All Tangled Up

A/N: This was written in two hours with very little proofreading, as part of a prompt-challenge given by SeeKo, who provided me with four things I had to incorporate in a minimum 2000 word fic written in two hours. This is 2711 words btw

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Whenever there was a competition between Tiffany and Taeyeon, it would get the attention of everyone around them. It wasn’t deliberate – well, not always – but it was inevitable. After a decade of friendship and just about as many years spent challenging each other, the only ideas left were the duels that pushed the edges of utmost impracticality. There were only so many times they could cause each other trouble with unsuspecting members of the public, dare each other to flaunt silliness before figures of authority, encourage each other to toy with innocent friends or acquaintances, and there were only so many things they still had the purity to blush about. And it was because of their inescapable tendency to seek boundless challenges that everyone knew another competition had begun.

They first met as awkward teenagers, and over time only one managed to shake that image. Taeyeon was growing into an elegant young woman, backed by the affluent image of her family’s antiques business, gracefully styled with hair dyed a demure darker blonde and accessories of simple gold. At high school she had been the shy dorky one with glasses and a rustic sense of humour. Tiffany had been the clumsy loud overly-friendly one with insatiable enthusiasm and little concept of subtlety. Her reputation later hadn’t changed much even though she herself had – and this was all because of one particular little competition in their last year of high school.

Tiffany was a huge fan of the performing arts. She joined the school club and participated with a unique level of energy that was bumpy with its lack of polish but showed an undeniable nature of courage. She only wanted to have fun and do her best and make others happy; to this end, she really gave her all. Perhaps a little too much, it could be said, especially when it came to the special annual production. By this time, everyone was cringing in the face of upcoming graduation, their futures pressing ever closer, and Tiffany and Taeyeon had been competing with each other for about two years. Tiffany figured everyone could use a boost of motivation from an uplifting performance. Taeyeon figured everyone could do with a laugh.

It only took a day after the show for circulation to begin of a most unflattering picture. Tiffany, in all her enthusiasm, had used every muscle in her body to enhance the performance, and Taeyeon had not only filmed every moment but had also gone through every frame of the footage with a finely-tuned sense of humour. And so it was that the entire student body became familiar with Tiffany’s face; truly for the first time understanding the extent to which she could twist her features in the act of singing. Her reputation as clumsy, loud, too enthusiastic, all became branded on her name.

Teenage Tiffany knew, as she stood in the hall of the school building and stared at the paper with her face on it that was stapled to the wall, that teenage Taeyeon had won this competition with a far better triumph than she could have imagined; one that would last a longer time than the competition itself. The intent had been to see who could embarrass each other the most in a form which the graduating students would remember, and that picture was a weapon of mass destruction.

“I’d say you still have a chance at winning since the year isn’t over,” said teenage Taeyeon standing beside her. They looked at each other. Taeyeon barely held back a laugh. “But let’s face it, this –” she pointed at the unfortunate picture “-is going to be all people remember when they think of this.” She turned her hand to wave a circle around Tiffany’s face.

Tiffany glared. Taeyeon grinned. She reached out and pressed her thumbs into the corners of Tiffany’s mouth to manipulate that expressive face into a grimace.

“Look on the bright side,” Taeyeon said. “This is surely only the beginning. You do want revenge, right?”

It became Tiffany’s mission. Before that incident, the competition between her and Taeyeon was already fraught with risks and adrenaline thrills, but now she was going to take a good long time to plan a competition that would grant her the greatest victory of all. Taeyeon was becoming known for elegance which covered her silly humour and childish acts, while Tiffany was still overly-friendly and loud and a little clumsy, though she was fine-tuning the art of subtlety through her challenges with Taeyeon. With every challenge they won or lost, she sought out Taeyeon’s weak points, looked for things that would be impossible for her to do or something that Taeyeon would underestimate.

That was one point about Taeyeon that Tiffany had come to notice; it was part of her quietly competitive attitude to be over-confident. She didn’t always plan enough, intending to jump into it and be almost guaranteed success by pure luck. Often it worked. When it didn’t, sometimes she could save herself and sometimes she couldn’t. Sometimes she was a sore loser and other times she shrugged and smiled. Tiffany was learning exactly how foolish Taeyeon could be, in ways that she could exploit.

It all seemed rather cruel, particularly between two people who called themselves friends. Best friends, in fact, but that was because they were best friends. Despite their reputations, their behaviour, their devious plots to ruin one another, they always came back to each other at the end of the day. They hugged to forgive a defeat and congratulate a triumph, they laughed at things they would regret later (like that time they thought it would be a good idea to have a blind-folded jet ski race shortly before Tiffany’s first class at university), they had serious discussions about themselves as people and the world around them, they cuddled up on the couch every now and then, they held each other during emotional times, and they made a promise to be in each other’s lives forever. It wasn’t always just about playing and competing and scheming.

But a lot of the time it was.

That was how Tiffany ended up in the campus café, peeking over her cup of coffee to watch Taeyeon sitting at a table outside with three classmates.  A mutual friend of theirs, Sunny, sat beside her and made her way through a slice of cheesecake.

