of an eye can be seen in the darkness through the gap.

“Tiffany?” someone whispers.

Tiffany widens her eyes, leans closer, and whispers back, “Weirdo?”

The door opens fully to show a tall, black haired young woman who glances around behind Tiffany before looking at her again. “No need to get snarky. I’m just being careful.”

“Whatever, Yuri,” Tiffany replies, briefly rolling her eyes. “All that’s in there is a holey couch, a busted minifridge, and a darkroom on the other side of a paper-thin door. It’s not like you’re guarding a Fabergé egg.”

Yuri just blinks and bites her bottom lip nervously. Her lack of reply makes Tiffany frown.

“What?” she asks, eyes following the lines of worry on her friend’s face. “You’re not guarding a Fabergé egg, right? Please don’t tell me there’s a Fabergé egg in there.”

Yuri’s hand shoots out and she tugs her inside with a tight grip on her arm. The door slams shut behind them.

“God, turn on the light, will you? What the heck is going on?”

The fluorescent light clicks on and she blinks rapidly. Yuri shuffles over to the couch and sits on the edge, wringing her hands together and looking stressed. Tiffany watches for a moment. Then she sighs, lowers her bag onto the floor, dumps her jacket on top of it, and goes to sit down next to her friend.

“What’s wrong?” she asks softly. Her hand strokes Yuri’s spine gently. “Did something happen?”

Yuri takes a few deep, shaky breaths to calm down, and fails to become any calmer. She reaches underneath the couch and flourishes a brown paper bag. It nearly rips when she unfolds the top and pushes it towards Tiffany.

A sizeable lump of bundled cash stares up at her.

Tiffany’s jaw drops, and her hands grab onto the bag to bring it even closer to her face. She shakes it, watches as the cash jiggles around, and she splutters.

“What the hell is this?!”

“Money,” Yuri whimpers. She lets go of the bag and wipes her hands on her jeans as if she could get rid of the connection. “I found it in the darkroom. It was just sitting there on the bench. I thought you got here early and left your lunch or something but those are not BLT sandwiches, are they? No they are not.”

Tiffany gapes at the money in the bag. There are bundles of medium to large amounts, probably totalling hideously high digits. She plucks out a bundle and drops the bag onto the couch between them, making a soft thumping noise, and she flicks through the paper money with awe.

“What was this doing in the darkroom?” she murmurs.

“That’s what I’d like to know.”

“Who has access to this place?”

Yuri takes a breath and lists names on her fingers. “You, me, Jessica, Sunny, Seohyun, Yoona, Hyoyeon, Sooyoung and Taeyeon.”

Tiffany looks up. “I only recognise, like, three of those names.”

“No, you know Hyoyeon, we got that spare roll of film from her at the CD store where she works, and she has five piercings in each ear.”

“Oh, right, I remember her. Well who are the people I don’t know?”

Tiffany ripples through the bundle of notes one last time before dropping it back into the brown paper bag and folding the top closed again.

“Yoona is my next door neighbour, Sooyoung is my cubicle buddy at the office, and Taeyeon is a friend from high school.”

Tiffany locks her gaze onto Yuri’s eyes, her expression deadly serious. “And which one of all these people do you think is most likely to leave a paper bag full of money on the darkroom bench?”

Yuri runs a hand through her hair and huffs. “I don’t know, do I? I have no idea what is going on here. None of them seem likely to leave a lottery prize just lying around here like a bag of potatoes. What should we do?!”

“Okay, deep breaths,” Tiffany says calmly, putting her hands on Yuri’s shoulders. “Let’s just relax for now. We should contact each of the people who have access to this place and ask them if they left a brown paper bag here. Don’t mention the money yet. If none of them left it here, we take it to the cops. Got it?”

“Okay,” Yuri nods, “got it.”

“Now, you go talk to those friends of yours and I’ll talk to Jessica, Seohyun and Sunny later.”

“It’s a simple question, Sunny,” Tiffany insists, eyes narrowing with building suspicion. “Did you or did you not leave a brown paper bag in the darkroom? You won’t get in trouble if it was you.”

Sunny looks up and rolls her eyes. “I meant it when I said no, Tiffany. Now could you move? You keep jumping in front of my customers and my supervisor is going to be pissed.”

Tiffany eyes her for a moment longer before sighing and stepping out of the way. The row of customers behind her barely conceal their relief, and she rests her hip against the counter to let her thoughts change track while Sunny takes orders.

