Play the Ace. (three)

The first time Taeyeon sleeps in Tiffany’s bed is only a week after their first date. They go to an arts festival where they walk all day long between bits and pieces that express people’s dreams and fears. Afterwards they have dinner by the lake – fresh fish and wine – and they talk about it all. It brings them closer and closer, until they end up still tangled together on Tiffany’s bed whispering about their own thoughts and feelings, opening their hearts and minds to be pulled nearer.

Tiffany locks their fingers together, stretches both of their arms up like they’re reaching for something, and then she presses against Taeyeon’s body and kisses her deeply.

Taeyeon is a bit breathless when they pause, so Tiffany looks at her quietly. It’s already dark outside, the lights in the rest of the apartment off, a tiny beside lamp the only thing providing vision in the room. It accentuates the planes of Taeyeon’s face, the curve of her cheek, the strands of her hair.

“Are you afraid of moving too fast?” she whispers.

Taeyeon lowers their hands, disengaging her fingers to rest them along Tiffany’s jaw. “No, not really. This is…. You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever known. You’re special, and this is special.”

“What are you afraid of?”

Taeyeon kisses her first before answering. “I’m afraid of heights. Fire. Being hated. Public speaking, a little.”

Tiffany smiles. “And where does this rate on that scale? Our relationship.”

“I’m not afraid of this. This could be the best relationship of our lives. We can make each other happy, and stronger.”

“You sound sure,” Tiffany observes. “We’ve only known each other for a week.”

Taeyeon shrugs, curls up a little, and her hand slips to rest on the side of Tiffany’s neck.

“I’m not afraid of you. Not you.

How is it possible that it still feels like the first time?

Even now, lying with Taeyeon for what must be the thousandth time, a different night but the same light caressing her lover’s features, Taeyeon’s mouth set in comfort.

“Thank you for not leaving me,” Tiffany casts out towards Taeyeon.

Taeyeon’s lips curve slightly downwards, making her look sadder than she should. “You know I won’t leave you.”

Tiffany sighs. “I think I know that.”

Her response causes Taeyeon to frown. She shuffles closer on the bed, hooks an ankle over Tiffany’s, kisses her softly on the nose. “I won’t leave you. And I’m sorry if you’re not as sure of that as you used to be before we talked about it.”

“Will you be honest with me now, then? Please?”

Taeyeon closes her eyes and Tiffany is afraid she won’t answer. She wraps her arms around the body before her and holds her close.

“You told me to go to that meeting and tell them what I want, and I did,” Tiffany says. “I want to win the election and I want you. So, I told them that.”

“It’s not the same, what you told them. What if everyone finds out about us? You have to change the world first.”

Tiffany pulls back. “When we first started dating, you seemed like you knew what you were getting in to. Like you knew we would reach this point one day. What did you think would happen – ”

“Not like this,” Taeyeon interrupts, tensing so the muscles in her neck look tighter. She sat up and dislodged their physical connection. “I thought – I thought you could get through the election, build up the image and the career, and then maybe…”

“Maybe?! You thought maybe then I would tell everyone about the love of my life? Taeyeon,” Tiffany protests, “it’s not a maybe for me, and I didn’t think it was for you either. I want to do this. Definitely.”

They sit there in the rumpled sheets and near-darkness of the bedroom they share so often, and Tiffany hates the glistening of Taeyeon’s eyes, the look that lies beneath. Had they just changed rhythm at the same time to reach a new contrast? Now that Tiffany was no longer uncertain about their relationship, was Taeyeon?

“When did this happen?” Tiffany whispers. “How long have you been feeling this way? Like you… like you’re not sure if you want to be with me anymore when I need you the most.”

The way Taeyeon covers her face with her hands tells her everything, as much as she loathes to believe it. She crawls off the bed, shaky on her feet, and makes it to the couch in the living room before she starts crying.

She knows Taeyeon follows her and is standing a few feet away in her shirt and shorts with her messy hair and she won’t look at her because it would be too much.

“I thought when you came here tonight… It seemed like it meant you were with me on this. Like you were going to stand by me and help me with this.”

Taeyeon hasn’t said a word and Tiffany tries to curl up into her absolute smallest.

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry,” Taeyeon says, eventually, her voice soft. “It’s not like that. Really. I want to be here for you, with you, and I love you. I want to have this relationship with you.”

Tiffany raises her head a little and rests it on her arms, tries to slow her tears. “What is it then? Because it feels like you’re pulling away from me. Is it the campaign, do you not want to run it?”

Taeyeon is already shaking her head. She tugs aimlessly at the hem of her t-shirt. “I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. And that’s me being completely honest with you. I don’t know what’s making me feel this way, making me unsure and afraid. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you.”

The words leave Tiffany to regard Taeyeon in silence, her body settling again as she stopped crying. They stare at each other in the middle of the living room, the middle of the night.

Tiffany slowly unfolds herself. She stands and goes to Taeyeon, pulling her into a hug. She wishes she was moving with the same confidence and comfortableness as she was in the past.

But something has changed.

Her movements don’t feel as definite, as solid as they used to.

She closes her eyes, presses her face into Taeyeon’s hair who returns the embrace with the same lightness and fragility.

“So we’re going to do this? All of this?”

Taeyeon’s fingers tighten on Tiffany’s back, briefly yanking at the fabric of her clothes. She shifts her head and they kiss, barely touching at first, then firmer.

“Yes.”

So they will. But Tiffany carries with her the ghost of fear, uncertainty, and sometimes when Taeyeon holds her hand or tells her how much she loves her, that little ghost doesn’t believe her at all.

She’s looking at a photo on her phone, one they took years ago at the art festival when they just started dating, as she sips coffee in her father’s study. At the time, she wished she could have made it her profile picture on social media – the thought makes her pause now. She still wishes she could. She wishes she could post all sorts of photos of them, going on dates, lazing around the house, playing games, celebrating anniversaries. The secrecy they’d been using as their relationship developed carried a giant lock that she wanted to open.

“Here are some of the files,” her father says as he re-enters the room, his eyes on the open folders in his hands, “I wasn’t able to find much from my initial schedules before I was given a manager, but –” He stops short of his desk, looking at his daughter. “Are you all right?”

Tiffany wipes her face, shoves her phone away. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Her father’s face shows his opinion of the blatant lie.

Tiffany turns her head, avoiding the stare.

With shuffling steps, her father continues to his chair and spreads the files out in front of him as he sits.

“I think it’s time for us to have a talk,” her father says. “The Talk. Or one of them, anyway. You’re about to enter a dangerous world, Tiffany. Politics can be dirty and the media is cut-throat. If there’s anything scandalous in your life that affects your performance and your image they will –”

“And what about you?” Tiffany asks, frowning. “If there’s something like that in my life, how will you react?”

Her father doesn’t seem surprised at the question. He seems to pick his words carefully as he answers, “You are my daughter. I’m here to help you. If someone is hurting you, tell me.”

“Unlike the media and politicians who will tear me apart, right?” Tiffany shakes her head. “Never mind. You know we don’t need to have that talk, Dad. You gave me the minor version when I was a teenager.”

He smiles a little at the memory. “Yes, but back then we had a strict no-dating rule and you had a curfew. Now you’re an adult with your own personal life and your own home.” He looks down for a moment. “I know it’s hard for you to talk to me sometimes about your life because I’m not just your father, I’m a public figure. But now you will be too. I want to make sure you’re ready professionally and personally.”

Tiffany takes a deep breath and lets it all out. “There is someone,” she admits. “I’m dating someone. I don’t know if now’s a good time to tell you, even though… I mean, I’ve been seeing this person for quite a while but I never told you.”

Her father’s eyebrows shoot up at this. “Oh. Oh, I see.”

There’s an awkward pause.

“Are you two fighting? Is that why you looked so sad?”

Tiffany curls the fingers of one hand into a fist and directs her gaze to it. “We’ve been fighting a lot lately. My decision to run in the election is making things… tense.”

“I understand,” her father says, and nods. “I know the effect that sort of thing can have on relationships. Your mother and I….” But he doesn’t finish. “When you’re ready, please tell me. Whenever you’re ready. I’ll be patient. And if the fighting gets too much, if you need help from your Dad, tell me.”

Before all the arguments with Taeyeon, and all the doubts, Tiffany would have told him right then and there. She would have looked him in the eye and said I’m in love with Taeyeon. It would have been the right time, when they were about to enter this political race as a team and as their relationship grew stronger. Instead their relationship was tentative, not shattered and not yet cracked at the edges, but wavering even if temporarily.

“I will,” she says, and that’s all she can say.

Her father smiles at her.

