Yes. (7; Incrimination)

7; Incrimination

 

There wasn’t much Taeyeon could do about Daniel Lee. He was untouchable, and hard to keep an eye on. He was slippery and powerful. So it was unsurprising when she couldn’t find anyone else to monitor him on her behalf. No matter what she offered – free service, money, food, toys – no one was willing to take the risk of being caught spying on one of the biggest criminals in the country. Even Sooyoung had simply given her a look of disbelief. However, Taeyeon tried not to let this disappointment bring her spirits down. She was determined to establish two things about Lee; if he had a connection to Tiffany’s mother, and what he was up to.

And so she ended up hanging upside down by her legs from the bottom branch of a tree outside Lee’s hotel, squinting through a miniature set of binoculars, and holding her breath.

It wasn’t the most productive action, really, because she couldn’t even see into his room or anything, but it was the only option she could find after examining the area. All she got out of the position was a partially obscured view of the hallway, which had very mediocre lighting. In the five hour duration of her stay – during which time she had changed her position on the tree twenty times before recently realising this provided the best angle – she saw only two of Lee’s henchmen occasionally moving back and forth between their rooms and Lee’s, empty-handed and stone-faced. No sign of the man himself or any woman.

Taeyeon sighed. She half-heartedly pencilled another note onto the tiny pad of paper she kept tucked in her pocket. Ten minutes after the previous entry, she scribbled something vague about Man #2 returning to his room much the same as he was when he went to Lee’s room.

She checked the time on her watch again, eyeing the hands ticking away, and pondered. It would be better to set up some sort of camera in her exact location, but that was beyond difficult. She was in a tree. Trees were not known for offering accessibility to cameras of any size or shape.

She absently clicked her tongue. It was almost dinner time. She had been watching Lee since lunch time. She didn’t know what he had gotten up to during the few hours since she left with Tiffany this morning and the moment she arrived here again after it became clear there was no alternative but to return. Hyoyeon hadn’t shown up again, if she even left in the first place. Whatever Lee was doing in that room seemed pretty important. Or he was just playing games.

Taeyeon scoffed quietly to herself. This case had quickly become a big game. She didn’t know the rules but she knew she was being played.

First of all, she was being played by Tiffany. The charming, beautiful woman who held a grip on Taeyeon’s heart muscle before they even met face to face and whose every smile was a squeeze. She was hiding something big. She basically admitted that the whole case was a lie, didn’t she? Her reason for hiring Taeyeon, her objective for the investigation, who knew what else. And yet why wasn’t that already enough to make Taeyeon give up the case? As much as it seemed she was willing to go along with it because she perhaps had a tiny little crush on Tiffany, there was definitely something else about it. She felt as if, no matter the reason, finding this woman was important, and finding out what Daniel Lee was doing was also important.

A headache sprouted at the base of Taeyeon’s skull. She blinked a few times and shook her head, but perhaps it was just time to stop hanging upside down and go home.

Her phone vibrated insistently in her pocket before she had a chance to continue her train of thought. She carefully got it out and held it in front of her face. Her eyebrows rose at the sight of the caller ID, and she answered it.

“Hello?”

“Hey detective, how’s it hangin’?”

Taeyeon nearly displaced herself from her position in the tree as she threw her head side to side to look around. “Hanging? What? Nothing’s hanging, I’m not hanging.”

On the other end of the call, Hyoyeon laughed. “You are so weird. It’s just an expression.”

Taeyeon didn’t calm down completely, still on alert as she kept her eyes wide open. “You’re pretty weird yourself. Why were you hanging around Daniel Lee this morning?”

“You are a persistent little investigator. That’s a good thing, by the way. Now listen, I could be on to something big. Do you want in on it?”

Taeyeon hesitated. A cool breeze built up, toying with the back of her jacket which hung down behind her head. The hallway in front of her, behind another branch, seemed deserted and silent.

“Well, you would have to be more specific before I agree to anything,” she said eventually.

“Let’s meet in person,” Hyoyeon said. “Where are you now? I’ll pick you up and we’ll go for coffee.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything at first, very mindful of her current location. Then she cleared her throat and said, “Maybe not right at this very second, if you insist on meeting in person. I’m kind of busy at the moment. Tell me where and we can meet in an hour.”

“I’ll e-mail you some directions to a nice little café I’ve come to know well recently. Oh, and bring Tiffany.”

Taeyeon frowned. “Why would I bring Tiffany?”

“Just do it. It’s important, I promise.”

The effects of hanging upside down for an extended period of time were starting to get to Taeyeon’s head, or it was just the constant stress of the messy situation she was in. Either way, she just wanted to end the call and get down from the tree, and then she would have to go get Tiffany and meet Hyoyeon at that café.

“Okay, fine, send me the details and we’ll see you in an hour.”

“Excellent! You won’t regret this, detective.”

Taeyeon hung up quickly and began to untangle herself from the branches of the tree without falling and breaking her neck.

It wasn’t until she was standing upright with her shoes touching the grass, trying to catch her breath, that she realised something rather significant.

Hyoyeon knew Tiffany’s name.

Sooyoung didn’t find it as pressing as Taeyeon did, shrugging her shoulders casually as they talked about it in Taeyeon’s apartment soon afterwards. Taeyeon was trying to change her clothes as fast as she could but got too close to dislocating a few limbs in her hurry, so she slowed down and explained when she left her bedroom.

“Thinking back to how Hyoyeon was when she saw Tiffany in the car, maybe there is a chance that she recognised her,” said Taeyeon, jamming her wrist in the sleeve of a new jacket. “But I don’t think it was mutual. It was more like Hyoyeon knew who Tiffany was and knew what she looked like, but it was the first time actually seeing her in person. And I don’t know about you, but that worries me more than just a little.”

“Well I’m not saying it isn’t weird, but she is a journalist,” Sooyoung replied, unhooking Taeyeon from her clothing. “Just see what she has to say when you go see her, maybe she’ll explain everything.”

Keys jingled somewhere in the pockets of Taeyeon’s other, discarded jacket as she hunted them down, shaking the clothing. She wasn’t happy about Hyoyeon’s little gameplay. She was starting to become more certain that she was the only person in this case who didn’t know what was going on, and it was getting on her nerves. She needed to know something, anything.

“Heard back from Yuri?” she asked Sooyoung shortly, and adjusted her glasses.

Sooyoung shook her head. “I’m starting to wonder if I should get worried or not, but it’s too soon.”

Taeyeon sighed. “I really need her to get that information for me and then come back and get the information here, too.”

“You’ll be okay,” Sooyoung said with a pat on Taeyeon’s shoulder and a smile. “You’re still alert and focused however frustrated you are. And you’re not letting your nerves get in the way. I’m sure you’ll get something soon. And if it turns out Tiffany’s not evil, then maybe you could ask her out on a date.”

Taeyeon gave her a pointed look. “There are so many things wrong with that suggestion; I’ll have to write you a list.”

Sooyoung shrugged again. “Okay, okay, just trying to provide you with something positive. Want me to come with you to meet Hyoyeon or will you be fine with Tiffany?”

But Taeyeon’s attention was diverted because right there on the table in front of her was a picture that jarred her. Specifically it was the cover photo of a magazine, bearing insignificant and airy article titles that blurred into nothingness. Taeyeon’s gaze latched on to the woman who posed with a wide smile; pretty, young, thin.

She pointed. “Who is that woman?”

Sooyoung blinked at the magazine. “That appears to be Yoona, the new face of the police force.”

Taeyeon frowned, peering closely at the woman. “You mean she’s a cop?”

“A detective in the drugs unit. She’s been getting quite a bit of media attention lately because of some big case she solved recently – she got a lot of compliments while the reporters interviewed her on the steps of the courthouse. The police are using this as a publicity opportunity, and it seems to be working.”

Taeyeon’s thoughts began to drift. It didn’t make any sense, and yet it struck her so solidly it had to be significant. But how?

“Are you okay?” Sooyoung asked, poking her on the arm.

“Her lipstick,” Taeyeon said. “Do you think there’s somewhere in the magazine that says what lipstick she is wearing in that photo?”

“Maybe, especially if she did a photo shoot. That magazine pays attention to fashion and stuff. I was just about to start reading it when you got here.”

Taeyeon turned to her, expression serious. “I need you to find out what lipstick she’s wearing, and if it’s the lipstick she usually wears day-to-day. If it’s Dior Addict Extreme shade 756 Fireworks and it’s the lipstick she always uses or if she’s started wearing it often recently, call me. I’m going to go get Tiffany and see what Hyoyeon has to say. And please do what you can to get hold of Yuri.”

She left her apartment in a rush, nearly tripping over her own feet on the way out the door. She checked her watch; half an hour until the meeting with Hyoyeon. She got out her phone as she left the building and dialled the number to Tiffany’s hotel room.

“Hello?”

“Oh sorry, were you taking a nap? You sound a bit groggy.”

“Yeah, I dozed off for a bit, but don’t worry about it. What’s up, Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon was momentarily irrationally pleased at hearing Tiffany say her name while sounding sleepy and then she shook her head as she unlocked her car.

“Can you be ready in about ten minutes for me to pick you up? Hyoyeon would like to meet with us.”

“Oh? Okay, yeah, I’ll be ready. See you soon.”

Reason number one why Taeyeon could never ask Tiffany on a date: she may not be interested in women – and reason number one point five, she may not be interested in Taeyeon.

The rest of the drive to Tiffany’s hotel was spent mentally compiling the list of reasons why Taeyeon could never ask Tiffany out on a date. She was a client, she was out of Taeyeon’s league, Taeyeon had a tendency to be socially oblivious, Taeyeon may actually die of a heart attack no matter the response to her offer, and the result of the investigation could change everything. And even if they somehow magically ended up dating, it could end up as a disappointment, stressful, heart-breaking, or – actually she didn’t even know, it just didn’t seem possible to happen.

She made a mental note to write those reasons down and tape them to the wall by her bed, and she parked outside Tiffany’s hotel.

When Tiffany walked out, the list just disappeared.

She wasn’t wearing anything spectacular, it was clear she had been asleep ten minutes ago, and she wasn’t even smiling yet, but she still took Taeyeon’s breath away. Taeyeon closed her eyes and groaned briefly at herself.

Tiffany spotted the car and got in the passenger seat, looking happy.

“So what’s this meeting with Hyoyeon about?” she asked after they greeted each other and Taeyeon merged with the traffic.

“Something big, apparently, but she won’t say what,” Taeyeon replied, keeping her eyes on the road as she hesitated before continuing, “And she asked for you by name.”

“Oh? That’s odd,” Tiffany commented.

Completely casual tone of voice, no nervousness, no hesitation, body language relaxed – Taeyeon was inclined to believe her.

“You can’t think of a reason why she would know you?” Taeyeon questioned, sounding uncertain. “Or would this be another thing that you can’t tell me the truth about yet?”

Tiffany sighed. “Look, Taeyeon, I like to think we’re getting to know each other quite well, don’t you?”

Taeyeon blinked. “Ah, well, I don’t know, maybe a little?”

“We’re getting along well,” Tiffany decided. “So I hope you understand how badly I feel about what’s going on. Not about getting to know you, I don’t feel bad about that, I mean I feel bad about how secretive I’m being – I don’t want you to feel like I’m playing games. When there’s something I can’t tell you yet, I won’t lie.”

Taeyeon stared at Tiffany for almost too long before redirecting her gaze to the road ahead. She gulped silently and panicked. What was she supposed to say in response to that? She felt herself slowly warming up. She became a little more confident that whatever Tiffany was hiding about the case, she was still a good person, and this was great and bad. Right at that moment, mostly bad.

“And like I said, you’ll probably find out the truth yourself soon.”

“Why can’t you just tell me, then?”

Taeyeon almost bit her tongue when the words slipped out, but she really wanted to know. Tiffany sighed again, sounding like she was struggling to find words.

“I can’t really explain it. Just give me time, okay? I really am grateful for everything you’re doing for me,” she said softly, and rested her hand on Taeyeon’s arm.

The car nearly swerved with the shock that went through Taeyeon’s body.

“I hope we can be good friends.”

A high pitched noise briefly keened from Taeyeon’s throat. Then she coughed and turned the steering wheel as smoothly as she could, causing Tiffany’s hand to leave her arm.

“That would be great. Okay, here we are.”

She slowed the car to a stop outside the café that Hyoyeon had directed her to, and they both frowned at it through the window.

“It seems to be closed,” Tiffany observed. “Are you sure this is the right place?”

Taeyeon already had her phone out, tapping into her e-mails. “I think so. Maybe she forgot it would be closed by now?”

Before she could get to the right e-mail, her phone alerted her to a call and she almost dropped it in surprise.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me. I have really important info for you.”

“That’s great, but are you okay? We haven’t heard from you in a while, we were getting worried.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I decided to look into your request before I got back to you or Sooyoung and let me tell you, it has been a wild ride. But listen, this information is huge. Where are you now?”

Taeyeon glanced at Tiffany, who was politely looking around outside. “I was about to meet with Hyoyeon about something. What’s up?”

“Tiffany hired you to find her mother, right?”

“Yes…”

“Well, it was hard to get the documents – her family must be quite powerful – but here’s the thing; Tiffany’s mother died several years ago.”

Taeyeon froze. “Excuse me? What?”

“Tiffany’s biological mother died when she was still a kid, and her father has never remarried. There’s no one else who could be considered her mother, and her real mother is dead. I don’t know who she wants you to look for over there but it can’t be her mother.”

“And you’re absolutely certain of this information?” Taeyeon asked carefully, watching the quiet Tiffany out of the corner of her eye and trying not to hold her breath.

“One hundred percent.”

Taeyeon exhaled slowly. “This…. is problematic. Thanks Yuri, I gotta go. And please come home.”

She hung up before Yuri could answer and put her phone away, no longer caring about Hyoyeon’s e-mail. She placed her hands on the steering wheel and gritted her teeth for a moment, staring straight ahead.

She hated confrontation.

Tiffany knew something was up, but she also knew Taeyeon would either tell her eventually or avoid answering her if she asked about it, so she sat in silence and stared at the sign on the café door.

The car was quiet as they both sat, and Taeyeon tried to think of a way to formulate the sentences she needed to speak. How does one ask someone what the hell they think they are doing?

And then Tiffany spoke.

“Hey, is your fridge on?”

Taeyeon blinked, and blinked again, and turned her head to look at her. “Um, yes. Yes, I think it is.”

“Well then you better go catch it!”

Taeyeon stared. Tiffany stared back, before babbling profusely, “Ah, I meant to say is your fridge running, I said it wrong, I’m so sorry, I just wanted to ease the tension, you seemed so stressed, but I got all nervous because I -”

And then the café exploded.

Brainless. 0

“Here.”

A small bottle of water tumbled onto the wooden table in front of her, bouncing and shuddering and rolling to a stop. She listened to the sound of her own breathing, heavy and harsh and desperate, and blinked away the trail of blood already smeared over her temple and trickling into her eye.

“Drink up. You must be thirsty.”

She raised her eyes, brow crinkling.

A kind face smiled back at her. The woman was tall, young, with long black hair stylishly tied back. She wore a simple, elegant suit, perfectly fitted to her form. Tiffany’s eyes traced the woman’s face and body; she worked out regularly, there were a few sugar grains clinging to her shirt, she had a slight tan, her muscles showed the definition of someone who grew up swimming; and her expression held laugh lines but had the form for a serious set.

The woman gazed at her.

“You’re shaking,” she remarked. “It’s okay now, Tiffany. The worst is over. Go on, drink some water.”

Tiffany looked back at the plastic bottle. It had a few dents. The plastic was soft, and cheap. The label was bland, simple, with the name of a popular cheap brand. She reached out – her hand shook as she touched the bottle, but her breathing slowed as she twisted off the plastic cap and raised the water to her lips.

The woman sat down on the other rickety chair across from her. She laid a beige file on the surface between them, and gave Tiffany another smile.

“My name is Yuri,” she said. “You’re actually a bit older than me, but we’re all friends here, right? So pardon my casual nature.”

Tiffany didn’t say anything. She swallowed the last of the water and lowered the bottle, settling it gently on the table. She stared.

“Now, you’ve had quite a shock, Tiffany,” Yuri said. She opened the file, flipping through the papers. “But it’s all okay now. We’re here to help.”

“Who?”

Yuri looked up at the word. Tiffany’s voice was hoarse, afraid. She smiled again.

“There are two answers to that question,” replied Yuri. “Let’s not choose one just yet.”

Tiffany was silent again. Her stare bore into Yuri’s eyes, but the woman seemed unfazed. She still had that small, quiet, kind smile on her lips. Tiffany gulped, feeling her body stop shaking and her heart rate slow down.

“What happened to your family,” Yuri murmured, “is terrible. Absolutely terrible. You have my deepest condolences, Tiffany.”

Tiffany blinked. She reached up and wiped away the blood that was persistently running down the side of her face, and she looked at the thick redness on her fingers. There was a shuffling sound as Yuri closed the file again and sat up straighter.

“There’s a way to fix this,” she said quietly, smile gone. “You’re here with us now, Tiffany. There’s a lot going on in this place. And I can tell already that you belong here. The way you checked me out like that, sussing out so much about me in one look. I bet you know a lot more than you make it seem. And that’s a damn useful talent around here, Tiffany.”

“I just want to go home,” Tiffany whispered, her voice uneven. She couldn’t meet Yuri’s gaze.

“That’s not your home anymore, Tiffany. That place where you lived, where you grew up with your family, that’s not home. They’re all dead now. But here, we can provide you with a new home. We can be your family now. Wouldn’t you like to have a family again, Tiffany?”

Tiffany closed her eyes. She clenched her jaw. “I just want to go home,” she repeated.

There was no sound for a moment. Then the chair scraped as it was pushed back and Yuri came to stand right beside Tiffany, resting her hand on her shoulder and leaning down. “Listen, Tiffany,” she said softly. “You have nothing else. You might as well accept it. This is your home now, and this is your world. But just remember something for me, Tiffany: not everything is as it seems.”

Tiffany’s eyes snapped open and she turned to face Yuri. She didn’t say anything, but the fear and confusion showed.

Yuri smiled. “Everyone is lying to someone else. In this world, there are two families. Two corners of a boxing ring. Two sides you can choose. Sometimes, there’s a bit of a cross. The lines blur. There are grey areas, and that’s where someone can lose their head, very easily.  You look confused right now but you’re wary, still attentive. You’re not someone who can easily get lost in mind games, are you?”

Tiffany’s face was blank. Her breathing slowed until she was only taking shallow breaths. The light above them flickered slightly, and something tapped against the grimy window.

Yuri held up one hand. “The good side.” She held up the other. “The bad side.”

She brought them together and pointed at Tiffany with both index fingers.

“And then there is you.”

The corner of her mouth quirked up in a sly little smirk.

“And me.”

Tiffany’s wide eyes locked onto Yuri’s for a long time, not blinking or moving.

“It’s okay,” Yuri said. She stood up, on her way back to the other side of the table. “You can speak your mind. We’re safe right now.”

“You’re an undercover cop?” Tiffany asked in a thick voice.

Yuri froze, and she spun on her heel to face Tiffany.

She winked.

Tiffany let out a long breath, feeling her shoulders relax. She gulped again, giving Yuri a different look.

“What do you want from me?”

“You’ve just lost your family,” Yuri said. “Sorry to be so harsh. You have nothing left. You’re smart. We think we can develop your talents into a very, very useful tool. You could save a lot of people by helping us.”

Tiffany hung her head. The constant reminder of the fact that her whole family was now dead and she was all alone was not particularly pleasant. She closed her eyes, and was immediately swarmed with flashes of memories. The screaming of her family members, the smashing of doors and windows, the shouts, the blood – she took a deep shuddering breath – the snap of bone, the shots.

“The people who killed your family will be interested in you,” Yuri continued after a pause. “Very interested.”

Tiffany laughed briefly. “You think they’ll recruit me?”

“We know they will.”

Tiffany raised her head slowly, meeting Yuri’s eyes. “Was that why they killed them? To get me?”

Yuri looked away. She half-heartedly shrugged one shoulder. Another tap came at the dark window, a succession of four rapid knocks.

“It’s time,” Yuri said simply.

She turned back to Tiffany. Her eyes were cold and sharp.

“Welcome to your new world, Tiffany.”

