Brainless. 5; Finally

5; Finally

The fact that Taeyeon’s boss thought he knew what was going on made no difference in the end when it became clear that he did not know nearly as much as he thought he did.

Yuri was a cop at first, and then an undercover cop, and then she seemed to settle into her double life entirely too comfortably. He let her stay, because she had her uses and he saw something of himself in her at times. She wasn’t quite his protégé, and she could never be until she finally ditched the police, but she had a way of playing this particular game that he couldn’t help but admire.

Then there was Taeyeon. She was a little weird. She followed his orders very well, to the letter, never stepping a foot out of line, but also never taking the initiative. She wouldn’t do anything unless he told her to. He found it useful in some ways because she was a sharp tool to have total control over, but she would never rise much higher in the ranks of her community if she retained the subservient mind-set.

Tiffany was a pawn, and he wanted to have her so that she could be carved into a queen. Not for himself, but for later. He wanted to take her and turn her into something even better and stronger than himself, so that she could take his organisation to new heights. The moment he met her face-to-face, he knew her reputation was truer than true. She was intelligent, determined, quick-witted, but bored with her life and entirely willing to take risks, especially after the sudden death of her family. He knew she could be trained to use that mixed bag of powers for exactly what he wanted her to become.

And that was what he thought he knew. He thought that was how it was, the whole scene.

He underestimated them all a little too much.

What he didn’t know was that all those traits he had identified in his toys were precisely the traits that led to them doing exactly what they were doing now: arguing with each other in the closed office of Tiffany’s club.

Yuri didn’t like Taeyeon’s plan, and Tiffany liked it a little too much.

“Why would I want to leave everything I have here?” said Yuri, crossing her arms, seeping with anger. “I’ve made a life for myself which I rather enjoy. I’m getting the best of both worlds in this grey area of mine.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Tiffany disbelievingly. “You’re crazier than I thought you were, Yuri.”

Yuri shrugged. “So? Look, I’m flattered you think I’d join you, but I’d rather stay.”

“The boss doesn’t like you quite so much anymore,” Taeyeon replied, eyes cold. “He’s let you play your game for long enough that you both know exactly what’s happening, but now you’re still playing and he wants you to get serious.”

“I am serious,” Yuri said, frowning. “I’m serious about doing exactly what I’m doing now.”

“Well I’d rather get the hell out of here,” Tiffany contributed. “I’m sick of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. The cops and the gangsters all want me to do their bidding, this place needs me to stay afloat; I’m over it. I just want to be free. I have nothing and no-one left for me here.”

Taeyeon looked at her. “So you’ll come with me?”

Tiffany looked back. “Yes.”

“Excuse me,” interrupted Yuri, “I hate to stop your moment of intimacy but what the hell is going on? Are you two really just going to ditch everything and run?”

“We are.” Taeyeon absently ran a finger over the scar on her hand. “This organisation was my only family for a long time, since the moment they gave me this scar as my identity, and it’s time for me to move out of my parents’ house, so to speak. I want to have my own life now, and it would have to be away from here.”

Tiffany stepped closer and wrapped an arm around Taeyeon’s waist. She kissed her lightly on the cheek.

Taeyeon still didn’t know what to feel about Tiffany. She was very confused, kind of happy, and rather scared. She invited Tiffany to come with her, anyway, so now that was going to happen.

“You two really are weird,” Yuri said, and she shook her head but she smiled. “And I wish you luck in your future, because the boss is not going to be willing to let you go that easy.”

“He won’t be a problem for me. It’s you who should be worried. He’ll get tired of you.”

Taeyeon and Yuri eyed each other for a long time, communicating something deeper than what they showed on the surface. They had both been part of this same family for a long time, and both were genuinely convinced the other would not succeed on their different paths.

Yuri smiled, and shook her head.

That was the last time they saw each other.

Because Taeyeon never liked to do important things half-assed, she planned to make her exit a big one. It was going to be spectacular, so that she could leave a message to her boss. She wasn’t a lackey, she wasn’t a pushover, she wasn’t just a weird kid; she was Taeyeon.

And she had Tiffany.

She knew it would piss him off when he found out that Tiffany went with her. The old man had made it clear that he wanted Tiffany to join his organisation very much, and so it was an easily identifiable weak spot. Take Tiffany, and she would break him just a little more.

That wasn’t her main motivation when she asked Tiffany to join her, and she knew it. It was something she only considered later, as she lay beside Tiffany in the darkness of Tiffany’s bedroom. Sounds of the city brushed past the curtained windows and drove her thoughts. So far she had pondered her feelings for Tiffany, the strategic points of having Tiffany with her, and now it was time for suspicion to settle in. It was only right.

Tiffany was pursuing Taeyeon – or maybe she already caught her – and at first it seemed like she was making a silly and wild decision, but now that it was the night before their departure Taeyeon finally took the time to entertain the possibility that Tiffany was scheming.

In exactly the way Taeyeon was underestimated as a thoughtless lackey, perhaps Taeyeon was underestimating Tiffany as a foolish daredevil.

She made a list of things that had been too easy. Tiffany kissed her first, initiated affectionate embraces and touches, but never said words like ‘love, commitment’ or any of that junk. She obeyed when Taeyeon suggested they should go to Tiffany’s apartment, gladly accepted it when Taeyeon made a move, and didn’t try to cuddle when Taeyeon made it clear she didn’t want to. So how was this possible? It was the only kind of arrangement Taeyeon would ever allow in her life, and it all came together far too smoothly.

Taeyeon turned her head. She could barely make out the outline of Tiffany’s body beside her, curled up and facing away from her.

Disregarding the strategic double-guessing for a moment, she decided to sort out the whole ‘feelings’ thing.

Suffice it say, she wasn’t one for emotional intimacy. But as it turned out, this didn’t do much to blunt her emotions about others, and triggered by Tiffany were certain emotions that she was afraid of. They were the kind of emotions that distracted her, made her lose control, and could very well be used to make her the thoughtless lackey she pretended to be. And then were would she be? So she had to be incredibly certain that Tiffany was not just manipulating her.

But Taeyeon did not know how to do that.

She sighed, and looked at the ceiling again.

In the morning, she would begin to execute her plan, and Tiffany would be right beside her as they escaped the trap they were both in.

And she was inclined to go with it, just like that, losing regard of the doubts and emotions.

Tiffany stirred. She rolled onto her back, took a deep breath, and then rolled onto her side to face Taeyeon. Her eyes were only half open, her face almost indiscernible in the darkness.

“Tae…?” her voice held the thick edge of sleep, and the deep openness of something else altogether. “You’re awake?”

Taeyeon didn’t answer. She stared at Tiffany.

Tiffany moved again, wiping an eye and taking another breath. “You okay?”

“Tell me why I should trust you.” The words came very matter-of-factly; just a casual conversation, but the implications were daunting.

Tiffany took a few moments as if she was still waking up. She thought about what to say. Not only about whether she should lie, but also about what the truth was. Did she trust Taeyeon? She was surprised to find herself thinking that she did. Why? God only knew.

“Because I trust you.”

Taeyeon couldn’t hold back her frown. “What’s that supposed to mean? What do you trust me to do?”

“I trust you,” Tiffany continued, “to take control of your own life and get out of here. And I trust you to want me to join you, so that I can take control of my own life, too.”

Taeyeon sighed, long and heavy and full of the unspoken words she couldn’t grab hold of. She looked away, up at the ceiling, and adjusted herself slightly to be more comfortable on the mattress.

“Hey,” Tiffany murmured, rolling closer and laying an arm over Taeyeon’s waist beneath the covers. “Do you trust me?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes, avoiding Tiffany’s earnest gaze. “I hate words like that. Trust, promise, belief, reliance, dependence. Horrible words.”

