Don’t Make This Hell

Just like Heaven

 

Taeyeon has a girlfriend who is perfect for her.

She also has three assignments due in the same week, seven shifts at work without a day off, and a pulled muscle in her shoulder that is making her life hell.

She lets Tiffany gently massage her injured shoulder while she stands in the kitchen drinking her coffee in the morning. With her free hand, she traces the tip of her forefinger over two plane tickets. They’re prominently displayed in the kitchen; a point of pride for Tiffany.

A week ago, they bought the tickets and made all the bookings. Tiffany has been buzzing with excitement, delighted that Taeyeon seems receptive to the idea of going on holiday. She’s been talking about it non-stop, a whirlwind of organisational powers.

But Taeyeon has a secret.

She has something that’s been gnawing at her since that night when Tiffany told her about selling her car so that they can go on a trip.

It’s something that occupies her thoughts while she’s at work; when she has her head in her hands as she tries to study; it rolls before her eyes during her walk home and makes her clench her jaw as she mulls it over.

It’s guilt.

Tiffany is the best girlfriend and Taeyeon loves her very much. They have a great relationship, supporting and enjoying each other. But Taeyeon has been too busy and it has worn her down, and this has been affecting Tiffany to the point that she sold her car just to make this big gesture.

And Taeyeon can’t stand it.

“You ready, baby?”

Taeyeon blinks, cup of coffee halfway to her lips, and realizes that Tiffany is no longer touching her shoulders. “Uh, yeah. Yeah. Sorry, still half asleep.”

Tiffany smiles, and kisses her on the cheek. Taeyeon shakes it off; the feeling, not the kiss. She would never shake off Tiffany’s kisses. She considers the guilt to be another fleeting moment – a passing thing that just happens every now and then and that’s it.

She convinces herself of this even more as time goes on. She quivers with the thought sometimes.

The guilt, like a ghost embracing her in a dark hallway, encapsulates her.

She finds herself staring at Tiffany while they eat dinner, and Tiffany notices it too.

“Something on your mind?” she enquires, her expression showing nothing at all.

Does she know? Maybe she knows, Taeyeon thinks. Tiffany knows her better than anyone else in the whole world. If there was anyone who would be able to know how guilty she was feeling right now, it would be Tiffany.

Did that make her any more likely to admit it?

No.

“Nothing,” says Taeyeon, flashing a smile. “Thanks for dinner, it tastes great.”

Tiffany looks pleased with herself. “I managed not to burn it, right?”

Taeyeon laughs, outright, genuine, and winks at her girlfriend. “Right.”

And for a moment she feels like she’s okay with the fact that her own incompetence as a girlfriend led the love of her life to dispose of a valued part of her life just to make things better.

But she’s not.

She lies in bed at night, next to Tiffany, staring at the unseen ceiling, going back and forth with only herself.

Is it even worth feeling bad about?

Then Tiffany rolls over, scoots closer, wakes up and kisses her on the cheek, and on the neck. She whispers something as if she knows and maybe she does, like Taeyeon thought before.

“Tiffany,” she whispers back.

But Tiffany doesn’t say anything again, falling asleep, so Taeyeon decides she doesn’t know. And she shakes it off.

This goes on for days and days until the day is getting closer. Tiffany is practically bouncing around, even early in the morning, and she pulls Taeyeon along to spin around the kitchen with her until Taeyeon presses her against the counter and covers her laughter with a deep, heavy kiss.

“Okay,” Tiffany says when they break apart, sticking close, “I’m not complaining at all, but what was that for?”

Taeyeon kisses her over and over as an answer.

“Okay,” Tiffany says again, her tone different this time, and doesn’t ask the same question twice in a row.

So Taeyeon loves her thoroughly and greedily. She wishes and hopes that every time she kisses her, touches her, squeezes her against her own body and her own warmth – that it somehow makes up for it. She wants it to make up for the nights at work, the days buried under books, the weeks on end when they hardly see each other.

She prays her acts of affection make up for the pure inadequacy of everything that she is.

Whether it could, would, or cannot, she still senses the hollowness in herself that houses the guilt. It doesn’t go away. Neither does the love. They reach a stalemate in her mind and body.

Maybe this time, Tiffany can sense Taeyeon’s indecision. She makes them stop, holding Taeyeon’s face between her hands, and pushes their foreheads together.

“Taeyeon, are you okay? Please answer me this time.”

At first, Taeyeon doesn’t answer. She just moves slightly, running the tip of her nose along Tiffany’s cheek, and burrowing her face into Tiffany’s shoulder. But finally, troublingly, the words tumble out.

“You do so much for me.”

It seems as close to a confession as she’ll get it, and it works the same for Tiffany. Her expression clears, then she frowns again.

“Oh, Taeyeon,” she whispers. “Of course, I do. I love you. I want to do even more for you.”

“But I don’t –” She cuts herself off; another obstacle.

“You don’t what? Don’t want me to do more for you?”

Taeyeon shakes her head. “It’s that, but it’s not that.”

They stay silent, together, up against the kitchen counter, for several rocky minutes.

Tiffany pulls back, clutches at Taeyeon’s arms; her eyes are rimmed red. “You know how much I love you, right? That’s not what this is about. Is it?”

Taeyeon shakes her head and it makes her feel drunk. “I know how much you love me, Tiffany.”

She takes a moment to really look at Tiffany in front of her. The lines of her face. The shades of her eyes. The softness of her hair. She remembers Tiffany from countless memories and dreams real or fictional; years of time spent together, and desires doted upon her.  She knows Tiffany better than she truly knows herself; could see Tiffany in the mirror as easily as her own appearance.

“Do you know how much I love you?”

Contrary to anything Taeyeon could have expected, Tiffany looks hurt.

“Taeyeon… we had this conversation the night I told you I’d sold my car,” she says. “Didn’t that mean anything to you?”

Taeyeon closes her eyes, rubs the tips of her fingers against them while she feels the weight of Tiffany’s hands on her arms keeping her there.

“Of course, it did,” she says but it’s automatic, like she knows it’s true but only because it’s in the manual. “I just can’t do anything like you can. No big gestures from me. I have about five dollars in the bank and you know it’s all yours, but I can’t change anything about our lives right now.”

The way Tiffany stares at her following this statement makes Taeyeon think this is it; whatever the nature of the guilt she’s been feeling for days and days, it’s led to a negative outcome and she’s going to lose her only love.

But Tiffany shakes her head.

“It’s not about the money. Please tell me you know that. Please tell me you know that I didn’t sell my car just for the money, just so we could go on some big trip. It’s not about that; it’s about giving you a break from everything you’re dealing with, so that you can breathe and relax and let me love you for more than a few minutes a day since that’s the most I see of you lately. Does that make sense?”

Sense? All it makes is turbulence in Taeyeon’s chest. She isn’t feeling the right feelings now; she should be fine after hearing that, she shouldn’t have been feeling this guilt in the first place when Tiffany loves her so much and gives her anything – but this solidifies the guilt inside her even more.

“No, no, no,” Tiffany starts whispering, “don’t get scared off. You have that look in your eyes like you want to run. Please don’t let this be a problem; we can stop that from happening.”

Taeyeon rubs at her eyes again. She wills everything to be better and to no surprise, it doesn’t work. What can she do that would make it better?

And Taeyeon decides, right there and then, that if this guilt can’t go away yet, then she’ll just have to spend every day trying to make up for it.

“You’re right,” she says at last. She winds her arms around Tiffany’s waist as if to lock up their embrace. “You’re right. I’m sorry, I’m just panicking about nothing again.” She kisses her, and it’s tight. “I love you.”

“I know.” Tiffany makes sure to meet Taeyeon’s gaze and her voice is weighted with sincerity. “I know that you love me, Taeyeon.”

This really does make Taeyeon smile. And when she kisses Tiffany again, she manages to convince herself that in some small way, the kisses are making her worries fragment little by little.

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Just a Moment with you

Macaroni and cheese was undoubtedly the most delicious food in the world. Its taste was so strong and flavourful, the texture so comfortable on her tongue, she wanted to savour every bite and simultaneously inhale it all in one breath. She couldn’t stop eating. Her fork went up, down, into the bowl cradled lovingly by one hand, and it was like she could eat all the macaroni and cheese in the world if it was right here in front of her.

 

“I think I could eat this forever,” she mumbled. “It feels like it’s been a century already.”

 

Tiffany sighed and ignored her, albeit pointedly.

 

Taeyeon looked over at her and pouted. Then she rolled her eyes, and swallowed. “Thank you for the food, baby.”

 

This time, Tiffany didn’t even react at all. She just flicked through Netflix. It was obvious she wasn’t considering the options with any care.

 

Taeyeon returned her gaze to the macaroni and cheese, not really seeing it. It was all texture, no substance – but what a good feeling it was.

 

“Did you have to do it as soon as you got home?”

 

The sound of Tiffany’s voice brought Taeyeon’s head to turn again, and she blinked. “Do what?”

 

Tiffany hesitated before staring at Taeyeon, meeting her bloodshot eyes. “Get stoned. You did it as soon as you got home.”

 

Taeyeon shrugged. Her eyes widened. It looked like she was going to say something – then she just went back to eating.

 

“Do you have any idea what it’s like for me to come home and find you like that?”

 

“I can honestly say I don’t,” said Taeyeon. “Because you’ve only tried it once and I was already with you.”

 

A sharp shove to her shoulder almost caused her to stab herself with the fork and she froze.

 

“What the fu-”

 

“It’s insensitive, Taeyeon. Why did you start as soon as you got home? You’re still in your work clothes and everything.”

 

Taeyeon shrugged again, exaggeratedly this time, and turned her wide gaze on Tiffany. “It’s Friday. I felt like it.”

 

Tiffany let out a huff of air and clicked something random on Netflix. Her movements were angry even as she pulled on Taeyeon’s arm to bring her closer and snuggled her face into Taeyeon’s shoulder.

 

Taeyeon looked at her for a minute, hand still raised with her empty fork, bowl of macaroni and cheese clutched to her chest. “You’re really good at sending mixed signals, do you know that?” She kissed the top of Tiffany’s head and resumed eating as if nothing was different.

 

Everything was different.