The yo-yo almost smacked against the cement before it spun upwards. Taeyeon clenched her hand around it tightly, trapping it in place a good distance from the ground it had just been face-to-face with. Her palm was sweaty. The blue plastic rubbed against her skin. The muscles of her fingers trembled. She let it drop.

“Taeyeon.”

It cracked when it hit the ground. She looked up, eyes blank.

“Let’s go.”

She ripped the string from her finger and let it fall, before stepping forward and following Yuri through the glass doors and into the polished, sleek office building reception. She gave a polite nod to the secretary at the front who returned it stiffly, and then they were in the elevator.

Taeyeon tucked her hands into the pockets of her jeans and stared at her reflection in the metal. Yuri glanced at her, and cleared her throat.

“It’s been two years now,” she commented. “Two years of good service. I think the boss likes you.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything. After a moment she shifted to read the numbers flashing above the doors.

It was time.

Love is so bad. (Part 3)

Reality, Hallucination, Love

Taeyeon was afraid to fall, and in retrospect she couldn’t help but think that she was right to be so. Why did she let go of that fear of loving, losing herself to another person? She reached a point where she wasn’t afraid to fall; she jumped.

She considered it as she stood on the roof of the hospital and stared at the air. Not the sky, not the ground, not the scattered few people below or the thinly shining stars above, but at the air that was thick around her eyes with tears she was keeping stored there.

She knew it, that she reached a point where she decided she would love Tiffany. There were buts and ifs at first, and then there were none, and she just loved Tiffany with all of herself and none of her fears. How did that happen? And how did she let it?

There were no answers, she felt, as a weak breeze failed to push at the air around her. She did it. Tiffany did it, or so she thought – and once again she wondered if Tiffany had ever even loved her, and if she did, then she wanted to know what made that love go away. Taeyeon wasn’t naïve, she knew well enough that love wasn’t forever, but as far as she knew, there was always a reason why it all ended and why love disappeared. There was a reason her breath was cut off when Tiffany ended it. She knew there was. There had to be.

And if there wasn’t, then the world was really just that much crueller than she had thought.

That Dance
The dance floor was crowded, the circle around the newlywed couple breaking and expanding into a pool of guests plodding in a politely party-ish manner. It was the development of a formal occasion in an intentionally casual environment. People gave it a try but not really. The music was neutral; nothing too scandalous, but nothing too outdated. The room was dimly lit, with neatly lined lights in different colours around the edges and Taeyeon was only thankful that there was no disco ball.

She was also thankful that Tiffany was currently attached to her. Their arms were linked as they stood on the edge of the dance floor and watched dubiously as middle-aged professionals made an attempt to go wild without relaxing.

“You know what these people need?” Tiffany whispered in her ear, causing a ripple along Taeyeon’s skin which culminated in an automatic grin. “I think they need a couple of young, attractive women to liven up the dance floor.”

Taeyeon turned to smile at her. “Oh? I didn’t realize there were young, attractive women at this wedding, you must point me in their direction immediately.”

Tiffany raised her eyebrows, and then she laughed. “Nice try. Now, I know this is my uncle’s wedding, but I never see ninety percent of the people in this room, so I would like us to blow their socks off with a killer dance and then we shall go home.”

Taeyeon gazed at her for a while, and then she held out her hand. “Shall we?”

They ventured unobtrusively onto the dance floor, and then they stopped and shifted awkwardly.

“Uh, do you want to lead or –”

“Oh, I don’t know – well, maybe you –”

“You know what, I’ll just lead and we can switch later.”

Taeyeon thought about it for weeks at a time, the differences and similarities in how she held Tiffany and how Tiffany held her. The softness, the tenderness, the solidness. They watched each other, and they laughed, and they kissed, and they switched leads as they danced. Then they went home, and it truly felt like it.

Taeyeon found reality was still there when she woke up. The room was the same, the world was the same, nothing had changed from when she went to sleep; and that was reality. Except she didn’t want to accept reality.

She was back in her apartment, her name left behind on about three different watch lists, Sunny set to drop by every day basically just to make sure she was still at least partly alive.

After much pushing on Sunny’s behalf, Taeyeon also agreed to regular drug tests. This decision surprised not only Sunny but also herself, because it was so sudden, partway through an argument, dull and soulless – but then Taeyeon realised it was because it didn’t make any difference. Drugged or not, reality was reality. Or at least it seemed so. Truly, the drugs provided the same sort of useful hallucination that sleep did, but just like sleep, reality was still reality when she woke up.

So she found herself fine with the choice to avoid drugs and be tested for them, simply because she did not care either way. Life still sucked. The drugs were only temporary, from the very beginning.

The beginning.

She sighed.

She put down the glass of water she was holding. She meant to sip from it ten minutes ago, but once again she got lost in her thoughts. Were they thoughts, or were they feelings? She was losing the ability to differentiate. She felt angry and she thought angry thoughts. She felt empty and her thoughts were empty. She felt sad and thinking made her sad.

Talking to the psychiatrist at the hospital had been long and pointless, and very quiet. The psychiatrist was a composed-looking middle-aged woman who asked her general questions and was probably only half-interested in any answers she may have given. She didn’t give any answers. She supplied sentences as general as the questions, and Sunny vouched for her when they informed the psychiatrist and the hospital of Taeyeon’s agreement to stop taking drugs and doing harmful things. So in the end they let her go, and Taeyeon would never be going near a psychiatrist again if she could help it.

Although, she didn’t really seem to be able to help herself at all. This became clearer when she realised she was sitting in her car, across from Tiffany’s apartment.

She gazed at it, identifying the window in the building that was covering Tiffany’s living room. She remembered being there for the first time, and the last time, and she started dreaming of how that last night could have been different.

For one, Tiffany could have answered her damn questions. Why? It was apparently impossible for her to answer that one. Why was it so sudden, why was it happening at all, why did it have to be the way it was.

Taeyeon blinked at Tiffany’s apartment.

Are you cheating on me? She could have asked. After all, Tiffany said she found someone else.

Did you ever really love me? But she didn’t really want the answer to that one. Or maybe she did.

Are you sure? Just in case Tiffany was undecided and could change her mind. It could have happened.

Could you love me again?

Please?

 

That Eternity
Taeyeon felt helpless. It was two years now since she started dating Tiffany, and during that time there had been ups and downs and they were all so different from anything she had ever experienced before. They were bigger, deeper, heavier, and they all left a mark on her heart whether they were scars or fingerprints. By all accounts it was a mostly happy relationship, and they had problems and arguments and they talked through it. Taeyeon knew communication was undoubtedly one of the most important factors of a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

So this kind of silence from Tiffany made her feel helpless.

In all the two years that they’d been together, there had never been a down like this, and she could only hope that there could be an up.

She sat down beside Tiffany on the couch, and hesitated for the first time in a long time before putting her arm around Tiffany’s shoulders and bringing their bodies to rest together.

“Do you wanna talk about it?” she murmured, nuzzling the side of Tiffany’s head gently.

Tiffany didn’t answer, but she angled her head slightly to be closer to Taeyeon. After a while of careful stillness, she turned and let Taeyeon kiss her mouth.

The kisses were different, weaker, only half as presnt as they usually were. Taeyeon could feel the way Tiffany’s lips lost tension partway through their kiss, and the way she moved her head back a little before trying again; she was absent, but she didn’t want to be.

Taeyeon pulled back, staring at Tiffany, and she wondered if there was any way that she could articulate what she was feeling now. But apparently she didn’t need to, because when Tiffany’s eyes met hers, there were suddenly tears, and then Tiffany was letting it all out. Her crying escalated, and they wrapped themselves together.

Losing a family member was hard, and that was an understatement, and Tiffany had already gone through that devastation as a child. Losing a friend was a similar kind of hurt. It was the kind of pain that was stinging, and pulled your heart in a direction you couldn’t follow. It brought emptiness, a gap where that friend would be, a silence where their messages would have arrived, and the kind of soft dissolving of another connection fading.

Tiffany cried for a long time, feeling the loss of her friend, and Taeyeon held her and felt the pain spilling over into her own heart. And that was exactly how she wanted it to be. She wanted to be there to catch Tiffany’s pain when she was overflowing.

Even death would never stop her.

Taeyeon knocked on the door of Tiffany’s apartment five times, quickly, shakily, not meaning to do it the way she did but her arm was uncontrollable. She gulped. She stared at the door, hearing her breath stop in her throat.

There was no movement, no sign of life.

She knocked again, harder, erratic.

She turned away, taking deep breaths to calm down her faltering heart. She checked her watch – it was 7.23pm. What day was it? She scuffled with her phone. A Thursday. Tiffany would normally be home, surfing the net with her TV on in the background.

Taeyeon closed her eyes, and then she squeezed them even tighter shut.

Tiffany could ignore her calls easily enough, but there was no way she could know it was Taeyeon knocking on the door. And there were no sounds of footsteps or anything. Tiffany really wasn’t there.

She turned and lashed out a foot, kicking the door with a sharp jab that reverberated down the hall. It wasn’t satisfying. She kicked it again, and again, feeling the anger rising at the back of her skull. It made her so, so mad that Tiffany wasn’t there. She was supposed to be there. It was a time when she was normally there, when she would be right there and Taeyeon would know where she was, and she could see Tiffany again and know that it was all right.

She smashed her fists against the door over and over, and kicked it, and tried her best to make it break and shatter so that it could suck the world away as it disappeared.

Tiffany was supposed to be there. Tiffany should have been there. Taeyeon came here because she knew Tiffany would be here. And then she could get questions, and answers, and she could get another glimpse of Tiffany’s face and smell her scent and bask in the warmth of her glow.

She missed Tiffany, and the ache reached out from her heart and pulled the blanket of anger from her mind.

She slumped against the door.

Tears cracked through her eyes. She let the sobs take her.

She turned, angling her face upwards to blind her eyes with the brightness of the light in the ceiling. She slid down the door, feeling the back of her jacket ride up and the harshness of the door scrape against her bare skin.

Tiffany wasn’t there anymore. How did she know this was reality? Reality was supposed to be different, it was supposed to be a world where she could go see Tiffany and know she was still there, still real.

What if it was all a hallucination?

With an absent hand, Taeyeon wiped away the wetness on her face, her lungs calming down and smoothing out her breaths. She looked at her shoes, not really seeing them, and wondered if anything was real.

But if this could be a hallucination, this world where Tiffany was no longer here, then what if everything was always a hallucination? What if Tiffany had never been real at all, just a dream that Taeyeon thought up while she slept and that kept her warm during the night and then left her when she woke up.

She closed her eyes.

She was tired.

All she ever wanted, in reality or in hallucination, was Tiffany. Tiffany was her hallucination and her reality.

But Tiffany wasn’t here anymore.

And Taeyeon was losing her grip on reality and her hallucinations.

Yes. (6; Tightening the Knot)

The day dawned normally, going from black to a beautiful blend of dark blue and deep grey. This was the sky that rested above Taeyeon and Tiffany as they sat in Taeyeon’s car, tucked away in an alley across the street from the Pink Flamingo hotel. The city buildings were quiet, unmoving, and tall around them. The first sign of life was the staff bustling in and out of the hotel, followed by a tired-looking businessman paying off his taxi driver before dragging himself inside.

Tiffany uncapped the thermos and poured some coffee into the cup, which she held out to Taeyeon.

“Thanks,” Taeyeon said, fighting a blush. She was getting better at controlling them. She took a sip and picked something conversational to say. “You don’t seem to mind being up this early.”

“Normally I would hate it,” Tiffany replied, pouring herself some coffee in another cup. “But this is important, and while I may not be willing to get up this early for most stuff, I’m always willing when it’s important.”

Taeyeon nodded, and trained her eyes on the hotel again.

“How about you?” Tiffany continued, glancing at her. “Do you do a lot of stakeouts at dawn?”

“Ha, no. I’ve done it a few times, but only when absolutely necessary. Sometimes if there needs to be a stakeout arranged when I can’t get the information otherwise, I ask Sooyoung and Yuri to do it for me. Well, usually just one of them, otherwise they distract each other. Actually Sooyoung is best at it.”

“Isn’t kind of weird though, sitting in a car, staring at something for hours?”

“Well, yeah. But it counts as work. I’m working. As a licensed private investigator, I’m just doing my job; as a random civilian tourist, you’re kind of weird sitting in car staring at something for hours.”

Tiffany laughed. “I see how it is. But it’s not exactly the most exciting part of investigating, is it.”

Taeyeon grimaced. “No, I don’t like it very much.”

Tiffany smiled. “You really don’t like doing things outside for your job, huh?”

This time, Taeyeon blushed self-consciously. She kept her gaze firmly on the hotel; a maid came out to collect something from the back of a car parked on the side of the road before going back inside.

“How do you even manage to do all that investigating just on the internet?”

Taeyeon shrugged, unable to get rid of her blush. “It’s not just the internet. Well, I also use the internet for communication with real-life humans. I use them for information; sometimes they do things for me… It’s kind of hard to explain. I get the case, and I start thinking, and I examine all the information I have and I go searching for more, and I form theories and test them and so on. It’s easier to do from home than most people realise. Usually. This case is… special.”

Tiffany shuffled around and made room at her feet to put the thermos back in the bag. Taeyeon was checking the time on her watch when Tiffany stopped and said, “Oh my god, this is adorable!”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened and she panicked, because Tiffany sat up and in her hand was a slightly blurry polaroid of –

“Oh,” Taeyeon said, reluctant, panicky, and feeling faint.

Taeyeon, aged 17.

“Is this you in high school?” Tiffany asked, grinning widely. “You’re so cute!”

“Ah, really,” Taeyeon half-laughed nervously, “what on earth is that doing here,” and she hid her face behind the camera and muttered darkly, “Sooyoung.”

Tiffany was giggling, possibly because of Taeyeon’s reaction and possibly just because of the photo, and Taeyeon felt herself erupt into a mega-blush and tried to be absorbed into the camera that she was pressing into her face as much as she could while wearing her glasses. She hammered her finger onto the button a few times and took out-of-focus shots of a lamp-post, the edge of the hotel’s roof, an abandoned disposable coffee cup, and a wispy-looking tree.

“What are you doing in this photo?” Tiffany asked, sounding amazed as she stared at it, still beaming.

It was a reasonable question to ask because in the photo, Taeyeon was frying an egg on her forehead. Or at least that’s how it seemed.

“Oh, I don’t really know,” Taeyeon said off-handedly, holding her camera on her lap and fidgeting intently with it. “I think I had just finished exams and my brain was overheated.”

Tiffany laughed again, so hard it drifted into soundlessness and she dropped the photo and clapped her hands together a few times, startling Taeyeon. “That’s great! Overheated… You’re so funny, Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon nervously arranged her face into a smile, eyeing Tiffany to see if the laughter was with her or at her. It seemed to be appreciative laughter, enjoying the joke of a brain so heated from study that it could fry an egg. A success, then, Taeyeon decided, and relaxed a tiny bit. She averted her gaze again, conscious of the fact that Tiffany was absolutely radiant when she laughed, and eventually the car settled into a warm silence.

A man in black clothes came sprinting around a corner, heading towards the hotel. Taeyeon quickly took off her glasses, picked up her camera, held it up to her eye and aimed it at him, tracking his progress. She caught a few snaps of him as he jogged towards the service entrance. When she lowered her camera again, she frowned. He was probably just a staff member who was late for work.

Tiffany was still silent and Taeyeon suddenly realised it was important. Tiffany was thinking about something, hesitant to say it, and Taeyeon was becoming terribly conscious of the tension.

She fiddled with the buttons on her camera, sharing her gaze between it and the sleepy hotel across the street.

“I know you’re suspicious of me,” Tiffany said suddenly, turning to face her with a stern expression. “And I can understand that. I suppose this case is turning messier than you thought it would be, isn’t it?”

Taeyeon blinked. “Yes.”

Tiffany sighed, looking away. “I’m sorry.”

There was silence again for a moment before Taeyeon fumbled to change her grip on her camera so that she could reach out and tap Tiffany on the shoulder a few times, awkward but intended to be comforting.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to be sorry,” she stuttered, “unless, well, unless you should be sorry because you’re a villain of some sort.”

Tiffany’s eyes met hers and she smiled again. “Thanks. And no, I’m not a villain. But I should be sorry, for getting you involved in this mess. It’s true, I made this case seem a lot simpler than it really is, but only because I thought if it could stay simple from your perspective then it would be easier for you to find -”

The interruption came in the form of the squealing brakes of a big black van with tinted windows, wiggling its way down the street with very little smoothness and altogether too much swaying. It ground to a halt right in front of the hotel, and its doors sprung open.

Taeyeon raised her camera again, the sound of the flickering shutter accentuating what they saw. Three burly men stepped out, one with a nasty black eye, and took a good look around them. Taeyeon could tell two of them had small concealed firearms and the third had a large knife tucked into his left boot. She took photos of them all, making sure to get their faces and the locations of their weapons, and hoping desperately that they wouldn’t see her and Tiffany, because they were scary-looking.

The men grabbed a bag each from inside the van and made way for another man to get out; tall, thin, impeccably dressed –

“Daniel Lee,” Taeyeon said, snapping a few photos of his face before moving the camera to watch him.

One of the men said something to Lee and got slapped upside the head in response. Lee rolled his eyes as he turned away, the man scurried around to open a door on the other side, and Lee slipped on some sunglasses for no apparent practical reason as the sun was not high enough to be a problem.

Taeyeon started taking photos again, only vaguely registering the sound of Tiffany pouring some more coffee beside her.

As the group gathered all their bags and moved away from the van, a valet jogged out to meet them and had the keys thrown at him. And as the van left, Taeyeon froze with her finger on the button.

“Well,” she said, camera still pressed to her eye. “This is unexpected.”

“What is it?” Tiffany asked, leaning forward and squinting at their area of interest.

“See that woman?”

The group made their way inside the hotel, one man in front and the other two following casually behind Lee and a woman with long blond hair.

“Hyoyeon,” Taeyeon stated. “A journalist, of sorts.”

The group disappeared and everything was silent again. The sky was turning pink.

Taeyeon lowered the camera and put her glasses back on, and then she sighed as she stared at the hotel.

“Is something wrong?” Tiffany asked eventually.

“I don’t know. Hyoyeon is… well, she’s known for getting all kinds of controversial ‘inside’ stories from big criminals and a few celebrities and politicians. That sort of thing. It’s the stories about the criminals that have always been the most impactful, though, because she literally finds out every single thing about some of the biggest crimes of our generation; stuff the cops didn’t even know.”

“Oh,” Tiffany said, looking at the front of the hotel. “What’s she doing here?”

“Probably not anything good. I did hear rumours that she was working on another book… something big. And she always has the exclusives on this stuff, so if she’s here then no one else knows what’s about to happen.”

“How did you know Daniel Lee would be arriving at the hotel so early?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “He likes to avoid crowds. Partly because he’s a snob and partly because he has a short temper and would probably kill anyone who made eye contact with him.”

Tiffany paused. “Oh.”

“I was hoping that if there was a woman with him, it might be your mother,” Taeyeon said, picking up her coffee.

Neither of them said anything for a while as Taeyeon sipped her coffee, and it was a pointed silence.

She could feel Tiffany’s gaze on the side of her face, but she kept her own eyes on the sight before her, checking out the hotel and the street as the city woke.

“Are you testing a theory?” Tiffany asked quietly.

Taeyeon nodded.

“Look, it’s a complicated situation, and I wasn’t sure how much I should tell you from the start because all you really need to do is find her and the other information would just make it complicated – well, it is complicated after all – but –”

Taeyeon cut into her rambling, looking at her. “Just tell me; are you really her daughter?”

Tiffany froze, mouth agape, and eventually blinked. She stammered for a moment. “Wh- Taeyeon, you – that’s not the-”

“It’s a simple enough question, I would have thought,” Taeyeon remarked, ignoring the way her heart was racing. “I just want to know if you’re really your mother’s daughter.”

Tiffany hesitated. “Well, yes, I’m my mother’s daughter… I just…”

“Then it’s fine, we don’t have a problem,” Taeyeon said curtly, and she put her coffee in the cup holder and picked up her camera again. “Hey, can you do me a favour, grab the little notebook from the bag and make a note of what we just saw. Something simple. Underline Hyoyeon’s name a few times.”