Nothing so far from any of the people she has questioned. The back of her mind still burns with the image of all that money, slumping in that brown paper disguise. Sunny is her last stop of the day. Tiffany takes a bite of the fries Sunny forced her to buy earlier, and wonders if Yuri has had any success. The strap of her bag brushes against the counter as she scrabbles through her pockets to get her phone.

Yuri answers on the third ring.

“No luck,” Yuri reports. “Although I haven’t had a chance to talk to Taeyeon properly. She’s unusually unresponsive today. I’m thinking of driving over to her place after dinner tonight. She should be home then.”

“Do you think there’s a chance it might have been her? It might not be worth it to bother her at home if there’s no way it was her.”

“She won’t mind,” Yuri says. “Do you want to come along? I think she’d like to meet you.”

Tiffany blinks and stares down at the empty container in her hand where the fries used to be. She mulls over the idea of meeting this mysterious Taeyeon. She likes meeting new people. “Uh, sure, if you think it won’t be bothersome…”

“It’ll be fine. I’ll pick you up at your place around eight?”

“Okay.”

Tiffany checks how much battery is left on her phone before slipping it away again, and turns back to Sunny to see her handing a customer a receipt with a smile.

“So what’s the big deal about this bag, anyway?” Sunny asks when she’s done, crossing her arms as she raises an eyebrow at Tiffany. “You seem awfully persistent about it.”

Tiffany tries her hardest to seem nonchalant as she shrugs and says, “I’d just like to return it to its rightful owner, that’s all. It might be important to them and they forgot it.”

“Right, of course,” Sunny says. “Just be careful, ok? Don’t get in trouble over this.”

Tiffany blinks at her. “Why do you think I would be getting into trouble by trying to find the person who left a brown paper bag in a shared darkroom?”

There’s a brief pause as Sunny grabs a bag of food from behind her and passes it on to a customer who was waiting on the other end of the counter. Then she turns back to Tiffany and says, with a straight face, “Drugs. A bunch of young people sharing a darkroom, a mysterious brown paper bag… it has to be drugs. Did you look inside it?”

“No, of course not,” Tiffany replies immediately, and a tendril of her thoughts wisp down the lane of drugs. What if it was drug money? “It’s someone else’s private property, I can’t go looking in it for no reason.”

“No reason? Tiffany, someone left it there. Did you even think you could find some form of identification inside?”

Tiffany shrugs. “Maybe I’ll do that as a last resort. There’s only one person who hasn’t said if it’s theirs or not, so there’s no point looking in it now. If it’s not hers, then I’ll try something else.”

She hopes her words are believable. Pretending not to have looked in the bag was not something she had thought through, because as Sunny said it would be a natural response. It’s almost over now anyway.

What will she do if it turns out to be Taeyeon’s? Should she continue to pretend she doesn’t know what’s inside – if she can – or should she find out? But perhaps there is danger.

“Hello?”

Tiffany blinks again. Sunny is clicking her fingers in front of Tiffany’s face and giving her the weirdest look she’s witnessed in a long time. From this sequence, Tiffany rightfully deducts that she has been spacing out in the middle of a conversation for an impolite period of time. She whips out a smile and starts to back away.

“Well thanks for your help, Sunny, I have to go. Have a nice day at work!”

It’s clear Sunny won’t let the odd behaviour go without discussion, but Tiffany tucks it away in the back of her mind and goes back to thinking about the money. It’s tucked away at the bottom of her bag, its place decided after a brief argument between her and Yuri.

She can’t wait to meet Taeyeon.

Tiffany is nervous as they reach Taeyeon’s front door. The money is still in her bag, and its presence is making her anxious. She can’t help but wonder what Taeyeon is like, because it is becoming more and more likely that the money is hers.

Yuri gives her a weird look much like Sunny’s, and Tiffany knows it’s because she’s shuffling awkwardly and tugging at the sleeves of her jacket. She returns the look with a raised eyebrow and then avoids eye contact. Yuri finally rings the doorbell.

After a solid minute of silence, the door clicks open. There is Taeyeon.

Tiffany can’t help but stare. Her eyes widen at the sight of the girl, because this is not only the mysterious Taeyeon who probably owns the money but it is also the kind, sweet girl who gives money to the homeless at every opportunity and stumbles around town, distracted by something serious.

Taeyeon barely spares her a glance – although there seems to be something in her eyes when she looks at Tiffany; is the recognition somehow mutual? She turns to Yuri and gives a bland smile.