 

When they started dating, Taeyeon was just out of college, new to America but not as new as she used to be and it excited her to be able to explore this new world as a part of it, having decided to stay. It was charming to Tiffany, that bright-eyed determination to absorb a new culture, make a new life. Taeyeon was attractive, smart, funny, someone she could have fun with and relax with and achieve with. They moved in together three months after graduation, Taeyeon having nowhere else to go without a lot of searching and Tiffany happy to be away from her family (who she loved, but had enough of for a while). That was them – young, fresh, eager, making progress. Their house became host to the blend of their shared and developing cultures, both with ties to Korean and American communities, trying new things together. All kinds of new things. Something that was regular to one person was shared with the group as an unfamiliar experience. Sometimes that thing became part of their habits or hobbies, sometimes it didn’t. If it was good, it stuck, if it was bad, they moved on.

 

Taeyeon thought this was good. Tiffany was undecided.

 

“Where did you even get it from?” asked Tiffany, eyes on the screen. “I thought you ran out.”

 

“Just asked for some more.”

 

“Generous,” remarked Tiffany, quietly. They’d had this talk before. Taeyeon was getting it for free, and Tiffany didn’t believe something like this came without any kind of price.

 

“Well he already gets it for free from his brother, so he’s happy to share with friends.”

 

His brother the professional supplier. Tiffany didn’t say anything to that. There wasn’t any point, anyway. The way Taeyeon’s body still twitched every now and then showed she was too far into it for this to be a productive conversation. She peered up, looking at the blissful smile on Taeyeon’s face, and allowed herself to accept that it brought a certain kind of happiness that maybe she couldn’t understand but she wouldn’t stop just yet.

 

Once a year, to once a month, to once a week. It was such a simple routine now. Was it an addiction?

 

Tiffany sat upright, and kissed Taeyeon on the cheek, receiving an absent smile in reply. The macaroni and cheese was all gone, the empty bowl resting on the arm of the couch.

 

It wasn’t that bad. Not yet. And maybe it would never get that bad. It wasn’t harmful.

 

Taeyeon leaned closer and kissed her, deep.  “You feel so good,” she whispered.

 

They kissed for a while longer, and Tiffany found to her surprise that she was considering pulling away. Never in the time they’d been together had she ever pulled away from Taeyeon’s kisses. The thought crept up on her, startled her. Taeyeon didn’t seem to notice any shift in the air, but briefly broke contact to put her arm around Tiffany’s shoulder and then her kisses seemed to have some bite to them.

Tiffany mumbled something incomprehensible into Taeyeon’s mouth before slipping a hand under Taeyeon’s shirt, touching the soft skin of her stomach.

Taeyeon’s free hand roamed over Tiffany’s and then along her forearm, and gripped her elbow. She pushed Tiffany gently, making her lie on her back, shifting her own body over her.

“More of you,” she murmured. “You feel so good, baby.”

“Taeyeon,” said Tiffany. She framed Taeyeon’s face in her hands, stopping her from moving her attention to Tiffany’s neck and chest, trying to make eye contact.

Taeyeon’s eyes, while bloodshot and dilated, met her own. “Yeah?”

“I love you, Tae.”

Taeyeon grinned, the same grin she always had. “I love you too, Tiffany. I love you so much. Don’t you know? You’re so beautiful. You’re my everything.”

The words made Tiffany feel a little better, which made her realize that she was looking for reassurance about the situation. It wasn’t the first time they were intimate while Taeyeon was high, but sometimes she wasn’t sure if Taeyeon was still herself or if she was too far lost in her own little world; even if that world was centred solely on worshipping Tiffany’s body.

“I want to make you feel good,” Taeyeon was whispering, kissing along her jaw. “I want to make you feel as good as I feel.”

Somehow, that didn’t seem possible, but Tiffany didn’t mention that. She said nothing at all as Taeyeon kissed her and made love to her. She thought a lot, and then not at all, very deliberately.

And when the next morning dawned, with Taeyeon so deep in sleep that she might as well have been in a coma, Tiffany got up and went to work as normal with precise movements.

She told no one how much it worried her what Taeyeon was doing; least of all, herself. The longer she could keep those thoughts out of her mind, the longer they could stay together, she reasoned. The fact that she was even considering it in that way scared her and made her even more determined not to go any further down that path, because the end looked dark and dismal from where she was standing.

So, when she got home from work and found Taeyeon still lying on the bed, eyes closed, looking perfectly at peace, she told no one how that made her feel. Particularly not herself.

And the days kept coming, and going on.

You can find me tomorrow

No matter what.

It was an agreement they made at the age of seventeen. Probably a common one, often said by a lot of people in their situation, but they meant it and they thought they were the only ones who would ever really hold that promise for the rest of their lives.

Tiffany hoped like hell that they were right about that.

Nearly ten years after they said those words the first and last time, Tiffany came to be standing in front of Taeyeon’s door. She knew it was Taeyeon’s door because the note she held crumpled up in her hand read “T Kim 21A Lockwood Tower Smith Street East” and that matched up with her current location.

The curve on the 2 was abnormally round.

She had found the address through the phone book in an act of pure desperation because it occurred to her – and she still pondered it now – that she had no way of contacting Taeyeon or Taeyeon’s family or anyone at all that she knew all those years ago. Those people used to be her life, fixtures in a little world she thought she would never get out of, and now she’d been through another lifetime altogether and none of them were more than a distant past.

Even Taeyeon.

But they said no matter what and so Tiffany relied on that promise now, and she knocked on the door.

“Be right there!”

Taeyeon’s voice didn’t sound that much different, just calmer maybe, but she had that same lilt she carried with comfort as a teenager.

She looked different though.

“Tiffany,” she said, and her eyebrows rose. “Tiffany?”

Tiffany scraped together a smile. “Hey, Taeyeon.”

“What,” she started, stopped, blinked, “What are you doing here?”

Nearly ten years had passed since they last saw each other and suddenly Tiffany was really feeling it for the first time. It hit her like a freight truck and winded her for a moment.

“Um,” she hesitated. For a while, she looked at Taeyeon.

She wanted to see her, see who she was these days, because maybe she seemed like the same person in a lot of ways but there was no guarantee that she was anything like she used to be. If there was one thing Tiffany had learned it was that life didn’t just change, it destroyed.

“Sorry it’s been so long,” she said, instead of everything that she was thinking.

Taeyeon moved her mouth, kind of like a fish, before answering. “That’s okay. I mean, you’re here now, I guess. Did you want to come in? We can catch up?”

Tiffany nodded, as awkward as can be.

Most likely, Taeyeon could tell there was something wrong, and that to help Tiffany relax they would need to be settled somewhere other than the hallway of her apartment building. Just like the very first day they had met, Tiffany was grateful to know someone like Taeyeon.

If she’d thought more about the world Taeyeon must be living in after all this time maybe she would have envisaged something like the apartment she entered now. It was warm, welcoming, awash with comforting textures and the lush of a home well-loved and lived-in. The colours were happy in the natural light and would be modest in the night. From where she stood, Tiffany could see the furniture in the living room, the couch and the bookshelf and the TV, and a coffee table littered with fashion magazines, and an end table with two remotes stacked neatly side by side.

It was Taeyeon’s home; and it was more of a home than Tiffany had seen in years. She could almost feel tears welling up from her chest, and she swallowed them right back down.

The look in Taeyeon’s eyes almost undid the effort. Tiffany glanced away immediately, pretending to inspect the art on the wall as she was led to the living room.

“Have a seat. Did you want a drink? I could make us some tea or coffee.”

Tiffany shook her head quickly out of habit. “No thank you, I’m fine.”

This time Taeyeon cocked her head to one side, openly curious. “Alright.” She joined Tiffany on the couch, keeping a respectable distance. “So, how have you been, Tiffany?”

It almost hurt her pride to have to be asking for help like this. It would hurt her pride if she had any left.

At what point in a grown woman’s life does she become willing to beg?

No, not beg. This was an appeal to human kindness and generosity. A basic sense of caring that should build the foundation of their species in an ideal world – but this was not an ideal world, so Tiffany was embarrassed and afraid. Thinking that she would seem unbearably weak to ask for help was what made her weak. People drew strength from each other.

Yet none of that helped her now to find the words she needed to explain to Taeyeon what it was that truly brought her here, how she ended up in this situation.

But she wouldn’t cry, either.

So, all she could do was take a deep breath, and meet Taeyeon’s attentive, caring gaze; the eyes that she’d contemplated every day for so many years, still the same.

Then it all just rushed out.

Her whole disreputable history, she even went as far back as the day after they last saw each other; because everything was sort of downhill from there.

And as she spoke, she let her tears flow over her face, hoping they could cover the shame that was burning her up from the inside.

It pained her. It hurt her, deeply, to have to expose herself like this – her true self, the person she was inside that few people ever saw. She knew that when people did indeed see this part of herself, they judged her, they laughed at her, maybe, and they dropped her like a hot coal. Like she was on fire, turning to ash.

She thought of herself just like all those others who ended up worse than this – if she could still consider them to be worse than herself, and maybe she didn’t.

In fact, who was to say that she was any different from them? She fell for the same weakness as them, the same pull, the same fault in her armour. She must have been just as pathetic as them, chasing after the high that they all wanted – and if they were all united in their desires then what did that make her?

Maybe there were moments when she felt like she was not so bad, she was still a good person, she was intelligent and hard-working and sensible and maybe she just liked to have fun every now and then. Sure, in a decent job she was better than them, when she got home and knew how to take care of herself she was better than them, when she paid her bills and helped a friend even when she ended up losing that friend, and when she kept her plans and promises she was better than them but when the drugs were on the table they were all the same starved animals.

She was a beast. She was a terrifying, gnarled beast that carried no respect, only hunger and desperation.

There was no denying the desperation. She acted cool and she felt in control but there was a spark that was lit inside her every time and it was without a doubt that want and need. She couldn’t deny it because it was exactly what she craved. That was the feeling she hunted – to want that bliss so hard and to reach it because the pain went away so much further when it was all she had to wrap around herself at the deepest darkness of her night.

Tiffany knew that was what Taeyeon saw. When she lifted her head, quiet now, trembling with the echoes of her sadness and insecurity, her eyes rimmed red and wet and showing that gritty despondency.

Taeyeon saw everything.

“Oh Tiffany,” she said, sounding breathless as if she’d just lived through all those years in a flash. “Oh, Tiffany, Tiffany.”

Tiffany moved to cover her face, afraid again now, but Taeyeon gripped her wrists lightly and tugged at her, closer on the couch, and she wrapped her up tight in a hug as if it was her gift.

And it felt like the greatest gift of all. Taeyeon, her one true friend from a different time in her life, almost a different world, didn’t run away and didn’t chase her away.

She really was willing to accept Tiffany, even now.

Tiffany felt all the air leave her body in one great rush, as if lead was being removed from her very veins.

“I’m here for you,” said Taeyeon, her voice muffled in Tiffany’s hair, her tone shaky with emotion, “No matter what. Just like what we said, Tiffany, just like what we said.”