“So, how long has it been since your last battle?” asked Sunny. “I hear it was a good one. Shame I had to be away when it went down.”

Tiffany scoffed. “It wasn’t that great. We’ve had better ones. Honestly, I think she threw it.”

“Hmm? Threw what? Wasn’t it a dare challenge?”

“I mean she threw the game. She deliberately lost.” Tiffany shifted in her seat to face Sunny better, leaning forward with a serious expression. “We were both meant to pour cake mix into our lecturers’ coffee mugs, you see. On the morning of the dare, I went ahead and did mine – it was brilliant of course, a carrot cake mix so the teacher couldn’t even get a shred of chocolate – but when we met up that night she acted like she misunderstood. She used muffin mix, and it was chocolate chip. No one even got upset. I know she did that on purpose. Taeyeon never misunderstands the terms of the competition.”

Sunny blinked. She ate the last mouthful of her cheesecake and pushed the little plate away.

“I know you guys can get really worked up about stuff like that, but do you really think she faked it? It sounds like one of your more demure challenges. I only heard about it because Taeyeon’s lecturer was so pleased by the chocolate mix. Maybe she just didn’t think it was important.”

Tiffany gasped, nearly inhaling her coffee. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Taeyeon would never think our competitions were unimportant! And I don’t know why she would pretend to misunderstand, and deliberately lose, but she did. I want to know why.”

Taeyeon still sat outside, laughing at something a classmate said, and pointed at the papers strewn on the table in front of the group. Tiffany eyed her like a hawk. Then she suddenly snapped her fingers.

“I know! What if she’s doing this just to throw me off?”

Sunny, who was in the middle of perusing the menu, stopped and frowned at her. “What? Why do you keep saying she’s throwing things?”

“She must know I’m still planning the greatest victory of all. I’ve been watching her, checking on everything she does during our competitions in order to find her weaknesses. Maybe she knows, and she’s deliberately losing in dumb ways just so I won’t be able to analyse her strategies.”

Sunny blinked a few more times, and then she shook her head. “You guys are really in a world of your own. Do you realize how weird your ‘competitions’ are? Other people would be so totally lost.”

“No one else could compete the way we do,” Tiffany said dismissively. “It’s our thing.”

Sunny looked thoughtful. “What an interesting idea. I’d actually like to see you both try holding these competitions with other people. Maybe you’d be able to see how crazy you really get. Hey, maybe that’s why Taeyeon’s starting to lose deliberately – she wants to save her strategies for competitions against someone else.”

A clatter rang out as Tiffany dropped her cup on top of Sunny’s abandoned little plate. She stared, shocked, at her friend. “What on earth are you saying? Taeyeon competing against someone else? Who else would even be willing to do these kinds of things? This is something we’re still able to do – especially at this level – because we’ve been best friends forever! We’re practically soulmates.”

Sunny’s eyebrows shot so far up that in an alternate universe they may have left her face entirely. “Soulmates? Am I missing something here? Is this part of another dare – make people think you two are in a relationship?”

Tiffany didn’t know what to say. She opened and closed her mouth, so caught up in her surprise and feeling the effects of over-analysing Taeyeon’s every move for the past several days that for a long moment she couldn’t remember if it was something they actually arranged and that was why Taeyeon had been acting extra sweet to her lately. Deliberately losing, cuddling more often, holding hands when they went shopping, more hugs than competitions, thoughtful gifts for no occasion, silly jokes to cheer her up, but they never did organise anything intended to fool Sunny into thinking they were in a relationship and she had been singling those things out as weaknesses for her big plan –

“Is that why you’re so shocked at the thought of Taeyeon competing against someone else – after all, I would think her girlfriend would be jealous.”

“Well you know what, I think you’re jealous!”

That was the fatal flaw. Her big plan, upon observing how Taeyeon’s new image of elegance hid her childlike playing, was to expose Taeyeon’s true nature – the dorky, shy, humorous teenager she first felt drawn to all those years ago. But there she was, snapping an irrational comment to cover her confusion.

Suddenly she recalled a moment a few nights ago, when Taeyeon and Tiffany had made their way through a rather large bottle of wine, some blurred impression of an agreement being made.

Was it all about the competition? Or had it been a special moment between the two of them?

“Oh, hey Taeyeon.”

Tiffany swerved in her seat to see Taeyeon reaching their table with her bag slung over one shoulder. Her well-styled appearance meant little when she whipped out a huge grin upon meeting Tiffany’s gaze. When she smiled like that, she looked just like the dorky kid who spent a whole night going frame by frame through a film of Tiffany doing something she loved.

“Hey guys, what are you talking about?”

Sunny shrugged. “I have no idea anymore. I think it’s something only you would understand. One of your ‘soulmate’ things?”

Taeyeon frowned slightly, still smiling. “Soulmate things? What do you mean?”

Sunny got up, and waved. “That’s for you two to battle about. See you later.”