He’s smiling again days later as he waits off to one side at her press conference. She swallows her nerves and nods at him, and she walks out into the path of camera lenses and flashes of photographs. The crowd is muttering but eagerly awaiting her voice.

Taeyeon stands next to her father, staring at her along with everyone else in the room but her gaze is different. Tiffany looks back at her, briefly, hit with the feeling of love and admiration that she wasn’t sure she could keep expecting from Taeyeon. Bolstered, she turns to the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for coming to hear me speak today.”

She knows Taeyeon is still watching her closely. She imagines she’s holding her breath in anticipation.

“After much media speculation, I can now formally announce -”

She tries to stop thinking, to just speak. She should say these words.

“– I will be running for office in the coming election.”

The camera flashes flare up in response, a wave of murmuring echoing throughout the crowd as journalists react.

True, it shouldn’t be much of a shock to them.

“I seek to lead our people…”

For months, there were whispers and questions.

“… to the greater and stronger futures…”

Were they excited that she was going through with it? Did they think she would make the game interesting, help them write more and sell more and say more about her?

Did they think she was silly, a fool, and about to fall flat on her face?

“… and will finally have a hand in creating.”

Suddenly, her eyes snap towards Taeyeon, seeking her out. She wants Taeyeon to know this. She’s not speaking only to the media and the public.

“Together, we can do what should be done for the world we want and need.”

Taeyeon closes her eyes.

Tiffany smiles at the journalists, barely able to see them through their cameras.

“Thank you.”

Her father steps up beside her and they pose for some photos, then Taeyeon joins them and leans towards the microphone, her shoulder brushing against Tiffany’s.

“Ms Hwang will now take four questions,” she says succinctly, already scanning the crowd for journalists they’re familiar with.

“Will your policies be intended to carry on your father’s legacy in this city?”

For the last time, I’m not my father. “Not intentionally. My father and I share many views on the world, but we are different people from different generations. I will do what I need to do.”

“Do you think with your image as the good daughter, you could really make an influence on the voters?”

They’ll see me. “I think my image thus far has been beneficial. Likewise, I am confident that voters will know all they need to know about me to make an informed decision at the polls.”

“You’ve been quiet about your life until now, how do you feel about the prospect of putting yourself out there?”

“Again, I am confident voters will know all they need to know about me to make an informed decision at the polls.”

She sees, out of the corner of her eye, a tiny nod of approval from Taeyeon. A well-handled question.

“Last question,” Taeyeon says, and straightens the sleeves of her jacket.

“Ms Hwang – How soon can I get an interview?”

There’s a polite chuckle amongst the journalists and Tiffany laughs sedately.

“The contact information for my campaign team will shortly become available. Thank you all for your time, and I look forward to seeing you again.”

The effect left by the noise and pressure of the situation doesn’t leave her for hours, buzzing through her veins and making her heart beat severely with left-over adrenaline. In the past, she’d considered the concept of interviews would be easier to handle; one-on-one with a journalist rather than being set upon by a pack of them. Yet she’d never assented to one, particularly after her mother’s death. Now an interview seems like an interrogation, and Tiffany knew it was because her secrets were weighing heavily on her mind.

She takes great pleasure in pulling off Taeyeon’s jacket for her when they meet in her apartment late that night. “I appreciated having you with me today, but can we just relax now? No more work clothes.”

Taeyeon grins at her. Tiffany jumps on the chance to plant a kiss on the dimple that is revealed on Taeyeon’s cheek, which leads to another kiss, and another. Then she’s removing Taeyeon’s work clothes for her, one button at a time, and pressing her against the wall.

When they do relax, it’s to the sights and sounds of a cooking competition show on TV, at least three blankets thrown all over them on the couch, and two mugs of sweet hot chocolate.

“My Dad mentioned my mother the other day,” Tiffany remarks. She’s watching the sole surviving marshmallow swirling in her cup.

Taeyeon makes a hum of acknowledgement. She tosses her arm around Tiffany’s shoulder. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Tiffany sips at her drink, her other hand coming up to trace a line down Taeyeon’s ring finger.

“I miss her.”

Taeyeon leans slightly so she can touch her lips to Tiffany’s cheek. “She’s proud of you.”

The thought makes Tiffany smile.

If she can get even one thing right with this mission of hers, something like that would be okay. Best case scenario, she won’t lose Taeyeon too.

Mix – Part 18 [Mix: Flip]

Note:
Yes, really. You may see this is Part 18 of a series that’s not on this site – that’s because it’s not mine, it’s Stephan’s. Read the series at this link if you’re not familiar with it. I adopted a baby! This baby. And I tried not to drop it on its head or hover it near choking hazards.

There’s another part after this one. And thanks to Steph for feedback and guidance on how the story would go.

________________________________________________________________________

“I don’t want you with anyone else.”

It was as if Tiffany didn’t want to hear what Taeyeon might say to that, so she gave her no chance. She kissed her soundly to prevent an answer.

Maybe she was still drunk.

Maybe Taeyeon was drunk, somehow, because her head was spinning. If Tiffany’s words hadn’t been enough to disrupt the sleepy feeling, the kiss sure was.

And then the words were far away. Tiffany’s body was moving – naked. She can’t have been all that cold anymore, because her skin felt hot to the touch, and Taeyeon touched her. Oh, she touched. The feeling again of Tiffany’s bare chest pressed to Taeyeon’s shirt jolted her, the finest muscles of her hands tightening in response.

Her back was so soft and smooth. The palms of Taeyeon’s hands stroked all the way up together. She gripped Tiffany’s shoulder blades, and stroked all the way down again to the very bottom; Tiffany twitched, and bit the tip of Taeyeon’s tongue. Was that the slightest inkling of a moan?

Tiffany broke the kiss for a split second before restarting with vigour; it was the energy coiled in her body, which had made her tremble. Her own hand shifted, sliding up under Taeyeon’s shirt to cover her upper abdomen, just beneath her breast. She surely felt Taeyeon holding her breath at the contact, because she gently pressed onto Taeyeon’s skin and kneaded her body.

Taeyeon felt what she wanted to do – inch over every part of Tiffany’s skin and touch her chest – and her mind raced through to what she really wanted, where this was going. She wanted everything, all of Tiffany, slowly and thoroughly over and over.

“Tiffany,” she breathed, but she couldn’t pull away because she was on her back, pressed into the bed by Tiffany’s body, glorious body, “Tiffany, wait.”

The clarity in Tiffany’s eyes when she paused answered the question about sobriety.

“What you just said…. Don’t you think we should talk about that?”

Tiffany huffed in annoyance, sitting up on Taeyeon’s hips – again.

“What is it about having me naked, on top of your body, kissing you, that always makes you so desperate to talk?”

Because,” Taeyeon said, frowning, “I want to know this means something to you. Don’t make me use the word ‘friends’ again…”

And yet, even referencing it made Tiffany shut down immediately. Taeyeon could see it on her face. Even though Tiffany instigated it with her statement earlier, her indication of wanting more from this, she still tried to cover it up with sex, for what? So that she could keep pretending they were just friends later?

Taeyeon wanted to say all of that and more, but she pressed her lips together so hard they quivered. Tiffany looked away.

God, Taeyeon thought. Tiffany is stark naked. She’s so beautiful.

I want to mean something to you – the words were there, on the tip of her tongue which was tender from Tiffany’s bite.

But Taeyeon said nothing, and Tiffany moved all the way off.

The darkness of the night flicked back over Taeyeon’s eyes just like that.

“I don’t want you with anyone else.” Was it a dream?

Taeyeon was angry. It was one thing for Tiffany to lie to herself and call them just ‘friends’, hide from her feelings even if she just wanted to protect herself from whatever it was that she was afraid of – but to think that Taeyeon would cheat on her – even though they weren’t committed to each other – even though it wouldn’t be cheating –

Taeyeon didn’t know what she considered their relationship to be, but it was enough to keep her from anyone else. As if she would even have eyes for anyone else; Tiffany was more than enough. From the moment they first met in the bar, Tiffany’s first step into Taeyeon’s personal space, Taeyeon was chasing after her single-mindedly, doggedly.

She thought about Tiffany, small and vulnerable and looking for warmth. The closer she got to understanding what went on in Tiffany’s head, the more rapidly her own emotions cycled between frustration and compassion. She was learning, slowly and step by tortured step, that Tiffany was going through an internal conflict of her own.

It was hard to be patient.

Just thinking of it made her fired up, her muscles twitching and aching.

Tiffany lay on the other side of the bed, curled up in a ball, her bare back to Taeyeon. She had wanted to be so close, inseparable, touching.

Maybe after all this time, it was Taeyeon’s turn to be a coward.