They lay together in the darkness. Tiffany shifted to curl against Taeyeon’s side, staring at the profile of her face.

“I know,” she whispered. “I know you don’t like those words or any other words you know I’m thinking of right now. Or rather, you’re scared I’m thinking them right now. You know them, right? Love, dating, all that stuff. I know you don’t like it. And I know it because I know more about you than I thought I did.”

Taeyeon moved, mirroring Tiffany’s curled-up position. “What do you mean?”

“When I kissed you, I wasn’t exactly thinking far into the future. I was basically just thinking that I’ve wanted to kiss you for a while so I might as well do it. And then we kissed some more the next day, and it kind of became a thing and I realized that I like having that with you. I thought about why I like it.”

Taeyeon knew where this was going. “Don’t go there, alright? I understand what you’re saying.”

Tiffany kissed her, fleetingly and then more pressingly, and breathed, “I like you. Is that okay?”

They kissed again, a smooth softness that became more familiar with each touch of their mouths. Taeyeon pulled back slightly and regarded Tiffany’s face so close to her own, felt the warmth of their bodies sharing the space of a bed, and the tingling sensation that always followed their kisses.

She burrowed her head into the crook of Tiffany’s shoulder, and in the night she mumbled comfortably, “Yeah. That’s okay.”

“Seriously? You thought I would hurt an old guy like that?”

Taeyeon slammed the door of her car. She was angry, very angry. Tiffany stumbled into the front passenger seat beside her and barely had a chance to shut her door before Taeyeon had the engine started and set the car jerking into motion.

She knew Tiffany was staring at her. She kept her eyes on the road.

“I’m sorry, okay? You just seemed like you were about to smash his head in or something.”

Taeyeon scoffed. “Haven’t you ever heard of an empty threat? Why would I kill some old guy during a bank robbery? I’m not stupid.”

Tiffany gulped and looked away. For a moment the only sound was the straining of the engine as it kept up with Taeyeon’s ever increasing speed, and then at last the sound of gears changing. They slowed, turned a corner, and settled into a more normal rate of movement.

“I thought you knew me,” Taeyeon said at last, softly invading the silence that was descending.

Tiffany’s gaze snapped back to Taeyeon instantly. “I do! I do… Please, Taeyeon, don’t get mad at me. I just didn’t want you to kill that man.”

Taeyeon sighed, and didn’t answer.

Within minutes, this part of town would be crawling with cops. Among them would no doubt be Yuri – because despite their intention to commit an anonymous robbery, there was now video and eye-witness evidence of Tiffany’s face being revealed as she removed her mask and yelled Taeyeon’s name.

“It was a foolish thing to do, I know,” Tiffany said. “I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry.”

“Apologizing is not going to keep us out of prison.”

“We won’t go to prison!” Tiffany sounded exasperated, desperate. “Yuri won’t let us, she’ll cover -”

“Yuri will do whatever is most beneficial to her,” interrupted Taeyeon. She glanced at Tiffany. “As a police detective it’s in her best interests to prosecute us. As the servant of my ex-boss it’s in her best interests to persecute us.”

Tiffany was quiet, lowering her eyes again.

“We’ve just got to get out here,” Taeyeon concluded. “Fast.”

So she drove, and they crawled their way past town borders. The sun reached its place to mark the middle of the day, and wind built up to push through sparse trees on the sides of the open country roads. Tiffany felt like her head was about to explode from the stress and the silence, when Taeyeon pulled over and turned off the engine.

They didn’t look at each other.

“Last night you said that –” Taeyeon broke off, and swallowed. She tried again. “You said that you knew me. How well do you think you really know me now?”

Tiffany reached for Taeyeon’s hand right away, as if afraid that she was missing her chance to do so.

“Taeyeon, look, I was just scared. I was afraid. We’ve done crazy things before, dangerous things, and this was fun – it was thrilling – until I saw that old man getting up to try to stop us and the look on your face as you shouted at him and got right up in his face. I was scared.”

Taeyeon sighed. She didn’t move her hand from Tiffany’s grip, and stared at their fingers touching. “Are you sure you want to do this? Whatever this is that we’re doing, that we’ll do, are you sure you want to do this with me?”

It was obvious what the real question was. Those words they whispered to each other in the dead of the night before were now lying on the side of the road where they sat, with hot sunlight beating down on them. Taeyeon wanted to know if words and promises and feelings that were born from brainless pursuits could stand up and walk on their own. And she wanted to know if Tiffany could breathe life into them.

“What you really want to know is if you’re running away from what I represent to you or if we’re running towards a big and scary future with something new connecting us.”

Taeyeon looked up, into Tiffany’s eyes, and she didn’t dare to blink.

Tiffany smiled. “I do know you, Taeyeon. I do. But sometimes I get scared, and I’ll just have to get better at not letting that fear cloud my mind. I know you. I trust you.”

She seemed about to say something else, but stopped. She leaned forward to place a light kiss on the corner of Taeyeon’s lips.

“I really like you,” she whispered. “I know you don’t trust words and I like that about you, because words can be fickle and thoughtless things. I’m not going to waste my time anymore with words I know you’re not used to yet. I’ll show you. I’ll stay with you and we’ll be together, and whatever comes our way I won’t let my fear crush what I know and believe; you. You’ll give me that strength, and I’ll give you strength too. Okay?”

Taeyeon would never admit it, but she was scared too. She started to feel like there was a chance that Tiffany knew that. Her fear was a thing she never showed to anyone, and maybe she didn’t have to because Tiffany knew her. And Tiffany was willing to trust her. Was it really so foolish and wild after all?

Yes. It was utterly brainless.

And she loved it.

“Okay.”

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Brainless. 4; Fade

4; Fade

Tiffany was used to seeing Taeyeon in her office these days. Sometimes she would return there during the course of the club’s business hours, after making her rounds to check on staff and greet some of the regulars, looking to relax and get the weight off her feet for a while. It was hard work to smile non-stop as if her face had no other function, even when the people she talked to were obnoxious or vulgar, or just not as interesting as they thought they were. But they were her customers and her employees, and she cared about doing her job well and taking good care of her business even though it was mostly in the hands of a criminal organisation.

Being owned by gangsters hadn’t made a huge difference yet. Every now and then the people at the rose tables would get little coloured bags beside their drinks, and it made them happy and relaxed, which Tiffany appreciated. Most of them were the more mature, sleek business types, but there were a few of the rougher thugs that made her feel uncomfortable with the way they eyed her employees, so any distraction was good even if it was a bag of drugs.

Taeyeon never told her what was in those little bags and she never let Tiffany go near them. It was obvious that they held different things at times; the shape of the bag showed if it held powder or pills, so Tiffany guessed sometimes they were ecstasy pills. All she knew was that despite how useful it was to satisfy the men at the rose tables, she would kill Taeyeon if some idiot thug overdosed in her club.

“Long night?” Taeyeon asked, briefly looking up from the screen of the laptop on the desk in front of her. She hadn’t used Tiffany’s laptop since Tiffany was arrested, choosing instead to bring her own.

Tiffany threw herself down on the couch against the wall, face first, and let out a huff that was absorbed by a cushion. “Yes. I’m so tired.”

Taeyeon glanced at the time. They were only halfway through the long night. She reached for her coffee and took a sip, taking the opportunity to run her gaze over Tiffany.

“Any trouble?”

Tiffany turned her head to look in Taeyeon’s direction. “Not yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Taeyeon smiled slightly. “Don’t worry. No men at the rose tables tonight.”

Tiffany returned the smile easily. “Good.”

They watched each other for a while, saying nothing. Eventually Taeyeon snapped her laptop shut and stood. Tiffany sat up and kept her eyes on Taeyeon as she stepped over to the couch. After a moment, she sat next to her and smiled properly.

“When’s the last time you talked to Yuri?”