She knew she was still being foolish, and she cursed herself for it as she half-heartedly took pictures of a window cleaner and listened as Tiffany got out the notebook and started writing. Taeyeon was still too eager to disregard her suspicion of Tiffany, too interested in sweeping it under the carpet so that it was no longer an issue that loomed over their every interaction. She wanted to be able to hear Tiffany laugh more and get unbelievably anxious wondering if Tiffany liked her too. She didn’t want to have to confront her about her suspicions, or accuse her of lying, and she didn’t want to find the truth if it was something bad.

Something slammed against the window on Taeyeon’s side and she let out a high pitched squeal. She whipped her head around and saw a familiar face grinning at her from the other side, hand still spread on the glass where it hit moments before.

“Hello, detective,” said Hyoyeon. She rapped on the window with her knuckles. “Mind rolling down the window on this piece of junk?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes and lowered the window. “Don’t be rude to my car. How did you know we were here?”

Hyoyeon raised her eyebrows. “We?” She peeked around Taeyeon and smiled when she saw Tiffany. “Well, hello there. I’m Hyoyeon, award-winning journalist by day, caped crusader by night.”

Tiffany blinked and returned the smile uncertainly. “Hello.”

“How did you know we were here,” Taeyeon repeated dully, staring at Hyoyeon.

“Relax, Daniel Lee won’t know you’re here,” said Hyoyeon, resting herself against the car comfortably. “I only knew because I recognised your car as I walked out of the hotel. It had to be you, because who else would be sitting in an alley in the early hours of the morning, staking out a hotel that now holds Daniel Lee. Speaking of Lee, what exactly are you investigating, investigator?”

“I don’t discuss my cases with journalists,” Taeyeon replied crisply, ignoring the increasing sweatiness of her palms. So much confrontation in one day already. “Well, we’ve got to get going, nice to see you, bye.”

She buzzed up the window and started the car, barely giving Hyoyeon a chance to step back before gunning the engine and shooting forwards. As she paused by the mouth of the alley to check traffic, she heard Hyoyeon yell out, “Hey detective, give me a call if you find out anything big, okay?!”

The car moved into the street and Taeyeon drove them along, away from the hotel, and then she relaxed.

The hush as they waited at a red light was broken by Tiffany’s soft voice.

“Shouldn’t you have asked her about what she was doing, or something?”

Taeyeon sighed. “Yeah. I’ll send her an e-mail later.”

“And… well, do you think she would tell Daniel Lee she saw us?”

Taeyeon shrugged. The light changed and she drove. “I don’t think so. Hyoyeon knows it would put me in a lot of danger if she did that; she’s not that cruel. At least she wasn’t last time I checked. Telling Lee that I was spying on him would be like signing my death warrant. If I’m getting too close to whatever they’re up to, she’ll tell me to back off before I get hurt.”

They stopped at another light.

“Are you two friends?” Tiffany asked, curious.

Taeyeon shook her head immediately. “No, not at all. We encounter each other every now and then, and we’ve stayed on each other’s good side, so it’s more like we’re not enemies. But not friends.”

“I see,” said Tiffany, and she definitely sounded amused. “I get the impression you’re like that with most people.”

Taeyeon tilted her head, sparing Tiffany a glance while driving. “Oh?”

Tiffany smiled, more to herself, as she looked out the window. “Yeah. You seem like someone who would rather have a few really close friends than a lot of mediocre ones.”

“Hmm.” Taeyeon considered. “I guess that’s one way of looking at it.”

They reached Tiffany’s hotel and Taeyeon parked on the side of the road. When she turned off the engine, they sat quietly for a moment.

“So what happens now?” asked Tiffany, shifting in her seat to face Taeyeon, who fought that familiar blush again at the eye contact.

“Now you go do tourist-y things,” she said after a moment. “I’ll have to figure out another way to see what Lee gets up to at his hotel. And I need to check out a couple of other things I’m checking out,” she finished lamely, struggling briefly with herself to be reminded that Tiffany was still under some suspicion.

Tiffany watched her for a long time, and then she let out a sigh. She reached for Taeyeon’s hand and held it, which caused Taeyeon to internally melt and recover about a million times before her head stopped spinning – but her heart was doing backflips.

Tiffany’s hand was wonderfully warm and cosy, soft and gentle. Taeyeon felt like she was about to start floating.

“I am keeping a few secrets,” Tiffany admitted. “There is something I haven’t told you about this case, and it is pretty big. But… it’s just better if you don’t know it, at least not yet, because the case may look complicated now but it’ll just get worse if you know this. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you in the first place. I figured if I kept it simple then it would be simple for you to do it. Right now it’s not looking like it was the best idea in the world, I acknowledge that, but I need you to trust me for a bit.”

She was stroking Taeyeon’s hand with her thumb – making Taeyeon’s brain start to burn; she could probably fry an egg on her forehead for real now. It was so comfortable, and comforting, and it was only a little bit of contact but it was enough to lull her into a haze of Tiffany.

So she nodded slowly, gazing at their hands.

“It’s just for a bit, okay?” Tiffany continued, leaning closer. “Heck, you might even find out soon anyway. You really are a good investigator; I’m seeing it all first-hand now.”

Of course, she was an investigator, Taeyeon remembered. And she was investigating something really weird. And she decided she would trust Tiffany to explain it all to her when the time was right, if she didn’t find it out for herself before then. Which meant – well, it actually meant that nothing had really changed in their situation. Tiffany was still sort of under suspicion, Taeyeon still didn’t know what was going on, and the investigation continued.

Except, Tiffany was holding her hand. That was new. And very nice.

“Okay,” said Taeyeon, looking up with a dazed expression that she was slowly starting to get self-conscious about.

What if Tiffany thought her reaction was weird?

Embarrassment latched its claws into her and dragged her back. She smoothly removed her hand from Tiffany’s and cleared her throat.

“Okay,” she repeated, putting her hands firmly on the steering wheel and avoiding all eye contact with Tiffany. “I’ll trust you on this. See you when I see you.”

She could see out of the corner of her eye that Tiffany was wearing that amused little smile again, and she deliberately shifted her scrutiny to her side mirror at the oncoming traffic.

“See you later, Taeyeon,” said Tiffany, her voice pleased, and then she got out and closed the door behind her.

Taeyeon waited a few seconds, and then leaned over to look out of the passenger window, watching Tiffany make it safely into her hotel.

Then she turned and banged her head against the steering wheel twice.

“Must you turn into an awkward little turtle so often,” she groaned at herself.

Half of her wanted to slap herself for being so weird, and the other half wanted to slap herself for so easily being dazed by even Tiffany’s slightest touch. If Tiffany was trouble, then Taeyeon was falling right into whatever web she was spinning.

But she knew it was far too late. She had known it for quite while already; Tiffany was truly irresistible. And she didn’t even really want to resist Tiffany. Specifically, she didn’t want to have to resist her. But then even if there wasn’t that overhanging suspicion and confusion, she would just get all weird and nervous every time they interacted anyway.

“Ugh,” she grimaced, “who was the idiot who decided to allow me into adulthood.”

And wasn’t it so charming of Tiffany to make a thermos of coffee for their stakeout? Taeyeon hadn’t even thought of that, but there it was. So thoughtful, and kind.

But wasn’t it also highly suspicious that she was definitely hiding something and (successfully) convincing Taeyeon to just go along with the deception? There wasn’t really any reason for Taeyeon to allow herself to ignore her suspicions anymore. It was confirmed, and in the open.

“Bleh.”

She shook her head rapidly, started the car, and carefully blended into the growing morning traffic.

When she got back to her apartment, having carefully kept her mind empty of Tiffany, she found Sooyoung sprawled on the couch with a bowl of cereal, watching television.

“Good morning,” Taeyeon said, crossing her arms and staring at her uninvited guest. “How nice of you to join me without being requested to at all.”

Sooyoung waved. “You’re welcome.”

Taeyeon sighed and threw herself down onto the couch, shunting aside Sooyoung’s limbs, and prepared to let the television numb her head.

“So how was your date?”

Or not.

She flicked her head to face Sooyoung, her face blank. “What date. It wasn’t a date. It was a stake out.”

“Right,” Sooyoung said, and winked. “A stakeout with a client at dawn. As if that’s a regular occurrence. Anything interesting happen?”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. The question wasn’t totally about her crush on Tiffany, so she figured Sooyoung wasn’t intending to be completely annoying today.

“We saw Daniel Lee arrive in his usual style, but with a surprise guest star. Hyoyeon was with him.”

Sooyoung sat up and looked suitably surprised. “What on earth was she doing there… do you think she knows something about what he’s up to?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Probably. I’m going to send her an e-mail later. She rumbled our stakeout so I’ll have to set up another monitor on Lee.”

“The plot thickens,” Sooyoung remarked, relaxing again and eating her cereal. “This is quite a case after all, isn’t it, and not just because you have a crush on your client.”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes; maybe Sooyoung was planning to be annoying after all.

“Have you heard anything from Yuri?”

Sooyoung shook her head. “Nothing. I don’t even know if she got my message; I had to leave a voicemail. I sent her an e-mail too, just in case.”

Taeyeon groaned, squeezing her eyes shut and throwing her head back in frustration.

She still had no idea what the lipstick was about. She didn’t know who was trying to scare her and Tiffany and Sunny. She didn’t know what Lee was up to. She didn’t understand what Tiffany was hiding and why, and how much more complex this mess could get. She really needed some answers.

She frowned, eyes still closed, as she ran over everything in her head more than once.

“Sooyoung,” she started, “have I ever been shot in the leg while in a restaurant?”

“… Pardon?”

Taeyeon opened her eyes and met Sooyoung’s inquisitive gaze.

“Have I ever been shot in the leg while in a restaurant? Ever since that darn lipstick became such a big part of my conscious thinking, I’ve had this dream and this feeling of being shot in the leg while in a restaurant, and there’s a woman who’s wearing the lipstick that was used to write the messages. So, have I -”

“That’s pretty weird, Taeyeon,” Sooyoung observed, watching her friend closely. “And no, you’ve never been shot in the leg while in a restaurant. Unless it happened before I knew you, which I doubt.”

Taeyeon sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

She leaned her head back again, let her eyes close, and they settled into relaxation again.

Then she raised her head again and said, “Oh and by the way, why was there a certain polaroid lying on the floor of my car?!”

Sooyoung immediately looked innocent. “What? I have no idea what you mean.”

“It was so embarrassing,” Taeyeon said, glaring. “I’m supposed to be a competent private investigator, but now she has seen me with an egg on my face. Literally.”

Sooyoung grinned. “I know. Isn’t it brilliant?”

“No!”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“I think you mean yes.”

“No!”

“I’m pretty sure you mean yes.”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’s okay. You do mean yes, though.”

“Sooyoung…”

“Want some cereal?”

“… Yes.”

Yes. (5; the Blinding Sunshine)

5; the Blinding Sunshine

 

“Do you ever just randomly forget things?”

Taeyeon stopped spooning flavoured ice into her mouth and turned her head to look at Tiffany beside her. She raised her eyebrows briefly, and lowered her spoon before answering.

“Well, yes,” she said. “Everyone does. It’s a common feature of the human brain.”

Tiffany looked thoughtful for a while, pushing flavoured ice around in its small cup with her little plastic spoon.

“I forgot quite a lot of things about my mother after she was gone. I wish I didn’t. I wanted to remember everything about her.”

Taeyeon blinked, and then when she realised the seriousness of the comment, she swallowed. She wasn’t sure if she should say anything – and she didn’t know what to say if she were to say anything.

They had been shopping for most of the day, trailing from store to store, and in each ocean of clothing Tiffany would fawn over a few pieces and only flick the edges of some before moving on. Taeyeon was trying to establish a pattern in her behaviour in an attempt to figure out what she wanted. When Taeyeon went shopping she had a clear image and specifications of the main thing that she wanted, and a range of variables for other things that she would browse for. Tiffany didn’t seem to have a goal, and she bought clothes with no linear connection that Taeyeon could establish. For example, the two tops she bought so far were too different – one long sleeved, made of thick and soft material, and the other short sleeved and thin and wispy. The pants were one pair of tight black jeans and a pair of cut-off faux-denim shorts. She wasn’t buying for winter and she wasn’t buying for summer; she was buying for both. It was taking a while to get used to it. She wondered if Tiffany would forget about the things she bought for future seasons and end up not even wearing them when those seasons came around.

She didn’t even need to psyche herself up much before suggesting they break for refreshments, her need for rest and energy becoming more pressing than her awkwardness.

And she was still awkward; there was no doubt about it. They talked about the clothes, the atmosphere of stores and the shopping centre, the weather, Tiffany’s hotel, the number of people out shopping at this time of day, and with everything they talked about Taeyeon would overthink it and stutter a little. When she was talking with Sooyoung or Yuri, they talked about things, with purposes and practicality and development. When she was talking with Tiffany, it was like they were talking about nothing and everything at the same time – things she didn’t usually bother talking about, like the look on that man’s face when his kid pretended loudly that his flavoured yellow ice was related to urination. It was just a thing that happened; Tiffany knew it, and Taeyeon knew it. She wasn’t used to stating something that they both already clearly knew implicitly and didn’t have a further path. It was like stating the obviousness of something they both already knew and didn’t need clarification on for any purpose.

So when Tiffany brought up the topic of forgetting and her mother, Taeyeon was a little frozen and quite panicky. What did people do in this situation? Should she say something sympathetic, casual, sombre? Perhaps she shouldn’t speak.

She glanced at Tiffany out of the corner of her eye. No more words came; Tiffany was silent again, staring into her cup of pink ice as if she was gazing into a crystal ball that showed some far-off universe.

She went back to her own ice, shifting her gaze around and trying not to act as jumpy as she was starting to feel. On the one hand, the mention of Tiffany’s mother made her conscious of her awkwardness in this social situation, but on the other hand the mention of Tiffany’s mother’s disappearance also reminded her of the case.

Randomly forgot things. Like what happened when she left? It seemed a bit much.

She stopped being jumpy, closed her eyes for a moment, and sighed as quietly as she could. She was really starting to dislike the layer of suspicion that was blanketing her every action more frequently during the events of the past few days.

Her phone beeped. She checked to make sure it didn’t startle Tiffany out of whatever reverie she was in, and then she looked at the screen.

A message from Info890515.

I know you’ve talked to Seohyun. I agree, we should meet. Face to face. This afternoon, 4pm. I’ll send you the location thirty minutes before the meeting.

Taeyeon nodded to herself, and replied with a brief affirmative. She couldn’t avoid the case forever. It was better to follow that lead and get to work.

But she did still allow herself to hope that whatever she found in her investigation would not incriminate Tiffany.

She checked her watch – there was almost two hours left before her meeting with her informant. Tiffany was still looking at her ice, her eyes intent and tinged with longing. It was undeniable.

“Um,” Taeyeon said eloquently.

Tiffany looked up, still absent for a moment, and then her face cleared and she seemed to realise she had been on another planet for quite some time.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, how rude of me,” she babbled immediately, and Taeyeon could almost see her sweeping her thoughts under a carpet in her mind and bustling around to fill up the space with other things, normal things. “I didn’t mean to space out like that.”

She was fiddling with her cup, Taeyeon noted.

“It’s fine,” she said, giving Tiffany a smile. “You must still be jet-lagged, I wouldn’t be surprised. I have to meet someone in a while, so perhaps I should escort you back to your hotel now?”

“Oh,” Tiffany replied, no longer fiddling, absorbing the words, “Oh, alright then. Is it related to the case? My case?”

Taeyeon made a split-second decision. “No. One of my informants is being threatened by a local crime boss. I’m hoping they can give me some useful information that can lead to that crime boss.”

Not technically a lie. In a way, this was a case within a case – finding the would-be assassin possibly sent by Daniel Lee that was threatening her informant and launching pseudo-attacks on her and Tiffany. The connection to Tiffany’s mother was unclear.

Tiffany seemed to accept it.

They took off in the direction of Tiffany’s hotel, discarding their cups into a rubbish bin along the way.

“So how long have you been a private investigator?” Tiffany asked conversationally, running a hand through her hair as she spoke and briefly baring the side of her smooth neck as she did so.

“Uh,” Taeyeon dithered, and blinked in another direction. “A few years now.”

“What kind of cases do you get?” They crossed a street. “Like, I thought private investigators usually get stuck with divorce stuff – following someone’s spouse around to snap pictures of cheating. It never seemed particularly interesting in real life, compared to stuff on TV.”

Taeyeon smiled slightly. “Well, I’ve had my fair share of follow-the-cheater cases. They’re alright. Not very exciting but not always bone-crushingly boring. Sometimes they can be quite surprising. I was on this one case where the wife – middle-aged, stay-at-home, two kids – asked me to find out what her husband was getting up to every Saturday. He told her he was getting into golf, but she doubted him. He always hated golf. So anyway, I followed him when he left home early one Saturday – way too early for a golfer – and it turned out he’d been taking his son fishing.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet!” Tiffany gushed; face lighting up with her instinctive grin.

Taeyeon hummed a note. “No, no. His other son. From his other family.”

“O-Oh…”

“Yeah. She poured a bucket of fish on his head when she kicked him out of the house.”

They walked on in silence for a while after that, staring at their feet on the pavement. Taeyeon thought about all the notable cases she’d had so far. Most of them were dealt with from her own home, puzzles solved using her mind and her connections. She only took the follow-the-cheater cases when Sooyoung and Yuri convinced her she needed to get some fresh air. Even then, she tried to avoid direct contact with her client. She soon realised she was filtering her memories in search of another case that would make Tiffany go ‘aw’ with that lovely smile. There weren’t many options.

They reached the hotel without saying anything else, both lost in their own thoughts, and stood before the entrance.

“Thanks,” Tiffany spoke first, beaming at Taeyeon. “I had a good day today. You’re right; it was nice to get away from the case for a while, especially after getting thrown into it like that as soon as I arrived. I hope things will be alright.” She held up her bags. “And I got some nice clothes.”

Taeyeon eyed her for a while, not saying anything, and Tiffany lowered the bag, raising her eyebrows questioningly.

“I just want you to understand something,” Taeyeon said, her voice firmer than her conviction. “Things changed with this case the moment we got shot at. In fact, the moment you touched down in Seoul. This case is not the same. Now it’s dangerous, and a lot bigger than it seemed.”

She paused, and then she stepped closer slightly.

“When I find the woman you have asked me to find,” she continued, “this case better not blow up in my face.”

Tiffany frowned instantly, and for a moment Taeyeon was convinced that she had taken the wrong path and followed the wrong instinct – that perhaps Tiffany was innocent and unknowing. But then Tiffany didn’t respond. Taeyeon was a little disappointed.

“I’ll contact you,” she said, stepping away. “I suggest you don’t venture too far from your hotel, at least for today. You have my number in case you think you are in danger. And, um, I had a nice time, too.” She couldn’t resist.

She turned and walked away, leaving Tiffany to stare after her with the same frown. When she got on the bus to go home, she closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the window. Regret washed over her rapidly, gone as quick as it came. Her nerves settled slowly, no longer buzzing.

But it was something that needed to be done now, before it was too late.

She called Sooyoung when she got home and told her she would be meeting the informant later, so that Sooyoung would know there was a chance of danger and be able to know when something was wrong. But she wouldn’t be telling Sooyoung where the meeting was – she wanted to retain her informant’s trust. As long as Sooyoung knew the situation, she could track her down.

She played console games half-heartedly as the clock ticked along to three-thirty. She didn’t focus much on the gameplay, thoughts wandering between the case and Tiffany and her resistance to see them as the same thing. She hadn’t been seeing Tiffany as part of the case until recently, or at least not a vital part. Tiffany was the client. The client usually just placed the order; they weren’t meant to be an ingredient in what was served at the end. Tiffany was separate until now: Taeyeon felt like she could treat her differently. Which in other words meant that she could convince herself to socialize with her, and remember the way her hair moved over her cheek, and think about the way her pulse must have been making a rhythm in the softness of her neck, and that damned smile.

She sighed. This had never been a problem before. She’d had crushes, with no clear pattern, but this was the furthest she had ever pursued her feelings, and she wondered if it was because Tiffany was any different; if her feelings were stronger or just more addictive.

Tiffany was addictive, that was for sure. Taeyeon really needed to get her out of her head.

She realised her character had been sizzled by a laser blast and grimly stared at the screen that asked her if she wanted to start from her last save.

What did she even know about Tiffany? Nothing, as it turned out. Except that she was caring, emotional, friendly, warm, thoughtful, kind, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, and her beauty seemed to be so obvious at all times, as if she was just that gorgeous no matter what and she didn’t even know it, she wasn’t doing anything in particular to make it happen.

