“I’m glad we’re able to help you, Tiffany,” said the man sitting behind his expensive desk in his expensive office. The walls were decorated with framed photographs of him and his celebrities. “You were a promising trainee, and you became part of the family.”
Tiffany returned a tight smile. “I’m grateful for your help, sir. It means a lot to me.”
And there wasn’t anywhere else she could go, nowhere that she really wanted to go. Not yet, at least. Her knee was injured so deeply over a year ago, and when the ensuing storm faded she found herself without a job and with a dream lying melted in her palms, but she couldn’t let go. So she came back, and she knew from the moment she stepped in the building this morning that this life would always be like a drug to her.
She tried the normal things; a brief stint at a night school to attempt a certificate, a lengthy consideration of various universities, a couple of employment trials at supermarkets – and the heated debate with her family about returning to the States. She didn’t even want to have it as an option. As far as Tiffany was concerned, she left home at the age of 15 and she was not going to throw away three years of pain and tears just to slink back and become someone less than a shadow of what she fought for. Even if she knew she could never have her dream the way she wanted it, she knew she could have some of it, and it drew her in snugly.
“I know you’re a highly determined, organized, and intelligent young woman,” the man continued. “These are perfect traits for a manager in this industry. You never know what could happen in the world of entertainment.”
She bit back a bitter laugh. “Oh, I’m aware.”
He looked sheepish for a moment. “Anyway, I’m also pleased that you decided to pursue this new career with us. I’m happy to have you here in any capacity.”
Tiffany smiled again, and it reminded her of the days when she first started training here. Well, a few days after she started training, because in the very earliest days she was subject to the usual insincerity and petty quips that came from the teenagers around her. But after she passed their tests and flew through their hoops, she became known as that foreign girl with the beautiful smile.
“You’ll be working with Taeyeon, I don’t know if you remember her…” the man’s voice brought Tiffany back from her thoughts, and she blinked.
She did remember Taeyeon.
“Oh, has she…?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” he replied quickly, looking sad. “Like you, she suffered an accident. She has some problems with her lungs now. She can still sing casually, and she’ll be able to live a full life, but she would never be able to keep up with the strenuous vocal demands of an idol in this industry.”
Tiffany felt a distinct sense of disappointment and sympathy. Taeyeon had become a good friend during training, albeit the type of friend who still had a lot of closed-off secrets, and Tiffany was a genuine fan of her voice. To hear that Taeyeon’s voice would never be heard by the crowds of people out there, and would never receive their appreciation or open their souls – it truly tugged at Tiffany’s heart.
“Yes, it’s incredibly unfortunate what happened to you both,” the man behind the desk said, and sighed. “But luckily she also decided to join this company in another capacity, and we’re all very excited that you will both remain part of our family. We still remember the old days when you two were like peas in a pod – inseparable! So we couldn’t resist the opportunity to put you two together in a team again.”
Tiffany smiled a little, and so did he. She couldn’t help but take note of the number of times he had said ‘we’.
“And in a way, we hope it will give you both some comfort as you travel in your new direction,” he added.
“Well,” Tiffany said, her smile growing, “if she’s anything like she used to be, we’re going to have a wonderful time together.”
“Excellent,” he said, sounding pleased. “We’ll tell you both about your duties at a later time, when we’ve arranged all the paperwork and so on. Maybe you would like to catch up with each other first, find out what’s been going on since you last saw her.”
Tiffany thought of Taeyeon, small and quiet but funny and playful, and she nodded slowly. “Yes, I think we definitely have a lot to talk about.”
She found Taeyeon in much the same place she would have been years ago; a practice room. It was empty of anyone else, and Taeyeon stood by a piano and flicked through sheet music. Her back was to the door, but Tiffany had seen enough of her face when they were trainees to know what kind of expression she would have right now. Bliss.
Taeyeon jumped in surprise and swivelled to see Tiffany at the door. After a moment, her look of shock was accentuated with confusion.
Tiffany’s smile faltered slightly when she heard Taeyeon’s voice. It was different. It had lost some of its fullness, its rounded edge; it no longer seemed connected to Taeyeon’s throat as if a string of her voice was being tooled out with every word. Her neck was wrapped in a thick scarf.
“Hey,” Tiffany said, quieter this time, softer. She stepped closer and her smile returned in full force. “How have you been?”