Tiffany frowned. “What?”

“My boss thinks Yuri is a nice little pet detective to keep in his pocket. She acts like one of us, probably more than most of us do. I certainly never really felt like I fit in, but she’s right at home here.”

“So?” Tiffany shifted uncomfortable. “Why should I care?”

“She’ll be here tomorrow night,” said Taeyeon, glancing at her watch again, no longer smiling. “We need to meet with someone.”

“At a rose table?”

“Yes. But no drugs; at least, not that I know of. He may need some sweetening up. Anyway, since Yuri will be here, I think the three of us should have a little talk. You see, we all know about each other and what’s really going on here, and it’s time for us to be honest with each other.”

Tiffany searched Taeyeon’s face in an effort to get an idea of what she was thinking, but Taeyeon was good at being blank.

“Honest with each other,” Tiffany echoed. “But not with your boss?”

Taeyeon nodded. “Exactly.”

Tiffany stared at her. “And this is a good thing? Or bad? How should I be feeling about your suggestion to leave your boss uninformed of whatever we’ll be discussing?”

“He knows what we know so far,” Taeyeon said. “He doesn’t need to know what we’ll talk about. I doubt he’d want to know, anyway.”

Tiffany turned to better face Taeyeon, looking grim. “Okay, what’s going on? What will we be talking about that your boss won’t like? I don’t want to end up dead, Taeyeon. I like to think I’ve got a long life ahead of me with a chance of getting out of this hole I’m in and doing something better for myself without big criminal organisations owning me.”

“Don’t worry about my boss,” Taeyeon said firmly. “We’re just going to have a little chat.”

“I’m serious,” said Tiffany, reaching out to rest her arms on Taeyeon’s shoulders. She tilted her head to one side. “What are you looking to get out of our little chat?”

Taeyeon seemed surprised at Tiffany’s move, but decided not to comment on it. “It’s just a casual thing. Small talk.”

“Hmm.” Tiffany slipped a hand along the back of Taeyeon’s neck under the fall of her hair and her fingers went beneath Taeyeon’s t-shirt, stroking the soft skin over the bumps of her spine. “You’re not as simple as you seemed, are you? You’re not just following orders all the time.”

Taeyeon just watched her quietly.

“What are you planning?” Tiffany whispered, leaning closer. “You wanna do something dangerous?”

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to get so close to me?” Taeyeon replied. A smile tugged at her lips. “Don’t you think it’s a bit stupid to get involved with me? Especially if I’m planning something so dangerous.”

Tiffany winked. “Especially.”

She kissed Taeyeon slowly, as if to emphasize a point. And because she enjoyed it, too.

Taeyeon knew she looked a bit ruffled when she sat down at the table with the rose. She ran a hand over her hair, tucked it behind her ears, and swiftly wiped her mouth on the back of her hand just in case. She checked her watch and glanced at the door, which was visible from her side of the table; she had chosen it that way deliberately. All around her, the club went on with a life of its own. She fiddled with the drink coasters, and regulated her breathing.

Whatever was between her and Tiffany had taken a drastic turn after that kiss the night before. Tiffany didn’t seem to have many concerns about the lack of wisdom in having any kind of relationship with Taeyeon, which almost didn’t surprise Taeyeon. After all, Tiffany was weird just like Taeyeon was weird, so maybe neither of them was as brainless as they seemed. Yet Taeyeon didn’t really know why Tiffany was so drawn to her, or why she was starting to feel the same. She didn’t expect to like that first kiss as much as she did, though she had assumed it would be good. It was addictive. Tiffany herself was becoming addictive to Taeyeon. It was something about her determination, quiet intelligence, and unforgiving balance between optimism and realism; and her little quirk of being recklessly interested in Taeyeon’s weirdness.

Yuri arrived first, slithering through the crowds of dancers and drinkers as smoothly as a shark in the depths of the ocean. She was already smiling as she sat down across from Taeyeon at the table.

“Good evening,” she said brightly. “Lovely night, don’t you think?”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow, her contemplations about Tiffany banished from her mind. “Why are you so cheerful?”

“Just had a good day at work,” Yuri said, leaning back in her chair. “Made some progress with a certain pet project of mine.”

“Oh,” said Taeyeon, looking away. “Well, happy days, then.”

Yuri scanned the club. “Where’s Tiffany?”

Taeyeon looked at Yuri again. “In her office. Do you want a drink before our client arrives?”

“Not now. Maybe I’ll order something later.”

Taeyeon nodded, and they lapsed into silence. She watched Yuri out of the corner of her eye as she examined their surroundings.

“You and I should join her in her office after our meeting,” said Taeyeon. “Have a little chat.”

Yuri met her gaze. “Really? Alright then, let’s do that.”

When their client arrived, they spent time on pleasantries. He was visiting from out of town so they asked him if he had seen the tourist attractions, what he thought of the local offerings, and the way he leered at a passing waitress was more than enough of an answer. By the time they got down to business, Taeyeon was thoroughly fed up and certain he was going to try to milk them for all he could get in this deal.

“There was one part of the deal that I think could use something a bit more special,” he said, and gulped down the rest of his scotch.

Taeyeon tensed, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. Instead she turned her head away slightly to survey the area around them, leaving Yuri to remain diplomatic.

“Well, I’m sure you have some interesting thoughts about that,” said Yuri, flashing him a smile.

“It was nice of you to offer me some refreshment,” he continued, tapping his glass. “And snacks,” his tooth glinted as he grinned, “but I’m not hungry for that kind of snack.”

Taeyeon noticed Tiffany making her way around the club, tapping staff members on the shoulder and having a friendly talk with them, shaking hands with some people that looked perfectly at home here. Despite having inherited the ownership of the business, she was clearly more invested in it than Taeyeon expected when she first met her. She wondered if it would make it hard for Tiffany to leave it, and if she really cared if Tiffany couldn’t abandon it.

“This is a nice place,” the man remarked, eyeing some parts of it more than others.

Taeyeon tapped her fingers on the table and turned to look at him. “Is our deal not good enough for you?” She knew what game he was about to play and she had no patience for it.

He paled instantly when he noticed her expression. “No, certainly it’s a good deal, I’m honoured to receive such terms from someone with the calibre your boss has.”

“Then what’s your problem?” she snapped.

Yuri gave her a glance, obviously wondering if Taeyeon’s loss of temper was too risky.

He laughed, only half as nervous as he should have been. “Nothing, nothing. Just thought you might be able to help me enjoy this town a little more, that’s all.”

“Accept the terms you’ve been offered or you’ll be dragged out of this town like a bag of manure,” Taeyeon said, not blinking as she drilled into him. “I don’t have time to waste on what you want, and neither will my boss.”

He sat back, stunned. After a while he said, “Wow. Alright. Fine. Obviously I won’t let this opportunity pass me by. You have a deal. No need to be such a bitch about it.”

He left, shaking his head, and Taeyeon rolled her eyes. She tapped the table again, looking again at the spot where she had last seen Tiffany, but Tiffany was gone. She sighed.

“What’s wrong with you?” Yuri asked. “You just completely lost it on that guy. This is so unlike you.”

“Tiffany said she doesn’t want her employees to be prostitutes,” Taeyeon answered.

“So? You know we never would have let it go that far. You didn’t have to get so angry with him.”

Taeyeon shrugged, and stood up. “Come on. Let’s go talk with Tiffany.”

She was getting impatient. It was almost time to do what she had been planning for so long now. Since the moment she was employed by her boss she kept her eyes on what went on around her and began to from a dream and from that she chiselled a strategy. She never expected Tiffany, though. Never expected to be here at this club and to meet someone like Tiffany, and certainly never expected to be doing whatever they were doing together.