Taeyeon put a hand over her chest. She cursed softly. Her heart really just fluttered; since when was that even a thing that actually happened?

She threw the controller down beside her on the couch and stood, checking her watch. Five minutes until she would get the message about the location.

She scribbled down a few notes on what she wanted to talk about with her informant. The messages, any other threats, Daniel Lee – she decided she would venture a line of questioning into the gas station heist. There had to be something going on behind that. And the lipstick. And if things were going well, she would flat-out mention Tiffany and her mother.

Her phone beeped. She grabbed her car keys.

Info890515 was a petite, well-built young woman who kept her body deliberately small-looking; she hunched her shoulders, kept her hands firmly shoved into her pockets, and she was wearing the hood of her jacket over her head. Taeyeon could see her hair was short, and seemed kind of blonde. She was checking her out from inside her car, across the road, and she glanced at her watch. She would be one minute late. She looked again at her informant, who was glancing around and shifting her feet nervously as she stood outside of the library. The area around them was not deserted, but there were very few people wandering around.

Taeyeon got out of her car and cautiously made her way across the road. Their eyes met before she even stopped, and then they stood and watched each other.

“You can call me Sunny,” said Sunny, breaking the silence. Her expression was sombre. “I don’t like meeting people in person like this – it’s not like I’m a full-time informant. If people saw me telling tales, I’d lose a lot.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Okay, I understand. I don’t like meeting people either. It’s a shame our previous arrangement will most likely be terminated.”

Sunny sighed. “Yeah. I’m going to lose all my connections when word gets out that Daniel Lee has his sights set on me.”

“And does he? Are you sure it’s him?”

Sunny glanced around again, but more casually this time, and then she said, “Yes. I know a lot about the situation, and I’ll tell you right now that I won’t be able to give you all my information. I have to protect myself better than that.”

“Why are you meeting me at all?”

Sunny met her gaze again. “Seohyun told me you and your client were attacked. Lee wouldn’t kill me; he’s just determined to chase me away. And he might succeed. I want to at least give you a hand. I know you’re smart, you can figure it out.”

Taeyeon angled her head in acknowledgement. She whipped out the small piece of paper from her pocket.

“Alright, tell me about the message on your windshield.”

“The words ‘shut your mouth’ written in all capitals, red lipstick – Dior Addict Extreme, shade 756 Fireworks – steady hand, confident, surprisingly not particularly emotional. They were either given the words to write or they were writing those particular words for a reason other than aggression. I’d guess the writer was female. I’ll email you the photos of my windscreen later.”

Taeyeon mulled over this information for a while in her mind. Now she had the brand and shade of the lipstick. A simple check later would confirm if it was the same lipstick that was used on her car. She frowned. She still got that itching at the back of her mind; the name of the lipstick didn’t trigger the memory she knew was lurking there, but she knew there had to be something. She took a breath and looked at Sunny again.

“When did it happen, and where were you and your car?”

“The day after I told you where Daniel Lee would be,” Sunny said. “My car was in the driveway of my house. It was fine when I drove home from work, then the next morning when I was about to drive to work, it was there. No suspicious sounds or sightings during the night. I checked with my neighbours.”

“Alright,” Taeyeon replied, and she tucked her little piece of paper away. She stuck her hands in her pockets and cast a cursory glance over their surroundings. “Have you received any other threats?”

“Not yet. And I’d like it to stay that way, so let’s cut this short. Anything else you want to ask, do it now.”

Taeyeon had to make a choice; she could either ask about Tiffany’s mother or Daniel Lee’s gas station incident. She bit her bottom lip briefly, and pushed her glasses more into place.

“Daniel Lee is planning something big,” she said matter-of-factly. “What’s he after?”

Sunny scoffed and shook her head. “Of course you have to ask me the one question that could get me killed. Mr Lee is an ambitious man, you understand. I’ll give you one more question. Make it quick.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows but didn’t express her surprise. “Do you know anything of a woman with Lee? His girlfriend, wife, whatever?”

Sunny made a so-so motion with her hand before sticking it back in her pocket. “I hear things. But I hear all kinds of things. Maybe there’s a woman, maybe she’s calling herself Choi, but we all know that’s not very useful in this country. Look, people say a lot of things about Lee. I haven’t seen or heard her with my own eyes.”

Taeyeon let out a sigh. “Alright,” she said again. “Thanks for your help. That friend of yours from the hospital, she’s a good friend. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

She turned to leave before stopping and half-angling her body back. She gave Taeyeon a closed look.

“I know more or less what you’re thinking right now,” she said. “You’ve taken my words on face-value before, but know that you know a bit more about me, it makes you wonder more about how I get my information and how reliable I am. So you’ll take what I’ve given you and you won’t take it for granted but you won’t know how to take it. Obviously I can’t tell you where I’m getting it from, but please understand that it’s all true, and real, and serious.”

Taeyeon watched her for a moment, and then she nodded without a word.

“And maybe go visit that friend of mine from the hospital every now and then,” Sunny continued, in the same tone but with a different light in her eyes. “She’s a good kid.”

The corner of Taeyeon’s mouth kinked in a little smile. “Yeah.”

She watched Sunny disappear around a corner, and she went and sat in her car. The closed space muted the sounds of the outside world, and she stared intently at her steering wheel, thinking.

Sunny had said Daniel Lee was an ambitious man. Taeyeon clicked her tongue as a theory formed in her mind. She needed to find out more about that gas station.

Her phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hey, you okay?” Sooyoung.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Got some good information. Do me a favour, ask Yuri if she could come back a bit sooner? I really need her to work her magic with some police files.”

Sooyoung snorted on the other end of the line. “Her magic? Alright, alright. I’m sure she’ll love it.”

“Why do you both react that way?” Taeyeon asked, finally giving in to her curiousity. “What does she do to get information?”

“She talks,” said Sooyoung innocently. “You know, chatting. She’s very friendly. She’s charismatic.”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. “I see.”

“Do you really?”

“Yes, of course.” She didn’t completely, but she knew more or less which way the arrow was pointing. “She did mention in one of her e-mails that she was enjoying the people in America…” Taeyeon dropped, angling for a reaction that would answer her unspoken questions.

Sooyoung let out a laugh. “Of course she did. People. Wow, that girl is really something. So you want me to ask her to come back as soon as she can?”

“Yeah – wait! No!” Taeyeon’s jaw dropped as a light bulb lit up in her head. “She’s in America!”

The slow, uncertain blink was almost audible in Sooyoung’s voice. “Yes, she is.”

“Tell her to find out what she can about Tiffany and her mother. She might be able to talk to people better.”

“Ah,” Sooyoung replied knowingly. “Yeah, she can talk to people, all right. Okay, I’ll pass it on. Anything else? You want to have a briefing with Tiffany?”

Taeyeon frowned. “Why would I have a briefing with Tiffany? I don’t have anything to tell her yet.”

“Your informant didn’t tell you anything big?”

“She did, but it needs to be confirmed and developed. I still have nothing that indicates if Tiffany is involved with whatever this is. Oh, and we need to find out more about that gas station Daniel Lee hit.”

There was a long pause from the other end before Sooyoung said, “Okay. Hey, how was your date with Tiffany?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t a date.” She hesitated. “But it was nice.”

Sooyoung must have been grinning. “Oh it was nice, was it? That’s nice.”

A car sped by with a blare of its horn and Taeyeon’s nerves shot up. She glanced around through all her windows, on high alert, but nothing was happening. The car twisted around a corner and the street was quiet again. She waited, her heartbeat thumping in her ears, and she realised she had dropped her phone. She took a careful look around, assured herself there wasn’t anything to worry about, and picked up her phone again.

“-lo? Taeyeon, are you there?”

“I’m fine,” Taeyeon said quickly. “Just being paranoid. I’d better get out of here. I’ll talk to you later, okay? Remember, call Yuri.”

“Yes, boss,” Sooyoung said, her joviality tinted with uncertainty.

They hung up, and Taeyeon took a few more deep breaths before she started the car’s engine.

The streets were quiet in the areas she drove through, afternoon turning to evening and bringing a cold, brittle edge to the sky outside. She turned on the heater on its lowest setting and tapped lightly on the steering wheel in a simple rhythm. Her eyes were focused, checking everything, assessing every person in a car or on the footpath.

She glimpsed a banner advertising an event that occurred over the weekend and started thinking about the date. The weekend was almost over, and Daniel Lee was booked in at the Pink Flamingo Hotel from Monday to Saturday. She knew what she had to do.

A soft drizzle of rain started, dusting her windshield. She flicked on the wipers, a little faster than they needed to be.

She stopped her car at a red traffic light and whistled lightly to herself.

By the time she made it home, she made a decision.

A stakeout at the hotel at dawn the next morning, and she would be bringing Tiffany along.

Yes. (4; Breakfast at Tiffany’s)

4; Breakfast at Tiffany’s

 

Taeyeon dreamed of a restaurant. It was big, and busy, and too bright. The light was the first thing to hit her, causing her to squint her eyes as she stood by the entrance. The maître’d completely ignored her, choosing instead to face the wall and stoically remain unmoving.

She moved her gaze from the back of his head and swept over the restaurant before her. The brightness of the light made it hard to see clearly, the edges of some people blurred by the sharpness that infringed on their form. She would need to get closer.

There was a group of three figures at the nearest table.

She lifted her leg to step towards them and was hit by a searing pain in her knee. It made her crumple and squeeze her eyes shut as she grabbed at her leg. The agony was steady, starting hard and staying that way with no fluctuation, no sign of fading.

“No?” a voice said uncertainly.

Taeyeon’s eyes opened and she saw someone in front of her. At least, she assumed it was a person, because the shape was vaguely humanoid and the voice sounded feminine. The person was not moving, their body perfectly still, unnaturally so. There seemed to be a light in the ceiling right above them, because their face was nearly impossible to see.

“No, what was that?” the voice said again, still sounding uncertain.

Taeyeon frowned. The pain in her knee disappeared in a flash. She stood up, but it was as if the angle of her vision had not changed, for the person’s face was still blocked by the light. She leaned closer.

“No, what the hell was that?”

This time she could see something where the face was. A part of the lower face, the faint curve of a chin – and lips that moved with the words spoken.

Her eyes widened.

“The lipstick.”

She tried to look into the person’s eyes, screwing her eyelids nearly shut, and tears prickled with the pressure of the light.

“It’s you,” she said.

“No -?”

“I know this is a dream,” Taeyeon interrupted, frowning at those lips that were parted in mid-sentence. “But it’s you. Why do you keep saying that? I’m in a restaurant, my knee hurts, and you keep saying those words. Who are you? I know you. I know -”

Her head vibrated with the ringing of her mobile phone. The lips faded.

“I know –” Taeyeon mumbled, and she was shrouded in darkness again. “I know…”

The ringing came back and she opened her eyes slowly. She felt cooler, as if she just stepped out of a hot room into the chilly night air. She took a few breaths, breathing in the air that seemed fresher. And then she answered the phone that lay on her bedside table.

“Hello?” she sounded groggy, more asleep than she felt, and the haziness caught up with her again.

“Hey!” greeted a cheery voice. “Did I wake you?”

Taeyeon blinked, and frowned. “Yes, I suppose you did.”

“Well, I have good news for you.”

“That’s nice. Who are you?”

There was a sharp intake of shocked breath. “What? Really? I leave the country for a couple of months and you don’t know me anymore? Dear super-detective Taeyeon, you are in bad form.”

Taeyeon took a moment to process.

“Yuri?”

“And now you get it! Yes my dear comrade, it is I. Now do you want to hear the news?”

Taeyeon glanced at the dials of her wristwatch on the bedside table. “Not really. I’m quite hungry. I slept later than usual.”

Yuri sighed, the breathiness pushing through the phone to convey her wearying troubles. “So this is how it is now. I leave for a short trip and now you don’t know my voice, don’t have time to hear what I have to say –”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes, and rolled out of bed. She listened to Yuri’s lengthy dramatic prose about the dilapidation of their friendship as she made her way to the kitchen. With one hand, she pulled out a bowl and poured some cereal into it.

“- I bet you’ve even forgotten all those times I got you police information -”

“Speaking of which, I may need you to do that for me again,” Taeyeon interrupted as she reached into the fridge for milk. “I don’t have many options for obtaining police information when you’re not around. You have great skill in that department.”

“And I enjoy it, too,” Yuri said, the smirk audible in her voice.

Taeyeon frowned a little in absent confusion. She had never really understood how Yuri got the information she needed. After the first few times of being brushed off when she asked, she decided it was best she didn’t know. She shook it off as she stuck her spoon in her cereal and started to eat.

“Which brings me to my good news,” Yuri said brightly. “Guess who is coming back to Seoul?”

“The Dalai Lama?”

There was silence from the other end of the line for a moment. Taeyeon crunched her cereal.

“Close enough,” Yuri said at last. “I’ll be back next week! Isn’t that brilliant?”

“It is,” Taeyeon answered, smiling slightly. “But why next week?”

“Oh, I just want to do a few more things before I go,” Yuri said airily. “Anyway, I’ll let you have your breakfast. I’ll email you the details of my glorious return later. Oh hey, how’s your new case going? I almost forgot to ask about it. This is the one you ditched your other cases for, right?”

Taeyeon stopped eating and swallowed. “I didn’t ‘ditch’ my other cases. I finished them and didn’t take on any new ones, that’s all. I’ve been meaning to take a break anyway, so cutting my workload down to one is a good way for me to take it easy.”

“Mhmm. Sooyoung has told me about your crush, so don’t bother trying to pretend it’s just professional.”

Taeyeon pouted. “Whatever.”

Her phone beeped into her ear. She moved it away from her ear to check the screen, and then talked to Yuri again.

“I have another call coming in. Email me later, okay? And don’t do anything too ridiculously stupid.”

“Oh you don’t need to worry about that. All I have planned for today is some BASE jumping. See you next week!”

Taeyeon blinked but didn’t get a chance to answer before Yuri hung up. Her phone beeped again and she switched over to the next call, mind still imagining the act of BASE jumping with a little mental cringe.

“Hello?”

“Hey, super-detective!” It was Sooyoung.

Taeyeon gave up on her cereal, at least for now, and grumbled, “Why is everyone calling me super-detective all of a sudden? I still have a name.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“You and Yuri. Everyone.”

“You talked to Yuri?”

“Yeah, she called me to tell me she’s coming back next week. Anyway what do you want?”

There was a sigh from Sooyoung’s end of the line. “Sometimes your choice of words could be construed as rudeness, but I know you love me. How about we go get some breakfast?”

She eyed her soggy cereal. “Yeah, sure. You’ll pick me up?”

“Be right there.”

When they ended the call, Taeyeon found herself staring at her phone. She tapped to open its photo gallery and went to the dark and blurry picture she had taken last night of her car’s wet windshield. She eyed the smudged lettering, wondering and going through ideas in her head. Really she was just going over the same questions that hadn’t been answered yet; why those words, why that lipstick, what lipstick, why was it familiar, why her, why the shooting – several of which had possible solutions but nothing solid. She had nothing to go on.

Her dream trickled back into her thoughts. That restaurant, that woman, that lipstick. She was certain it was about a time when she had seen that lipstick, and that was why it all seemed so familiar.

She scrunched her eyes shut.

Why was it familiar? What happened that time? Where was she?

A phantom of the pain in her leg returned briefly and she lightly held onto her knee for a moment, eyes still closed. A restaurant where her leg had suddenly been hurt and the woman with that lipstick had said something to her – but her words, they seemed more like something that would be screamed, perhaps. She wasn’t sure where she got that feeling from, but it was strong enough to be considered a lead to the truth.

After a few more moments of pondering the wisps of clues, she looked at her phone again. She exited the gallery and went to her email, scrolling through past messages with no direct focus in mind. Tiffany’s name came up a few times, and she checked out a few of the messages as her thoughts turned to Tiffany.

She went all the way back to a notification email of one of the first messages Tiffany had sent her, the initial contact to request her investigative services. As she gazed at the words, she clicked her tongue. There was something that bugged her, and she knew what it was.

Quickly she went to her room, flipped open the file on the corner of her desk, and ran her finger down the top page. There wasn’t much there.

It was her attempt at a profile on Tiffany Hwang, which she had spent quite a bit of time on during the early hours of the morning, with little result. All her searches revealed little – Tiffany was a journalist at a growing Los Angeles newspaper and also did freelance articles for online media publications. This much Taeyeon already knew from their internet interactions. Other than that, her family was not noteworthy except for some shady dealings with a loan shark by her father to pay for their house; she left little trace elsewhere as she had no online social networking accounts; and neither she nor her family had a known tendency to use aliases – but obviously that didn’t mean that they hadn’t been using them unofficially.

She didn’t want to be suspicious of Tiffany, if not because of the strange fluttering feeling she got in her chest then because the added layer of duplicity would make the case too complicated. She wasn’t in the mood for an overly complicated case. When she said she needed rest, she wasn’t kidding. She just wanted to spend a few weeks playing video games and eating food, with less of the mistrust and dislike that came from complicated cases. She thought this case would be simple enough even with the factor of Daniel Lee, but she knew now that something big was going on and it was going to give her a headache.

She was still deep in thought about it as she showered and pulled on some clothes, and when Sooyoung rang the doorbell she just opened the door and walked back into her room to find socks, without a word.

Sooyoung knew the look. Taeyeon was thinking hard, and usually she would just let her do her thing but this time she wanted to talk.

“Oh hey, I see your phone’s screen survived the fall,” she remarked, gesturing at the device in Taeyeon’s hand.

Taeyeon stared at her, mind still somewhere else for a while until she caught up. “Oh. Yeah. It was a bit weird for a while, the brightness settings seemed to have a life of their own, but it survived.”

“That’s good,” Sooyoung said, checking Taeyeon’s face. “You want to talk about the case right away or shall we get some food first?”

Taeyeon considered for a long, hard moment. “Food. I have too much in my head right now.”

It wasn’t until they were in the car and merging into traffic that Sooyoung dropped the bomb.

“So,” she began, “this may or may not help with the ‘too much’ in your brain, but I think you’ll like or dislike where we’ll be having breakfast.”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. “Please elaborate.”

“Well,” Sooyoung said, drawing the word out. “I called Tiffany this morning to see if she was okay, and we were talking, and she mentioned you were having lunch with her later, so I suggested we all have breakfast together.”

The car was quiet as Taeyeon processed this information.

“And she said yes,” Sooyoung added helpfully.

Taeyeon groaned softly. “It’s too early in the morning for social anxiety.”

“Oh you’ll be fine,” Sooyoung said, waving her hand dismissively. The car swerved slightly and she returned her hand to the steering wheel. “It’s Tiffany. You two got to know each other yesterday, didn’t you? Before the whole shooting thing.”

Taeyeon sighed. “I don’t know. I’m not sure if I know her at all.”

“She’s still a suspect?”

Taeyeon grimaced. “Well the word ‘suspect’ is a bit harsh. I mean, we don’t even know what crime – if any – has been committed. I don’t have any real ‘suspects’ per se. Just persons of interest.”

“So she’s a person of interest? Other than your personal interest in your person of interest, you think she may be involved with this?”

Taeyeon shook her head furiously, still scowling. “That’s just the thing, Sooyoung. I don’t even really know what ‘this’ is anymore. Something is going on but I get the feeling it’s not at all what I thought.”

They reached the hotel before the discussion could continue, and Taeyeon was actually relieved, despite her earlier unease. She was starting to get the hang of the whole ‘socialization’ thing, and it would be a change from running her brain’s engine over-time while she tried to make sense of the puzzle at hand; a puzzle with pieces that didn’t fit, and some of them kept changing shapes. At least breakfast at Tiffany’s hotel would be less strenuous if she didn’t let her suspicions completely take over the situation. She could even use it as an opportunity to get to know Tiffany without the pressures of the case, if she played it right.

“You ready?” asked Sooyoung, giving Taeyeon a look.

Taeyeon rolled her eyes half-heartedly, and smiled ever so slightly. “I’m fine. Let’s just go.”

It was nice to have Sooyoung as her close friend and assistant. They knew each other better than most, and it took a long time to get there. She couldn’t imagine life without her, and she knew Sooyoung would always be someone she could count on and trust.