Tiffany was staring at Taeyeon in the same way she had been for days, but this time she wasn’t analysing a strategy for weak habits. This time she was wondering who exactly was sitting before her. Was it the silly, competitive Taeyeon or the sweet, caring Taeyeon? Or were these both sides of the same Taeyeon, just like the elegant persona had covered the child-like demeanour?

“Hey, you alright there?” asked Taeyeon. She rested a hand on Tiffany’s shoulder. “I was thinking, maybe our latest competition didn’t work out. I mean, I don’t know what Sunny’s been telling you, but I don’t think it’s a success.”

“So it was a competition?” exclaimed Tiffany. “All along, you were playing me?”

Taeyeon looked alarmed. “What? Why are you acting like that, what happened? Are we talking about the same thing?”

Tiffany took Taeyeon’s hand from her shoulder and intertwined their fingers, turning in her seat to be closer. “That night when we got drunk, we made some sort of agreement, right? Was it another competition? I’ve been going crazy, planning my big victory, looking for gaps in your defences, over-thinking everything, and all this time you’ve been so nice to me and maybe intimate even, I just thought -”

“I’m going to stop you there for a second,” interrupted Taeyeon. “Yes, we did agree on something, and that was this.”

She stood up and started unzipping her pants. Tiffany nearly had a heart attack, glancing around at the other customers as they also looked over with bewilderment.

“What are you -”

“This!”

Taeyeon turned and pulled down her pants. She stood in the middle of the campus café, surrounded by their classmates and colleagues, wearing foxy underwear. Literally, it looked like a fox’s face across her behind, and even had two pointy ears.

“Our dare for me to wear animal-themed costume underwear every day and try to make someone see it,” said Taeyeon, looking at her over her shoulder, seemingly unaware of the crowd staring at her butt. “I don’t think it’s working. I haven’t been able to make someone see it.”

Tiffany gazed at her, and then looked around at the café. Taeyeon followed her eyes.

“Well, until now I guess.”

Tiffany reached down and tried to pull up Taeyeon’s pants, stepping up to stand in front of her foxy underwear.

“Put your pants back on, you dork!” she hissed, sounding terrified.

Taeyeon obeyed, and faced her with a huge, child-like grin. There was no way to associate that elegant image with the humorous kid who stood proudly in front of Tiffany.

She held up a hand, fingers spread, and tapped each as she spoke. “Task one, avenging your reputation by ruining mine – achieved! Task two, make people see me wearing animal pants – achieved! Task three, expose my childishness – exposed! And bonus round, my own little mission. I finally got you to notice that I’m madly in love with you, Tiffany.”

Tiffany’s jaw dropped to the edges of utmost impracticality. Her big victory had been achieved, her revenge acquired, some small dare was won by Taeyeon. And not to forget, Taeyeon had just confessed in front of dozens of people, to Tiffany’s face most importantly, that she was in love with Tiffany. The students of their university would never forget the image of Taeyeon exposing her fox-clad behind, and Tiffany just realized where all that talk of soulmates came from.

She hated Taeyeon a little for completing the competition for her as if she couldn’t do it, but also she loved that Taeyeon completed the competition for her as part of a declaration of her feelings. And the reason she wanted to expose this true side of Taeyeon, after all, was because that was the Taeyeon she fell in love with and she wanted her.

It was practically irrelevant what happened after that, because there were slightly more pictures of Taeyeon’s butt being sent around campus than those pictures of Taeyeon and Tiffany kissing as if their souls breathed each other.

Yes. (11; Fast)

11; Fast

A tug on the collar of her coat did little to cover the neck brace. She glanced around the parking lot, fidgeted and coughed, before tugging at her coat again to achieve the same result. The neck brace was weighing heavy on her consciousness but she knew it would be impossible to go on without it. She could only hope that it wasn’t too conspicuous, even though the word ‘conspicuous’ was in fact one of the best ways to describe a neck brace. The fact that she needed to use her entire upper half of her body to be able to glance around did not make the movement any more subtle, either.

Luckily for her, no one around her found her behaviour suspicious. Perhaps they just had enough of their own problems to worry about, or perhaps Taeyeon’s natural aura of social invisibility was coming in handy for once. Well, not for the first time, but it didn’t always seem to happen at the most opportune times. Right now it was cold and getting dark, and visiting hours had just ended so there were a fair number of people milling around in this particular area, so the ability to not be noticed easily was appreciated.

At long last, there was the hum of an engine that preceded the car she had been waiting for. The window on the driver’s side buzzed down and Hyoyeon stuck her head out.

“Evening,” she greeted. “You look like you’re breaking out of prison. Ready to go?”

Taeyeon glanced around one more time; though she would freely admit that it was only half-hearted. Maybe it was stress, maybe it was the hospital food – one way or another, the strength of her sense of focus was fading in and out. She’d never had a case that took so much out of her, that got so messy and full of emotions and danger, and she’d never had to spend quite so much time lying around in hospital with almost nothing to do. Perhaps it wasn’t really surprising that she didn’t feel as sharp as she usually did.