It was pretty stupid. She didn’t even know why they were doing it and that should have been warning enough. For years now Taeyeon had been quietly biding her time while she formulated plans, now Tiffany jumped in and scattered her thoughts. She was still on track, and she intended to continue down the path in front of her, but now her steps were more like skips because she was stumbling and looking away in a daze.

Taeyeon snapped back to reality, shaking herself from her contemplation. They were almost at Tiffany’s office, Yuri right behind her.

She knew what she had to do. Now she just had to do it.

love blinds, winner

A/N: challenge from askfm again

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They say love is blind, I say it blinds you.  It’s a vicious, controlling force that takes you, entirely capable of its own plotting no matter what you have planned. I knew this the moment I met Tiffany.

There are some things that cannot be understood by humans. No matter how hard we all try to find answers, there’s always another question that goes along bathed in silence. For me, one of those questions was love. I didn’t know what it was, how it happened, if it was even real. I had my doubts. The lack of answers made me more inclined to dislike it than to explore it.

Similarly, I didn’t understand Tiffany; her attitude, her feelings, her smile. She was made of something I didn’t know, and I was left with questions that towered high above me, doomed to go unanswered. That scared me, just like love scared me, just like Tiffany scared me at first because I could not understand.

She was better with fear, or so I thought when I initially got to know her. She had more of a habit of hiding fear and conquering it slowly, rather than letting it make a mark on her and push her over. I was still learning how to do that. Clearly her differing mind-set was what made it easier for her to make the first move towards me while I was still hovering in the distance trying not to show my confusion.

I wanted to take it so slow there was barely any movement, but she wasn’t having any of that. She didn’t push me over the cliff right away but every day she tugged me closer to it and eventually I was almost willing to jump over the edge myself because I was crazy with love.

Sweet words spilled from my mouth whenever I was trying to say the dreaded word. I gave her everything but my greatest fear and she held me at night when I trembled from the transformation that took me. It wasn’t what I wanted, I didn’t want to feel love when I knew it still had no answers but it sunk its claws deeply into the stuttering beat of my heart and blurred the questions in my mind.

The way she said my name was better to me than when she said the dreaded word. I didn’t need any other word. I knew what she thought about me and felt for me from the way my name left her lips. ‘Taeyeon’ never sounded so warm and alive before Tiffany whispered it to me through the darkness.

In many ways I despised how easily she felt love and lived with it. I couldn’t cope with its twists and its grip, while she was so at home with the steps of its dance.

I hate being beaten by something I don’t understand. At least if I lose a challenge, I can find out why and fix what’s wrong with me and try again. With love, there’s none of that. It just is. It ruins me without reason. It terrifies me.

And I wouldn’t let it blind me anymore with its blankness, the lack of answers, the wall of questions, and the smothering feelings.

I got it off my back, ripped its sharpness from my heart, and threw it over the cliff it was trying to push me from. I left Tiffany because I knew she was too far in the embrace of love to be freed from it, and I count it as a victory because I must.

I won. Love tried to take me, and I won against it.

But when you win against love, you win something that can’t be shaken off. Solitude. It now rests on my shoulders where Tiffany’s hands used to warm me.

In the end, the winner stands alone.

Alone.

Open

Tiffany stepped out of the SUV with her sunglasses already on and a takeaway cup of coffee finely balanced in one hand along with her ID card which was meant to be clipped to her clothes. It was seven o’clock in the morning, and she was excited.

The call came less than an hour ago, and at first she was slurry and grumpy, but as the conversation developed she felt the building of anticipation in her belly. This was the big one, the kind of case she had been wanting for eighteen months, ever since she got her promotion. She was finally going to get a chance to bite into something thrilling. This wouldn’t be another case of accidental death or animal attack. This was going to be real, she knew it.

The fallen leaves crunched beneath the soles of her boots as she made her way down the dirt path, fenced in by tall dry trees. The sun was already a good way up, giving her ample view of the different shades of brown and grey that surrounded her as she moved further away from her car. She hurriedly tried to clip her ID onto the lapel of her coat as she walked, fumbling a little because she wasn’t looking. She wanted to see everything around her. She needed to examine every inch of the location, the scene of the mysterious incident. She was determined to get this right.

She was almost at the boundary marked off by the line of police-tape when she dropped her ID card. She bit back a curse and looked down, trying to find it in the pool of dead leaves.

Before she could kneel to get a better look, she heard the crunch of nearing footsteps and her heart jumped when someone spoke.

“Hey, are you one of those detectives?”

Tiffany blinked and met the curious gaze of a young woman who had a leaf in her black hair. Her casual clothes were as ruffled as her hair, and Tiffany wondered what had made her roll around on the ground.

“Yeah, I am,” she replied, regarding the woman with the same curiousity. “Can I help you?”

The woman glanced towards the closed-off area before frowning at Tiffany. “They won’t let me go near the site, but listen, I saw it. I saw it happen. You have to hear me out.”

Tiffany paused for a long time. This wasn’t the first time she was approached by a member of the public at the scene of a crime. She didn’t want to become presumptuous about these situations, but nine times out of ten those people had been attention seekers, time wasters, or more than a little crazy. Judging by the look in this woman’s eyes, her appearance, the tone of her voice, Tiffany begrudgingly had to keep from categorizing the woman as just another weirdo.

“What’s your name?” she asked carefully.

“I’m Taeyeon. I live in the town over there,” said Taeyeon, pointing vaguely to her left somewhere. “I was here last night, when this whole thing went down. Your colleagues,” she used the term patronizingly, “don’t want to believe me. But I was here. I’m an eye-witness, right? You’ve got to at least interview me seriously.”

“Why were you here last night?”

Taeyeon looked surprised. “That’s your question? You’re not going to ask me what I saw, first?”

Tiffany resisted the urge to sigh. She was getting impatient, because this was not how her procedure went. She was ready to investigate the physical scene, not talk with this woman who seemed highly likely to waste her time. However, Taeyeon was right; they did need to interview her seriously and objectively no matter the first impression, because if she was wasting their time then they needed to know why. But the fact that the other detectives dismissed Taeyeon made Tiffany dread what kind of ridiculousness she was about to hear from this woman.

And anyway, Tiffany usually tried her best to be friendly to everyone as much as possible. She would regret being rude to Taeyeon.

“Yes, it’s my first question,” she said, shifting her weight to stand more comfortably. “Why were you out here in the middle of the night?”

“Well, I’m a photographer,” Taeyeon began, and then she stopped. She bent down, picked up Tiffany’s ID card, and handed it to her. “Um, here.”

Tiffany stared at her for a moment before accepting the card. “Thanks. So, you’re a photographer?” she went on, clipping her card to her coat as she spoke.

“Yeah,” said Taeyeon, looking down. “Well, not professionally. It’s a hobby. I was here last night to take photos.”

“Photos of what?”

Taeyeon hesitated. She bit her lip, avoiding eye contact, and scratched her head absently. “Um,” she said. Her fingers found the leaf in her hair and she pulled it out. “Aliens.”

A light breeze slipped past them, making barely any noise through the skeletal landscape.

Tiffany wanted to be nice to Taeyeon, she really did, and she wanted to be thorough with the case and interview Taeyeon and regard her statement logically, but this was basically as far as she could go along that track.

“Aliens,” she echoed, her tone highly indicative of her opinion.

Taeyeon sighed in the manner of one who was totally used to that reaction. “Okay I know we’ve gotten off to a bad start with that, but if you examine the crime scene I think you’ll be more willing to hear what I have to say. So please don’t write me off just yet?”

“You think if I examine the scene I’ll find something that would put aliens on the suspect list?” Tiffany asked dryly.

A ripple of loud talking from the law enforcement crews gathered beyond the barrier caught her attention and she craned her neck to look in that direction, keen to join them.