“Hey, I didn’t realise you were visiting me tonight,” Taeyeon says. Tiffany thinks her voice is lovely. “What’s the occasion?”

Yuri laughs too much and comes too close to smacking Tiffany in the face when she waves a hand in the air. “No special occasion. Just felt like hanging out. This is Tiffany; she shares the darkroom with us.”

Their eyes meet again and this time Tiffany is quick to switch on a friendly smile. Taeyeon returns it with some feeling, and they give each other a cautious nod of greeting.

“Well, come in,” says Taeyeon, and steps aside for them to enter.

Once they’re all seated in the living room, Yuri and Tiffany on the tense dark couch and Taeyeon in the blood-red armchair, Yuri decided to take the leap.

“So, we found a brown paper bag in the dark room and we were wondering if it’s yours?”

Taeyeon blinked at them, expressionless. After a stretched moment of quiet breathing, Tiffany rummaged in her bag and brought out the item in question, helpfully displaying it for Taeyeon.

At last Taeyeon shows a reaction. Her throat moves as she swallows and her lips twitch in an expression of reluctance.

“Well you know I’m bad at lying,” she says. She sighs. “Yes, it’s mine. And I’m assuming you’ve looked inside or you wouldn’t be so jumpy right now.”

Yuri and Tiffany share a glance, wondering what to say next, but Taeyeon doesn’t give them a chance to think.

“Keep it,” she says abruptly, standing and turning around aimlessly.

“Excuse me?” Yuri blurts out, eyes nearly boggling from her head. “We are talking about the same bag, right? The piles of gorgeous cash? Taeyeon, what’s going on?”

Tiffany looks from Yuri to Taeyeon and back, muscles stiff in shock and uncertainty. Her eyes widen when Taeyeon turns around to reveal her tear-streaked face, and she vaguely wonders if she should leave, but she’s glued to the couch.

“Just take it, okay? I left it there for you,” her eyes flick to Tiffany and away again, “for all of you who share the darkroom with me. I want it to be used to maintain the place and fund your hobby. I want you all to keep pursuing photography for as long as you can.”

Yuri can’t even say anything, her face frozen in an expression of confusion, concern, panic, consternation. After the tension has become so tightly strung it could snap, Tiffany gets up and slowly stands in front of Taeyeon with the bag of money rustling in her hands.

“Look, I don’t know you well,” Tiffany says, “Well I’ve seen you around but we’ve never met, and actually I’ve been taking photos of you…”

Taeyeon stares at her.

“But I’m worried now, even though I don’t know you well, because you seem like a good person and it seems like something bad is happening to you.”

Taeyeon keeps staring at her.

Finally Yuri explodes from the couch, grabs Taeyeon by the shoulders and nearly screams, “Taeyeon what is going on?!”

To which Taeyeon immediately screams back, “I’m dying, okay?! I’m dying!”

Rushed breathing follows the trail of words as they fade away unhindered. Yuri’s body is shaking, Taeyeon’s body is tensely coiled like a spring, and Tiffany feels totally intrusive but irrevocably locked in, stuck in the atmosphere that falls on them.

“I don’t have much time left,” Taeyeon whispers, stepping out of Yuri’s grasp. “And I want you guys to have the money.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Yuri asks, sounding almost calm. “What are you talking about?”

It looks like Taeyeon is struggling to find words to answer, feeling pressured to say something to one of her best friends, and it’s almost tangible in the air as the heat builds up.

“Just go, okay?”

Not what Tiffany was expecting. She stares at Taeyeon in the same way Taeyeon stared at her, and for a moment their eyes meet and clash, and then Taeyeon is pushing them both out the door and slamming it shut.

Yuri claws at her head, but she seems to know Taeyeon won’t open the door for her again, so she storms away.

Tiffany looks down at the money in her hands. Gingerly, she pats it and puts it down in front of Taeyeon’s door. She wishes it could somehow go inside and heal everything.

Tiffany hasn’t heard from Yuri or anyone else who shares the darkroom during the day following the incident, but she hasn’t been seeking them out either. Her mind is still swirling with thoughts stirred up by everything she’s learned. She met Taeyeon, at last, got a feel for her behaviour, characteristics, the sound of her voice, the impact of her gaze face to face – and she found out that Taeyeon is dying, which answers her un-verbalized questions and leaves her with a whole lot to think about.