Tiffany closed her eyes, squeezed them shut and squeezed Taeyeon just as hard, wanting to hold on to this, the moment, the feeling, the promise, to Taeyeon.

And she hoped it would be enough.

Love That

Taeyeon doesn’t use the word ‘love’ lightly, and she doesn’t use it plenty. To hear Taeyeon say she loves something is to witness the acknowledgment of a treasured part of her life.

That’s how everyone knows that Taeyeon really loves her car.

She says it often, but even if she didn’t it would be obvious in the way she washes it herself and polishes it with care once a week. In fact, she does this every Sunday at 3PM like clockwork. It’s her special car time, just her and her Mercedes, gathered in appreciation. Of course, it’s not all just about how her car looks; it’s that smooth sensation of an engine with quiet power, effortless movement, the way it curves around corners like it’s part of the airflow, a member of the natural order. It’s beautiful.

So, when Taeyeon doesn’t have her special car time, she’s grumpy. There’s no other way to put it. She pouts. She doesn’t talk. She broods, and sighs. But sometimes she can’t avoid it.

And one thing that successfully separates her from her special car time is a broken arm.

It stops her from doing a lot of other things too, like computer games that require two hands and being able to cook for herself with confidence, so it isn’t until Sunday just before noon that it really hits her.

She sulks right away, all too familiar already with the glare that she shoots at the cast on her arm which has taken over her life so completely. Taeyeon’s car is maybe the one true love of her life, and she hasn’t been able to drive it all week unless she takes off the sling and fumbles awkwardly, and now she won’t even be able to wash it.

It should be easy just to shrug it off and take it to the carwash at the gas station down the street but this is her baby. She won’t let a senseless machine wipe itself all over her car and call it a wash. If she can’t touch her car, then she needs at least one other human who cares to do it for her.

It takes thirty minutes of dedicated internet searching to determine exactly which of the carwashes in her city have raving reviews from car enthusiasts. The result is not ideal; it’s barely even in the city at all, hovering at the very edge, but its reviews are all positive and they focus on things like attention paid to each little part of the car and “the look in that girl’s eyes shows how much she cares” so that’s good enough for Taeyeon to at least go check it out.

Whether “that girl” at the carwash really has a caring look in her eyes while she watches or if some lonely middle-aged man wrote the review, there’s no way to tell until she gets there.

And when she gets there, she’s not exactly capable of telling anything.

There’s a young woman washing a car and she’s gorgeous. Beautiful. Dazzling. Brilliant.

It’s summer, so the tiny denim shorts aren’t really a surprise, and maybe the button accidentally became undone while she was working, and there’s no way to avoid that kind of cleavage when your chest is a certain size so –

So maybe Taeyeon shouldn’t be looking.

She blushes despite being in her car, parked on the side of the road, peeking through her tinted windows to investigate the place. The carwash girl has no idea she’s there, doesn’t know what Taeyeon’s eyes have been up to.

Speaking of eyes, there is a decent amount of care in hers. She does seem like she’s wholly focused on the task at hand, so wrapped up in concentration that she even leans closer to the car, angles her body to inspect it intently, and that’s why she’s turning around and curving like th-

The care in those eyes has shifted and Taeyeon knows this because they’re on her now. At first, she panics, then figures it is purely chance, and that she still can’t be seen behind her tinted windows, then realizes her tinted window is no longer tinting in front of her, so she panics some more because somehow, at some point, while she was ogling this attractive girl, she lowered the window and now they’re looking at each other. Looking at each other.

She flicks the button and the window buzzes up again, a little too slow for her liking, and she dies inside.

Now she must decide; option one, turn around and go home and sulk – option two, hand over her car to this woman who is intimidatingly attractive and just saw Taeyeon checking her out but really seems to do a good job of washing cars.

Taeyeon weighs the situation, and takes her time to think about it.

Her uninjured hand strokes the steering wheel lovingly.

She sighs, and gets out of the car.

Sometimes she must put the needs of her car above the embarrassment of herself, and this is one of those times. This is important.

“Hey there,” the girl calls out, and there’s a twinkle in her gaze that Taeyeon can’t escape. “Can I help you?”

Taeyeon coughs unexpectedly, then straightens up. “Well, I need a favour. Well not a favour, I mean obviously I’ll pay, I just mean it’s special to me. I was hoping you could wash my car?”

“Well,” the girl echoes, voice lilting with a teasing emphasis, “this is a carwash, and I work here, so there’s a pretty solid chance that I could indeed wash your car in exchange for money, since that’s what I do all day.”

Taeyeon laughs faintly. She sticks out her arm. “As you can see, I’m currently unable to take proper care of my car, and this place has good reviews. What do you think? Do you have time to do mine today?”

“Your car?” The girl squints past Taeyeon at the vehicle in question. “Are you sure it needs a wash? It looks pretty clean to me.”

Taeyeon reaches behind her instinctively, tracing her fingers along the surface of the car. “Clean? Of course, it’s clean. I take very good care of my car.” She tries to remove some of the defensive tone in her voice. “It just needs a wash and polish to keep it that way. That’s all.”

The curl of the girl’s mouth tells her that she’s busted; this girl knows her type, the over-protective car owner who is reluctant to let unholy hands touch their beloved.

“My name is Tiffany,” says the attractive car-wash girl, “and I’m sure I can fit your car in to my busy schedule.” She gestures behind her to the car she’s working on now, sparkling clean, and the line of cars parked behind it. “But only if you promise me something.”

Taeyeon’s automatically wary, unsure of what game is being played. “And what’s that?”

“Don’t hover while I work,” Tiffany begins, shifting her weight and resting a hand on her hip, “and take me out for a drink. You have a beautiful car and I’d like to get to know it better after I’ve totally, utterly, absolutely polished it from top to bottom.” She winks discerningly.

The confidence and suddenness of the appeal catches Taeyeon off-guard. She feels stricken, the same way she felt when Tiffany saw Taeyeon checking her out. The situation is not that different.

It’s while she’s staring at Tiffany in shock that she notices the ever-slight pinkness dusting Tiffany’s cheek, and the way her smile is gentler than before, not as cocky as her words were. Maybe she was being genuine.

The thought makes Taeyeon more comfortable but also more confused.

She forces herself to relax by loosening some of the muscles in her body one at a time.

“Well,” Taeyeon says, “I should let you know that by coming into close contact with my car, you’re at a level that few people reach in my life. So maybe a drink is necessary. I’ll need to check out the person who’s touching my car so intimately.”

Tiffany raises an eyebrow. “Oh, I think you’ve done that already.”

Taeyeon allows herself to smile, small. “You know what I mean.”

The look in Tiffany’s eyes is a little different now, assessing her, thoughtful. Then she tugs on the towel that’s been hanging off her shoulder, and half-turns to get back to the car she was working on.

“You can park it just there,” she points to a space directly beside them, not at the back of the line, “I’ll do it next and then my shift is over.”

She glances at Taeyeon over her shoulder, and Taeyeon tries her very hardest to keep her eyes on Tiffany’s face.

“And then we’ll go get a drink and talk about –” she pauses, grins, “– cars.”

Taeyeon nods mindlessly, barely functioning at this point, completely not thinking about her broken arm or the fact that a stranger will be washing her car. Suddenly everything feels fantastic. The sun is brighter, the day is clearer, the air is fresher.

She doesn’t even feel grumpy that she won’t get her alone time with her car today.

Because she’s got a date with the gorgeous, beautiful, dazzling, brilliant girl from the carwash.

And she loves that. Not as much as she loves her car. But the only other time she’s thought the words ‘love at first sight’ was when she bought her car, so maybe this is not that far off.

She nods to herself, skips a heartbeat when Tiffany winks at her, and pats the hood of her car as if to congratulate it for a job well done.

She really loves that car.

Hearts A Mess

Taeyeon just wants Tiffany to commit. She wants something simple, solid, sensible. She wants the kind of comfort and security that comes with a stable, strong relationship – the kind where she can say without a doubt that they are in a relationship, and she has a long-term girlfriend; the kind where she can say anything, actually, unlike whatever they have now that’s being treated like some deathly secret.

And Tiffany is usually in a hurry. In the morning it’s always the same, the scramble for clothes, the rushed touch-up in the mirror using the make-up she carries in her purse, maybe two mouthfuls of a cup of coffee but that’s as much as she can get before it’s a quick kiss on the cheek and then Tiffany will be out the door and Taeyeon will have nothing to do. The only thing left is to finish her breakfast and go to work, thinking about Tiffany without knowing when she’ll see her again.

She doesn’t ever feel like she’ll never see Tiffany again at all, like there’s nothing at all after the night is over, she just has no confirmation or estimate of the duration of time between that goodbye kiss and the hello kiss. She doesn’t know if she’ll get an ‘I missed you’ kiss. Maybe she can imagine it’s like that.

Every day she tells Tiffany to stay for breakfast, to leave some clothes here so she can have a shower and freshen up before she leaves, even just leave a toothbrush. But that always gets shaken off as if it’s no big deal and Taeyeon always lets it go like she feels the same way about it. She pretends to be okay with something so casual it’s hardly noticeable and no one knows. She takes what she can get – and somehow this makes her feel guilty.

Today she watches. It’s still early, barely dawn outside, and she lies beside Tiffany and watches her sleep. She examines the lines of Tiffany’s face with the awareness that shortly Tiffany will be leaving. She can see it in her mind’s eye, the hurried movements and the goodbye.

Taeyeon could write a book on goodbyes.

Instead, she makes coffee and checks the time, counting the minutes until Tiffany will predictably begin her routine.

She sips her coffee in the quiet and restful early morning hours.

She waits for Tiffany.

Just like Heaven

Tiffany has a car. It’s small, fuel-efficient, mobile for her urban lifestyle, and it’s pink. It’s her baby. She hunted all over the state for it, saved up for it, and she takes damn good care of it.
 
 
Tiffany has a girlfriend. Her name is Taeyeon. She’s small, fuel-efficient, mobile – no, she’s small, funny, smart, and not particularly mobile but she works hard. Lately she’s been putting in a lot of effort to pass a night-school course to improve her academic English while she tries to stay awake at work, so that she can finish her studies in America where she moved to live with Tiffany. It’s winter. She’s been sick. It’s difficult, stressful, but it’s one of those things that has to be done so that makes it bearable. Not great. Just bearable.
 
 
In one month, winter will be over. Taeyeon works hard and she relaxes when she can, and Tiffany does her best to make it easier for her, but it’s taken a toll and that much is obvious. Tiffany can’t stand it. She adores Taeyeon for doing this and she hates that Taeyeon has to go through this.
 