“Honestly, yes,” said Taeyeon, sounding rushed as she tried to regain Tiffany’s focus. “I think you’ll be utterly baffled at what you find, and you’ll be open minded enough to seek all possibilities.”

Tiffany regarded Taeyeon critically for a very brief moment before they were interrupted by a uniformed police officer stepping under the tape.

“Agent Hwang? They’re waiting for you.”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened.

“Thanks, I’ll be right there,” said Tiffany with a smile.

“Agent?” Taeyeon said, looking stressed. “Just one more thing before you go. Please?”

“What are you still doing here, kid?” he grimaced. “They told you to leave already.”

Taeyeon scowled. “I’m not a kid, actually.”

“I’ll handle this, officer,” Tiffany smoothly interjected, flashing a less patient smile. “Tell them I’ll be right there.”

The officer nodded, smart enough to tell his assistance wasn’t required, and left them.

As soon as he was gone, Taeyeon frowned at Tiffany.

“If you’re with the government, it’s even more important that you listen to me. This is huge. Please? I’ll wait until you’re done with your initial examination. On this side of the barrier. I swear.”

Having just heard Taeyeon being mistaken for a kid may have influenced her thoughts but she couldn’t help likening Taeyeon’s determined attitude to a child who was being good in order to get what they wanted. She sighed, and decided to give Taeyeon a neutral smile.

“Alright, fine. If you want to stand out here in the middle of nowhere doing nothing, it’s not like we can stop you. As long as you stay out of the way and don’t bother us. Don’t even talk to us.” She paused. “And maybe stand somewhere out of their immediate line of sight. I doubt they’d be happy to see you hanging around. Got it?”

Taeyeon grinned, then toned it down to seem less intense. “Got it. See you soon.”

Tiffany watched her for a moment longer, before shaking her head and turning away.

It felt like Taeyeon was staring at her back as she walked.

She shook her head again, trying to shake out the images of extra-terrestrial creatures, and bent to go under the police tape.

______________________________________________________________

It looked very precise. Not the body or the area immediately surrounding it; that was messy, and dirty, and rather gross.  What was precise was the tiny incision on the half-naked man’s lower back.

He was middle-aged, balding, slightly overweight, not in very bad condition for his age except for being dead. And he was covered in something blue that had the consistency of blood but not the organic composition. The only visible marks on his body were that tiny incision and one hand-made bruise on his upper left arm.

Tiffany knelt down beside the corpse, trying to stay a good distance from the blue puddle at her feet, and looked at his face. He lay on his cheek, pressed tightly into the dirt.

He seemed happy, in a way.

“So, what do you think?”

She looked up at the local police chief, who crossed his arms when their eyes met. He didn’t like agents such as her and he had made a point of mentioning it when they greeted each other earlier, but he also admitted that she was more likely to know how to handle the situation than she was. Perhaps he thought dead people covered in blue goo were more common in her branch of law enforcement than his own.

“Too early to say anything, really,” she answered, looking back at the dead man. “From the information you’ve given me about when he was found, and how, and looking at him now… No, I don’t know. I’ll have to keep investigating.”

The police chief sighed. “You don’t know if it’s happened before, maybe?”

“Not yet. I’ll have a look through the database but honestly, an M.O. like this would be pretty memorable.”

“So it might not be a serial killer?”

Tiffany sucked in air through her teeth as she considered the options. But she didn’t think it over for too long before she answered, “Honestly, there is still a chance that it may be. But like I said, I’ll have to check the database.”

“Which would be better?”

Tiffany looked up at him. “What?”

“Which would be better?” he repeated, his gaze stony. “A serial killer or an unexplained death?”

She watched him for a while. On the one hand, a serial killer could possibly be captured, but how long would it take and how difficult would it be? How many would die or already had died at the hands of a person like that? On the other hand, if this remained a strange mystery forever then it would be easier to ignore – unless it happened again, and again, and still there wasn’t an explanation.

Tiffany gave him a stern look. “Sir, there is an explanation for this. The only question I have is if this is a singular occurrence or part of some kind of killing spree.”

The man shrugged, and looked away nonchalantly. “Whatever you say, agent. This is your case. But your little alien-lover friend has had some choice ideas about strange events round here in the past.”

Tiffany got to her feet, facing him and crossing her arms across her chest. “What kind of strange events?”

“Things go missing, change location,” he answered, keeping his eyes trained on a point in the distance. “Unusual substances. We’ve seen goo like that before,” he nodded at the blue-covered corpse, “but in black.” He met her stare. “Ask her about it. I’ve got nothing much to say about any of it.”

“You’ve encountered her often, then?”

“Every time something weird happens, she’s hanging around. She says she’s a photographer, looking for aliens. Well, I don’t believe aliens exist, and I don’t appreciate her wasting my time with her crazy stories, but if she could get a photo of the real criminal on that camera of hers then I certainly wouldn’t mind. Until then, she’s just a nuisance to me.” He shrugged again. “Maybe you’ll have more luck getting some sense out of her. I know she’s waiting for you.”

“How much do you know about her other than her quest to take photos of aliens?”

“Nothing. She’s just some kid from a nearby town.”

“Apparently she’s not a kid,” Tiffany murmured, looking in the direction she came from, where she left Taeyeon who was now out of sight. “Well, I’ve got as much as I’ll get from here. I talked to the forensics crew and I’ll get the full case file from the station later. I’ll go on with my enquiries now. Thank you for your assistance, sir.”

“Sure,” he said blankly, and left.

Taeyeon was waiting by the car, shifting awkwardly. When she saw Tiffany approaching, she seemed to relax.

“Well?” she called out when Tiffany was still a few steps away. “What did you think?”

“I think we’ve got a lot to talk about, you and me,” said Tiffany. She stopped in front of Taeyeon, and looked her up and down. “And I’ve been warned about you.”

Taeyeon shrugged.

“Let me make one thing clear,” Tiffany continued, stepping closer. “I refuse to believe this man wasn’t killed by a human. I’m not going to listen to any vague half-baked theories with more holes in them than a sieve. If you want to plead a case of aliens, you better have some hard evidence.”

Taeyeon pulled a face before she sighed. “I figured you’d say that. Everyone does. Just promise me you’ll listen properly. Please.”

“Of course I will. I’ll listen to you the same way I listen to any witness in a case. But I’m not going to get pulled in by some hoax about extra-terrestrial beings. Now get in the car, let’s go get some coffee and you can tell me all about what’s been happening around here.”

Taeyeon frowned at her. “Everything that’s been happening? Not just last night?”

“I hear you’ve been popping up at all kinds of scenes,” Tiffany said. She put a hand on Taeyeon’s arm, half-threatening. “So let’s talk.”

Taeyeon blinked. She slowly broke into a grin. “I like you. You’re not like the others after all.”

She turned and went to stand by the front passenger door.

Tiffany shook her head in wonderment, not only at Taeyeon’s attitude but at her own decision to investigate Taeyeon’s claims. They had a lot to talk about.

_____________________________________________________________

 

“Where’s your camera?”

Taeyeon looked at Tiffany, pulled from her observation of the café. “Hmm?”

“You said you were out to take photos last night,” Tiffany said, putting her cup of coffee down on the table between them. “Where’s your camera?”

Taeyeon fiddled with the zip of her hooded jacket. “I lost it. When it – when it all happened last night, I dropped my camera and ran away and when I went back, I couldn’t find it again.”

The café was practically empty – a single barista playing on her phone behind the counter, and an elderly gentleman reading a book by the window. A mellow piano medley played over the speakers in the walls. Taeyeon and Tiffany sat in the corner, away from everyone else, and spoke softly. Even so, Tiffany double-checked their surroundings, making sure they wouldn’t be overheard.

“Alright, tell me what happened last night,” she said, getting settled in her seat.