Taeyeon simply nodded in response to Hyoyeon’s comments, and moved around behind the car to get to the passenger’s side.

Hyoyeon was becoming important to many aspects of this case. Not only was she still the only connection to the explosion of the café, and one of the main routes of access to Daniel Lee, but she was also one of the best investigative journalists in the country and that sort of skill could be invaluable. When Taeyeon reluctantly mentioned her dilemma with Jessica Jung, Hyoyeon was only too glad to offer her assistance. While it was a big deal to be shadowing a big crime boss like Lee, the chance to get involved in the affairs of another big crime boss like Jessica was irresistible.

Even now in the fading evening light that darkened the interior of the vehicle, Taeyeon shivered at the look in Hyoyeon’s eyes; the glint of a creature getting ready to pounce. Hyoyeon could be a ruthless journalist, unafraid of the dirty work involved in getting to the heart of a matter, well prepared to take hold of the jugular of her prey, and drag her prize all the way to the presses.

“Any new developments?” asked Hyoyeon, eyes now looking front as she guided the car onto the street.

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “New developments? In the hour since I last spoke to you? No, there have been no developments.”

Hyoyeon shrugged, and flashed her carefree smile. “First rule of being a journalist; never be afraid to ask. It’s my job. Every question is worthy.”

Taeyeon watched her for a moment. “An admirable philosophy, I’m sure. While I can identify with it, there’s a rule from the role of a private investigator that dissuades it somewhat. Every question is worthy, but putting every question in the right place can save you one hell of a mess.”

“And you stick to that policy on every case? This one, too?”

Taeyeon clenched her jaw. “Just drive.”

“Would you like to hear my latest report?”

Taeyeon didn’t bother answering. Hyoyeon smiled briefly – the act made Taeyeon bristle with the fear of a prey glimpsing the teeth of their predator. She didn’t get along well with socially competitive people. On the outside Hyoyeon was a casual person for the most part, but when it came to her work she didn’t always manage to rein in her cut-throat nature.

“While Miss Jung may have made it seem like the person she was looking for was impossible to find, it’s not as dark as it seems,” Hyoyeon said, keeping her eyes on the road. “The fact is her sister is just hiding from her. Yes, they had some kind of falling out, and I can’t hide that I’m eager to find out what that was, but I don’t have anything on that yet. What I do have is her address and one lovely bit of information.”

They turned too fast at an intersection and Taeyeon shifted to hold on to the edges of her seat. She wasn’t in the mood to play Hyoyeon’s game, or anyone’s game ever again, so she looked out of the window.

“She’s living with her girlfriend. That’s likely also why Jessica, with all her underworld contacts and powers, couldn’t find her. If she didn’t have any knowledge of this or a name of the girlfriend, or anything like that, her sister would not be found.”

“But you found her,” Taeyeon said. She glanced at Hyoyeon. “I don’t need to know how at this time. I’ll assess the situation before I question your methods and the quality of your results.”

Hyoyeon shook her head. “I feel like I’m talking to a computer sometimes.”

Taeyeon picked at the material of her jeans. “Nothing wrong with that.”

Hyoyeon shrugged. “Whatever works for you, boss. And that girlfriend of yours must be okay with it, too.”

There was no question about whom she was referring to. It had to be the one person that Taeyeon was being teased about the most recently. She blatantly refused to rise to the bait, getting slowly more annoyed with Hyoyeon with every passing comment.

“Where’s she from, anyway? Something about her screams California.”

Taeyeon pursed her lips.

They reached a red light and when the car was stopped, Hyoyeon looked over at her. “Relax. I’m not some tabloid trash reporter and you’re hardly much of a public figure.”

“That doesn’t make me more comfortable talking to you,” Taeyeon said bluntly. “She’s not my girlfriend. Drive.”

“It’s a red light, I can’t do much.”

“Then watch the lights.”

Hyoyeon whistled lowly. “Touchy. She’s not your girlfriend, sure, but there must be something going on. Dating? Flirting?”

“Tiffany is just -” Taeyeon stopped herself and took a breath to calm down slightly. “Shouldn’t you know who she is, anyway? You knew her name.”

“I’m a journalist,” Hyoyeon scoffed. The light changed to green and she went back to driving. “If I was unable to identify Tiffany, I would not be so great at my job. Like I said, every question is a worthy question. That’s how I know everything.”

Taeyeon frowned. “You asked someone about her? And they told you? What did they tell you?”

“They called her your girlfriend; I see now that information was false. Or I just misunderstood their joke. I bet you get teased about her. Actually, I bet you get teased by her, too. After all, she drives you crazy – did I get that right?”

“I said that about her after you mentioned her by name. Don’t toy with me; I don’t take kindly to other people knowing my business, least of all a journalist like you. Who have you been talking to?”

Hyoyeon just smiled serenely and didn’t answer.

“Why do you care, anyway? What difference does she make to you?” Taeyeon pressed.

“Now, now, detective. As you can see, every question is worthy. Every piece of information has its use.”