Did any of it mean anything to Tiffany? Or, was it enough yet? It seemed like it was. Almost. Always almost. Taeyeon’s heart fluttered and cracked and swelled as it went on.

Taeyeon sat up suddenly. She needed – something she wasn’t sure she had.

Her pants were on her legs, a jacket over her body, her feet landed in shoes and took her outside into the night. After months of action, chasing Tiffany, pushing when she pulled and pulling when she pushed, her mind reeled a little too much.

At dawn, she received a message from Tiffany.

Where are you?

Taeyeon couldn’t go back.

Out. I’ll see you later. Pick you up after your class.

It took several minutes for a response, and even then, it was a clipped Ok.

Taeyeon rested her back against the brick wall of the bar that was turning into a second home.

Too early in the morning but she could do with a drink.

She flipped herself over, pressed her face to the glass of the bar’s window. It was dark inside, of course, empty, and still. In her mind’s eye, she saw it how it was the first night – every night – that she went to see Tiffany DJing. The colours, the lights, the smoky air thick with tension. Her eyes through all of that, piercing and fierce, calling to Taeyeon, promising exhilaration.

Taeyeon’s finger twitched against the surface of the window. What would it take to break through Tiffany’s glass box and capture that feeling forever?

—-

It was shaky, now, whatever they had with each other. Turbulent as they were, the near-admittance of what Taeyeon thought Tiffany was feeling seemed to leave them hovering on the precipice of an ultimatum.

She thought about it as she drank. The previously vivid and vibrant sounds of the bar around her felt muted now. Taeyeon felt like she was before she met Tiffany; lost, shuffling along. Uninterested.

Another week had gone by, and it would go by again. She sighed, disappointed in herself for remaining stuck in this situation forever.

Her phone beeped. Done with group meeting. Ready when you are. Waiting just outside – watch out for the storm.

Right, the storm. She couldn’t hear it over the music and the people around her, but it had hit when she was on her way here, water lashing against the windscreen of Tiffany’s truck and making it harder to see. Now it was time to head out in that mess again and pick up Tiffany.

She dropped some cash for the drink and it mostly stayed on the hard surface of the counter except for a few coins that rolled away. She moved to stand and nodded at Jaeseok, stumbled a little but surely it was nothing. She’d had less than a bottle of beer. She shook it off.

The storm hadn’t let up at all. It ripped at the air above her, slashing down at the truck she was in. She peered up at the thundering clouds, dark and writhing, and shivered.

Taeyeon eyed a wall that ran along the side of the road as she pulled up to a red light. Last time she was in this truck and tried to talk to Tiffany about their issues, Tiffany hissed something about driving them right into wall.

She pictured Tiffany now, huddled outside a building on campus under cover, maybe watching the storm around her, maybe playing with her phone. What would she be thinking about? Maybe some rain got on the tip of her nose, maybe there was the snap of cold wind along her cheeks. Maybe she’d think of Taeyeon.

The traffic light went some shade of green and she lifted her foot off the brake. Her shoes were a bit wet on the soles and they squeaked along the surface of the gas pedal.

She hoped Tiffany was wearing a jacket.

Her foot pressed heavier on the pedal and she imagined Tiffany tapping her toes against the ground with impatience or to keep warm.

She imagined Tiffany checking the time on her phone.

Tiffany frowned. It had been ten minutes already but it felt like longer.

Her hands slid along the steering wheel as she took a turn, maybe a bit close to the edge.

Tiffany clenched one hand into a fist, shoved it in her pocket. She squinted out towards the road, looking for her pickup truck.

The truck straightened out heavily as the turn finished. Taeyeon huffed, impatient, made tense by the storm and thoughts of Tiffany.

Tiffany shuddered, curled her shoulders under the jacket. It was cold. Where was Taeyeon?

Taeyeon blinked. There was meant to be another turn but through sheets of rain she –

Tiffany’s phone lit up when it rang and she felt relief. Forty minutes had passed as she stood in the centre of a storm. She hoped this was Taeyeon calling to say she finally made it.

But it wasn’t.

“Hello? Sunny? What’s up?”

Sunny seemed to pause on the other end of the line, and she sniffed.

“Don’t panic,” Sunny started. “Taeyeon’s been in an accident.”

“…What?”

“Look, I’m going to come pick you up right now and take you to the hospital. Okay? Where are you, at your place?”

“No, I’m – I’m on campus, I just had a meeting, Taeyeon was going to… pick me up… Is she, all right? How bad is it?”

“Don’t panic,” Sunny said again, “I’ll be there in a few. I’ve got to hang up to drive. She’s…. She’s alive.”

And the call ended.

Play the Ace. (two)

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for coming to hear me speak today. After much media speculation, I can now formally announce that I will be running for office in the coming election. I seek to be the next –”

Tiffany pauses. She scribbles out a long line on the piece of printed paper, and whispers, “I seek to lead our people in the pursuit of our community’s interests, to the greater and stronger futures you were promised for your children and will finally have a hand in creating.”

A hand touches her shoulder and she jumps, nearly hitting her elbow against the kitchen counter. Taeyeon smiles and gives her a kiss before moving on to the fridge.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to give you a fright.”

Tiffany takes a breath. “That’s okay. I’m just working on my speech.”

“Speech for what?” Taeyeon asks curiously, reaching up to pull out a box of cereal. “Do you have an event coming up?”

“Sort of. I’m getting ready for the inevitable press conference for my statement of candidacy.”

Taeyeon pauses, one hand on the milk. Tiffany bites her lip, and runs her finger along the edge of the paper in front of her.

“You’re preparing that already? You haven’t even met with your father and his staff yet.”

“I know. They’d be better at writing a speech for me but that’s not what I want. I need to use my own words for this, not just for the media but for myself and my father. How else can I stand in front of them tomorrow and tell them with any confidence how I feel?”

Taeyeon looks down. She prepares to pour the milk on her cereal and then stops awkwardly. She fiddles with a spoon and then she drops it and steps closer to Tiffany.

“You can do this,” she murmurs softly. “You know that, right? You can do this.”

Tiffany leans forward and her arms come up to wrap Taeyeon in a hug. “I know I can. I’m just scared.”

“Of what?”

“This is going to change everything. My life will be completely different – what if I lose all the good things I have now because of this? What if, in trying to do what I believe is important, I lose everything that’s important to me now?”

Taeyeon’s eyes meet hers with the wide, open look of earnestness that Tiffany wants to see at least once a day for the rest of her life.

“Sacrifice is part of change,” Taeyeon says, but it sounds like lines recited, once written on a worn-down gravestone. “If you lose what you have now then it means your life has been filled anew. You have to… You have to keep going to pick up the next good things.”

Tiffany stares at her for a long time. “Then what if I realize that this isn’t really what I want? What if I lose everything I have now and it turns out I never wanted anything else at all?”

Taeyeon doesn’t answer this time. They both know what she means, and they don’t talk about that any more.

“Am I trying too hard to convince myself that I’m sure about this?” Tiffany continues. She brushes the edge of her thumb all along Taeyeon’s jawline. “Because I don’t want to lose you.”

Taeyeon turns away and pours the milk into her cereal with definitiveness. “I might have to go into the office later, did you want to see if we can find another movie to watch in the morning instead?”

The pen on the kitchen counter gets tapped against the surface a little roughly a few times and Tiffany sighs. “Yeah, sure, I guess. Do you really need to work or are you still avoiding me?”

Taeyeon frowns at her, mouth half-full of cereal. “Avoiding you? I would never avoid you.”

“Avoiding the conversation, then.” Tiffany crosses her arms and leans back against the counter. “On our first date, you said it would be a good idea for me to run for office and for years since then you’ve supported me at every turn. I love you, and I love how supportive you are, but you know we need to talk about what’s happening.”

Taeyeon looks away again, chewing her cereal tersely. Eventually she finishes and sets the bowl down carefully with both hands.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Her jaw clenches, then relaxes. “That’s all.”

Tiffany can’t help but scoff. It’s only to hide the disappointment tearing at her chest from the inside; her heart swells with pain before it rips a little at the edges.

They’ve been together for years and not once has Taeyeon said those words to her.

“Taeyeon,” Tiffany breathes. “We’ve shared everything since we’ve been together. And now you don’t want to talk?”

Taeyeon’s hands move from cupping the bowl to covering her face. “I’m sorry, okay? It’s a conversation I don’t want to have. End of story.”

“Please.” Tiffany tugs at Taeyeon’s wrists, pulling her closer but wanting to see her. “Look at me. Please. Taeyeon, don’t say stuff like that. Tell me you love me.”