She decides to finally develop all the film-photographs that she has taken of Taeyeon. She uses a mix of digital and film for all photography, and thinks the process of developing film will assist her contemplation.

She’s just finished hanging them up on the wire, thoughts unmoved, Taeyeon walks in with heavy steps and the infamous brown paper bag in one hand. The door quickly clicks shut behind her.

They stare at each other in the red-washed light.

Taeyeon drops the brown paper bag on the bench and walks around the room, inspecting each hanging photograph. She flicks a few with the tip of her thumbnail.

She stops at a photograph that shows her on the day she gave a homeless old man all her cash after she almost tripped over him.

“These photographs tell a story,” Taeyeon says, “Would you like to know the story you’ve been recording so diligently, Tiffany?”

Tiffany blinks, and her heart rate increases. Yes, she certainly does want to know, but the curve of Taeyeon’s shoulders and the emptiness of her stance makes her wonder if she has any right to ask. Taeyeon doesn’t turn to look at her, doesn’t even make any indication that she’s not alone despite having just asked her a question. That shows Tiffany – and her thought is soon confirmed – that Taeyeon isn’t waiting for an answer.

“This,” Taeyeon begins, “is the story of a young student.”

She reaches up and plucks the photograph off its wire, letting it fall onto the bench. Tiffany gasps, and steps forward as if to stop her from ruining the photos, but Taeyeon keeps talking and moving, plucking down all the photos of herself as she tells the story.

“This young student,” she continues, flicking her photographic head with a finger before ripping the photo down, “has been plagued by illnesses all her life, physical and mental, and it has been a long, heavy struggle for her to reach the point she is at. She has managed to believe – at last, she believes – that she can have a good life, a normal life, she can build up to that and then it will be okay. She finally does believe that it’s possible. She won’t have to wake up every morning with pain in her body and her heart, and cry before dragging herself out of bed. Sometimes she still falls out of bed, it’s the only way it’ll happen, and she can’t rest at night until she induces sleep. But now, here she is, she has climbed all the way here, and she can keep going, she believes it, she knows she can do it, she will have life.”

Taeyeon pauses again at a photograph. It captures her on a cloudy day, a cigarette between her lips, squinting into the breeze that annoyed her. Taeyeon smiles slightly at the memory of that day, of that very moment, immortalised in this photograph. She reaches out and touches her photo-face. Tiffany remembers that day too, the feeling of disappointment at first that Taeyeon was a smoker, then amusement as the battle to light the cigarette went on. The smoking only lasted a few weeks.

“She even thinks she’s safe enough to try out some things that millions of other people do – because she’s one of them now, just a person in the world.”

Taeyeon retracts her hand from the photo and touches her real mouth, tracing her bottom lip as she remembers something else. The blood. The tiny droplets that marked her final cigarette and gave her a warning sign, the touch of her mouth that came away reddened. The resignation with which she threw away the rest of the pack, the sluggishness as she told herself to stop fooling around.

She discards the photograph, and moves on.

“This student, believing she has glimpsed something like happiness in the distance and she can get there at least once, does not make it after all.”

The last photograph of Taeyeon lands face-down on the surface of the bench and the red-lit room is silent for a moment in the aftermath. Taeyeon doesn’t look at Tiffany, still, and raises her head to face the ceiling.

“She’s learned a lot in her life,” Taeyeon says to the heavens. “Some of it, she wishes she didn’t have to know so well. She learns one more thing. The age of twenty-five – give or take a couple of years – is to be the end.”

She lowers her head, hunches her shoulders tightly.

“Not quite the ending I meant,” Taeyeon whispers. “I thought I was heading for an end to my pain and deep-hitting horror, not an end to my entire possibility of life.”

Silence stretches itself and lounges over them like a sociopathic tyrant.

“Because that’s life, right?” Taeyeon says. She turns and stares at Tiffany. “Life is death.”

Tiffany gapes like a fish in a desert on the moon. Is there a thing that can be said at this time? An action that can be taken? Taeyeon seems to be looking at her expectantly, but then the look is gone and she turns to the door, ready to leave.

“Thanks for taking such nice pictures,” she says over her shoulder, pausing. “I probably didn’t ruin all of them. But I wish I could have.”

And just like that, she’s gone.

And Tiffany is lost.

Taeyeon will end up meaning more to her than she ever could have thought from one person, in a mix of both positive and negative, an influence that will push her into a spin, confusion, clarity, shards of something she can’t grasp for long enough.

__________________________________________________________________________________