Taeyeon stared at her for a long moment, before using her whole body to turn away again as required by the neck brace. She wanted to move in a way that showed her frustration but knew that would be bad for her neck, so she huffed and scowled instead.

“I bet you have even less friends than I do,” she remarked.

The bitter words surprised her, but also felt completely suited. Taeyeon was tired, grumpy, incapable of getting over the frustration of this case, and sick of being talked to about Tiffany. She had no idea where she got the fire to make a comment like that to someone she would normally try hard not to truly antagonize, but for all her social incompetency even Taeyeon reached a point where she simply did not give a fuck anymore.

Of course, Taeyeon was still Taeyeon, so though she may have stepped a toe over that line, she was quick to jump back afterwards. The silence from Hyoyeon settled down with her thoughts and she began to feel guilty, and like a fool.

She failed to build up the courage to apologise before Hyoyeon parked the car outside a mediocre apartment building. Taeyeon sat for a while as Hyoyeon shut off the engine and got out of the car. Then she closed her eyes and cursed quietly, and got out to join her on the pavement.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly as she followed Hyoyeon into the building. “I didn’t mean that.”

Hyoyeon shrugged, and waved a hand dismissively. “It’s a fair comment. Nice to know you’ve got a bit of fight in you, detective.”

“I didn’t used to,” mumbled Taeyeon. She sighed. “This is not quite what I expected.”

“What’s life without a few surprises?” Hyoyeon shot a grin over her shoulder as she started up the stairs.

Taeyeon pondered this as her foot came into contact with the first step. “Quiet. Safe.”

“Boring,” Hyoyeon commented. “Empty. You’ll become like a still pond, not a drop of living substance in you. When you don’t respond to life, would you consider that you’re even alive yourself?”

Taeyeon sighed again, annoyed. “How wonderfully existentialist of you. Let’s focus on the case now, shall we, unless there is some other rule of journalism that covers the worth of every philosophical comment in the same manner as misplaced questions?”

“Sometimes you’re like Grumpy Cat with a better vocabulary.”

They reached their destination before Taeyeon decided if she would bother to reply to that. Hyoyeon knocked on the door of apartment number 25 and they waited.

“I know you said that you don’t think the owner of the café was involved with the explosion, but do you believe him?” asked Taeyeon quietly.

Hyoyeon looked surprised. “Of course I do. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

The door swung open. The suspicious gaze of the occupant beyond the doorway raked over them, and was soon replaced by something resembling relief and familiarity when the man confirmed it was Hyoyeon.

He nodded at her. She nodded back. She gestured at Taeyeon.

“This is the detective I told you about.” To Taeyeon, she added, “My friend here has requested no names are used in this exchange.”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow as high as it could go, scepticism almost straining her features. “Okay.”

“I would invite you inside,” said the man, staring at her, “but I don’t really want to.”

“That’s just fine,” replied Taeyeon. “I only have a few questions. How much do you know of the incident?”

“You mean the explosion? Practically nothing. The cops refused to tell me what caused it, which I’m pretty sure has got to be some kind of illegal. How could they get away with not telling me why my business was blown up? They wouldn’t even say if it was arson or an accident.”

“Why was the café closed? I hear you don’t usually close that early.”

“I was out of town on family matters. I left the running of the café to my assistant manager, who I haven’t heard from since the day of the explosion.” He clicked his tongue to express his annoyance. “Look, Hyoyeon told me you’re looking for answers, and I’m afraid I don’t have much.”

Taeyeon nodded her head, the movement made cumbersome by the brace on her neck. “That’s alright. I just wanted to be able to speak to you face-to-face so I could have some indication of any deception. I don’t usually bother meeting people. If you think of anything else useful, tell Hyoyeon to contact me. Thank you for your time.”

She turned and started down the hallway to the stairs. Behind her, Hyoyeon did a double-take before waving goodbye and jogging after her.

“That’s it? We came all the way here for those two questions?

“I can’t afford to spend much time on any one line of questioning. I have a lot of things to do.”

She was already pulling her phone out of her pocket to check her unread messages, making her way out of the building with quick strides. Hyoyeon darted in front of her at the entrance to the building so that she could unlock her car before Taeyeon got there.

“Sometimes I wonder if your unusual methods are what help you get such good results in your investigations or if you’re just very lucky,” Hyoyeon said, and they closed their car doors simultaneously.

Tiffany had met Yuri.

Taeyeon thought these quiet words to herself as she stood on the threshold of her apartment and watched Tiffany share her gorgeous laughter with Yuri as her audience. She had no idea what to feel about this sight, or why she should feel anything at all. There was no call for possessiveness over Tiffany, they had nothing between them that merited such emotion and Taeyeon didn’t even know if it was something she wanted. So perhaps the feeling was not one of possessiveness or jealousy or envy; upon further introspection Taeyeon considered it was something akin to disappointment. She felt let down. Tiffany said she wanted them to be close no matter what – Taeyeon must have subconsciously built up some irrational expectations based on that sentiment. How silly of her. But then, emotions were rather silly. Maybe the lingering effects of the pain medication from the hospital were making her overly sensitive, also.