Taeyeon shook off the new coat of fear and suspicion she had been wearing since this case became weird, and they went into the hotel.

Tiffany was already at a table, perusing the menu, and she greeted them with a bright smile as they sat down.

“Good morning!”

Though she looked at both of them, it was obvious that her gaze lingered on Taeyeon, and Sooyoung did not mind at all.

“Did you sleep well?” Taeyeon asked politely, picking up a menu of her own.

“As well as I could, under the circumstances,” Tiffany replied soberly, and something flashed across her face.

Taeyeon frowned, and stared at Tiffany as Tiffany looked back at the menu with a reserved expression. Was there a hint of something other than what was to be expected, or were Taeyeon’s expectations just inaccurate? She knew she had told herself not to be suspicious during this meeting but there was something about Tiffany’s expression, the lilt in her voice, that glint in her eyes.

Taeyeon shook her head subtly, directing her eyes back to the surface of her menu and drilling her stare through the photograph of Eggs Benedict.  She daydreamed briefly and intensely of an event that involved Tiffany leaping onto the table as their complimentary toast arrived and ripping off her face to reveal the face of her mother, and some evil laughter as she whipped out a laser gun and shot a nearby pot plant.

Taeyeon blinked. She looked at the Eggs Benedict again. It was surely the after-effect of her strange dream. She pointedly ignored her imagination, and tuned back into her surroundings to hear Sooyoung asking Tiffany a question.

“So what happened after your mother left all those years ago?”

Taeyeon cringed inwardly. So much for avoiding the case.

“Like,” Sooyoung continued, “was there some kind of investigation? She left willingly though, right? You’re sure about that?”

Tiffany sighed, not out of annoyance but simply weary. “Yes. There was more than enough evidence that she left of her own will and absolutely no evidence of any alternative. She just packed a suitcase and left.”

Taeyeon looked up. “A suitcase? You didn’t mention this earlier.”

Tiffany blinked. “Oh? Well… is it important?”

Taeyeon frowned.

The waiter arrived, and was hastily waved away by Sooyoung, causing him to turn on his heel and smoothly carry on in another direction.

“Do you know what she packed in her suitcase?” Taeyeon pressed, still frowning.

Tiffany avoided her eyes, fiddling with her menu, and shrugged slightly. “Just clothes and stuff.”

There was a lengthy silence as Taeyeon stared at Tiffany, aghast. It was unthinkable to her that such a piece of information would be left out, overlooked, and considered unimportant. To her, it made an awful lot of difference, and this did nothing to dampen her levels of suspicion.

She had a rough internal struggle between questioning Tiffany further and letting it slide for the sake of getting to know her better, and during that time Sooyoung frantically gestured at the waiter to come back.

“Welcome,” he said warmly, as if he had not been ordered around by an agitated Sooyoung. “May I take your order?”

Taeyeon watched Tiffany’s lips move as she ordered, and at that moment she felt this strong sense; Tiffany was lying, and acting suspiciously, and the whole case was weird and difficult and soon to be horrible – but Tiffany was incredibly, infallibly attractive.

She quietly slapped her own face with her menu, just in time for the waiter to turn to her.

“Eggs benedict,” she rattled off, acting as if she did not just do that, and flapped the menu for him to take.

He smiled and bowed and went away.

A pause of slight awkwardness followed, and Sooyoung readily got up and excused herself to go to the bathroom.

Taeyeon and Tiffany were left alone.

The restaurant around them was half-full, and its patrons were sedate in the early morning. Between the clinking of cutlery on crockery, there was soft conversation and half-enthused laughter.

Taeyeon took the time to look around, thinking back to her dream. She squinted at the lights above and the tables around them, trying to imagine everything to be too bright and hard to see. She thought again of the pain in her leg and gently tapped her knee as she surveyed the place. It would seem to be a most memorable memory, or so she would think, because it was not often that she wandered into restaurants and got shot in the leg.

She stilled. Shot? That hadn’t been in the dream. All she’d felt was a sudden, inexplicable pain in her leg, followed by the appearance of the woman with the lipstick. It must have been another instinct, like her feeling that the woman had been screaming.

“Um, Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon turned her head to face Tiffany, and became slowly aware that she was still squinting, and her fingers were perched on her knee, and her body was tensely frozen. Immediately she relaxed and tried to look as normal as she possibly could, which wasn’t as much as most people but was pretty usual for her.

She cleared her throat. “Sorry, did you say something?”

Tiffany was smiling slightly, amused. At first Taeyeon only noticed the precise curve of her voluptuous mouth, the lines of her face, the way her eyelashes slightly brushed against her cheek as she blinked – then she took in what Tiffany was saying and managed to avoid getting caught staring at her. Despite everything, she found Tiffany to still be strangely magnetic and irresistible.

“I was asking what your plan is,” Tiffany was saying. “After everything that happened yesterday… what’s the next step?”

Taeyeon sighed. The case was unavoidable after all. “I guess I just keep investigating. I have some new leads. I just have to keep looking for answers everywhere.”

She looked at Tiffany.

“Anyone could be holding the answers I need.”

At that moment, Sooyoung returned, and bustled as she settled down again. “Hey, where’s our complimentary toast? I was looking forward to that.”

Taeyeon was a little frustrated, because so far that morning she had switched from case-mode to casual and back again, only to have to switch back to casual once again when she was only just getting into case-mode. Her life was giving her whiplash. She momentarily regretted upgrading her casual mode by trying to improve her social habits.

“I have no idea,” Tiffany answered, and there was a slight edge to her voice that made Taeyeon’s head spin a little.

Was that a hint of coldness?

Perhaps Tiffany was also disappointed by Sooyoung’s interruption.

Taeyeon blinked, half-smiled, and then blinked again.

Maybe it was Tiffany who was giving her whiplash.

They passed the meal with small-talk about Seoul and Los Angeles, tourist attractions and differences, and by the time they reached chatting about the weather, their bill arrived.

“Taeyeon insists on paying,” said Sooyoung instantly, handing over the bill to the person in question. “She has this thing about paying for things.”

Taeyeon stared at her. They both knew full well that Taeyeon’s ‘thing’ about paying for things was that she didn’t like to pay for things. But they also both knew that Tiffany was there and Sooyoung was getting plenty of enjoyment from exploiting that fact.

Tiffany, theoretically clueless unless she was hiding something else along with all her other suspicious activities, gave Taeyeon a dazzling smile and that was the end of it.

The weather was much as they had discussed, moderately sunny but not too warm, nor too cold. Sooyoung called it perfect walking weather and that was how Taeyeon knew what was about to happen.

“Well, thank you for the lovely meal,” started Sooyoung. “I must be off. Hey Taeyeon, why don’t you show Tiffany around? This weather is lovely for walking; you could give her a tour of the shopping district?”

“Oh that would be lovely,” Tiffany contributed, eyes curving as she whipped out a smile. “I’m hoping to do some shopping while I’m here; maybe you could show me some of the good places?”

Taeyeon’s eye twitched slightly as she carved out a smile, but she smiled nonetheless and stored away her homicidal feelings towards Sooyoung in the same place where she also buried her nervousness.

“Sure,” she said. “Shopping. Great.”

Taeyeon did not like shopping. She barely liked leaving the house most of the time, but she knew this was part of what she wanted to experiment with – the thing about shopping with friends and stuff – so she took a deep breath to psyche herself up, and she led Tiffany to the nearest shopping centre. She was sure she only imagined Sooyoung’s cackling as she left them to it.

“This is a place,” Taeyeon said as they stepped through the sliding glass doors and were hit with the sight of glittering shops. “It’s a shopping place.”

Tiffany giggled lightly, breathily, gazing around at the clothes in windows and accessories on stands. She almost didn’t seem to realise she was doing it, already engrossed by the mere potential that was laid out before her. She could spend hours here, and Taeyeon felt already that it was very likely that she would.

She bit back her groan and allowed herself to admire the way Tiffany tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. Her hands were fascinating. And Taeyeon could tell she was going to fall for Tiffany, hard.

She bit her bottom lip, watched as Tiffany brushed her fingers over a dress, and said, “Let’s forget about the case for a while.”

Tiffany looked at her, carefully expressionless for the time being. “What?”

Taeyeon swallowed. “Let’s forget about the case,” she repeated. “Just for now. For now, let’s just be two friends exploring the shopping district. I’ll be the more awkward one. You can be the one who likes shopping. For the next short while, we are not detective and client.”

Tiffany didn’t react as Taeyeon expected. She didn’t smile and agree right away, she took a moment to search Taeyeon’s eyes with her own, parting her lips without a word. This unexpected reaction made Taeyeon falter slightly, her own smile fading a little, and she felt as if she was being pulled closer, brought in by this unpredicted expression on this unpredictable woman’s unbelievably compelling face.

Then Tiffany smiled.

Taeyeon no longer felt as if she was going to fall for Tiffany. She got the unavoidable feeling that she was already falling.

Tiffany’s smile was no longer just charming. It was downright dangerous.

Love is so bad. (Part 2)

Taeyeon, Tiffany

 

“We found traces of narcotics in your blood, Ms Kim.”

Taeyeon’s eyelids fluttered, and she felt woozy. She turned her head to the side, considered vomiting, and turned back to look at the doctor standing next to her bed.

“It’s quite amazing that you survived your little escapade,” commented the doctor dryly. “And I would advise against doing it again. Now, you must stay here for three days and three nights, Ms Kim. And we are legally obligated to arrange for a psychiatric consultation.”

Life had not really taken off again after that night at Tiffany’s. She waited to die in the morning, still without sleep, and the clock ticked from 6am to 12pm with no end in sight. She showed up to work, didn’t speak a single word, and got fired partly because of her attitude and partly because she turned up in a sweatshirt with messy hair and bare feet and it showed on her face how much she wanted to be dead. Something stirred in her heart when it was finalized; she was almost pleased to be rid of it. No more job. She didn’t have to go to work. Well, that was just fine, she thought. Now she really had no reason to get out of bed, no obligation to attempt a normal life.

“Is there anyone you can contact to keep you company for a while?” the doctor asked.

Sunny was insulted at first, when she heard Taeyeon’s conviction about life, and didn’t talk to her for a few days because she considered her friendship enough of a reason to stay alive. Then she showed up at Taeyeon’s apartment with a box full of cleaning products because she knew the place would be a mess, and she made it spotless and dragged Taeyeon out of bed so forcefully Taeyeon’s shoulder must have been close to dislocation. Good old Sunny, Taeyeon thought, precious little Sunny who actually thought there was a way out of it.

“Yeah, sure,” Taeyeon croaked, not meeting the doctor’s eyes. She was done with the conversation. She wanted to close her eyes and spend some time in her darkness.

The doctor waited. When she made no move other than to gaze at the ceiling, he leaned forward on the balls of his feet and said, “Now, Ms Kim?”

“What?” Taeyeon muttered.

“Is there someone you can contact now, Ms Kim?”

Taeyeon frowned. She swallowed the saliva that was building up in her mouth. “Why now? Can’t I just sleep?”

“I would recommend contacting someone before you sleep, Ms Kim. So that your loved ones don’t worry.”

A scoff grew in Taeyeon’s chest and scraped through her lungs and she wheezed with laughter. “Sure. Yeah. Sure.”

The doctor watched her for a moment. “Well,” he said eventually, “your cellphone is just over there.” He pointed at the small bedside table.

Taeyeon hummed in acknowledgement. They both looked at the cellphone for a while, before the doctor glanced at her again. She wasn’t moving. If it wasn’t for the slow, gentle rise and fall of her chest he would be concerned.

“Would you like me to hand it to y–”

“No,” Taeyeon interrupted. She grimaced at him. “Just leave.”

The doctor blinked. He rocked back on his heels and blinked again. “Uh. Okay then. You make sure to rest, Ms Kim. And don’t try to escape. It won’t go well. If you need anything – medical – press the buzzer next to you. The psychiatrist will come visit you when she has time.”

She grimaced again. He looked affronted and left, closing the door behind him.

“Now, Ms Kim,” she mocked, raising the pitch of her voice to one much higher than the doctor’s. “It’s quite amazing that you survived. I would advise against doing it again.”

She beamed at the ceiling.

“Ha.”

Her fingers fumbled with cold plastic as she turned on her cellphone. Twelve missed calls, twenty text messages with forty-two curses.

“Close my eyes and dream about a Sunny holiday,” she giggled, and swiped the screen.

The beeping of the machine that measured her heart was not in time with the ringing in her ear as she waited for Sunny to answer her phone, and at first it was fascinating and then it was incredibly irritating, and when the phone clicked and Sunny’s voice said, “Taeyeon?” she was filled with anger.

“Sunny I can’t stay here,” she said, brow crumpled in a tight frown. “But they won’t let me go.”

“Where are you?”

Sunny sounded tired. Everyone always did when they were dealing with Taeyeon. She noticed it. She thought about it sometimes, when she was examining the spaces between her knuckles at three in the morning with the light of an orange streetlamp to show her the bruises, and she realised that it hurt and yet she didn’t care.

“Hospital,” she said shortly. And she hung up. She switched off her phone again and reached over the side of the bed, let the device dangle from her fingertips, and dropped it.

The day would come when Sunny wouldn’t heave a weary sigh and start calling hospitals, trying to find her. She was sure of it. As she closed her eyes, she thought for a moment that she was looking forward to the day Sunny would stop caring about her, and then she found it strange to be looking forward to anything at all. She slept.

That Summer Day
They met, half-nervous but trying to be friendly, palms a little sweaty in the heat of the afternoon, and Tiffany smiled. It wasn’t just a smile. It was Tiffany.

“Hi, I’m Tiffany!” said Tiffany, and their hands squeezed together and slipped apart.

“Oh, are you?” Taeyeon replied, because she wanted to hear Tiffany say more. Then she coughed. “I mean, hi, I’m Taeyeon.”

Tiffany giggled, just a little, and then tilted her head to one side curiously. “Have I met you before? You look kind of familiar.”

Taeyeon echoed the tilt, frowning slightly. “I don’t think so.”

Tiffany pondered for a moment, looking deep in thought, and then she snapped her fingers and her face brightened again. “Oh, that’s right,” she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, “it must be because you’re the girl of my dreams.”

Taeyeon nearly choked on air. She made a noise of confusion and blinked at Tiffany’s expression. “Huh?”

Tiffany laughed, so warm and happy that Taeyeon couldn’t help but smile through her surprise. She had never met someone so forward, and bright, and just generally beaming with personality – she didn’t even really notice when the summer party around them faded to a distant blur in the background as she watched Tiffany.

And that was it. That was the moment. It was the first time she felt like Tiffany was… it.

Three days and three nights in the hospital.

It had taken Taeyeon three days of excruciating self-pity before she decided to call Tiffany. Three days of lying around, rolling around, throwing herself around as if she was on a cliff, and then she took hold of her cellphone, ignored the notifications that were waiting for her, and dialled Tiffany’s number. By hand, not by going to her name in the contacts list and initiating the call with a single tap. She slowly, carefully, diligently tapped out each digit. She double-checked it even though she knew it was right. This was the phone number she had made an effort to learn after their second month of dating, when she knew Tiffany was by far The One and she would need to know her number off by heart in case she got kidnapped or something. Modern technology made it so easy to swipe, touch, and listen. She wanted to feel the numbers.

Tiffany didn’t answer. Taeyeon comforted herself, assured herself that Tiffany was busy, or her phone was dead, or she left it somewhere. When she called again later, that voice of reassurance was combated by another voice that pointed out that Tiffany was attached to her phone like another limb and she never let it die and she always answered it. By the third time she called, a little less later, the other voice was bit louder and her comfort diminished rapidly.

And that was how it began. She didn’t want to listen to the voice telling her that Tiffany didn’t want to talk to her, so she listened to the dial tone, the ringing, the beeping. Incessantly. She wanted Tiffany to answer and until she did, she would rather listen to the sounds of an ignored call than her own thoughts.

When Taeyeon woke up in her hospital room, she reached for her phone again, leaning down from the bed until she was barely even on it, and she returned her head to her pillow with the phone in her hand and a lot of dizziness in her brain.

She typed out those numbers. Then she stared at them, erased them, and tapped them each individually with particular care.

The familiar sound of ringing relaxed her. Tiffany would answer, and everything would be okay.

When she didn’t, Taeyeon curled up into a little ball and closed her eyes again.

That Date
Taeyeon was starting to anticipate Tiffany. It was different from the nervousness of their first meeting or the anxiousness of their first date, or the tentative excitement of the second, third, fourth. It was the kind of feeling where she was pretty much over-the-moon happy to be seeing Tiffany and her heart was racing because she was getting that feeling like this could really be a big thing. This could be that thing that people sometimes dreamed about and sometimes managed to find, that thing that gave so much unbelievable happiness that she actually didn’t believe in it, not really. Until now. Until Tiffany. Now she was getting that feeling like things were picking up, and she was taking off on a really great journey.

“Don’t get too hopeful,” she muttered, reminding herself, as she parked her car and turned off its engine. “Just take it easy. No need to get too ahead of yourself. It might not work out.” She gave herself a stern look in the rear-view mirror. “You’d better not fall head over heels for this girl, because you know it’s not going to be perfect. It might even get horrible after a while. Maybe she’ll try to kill you tonight or something, she could be a psychopath.” She frowned. “Okay, no need to go too far in that direction either.”

She got out, locked the car, straightened her clothes as if her hands were irons and despite the fact that they were not in need of ironing, and then she took a deep breath as she turned to face the building in front of her.

Tiffany’s house. It would be their first house-date, her first glimpse of Tiffany’s home, and her first taste of Tiffany’s cooking. She wasn’t sure how much Tiffany was joking when she said she was a bad cook, which was why she had just hesitantly laughed along, but soon she would find out.

When Tiffany opened the door, she was flustered and hot – in more ways than one – and her face changed from a stressed frown to a beaming, welcome smile at the sight of Taeyeon.

Taeyeon felt her heart falter. That single look at Tiffany was a lot. It told her much about Tiffany, solidified what she had inferred, and sent her soaring. She would eat the food later no matter how it tasted, she would like the atmosphere of the house no matter how adorably unkempt it was, and she would kiss Tiffany with more love than she had allowed herself before.

“Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon stirred, waking properly, opening her eyes. She inhaled, and looked beside her.

Sunny didn’t look happy to see her. She just looked tired, and generally emotionless. It scared Taeyeon a little as she realised that perhaps she really had pushed Sunny too far at last, but quickly she reminded herself that it was what she wanted. Wasn’t it?

“Drugs, Taeyeon?” Sunny said in a small voice. “Really?”

Taeyeon watched her for a moment before she shrugged and looked away indifferently.

“Where did you even get it?” Sunny pressed, her voice getting stronger at Taeyeon’s reaction. “They said it’s serious stuff. Who -”

“It just happened,” Taeyeon interrupted. She offered no further explanation.

There was a long silence before Sunny sighed. Taeyeon kept her gaze averted. There was a rustle of Sunny’s jacket as she ran a hand through her hair and tried to keep her temper and sadness in check. Then she stuck her hands in her pockets and gave Taeyeon a burning look.

“Well, you’re staying,” she said.

Taeyeon looked at her.

“I’m not going to bust you out of here,” Sunny said, tired and angry. “You’re staying, and you’re going to get the treatment you need. The depression was expected, but I thought you’d move on. The obsession over Tiffany… well I thought I could help you get out of that. But this? Drugs? I don’t see you for days, hear anything from you, can’t find you, and then you show up at a hospital because you got wasted and – what? Tried to beat someone up? Smashed a store window? I don’t even know what you’ve been up to.”

Taeyeon’s jaw tensed. She had no answer. She didn’t know either.

Sunny stepped closer, and rested a hand on Taeyeon’s shoulder. Slowly, her expression softened. There was an edge of pity, laces of regret, sadness, worry.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I wanted to help you. I can’t. You need something else. Please, stay here. Get better.”

“You say that like this is all my fault,” Taeyeon replied, her speech biting. “It’s not. I’m not doing this. I didn’t do this to myself.”

Sunny closed her eyes briefly, holding her mouth shut. It wasn’t the first time they’d been through this. Her hold on Taeyeon tightened, and then she let go and stepped back, opening her eyes again.

“I know, Taeyeon. It’s Tiffany’s fault, isn’t it? She did this to you. Well… get better. I’ll come visit you tomorrow. Please be here.”

She turned and left before Taeyeon could find a way to keep her there.