“Well, I went to that spot because there’s a popular theory that at certain times of the year if the weather is right, in areas with certain environmental characteristics, aliens return the humans and other animals they’ve abducted. It has to be in those precise conditions, you see, because the conditions on their ship are so different from what Earthlings are used to,” she said, sounding excited as she went on, “so if they drop them off anywhere else in any other way at any other time, their bodies will explode.” She made a sound effect with her mouth and mimed the burst of a mushroom cloud with her hands. “Very intense.”

“So you were there because of this theory?” Tiffany clarified, staring at Taeyeon and trying to keep her expression as neutral as possible. “To see if they dropped off any abductees?”

Taeyeon nodded. “Yes. During my research, it seemed to me that no place in the world better matched the requirements than that spot right there where I found…” Taeyeon trailed off, and winced.

“Are you sure you don’t want any coffee?” Tiffany asked.

“No, thank you, I’m fine,” said Taeyeon. She took a breath. “Anyway, so I went there ready to take some photographs. Usually if nothing shows up, I take some nice nature pictures of nocturnal animals and make calendars out of them.” Taeyeon smiled shyly before going on. “I showed up at around eleven o’clock, about an hour earlier than the target time. I found a place to hide on the edge of the location, in a bush, and got settled in. I took some shots of the sky while I waited and to make sure the place I was sitting allowed for good angles and so on. After about thirty minutes, I heard a bang. I couldn’t tell where it came from; it was so loud it felt like it was all around me. I looked but I couldn’t see anything unusual. I even used the zoom on my camera to get a good scope of my surroundings. Nothing. After a few minutes, everything calmed down again.”

Taeyeon frowned, and looked down at her hands for a moment. Then she cleared her throat and got up.

“Excuse me. I think I will get some coffee after all.”

Tiffany watched her go to the counter. So far, the story was interesting. But it still felt like just another story. She didn’t want to push Taeyeon yet. It was clear the young woman was quite shaken up about what happened the night before, even if it wasn’t clear what really happened yet. She checked the time on her watch, wondering if she would have time to search the database before lunch.

When Taeyeon came back with coffee in hand, she seemed more composed and was ready to go on.

“So, things calmed down again,” she said, taking a sip from her cup. “Then midnight came and went – no sign of the aliens,” she admitted with a sheepish little grin, “so I started taking pictures of an owl in the tree a few feet away from me. It must have been ten, maybe fifteen minutes later, when it happened. The loud bang came again, followed by another one, and then a sound like a sputtering engine. Like when someone’s car won’t start, except much bigger and deeper. And then… there he was. And the noises stopped.”

“He was just there? Suddenly? He didn’t fall through a tube of light from the sky?”

Taeyeon sighed. “No. I was looking around, trying to see what was making the noise, and then I saw him. There where he was lying when you saw him. Just a few feet away from me. Just there. The noises had stopped so the whole place became silent again. And I was scared. He wasn’t moving and I could see he was covered in something that glistened in the moonlight. So I freaked out and I ran away. Called the police, waited until I heard them in the area, then went to see if I could find my camera. I didn’t. The cops shut me out pretty quickly.”

“So you were hanging around there all night?” Tiffany asked, surprised.

“Oh, no. I went home for a bit to calm down. Then I went back again just before you got there, and tried to look for my camera again in the daylight. But of course, I couldn’t cross the police-tape border and no one said they found it. And then I met you.”

Tiffany pondered for a moment. “So you have no actual proof of aliens, no camera, no idea what really went on except some things that confused you…. Why were you so determined to tell me this?”

“Because I want you to go back there with me tonight,” Taeyeon said simply.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m going back tonight. The conditions will be similar so I’m taking a chance that they’ll be back, and I think you should come with me.”

Tiffany stared at her, and then she closed her eyes and held up a hand. “You think they’ll be back? Meaning, you think they were there last night? Spare me, Taeyeon. You’re losing me.”

“It’s worth it, don’t you think?” Taeyeon insisted. “A lot of the things I described are in tune with a lot of factors of alien sightings and so on. And they stole my camera, so I’d like to get it back.”

Tiffany looked at Taeyeon again. She took a sip of her coffee. She wasn’t sure if the other woman was being serious or not until she saw the look in her eyes.

“Look, I think the best I can do for you is to help you file a report for the theft of your camera,” Tiffany said at last. “Other than that, I will not accompany you back to the scene of a crime just because you think aliens will show up; especially not when the real killer is still at large. I have a job to do, and it does not involve hunting little green men.”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes. “They’re not little green men. It’s a common misconception. Actually, based on where they’re likely to have originated, the chemical composition -”

Tiffany halted her by raising a hand again. “Okay, I’m going to have to stop you there. Go to your local police station to sort out your camera. Stay away from active crime scenes. Don’t get involved in my investigation. And goodbye, Taeyeon.”

“Wait!”

Taeyeon jumped up when Tiffany started to get out of her seat, and leapt to be between her and the door. Desperation took light in her eyes as she waved her arms.

“At least tell me, what are the results of the analysis on that substance that he was covered in?”

“Why would I tell you that?” Tiffany demanded, feeling her patience begin to fray. “I will not tell you anything that’s part of my ongoing murder investigation, and I would appreciate it if you would stop wasting my time.”

She made to push past, but was stopped by Taeyeon’s hand on her arm and the plea that accompanied it.

“Won’t you at least listen to what I have to say about the other strange things that have happened around here?”

“No,” Tiffany snapped instantly. She removed herself from Taeyeon’s grip. “And don’t touch me. If you grab me like that again I’ll book you for assault of a federal law enforcement agent. I’m not going to listen to anything else you have to say, because you’re wasting my time. I took a chance on you, Taeyeon. I thought maybe you really had something useful to say. Now stop bothering me.”

Tiffany moved past Taeyeon, suddenly conscious that the other people in the café were looking at them with surprised expressions. It barely bothered her. She was on a fast track out of there, after all.

“I’ll be there,” Taeyeon called after her. “It would be best if you joined me.”

Tiffany spun around before she reached the door. “Are you threatening me?”

Taeyeon looked confused. “No. I just think…”

“Forget it,” Tiffany hissed, and she left that café with absolute certainty that she would never in a million years do what Taeyeon wanted her to do.

_______________________________________________________

Tiffany was only partly disappointed in herself when she showed up in that forest after darkness had fallen, because she managed to convince herself that it was in the best interests of her investigation.

The analysis of the crime scene had come back with a whole lot of big, complex words to say that they had no idea what happened. Nothing like this was recorded in the databases she had access to, and the only similar mentions in the public or press were all connected to extra-terrestrial activity. Interviews with potential witnesses or anyone who had even the slightest connection to any aspect of the case had come up with a gigantic emptiness. No one hated the victim, there was no prior indication of a problematic individual in the area; no one knew anything. Records and opinions of any other strange events in the area invariably led her back to Taeyeon. By the end of the day she was almost ready to put on a foil hat and live in a cave dreaming of the day the aliens would finally visit her.

So she parked her car in the same place it had been more than twelve hours ago, shut off the engine, and took a deep breath.

Peering through the windows and windshield of her car, she found it hard to see anything. The darkness of night had taken over the place quickly, and she didn’t know how to find Taeyeon if she couldn’t see anything.

She scrabbled around in the glove compartment of her car for a flashlight, all the while thinking and re-thinking everything in her head. Why was she really wasting time on this? Was it even safe? Was she really so desperate after only one day of investigating, to resort to going alien-watching with a random stranger?

She paused in her search to sigh and hang her head. The answer was yes. She was desperate to do this case well, it was driving her a little crazy.

A knock on the window of her car door made her jump and hit her head on the ceiling. A face pressed against the glass, smiling, and she realized it was Taeyeon.

Calming herself, she started opening the door. “You scared the hell out of me.”