Hyoyeon wasted no such time on contemplations and shouldered past her. “Well, well, look who the cat dragged in.”

Of course they knew each other. Both Hyoyeon and Yuri were social beings, never saying no to an opportunity to meet new people and therefore having a vast network of acquaintances with whom they were on friendly terms. Yuri exclaimed a greeting and they high-fived like old friends. Taeyeon frowned. The two started chatting, catching up on each other’s lives in that friendly way.

Tiffany made her way to Taeyeon, smiling. “Hey. How are you? Do you feel better?”

Taeyeon flicked her gaze to Tiffany. She managed a quivery smile in response. “Getting there. Where’s Sooyoung?”

Tiffany shrugged. “She went to get pizza. That was a while ago.”

Taeyeon snorted. “Well, we don’t have to worry about her absence yet. She may take a few hours. She loves that pizza place.”

Tiffany laughed. “Yeah, that’s what Yuri said, too.”

Taeyeon felt that ridiculously irrational little clench of her heart. It was stupid. She was being silly. She felt like a small child being concerned over nothing. “You and Yuri seem to be getting along well.”

So much foolishness with this one person. Taeyeon really wanted to know what caused this absurdly baseless behaviour. Scientifically, she wanted an explanation. Maybe she had an illness, or this was one of those inexplicable traits of the human condition. Briefly she recalled her comment about existentialism but stopped herself before she delved too deep into the pooling thoughts.

She brought herself back to reality, to Tiffany, who was saying, “She’s a fun person. And I can tell she’s a loyal friend.”

Taeyeon smiled slightly, more real than her previous attempt. She glanced over at Yuri who was now deep in a serious conversation with Hyoyeon. “Yeah, she’s one of the best friends you could have.”

Tiffany reached out and gently traced her fingers over the plastic surface of the neck brace. “Does this thing really help?”

Taeyeon blinked. She peeked at Tiffany’s arm at the edge of her vision, and looked up to meet her attentive gaze. “Um, a little. A lot, actually. But also not enough.”

Tiffany looked away for a moment, then down at her shoes, and fiddled with her fingers. “I feel like this case has reached a slow point. I mean, there’s a lot going on but not much that can actually be done just now. Sooyoung told me you’re having some problems getting into contact with people you need to talk to, and then there’s the whole Jessica Jung thing that takes time too.”

Taeyeon blinked, unsure of where Tiffany was going with this. It was all true, but once again it was just statements of fact and therefore in Taeyeon’s eyes didn’t automate a particular response.

“I want to talk to you about what you said,” Tiffany continued, meeting her eyes again. “In the hospital. And what I said.”

Taeyeon felt the blood drain from her face. “I don’t think now would be a good time. Or any time – I mean, I don’t think we should talk about it. The case may appear stuck but I intend to remedy that and I’m part way there already. Let’s just focus on that. We have greater concerns than our conversation in the hospital.”

“I just feel like we still need to clear the air… after all, who knows what might happen in future.”

Taeyeon squinted at her. “Now is not the time. Come on, let’s go talk to Yuri and Hyoyeon, we have a lot to catch up on.”

She stepped around Tiffany and hurried away, having a little meltdown inside as she did so. Whatever the heck Tiffany wanted to say to her, it was most assuredly best left unspoken for eternity.

She really needed Sooyoung to hurry up with that pizza.

“Listen, Taeyeon, as much as I value Hyoyeon’s input on this case, I can’t help but want to ask you why she’s involved in this.”

Taeyeon gulped. Clearly joining this conversation was not much safer. Yuri and Hyoyeon were both looking at her with sincere expressions.

“I half-wondered that myself,” added Hyoyeon. “I mean, I know why I’m involved about the café thing, but I’m somewhat mystified by my inclusion on the Jessica Jung thing. Not that I’m ungrateful, it is indeed a very useful piece of information, but why am I here at all?”

Taeyeon sighed. She moved past them to sit on the couch, aware of Tiffany returning too.

“This case is bigger than all of us,” said Taeyeon without looking at any of them. “And it’s a mess. I’ve been saying that for days, but it’s a fact we cannot ignore. Everything in this case is random and could be a lie, so the tactic I’ve chosen to tackle it is to use pretty much everything I have available. Hyoyeon is a good journalist, and as she’s shown already, she’s helpful. The thing with Jessica…. Well, I needed results fast, and I counted on you to provide that, which you have. Everything else about you is still undecided, in my mind, and much the same can be said for the case in general. So, fuck it.”

Yuri gasped. Hyoyeon and Tiffany stared.

“Taeyeon! Did you just say what I think you said?” asked Yuri, looking shocked and pleased. “My goodness, you really have changed while I was gone.”

“Well, deal with it.”

“Okay, that one was still a bit lame, but you had a good thing going there for a while.” Yuri reached down and pinched Taeyeon’s cheek. “Maybe in some ways, a case like this was just what you needed; something to completely turn your life upside down and shake you around. Change is good, you know.”