Taeyeon’s gaze moved over Tiffany’s body, taking in the tiniest ghost of a limp at the steps that were taken, but more interested in drinking in the sight of a long-lost friend.
“I’ve been okay,” Taeyeon answered. She looked up, into Tiffany’s eyes, and grinned at last. “It’s really nice to see you again, Fany.”
Tiffany didn’t hesitate at all. She pulled Taeyeon closer and wrapped her in a hug. “I missed you.”
It was true. She didn’t realize how strongly she felt it until now, when she was able to see and hold Taeyeon again, but during the loneliest nights of her life since the injury she would always wish that she had Taeyeon there to talk to.
Taeyeon returned the hug after a moment of silence, and their warm bodies rested together. “I missed you too.”
They held each other for a long time, getting used to the sound of shared breathing and the heaviness they both carried from their broken dreams. Tiffany wanted to talk about it, and she knew Taeyeon would not want to. She shelved it and moved out of the hug to flash another smile.
“Come on, let’s go get some coffee.”
At the coffee shop they teased each other for abandoning the strict dieting regimes they were trained in, and they both got a muffin with their coffee because they had learned the value of enjoying something simple sooner rather than never.
Tiffany couldn’t keep her eyes off Taeyeon as they sat at a table in the corner and picked at their muffins with their fingers. Taeyeon had always seemed reserved about certain things, and now she seemed more reserved than ever. She was hiding her scars firmly, and Tiffany could imagine her pushing against a door to keep it shut. But she wouldn’t bring it up, at least not yet. It was the first time they saw each other in more than a year, and they were about to work together as managers for idols in the Korean entertainment industry that they had fallen from. She still had not removed her scarf.
“So, are you seeing anyone?” Tiffany asked, and took a sip of her coffee.
Taeyeon snorted. “No. I’m not interested in dating anymore.”
Tiffany raised her eyebrows. Taeyeon had never exactly been as boy-crazy as other trainees (and Tiffany) but they had their fair share of giggling conversations about weddings and the perfect date. The change must have happened after the injury. Tiffany stared at Taeyeon, wondering if it was alright to ask her what the injury was.
Taeyeon smiled at her, and she decided it could wait.
Afterwards, they walked along the path by the river, and breathed the fresh evening air. It didn’t take long for their hands to find each other, but neither made comment on it as they laced fingers together.
“So, do you know anything about the idol we’ll be managing? Is it a group?” asked Tiffany, watching the water walking alongside them.
Taeyeon coughed for a moment, before recovering and flashing a smile in response to Tiffany’s concerned glance. “It’s okay. No, it’s not a group; at least, not anymore. She was part of the biggest girl group in the country a couple of years ago, until both her fellow members decided to retire from the industry. She managed to get popular enough that people are still asking if she’ll have a solo career, so they’re launching her with a whole new look after almost two years of hiatus. She’s one of the most anticipated solo artists of the year.”
“Hmm, she must really be something.”
“She can be, from what I’ve heard.”
“Oh, she has a reputation? Good or bad?”
Taeyeon pondered. “A bit of both. Hugely talented, dedicated, and determined; rather rude, delusional, and demanding.”
Tiffany laughed, squeezing Taeyeon’s hand as she did so. They strolled in comfortable silence for a while, listening to some birds and the breeze travelling through trees. After some time, Taeyeon cleared her throat.
“So why didn’t you pursue singing?” Her earnest gaze sought out Tiffany’s eyes. “With an injured leg you wouldn’t be able to dance like an idol, but your voice was still fine. Surely you could have become more than a mana-”
“I’m fine just the way I am now,” Tiffany interrupted. Her lips were tightly pressed together for a moment, and then she sighed. “It’s just… difficult.”
There was the same companionable stillness again as Taeyeon considered this. Their footsteps on the path were slow enough to catch rhythm with Tiffany’s heart at every fourth beat. Since when was she so conscious of her heartbeat? It seemed loud. Heavy.
“I understand,” said Taeyeon. Her voice was soft, an unobtrusive layer to the environment.
It wasn’t until Tiffany looked over at Taeyeon that she realized the pain behind those words. It was a small sentence, a small voice, and Taeyeon looked like the small scared girl she used to be all that time ago. She understood.
Tiffany squeezed Taeyeon’s hand harder than ever, and they walked on along the riverside path.
It was going to be a long walk.