“Of course, I love you,” Taeyeon replies loudly. Her hands drop to Tiffany’s shoulders. “You know I love you, I love you so much. Don’t doubt that.”

“Then don’t talk like that to me! We need to do this and be honest with each other.”

“No.” Taeyeon grips the back of Tiffany’s neck with the fingers of one hand. “No, we can’t talk about this now. You need to go to that meeting tomorrow and tell them what you want to do. This can’t be about us.”

“But this is about us,” Tiffany says quietly, pressing their foreheads together. “You’re everything to me now.”

There’s that familiar look of sincerity in Taeyeon’s eyes again, and when they kiss each other it’s measured and composed.

They spend the rest of the day in bed. Taeyeon doesn’t go to the office, and Tiffany doesn’t pick a movie for them to watch.

When she wakes up alone in the middle of a lightless night, Tiffany crawls out from under the covers and sets herself down at her desk with just the lamp on, pen in one hand, neat rectangle of paper in front of her. She writes the words that show how she really feels.

On her first date with Taeyeon, Tiffany knew it was the start of something special and that was why she decided to pursue the relationship. She doesn’t consider her feelings towards her career to be similar, but as she stays up all night writing her speeches and plans, she thinks of it as the start of something special, too.

And just like her relationship with Taeyeon, Tiffany grips that paper tightly in her hands as she gets nearer and nearer to her father’s office the next morning. She’s about to lay her heart out on the table.

“Hey, kid,” her father greets warmly, and tugs her into a bear hug.

“Hey, dad.” Tiffany returns the embrace tightly, then gets ready to have a meeting with a politician, not her father.

Already at the conference table is her father’s campaign manager and the public relations consultant used by both her and her father over the years. Tiffany bites her lip, because she knows an email was sent out very early this morning requesting the presence of another person who hasn’t arrived yet.

“We can start without Taeyeon,” she says quickly. “She knows some of this already.”

Tiffany’s father looks surprised at first before nodding. “Alright. I’m sure you’ll explain everything.”

The paper in her hands is a little crinkled by now, so she straightens it out and takes a seat with everyone else.

The words swim in her head, the things she wants to say to the press and the things she wants to say in this meeting all jumbled up. She clears her throat, fiddles with a pen, and then she looks up straight into her father’s patient gaze.

“I want to change the world.” She lays her hands flat on the table’s surface. “You’ve already known that for years, but now I really want to change the world. I want to do it. I want to start with this city and keep going after that.”

“You want to run in the next election?” the public relations consultant asks, sounding surprised.

“Yes. And I want to win, too.” She glances at the staff members, giving them a little smile. “With your help.”

She can tell by the look in her father’s eyes that he’s proud. Before he can say anything, the door opens.

“Sorry I’m late,” says Taeyeon, sounding wary. “I didn’t think I was meant to be in this meeting.”

“It’s fine,” Tiffany replies immediately, trying to convey what she really means. “I’ve just informed them about my intentions for the election. Now that you’re here, I can explain some details.”

Taeyeon keeps her uncertain expression as she moves to take a seat beside Tiffany’s father, but nods greetings at everyone as she settles.

Tiffany almost bites her lip again but doesn’t, and instead takes a deep breath.

“I want Taeyeon in my campaign,” she says.

Taeyeon’s shock is palpable. Tiffany senses a similar feeling from her father and the two staff members in the room, who glance at Taeyeon in synchronicity. Taeyeon glances back at them and shrugs hurriedly.

“Taeyeon has been a great supporter of this family since she started working in my father’s office right after moving to the States, and I believe she has what it takes to manage my campaign; even if only as a deputy manager or co-manager.”

Tiffany’s father looks at Taeyeon very closely but has yet to say anything.

Taeyeon, on the other hand, is obviously trying to hide her reaction now. The clenched jaw is a dead giveaway to Tiffany, who knows she must be livid and panicking.

“Sorry for springing this on you so unexpectedly,” she says with honesty. “I was brainstorming all night. If anyone can help me win this, it’s you.”

Taeyeon just stares at her in silence.

“Do you want my advice, honey?” Tiffany’s father intones, tearing his gaze from the young woman at his side. His eyes still show some of that pride from earlier, but now they hold concern, too. “Taeyeon would be great in your campaign, but don’t reach too far with this. It’s your first election and you have a long road ahead of you. Taeyeon has great ideas for this sort of thing and I know what you’re like; together you two will develop the kind of ingenuity that most people bring about when they’re already in office. Maybe for this election you should aim for something more tried-and-true.”

Tiffany deflates a little. She knows her father means well and he has experience, but he’s suggesting exactly the thing she doesn’t in her campaign; the same old tricks, the continuation of the past.

“No,” Taeyeon says suddenly. “I’ll do it. I should do it.” She looks at Tiffany’s father with determination. “You’re right, together Tiffany and I will hold a campaign that hasn’t been seen before and that’s exactly why we should do it. Tiffany’s campaign shouldn’t be about what’s already in place and has already been used. She wants to show people that all the things they find wrong with the way the world is right now – those things will be changed and she’ll bring innovation to the community. It’s her first election, which means it’s her first step on this path, and she should take the right step from the start so she doesn’t fall.”

She looks around at the rest of the table, receiving nods of support from the public relations consultant and the campaign manager. When her eyes reach Tiffany, they watch each other silently for a long moment before nodding together.

Tiffany’s father clears his throat and sits straighter in his seat. “Okay. I agree with Taeyeon. This is the right thing to do – so let’s do it. What’s our first step?”

The paper in front of Tiffany becomes littered with pencil sketches and scrawls of places and times and slogans. She wants the right image, she wants the right words, she wants the support and the dedication of the people; she wants, she wants, she wants – she wants Taeyeon and she wants the world, she wants both. Whether she’ll get anything at all is something to keep her awake at night, but for now her dreams are for the daytime.

She feels strong, and she feels like she made the right choice, right up until they close the meeting. Taeyeon gives her a lingering look full of the same unspoken words that have tumbled around their ankles for years.

When it’s just Tiffany and her father, she already has tears growing; a little from joy, a little from being overwhelmed.

Her father stands in front of her and nearly puffs out his chest with pride.

“Tiffany,” he says. “My little girl.”

“Dad,” she sniffs, and wipes at her eyes. “Don’t, you’re making me cry.”

“You need to know this.” He rests his hands on her shoulders. “Tiffany. I’ve known you better than anyone else, all your life. I know you tell it like it is, you say things how you see them. The way you sat down today and told me what you want – that’s my girl talking, my daughter. And as your father, I’m happy and worried and hopeful. I hope that you know what you’re doing – but I know you. You know, and you’ll do this.”

They hug each other for a long time, long enough for Tiffany to think about every other hug she’s had with her father. When she was little he would carry her on his shoulders, would let her stand on his feet so they could dance together.

“Thanks, Dad,” she whispers, closing her eyes.

She toys with her phone later, in the car, being driven home, flicking through screens between messages and calls, fingers hovering over the heart symbol at the very top of all the lists.

Outside the window, the streets swarm past. Colours and sounds and people on the other side of the bubble she waits in.

No contact from Taeyeon.

She sends a message to the heart. I’m sorry for not telling you, I’m sorry for asking this of you. Please forgive me. Please come see me tonight. I love you.

 

Nothing Special

Tiffany has an appreciation for art. It’s the kind that goes ‘oh well yeah that painting looks pretty good’ rather than ‘the placement of these lights creates an intriguing visual energy’ or ‘I totally know the difference between Monet and Manet’. It’s enough to get her by when she gets invited to gallery shows – which has happened a grand total of three times – and she considers herself to have an affinity for pretending to know what she doesn’t.

It doesn’t work quite so well when she’s caught off guard.

“Beautiful piece, isn’t it?”

She almost chokes on her champagne when the voice appears beside her and jumps when she sees the young woman who’s smiling at her.

“Yeah,” she hedges, and tries to smile back, “It’s, um, great.”

The woman’s smile becomes a knowing one. “What do you think of the artist’s use of tone throughout the piece? Doesn’t it create a stunning colour relationship?”

“Yes,” Tiffany squeaks, briefly glancing at the painting in question, “absolutely. It’s great.”

The woman laughs lightly. She’s short, but in a delicate petite way, and her hair is a shade of blonde-brown that must be dyed, reaching to her shoulders. “It’s okay. I was just making stuff up. It’s a cool painting though, isn’t it?”

Tiffany smiles again, genuine and in relief this time. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool. And I have no idea what I’m doing, so don’t ask me any more about paintings unless you want me to look like an idiot all night.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she says, a twinkle in her eye as she gazes at Tiffany, “I’d say you look pretty cute.”

Tiffany blinks, flattered. No one’s called her cute since elementary school, but it’s not unwelcome.