Taeyeon lifted her flashlight just high enough to brighten their conversation without blinding either of them. “Sorry. I’m glad you came.”

Tiffany reached back and grabbed her own flashlight before hopping out of the vehicle. “Just to be clear, I have no intention of sitting out here all night if nothing shows up.”

“It’s okay,” Taeyeon said, still smiling. “I’m pretty confident.”

Tiffany eyed her closely for a second. “Don’t kill me.”

Taeyeon’s smile fell. “What?”

“Oh, are you disappointed you can’t kill me?” Tiffany narrowed her eyes. “I’m just saying. Just in case you’re really the killer.”

Taeyeon almost pouted. “I’m not the killer. I just have a good feeling about aliens.” She blushed, or maybe it was just a trick of the dim light. “I mean, I have a good feeling there will be aliens here tonight.”

Tiffany made a non-committal sound. “You were pretty quick to grab my arm this morning. I suppose if I were to tell you there was evidence on the victim’s corpse of being grabbed like that – by a human hand – well, would that rattle you?”

“I’m not the killer,” Taeyeon repeated, sounding disappointed. “Come on, let’s go. I was getting settled in the same place where I was last night.”

As they crunched through leaves to get to the point Taeyeon seemed to know well, Tiffany glanced at the now-silent young woman. Perhaps it was insensitive and rude to act that way towards her, but she couldn’t help it. She was so frustrated at herself for resorting to this kind of pursuit; she needed to lash out in order to convince herself she would be safe. A part of her did wonder if Taeyeon was the killer, and that was why she was wearing her weapon holster with her gun under her jacket, which she usually didn’t bother with. Taeyeon was somewhat eccentric, and she seemed inevitably involved with this case and every other unexplained occurrence in the area, but Tiffany still hoped that Taeyeon was just a strange young woman with a hobby for palynology or whatever it was called.

“Palynology is the study of dust,” Taeyeon said suddenly, without stopping.

Tiffany, on the other hand, froze mid-step. “What?”

Taeyeon glanced over her shoulder, realised Tiffany was no longer walking, and stopped too, turning to face her. “Palynology. It’s the study of dust, not aliens. Personally I prefer the term xenology for my particular interest.”

Tiffany stared at her. “So? Why did you feel the need to tell me that?”

Taeyeon frowned. “Because you said…. Well, didn’t you say…”

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t say anything.”

Taeyeon blinked. “That’s odd. I thought I heard you say something about me and palynology.” Her frown deepened. “I don’t even remember what. How strange…”

“Yes, very strange,” Tiffany said, careful to keep her tone blank. “Let’s just keep going, shall we?”

She made sure to keep an even closer eye on Taeyeon after that, but nothing strange happened again. In fact, nothing of any interest at all happened for two hours. They reached the place, settled on the blanket Taeyeon had laid out, and stared at the sky and trees and darkness. Eventually Taeyeon produced a thermos and they shared a cup of hot chocolate. Tiffany was so demoralized and tired that she was barely making an effort to remain watchful of Taeyeon. Although, she started to wonder again, it had been very strange for Taeyeon to respond to her thought as if it had been verbalized. But maybe Tiffany had muttered to herself; she had a habit of doing that in stressful situations.

Not that this situation was particularly stressful anymore. Awkward would be the new way to put it.

After two hours of sitting together on the same blanket, watching their environment, thinking their own thoughts, Tiffany was beginning to become decidedly uncomfortable. She wasn’t good at handling silence in a conversation at the best of times, but this particular silence was taunting her – reminding her why it was stupid to sit in the middle of nowhere waiting for aliens; especially with someone she didn’t know. They had nothing to talk about, and neither tried to create conversation. All in all, the silence was undeniably silent.

Almost too silent, in fact.

Tiffany was suddenly on high alert with this realization. There was no rustling of leaves or tree branches, no light breeze, no flutter of wings as owls ventured out; no sound at all.

She looked at Taeyeon, who was gazing up at the stars, and leaned closer.

She could hear the sound of Taeyeon breathing, but nothing else at all.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit quiet?” she whispered. She forgot she was till leaning so close to Taeyeon, and Taeyeon jumped at her sudden closeness. She backed away slightly.

“Um, not really,” Taeyeon said, calming down again and looking at Tiffany. “It’s pretty late. The world is settling down for some rest.” She smiled.

Tiffany sighed, and looked around again. “Well, this is looking pretty pointless to me. I don’t want to sit here all night and watch the world resting when I could be in a nice soft bed, getting some sleep. Do you have anything to convince me with, or shall I just leave?”

Taeyeon watched the night sky for a few more moments. “I guess not, other than my usual request that you stay. There’s still some time left, after all.”

“Some time left for what? Until when?” Tiffany was getting annoyed again. “There’s no reason for me to be here.”

“Time for them to come back,” Taeyeon said, meeting her eyes. “At least wait until the time everything happened last night – it’s not far away.”

Tiffany huffed, holding their locked gazes for a long moment. Finally, she relented, looking up at the sky again. “Fine, I’ll stay until then. If there’s still nothing, I’m out of here.”

Taeyeon seemed satisfied, smiling again. They looked up at the sky together.

“And I may end up charging you with wasting police time or impeding a murder investigation,” Tiffany added, letting off some more steam. “Just so you know.”

Taeyeon accepted it in silence.

“Just for the record,” Tiffany began, “if I had asked you about the other strange occurrences, would your viewpoint have been the same? Aliens and no other explanation even though there’s no proof?”

Taeyeon nodded. She seemed to be at peace with this fact. “Yes. Because that’s what I believe.”

Tiffany looked at her, saw the way the thin light from the moon and the stars lined the features of her face, the way she gazed at the sky as if she was communicating with it, the way her entire being seemed to thrum with energy for no reason at all that Tiffany could comprehend.

“Why do you believe in aliens so much, and spend so much time going around trying to take photos of them?”

Taeyeon didn’t even have to think before answering. It was as if it was something that had always been a part of her. “It’s the only thing that truly satisfies me. Everything else seems flatter, emptier, but there’s this belief inside of me that doesn’t go away. I have to keep looking and going through life with this feeling, because it’s all I have.”

They sat in silence again, Taeyeon contemplating the stars and Tiffany contemplating Taeyeon. Tiffany thought about how Taeyeon considered this to be the only worthwhile thing in her life, the only thing she got any satisfaction from pursuing so passionately, and she couldn’t resist noticing the similarity to her own attitude about her work. She wanted to catch bad guys, it was what she had always wanted to do – and now she was doing it, but she kept pushing and pushing herself because it meant so much to her that nothing else she did could ever compare.

So maybe Taeyeon was a little strange and Tiffany didn’t believe in aliens, but they had a rather major mutual trait after all.

Tiffany wasn’t sure how to feel about that. She definitely wasn’t going to tell Taeyeon.

Did it mean Taeyeon was innocent of the murder Tiffany was investigating, just because they had this similarity? Certainly not, Tiffany assured herself, and she stopped her contemplations by returning to her previous state of careful inspection.

She checked her watch in the moonlight. “Well, it’s time. How long shall I wait before giving up for good? I’d like to go home.”

“I don’t think you’re actually asking me,” said Taeyeon, “so I won’t answer. I’ll be here as long as it takes anyway.”

Which apparently was not much longer; the forest was flooded in bright white light as soon as Taeyeon stopped speaking. They both threw their hands up and squeezed their eyes nearly shut in the onslaught, desperately trying to find a way to identify anything in the sudden blindness.

“What the hell –” Tiffany didn’t even get a chance to finish her exclamation as she was interrupted by the extremely loud, obtrusive sound of metal grating on metal. It made her skin crawl and she clenched her jaw.

“I think it’s –” Taeyeon’s shout was useless as the sound became even louder, rendering them nearly deaf as well as practically blind.