 
The thing is: Tiffany went through a lot of effort to find her car and buy it and take care of it – and she went through a lot of effort to find Taeyeon and make Taeyeon part of her life and to take care of Taeyeon. She did all these things because her car is her baby but Taeyeon is her once in a lifetime and that’s all Tiffany has dreamed of.
 
 
This situation that they’re stuck in now, with barely hanging on and pushing through to get there, it’s not right.
 
 
She looks at her car and she feels affection, but she looks at Taeyeon and she feels absolutely everything.
 
 
 
She sells the car.
 
 
It’s meant to be a surprise for Taeyeon. A month before winter ends, Tiffany begins to make the arrangements. She gets her car valued (it’s increased since the car has been in her hands) and she commences various notices and processes to put her car up for sale.
 
 
There’s a strong response. It’s the kind of car that’s perfect for this city, people her age, it’s in fantastic condition and it’s a reasonable price. She’s known it all along. She doesn’t jump on the first offer she gets, and she tries to keep it a secret from Taeyeon.
 
 
Taeyeon, who coughs really hard in the kitchen while Tiffany is scrolling through emails about her car. She looks up and frowns.
 
 
“Are you still a bit sick?”
 
 
“I’m fine,” Taeyeon answers, voice not as loud as Tiffany’s, and there’s a rattle as a cupboard is opened. “Just thirsty.”
 
 
Tiffany joins Taeyeon in the kitchen and hugs her from behind as she drinks water.
 
 
“Should I make you some tea?” asks Tiffany, kissing her lightly on the corner of her jaw. “I can add lemon and honey again.”
 
 
Taeyeon half shrugs, finishing her glass, and leans back against Tiffany. “I’ll be okay.”
 
 
There’s a pause as Tiffany stares at the side of Taeyeon’s face, then they separate as Tiffany goes to get a mug. “I’m making tea.”
 
 
“Thanks.”
 
 
Taeyeon tugs at Tiffany’s arm briefly to give her a quick kiss on the lips, and smiles at her. It’s obvious that she’s tired. The fact that she’s expressing her gratefulness is more than admirable. Tiffany adds on a hug after the kiss, squeezing tight.
 
 
“I love you,” she whispers as Taeyeon returns the embrace.
 
 
That’s why she’s doing it. With the money she can get from selling her car, they can finally get away from here for a while, take a real break and relax properly. It’s something Taeyeon needs and Tiffany needs Taeyeon to have this in her life.
 
 
Tiffany wakes up in the middle of the night because Taeyeon bumps against the bedside table as she gets into bed. This is the norm, for Taeyeon to stay up almost the whole night, but it makes Tiffany frown because it’s still happening even while Taeyeon is sick. She wonders about her plan to go on a holiday.
 
 
“Sorry, did I wake you?” Taeyeon whispers in the darkness, hovering nearby.
 
 
Tiffany blinks at her. “Yeah. Are you okay?”
 
 
“I’m fine,” Taeyeon replies, and tugs the covers over herself.
 
 
Tiffany sighs, sliding closer. “You always say that.”
 
 
Taeyeon turns her head and eyes Tiffany’s deep frown. “Okay. I’m not fine. But I’m still alive and I’m still going on, so it’s not so bad.”
 
 
At least she’s being honest about it. That’s a first. Taeyeon never admits stuff like this – Tiffany wonders if this means that she’ll be able to slow down enough to take a break.
 
 
“I’m selling my car,” says Tiffany, honesty for honesty.
 
 
Taeyeon shifts uncomfortably in confusion. “Why? Is something wrong with your car?”
 
 
“No, it’s fine. It’s great, actually, and I’ll be able to get good money for it. I’ve already contacted the buyer whose offer I’ve chosen so that we can finalize it.”
 
 
There’s a brief silence, heavy.
 
 
“Okay?” Taeyeon says uncertainly.
 
 
“We need to get out of here, Taeyeon.”
 
 
This gets Taeyeon to sit up and turn on a light, and now she’s the one frowning. Tiffany sits up, too, and crosses her arms across her chest.
 
 
“You’ve been working too hard,” she says.
 
 
Taeyeon’s frown becomes a raised brow. “If I don’t work this hard, I won’t be able to finish this.”
 
 
“I know, I don’t mean it like that. You’ll be able to get through this but I’m worried about the damage it’s doing to you.” Tiffany reaches out and cups Taeyeon’s face in one hand. “I want to help you. I’ve tried not to get in the way and not to complain when I miss you, and to support you as smoothly as I can, but I want to do more. I want to take you away from all of this in one piece so that you can relax, and settle, and remember who you are when you’re happy.”
 
 
Taeyeon’s eyes roam Tiffany’s face as she considers this.
 
 
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs eventually. “I got so far drawn into this whole thing – having to push myself to get through every day and make some progress.  You’ve been in the background, doing your best to make me feel better but I could always tell it was bothering you more than it was bothering me because I wasn’t letting it get to me. I can’t. I have to get through it.”
 
 
Taeyeon touches Tiffany’s shoulder lightly, brushes her fingertips along Tiffany’s collarbone.
 
 
“I love you so much.”
 
 
The exhaustion drags at Taeyeon’s features and tugs at her voice.
 
 
“You do everything for me,” she whispers, running a thumb over Tiffany’s jaw. “You take care of me, and make me feel better when I’m tearing at the seams. So much of your time and energy, you give to me. And all I do is work and stress and make you worry. I’m sorry.”
 
 
“That’s not all you do,” Tiffany says quickly. Her hands grab at Taeyeon, pull her close, and she kisses her lightly. “You’re doing all of this for me. You left a whole world behind to be with me. You’re striving to improve yourself and your life so that you can be the best you possible. With me. You’re giving me you.” She kisses her again, and again, and again; small, quick touches.
 
 
Taeyeon tangles her fingers in Tiffany’s hair, presses their foreheads together, slows her down.
 
 
“Thank you.” When Taeyeon kisses Tiffany, it’s slow and deliberate and gentle, and so warm. “Thank you for everything.”
 
 
Tiffany doesn’t have a car anymore, but she has a girlfriend. Her name is Taeyeon. And now they have something that is just like heaven.

It’s not Christmas

Tiffany knows that going to a party on Christmas Eve will provide her with two things: bountiful alcohol and emotional people. Both are immediately presented to her as soon as she steps through the front door, so with one hand she grabs the proffered bottle of beer and with the other she grasps an arm to bring someone in for a hug and a shout of greeting.

The music isn’t anything she already knows and for that she is grateful. It’s something gritty and deep, just what she needs – and she’ll be able to get lost in it easily as the night wears on.

She wants to break some rules. She wants to find someone here who can distract her better than any other option in her life; someone who can keep her busy because they give her a whole other world. That’s someone she has never found and doesn’t expect to, but Tiffany cannot help but hope that something will happen just like every other lonely dark night that she thinks about this. She doesn’t want Christmas with the lights and the mint-flavoured cheer and her friends and family. She wants not-Christmas.

The problem is that she knows most of the people here, so she has to get moving. From one corner of the house to the other, she hovers and laughs with people and gently tugs at their conversations to see if they’ll drop what she’s hunting for, but she has no luck. She’s known most of these people long enough and well enough to know they don’t have it. Her heart is already beating in time with the thick rhythm of the music and now when she turns her head away from a group of people, she lets her hair cover her face while she takes a deep breath. She wants to take in more and more. She finishes her drink and plucks another from a tub of ice.

Someone sets off a wordless cheer and she spins on the spot as she joins in with the ripple in the crowd. Her free hand pushes at her hair, holding it back with her fingers, and she takes a long sip of a vodka cooler.

This time, she notices.

Across the room, leaning against the wall, staring at the ceiling, is a young woman with black and blonde hair who is tapping the mouth of a bottle against her own perfectly in time with the beat.

That’s her. Tiffany knows it. She doesn’t get this sense often and usually it’s just the alcohol talking but it’s good and strong so she’s definitely going to follow it.

There’s nothing on the ceiling – Tiffany checks with a quick glance as moves through the crowd – so when she reaches the mystery girl she mirrors the wall-leaning posture but turns her head to smile.

“See something I don’t?” she asks.

The girl meets her eyes, and lowers the bottle from her lips. “Unless you can see inside my head.”

Tiffany shrugs. “Want to take me on a tour?”

This makes the girl’s mouth quirk into a lopsided little smile – her bottom lip is rounder than her upper and Tiffany definitely responds positively.

“Do you know the night sky?” the girl says. She crosses her arms across her chest, lightly holding on to her bottle, and looks up at the ceiling again. “I’m looking at the stars. There’s a lot of them and they don’t look realistic at all, but I think they’re pretty great.”

Tiffany rests her head against the wall and looks at the ceiling.

One by one, tiny lights pop up like sparkles that strengthen and settle, populating gratuitous clusters of makeshift stars. Someone has turned the music up, and the stars wobble with every blow of the bass.

She realizes the girl is watching her so she turns her head again.

“My name is Tiffany,” she says.

The girl smiles again. “I’m Taeyeon. Nice to meet you, Tiffany.”

She wonders if Taeyeon can see the reflection of the stars in her eyes, because it seems like somehow she knows that they’re on the same page. She doesn’t have to ask if Tiffany is seeing anything at all. Instead she drains her beer and sits down on the floor, stretching out her legs in front of her and looking completely comfortable.

Tiffany doesn’t hesitate to join her, taking a leisurely sip of her drink as they stare up at the ceiling sky again.

They’re sitting close enough together that the left side of her body is warm and alert with the physical nearness.

“From the stars, we can move on to -” Taeyeon angles her head, looking straight ahead, ” – sand dunes. We’re in a desert. Because it’s night time, there’s a chill in the air that carries the bite of a distant heat.”

Easily Tiffany can imagine the dark floor beneath them is not carpet but the lightly cooling sand of a desert meeting the night after a day of simmering under the sun. She rests a hand palm-down on the ground between them and looks at it, thinking about how jarring it can feel to be suddenly cold after being far too hot. Taeyeon moves her hand over Tiffany’s, a contact that sends dim thrills along Tiffany’s skin.

Taeyeon closes her eyes, and tilts her chin up to the sky just to feel it.

It’s a feeling that comforts and excites at the same time; Tiffany doesn’t say that, but she takes a large gulp of the nearly-forgotten vodka cooler in her other hand. Yes, sitting in the desert at night, watching the stars with Taeyeon would feel great – does feel great, because she’s willing to go further into Taeyeon’s head to create this world around them.