Taeyeon glared, but it was without malice and her heart was thumping in her ears. “This is not exactly the kind of change I would prefer.”

Her eyes flicked towards Tiffany, and when their sights locked, she looked away again just as fast.

In many ways, it was special to her that she was now feeling a certain kind of warmth in her chest. She was nervous, she was uncertain, she was afraid, but it all mixed together with the sight of the three people in front of her and the image of her other allies – altogether, she was feeling rather reckless but also a little stupefied.

Not a bad mix, simply potentially debilitating.

She was most definitely looking forward to that pizza Sooyoung was bringing. Where was she?

twenty-seven

 

It was hard to find a seat at the bar; even though it was barely past lunchtime and most of these people would usually be at work. But it was St. Patrick’s Day and clearly that was enough validation for a lot of office workers to take the afternoon off and pretend to have some connection to Ireland. Even now, a group of men with rolled-up shirtsleeves were loudly debating which of them had the most Irish ancestry. Taeyeon couldn’t help but think that their claims of quarters and sixteenths Irish blood were convoluted. Either way, it seemed universal to bond over the large collections of Guinness and bathe oneself in green.

Taeyeon glanced down at her own clothes, which were not green and were decidedly average even by her standards of comfort-focused styling. She wasn’t here for St. Patrick, and she wasn’t here for the Irish beer.

She was here for Tiffany.

When at last she found a seat at the bar, she parked herself securely. She could tell by the harried movements of all the staff that she would either have to cause a scene to steal their attention or she would just have to wait patiently. A peek at her watch confirmed she was ten minutes early anyway, so she settled in to wait.

Whatever Tiffany had to talk about had sounded important over the phone. The hesitancy of speech gave the impression of self-control giving way to weakness. It was something that had troubled her for a long time and that she needed to let out.

But why of all places did she want to meet at a bar full of drunken green-painted people?

She didn’t have to wait long to find out, as it happened – Tiffany burst through the crowd of rambunctious drinkers and almost fell on to Taeyeon, giggling and sporting green devil horns.

“You’re here!” Tiffany shouted. She immediately transformed her stumbling near-collapse into a tight embrace, squeezing the stuffing out of Taeyeon. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, more quietly, and Taeyeon felt the smooth kiss on her cheek as Tiffany pulled away.

Tiffany half-turned to the bar, keeping an arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders and leaning against her body. With a single wave of her hand, a young barman shot over and she ordered two pints of Guinness.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said, looking at Taeyeon. “I’ve already started drinking without you.”

Taeyeon caught the trace of it on Tiffany’s warm breath, and she smiled. “It’s okay. You look like you’ve been enjoying yourself.”

Tiffany shrugged one shoulder. “It’s better now that you’re here.” Her lips curved with her sly nature, and she leaner closer. “Did you miss me?”

Taeyeon leaned back slightly, raising an eyebrow. “Are you coming on to me?”

“Maybe,” Tiffany replied, tightening her hold on Taeyeon, “just a little. Why, don’t you like it?”

Taeyeon made a non-committal noise. Tiffany winked and kissed her lightly on the corner of her mouth.

Their Guinness arrived but they barely noticed it. The barman was quick to disappear again.

Taeyeon turned her head and kissed Tiffany on the lips, slowly and attentively. She felt and heard Tiffany make a humming sound in the back of her throat as they kissed, and she smiled as much as she could without breaking their connection.

Tiffany was the first to pull away. “I knew you would like it.”

Taeyeon just kept smiling, and then she looked away to reach for her drink. “So, what did you want to talk about? It sounded important.”

Even though Tiffany was trying hard to appear nonchalant, her face had gone pale by the time Taeyeon looked back at her.

“It doesn’t really matter anymore,” Tiffany said. “I guess I just wanted to get drunk. How about we finish these and go somewhere quieter?”

The way Tiffany pressed herself against Taeyeon, and moved her hand to stroke the small of Taeyeon’s back, and the suggestive curl of her voice – it was all exactly the pattern that Taeyeon was becoming all too familiar with. These were the things Tiffany did when she wanted to change the subject, and bury the subject under a heap of distractions. Whatever she wanted to avoid, it was significant.

Taeyeon stared into Tiffany’s eyes, intently examining as much of her as she could, as if her eyes truly were the windows to her soul. After a moment, Tiffany blinked and turned away. She removed her arm from around Taeyeon and leaned her elbows on the bar. She took a sip of her drink. She knew Taeyeon knew something was wrong, and she was on the verge of surrender. All Taeyeon had to do was ask.

 

Finding words had always been a struggle for Taeyeon. She couldn’t figure out where they were hiding, why they always seemed to scatter when she tried to pick some and fit them together.

I love you were three words that individually had varying levels of usefulness for her. In the end, it was the word you that fell from her lips most often. It was synonymous with Tiffany.