The loneliness set in hard in the silence that followed. She stared at the ceiling. She listened to her own breathing, unimpeded by another person’s life.  She felt her heartbeat in her own body, no one else’s.

“Tiffany did this to me,” she whispered to herself, assuring herself, convincing herself. “Because love did this to me.”

________________________________________________________________________________________

Yes. (3; Lipstick)

3; Lipstick

 

“At first glance, appearances suggest that someone tried to kill me, or Tiffany, or both of us.”

The chemical stung Taeyeon’s cheek as it was administered and she winced, momentarily pulled from her train of thought and instinctively moving her head back. The nurse had little sympathy and it showed in her expression as she took hold of Taeyeon’s chin with one hand to keep her face still.

For the past several minutes, Taeyeon had been talking. Based on what she could remember of the moment of attack, she analysed the angle of the bullet’s trajectory, the sonic delay of the gunshot, the shatter-pattern of the glass and subsequently the calibre of the ammunition. She had moved on to possible motives, but after being derailed, her mind jumped onto the question of who exactly pulled the trigger.

“Red lipstick,” she mumbled, distracted enough to hold still while the nurse cleaned the laceration on her cheek. She gazed off into the distance even though she couldn’t see anything without her glasses, but the softness of the vague blurry shapes lulled her into the depths of her thoughts. “The use of lipstick is associated with a female, but of course a male assassin could have used it to influence my profiling. But why write that message? And why do it on the windshield of my car? I wonder if a handwriting analysis would be fruitful, and maybe even establishing the shade and brand of the lipstick could lead somewhere.”

The nurse rolled her eyes. During the time that Taeyeon had been rambling through possibilities, the nurse grew tired of it pretty quickly.

There was a rustling of paper as a doctor entered, flipping through pages on the clipboard in her hand. She came to a stop right beside them, and proceeded to ignore them as she read. The nurse finished cleaning Taeyeon’s wound just as the doctor finally turned to face them.

“Thank you, Nurse Park,” she said with a tight smile. “You can finish later. There are a few things I need to discuss with Ms Kim.”

The nurse barely hid her discontent as she strode away. The doctor gave a different smile to Taeyeon, more furtive.

“Well, Ms Kim… or do you prefer to be called Detective? Your reputation precedes you at this hospital, you see.”

Taeyeon blinked, eyeing her warily. “Okay.”

“Although I’ve heard of you from someone else,” the doctor said. She glanced around cautiously. “A friend of mine.”

Taeyeon leaned forward slightly. “Okay?”

“A friend of mine,” the doctor repeated, “who was born on a particular date.”

Taeyeon waited, but details were not forthcoming. “Fascinating,” she said.

She reached for her glasses and slipped them on, and then she glanced at the nametag on the doctor’s coat. Seo Juhyun. The name was unfamiliar, and she was unaware of the chances that an acquaintance or past client of hers could have a friend by that name. And so what if her friend was born on a particular date? The majority of the planet’s population were in a similar situation. Taeyeon checked the time on her watch. She wanted to meet up with Sooyoung to discuss her analysis.

“A day in nineteen-eighty-nine,” the doctor continued. “On the fifteenth of May.”

Taeyeon nodded, accepting the information. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

Taeyeon looked at the doctor. “O-kay,” she said again, slowly. “It’s okay that your friend was born on the fifteenth of May in nineteen-eighty-nine. Good for them. It’s a perfectly solid date to be born on.”

The doctor sighed. She closed her eyes for a moment and rubbed her temples. “Okay, let me try something else. This friend of mine often uses her birthdate as part of her username in online activities.”

Something clicked. “Ah,” said Taeyeon, eyes wide. “Ah, 890515. You’re friends with my informant? You shouldn’t be talking to me. Shoo! Go away!”

The doctor blinked in surprise. “Excuse me?”

“I must not know anything about my online informants! Even just knowing that Info890515 is friends with a young hospital doctor by the name of Seo Juhyun already alters the connection between us and my perception of all contact with that informant. Shoo,” Taeyeon insisted. “Go do medical stuff, leave me alone.”

The doctor looked slightly insulted. “Won’t you listen to what I have to say?”

Taeyeon immediately closed her eyes and slapped her hands over her ears. “No! Absolutely not. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? I may have to sever all connections with Info890515. I know too much!”

“Oh yeah? What do you even know? You’ve barely given me a chance to talk!”

Unfortunately for Taeyeon, the palms of her hands did not provide the best coverage and she could still make out what the doctor was saying, even if it was so muffled she might as well have been underwater. She frowned, contemplating her options, and decided that this doctor was so determined that the only way Taeyeon could escape was by jumping out of the window, and that was rarely a preferred solution to anything.

So she sighed and opened her eyes and let her hands rest in her lap. She gave the doctor a weary look.

“Okay, well, first of all,” she began, “I already know that you have a small dog at home – one of five possible breeds – you played piano since you were young but you haven’t had much time for it since you joined medical school several years ago. You’re still studying, and this time of year you should be on break but you took some part-time work at the hospital because you sincerely want to be the best possible medical professional you can be. You went for a short jog this morning through a wooded area near water, probably along a trail by the river. Whatever you want to say that is related to Info890515 is clearly very urgent and important, in your opinion, so much so that you just told me that my informant has been openly talking about their connection to me despite the dangers it could involve.”

The doctor looked down and fiddled with her clipboard.

Taeyeon wiped absently at the wound on her cheek, checking to see if it was bleeding too much again. Then she reached over and gave the doctor a light pat on her shoulder with her other hand.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Just tell me everything.”

“Tell me how you knew that stuff first,” the doctor replied, frowning at her. “I want to understand.”

Taeyeon sighed. “Of course you do. Well, you have several dog-hairs on your person, not just on your clothes and shoes but a couple in your hair, suggesting you like to snuggle your dog. The type of hair is from certain breeds of small dog, but without close-up analysis I’ve no idea which one it is. The musculature in your hands and the way you move your fingers when interacting with objects such as the papers on your clipboard show habits and fluency developed from a lifetime of playing piano, but your fingers don’t seem quite fast enough anymore so I would guess you haven’t played in several years, probably coinciding with medical school because that’s sure to keep you busy. Your jog -”

“Okay, never mind,” the doctor interrupted. “Wow, you’re really like that.”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “Yes. So? What did you want to say?”

The doctor glanced around again before answering. “Call me Seohyun. My friend… Info890515 is like family to me. I don’t want to see my friend get hurt. When I heard the nurses talking about you and what happened, I knew I needed to talk to you.”

“Is what happened to me related to the possibility that Info890515 could be hurt?”

“I think so,” Seohyun said sombrely. “I heard them saying that there was a message left for you on your windshield, in red lipstick. S-My friend, Info890515, found a message on their car’s windshield a few days ago, also in red lipstick.”

“A few days ago,” Taeyeon mumbled, thoughts whirring. “What did it say?”

“Shut your mouth,” Seohyun answered. “I mean it said, ‘Shut your mouth’.”

Taeyeon nodded in acknowledgement. “Did you or Info890515 take a picture of it?”

“I didn’t, but she – Info890515 might have,” Seohyun said, and saw the wince on Taeyeon’s face as more information about her informant was revealed. “Sorry. But you have to help my friend. I don’t want her to get hurt by this lunatic.”

Taeyeon clicked her tongue. “It’s okay. What you have just told me makes it clear that Info890515 is no longer a reliable source. She’s been compromised, so it doesn’t matter that I know that she’s female. In fact, I need to know more about her, and about this incident. There’s a chance that those words were left on her windshield right after she told me where Daniel Lee would be next week.”

“Will she be safe?” Seohyun asked, concern clear on her face, worry tensing her jaw.

Taeyeon considered how to answer. Severing all contact with Info890515 would probably be safer than what she was planning to do, but she needed to talk to Info890515 and find out more about the incident and what connection there could be to their mysterious shooter. So she took a deep breath, let out a heavy sigh, and said, “I don’t know. Probably.”

Seohyun didn’t seem particularly satisfied with that answer, but before she could say anything, the nurse returned and went straight to Taeyeon.

She removed Taeyeon’s glasses and gave her a stern glare. Taeyeon flinched and looked at Seohyun one last time while the nurse gathered her tools.

“Thank you for your advice, doctor,” she said. “Perhaps if you leave me your number, I can contact you with any questions.”

Seohyun nodded and scribbled her phone number on the corner of a piece of paper which she tore off and slipped into Taeyeon’s hand while the nurse started stitching Taeyeon’s wound.

When Seohyun left, Taeyeon watched the nurse out of the corner of her eye and found she had nothing to say out loud anymore. Being reminded of how easily people are connected, she realised for the first time that talking about her analyses in public was a foolish thing to do. Anyone could hear her, and anyone could be connected to someone who shouldn’t know what she was thinking. Nurse Park seemed like a typical, serious, matronly sort of nurse, entirely focused on her work and disapproving of interruptions, but there was always a chance she was storing information to pass on later.

Taeyeon made a mental note to regret her mistake later, focusing now on running through the facts in her head. She needed to inspect the crime scene, or at least get her hands on a police report, but she knew there was very little chance of that happening. What little she could remember of the incident would not be particularly reliable evidence at all. Merely recalling where on the window the bullet had hit was not the surest way to accurately identify angles and patterns. Where did the bullet land? How far did it go? Was there any residue of gunfire nearby?

“It’s okay, nurse, I’ll take her off your hands.”

Taeyeon blinked, bringing her mind back to the hospital room. Sooyoung stood before her, smiling at the nurse.

“I know she can be a bit of a nuisance,” said Sooyoung sympathetically. “Thank you for your diligence.”

The nurse seemed mollified by the attention and strode out of the room slightly lighter than before.

Taeyeon reached a hand up to her cheek and ran her fingers over the tiny rugged line on her skin. The stitching was complete, and it wasn’t an ideal location for a plaster. Everything smelled strongly of medical disinfectant.

“Hey. How are you feeling?”

She smiled. “All systems operating.”

Sooyoung rolled her eyes. “Oh, so you can make android jokes but I can’t. I see how it is. Want me to pass you your glasses, four-eyes?”

“Yes, please.”

The clearing of her vision was met with a smile from Sooyoung, and for a moment Taeyeon wasn’t thinking of the case or the attack. She felt relaxed at last, and safe. Sooyoung was one of her closest friends, almost like family, and she could understand why Seohyun had been so intent on talking to her about Info890515. Taeyeon dismissed it for now, making a note to discuss it with Sooyoung later.

“How’s Tiffany?” she asked, standing up and readjusting her glasses. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she’s fine,” Sooyoung answered, and led them down the hallway. “They stitched up her shoulder without problem. She’s waiting for us in reception. Are you ready to go?”

Taeyeon checked her pockets for her phone and keys. “I think so. Let’s drop Tiffany off at her hotel and go have a chat at my place, okay? There are things we need to talk about.”

“Things you don’t want Tiffany to hear?”

Sooyoung hadn’t always been astute about Taeyeon’s way of thinking. It probably came from years of being confused by her habits and getting totally lost during conversations, but she developed some way of following Taeyeon’s train of thought almost on track. So she knew that when Taeyeon wanted to talk about something without a certain person around, there was a good reason.

Taeyeon just nodded. “Let’s go.”

Tiffany looked deep in thought, staring at the gleaming, polished floor at her feet and chewing absently on her thumbnail. The action made Taeyeon grimace briefly; she couldn’t understand how people did that. She tried biting her own thumbnail once to see how it felt, and the combination of textures made her feel momentarily sick. Nevertheless, she knew people only did it when they were so lost within their mind that they didn’t notice, so she shook it off and tapped Tiffany on the shoulder.

“Hey there,” she said, smiling slightly, meeting Tiffany’s eyes. “Ready to get out of here?”

Tiffany jumped up. “Yeah, sure. How are you? Are you okay?”

There was a snicker from beside them as Sooyoung hid her mouth behind her hand, and Taeyeon shifted awkwardly.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Let’s go. I’ll drop you off at your hotel, I’m sure you could use some rest after this whole ordeal.”

Tiffany blinked, and frowned slowly, but didn’t express the doubts and concerns she clearly had. Instead, she simply said, “Okay,” and followed them outside.

Taeyeon’s car was in the parking lot, with the writing still on the windshield, and the engine still hot because she sped away from that crime scene much faster than was technically legal. She didn’t want the police to get a hold of her car and claim it as evidence. The minute they got their grubby paws on it, the whole investigation would be a bust. But she still needed access to the crime scene somehow, and it would be difficult. And how long would it be before the cops found out she was there?

“I’ll take my car,” Sooyoung said, turning away from them. “See you later.”

In the past, Taeyeon had asked Yuri to break into the police station or con a cop into giving her the files, but now she was in America with no sign of coming back any time soon, and that left Taeyeon with decidedly fewer options. She couldn’t ask Sooyoung – her assistant with a clean record – to get information, and she was hesitant to contact any of her informants after the revelation that Info890515 was somehow accessed by someone who seemingly wanted to kill one or more people.

She sighed. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tiffany glance at her with concern, but neither of them said anything as she drove down the bright streets. It was nearing the middle of the night, and streetlamps, shop-signs, and billboards were lit up so strongly it might as well have been day time.

The smudges of lipstick on the windshield were a slight impediment on her vision as she drove, but she stuck to the streets she knew would not be heavily populated, and the constant reminder of the message left thoughts trickling into her head. The use of the word ‘gorgeous’ was particularly jarring, calling her attention to all the times when she thought of Tiffany as gorgeous, and she tentatively blew off the possibility that the attacker somehow knew of her thoughts. Perhaps this person also thought Tiffany was gorgeous. It wasn’t impossible. But how likely was it that they would leave a message with that exact word? Or perhaps she was being a little too crazy.

“Taeyeon,” said an uncertain voice from beside her.

She blinked and glanced briefly in Tiffany’s direction. “Yes?”

“Is something wrong? I mean, other than the fact that we just got shot at. You seem worried about something.”

“I’m just thinking about everything,” said Taeyeon, keeping her eyes on the road as she made a turn.

Tiffany waited a moment before saying, “And you don’t want to talk about it?”

“Not yet.”

If Tiffany was hurt by the curt response and the silence that ensued, she didn’t mention it. Taeyeon was well aware of the possibility that she had been too rude, however, so she reached over and lightly patted Tiffany’s hand which was resting on her lap. The awkwardness that followed was expected.

They reached Tiffany’s hotel. Taeyeon tried to get Tiffany’s suitcase out of the boot of her car only to find that its dimensions suddenly defied physics and the thing would not get out no matter how factually it went in. After several long minutes of struggling with it, a scruffy and still-yawning porter trudged out of the hotel and whipped the suitcase out with practised ease. Taeyeon rolled her eyes and they followed him inside.

When Tiffany was all checked in, they faced each other in the lobby and wouldn’t lock gazes. Taeyeon felt bad about hiding her thoughts from Tiffany, even though she knew there was no obligation to share her mind with someone she just met despite their moments of bonding earlier. The change in behaviour clearly made Tiffany uncomfortable, and that made Taeyeon feel bad too. The way she acted before the attack was much more open, but now things changed and Taeyeon really, really needed to talk to Sooyoung about the attack.

“Well, sorry your first day here was such a mess,” Taeyeon said, offering a feeble smile. “I hope you can get a good night’s rest.”

“Can we have lunch tomorrow? I know you need time to think about the whole event and probably do some private-investigator-y things, but I’d like to talk more with you about my mother’s case. As soon as possible,” Tiffany said, her eyes serious and mouth in a firm line. She wasn’t letting Taeyeon shut her out.

Because being shut out made her feel vulnerable.

Taeyeon cocked her head to one side as she regarded the woman before her. Tiffany was tired from her long flight, worn-out from the stress of what happened earlier, and now she was worried and a little scared because Taeyeon was obviously trying to exclude her from something. Taeyeon sighed. She had no choice.

“Of course,” she said. She gave another tiny, brief smile and hoped it was partly comforting so that Tiffany believed her. “I’ll meet you here tomorrow? At noon, perhaps?”

Tiffany nodded, and grinned warmly for the first time since the attack. “Okay. See you tomorrow, Taeyeon. And thank you.”

Taeyeon watched her go up to her room, thinking again. She had a lot to think about. And a sizeable chunk of what she needed to think about suddenly involved Tiffany Hwang.

On the way to her apartment, she ran over what she knew of Tiffany, constructing a draft of a profile in her head. She regretted not doing a full background check before Tiffany got here. Feelings got in the way. And now she found she did not know much about Tiffany at all, and that bothered her quite a lot.

The blurred lines of the lipstick on her windshield caught her eye and she looked at it, traveling over the edges for a while.

Then she noticed why the lines were getting blurrier and blurrier.

She shoved her foot down on the brake, causing the car to come to a screeching halt and slide a little as it failed to gain enough friction on the road – the road that was steadily becoming wetter from the pouring, fat drops of rain.

The door of her car creaked with protest as she rapidly pushed it open, and she almost fell over herself from even one step forward to look at the windshield. She slammed her palms on the hood of the car and her fingers slid through the water.

The words were disappearing, softening with the rain and slowly washing away.

Taeyeon gaped as one of her key pieces of evidence started to eradicate, and then she cursed. She reached out and touched one of the smudges, the lipstick blanketing her finger faster in its liquid state. While this reaction to rain suggested a few things about the quality of the lipstick and how much force had been applied when the writer used it, these were meagre comforts.

She had to take a picture while she still could, even though it would only be half as useful as it would have been when the lipstick was dry.

She fumbled with her phone, cursing the touch screen that was hard to use when it was wet, and she tried to take a picture, cursing her glasses for becoming ineffective under the onslaught of the rain. After several blurry, dark shots, she almost dropped her phone and decided to go home as fast as she could.

Sooyoung was waiting for her when she banged through the front door. She watched with interest as Taeyeon furiously dried her phone screen with a tea towel from the kitchen, and she waited until Taeyeon was furiously drying her glasses before she spoke.

“You seem upset.”

Taeyeon glared at her. “Really.”

Sooyoung looked thoughtfully at the ceiling, tapping her chin with her forefinger, and then she said, “Perhaps it has something to do with the rain outside?”

Taeyeon sighed, still frowning. “Astute.”

“Well, that means it’s not something to do with Tiffany, which leaves Cupid with some hope.”

“Whatever,” Taeyeon said, her anger dissipating in the face of Sooyoung’s casual nature.

There was a clatter as she threw herself down on the couch, and she stared in horror at the cracked screen of her phone as it lay a short distance from her. It seemed the task of holding everything within the capacity of two adult-sized hands was thwarted by her clammy fingers. It was an unlucky night, and she told herself that like a relaxing mantra as she closed her eyes and took deep breaths.

Sooyoung joined her on the couch, and handed her a bowl of ice cream.

“Let’s talk,” she suggested. “I think that would be the best thing to do right now.”

Taeyeon nodded, and ate some ice cream as her brain switched over to all the things she needed to discuss. Then she started talking.

“Okay, so I’ll start with the attack. The shooter was clearly aiming between us, with the bullet not coming anywhere near enough to either of us to be a real risk. They waited until we were about to leave, perhaps to give us a chance to reach a certain point in the conversation. Someone in that place must have been in contact with them. I would guess they shot from the other side of the carpark, but I’m no longer sure how long the sonic delay was or exactly what it sounded like, because the shattering of the window was loud and dominates my memory. We need the police reports.”

She took in some more ice cream, pondering her next point.

“I met a doctor today, Seo Juhyun, who is friends with Info890515. She said Info890515 also received a threat in red lipstick on her car windshield recently. The message… it really baffles me. Why those words? Why that lipstick? Who are they talking to? The lipstick…”

Her spoon dropped into the bowl and she suddenly stared at the tip of her forefinger.

“That lipstick… don’t you think it was familiar?”

Sooyoung frowned. “What?”

Taeyeon looked at her, finger still raised, and copied her frown. “I’ve seen it before.”

“Where?”

Taeyeon’s gaze slipped away, deep in thought. “I’m not sure. But I know…”

She didn’t speak again for a long time, the sound of the rain beating against the windows muffled by the thick curtains. Sooyoung started to eat her ice cream again, waiting for Taeyeon to finish thinking.

“I know…” Taeyeon started again. “I know I need to find out more. I need to find out so much more. I need police reports, background information on Tiffany Hwang and Seo Juhyun, and I need to talk to Info890515. There has to be a connection. I need to find it. I have to construct timelines – where everyone was at every moment of the past couple of months. I need to look at Tiffany as – as a suspect, until I know more about her. Everyone is a suspect.”