“Oh, a shooting star,” says Taeyeon.

Tiffany checks. Taeyeon’s eyes are still closed. She looks up at their stars and sees them thrumming a heartbeat but – there, one flicks itself along the ceiling sky, brushing past a line of others and scattering them from one cluster to another.

“Cheater,” she murmurs, and receives a squeeze from Taeyeon’s fingers in response. “You’re not even looking.”

“I can feel it,” answers Taeyeon.

She opens her eyes anyway and intently watches Tiffany.

“It’s a long night,” she says.

Tiffany blinks at her. “Want to dance?”

Taeyeon laughs. “Absolutely.”

It’s easy to dance with Taeyeon. They edge away from the wall and move into the music simply. Every now and then, Tiffany glances up at the stars that Taeyeon showed her, and she runs a hand through her hair. As soon as her drink is empty, Taeyeon takes the bottle from her and deposits it on a side table. Then she takes Tiffany’s hand and pulls her closer.

“Do you like it?” she asks, leaning in to be heard over the music.

Tiffany grins. “The stars? The desert?” She reaches up to touch Taeyeon’s cheek lightly, briefly, then wraps her arms around Taeyeon’s shoulders and hugs her. “This night with you? I like it.”

“Good,” whispers Taeyeon, and their cheeks brush together.

Tiffany slips into the rhythm of their bodies, feeding off each other and driving the movements of the stars in the ceiling sky. She imagines the gently biting air of an empty land sweeping over her shoulders, so she presses closer to Taeyeon.

Taeyeon gives her a look that makes the stars fall from the sky, and Tiffany kisses her.

Now Tiffany can really feel the stars dripping around them in the middle of a night-time desert, and it’s anything but Christmas because of Taeyeon.

 

Partial Print

Since relocating to a coastal town, Tiffany often thought of the similarity between the wind and the waves. The prospect of long walks by the beach at the end of a long day was appealing and she had taken full advantage of the nearness. On days when the wind was relentlessly strong, she’d stop and stare at the waves tumbling over themselves to hit the beach while she felt the gusts of air tug at her and toss her around – wondering if this was how it would feel to be underwater in the ocean, buffeted about by the currents.

Now Tiffany knew, they certainly did feel similar.

Her head finally crashed through the surface of the water and she gulped air into her burning lungs, mingling with salt from the sea, blinking her eyes rapidly. Mentally she knew it had to have been less than a minute that she was under. The effect on her body was shocking. She pushed with her arms and legs and tried to control her desperate breathing.

“Agent Hwang! Are you okay?”

Tiffany allowed herself to be pulled upwards as she reached the shoreline, nearly crawling through the sand. She heard booted footsteps rushing along the pier to reach the beach proper.

Remembering the presence of the local police force brought her back to reality, and she finally got a visual on her surroundings.

Bare feet, toes digging into the sand, led her gaze upwards into the face of Taeyeon.

“You,” she rasped out.

Taeyeon tightened her grip as Tiffany nearly lost her balance, her body catching up to the sudden relocation.

“What are you doing here?” said Tiffany, fighting the nausea that yanked at her stomach. She didn’t dare take her eyes off Taeyeon, despite the glimpse of police officers coming their way.

“You remember me?” Taeyeon sounded only slightly surprised, as if she hadn’t had any particular expectation.

“Of course I remember you! Or rather, some of you –”

“Agent!”

The officers reached them now, the first two looking warily at Taeyeon and reaching for their holstered weapons.

Tiffany pulled herself away from Taeyeon and staggered towards them. “I’m okay. Do we have someone pursuing the suspects?”

One man nodded, glancing again at Taeyeon. “The one who pushed you didn’t run as fast as the others. We have him in custody.”

Tiffany looked over his shoulder at the crowd gathering on the boardwalk. Some of the officers were making a physical barrier to prevent bystanders from entering the scene, and further along there lay a man on the boards being restrained by three officers, his face pressed into the wood.

“Good,” she said. “He’s an asshole,” she murmured more to herself.

She turned to face Taeyeon again, feeling more stable with a squad of police officers at her back.

“You’re going to have to come in for questioning,” she said to Taeyeon, crossing her arms and pretending not to feel woozy as she did so.

Taeyeon held her hands in the air as if in surrender, her expression the picture of innocence. “What for, officer? I was just helping a woman out of the water. You looked like you were in trouble.”

“Officer?” Tiffany narrowed her eyes. “Taeyeon, I know you know who I am, and I’m no damn officer. Just come with me and we’ll have a talk.”

“I don’t know anything about that business on the boardwalk,” Taeyeon said, shaking her head. “I was just walking along the beach.”

Tiffany could feel most of the officers around her shifting, restless, ready to get back to the real case at hand, but she was not going to let Taeyeon get away. She turned to the man next to her, the only one that looked like he was also suspicious of Taeyeon, and held out her hand.

“Give me your cuffs.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Yours fall into the sea?”

Please give me your cuffs,” said Tiffany, “so I can put Taeyeon in custody and we can get back to our job.”

Taeyeon started backing away. “Now, I don’t think that’s necessary, agent, I haven’t done anything wrong –”

“Nothing? Really?” Tiffany tried hard to stay professional but she couldn’t, not really. “We are going to talk about what happened out in the woods, Taeyeon, because you have a lot of explaining to do for that crap about the aliens and the fact that the case ran cold because we never caught the guy seeing as how I went missing for a month and suddenly woke up in Norway. I nearly lost my job because of you. And kidnapping a federal law enforcement agent is a serious offence – so you are coming with me, damn it!”

The officers who had stayed with them managed to catch on to the gist of her words and moved to restrain Taeyeon. She seemed to recognize a lost battle and allowed herself to be handcuffed.

“I didn’t do it,” Taeyeon muttered weakly. She looked at the sand, studiously.

“Hold her at the station for now,” Tiffany ordered, already turning back to the boardwalk. “Let’s get back to our investigation.”

________________________________________________________________

Despite waking up in Norway, of all places, Tiffany hadn’t panicked until she got to the airport and realised she didn’t have her passport. In her mind, she was moving automatically to fly home and then sort this whole mess out, wait until then to let it sink in that she was in Norway and had no idea how she got there. The mechanic nature of this kept her from realising the truth until she stopped at the ticket desk, was asked how she could be helped today, and it suddenly hit her.

She was in Norway.

Eventually she managed to get in touch with the agency, and the authorities in Norway were not surprised to hear her story when she explained who she was. They may have been wary, but no one else in the world was coming forward claiming to be the lost agent Tiffany Hwang so they didn’t question her too much.

Then when she got back home and sat in her boss’s office and he calmly asked her where the hell she had been for the past four weeks, it hit her again, and this time she cried a little because she was freaking out. Waking up in Norway with no clue of a whole month of her life was terrifying. Who knows what happened to her in that time?

She had explained the last things she remembered, and the police went hunting for Taeyeon but never found her. She, too, had disappeared without a trace, and with no living relatives or known associates, the leads died fast. They found her camera in the woods, though, neatly inscribed with her name on the side, and with a bunch of nice photos of owls in it.

But then suddenly there was Taeyeon, strolling casually down a beach.

Tiffany almost didn’t want to open this puzzle again, simply because of how it messed with her head. She stood on the other side of the two-way mirror, staring holes into Taeyeon who sat cuffed to the table with her eyes closed.

“Is she asleep?” the chief of police whispered.

“I doubt it,” Tiffany answered.

They watched her for another moment.

“What’s she doing?”

Tiffany sighed. “I have no idea.” She walked out of the room, going to the one right next to it.

Taeyeon looked up when the door opened and Tiffany walked in. They locked gazes as she moved into the room, and Tiffany noted how Taeyeon was seemingly deliberately keeping her face impassive – but as if she was trying to tamp down a smile more than anything negative.

Tiffany didn’t say anything at first, moving to sit down on the opposite side of the table and organize her notepad and pen neatly in front of her. She laced her fingers together and settled in. She and Taeyeon stared at each other, unblinkingly, until Tiffany felt like her eyes were going to water so she started talking.

“So,” she said neutrally. “For security purposes, I’m supposed to wait until another agent arrives before I formally interview you, but I’m impatient. This isn’t being recorded, but the chief of police is just on the other side of that mirror and will intervene if you try to harm me. Got that?”

Taeyeon nodded and stayed silent. She looked the same as she had that night in the woods, like nothing happened.

“Technically this is off the record,” Tiffany continued, shifting to pick up her pen. “I just want you to be honest with me.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Okay.”

“First question,” said Tiffany. “What the hell happened that night?”

Taeyeon shrugged again. She lifted her hands as if to gesture with them, but couldn’t move far with cuffs. She didn’t look bothered by that, however. “They came.”

“Who came?”

“Them. The ones we were waiting for. They came and they took you. Well, us. But they kicked me off the ship for some reason. I guess they didn’t like me. Maybe I was annoying.” She shrugged a third time, giving Tiffany her familiar shy smile. “I wasn’t sure how long they wanted to keep you. They weren’t very talkative.”

“Aliens? The aliens weren’t very talkative?”

Taeyeon winced. “I don’t really like using that word. It doesn’t seem accurate.”

Tiffany took a deep breath. “Okay. So they came and took us. Where did they take us? Did you see anything noticeable?”

Taeyeon smiled more fully. “A spaceship is quite noticeable.”

“Anything else? Did you see any memorable landmarks, hear any recognizable sounds?”

“They didn’t kidnap you, Agent Hwang. These weren’t humans who put you in a truck and took you someplace. We were in space.”

The pen in Tiffany’s hand must have nearly cracked in two. “And did you see this – space? What did you see on their space ship?”

“I don’t remember much, really. They did that to us. Mostly I remember the first day, not much after that. I looked out the window and saw all those stars. It was very pretty. I wanted to take a photo but they didn’t have my camera. I thought they would have it.”

“We have it in an evidence locker,” Tiffany said, corners of her mouth pulling tight, “because of the investigation into your abduction of a federal agent.”

Taeyeon’s lips formed a small ‘o’. “Right. I see.”

“The only photos on there were owls, Taeyeon.”

“Well, yeah. That’s all I got photos of that night when I lost it. I clear out the SD card every time, transfer the photos to my computer.”

Tiffany briefly ran a hand through her hair. “Let’s get back to the night of the abduction. How did they take us? How many of them were there? Did they use force or intoxicate us?”

Taeyeon shook her head, frowning. “Nothing like that. We went with them willingly. Four of them.”

“Male, female? Distinguishing features?”