She holds out her hand. “Tiffany.”

“Taeyeon,” the other woman answers, and gently shakes her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too. So, do you come to art galleries just to tease those who don’t know anything about art?”

“Not at all,” Taeyeon says, and turns to the painting. “See, I don’t know a thing about art either. At least, not in the way people here like to pretend they do. They talk about visual energy, intimate colour relationships, suggestive object placements – they sound like they know what they’re talking about because it’s like they’re talking in a language they made up themselves anyway, you know? If you were to create a whole universe bit by bit, of course you’d sound like you knew it well when you talked about it. Doesn’t mean they’re right or that their universe is the same as that of the art.”

Tiffany stares at her. “You seem quite passionate about it.”

Taeyeon shrugs, not even shy about it. “They waste my time trying to drag me into conversations like that and then act all snobbish when I don’t jump through their hoops.”
Tiffany ponders this, and turns to face the painting. Her eyes go right down to the bottom right hand corner.

“Well, I guess you’d know your art better than anyone else, right?”

Taeyeon grins at her. “That’s right.”

“So you don’t mind if I have no idea about the colour relationships of your painting?”

“Not at all. You said it’s cool. That’s good enough for me. And I’ll give you a little tip – the colour relationship was ‘this looks good together’.”

This time, Tiffany laughs. “Sounds good to me. You wanna get out of here?”

Play the Ace. (one)

“She’s watching you again.”

Tiffany glances over her shoulder, not really trying to be subtle any more, and catches the furtive twitch of eyes looking anywhere but her. “You think so?”

“She’s nowhere near as sly as she thinks she is.”

The comment makes Tiffany smile. It’s undoubtedly true, and everyone in the office knows it by now. When a large number of people spend double-digit hours per day together in the same confined space, it’s pretty easy to notice the one-two-three constant glances between one person and another.

It’s cute, Tiffany thinks. She knows there’s little chance of a direct approach because she’s the mayor’s daughter and this is the mayoral office, but it’s cute that there’s so much interest that this kind of thing is unavoidable. It’s not like she gets it a lot, anyway. Usually people are not interested enough or they’re not shy at all. So this – the attempts at sneakily watching her from afar and then flitting away when the game is almost up – it’s endearing. And it’s been going on for about a month now. That makes her think it really means something.

“You’re okay with her doing that?”

She turns at the question, confused at first, then schools her expression. “Oh. Yeah, it’s fine. She’s cute. Why would I complain?”

Her father’s campaign manager shrugs. “If you ever find it creepy, just let management know. She can be gone within a day.”

Tiffany resists the urge to roll her eyes.

She does not want to be babied. She just finished her master’s degree and earned this position in her father’s office through regulated hiring processes and achievements based on her own qualifications. She gets enough of people falling over themselves to make sure she’s satisfied with her workplace and her personal life – if she’s okay with getting checked out by a girl, then she’s okay with it.

“Sure,” is all she says, and she looks over her shoulder again.

Their eyes meet this time. Tiffany is greeted by a shocked expression and she sends a cheeky smile in reply. The contact is interrupted by a passing intern and her father arrives.

“You all right, kid?”

She returns her father’s hug with one arm, the other gripping her coffee like a lifeline.

“Hi, Dad.”

“Were you looking at Taeyeon just now?”

She blinks. “I don’t know? Maybe.”

He looks at the other side of the room and waves. “Yeah, that’s Taeyeon. Bright young woman. She just moved to the States last year – very keen to get into the American world.”

Tiffany narrows her eyes at her father. “Is she one of your pet projects?”

He laughs. “You could say that. I want to make sure she gets well settled here. She’s a good kid.”

“You call everyone a kid, Dad. Did you miss your political correctness classes?”

The campaign manager snorts. Her father shakes his head.

“You are kids, the lot of you. Anyway, you doing okay today? Any issues?”

“Dad, I’ve been working here for a month now. I think I’ve gotten the hang of the basics.”

He gives her a friendly half-hug again. “Okay, young one. I’ll see you at dinner.”

Tiffany watches her father travel along the rows of employees, stopping to talk to a few and make some well-placed office-type jokes that make them want to keep working here no matter the political climate. Soon he’s going to start making sure he has their votes, too, as they get closer to re-election. His campaign manager packs up his file and disappears, leaving Tiffany to finally enjoy her coffee in peace while she still has some time left in her break.

Taeyeon. Well, Tiffany thinks, Taeyeon is cute.

She casually leans to one side so she can look behind her again, but the enigmatic Taeyeon isn’t there, and she decides to accept only mild disappointment at this fact. While she may be okay with getting checked out by a girl in her workplace, she is still the mayor’s daughter and there will always be people like her father’s campaign manager wanting to prevent any perceivable inappropriateness. So even if she were able to tell the whole world that she would be perfectly okay with getting checked out by a girl, getting picked up by a girl, and getting –

Taeyeon is right in front of her.

Tiffany almost falls off her chair in surprise, then tries to hide it.

“Hi,” says Taeyeon, and smiles.

Yeah, Taeyeon is cute.

“Hi,” Tiffany replies. “I wasn’t expecting you to actually talk to me at any point.”

Taeyeon looks down shyly. “Yeah, well… it takes me a while to build up the courage.”

She still has a slight accent. Even cuter.

“I’m glad you finally made it,” says Tiffany, and she leans forward ever-so-slightly and absolutely deliberately.

Since there’s no more attempt at subtlety, she might as well go for it.

“Me too,” Taeyeon says after a while, her face sincere. “I mean, I – wanted to introduce myself properly. My name is Taeyeon – Kim Taeyeon – or, Taeyeon Kim, I don’t…”

“It’s okay. Taeyeon, Kim Taeyeon. Nice to meet you.” Tiffany holds her hand out peaceably. “I’m Tiffany. I’d assume you already know that, but I was raised with manners and I’m determined to use them no matter what.”

Taeyeon laughs at this, and it’s only slightly likely to be purely out of politeness. She shakes the proffered hand, and they watch each other for a moment.

“My father already told me a bit about you,” Tiffany confesses.

Taeyeon’s eyes go wide. “Really? What did he say?”

“So many things.” Tiffany winks. “No, he said good things. I think he likes you.”

The relief on Taeyeon’s face is palpable. “That’s good then. It was so nice of him to let me have this job, I want to make sure he doesn’t regret it.”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Tiffany says reassuringly, and she lightly strokes the tips of her fingers from Taeyeon’s elbow to her wrist. “He made the right choice by hiring you.”

Taeyeon’s eyes follow Tiffany’s hand and the look in her eyes is undeniable. Tiffany smiles. Taeyeon is cute, she was right – about that and more.

“I’m sure he didn’t just give you this job, anyway,” Tiffany continues, keeping her hands to herself now. “You must have earned it.”

Taeyeon shrugs, still with that look in her eyes. “Maybe. Maybe I just got lucky.”

There’s something about the way she says it….

“Well, maybe if you told me a bit more about yourself, we can see how lucky you are.” There are two ways of looking someone up and down slowly, and Tiffany goes hard for one in particular. “Maybe over drinks?”

And Taeyeon bites her bottom lip.

Tiffany is done for.

They kiss for the first time that night – totally unplanned and out of character – because Tiffany looks so passionate when she talks about the community she lives in and cares for, and Taeyeon makes her admiration so incredibly obvious when she’s watching her and agreeing with her. There’s no mention, at first, of the problems involved with their roles in the mayoral office; not even the fact that they’ll inevitably have to keep this quiet even if it’s just because they’re co-workers.

It’s only when they’re standing outside the bar, hovering, both thinking about suggesting getting a taxi. They look at each other and know.

“I had a good time tonight,” Taeyeon says, and the sincerity in her voice makes her seem soft to the touch.

Tiffany reaches out and takes Taeyeon’s hand in hers. “Me too. I know we started this with a lot of flirting and insinuation, but I didn’t expect it to go like this. I want to see you again.”

Taeyeon glances away at the darkness around them, the distant shapes and sounds of people laughing their way home with drunkenness. “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to say we shouldn’t?”

“Well, we shouldn’t.” Tiffany smiles, but she’s pretty sure Taeyeon can’t notice the shakiness. “But I want to. And I mean, my father is only the mayor and I’m only his daughter. I can’t think it would possibly create as big a scandal as some people seem to think it would.”

They watch each other, thinking.

“You know; the night is still young… Maybe we should go for a walk?” suggests Taeyeon.

They learn a few things about their city that night, like how many men are actually genuine when they offer to help them get home and how many raccoons it takes to ravage a trash bag. They learn that the streetlights on Fifth Avenue are dimmer than the other parts of town, and that the light on the corner of Thompson and Grey street is way too bright. They can see lights on or off in houses and curtains drawn, the flickering of TVs or the flashes of car headlights along the road.