Sooyoung kept her eyes on Taeyeon as she licked off her spoon, and didn’t say anything.

Taeyeon didn’t notice her quietness, her brow furrowed as she tried to visualize all the facts and hypotheses. She jumped up, dumping her bowl on the table, and disappeared into her room.

She went to the small whiteboard on one wall, erased everything with hem of her shirt, and started to scribble.

Gunshot. Message. Customers. Daniel Lee (?). Info890515. Seohyun.

She paused, eyes running over each word again and again. Where did Daniel Lee’s gas station robbery come in? What was he doing? Was he really behind all of this?

Then she wrote some more. There was someone who made her feel confused and uncertain.

Tiffany.

There was a person she couldn’t find – who might not even be in the place where she was looking.

Tiffany’s mother.

And there was a component that paced along the edge of her mind and that she needed to place somehow.

Lipstick.

Yes. (2; Drop Dead, Gorgeous)

2; Drop Dead, Gorgeous

 

“Step aside, short stuff,” said Sooyoung, craning her head over the crowd in front of them, “I’ll find her.”

“You don’t know what she looks like either,” replied Taeyeon, frowning. “Just hold up the sign, okay?”

They had to stop by a stationery store in the airport on their way to Tiffany’s terminal so that they could buy a sheet of cardboard and a permanent marker, with which Taeyeon craftily made a sign that said ‘Tiffany Hwang’ upon it. Sooyoung now held it in her hands, just above the heads of the people swarming around the place where passengers from Tiffany’s flight would exit. Taeyeon hopped nervously on the balls of her feet, eyes glued to the glass doors a short distance from them, her view getting blocked intermittently by the taller people.

Sooyoung noticed her friend’s antsy behaviour out of the corner of her eye, and she hid a smile as she raised the sign even higher.

The doors slid open electronically and passengers leaked out, just a few at first and then the main body of the group. Taeyeon jumped in the air a little, then realised she was being ridiculous and tried to relax. Sooyoung kept her gaze on the passengers, expecting every second or third young woman trailing a suitcase to be Tiffany.

“She must have been stuck at luggage collection for a long time,” remarked Sooyoung. “She called us the second she stepped off the plane and said she would be getting her bags while she waited. People from that flight are only just now getting through.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “It’s nothing new. All four of the times I’ve been on a plane, I’ve had to wait almost forty minutes for my luggage to get through.”

“Must be hard for you unlucky people. It only ever takes me ten minutes.”

Taeyeon shot her a distracted glare. “Whatever. Make sure the sign is visible.”

“When I told you to make sure your handwriting was legible, you nearly bit my head off,” Sooyoung murmured without malice. “Oh, that one’s got a glint in her eye at the sight of your shaky scribble. I think it’s her.”

Taeyeon’s heart fluttered. She saw Sooyoung beckoning to someone, and then she was steered by the elbow to a point slightly away from the crowd. The disappearance of pressing bodies sent some relief to her lungs, and she breathed more freely until the moment she turned in the direction Sooyoung was looking and got her first sight of Tiffany Hwang.

Taeyeon struggled with words at the best of times, but the moment she laid eyes on Tiffany her entire vocabulary of some forty thousand words flew out of her head at the speed of a neutrino particle, and she barely even remembered where she was or what it felt like to be in a human body. She wasn’t sure if Tiffany was actually coming closer step by step or if her brain was just melting and her eyes were popping out of her head. But then Tiffany came to a halt in front of them with a friendly smile on her gorgeous/beautiful/stunning/dazzling face (and Taeyeon’s vocabulary started slowly trickling back), her curious gaze shifting from Sooyoung to Taeyeon and back.

“I’m Sooyoung,” said Sooyoung, holding out a hand for Tiffany to shake. “I’m Taeyeon’s assistant. She’ll be with you in just a moment. Her systems are rebooting.”

Tiffany’s smile widened at this statement, amusement playing on her features as she glanced at the unmoving Taeyeon. She shook Sooyoung’s hand and said, “Nice to meet you. Both of you. Does this kind of thing happen often?”

“Oh, yes,” Sooyoung said nonchalantly. “But she’s not quite as slow as some of the older-model androids. And she has a built-in game of Pacman.”

Taeyeon’s hand lashed out and whipped Sooyoung on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t go around telling people I’m an android. A lot of people actually believed you last time.”

Sooyoung just grinned. Taeyeon looked at Tiffany again, fighting the barrage of words that scrolled across her brain as their eyes met (amazing, gorgeous, friendly, humorous, beautiful, gorgeous, gorgeous, real, present, nearby, real oh my god real) and offered a smile that shook slightly.

“Hello,” she said, and cleared her throat. “I mean, hello.”

She resisted the urge to raise her arm, remembering Sooyoung’s comment about her robot wave. Tiffany’s smile stayed on her lips and her eyes softened as they watched each other for a while.

“Nice to meet you, Taeyeon,” she said. “Thanks for coming to pick me up. And thanks for taking on my case. I’m grateful that an investigator of your calibre was willing to help me out.”

Taeyeon blushed, even though she had always been confident and open about her superior detective skills and never minded when others complimented her before. But then, she rarely stood face-to-face with people who were saying such nice things to her, and those people never gave her such a tingly, fizzy feeling just by acknowledging her.

“Oh my would you look at the time,” Sooyoung said blankly. “I forgot I’m meeting someone for dinner. Hey, that’s a great idea, you two should go have dinner, so Tiffany can relax and re-energize with some hearty Korean food. You guys go ahead. Bye!”

And she turned on her heel and strode away without a second glance. Tiffany blinked at her receding figure until she was out of sight, and then saw her own confusion mirrored on Taeyeon’s face when they looked at each other. Taeyeon pursed her lips, awkward, and rocked back on her heels for a moment.

“So, um, do you want to go have dinner?” she asked quietly. “I mean, we don’t have to, because you’re probably tired and you just got off a long flight and you probably ate on the plane so it’s not like you’d be hungry or anything…”

One half of her slapped the other half of her and she shut up. It was difficult to be in the middle of a process of changing her habits of social interaction, as if she was a street that used to be only one-way and recently split into two opposing lanes so now head-on crashes were happening all the time. She wondered if there was a remedy for this kind of occurrence and was already mentally conducting an information search through traffic news history before she realised she was actually still in the middle of a conversation with Tiffany. Her eyes widened as her brain returned to the situation and she panicked briefly, quickly analysing Tiffany’s facial expression to see if her spacing-out affected the flow of socialization.

Tiffany still had the amused smile on her face, her eyes seemed to be gazing at something far away even though she was looking at Taeyeon, and her eyebrows seemed relaxed, her cheeks and jaw soft, the corners of her lips not tense, and she was so utterly lovely that Taeyeon’s analysis was cut short by a lengthy line of gibberish. She lost track of the conversation again, and was brought back by the sound of Tiffany’s voice.

“You know, I wasn’t expecting you to be so… fascinating, now that we’ve met in person,” she said. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. You seemed like an interesting person from our online correspondence, but now that I actually have you here in front of me… I don’t know. I’m glad I came to Seoul.”

Taeyeon’s face slowly blossomed into a blush, and she wondered why she was suddenly so vulnerable to these uncontrollable visual expressions. Half of her shut down the other half and she cleared her throat, straightened her spine, and felt the blush recede.

“I’m glad you came, too,” she said, with only a hint of stiffness in her tone. “So… dinner?”

Tiffany seemed to ponder for a moment, lightly biting her bottom lip and looking at her watch. It wasn’t early, but it wasn’t late. She could last a while longer before she had to deal with jetlag. She gave Taeyeon a glittering smile, and said, “Sure. But no Korean food just yet, please… I’m the mood for a burger.”

It wasn’t until they reached the car that Taeyeon wondered how Sooyoung would be leaving the airport without her, but she knew Sooyoung would figure something out, so she just wrestled Tiffany’s suitcase into the boot of her car. Normally she would have let Tiffany struggle with it herself, or if she was in a hurry she would have helped in order to save time. But now here she was, not in a hurry, not with one of her long-time friends, and just the mere thought of Tiffany having to grapple with her suitcase was enough to make her jump into the situation instead. It was unusual. But Taeyeon had considered all possibilities of what it would be like when Tiffany arrived, so her behaviour wasn’t entirely surprising, merely intriguing. This was like an experiment, research into advanced social connotations. Then she held the door open for Tiffany to get into the front passenger seat, and she stopped her line of thought. She shouldn’t think of this as an experiment, at least not all the time. She just had to live the experience.

They were quiet as she drove them out of the airport, but when they stopped at the first set of traffic lights, Tiffany spoke up.

“So, how did I manage to lure the great reclusive detective all the way out here just to meet me?”

Taeyeon froze, her eyes glued to the red light ahead. The tone of Tiffany’s voice was partly playful, partly hesitant, and partly genuinely curious. She wanted to know, but she didn’t want to make Taeyeon uncomfortable. Taeyeon relaxed. She appreciated that.

And then she tensed again, because how would she answer the question?

“I heard you only interacted with clients through online messages,” Tiffany continued, fiddling with the dials on the car’s air conditioning system. “And that you don’t even do phone calls. So… well, I’m not even sure what I was doing when I told you I was thinking of coming to Seoul.”

“You were probably feeling deprived,” Taeyeon answered automatically, eyes on the road as the traffic moved. “Incomplete. You’ve missed your mother for a long time, and the constant thoughts of your mother became associated with thoughts of your heritage in Korea, and the ongoing search for your mother here led to a connection between your emotional emptiness and the chance of finding your mother which would theoretically fill the void, culminating in a combination of human elements relating to family, heritage, and problem-solving or reinstating familiar social structure. You felt like coming here was something you absolutely had to do. Right?”

Tiffany blinked. Her stare was locked onto Taeyeon. Her hand hovered near the air-conditioning. She nodded slowly.

“So you mentioned to me that you were thinking of coming to Seoul, hoping for justification of an inexplicable urge. There is no logical reason for you to be here if we just consider the case, but the sentimental aspects explain a natural desire to be here right now.”

There was silence for a while after Taeyeon stopped speaking. The only movement came when she shifted gears. Then Tiffany let her hand drop onto her lap, and she looked out the window. Taeyeon became worried at the lengthy drop in conversation, and reconsidered her lax attitude in speaking. She thought if she just went with the flow of conversation in order to experience everything, then she would present a more natural and comfortable image, which she had found in the past made a vast difference in social interactions. Now, she thought again about everything she just said, and saw the possibility of overstepping the line.

“Um,” she said unsurely, “I apologise if I’ve offended you.”

“No,” Tiffany replied. She turned back to Taeyeon, looking thoughtful. “I just… I don’t mean to be rude, but I suppose I wasn’t expecting you to be so… emotionally aware. I heard you were quite awkward, socially.”

“Ah.” Taeyeon nodded. “No, you’re quite right to think so. I’m trying something new. In the past, I would have thought all those things in my head and maybe felt sure about the formulation of words in about two hours, by which time of course the moment would have passed. But then we would be sitting here in awkward silence instead of awkward discussion.”

A smile quirked the corner of Tiffany’s mouth. Her eyes remained contemplative. “Something new, huh?”

Taeyeon knew there was another layer of connotations beneath what was visible, but she had to drive the car, not analyse Tiffany. So she returned the smile briefly and half-heartedly, before turning the car into the entrance of a parking lot.

“Hope you don’t mind,” she said as she parked the car. “I made an assumption of where you wanted to eat based on what you said at the airport. Is this place okay?”

Tiffany saw the big yellow and red sign and grinned. “It’s perfect. Exactly what I was craving.”

Taeyeon opened Tiffany’s door for her.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Tiffany said as they walked towards the restaurant. “Opening doors for me.”

“I insist,” Taeyeon replied, doing exactly that again. “You’re my guest. I have observed other dynamics for these situations, and this is what I feel is best.”

And it made her heart flutter a little every time Tiffany gave her a small, grateful smile as she stepped through the open door. But Taeyeon knew it would not be productive to mention that at this time.

Tiffany rattled off her order at the counter and Taeyeon requested a soda. They sat down at a table by the window when Tiffany got her food, and Tiffany sighed in relief as she bit into a French fry.

“This is just what I needed,” she said, gesturing to her food. “Thanks, Taeyeon.”

That memorable blush crept along the edge of Taeyeon’s jaw again, and she looked out the window as she nodded in acknowledgement. For a while, she observed the people inside the restaurant as she sucked on the straw of her soda, until her observations were interrupted.

“So, Taeyeon, I need you to be honest with me,” Tiffany said, wiping her fingers with a napkin before making eye contact.

Taeyeon gulped. She let the straw pop out of her mouth and put her soda down on the table between them. “What’s up?”

Tiffany paused for a moment. She crumpled the napkin into a tiny ball.

“How’s the search for my mother really going?” she asked delicately. “Is there any hope?”

Taeyeon was good at lying online, on the phone, and sometimes in person. But she knew enough of the practice to know just by judging the look on Tiffany’s face that she would not be able to pull off another lie. She briefly envisaged the possible outcomes of her actions; she lied and Tiffany caught her out, she lied and Tiffany fell for it, she told the truth and Tiffany hated it, she told the truth and Tiffany accepted it externally but struggled internally. Unfortunately, none of these visions were particularly appealing. She pursed her lips, fiddled with her glasses, inspected a spot on the ceiling for three intense seconds, and then she answered.

“There is hope,” she said slowly. “But… how do I say this… I’m not sure how to explain what I want to say.”

Tiffany sat back in her chair, and patiently watched Taeyeon.

“There are some extra considerations,” Taeyeon began. “I didn’t mention them before. Um, has your mother ever mentioned a man called Daniel Lee?”

Tiffany frowned slightly. “No, I don’t think so. Why? Who is he?”

Taeyeon tapped her fingers on the table. “He’s a criminal, in a word. Your mother knew him in high school. Well, she dated him in high school. He was her first boyfriend, and their relationship was quite intense. Now, this is where the extra considerations enter.  She might have gone back to him when she left your family, which is where these options come from. If she isn’t with him, a plausible lead is exhausted and this will put me back a few steps.”

She hesitated, running through some sentences in her head, and then spoke again.

“If she is with him, she would be hard to find. And… she might not want to go back to you.”

She tried to say it as gently as she could, mindful of tone and timbre and the intensity of the consonants she vocalised. She kept her eyes on Tiffany’s face, looking for reaction to her statement, but Tiffany’s expression was unclear. Taeyeon made a note that Tiffany sometimes hid her feelings while they were being processed.

“I understand,” Tiffany said in an even voice. “It’s… it’s something I thought of. But I haven’t thought of it for a long time.” She took a deep breath. “It’s okay. Thanks for everything you’re doing, Taeyeon. Whatever you find, at least I can get some closure.”

Taeyeon ran some brief calculations in her head and produced a smile, aiming for it to be comforting, but it probably looked a bit odd because Tiffany gave her a weird look before smiling in return.

Hoping to avoid an awkward gap in conversation, Taeyeon picked up her soda again and said, “So, where did you hear that stuff about me?”

“Ah.” Tiffany looked down bashfully, letting her hair fall into her face. “I did a little research about you. Before I sent in a request for you to take my case, I put your name into a search engine to see what came up. There are sites where people discuss private investigators and cases like mine, and I found a few mentions of you from past clients of yours.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows. “Really? Hmm. I didn’t realise people were talking about me. What did they say?”

Tiffany looked up again, and smirked a little. Taeyeon blinked. She guessed Tiffany had been shy about telling her because she was unsure how Taeyeon would react and was now confident in continuing because Taeyeon expressed interest without distress. Interesting.

“They all said you were the best investigator they ever hired,” Tiffany said. “Some of them had been struggling with different investigators for years, then you took on the case and it was solved easily. A few other investigators don’t like you very much.”

Taeyeon scoffed. “Nothing new there.”

“And they said you were very reclusive,” Tiffany continued. “None of them have ever heard your voice or seen your face, and you remained strictly professional in your messages.” She smiled. “And now here I am, watching you drink soda with a straw, in a fast food restaurant.”

Taeyeon waited, but Tiffany gave no indication of how she felt to be sitting here watching Taeyeon drink soda. She frowned slightly, staring at Tiffany, and Tiffany stared right back.

“Is that… okay?” Taeyeon ventured finally.

Tiffany laughed briefly. “Yes. It’s okay.”

The straw was a bit mangled when Taeyeon put down her soda again, and she realised exactly how anxious she was about Tiffany’s opinion of spending time with her. And now here they were again, at a familiar impasse in the conversation where she didn’t know what to say, but unlike the time it happened online, Tiffany made no immediate move to spur it on. So they sat in silence, glancing at each other, until Tiffany finally cleared her throat.

“Tell me about Daniel Lee,” she said.

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “There’s not much to say. He seems like a bad guy.”

“Where are you on the case?” Tiffany asked, serious. “I mean, what are you investigating right now?”

Taeyeon glanced around. The restaurant was almost empty, the clock on the wall ticking at a later hour than she had realised. The fluorescent lights hummed faintly. The employees who were previously at the counter had disappeared to the back of the restaurant. A young man and woman two tables away from them were trying to hold in their laughter as they pulled funny faces at each other. A lone old man on the other side of the restaurant flipped the page of a newspaper and reached for his ice cream.

“Let’s go,” she said. “I’ll drive you back to the hotel and we can talk in the car. We shouldn’t be talking about this in public.”

Tiffany looked around at the people, trying to see anything suspicious, and then she nodded. “All right.”

Just as they got up to leave, the window beside them shattered. A second later, Taeyeon registered the sound of a gunshot, and in the onslaught of glass fragments she threw up her hands in a defensive posture. Tiffany stumbled in her shock and fell to her knees, covering her head with her arms. Taeyeon forced her eyes open, squinting between her fingers, searching outside for the source of the danger. It was too dark. All she could see were vague shapes of cars in the car park.

As the glass quietened around them, the chilled breeze from outside seeped onto her skin. It stung. She winced as she glanced at the red, bleeding little cuts over her hands and she felt another on her cheek. Dismissing her injuries when she couldn’t see any serious lacerations, she hopped over the table and helped Tiffany get up.

The restaurant was now empty, and Taeyeon tried to remember if the other customers had screamed. She nearly slid on the cleanly polished floor in her haste to move, and realised a dripped line of blood was tracking them.

“Tiffany, are you okay?” she murmured, keeping her gaze locked outside as she stopped them just around the corner from the glass entrance, pressing against the wall.

Tiffany was shaking visibly, arms still covering her head, and Taeyeon tightened her hold around her.

“Are you hurt anywhere?”

“I don’t know,” Tiffany whimpered.

She gathered herself slowly, lowering her arms and taking shaky breaths as she checked her body for injuries. There was a big slit in her shirt, on her shoulder, and a sizeable amount of blood had formed a red cloud, but it didn’t seem to be causing the drip.

Tiffany looked up at Taeyeon, and her eyes went wide. “Taeyeon, your cheek…”

“Hmm?” Taeyeon reached up, and her fingers came away slick with blood. “Oh… I thought the cut was smaller than that. Is it dripping?”

Tiffany nodded. She pulled the edge of her long sleeve over her hand and pressed the heel of her palm against the wound. “We need to put some pressure on it.”

“We need to get out of here,” Taeyeon replied, looking outside again. “I wonder… I could have sworn it was that couple, but I’m sure they screamed.”

“What are you talking about?” Tiffany asked, following her gaze.

“One of the customers was in on it. They must have sent some sign when they heard us talking about Daniel Lee. Otherwise no one would risk shooting at us in a public place. Well, I say ‘us’ but they only shot once. Perhaps they were just sent to kill one of us.”

Tiffany frowned at Taeyeon. “Are you okay? You’re on the verge of rambling.”

Taeyeon closed her eyes, and took a deep calming breath. “Right. Okay, we need to get out of here.”

She glanced outside.

“They only shot once. Even when we were scrambling to get away from the table, they didn’t take another shot. So either they’re waiting, or they left right after shooting.”

“Well we’ve been standing here for quite a while,” said Tiffany. “Maybe they’ve left now even if they were waiting. Surely someone has called the police.”

“Good point. You know what? Let’s just run and see what happens.”