Taeyeon stared at her like she was crazy. “They were – well, aliens, as you say. They didn’t look male, female, anything like that.”

Tiffany leaned forward. “And what did they look like, Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon seemed lost for words this time, looking at her hands. “I… I don’t know. I guess I don’t remember.”

This time the pen nearly did snap, and Tiffany tossed it down onto the table. It was getting very difficult to contain her temper.

“Taeyeon, please,” she said. “Please just tell me the truth.”

Taeyeon looked up, her expression vulnerable and weary. “That is the truth. When I took your hand – you followed me into the woods to where they were waiting, and you followed me onto the ship. We held hands all that time.” She shook her head. “Suddenly there we were, in space. They liked you the most, they liked your hair and your lips and that thing you do with your eyes. But they didn’t want to harm us. They took us into a room and I don’t remember anything after that. I was back in the woods only two days later. I heard about your disappearance, I knew I had to find you. Find them. I have that thing, you know, about all the places and times they drop people off where the environmental factors are right. So – so I went. There. Everywhere.”

She tugged gently at the chain of her cuffs.

“I didn’t make it to the Norway drop-off in time,” she mumbled. “My flight was delayed by two hours. You were gone.”

“Your flight?”

Taeyeon nodded, looking at the table.

Tiffany gaped at her. Taeyeon had gone hunting for her; all over the world, none the less?

“Weren’t the police looking for you?”

Taeyeon smiled half-heartedly. “Fake passport. I know a guy. I wasn’t a suspect yet at that time. Easy to slip through the cracks before they can catch up.”

They were silent for a few moments just watching each other and Tiffany tried to process this and ultimately failed to get all the way.

“What thing I do with my eyes?”

“What?”

“You said they liked that thing I do with my eyes. What thing?”

“Oh, you know, when you smile. You do this thing; your eyes go like –” She tried to demonstrate. “This thing.”

“I squint?”

“Well, no, not like a squint, I just, I can’t do it. It’s – you know – It’s pretty. I guess.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Aliens. Aliens abducted Tiffany – or not – or they did, or technically she went willingly and she was in space and they took her into a room and did – what? What would they have done to her? And then she was dropped off in Norway –

“Why wasn’t I covered in goo?” she said suddenly. “That coloured stuff like that victim had on him when we found him in the woods. If the aliens took him too, why didn’t I have any when they dropped me off?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Different procedures for you, maybe? I mean, you weren’t dead either. Or maybe they weren’t the same aliens. Maybe some aliens want to kill and others just want to….”

“Take us into dark rooms on their space ship and make us forget everything that happens in there?”

Taeyeon grimaced. “Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a theory in progress. I was too busy looking for you to really work on it.”

Tiffany took a good, long look at Taeyeon. She got called a kid a lot because she looked like one at first glance, but sitting across from her and talking about all of this made her realise the shadows that sometimes crossed Taeyeon’s face and settled on her shoulders.

“Do you have a bad feeling about aliens now?” asked Tiffany, somewhat gentle.

“I don’t know,” said Taeyeon quietly. “I was always so excited to meet them, but I don’t know what they did to us. I’m… I’m confused. I’m not happy.”

“Look, Taeyeon, I’m not saying I believe you. This investigation must continue until we can confirm what happened and where we both were during that month of my disappearance. Until we know what’s going on, you’re still a suspect in my abduction. But since we’re off the record….”

She glanced over her shoulder at the two-way mirror, and looked back at Taeyeon.

“Why would you come looking for me?”

Taeyeon glanced at her, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“The previous aliens killed that guy, and possibly others, so how would you have known you’d find me alive?”

Taeyeon pursed her lips for a moment. “I didn’t know. I didn’t think about that. They didn’t… I mean they didn’t seem like they wanted to kill you. And they didn’t kill me. I don’t know. I just wanted to find you. You came with me onto that ship when I know you didn’t want to be there originally, you were in the process of leaving. You took that leap because of something I said while we were waiting for them. You – you took my hand. So, I just wanted to find you.”

She was kind of afraid of an answer like that.

Tiffany stood up suddenly, her chair scraping back, and picked up her notepad and pen. “The other agents will be here soon to do a formal interview.”

She was at the door when Taeyeon spoke again.

“Tiffany.”

They looked at each other.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” said Taeyeon. “I didn’t know what to do when the news said you were found in Norway. Everything got buried fast after that. I kind of wandered around, hoping I’d figure out what to do. But I’m glad they didn’t hurt you.”

Tiffany hesitated, nodded, and left the room without a word. On the other side, she leaned against the closed door and sighed.

Either Taeyeon was a sociopath who abducted her, or she was somehow telling the truth – and that would mean that she was actually quite sweet.

________________________________________________________________

“I’m aware of how it sounds, sir,” said Tiffany for the hundredth time. “I’m just saying there are two possibilities here and that’s only one of them.”

“Two? Two possibilities? I don’t think so, Agent Hwang.”

Tiffany watched her boss pace back and forth behind his desk, his face worn and his steps heavy. She wasn’t sure what was more troubling for him right now – the concept of someone like Taeyeon abducting a federal agent or the possibility that one of his agents was expressing a belief in aliens.

“Did she brainwash you? Is that it?”

The latter, then.

“No, sir, she didn’t brainwash me. There’s more to this case than it appears, that’s all. That’s my opinion as an agent and as the… victim.” A word she hadn’t used to describe herself before.

Her boss stopped pacing and turned to look at her, stern. “Look, Hwang, you’re a good agent and a good person. At the start of that case you were certain there was no ‘extra-terrestrial’ activity and that it was a simple serial killer. Then you run off into the woods with this kid and find yourself in Norway a month later. Tell me clearly and honestly, do you believe that you were abducted by aliens?”

“I… honestly don’t know. And that’s why I’m saying we should investigate it.”

He shook his head. “Just because you know doesn’t mean the other option isn’t concrete. You were the victim here, despite how little you take that position. Who knows what she could have done to you in that month? No offense, but your opinion in this is not relevant in that manner and cannot be trusted.”

“You did a tox screen when I showed up – no drugs. There was a medical examination – no sign of force or abuse. All the psychology tests showed was that I had a huge gap in my memory and nothing different from my recruitment tests. She didn’t drug me, abuse me, or brainwash me. This is my own opinion that I formed as myself – a federal agent who doesn’t remember a month of her life and randomly woke up in Norway one day.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way for this one. We’re taking this investigation as a human abducting a federal agent, nothing more. We can’t waste time on aliens.”

“Just let me do it! You guys continue your investigation, and I’ll do my own. I can take leave so I’m not wasting government money – ”

“Would you listen to yourself? You’re asking to take unpaid leave to go alien hunting! Have you lost your mind? I can’t let you do this. You need to either stay focused on your job or go on an actual vacation and get some help to cope with what’s happened to you. Please, Agent Hwang.”

She stared at him, jaw clenched. She knew she sounded absurd and a while ago she would have felt the exact same way he did – the same way she felt when she first encountered Taeyeon at a crime scene and wanted to dismiss her. But things were different now. She wasn’t sure what happened, and that alone was enough to make her want to find out; whether it was aliens or not.

“Fine,” she said eventually, forcing herself to relax. “You’re right. I’ve been burying my feelings since it happened. The stress is getting to me, and I’m just so desperate for answers, to know what’s real. I mean, it just doesn’t seem so simple that someone like Taeyeon could do that to me. And I don’t even know what happened. It’s all so overwhelming.”

He nodded sympathetically when she met his gaze.

“I should take a vacation. Go someplace peaceful and get to know myself again. You guys can handle the investigation and find the answers and when I get back, everything will be okay again. Right?”

He smiled in a fatherly way, and sat down at his desk. “Right.”

Tiffany left his office with his blessings and stayed demure and sensible all the way down the corridor until she got in the elevator. Then she started planning.

In order to get Taeyeon out of the highly secure government building without anyone noticing, Tiffany would have to make sure to do it before anyone knew she was meant to be going on vacation. She had to use the illusion that she was still allowed to be involved in this case. And that meant she would have to do it right now. She glanced at her watch. There wasn’t time for anything fancy or too complex – no cover stories or waiting for the change of the guard or even a chance to scope it out and see how many agents were hovering around Taeyeon right now. She was going to have to walk in blind, take Taeyeon, and walk right out again.

She hit the button for the basement, keying in the password when prompted. Her security clearance for that floor would be placed on hold as soon as her boss finished the paperwork for her leave of absence. Of course, when he found out about what she was doing, her clearance would probably be permanently revoked – along with her job and possibly freedom. Kidnapping a federal agent may have been a serious offense, but smuggling the alleged kidnapper out of government custody in the middle of the investigation was just as bad.

Tiffany closed her eyes, focusing on her breathing. This was a big deal, she knew. And that was why she wasn’t thinking about it yet. Not only was time of the essence in order for this to be successful, but the more she thought about it the less likely she would be to take this risk.

Then again, the last time she spontaneously took a risk, she woke up a month later in Norway.

Oh well.

The justification was the same.

Taeyeon.

The first time in the forest, she took Taeyeon’s hand and went to the aliens because the look on Taeyeon’s face amazed her. Taeyeon’s search for aliens led here. Taeyeon was finding what she’d always looked for. Taeyeon herself was a puzzle, a weird kid – or not a kid – who ran around hunting aliens and being really sweet about it.

This time, it was still Taeyeon. The Taeyeon who had met the aliens and been dumped back on her home planet with no memory and without Tiffany. The Taeyeon who then went on to run around hunting Tiffany because they had gone up together and then she was gone. The Taeyeon who was still looking for answers.

When the elevator doors opened, Tiffany was ready.

Her badge got her past the first line of defense, through all the guards and into the interrogation room that held Taeyeon and one more agent who stood by the door. Once she closed the door behind her, Tiffany briefly considered her options as she nodded politely to the other agent. She could either make an excuse to get him to leave so that she could explain the plan to Taeyeon in private, or she could just do it right now. And considering there wasn’t much of a plan, she easily chose to go with the latter.

“She has to come with me,” said Tiffany, pointing in Taeyeon’s direction. “Right now.”

The agent tilted his head to one side and regarded her. “What for? I have no information about this.”

“Your lack of information is your own problem,” said Tiffany. “I’m here to do my job even if you aren’t.”

It was an aggressive approach, and she could see the agent bristle at the attitude. He squared his shoulders.

“I understand that you are a senior agent but I have orders, and letting people waltz in and take this suspect to an unknown location is not part of those orders.”

Internally, Tiffany deflated. If he was going to get dramatic about it, this would take longer.