Tiffany struggled to her feet, finding it hard to maintain balance when she could barely see or hear, her senses frazzled. She was startled by a hand on her arm but managed to identify Taeyeon taking hold of her. She couldn’t tell what Taeyeon was trying to say or how she was feeling, other than the fact that her grip on Tiffany’s arm as they stood side by side was uncomfortably tight.

Then it stopped, as suddenly as it had started. They were left with a ringing in their ears, blinking away the impressions on their eyes. Finally Tiffany could hear only their harsh breathing, and she looked at Taeyeon next to her to see the fear that she was feeling too.

“What was that?” Tiffany asked, even though she knew it was pointless because there was no way either of them could possibly know.

Taeyeon didn’t answer, and instead turned to scan their surroundings. She let go of Tiffany’s arm.

As the world around them seemed to settle, it became clear that they wouldn’t find any answers any time soon. Everything looked exactly as it had been just moments ago; once again eerily quiet and unmoving.

“Okay, I don’t know about you, but I am getting out of here,” Tiffany said. “This is as far as I’m willing to go with this.”

“Wait!” Taeyeon grabbed her hand before she could move. “Just wait a minute. That had to mean something; we have to find out –”

“I have to get out of here.” Tiffany whipped her hand from Taeyeon’s. “And don’t touch me.”

Taeyeon made a noise of frustration, clenching her fists. “Please don’t give up on this, especially not now. Don’t you want to know what just happened?”

“This is the scene of a murder, Taeyeon,” Tiffany replied, her anger increasing as fast as her fear. She glanced around, wondering when something was going to jump out and kill them, before fixing Taeyeon with a killer stare. “I may be a law enforcement official but I’m not a superhero, and I’m not a fool. When freaky stuff like this happens at a place where someone died twenty-four hours earlier, I run as fast as I can in the opposite direction. So excuse me, because I’m leaving.”

“But don’t you see?” The exasperation was audible in Taeyeon’s voice. She waved an arm around, indicating the sky and the trees. “That was extra-terrestrial! It had to have been caused by aliens.”

“Oh my god,” Tiffany ran a hand through her hair, taking a deep breath. “Do you hear yourself right now? No wonder everyone thinks you’re weird! You sound crazy. Someone killed a man here and you just want to pin it on some mystical being from space. Face it, Taeyeon, there’s a murderer on the loose and no matter what creepy tricks he’s playing, he’s just a human, and we’re in danger here. Grow. Up.”

“No, I won’t! This isn’t about growing up. This is about the truth.”

“You’re so stubborn! Why can’t you just accept reality?”

“Me, stubborn? You’re being stubborn to the point of narrow-mindedness. I thought you were so passionate about investigating crimes and taking the time and energy to explore every possibility – is this too far out of your reach?”

“My reach? Are you kidding me? I will solve this crime and I will not waste my ‘time and energy’ on crap like this!”

Tiffany spun on her heel, determined for that to be the end of it. As she stomped through the forest unhindered, she couldn’t help but once again acknowledge another similarity between her and Taeyeon. Both were devoted to the paths they took, and neither was willing to back away and take any other path.

As she reached the edge of the forest, the light of her flashlight made her car gleam. She felt relieved. Taeyeon hadn’t followed her, nothing had attacked her, and no strange lights or sounds or goo had popped up. Now all she needed to do was get in the car and drive away. Simple.

Except she couldn’t shake her intuition, and she knew that she shouldn’t leave Taeyeon here alone. But Taeyeon was probably insane, and dangerous.

Tiffany stopped by her car door, struggling with her thoughts.

She remembered the feel of Taeyeon’s hand gripping her arm, and thought about those marks on the body of the victim. She closed her eyes, slowed her breathing, and tried to calm down. The only connection she could make between the victim and Taeyeon was the fact that the victim was grabbed by a human hand and Taeyeon had a habit of grabbing people by the arm; not exactly cold hard evidence. And what about being innocent until proven guilty? For now, Taeyeon was a member of the public. A strange and frustrating member of the public, but for all intents and purposes just a young woman sitting in a potentially dangerous forest by herself in the middle of the night.

And Tiffany was an agent of the law, sworn to protect people.

As much as it annoyed her to do so.

She decided to do her duty without getting into another argument with Taeyeon, and upon making that choice she turned back to the forest and almost ran face-first into Taeyeon who was standing right behind her.

Her yelp of surprise turned into an irritated growl of, “What the hell are you doing?”

“They’re here,” Taeyeon said, her voice hushed, her eyes glinting.

Tiffany frowned. “What? Who?”

“The extra-terrestrials,” Taeyeon replied, her excitement starting to show. “They’re really here.”

Tiffany stared at her. “Okay, Taeyeon, you’re starting to scare me. I’m going to need you to get into the car quietly, and we’ll drive away from here, and we’ll just go relax somewhere, okay? I think we need to take a break.”

Taeyeon shook her head, a smile growing on her lips. “Nope. They’re here.”

Tiffany stepped back until her back hit the side of her car. “That’s enough, Taeyeon. Stop doing that. Right now.”

“Doing what?” Taeyeon asked, but she didn’t seem to care about the question or the answer, already on another track. “Come on. Come meet them.”

Tiffany didn’t say anything, thinking of ways to escape. Taeyeon tilted her head to one side, looking confused.

“Don’t you want to meet them?”

“Not particularly.”

Taeyeon smiled again at Tiffany’s answer. “I thought we were learning from each other here. We have a lot in common. Don’t you have the courage to try this yet?”

Tiffany watched Taeyeon very closely. Needless to say, she was creeped out, but she searched Taeyeon’s face and mannerisms for sincerity. Since Taeyeon was so weird already, this was perhaps just a strange way of expressing herself. Then Taeyeon’s words registered with Tiffany; yes, Tiffany had been learning about their similarities but Taeyeon seemed to think they were adapting to each other from this experience. Tiffany thought about how she actually bothered to show up here tonight when all she had was Taeyeon’s half-baked theory about aliens. When Tiffany first showed up at the start of the case, she would never have entertained a suggestion like this when her career was on the line; after showing basic politeness to Taeyeon and coming up empty, she would have left it. So what made her come here? Surely not aliens. It was Taeyeon, in one way or another.

“You’re still scaring me,” Tiffany muttered, not blinking as she kept her eyes on Taeyeon.

Taeyeon nodded. “It’s okay to be scared. Look, I don’t want to waste time; I’ll be honest. You asked me why I believe in aliens and devote so much of myself to pursuing them. It is the only thing that satisfies me, because everything else scares me. Don’t you think we have that in common, too?”

Tiffany blinked. Her one true dedication was her work, the only thing that satisfied her. Was it because everything else scared her?

Taeyeon was trying to hide her impatience. “I don’t know how long they’ll be here. I wanted to come get you first before I talk to them. Won’t you join me?”

Taeyeon held out her hand, and Tiffany stared at it as if it was going to turn into a snake. She had no idea what was going on anymore. Were aliens really real? Was Taeyeon just going to kill her and cover her body in goo? She had no way of knowing. But yes, her brain concluded separately, she was afraid of attempting anything else in life other than her work and her feelings had always confused her, the need to do so well at it because it was really all she had. Her work was a trap that was keeping her from living life. Did she need to get out of her box?

Tiffany closed her eyes again, and tried to block out the world and whatever was beyond it. What was it about Taeyeon that was making her feel like her life was capable of being thrown up in the air?

When she looked again, Taeyeon was still standing there with her hand open between them. It was clearly a moment of choice, and Tiffany felt a pressure emanating from the forest like some unseen force wanted her to follow Taeyeon towards it.

Essentially it was the look on Taeyeon’s face that convinced her. The warmth, peace, and happiness of someone who found what they had been passionately searching for all their life, and wanted to share it.

Tiffany took Taeyeon’s hand.