Tiffany was the person she talked to the most. Every day, she would send Tiffany some words; they weren’t always spoken aloud, and so Tiffany didn’t hear most of them. Sometimes Taeyeon would sit in a corner somewhere, or in the roots of a tree, or on the roof of a parking building, and guide the silky lead of a pencil over a sheet of paper. The grey words seemed softer, somehow lighter than ink. She thought maybe if she wrote it so, the words could find themselves floating near Tiffany one day.

There was a paper in every pocket of all the clothing she owned. It held those words that she put together to send to her, shoved into the fabric confines after the second thoughts arrived. There was no point in telling her, Taeyeon realised. She had nothing to give to Tiffany anymore.

That was the long sequence of thoughts that went through her head during moments with Tiffany. When she shifted her chair to make room for Tiffany to sit where she wanted; when she stood in line at the café, waiting to buy Tiffany’s favourite coffee; when she sat staring at the potent, poisonous alcohol in her hands; and in the early, grey hours of the morning just before dawn arrived, as she watched Tiffany sleeping.

Tiffany’s breathing was always a little loud. Not heavy, just easily able to grab Taeyeon’s attention in the quiet room. She sounded at peace, even though the frown that curved her brows implied her dreams were uncomfortable.

Taeyeon’s finger lightly traced the lines of Tiffany’s eyebrows, feeling the soft little hairs against the ridges of her skin. She dipped her fingertip along the line between eyebrows, and followed the form of Tiffany’s face. Her nose was so smooth – it seemed slightly longer than it looked.

A smile of pure enjoyment curled Taeyeon’s mouth.

Tiffany’s lips felt different against her finger than they had when pressed with her own lips. She hesitated, comparing the differences in her mind, before moving her hand and kissing Tiffany.

For a beautiful, peaceful moment, she could taste Tiffany again, and absorb her again. But to her, the moment wasn’t shattered when Tiffany stirred. In fact, the sight of Tiffany shifting around, turning her head, opening her eyes just a tiny crack and blearily letting out a grunt before dropping into sleep again – it was all just perfect.

Tiffany was perfect. Not to say that Taeyeon thought Tiffany had no flaws, rather that Taeyeon had come to the firm belief that Tiffany, as a person, as a mind, as a heart and soul, was the most beautiful being.

And it was on that note that Taeyeon looked away, and sighed, and got out of bed to leave.

The road was quiet as she walked. It was early in the morning, too early even for those who had to go to work. Taeyeon didn’t get much sleep and it showed in the heavy, unbalanced rhythm of her footsteps on the cracked and crumbling pavement. She looked up at the clear bright sky and it made her head spin, as if the world was tilting itself upside down to bring the sky closer to her. It made her grin widely.

She reached the university campus twenty minutes before her class was scheduled to begin. A cup of coffee from the machine sent a brief kick through her body and she stretched languidly outside of the classroom after the empty cup was discarded.

The ringing started soon after. She absently traced the outline of her cell phone’s screen in her pocket, as if she could feel the shape of the word ‘Tiffany’ on its surface, but she made no move to answer it. After the first abandoned call, three more came quickly without even finishing their initial cycle of ringing before being cut off and replaced with the next one.

Taeyeon closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall of the classroom building. She listened to the symphony of ringing that enveloped her. Tiffany was looking for her. Tiffany was calling her, desperately seeking an answer from her, wanting her.

She held down the power button beneath the press of her finger until everything stopped and it was deathly still.

She inhaled deeply, and let it all out slowly.

She opened her eyes, and went to class.

Not for the first time, she thought only of Tiffany while she was spacing out during class. Usually her mind was occupied with contemplations of the various little details of Tiffany’s habits or her beauty, but this time Taeyeon was thinking of what they had done the night before.

Her lips tingled with the memory of kissing Tiffany. She absently ran a finger over them, and the sensation made the feeling stronger. She remembered that feeling.

Taeyeon bit her bottom lip and clenched her hands into fists. No matter the mental and emotional complexities of her situation, she physically wanted more of Tiffany, endlessly.

After class, she wandered outside with her head still full of the essence of Tiffany. But her eye was quick to catch a glimpse of an unexpected yet perhaps not surprising sight; Tiffany stood against the wall opposite the classroom door, wrapped in her winter coat as she anxiously shuffled her feet in the cold and bit at the fingernail of her left thumb.

Even when their eyes met, Tiffany stayed there, fretting. Taeyeon smiled blissfully and slowly stopped right in front of her.

Before either of them said anything, she gently cupped Tiffany’s face in her hands; the actions causing Tiffany to stop biting her nails and she held onto Taeyeon’s wrists.

Taeyeon leaned forward and kissed her. The action was sincere, and loving, and sent Tiffany’s heart on a rollercoaster in an instant. She felt her simmering confusion intensify, while her panic was settled by the confident, comfortable warmth that Taeyeon gave her so smoothly.

“We need to talk,” she said, words muffled by Taeyeon’s lips. Neither of them moved. Taeyeon removed her lips only for a moment before pressing forward again.

Finally she pulled away and took Tiffany’s hands in her own. Her smile was soft and serene. “Let’s go talk.”