Tiffany learns that Taeyeon likes to do puzzles and paint her nails. She has a dog that she paid to move with her to America, and two siblings that send her funny pictures from home. The dream she has for the future of the world involves a lot of peace and happiness, coming from common sense and conflict resolution. It’s the usual general utopia and Tiffany already knew they had similar political views, but what she didn’t expect was for Taeyeon to say –

“And that’s why I agree with people who say you should run for office.”

Tiffany stops walking, and tilts her head, eyes wide. “Office? Which office?”

“Any office,” says Taeyeon, smiling. “Every office. You should go for it.”

Tiffany blinks. “That’s a bit…. Heavy.”

Taeyeon coughs and looks away. “Right, sorry. Not really first-date conversation material, huh?”

There are a few that should not be discussed on a first date without caution – marriage, children, potential in-laws, crippling debts, politics (usually), exes, kinks – this falls into a category of major future decisions that’s a bit much but Tiffany isn’t scared off.

“This hasn’t exactly been a normal date for me,” she remarks quietly. Her fingers toy with Taeyeon’s and she looks down. “I mean; I’ve never connected this much with someone before. I don’t mind that you said that. It’s just an imposing concept. But I won’t lie, I’ve considered it. Maybe one day.”

Taeyeon’s expression is comforting and warm when Tiffany looks up again. She swings their joined hands and smiles again; the smile that is doing things to Tiffany’s heart that she can’t comprehend.

“Well, whatever you decide, I’ll support you one hundred percent. I just want you to know that.”

Before Tiffany can respond, Taeyeon leans forward and kisses her gently, soothingly, and so sincerely.

In the end, it was an easy decision to keep Taeyeon around.

This brings her to where she is now, years later, curled up in bed with Taeyeon by her side, and it’s the middle of the night. She never gets tired of waking up from a nightmare to find Taeyeon comfortingly close – this is a feeling she treasures deeply – but she’s getting tired of the nightmares themselves. Her decision to pursue politics came from an urge she within her that she couldn’t even misinterpret and now it haunts her at night. She wants to make a change, one that should be simple and shouldn’t have to be a battle but will be a battle and will be worth it. She has an image in her head of the world in a few years; not necessarily influenced by her plans but not without the concept either. One way or another, the world will change for the better, and if she has to be the one to feed it the medicine it needs, then she wants desperately to get started.

She tugs Taeyeon closer, savouring the brush of skin against her own, the warmth and serenity of Taeyeon’s sleep curving around her.

Tiffany thinks again of the upcoming meeting with her father and everyone necessary to make plans. It’s a big step, and if she backs out now this will be a dream she didn’t pursue that will make her bitter and miserable for the rest of her life.

“You’re thinking too loudly.”

Tiffany blinks at Taeyeon, who’s grimacing. “Oh. I thought you were asleep.”

“I was.” Taeyeon opens her eyes. “But you’re doing the teddy bear thing again so I knew you were worrying.”

The teddy bear thing is a regular occurrence lately. Holding Taeyeon close like a child would hug a teddy bear while her mind wanders.

Tiffany kisses Taeyeon lightly on the lips and doesn’t bother to confirm what she said.

Taeyeon can tell by the look in Tiffany’s eyes exactly what she’s been thinking about, so she gently closes Tiffany’s eyes with the tips of her fingers and kisses her slowly.

“You’re okay,” she whispers.

Tiffany sighs, and wiggles closer to Taeyeon. “How about you? How’s work?”

Since that day they met in her father’s mayoral office, Taeyeon has continued to work there with every mayor that has come through. She’s done some work for local government departments and written some articles on Korean-American relations, and all of it without a modicum of controversy. Tiffany can’t imagine how a scandal like this would affect her career – even after all this time.

“It’s alright,” Taeyeon mumbles. It sounds like she’s already going back to sleep. “No more talking now, okay? Just resting time. Everything will be bright in the morning.”

Tiffany smiles at the phrase. She quickly kisses Taeyeon one more time, then settles down to go back to her dreams. She tells herself it’s okay, because Taeyeon is here, and she drifts away again.

Play the Ace. (zero)

Tiffany has been fielding reporters since she was sixteen when her father decided to run for mayor. It’s a practised ease she uses when she’s talking to – or rather at camera lenses or politely resisting the urge to shield her face from seas of flashing lights. She does a good job of it, like with most things she does, and reporters find her as charming as the general public does. They watch her go with a warm feeling as if they’ve made a real connection with her, and all the while Tiffany is aptly disguising her desperate escape as a graceful exit, flowing from one stage to the next.

“What’s after this appointment?” she murmurs out of the corner of her mouth, flicks a smile at a young man across the room with a press pass hanging on his neck.

“Nothing,” her assistant replies, scampering slightly behind her in a way that seems like her default movement setting. Maybe it is. They’ve been doing this for years. “This ends at nine and then you’re done until Wednesday morning. I’ll email you the finalised schedule for next week as soon as we get confirmation.”

Tiffany waves her hand distractedly. “Okay, that’s all good.”

Her mind is already drifting but her smile stays in place. The closer her feet take her to the exit in the final mingle-cycle of the room, the more she’s thinking of what she’s going to do right after she leaves this event. Her fingers are itching already with the urge to do it right now, to whip out her phone and dart to her contacts list. It’ll be the entry right at the top, under ‘Favourites’, because it’s just a symbol, no letters – a heart.

“And the new councilman says -”

It’s been two days since they spoke.

“- people could not stop laughing!”

Tiffany does her light, airy gosh-you’re-funny laugh, and touches the man gently on the arm as if she really knows what the heck he’s talking about. Was it a joke? He seems to think it was a joke. Okay, she’ll treat it like a joke. She calls him a rascal, kisses him daintily on the cheek as she says her farewells, and gravitates to the next group; nearly at the finish line.

“Miss Hwang,” she’s greeted, perhaps frostily, by a local member of the Senate. “Rumour has it you’re thinking of following in your father’s footsteps now that you’ve got your doctorate. Should I be calling you my competition?”

The glint in his smile is edgier than his voice, which is finely crafted with age-old democratic nicety.

“No need to let rumours scare you out of your seat just yet, Senator,” she replies, making no effort to slip acid into her words or face because she’s being sincere and honest. “And if I do decide to pursue politics any further,” she adds, wondering if he’d notice the shift away from her father’s shadow, “I can only hope the world will be ready for what a Korean-American woman can bring to the table, and that such a table would be open to me after all its years spent under the command of men such as yourself. Enjoy the rest of your evening, sir.”

Her heart is beating a mile a minute and she lets it carry her out the door, down the steps, and into the limo waiting for her. She hardly takes notice of the few reporters still straggling outside in the cold winter air, giving the default smile-and-wave as she passes. Once the door is closed and the vehicle is moving towards her apartment, she takes slow breaths and she thinks.

The meeting on Wednesday morning. It’s with her father, his campaign manager, and their usual public relations consultant. It’s not just rumour, she’s really going to do it. And that meeting will be when she makes her sale. Something like the Senate will be a long way off, but one day…

Her fingers fumble for her phone, and the call she makes is answered in one and a half rings.

“Hi.”

“Hey.”

That’s all they say at first, and it’s left to sink in.

“What are you doing tonight?”

“Nothing at all,” comes the reply. “Your schedule for tomorrow?”

“Clear as a cloudless sky. Come over as soon as you can.”

“Yes, boss.”

Tiffany clicks her tongue, and she can tell they’re both smiling as they say nothing for a while.

“Love you,” she says softly.

“Love you too. See you soon.”

The limo is nearing her apartment, and Tiffany clutches her phone tightly in her hand long after the call ends as if she’s holding a genie in a bottle. She almost wishes she was. Or rather, she wishes it was Taeyeon in a bottle.

Her free hand goes to her face, and she massages her temples with the tips of her fingers.

What a silly thing to think. Taeyeon in a bottle. An incredible image. Tiffany’s lips twitch with amusement, but it’s not enough to cover what she really feels – because she really does wish Taeyeon was right here, within reach, and that she didn’t have to wait until they could be together.

But.

Politics.

She sighs. She didn’t know for sure that the world was ready for a Korean-American woman moving up the ranks of political power; what were the prospects for a Korean-American woman who was in love with another woman?

The limo stops. Tiffany takes the time to thank her driver and wave him off as he disappears around the corner. She stands outside in the chill for a few moments, letting it brush across her skin and make her body pull tighter in on itself. Her phone chirps with a text from the heart – a brief ‘on my way now’ message. She spins around and takes confident strides all the way to her apartment on the fifth floor, no longer letting discomfort edge along her mind.