Tiffany barely had time to be surprised before Taeyeon took her hand and pulled her along as she dashed through the entrance and their feet hit the carpark. She gulped in air as they sprinted to Taeyeon’s car, expecting a gun to go off at any moment, snapping her glances between the ground beneath them and all the dark cars around them.

Taeyeon skidded to a halt when they reached her car, staring at the windshield.

In the distance, sirens started up and they could hear cars racing towards them.

On the smooth surface of the windshield on Taeyeon’s car, the smudge of red lipstick glared at them in the shape of big, spiky words.

Drop dead, gorgeous.

Yes. (1; Warm Coffee Caramel)

1; Warm Coffee Caramel

 

“Are you the private eye?”

“The private what?”

“Private eye. Private investigator.”

“I am a private investigator.”

“But are you the private investigator I’m looking for?”

“I’m not sure how you expect me to answer that, sir, as I do not know who you are looking for.”

“Okay, sounds like you. Listen, back off. Forget about finding the Hwang woman. Just leave it. You got that?”

“Do you have a reason for recommending this option?”

“Just stop looking for her or I’ll kill you. Understand?”

“Um… No, not really. I see no logical reason to stop. Your desire to kill me does not seem related to the case at hand – unless you would care to explain further.”

“Look, you little weirdo, just stop looking for her or you’ll be killed. Isn’t that enough?”

“What, the threat of bloody death at the hands of an emotionally unstable stranger?” Taeyeon considered for a moment. “No. Excuse me; I have a middle-aged Korean lady to find.”

Taeyeon liked to smear cream cheese on her bagel. Not too much, but enough to give her a good taste that could make her mouth water even while she was eating. With little concern about the threatening phone call she just received, she began to carefully spread the cream cheese over the halved, warm bagel on the plate in front of her.

She was shortly joined in the quiet café by a tall young woman who dumped her purse onto the table and fell into a chair, looking disgruntled.

“Why are we working on my day off?” she grumbled, shooting a glare at Taeyeon.

Taeyeon smiled. “Good morning, Sooyoung. Today, you are going to have a lovely day as my assistant, I guarantee it.”

Sooyoung stared at her for a while longer, eyes narrowed in suspicion and defiance at being required to actively use her brain before noon on her day off. Then she reached out, snatched the other half of Taeyeon’s bagel, and began to eat.

“Keep talking,” she said, mouth already full. “And start putting more cream cheese on your bagel, this is pathetic.”

“Or you could just get your own bagel,” Taeyeon mumbled. She pouted slightly as she finished her own half of the bagel, and sighed. “How long have we known each other, Sooyoung?”

Sooyoung shrugged. “Seven years, I think. Why?”

“Do you think it takes a long time for me to open up to people?”

Sooyoung snorted. “Yes, and that’s putting it lightly. More like it takes you three years to actually say more than ‘hello’ in a quiet voice with an awkward robot wave.”

“I’m that socially awkward, huh.”

“You’re socially inept,” Sooyoung corrected. She stopped eating and regarded Taeyeon seriously. “It’s not the end of the world. You’re a wonderful person, and only those who take the time to get to know you should be allowed to have you.”

Taeyeon just shrugged. She tidied the table, straightening the knife on the plate, folding the napkin precisely. Sooyoung watched her with a little smile.

“Why do you ask?”

“A client is coming to Seoul. She’ll be here for two weeks, and she wants to, y’know, talk to me. As in: actual face-to-face verbal communication.”

“Ah, and you’re worried she’ll think you’re rude?”

Taeyeon shrugged again. “Never mind that for now. I set up a meeting with one of my rats from the south-east district. Wanna join?”

“You’re really going to follow that lead?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, don’t you think the result might be a little unfavourable? Not to mention how dangerous it is, but I know that won’t stop you.”

“Unfavourable? I suppose I can see the potential for the client’s disappointment, perhaps, but I did mention the possibility of an unhappy conclusion when I sent her the contract. I’m sure she knows what risks are involved here. Besides, there’s no guarantee that this line of questioning will lead me to find Tiffany’s mother.”

Sooyoung watched Taeyeon for a moment longer, before narrowing her eyes. “Is Tiffany Hwang the one who’s coming to Seoul?”

“Yes.”

“That explains so much,” she replied, leaning back in her chair and grinning. “You’re finally going to meet your crush!”

Taeyeon blushed immediately, and quickly glanced around. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, you strange child. So do you want to join me today or not?”

“Of course I do. I think with this case, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Especially when she gets here.” Sooyoung giggled mischievously. “I can’t wait!”

Taeyeon gulped nervously and pulled some cash from her pocket to toss onto the table. “Come on, let’s go.”

“You can’t pay like that, this place doesn’t –”

“Hush. We have a mystery to solve.”

The rat from the south-east district seemed bored, as if the constant visits from the small private investigator were taking up time he could be using to pursue his hobbies of smashing windows and robbing people. He momentarily seemed interested in the nails of his left hand as he inspected them closely, clicked his tongue in disapproval, and went back to staring into space.

Taeyeon appeared from the darkness, the black shadows dissolving behind her as she stepped forward silently. He jumped in surprise, then realised who it was and looked disgruntled.

“Why do you always make me wait, shorty?”

Taeyeon consulted her Despicable Me wristwatch. “I’m on time. Perhaps your watch is fast.”

He rolled his eyes. “Whatever. What do you want?”

“I’m looking for a middle-aged Korean woman,” Taeyeon started, “about this tall,” she held a hand above her head, “with black hair, brown eyes, lovely eye-smile, wrinkles here,” she indicated the sides of her mouth, “and here,” she mimed crows-feet by her eyes, “probably using the surname Choi, and she has a voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day.”

The rat blinked. “What?”

“Have you seen her?”

“Warm coffee caramel?”

“On a cold rainy day, yes. Or so I’m told.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Have you finally lost your marbles or what?”

“I haven’t had marbles since I was four years old and they were mostly my brother’s.”

“Well that makes sense. Look shorty, I don’t know what game you’re playing here but -”

He squealed when Sooyoung rushed forward from around the corner, the shadows dispersing from around her with less finesse, and she came to a stop beside Taeyeon looking out of breath.

“Sorry I’m late, I got a bit lost,” she said quickly. After a few deep breaths, she straightened up and tried to look tough. “Listen, scum, when the detective asks you a question, you better answer.”

He threw his hands in the air. “Fine. Whatever. No, I haven’t seen a typical middle-aged Korean lady with a voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day. Can I help you with anything else today? I’m getting sick of you two weirdos ruining my days.”

Taeyeon took a piece of paper from the pocket of her jacket and skimmed the pencilled writing. “How about a guy called Daniel Lee?”

“Yeah, I know him, so what?”

“Do you work for him?”

“I helped one of his crews on a gas station bust a couple of weeks ago, but he’s not my boss.”

“A gas station? Why would he waste his time with a gas station? They don’t carry enough cash or expensive goods to make it worth his while.”

He shrugged. “I was just a lookout. I didn’t see what they were doing there.”

“Was that the gas station two blocks east of here?” asked Sooyoung.

“Yes.”

“Okay, final question,” said Taeyeon. “Do you know where I can find Mr Lee?”

The rat snorted. “No, I don’t. Well, since that’s the end of this lovely little sideshow, I’ll be leaving.”

He didn’t bother trying to look cool with the shadows as he left, choosing just to stride through them as if he had better things to do with his time. Taeyeon turned to Sooyoung when he was gone.

“You would think he would be nicer to us, considering we’ve known him since high school.”

Sooyoung grinned. “You know how he is. The wonderful Heechul – sorry, I mean ‘Heenim’ – would never bum around with someone as lowly as us. By the way, what’s with the description?”

“What about it?”

“A voice that sounds like warm coffee caramel on a cold rainy day? Did Tiffany tell you that?”

“Yes, she did mention it once. Why? Is there a problem?”

Sooyoung eyed her friend with amusement. “Have you ever heard warm coffee caramel?”

Taeyeon blinked. “No. But that’s not to say you can’t get that feeling from hearing her voice. I wouldn’t know. I trust Tiffany’s description of her mother.”

“Oh, my dearest little boss,” Sooyoung sighed, looping her arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders. “You’re so cute when it comes to Tiffany. I seriously cannot wait for you two to meet.”

Taeyeon blushed again. “Well, since you’re being so entertained by me… How did you even get lost in the short distance between the car and here?”

Sooyoung’s face went blank. “It’s easier than you think, okay? All these shadows and corners and thin alleyways. Anyway, do you plan to go after Daniel Lee now?”

Taeyeon nodded. “He’s the only link we have at the moment. He may only have been her high school boyfriend, but a lot of people go back to their first loves during times of internal crisis. And the threat of death I received this morning suggests that at least one gangster is under orders to silence me; that gangster may well be one of Daniel Lee’s men.”

Sooyoung hummed thoughtfully. “I wonder what he was doing with that gas station. You know the one, right? That bust was in the news. They stole nothing, or so it seems. Just broke in and left.”

“At the time, I offered to go investigate, but since the police don’t like me very much, they wouldn’t let me go within two hundred metres of the crime scene. Actually, I’m still not allowed within two hundred metres. So I’ll never be able to use that station and of course the crime will never be solved.”

Sooyoung grinned again. She pinched Taeyeon’s cheek. “You’re so cute when you’re cocky.”

Taeyeon spent the rest of her day at home, going through old files and news stories on the internet and messaging her contacts in search of a clue as to Daniel Lee’s location. Sooyoung watched TV in the living room, getting emotionally involved in the drama, and shovelled popcorn into her mouth.

1 New Message from: Tiffany Hwang

Taeyeon whimpered slightly at the notification. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure Sooyoung was still in the living room crying over a character’s imminent death. With slow hands, she moved the mouse to click on the message.

Hi! Thought I’d let you know, my flight is all booked and so is my accommodation. I’m all set! I’ll be in Seoul on Saturday night. Super excited! (:

“Ehehe.”

“What are you giggling about?”

Taeyeon yelped at the sudden appearance of her assistant. Sooyoung narrowed her eyes at the reaction and quickly rushed forth from the doorway. She glimpsed the message before Taeyeon had a chance to close it and immediately beamed.

“Oh, I see, you got a message from your crush! Way to go.”

“Please don’t make fun of me when she gets here,” Taeyeon pleaded. “She won’t take me seriously as a private investigator if she sees my assistant teasing me!”

“And look,” Sooyoung continued, “she’s super excited to see you!”

“She’s excited to see Seoul, not me!” Taeyeon squeaked.

“Saturday night is a good night for dating, you know,” Sooyoung commented. “Are you gonna pick her up at the airport?”

“I… I don’t know… It hasn’t been discussed…”

There was a pause as they locked eyes. Taeyeon held her breath. Then Sooyoung leaped forward, blocking Taeyeon’s access to the computer as her fingers flew over the keyboard. Taeyeon flailed her arms desperately, her mind racing as she thought of all the things Sooyoung could be typing, but she failed to get past her assistant before the final tap of a key was heard. The message had been sent.

She peeked around Sooyoung’s arm to read it.

That’s awesome! How about I pick you up from the airport? It would be much more comfortable than struggling with a taxi driver after your long flight. 😉

Taeyeon gasped. “No! You used the winking emoticon! That’s far too risky!”

“Silence. I know what I’m doing.”

Sure, that would be great! Thanks (: I’ll send you my flight info.

Sooyoung patted Taeyeon on the shoulder. “My work here is done. Now it’s up to you!”

Taeyeon gazed at her computer screen. The fact that Tiffany actually seemed happy about meeting her was making her heart swell with anticipation, but she kept eyeing the message Sooyoung had sent. It seemed so confident, so casual, and so normal. Although she was still unsure about the use of the emoticon, the message seemed to flow better than anything she had ever written, or perhaps she was too aware of how awkward and nervous she had always felt while typing those messages compared to the ease with which Sooyoung just knocked out words and sent them. She sighed.

Sooyoung patted her on the shoulder again, more comfortingly this time. “You’ll be fine. Just be yourself. I have a good feeling about this Tiffany girl, I think she’ll be more understanding and welcoming than you think.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything, staring down at the letters on the keyboard in silence. Sooyoung gave her one last pat on the shoulder before going back to the living room.

Another message flashed on the screen.

1 New Message from: Info890515

Daniel Lee will be in the Pink Flamingo hotel next week, Room 105, booked for Monday to Saturday.

Taeyeon smiled. This informant was always reliable and useful. And Taeyeon felt most comfortable here, on the internet, dealing with online informants and clues and investigations. She was in her element. Sure, she could go out every now and then and talk to people, ask questions, matter-of-factly gather information physically, but she gulped at the thought of meeting Tiffany at the airport on Saturday. And what did Sooyoung mean by saying it was a good night for dating? Should she take Tiffany to have dinner somewhere? Did people still have dinner on dates? Some people watched movies or saw concerts or went skydiving on dates. Why was she even taking Tiffany on a date? Was Sooyoung trying to make her brain explode?

Taeyeon shook her head rapidly and blinked. She focussed. Daniel Lee was going to be in that hotel and she was going to go sort this whole thing out right away. Perhaps, she thought with an unconscious little smile, she could sort it all out swiftly and Tiffany could just spend her holiday with Taeyeon and without any worries. Oh that would be lovely.

With a little slap on her cheeks to bring her attention back into the right place, she went back to her search for information so that she was fully prepared to confront the crime boss. And also Tiffany.

“Knock knock –”

“Who’s there?”

“Uh – Taeyeon.”

“Taeyeon who?”

“….What?”

“Oh, is this not a joke?”

“No, it isn’t. Could you please help me carry this stuff?”

Sooyoung sighed in disappointment and got up from the couch to take one of the plastic bags from Taeyeon’s full hands. The smell of fried food followed Taeyeon into her living room and she got to work laying out the takeaway containers on the coffee table right away.

“I was totally going to be casual,” Taeyeon muttered, polystyrene squeaking as she popped open a container. “I was going to be like, ‘knock knock, I brought back some food,’ in a nonchalant, cool manner, before you interrupted me so rudely.”

Sooyoung eyed her carefully. “You didn’t rehearse it in your car again, did you?”

Taeyeon scowled, nearly ripping another container as she opened it. “So what if I did? You’re the only one who finds that weird.”

“I’m not, you know,” Sooyoung replied, already chewing. “Yuri was laughing too.”

Taeyeon paused, looking at her. “Oh, that’s what she was laughing about?”

“How is Yuri, by the way? I haven’t heard from her in a while,” Sooyoung said, changing the subject smoothly and hoarding multiple containers to her side of the table with the same smoothness. “She said she would send you some e-mails from America.”

The couch jiggled slightly as Taeyeon threw herself onto it with a huff. She cuddled a container to her chest and glumly started to eat. “She sent me one last month. America is wonderful.”

“You don’t seem too pleased about that.”

“Well, she was only supposed to be there for a couple of weeks. It’s been two months already. How much longer does she need to be there?!”

Sooyoung chewed thoughtfully, putting more food into her mouth like popcorn as she watched Taeyeon for a long while. Taeyeon felt something different about the silence and looked up, confused. She blinked.

“What?”

Sooyoung swallowed before speaking. “You miss her, don’t you? You always suck at admitting when you miss your friends. You’ve just gotta say it, Taeyeon, just let it out. It’s perfectly fine to tell your friends you miss them.”

Taeyeon winced. “You’re not going to snuggle me again, are you?”

Sooyoung sighed and turned to face the TV, reaching for the remote. “No, buddy. Not this time.”

They watched TV in silence, letting the noises wash over them as they ate.

Taeyeon did find it difficult to tell her friends that she missed them, in the same way that she found it difficult to tell them anything about what went on in her head even though she’d known them for such a long time and felt more comfortable with them than with anyone else. It took her long enough to think about what she thought, and think to about what she was thinking about what she thought, and on the odd occasion to think about what she thought about what she was thinking about what she thought. The added time it took to formulate any of it into something she could communicate to another person in a way that satisfactorily conveyed the connotations made it an arduous process that she struggled with. She’d been meaning to practice it more often, make it a habit so that she could fine-tune the process and become familiar with it, but she just found other things more appealing; like work, and video games, and books, and developing more efficient ways to fold t-shirts, and imagining what her neighbour’s cat would look like if it were human. Practising advanced social communication skills was not high on her list yet.

She checked the time on her watch. In a little under three hours, Tiffany’s plane would land.

“Hey, how come you didn’t just use a photo, by the way?” Sooyoung asked, swallowing.

Taeyeon looked at her. “Huh?”

“A photo,” Sooyoung repeated, “of Tiffany Hwang’s mother. You described her but you could’ve just used a picture.”

“She left a long time ago so Tiffany didn’t have any super recent photos,” Taeyeon said, reaching for the remote. “And I want to get more of an idea of what Daniel Lee has been up to before I get into details. No sense rushing in now, making it obvious who I’m looking for. If he’s sure I’m looking for her, and she really is with him, he won’t hesitate to kill me. This way I can scope out my chances before getting into it.”

Sooyoung shrugged. “Okay. I’ve seen this method work before so I guess it’ll work this time.”

Taeyeon paused between channels. “You think I’m wrong to do this?”

“Well, not wrong exactly. But Daniel Lee is pretty big. Like, one of the biggest criminals in the country. And scary. So I guess I’m just worried that what has worked in the past won’t be enough against him.”

Taeyeon hesitated for a moment before she went back to flicking through the channels. “I know. I’ve considered it before. Maybe I’ll consider it a bit more.”

Sooyoung’s reply was prevented by the ringing of Taeyeon’s phone. Taeyeon tossed the remote to Sooyoung and answered it.

“Hello?”

“Ah, hello? Is this Taeyeon?”

It was marvellous. The voice was warm, and sweet, and it curved the letters of spoken words with a comfortable flow that surprised Taeyeon. She had to push herself to stay attentive to the dynamics of normal conversation.

“Uh, yes? Yes, this is Taeyeon. With whom am I speaking?”

“I’m Tiffany Hwang. Sorry for the surprise call!”

Taeyeon’s heart stopped beating around about the second syllable of Tiffany’s name. Her eyes widened, and her breath caught in her throat for a few moments before she spluttered a response.

“N-No, that’s fine, it’s not a problem. Um, why… is everything okay?”

“Oh, yes, it’s just that my flight landed early. I was wondering if you could perhaps come pick me up now if that’s convenient for you? I still need to get my luggage so you don’t have to rush if you can’t make it right away. And I can hang out at a café for a while.”

For a bizarre reason that was no doubt illogical and nonsensical, Taeyeon felt as if the clouds above her head had parted – even though she was indoors – and something was beckoning. All her concerns about social intricacies or the dilemma of how to act around Tiffany, everything just disappeared. True, she didn’t have an answer to her dilemma or relief from her worries, but she knew one thing and it was simple. Step one: Get in the car and go pick up Tiffany at the airport. She forgot about Sooyoung, who was watching her with interest, and who would no doubt find some way to move the situation along once they reached the end of the first step, but Taeyeon didn’t care very much at the moment. It was time for the first step, and the first step was all she needed. At first.

“Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon blinked. And then she screwed her eyes shut and berated herself internally for a brief moment. She cleared her throat before answering. “Ah, yes, that will be fine. I’ll go now. I should be there in about half an hour.”

“Awesome. Thanks so much, Taeyeon. I look forward to meeting you.”

Taeyeon blushed. “Th-thank you. I mean. I’ll see you soon. Bye.”

She hung up the phone and hung her head. She took advantage of a few seconds of silence to run through the entire conversation again, editing bits and pieces here and there, imagining how Tiffany looked and acted on the other end of the line. Finally, with a sigh, she looked up and met Sooyoung’s expectant grin.

“So?” Sooyoung asked. “How was it? Hearing her voice for the first time?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Taeyeon stated. “How do you even know it was her – I mean, how do you even know who it was?”

Sooyoung rolled her eyes. “Please, Taeyeon, give me a bit more credit. I am your assistant, after all. You think I never learned a few things about observation? Although you are so obvious even a barnacle would know.”

Taeyeon cleared her throat again. “Okay then.”

Sooyoung raised an eyebrow, giving Taeyeon a chance to elaborate, and when no continuation came, she said, “So you’re admitting it was her?”

Taeyeon stood up and started to clear away the remnants of their food. “Come on, we should go pick up Tiffany at the airport.”

When she was finished tidying up, Taeyeon patted her pockets for her car keys, and went to the door.  Sooyoung got up to follow her, still smiling.

“Something tells me you have a better idea of what warm coffee caramel sounds like now.”