“I don’t have time for this,” Tiffany said. “She’s coming with me. If you try to stop me, you’ll just be causing a whole lot of trouble for yourself. The process that’s involved when one agent gets away of another – you don’t want that, do you?”

He was frowning, clearly not happy with the situation. But he glanced at Taeyeon, and back at Tiffany. “Fine. Go on. You’re more likely to get in trouble for this than I am.”

She shrugged nonchalantly, and gestured at Taeyeon to follow as she opened the door again.

They made it back down the corridor in silence. When Tiffany pressed the elevator button for the carpark, she knew by the way all the guards were staring at her that she was already in trouble. It sank in for the first time; she just lost her job.

The elevator doors closed, and Taeyeon let out a breath.

“Wow, that was intense. So, where are we going?”

“Far away, and as fast as humanly possible,” answered Tiffany, checking her watch.

“So you really are helping me escape? I wasn’t sure. This is great!”

“Could you tone down your enthusiasm?” The elevator slowed to a halt. “We still have to get out of here without bullets flying.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Taeyeon flicked off half a salute, and then the elevator doors opened.

It was quiet. Tiffany strode ahead with confidence and didn’t glance around at the dimly lit parked cars. There was little chance that anyone would be here to stop them already.

When they reached her SUV, she whipped out the keys and unlocked the doors, only now choosing to check over her shoulder at the silent elevator. Still no pursuit yet.

Taeyeon seemed to enjoy being in the leather seats again, wiggling down before putting on her seatbelt, and Tiffany shook her head in disbelief.

“No wonder people call you a kid,” she murmured, and started the engine.

“Yeah, yeah,” Taeyeon responded, rolling her eyes. “I’m assuming we need to get out of here before we discuss our next step, right? Let’s drive.”

Tiffany looked over at her and settled her hands on the steering wheel pointedly. “Yes. Let’s.”

The guard at the exit scanned her ID and waved her through with no questions asked. The perimeter was much the same. By the time they hit the open road, Tiffany was frowning. Should that have been so easy? Having never done this before, she had no frame of reference.

“So, where to?” asked Taeyeon, digging in the glove department. When she found Tiffany’s sunglasses, she slipped them on and smiled at Tiffany.

Tiffany checked all the rear-view mirrors as she answered. “Well, since I’ve clearly lost my mind, I figured I’d go all out. We’re going back to the forest to find those aliens.”

Taeyeon tilted her head to one side, eyes hidden by the glasses. “You really want to find them?”

“I really want to find something, definitely. I need to know something, anything, everything. If there are aliens, I want to punch them in the face for what they did to us. Whatever it is. I don’t like it. They took advantage of us – probably – and they kidnapped us – kind of – and they dropped me in Norway with no memories. I am so pissed off.”

Taeyeon smiled again. “There we go. Now that is something I can accept. I’ll check my calculations, but considering what time of year it is, that forest should be a possible location for them to visit again.”

“Don’t think you’re getting off easy,” Tiffany said, glancing at her. “I’m mad at you too.”

“What? What for?”

“You’re the reason I was there that night and you’re the reason I went towards the aliens instead of in the other direction. And you’re the reason I broke several laws and lost my job to go looking for those same aliens!”

Taeyeon raised her hands helplessly. “I’m…. sorry?”

Tiffany sighed, and shook her head. She flicked the indicator to make a turn. “Never mind. You can’t help it. I’m just frustrated with you right now.”

The sunglasses were removed and Taeyeon peered more closely at her. “Then I really am sorry. I don’t want you to be frustrated with me. I want you to be okay.”

The car slowed as they approached an intersection, getting closer to the city centre. Tiffany looked over at Taeyeon as they waited in traffic, her heartbeat calming. Eventually she willed herself to reach over and touch Taeyeon lightly on the arm.

“I am okay,” she said softly. “Because we’re finally doing something. And in the same way that I blame you for a lot of things, it’s also your fault that I’m able to take action and find some answers. So…. I am okay.”

This made Taeyeon stare at her for quite a while. Tiffany removed her hand when traffic moved and she had to focus on driving again, and she felt Taeyeon’s gaze leave her face as they drove through the city and out the other side. It would take a few hours to reach the forest; Tiffany was surprised to find that she did not consider the atmosphere with Taeyeon to be uncomfortable.

They didn’t speak much until they were on the outskirts of their destination. The town was much like Tiffany remembered it, restful and stagnant. The sun was setting in the distance, casting a sleepy air over the diner where they ordered dinner and coffee.

Taeyeon took her time to inspect the posters on the wall beside their booth as if she had never seen them before, and Tiffany watched her do so.

“Does it bother you?”

Taeyeon turned, raised her eyebrows questioningly.

“Does it bother you that they dropped you off early?” asked Tiffany. She got more settled in her seat, and toyed with the coffee in front of her. “They kept me for longer but not you. How did that make you feel?”

Taeyeon smiled eventually. Then she even laughed a little. “It doesn’t bother me. My ego’s not bruised, if that’s what you were thinking. I wasn’t interesting enough and you were. It’s no big deal.”

Tiffany watched her carefully, wondering if that was so. “It really doesn’t bother you? You’ve spent years devoting your time and energy to finding these creatures, defiantly keeping your position as a believer despite how it alienated you from your peers. And then they just cast you aside – that didn’t make you unhappy?”

“Firstly; ‘alienated’ – nice one. Secondly, no, it didn’t make me unhappy.” Taeyeon looked away for a second, as if contemplating her options, then spoke again. “I spent years looking for them and believing in them, but it’s not like I idolized them. I didn’t want anything from them, or want them to be interested in me. I just wanted to know if I was right or not. My whole life, I’ve been uncertain of those around me and of my future. I stubbornly believed in the presence of extra-terrestrial beings, yes, but that’s because it was one thing I knew couldn’t be taken away from me that easily. There’s no definitive proof that they exist, not enough anyway, and there’s no proof that they cannot possibly exist. Maybe I have been lying to myself or making it sound better in my mind. The picture I had of them in my head is that – as advanced as they may be – they’re flawed. Extra-terrestrial in origin and appearance but as human as the rest of us in their wants or pursuits.”

“Had? You don’t think of them in that way anymore?”

Taeyeon sighed. “Maybe I was a little disappointed. Not because they cast me aside or kept you for longer or made us forget whatever they did to us. Not even because what they did may have been really bad. I was disappointed because it’s still not an answer. Something happened, some creatures came, but that was it. I have nothing to show for it but an open arrest warrant for a severe crime. The image I have of them now is… darkness. Worry. Because I didn’t know where they took you. I was uncomfortable. I used to get swept up in the excitement, the mystery of finding them. The reality has negative connotations now. I don’t like them – but it’s an uncertain reaction, not a conclusion.”

Tiffany shook her head. “I don’t know how you do this, Taeyeon. These past few days, these past few months I felt like I was losing my mind. Aliens. Losing my memory. Norway. Finding my alleged kidnapper and then breaking her out of a secure facility so that we can go alien hunting. It’s absurd. This isn’t me. Don’t you doubt yourself like that?”

“I know who I am. It just so happens that this is normal behaviour for me.” She grinned briefly. “Or rather, I have a different concept of my normal behaviour. As long as I still hold some of the same values and treat others the same way, I know I’m not crazy.”

“No, you’re not crazy,” Tiffany murmured. She rested her chin on one hand. “You’re a really nice person, you know?”

Taeyeon looked away, shy. “Thanks. And you’re a very passionate person. I know everything you do is because you care.”

Tiffany opened her mouth, then shut it again. One thing she was not going to do right now was encourage this line of discussion any further, because she knew exactly where it went and that scared her.

Aliens first. Feelings later.

She raised a hand to summon the waiter. The night was forming outside, and it was time to go.

________________________________________________________________

“I can’t believe I’m sitting in these woods waiting for aliens. Again.” Tiffany shifted, trying to get comfortable on the cold hard ground. “We didn’t even get a blanket this time.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Taeyeon said quietly, eyes on the sky. “You seemed like you were in a hurry. And I kind of don’t have any stuff any more.”

Tiffany looked over at her in the darkness, noticing the way the moonlight lined the features of her profile the same way it had the night of the abduction. “What do you mean you don’t have any stuff?”

“Well when I left everything behind to go looking for you, I didn’t really settle down anywhere,” she replied. “I just have one bag with some clothes and all my money.”

Tiffany shook her head, looked around, and shook her head again. “I can’t believe you.”

Taeyeon looked at her at last, frowning. “What? I’m not lying – ”

“No, I don’t mean it like that. I can’t believe you did that – left everything behind to go looking for me. Didn’t you have a life here? You abandoned all of that just for me?”

Taeyeon blinked at her slowly. “Oh. I didn’t have much of a life around here. I did odd jobs and sold some photos and calendars. Everyone thought I was weird so I didn’t exactly have friends. No one missed me.”

Tiffany moved closer, slightly, until the edge of her leg brushed lightly against Taeyeon’s. “I did. Probably. I don’t remember, obviously, and maybe I wasn’t even conscious but I probably missed you while I was up there.”

Taeyeon smiled, re-positioning so their legs pressed firmly together. “Are you saying you believe it for sure now? The aliens, the spaceship?”

Tiffany sighed deeply. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m sitting out here waiting for aliens again, aren’t I? I don’t know what I believe. I’m investigating.”

“It’s okay,” said Taeyeon. She reached over and took Tiffany’s hand, holding it in her own lap.  “It’s okay if that’s what happened, and it’s okay if you find yourself capable of accepting it as an option or even as fact. It’s okay.”

The world around them reached a level of quietness that signaled the deepness of the night; no birds, no insects, no wind in the leaves – and the sky was clear of clouds and speckled with stars.

Tiffany laced their fingers together, and shook her head half-heartedly this time.

“I need answers,” she murmured. “I need to know what they did to us. They’ve affected my whole life.”

The light pressure of Taeyeon’s thumb moving back and forth over Tiffany’s hand was comforting in the dark stillness of the night.

Tiffany wasn’t sure what changed between them and when. Maybe it was the supposed shared experience with the aliens, or the way Taeyeon talked about what happened after she was returned. She knew Taeyeon could still be pretending, could still be dangerous and still somehow responsible for abducting her and brainwashing her, but –

She pulled back, separating their lips.

“Did you just kiss me?”

Taeyeon looked somewhat scared. “Uh, yeah.”

Tiffany stared. “Oh. Okay.”

They both looked away, up at the stars, around at the silent trees. Then Tiffany turned back, touched Taeyeon’s jaw gently, and kissed her.

She focused on the feel of Taeyeon’s mouth against hers, Taeyeon’s fingers in her hair, their legs still pressing together, the closeness of her. Anything to bury the thoughts in her mind that were sending warning signals and disbelief coursing through her body.