Because Taeyeon is on her way.

Think Twice. (End)

The day was nearing its end by the time Taeyeon and Lee took a walk to the park by the river, not far from their homes.

“Do you know about post-traumatic stress?”

Lee looked at her sceptically. “Yeah, some soldiers get that, right?”

Taeyeon sat down beside him on the park bench and turned her eyes to the river before them. “Yes, many veterans battle with PTSD after their experiences in war zones, but I’m not talking about that specifically. Post-traumatic stress can come from many causes and in many forms, not just the shell-shock type of disorder.”

He didn’t say anything, and they watched the ducks floating towards them. Taeyeon reached into the small bag she’d brought along. Carefully, she broke the slices of bread into smaller pieces and tossed them into the water.

“I hear bread is bad for birds,” said Lee eventually.

She paused, hand in mid-air. “Oh. Is that so?”

“If they have too much of it, their digestive systems can’t cope. Or something like that. I don’t know how dangerous it is exactly. But I mean, their natural diet is insects and stuff so it makes sense that bread would be too different for them.”

She pondered the bread in her hand. She lowered her arm. “Interesting.”

“Why did you bring up PTSD?”

Once all the bread was back in the bag and she’d settled it on the bench beside her, she leaned back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Trauma, in the non-physical sense of the word, is a distressing and disturbing experience. You are mentally and emotionally disrupted – not always just one identifiable moment. What you feel affects you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The ducks, disappointed by the sudden removal of their treat, dissipated their crowd and spread out along the water.

“The kind of trauma I’m talking about leaves similar mental marks to that of a soldier in a warzone but at the same time it’s different. Someone who is powerless to defend themselves on a level they are incapable of comprehending is mistreated and exposed to behaviour that damages them and everything they know in the world. What do you think happens to someone in that situation?”

Lee hung his head. Taeyeon looked at him, her body tense.

“I think you know what happens. I think we both do. They begin to change at that very moment and for every second of their life after. When they become aware of what happened, and what they went through or are still going through, it’s too late. They’re still stuck as that powerless kid being broken without knowing what’s going on.”

She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and tried to look at his face as he stayed slumped on the bench.

“We can’t change the past. Where we’re at now, when we know with more clarity about what it all means; we feel like we should be able to do something about it. But we can’t. There’s no way to go back to that person stuck in that situation and shake ourselves out of it – so instead we keep being stuck in that person’s head, trying to reach out.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Taeyeon hesitated, wondering the same thing. She’d wanted to talk to him because of their shared experiences, but what kind of purpose was that? So what if they went through similar problems. It wasn’t enough just to say that to him.

“I want to be honest with you. You’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life.”

This got him to raise his head. The frown on his face was one she knew well. It was the crumpled and pained look of someone who spent a lot of time in a mental state of horror.

“There is no escape,” she said with a tremor to her voice that she didn’t anticipate. “This will never leave you. There’s this thing called ‘recovery’ that people think means it will all go away. It won’t. You will live with the consequences of actions that you had no control over, because of people you trusted and through no fault of your own. It sucks, and that’s going to be your life. But even with all that, you can still have good moments. People like you and me, we’re going to be sad a lot and angry a lot and terrified all the time, and often we go back to the mind of a person who knows what’s being done to them but can’t change it. But we can do things that we like, and be with people who make us feel happy, and achieve things that improve us even if we have to do it slowly and carefully and with so much struggling. We’re never going to stop crying. No one is. But we can smile.”

She felt that in the stare that they shared with each other, she could see him accept this for the first time. Maybe he’d been telling himself it would all be better once he got away, just like she did when she was a kid. Some part of him would have been afraid that it was all he had, that pain and fear.

“Is it worth it?” he asked quietly.

Taeyeon took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Do you think anyone really knows with certainty that their future will be worth the effort?”

He looked away and shrugged.

“We’ll just have to stick around and find out,” said Taeyeon.

They both watched the river turn dark as the sun set. Lee didn’t say goodbye as they made their way home.

When Taeyeon was four years old, she received a slingshot as a gift from her brother. It was well-used already and clearly had only been given to her because her brother got a cooler one for his birthday, but Taeyeon enjoyed it immensely, and she spent several weeks with it bonded to her hand. She was always looking for ways to use it – not even reasons to use it or any targets to shoot at with it; just things that she could fling through the air in a way that caused a little cracking sound from the slingshot.

In one particular recurring dream, the slingshot was tucked into the back pocket of her shorts. Her knees were scuffed with dirt, and she had a goofy smile. In that dream the sun was up but not shining all that bright. She was in a field some place, maybe near her family home.

Taeyeon crouched in front of her four-year-old self.

They stared at each other with the same eyes, the same face, the same set shoulders and slightly clenched jaw. Little Taeyeon’s grin was huge but it was tenuous, perilously balancing on the edge where she knew there was happiness being forced through the bars of a prison.

If she was outside, running around, playing with her slingshot, she was happy. It was something four-year-old Taeyeon fervently believed, because the slingshot made things fun again so it was fine.

She tilted her head, watching her four-year-old self do the same as they contemplated each other.

Every now and then she thought about how that little kid became the adult she was now; less inclined to pretend.

The slingshot was pretty cool, though.

The dream ended, feeling brief, and Taeyeon stayed in bed for as long as she could. She stared up at the ceiling. She emptied her mind of all thoughts.

Taeyeon hated the silence. It was why she always listened to music or had a movie playing in the background while she was working. If she didn’t, the silence would press in on her, envelop her head, smother her brain, and she would feel like she was meaningless.

So she listened to some Arctic Monkeys to start the morning, nodding along as she checked her emails.

She had three documents to complete before the end of the week, and only one of them was anywhere near finished. Taeyeon didn’t care much just yet. She could tell already that the next few nights would be relatively sleepless; not because of any new difficulty, but simply an excess of energy that she could feel in her mind. It was neither negative nor positive to experience. She knew it came from the stress that always hung over her head but was comfortable enough with its ability to power her work for a while.

Her constant attempts to clear her mind of all thoughts didn’t do much to stop her from thinking about Tiffany. Now that they were being more open and honest with each other, she found the self-consciousness growing. Here she was, getting used to a lifestyle that was dysfunctional but manageable if barely so, and she knew that even though it was something she was handling on her own; other people would consider it simply awful.

Tiffany wasn’t quite like that though. She found out about Taeyeon’s habit of staying up all night to chase away the bad dreams, and the way she would stop and wallow in her pain when it became too much. She knew that Taeyeon bit back a lot of tears and that Taeyeon wanted to hang her head in shame when she felt sorry for herself. Tiffany was a part of all of it now, just a little, but more than anyone else in Taeyeon’s life had ever been.

On the one hand, Taeyeon was happy to finally have someone like that who could be there for her and care about her well-being while accepting her for whom she was – but on the other hand, the exposure of these parts of her created an amplifying effect.

Or maybe it was just time.

Carrying around a bunch of hurtful thoughts and actions took a toll on her daily abilities. Over time, she fluctuated from weaker to stronger, taking one step forward and falling off a cliff all the way to the bottom again. Eventually these kinds of things wore her down and she couldn’t stop them from growing more robust. Taeyeon didn’t know how today or tomorrow would go, and she didn’t know when her grasp would falter for the last time and she’d drop away completely. The times when she thought she could trust in her future didn’t work out, and an attitude of low expectations made her life a little less dramatic but also very hollow.

Which brought her back to Tiffany.

It wasn’t healthy to be over-attached or dependent on anyone. Taeyeon had learned that early enough in her life. But the fact that Tiffany was the most positive part of her life caused her to gravitate towards the centre of Taeyeon’s world and that scared her – so she chose to ignore it.

She took a long sip of her coffee to transition her mind back to her work. With one hand, she opened a document on her laptop and scrolled through it.

If she could do well with her work, maybe she could consider setting her sights higher once more and stabilizing her life to the point where real improvement was a possibility. There was a lot of maybe and if and imaginary strengths going on but she had work to do so she shrugged off the heaviness and acted as if it wasn’t right behind her.

She managed to get a decent amount of work done before Tiffany arrived that afternoon. It must have been obvious that she would skip lunch in favour of typing away at her computer, because Tiffany was accompanied by two bags of food as she stepped through the doorway.

“I figured your fridge would be under-populated so I brought something to eat, is that okay?” Tiffany started by saying, with only a brief greeting.

Her smile seemed more shy than usual, but the kind of shyness that harboured excitement. The thought that Tiffany was being like this because of Taeyeon was humbling.