This time when she pulled back, Tiffany was prepared to allow the rush of conflicting emotions to pour out of her but she never got the chance.

Her view of Taeyeon’s stunned expression was obstructed by the bright white light that surrounded them – it was familiar and yet it had been so long since that first night that it didn’t seem the same. The loud cracking and slamming sounds of metal rung through the air again, then the screeching and thumping as this time the light flickered three times before disappearing.

Taeyeon and Tiffany jumped to their feet, holding their breath, and glanced around at the once again silent forest.

“Where is it?” whispered Tiffany, her words brushing past her lips in the suddenly cold air.

“I don’t know,” Taeyeon answered. She gripped Tiffany’s forearm. “Should we go looking for it? Do you think they’ll come to us?”

“They might not even be here for us or know that we’re here.” Tiffany slowly edged forward in one direction, tugging Taeyeon with her. “Let’s try over here, I think that’s where the noise was coming from.”

Whether the noise really came from there or not was immaterial, because they managed three steps before everything went black.

If aliens were real or if Taeyeon was a killer, Tiffany didn’t know. All she knew was being completely alone in utter darkness.

The first time Tiffany was alone in a forest with Taeyeon, the night ended with an unseen force pulling her further and further past the trees, tightly holding onto Taeyeon’s hand. Maybe it was all just her imagination and there was no force, no pressure emanating from a mysterious source. Maybe there were no aliens and Tiffany really did lose her mind. She must have gone mad to be in that forest again, at night, with Taeyeon, waiting for aliens. To kiss Taeyeon.

Maybe she was back with those aliens. Was she with Taeyeon this time?

And then she knew nothing at all.

look forward

Taeyeon has a rhythm. She’s found a way to move her fingers in a smoothly flowing pattern, making the finest movements with the sweetest timing. She manipulates the use of her hands to the tightest degree. A comfortable control is gained over everything.

Tiffany… has a lot of heart.

“I don’t get it!” Tiffany huffs in frustration, once again,  flailing. “How are you getting it so perfectly right? I’m sure we’re doing the exact same things at the exact same time.”

“You just don’t have the touch,” Taeyeon replies in an exceedingly casual way, like all she’s doing is breathing and that’s obvious. “I’ve been told I have a certain magic when it comes to this.”

Tiffany rolls her eyes. “Yeah, who told you that?”

“Sunny.”

“What, really?”

“Yeah. The queen herself pronounced me to be a true gift to the art.”

There comes a spattering of noise and violent imagery from the screen and Tiffany squeals.

“Oh come on! What did I do this time?”

“You ran straight towards that guy while he was shooting you, point-blank, in the face.”

“What? I did not. When did I do that?”

“Just – never mind, just try again. I’ll wait for you at the checkpoint.”

Tiffany sighs, and if it’s a little unnecessarily dramatic Taeyeon doesn’t notice. The controller in Tiffany’s hands gets shuffled around a bit as she pretends to practice the combos and readjust her grip, then there’s the beginning of a cut scene before they start again.

The focus this time is more intense, both of them leaning forward slightly and barely blinking as they move their characters this way and that, brush over some buttons and smash others with an urgent determination when something changes on the screen.

“We can get that guy easier if we split up,” mumbles Taeyeon, running a finger over two buttons at once to create a chain reaction of virtual abilities.

“I know,” says Tiffany, and that’s all she has to say.

“I’m coming from behind,” Taeyeon announces.

Tiffany twitches but doesn’t laugh out loud. They get the guy and make a good run of it before Tiffany goes ahead of Taeyeon and starts taking on the enemies one-on-one.

“Woah there, hey, what, what are you doing?”

This time Tiffany begins to grin. “I thought maybe I could get these guys on my own. How about you just watch for a bit?”

Taeyeon’s expression is hilarious but Tiffany doesn’t look too much, because she’s fighting one against five now and winning so someone had better be watching, at least.

The quantity of red and black in the colour scheme of the images increases as Tiffany’s character takes more and more damage until it’s just her and two others – even when the screen flashes and something titles the situation ‘critical’ it’s followed by a blaring ‘ultimate combo’ and a bright ‘five-kill player streak’ and then Tiffany is laughing for real and in full at the look on Taeyeon’s face.

“What…”

Tiffany takes the opportunity to grab the last slice of pizza and chews triumphantly while she turns to Taeyeon, putting her controller to one side now that the fight is over. She’s undeniably amused and it’s clear why. Taeyeon finds this all beyond comprehension.

“We’ve been playing this game for a month,” she says, slowly, “you’ve never in all that time done anything but struggle!”

Tiffany raises her eyebrows. “You really thought I was that bad?”

“Well yeah, you weren’t doing well. Don’t trick me into saying you sucked, because you weren’t that bad but you definitely weren’t that good! I mean, I’ve never even gotten the ulti-”

She snaps her mouth shut.

Tiffany parts her lips in surprise and delight. “What was that? Did you say you’ve never even gotten the ultimate combo?”

Taeyeon frowns. “Well…. I mean, I’ve been close. Anyway how did you get this good so suddenly?!”

“You’ve been working overtime a lot,” Tiffany shrugs, looks away, doesn’t express how she really feels about that,”so I’ve been practicing when I’m home alone.”

“Oh.”

They sit there, soaking that moment up, before Tiffany grins again and puts her pizza down. She cracks her knuckles in jest.

“And you should have known I couldn’t possibly be that bad at this game,” she teases. “Surely you wouldn’t deny I have a certain level of skill with my hands?”

Her wink makes Taeyeon blush three different shades and then cough nervously.

“Well, when you put it that way…..”

Tiffany laughs, full-bodied and happy. The evenings she spent feeling lonely were used to make something for when she wasn’t alone, and it was definitely worth it.

She’s the one who gets the surprise this time when Taeyeon suddenly kisses her.

“Thank you,” Taeyeon murmurs, staying close, and they smile at each other. For long moments, they stay like that, especially when the screen times out and it’s quiet, dark, soft, the game as good as completed.

A goodbye

272 days and counting.

It’s all Tiffany can think about for hours. Every day. As soon as she wakes up, as soon as she registers that it’s another new morning – any time she sees the date, the squares on her calendar, some crossed out, smudged in ink – her heart would beat along to those numbers.

She likes to do silly little things that are like stepping stones on the way to the Big Day. The first week, the first month, the second month – she’d draw tiny hearts on the respective days on her calendar, more hearts as the meter went on, until they got bigger and took up the whole square.  She takes pictures of the marks with her phone and sends them, along with many blushing emojis, to her one and only – who doesn’t really understand what they mean.

Tiffany is cheesy enough to think of terms like ‘one and only’ because not only do they incite reactions of reluctant amusement and dimpled grins, but they match how she is feeling. This is it. This is the one. She is in love. Unlike ‘one and only’, she is stuck with another phrase. The hated phrase. The inevitable.

“If only.”

“If only what?”

“If only we could see each other sooner,” says Tiffany, pasting on a smile that wouldn’t hold still and didn’t work at all. “I miss you.”

She was counting towards 300, because that’s another cheesy little mark of progress, and it was the mark that measures how long she has been in love with Taeyeon.

Taeyeon, who tilts her head to one side, making the image blur momentarily, and tries to look into Tiffany’s soul.

It’s not the measure of a relationship. They wouldn’t be a couple for 300 days.

They wouldn’t even be a couple for one day, let alone one hundred, let alone eternity.

But she wishes.

She implies it. She tries to find some way to tell Taeyeon how she feels and explain in eloquent and precise reasoning why and how they should be together forever – but she can’t do it. Not because she doesn’t want to, or because she’s afraid, but because she simply cannot explain how they will be together.

The image of Taeyeon shudders as the laptop on the other side of the world is moved. Taeyeon’s tilting it, moving closer, smiling comfortingly at her.

“It’s okay. I’ll see you soon. Not as soon as we’d like, but… I’m still working on that time travel thing.”

Tiffany grimaces. “You say that every time we Skype. I know you’re not developing a method for time travel, Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon shrugs.  “Hey, I could be. How do you know what I get up to in my spare time?”

It’s just teasing, but it hurts. For one thing, Tiffany has no idea what Taeyeon really gets up to in her spare time – she could be meeting new people, new special people, who make her feel like this. And for another thing; spare time. Was talking to Tiffany so much work?

But no. She can’t think like that. So what if sometimes Taeyeon doesn’t feel like talking? So what if she only does it because she wants to make sure Tiffany is okay? It still counts. And it’s all Tiffany is going to get.

272 days of this. And counting.

It’s bullshit. And she accepts it.

She takes a deep breath, though, and she rolls her eyes in jest. As per usual. It’s another chat, going the same way all the others have done before, and will forever. Or just for now.

She doesn’t know.

Neither does Taeyeon.

All the way on the other side of the world, on the other side of the laptop, Taeyeon has a different countdown in mind.

10 years and 272 days – and counting.

It’s how long she’s known she can’t develop a method for time travel and she can’t create a practical theory for teleportation. The years are measured by how long she’s been in love with Tiffany, and the days are measured by how long since she realised it would definitely, most certainly, never be a thing.

She would never be able to kiss Tiffany. She would never be able to go on a date with Tiffany. She would never be able to point Tiffany out in a crowd and say yeah, that’s my girlfriend, and I can say with only an average amount of insecurity that she loves me back, just as much as I love her, just as strongly, and she’s looking right at me.

Sure, she could say something like yeah that’s my best friend, way over there in that other country, wave at her through the webcam and provided there’s wifi here she may even give me a smile and a ‘how was your day’ because she’s not here.

But that’s just sad.

So Taeyeon is sad. She hopes Tiffany is not. As she watches her now, in the millionth video call of twenty seven million,  she thinks maybe Tiffany is a little different. A little slower, the way she blinks, the way her lips move when she’s talking and thinking and blowing Taeyeon a kiss at the end of the call – like she means it, like she wants it to reach her, like she –

No, she’s not different. She’s Tiffany, she’s Taeyeon. It’s a video call. They’ve talked about family, work, school, friends, news, games, movies, music, it’s been two hours and Taeyeon’s puppy has jumped up to greet Tiffany’s puppy and still she doesn’t know how long this will go on for.

She just takes it.

Whatever she can get.

Final morsels for a drowning girl. This is all she’ll get and it will run out one day, probably, it must.

And they accept it.

“Well, I’d better go.” move on

“Yeah, me too.” get over you

“Same time next week?” we won’t have this

“Of course. See you then.” goodbye

goodbye