“The only drinks I can offer are beer and fruit juice,” Taeyeon remarked, following her into the kitchen. “But food is always welcome. And you, too, of course.”

“How generous of you.”

Taeyeon winked at her, opened the fridge door as Tiffany put the bags on the counter. “So, drink?”

“Just some juice for me, thanks.”

“How has your day been?”

“Pretty good,” Tiffany answered. “Even better now. I still have some things to do but I was hoping I could hang out here and work on it.”

“Of course. I’m doing some work too but if I’m not the only one then at least I won’t be rude.”

Tiffany hummed briefly, watching as Taeyeon got a glass and poured her drink. She stepped closer when the juice was back in the fridge.

“Just one thing.”

Taeyeon turned, and Tiffany took her hand to tug her closer. They kissed slowly. When they moved back, Taeyeon’s mouth quirked into a small smile which Tiffany returned instantly. Yes, Taeyeon could get used to that.

“What are you thinking about?”

She answered honestly, “I’m thinking about you, and how I think I would like to do this more often with you.”

Tiffany grinned. “Do what? Kissing?”

“That, but also pretty much anything. I like having you around, you know.”

Tiffany kissed her again. “Good, because I’m here now.” She separated their hands and started getting food out of bags.

Taeyeon kept thinking about it as they ate their meals and as they settled in the living room with their respective laptops. Tiffany set up some soft music to play in the background – but Taeyeon stared at her documents without making a move.

At first she was just thinking about Tiffany, and about how much she enjoyed being with her, and doing these normal things with her, and the thought of doing this again at any time; or going out to dinner, or going on a trip to the beach, or going to see a movie. She thought about everything she wanted to do with Tiffany and the fact that they were all possible.

And then she thought about her brother; about how he used to help his younger sisters with their homework, and take them on walks through the fields around them, and splash them with water from the creek when they played in the summer. She thought about the times when he allowed her to share his earphones as he listened to his music outside the school gates. When she got too big to be carried on his shoulders he would carry their youngest sister instead, and Taeyeon would run along behind them with her slingshot, threatening to shoot at the back of his knees so that she could hear them both laugh because she’d never do such a thing. And she wouldn’t. They were happy together at times, the three of them, and despite everything else in their lives, they provided each other with a certain kind of resilience. Now all those memories and connections left her with a sour sensation, and a trail of dried tears. She couldn’t think of her brother and sister without feeling the pain she’d been caused all those years.

She thought about the hospital papers, the doctor’s conclusions, the typed words in the newspaper article that spoke of a bright young man who’d been lost to the societal plight of drugs that were reaching the rural areas. They were quick to point fingers at peer pressure, insufficient education about the dangers of drug abuse, and it was to their benefit to say that his overdose had been a result of these troubles – an accident because he didn’t know how much was too much and the villainous drug dealers didn’t care about his safety.

She thought she knew better about why he did it.

In all the years since his death, while she went on her own up-and-down ride through life, she didn’t think about those things. There was no point. She knew what happened and why, and her brother was gone, and she’d abandoned her sister to save herself before she did the same.

Now she wondered if she was ever likely to do what he did.

When she was little, her brother was someone she admired and respected. He was her role model. He smiled and took care of the people he loved, and she wanted to be that kind of person too. But she wasn’t like that. It became even clearer after he was gone. She couldn’t fill his shoes. She wasn’t capable of taking that position. She didn’t stay to protect her sister like their brother had done for them; she ran.

Taeyeon looked over at Tiffany as the thoughts stalled in her head. An uneasy feeling was curling up in her stomach, reaching up to wrench at her chest with dull claws.

It was the same thing over and over again. She was torturing herself because of the past she couldn’t shake and it hadn’t changed. Her present was changing and yet she was still held back by the same memories, the same pain.

Ever since she met Tiffany it was like she was suddenly facing her past head-on after turning her back on it for so long. Was it just really just because it was time? She couldn’t escape forever. Maybe it finally caught up to her.

But no, that didn’t seem right. Nothing else had really changed – only Tiffany. Tiffany was new. She was the biggest shift in her life lately. She’d made Taeyeon think twice about trusting another human being again and about the decisions she made in her past. It was how she was able to be honest with herself, with her sister, with Tiffany.

And Taeyeon realized what it meant.

That sick feeling was there again. It was the burn and churn in her chest that made it seem like she was bubbling up inside. Her heart was beating so fast she couldn’t feel it anymore, but unlike the fluttering that came with excitement, it was more sinister. She was shaking. She stood up slowly.

Tiffany must have sensed something was wrong, because she paused in her typing and frowned over at Taeyeon.

“Are you okay? You look very pale.”

Taeyeon tried to smile as nonchalantly as possible, but it looked more like a weak grimace. “I’m fine. Probably just tired.”

“Been working too much? You know you need to take it easy –”

“No, it’s not work. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

She turned away. The action was made less dismissive than she intended by the fact that she wobbled slightly on her feet. Tiffany didn’t waste any more time on questions. She got up from her seat and rested a hand on Taeyeon’s shoulder.

“Really, are you okay? You almost fell over there.”

Tiffany’s touch made Taeyeon tense up involuntarily; hastily she shrugged off the hand and almost tripped over herself trying to step away.

“Seriously, don’t.” She couldn’t even get the words out; she tried harder. “I’ve just been working through some things in my life and it takes its toll. I think I should go lie down. You’re welcome to stay and finish your work.”

Before she could make it out of the room, Tiffany was blocking her exit with crossed arms and a stern expression.

“Taeyeon, there’s no way I would let you struggle alone with something that affects you so badly. We’re taking this slow but I can’t let you go through it like this, not when I can see how it’s physically affecting you right now.”

Taeyeon curled in on herself, hunching her shoulders and looking at the ground. At this point it was only her last ounce of energy that kept her upright, but she couldn’t convince Tiffany to let her drop onto the carpet like she wanted to.

“Taeyeon,” said Tiffany again. This time her voice was soft, and gentle. She stepped into the corner of Taeyeon’s gaze. “You can talk to me. Please, let me help you. I know you.”

Even if she wanted to say anything to that, she knew she couldn’t. Her mouth was dry and it felt like her insides had deflated and shrivelled, leaving her without air in her lungs or blood in her heart. She just hunched further, coiling her arms over herself in an instinctive attempt at self-preservation. Her fingers clutched her elbows tightly, and this made her realise that her bones felt very sharp and her palms were very sweaty. She tried to focus on these things, any form of connection to her physical self in the real world, as she felt the darkness edge in on her vision.

Then a new sensation appeared; Tiffany’s touch but more like a warm blanket. Slowly she put together the picture of Tiffany’s arms wrapping around her, lightly at first. When Taeyeon didn’t stiffen or protest, Tiffany’s embrace tightened. A hand went to the back of Taeyeon’s head, running through her hair and massaging her scalp briefly. Tiffany pressed her cheek against Taeyeon’s ear and made muffled hushing sounds.

Taeyeon hadn’t felt so comforted since her brother was alive.

“It’s okay,” Tiffany whispered. “Just let yourself relax. I’m here, I’m holding you.”

Eventually Taeyeon did that. She closed her eyes, immediately feeling her muscles sag. She leaned into Tiffany, allowing herself to be completely held so that she could listen to the sound of Tiffany’s voice and her breathing, and absorb the hug.

She gave Taeyeon a quick squeeze. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Taeyeon couldn’t say no. Whatever put the words out just before was now gone. She only shifted slightly in Tiffany’s arms and closed her eyes tighter, feeling herself calm down.

Later she’d be guilty about letting herself use Tiffany in this way. She’d blame herself for acting like this. It would bother her for a few weeks, making her stop and sigh every now and then and call herself an idiot. But that was later. And since she was going to beat herself up over it anyway, she figured she might as well enjoy it.

Tiffany moved a little, adjusting her position in the embrace, and then she turned her head to place a swift and soft kiss against the side of Taeyeon’s head, her lips brushing the tip of Taeyeon’s ear.

“I’ve got you.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tiffany squeezed her slightly. “Don’t say sorry. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

Taeyeon didn’t respond, knowing she would just say sorry again.

“You don’t have to talk about it specifically,” Tiffany said. “Just say whatever comes to mind right now. Anything at all.”

The suggestion lessened the pressure somewhat, and after a moment she spoke.

“Sometimes when a person hurts badly, it stops hurting at all.”

She pulled back so that she could meet Tiffany’s gaze.

“Until something makes that person feel again. Then it all comes back – all of the hurt, every moment of it.”

She watched Tiffany’s expression change as she realized what it meant. Now they were on the same page – and neither of them knew what else to say. Tiffany shook her head slightly, her brow furrowed, and cupped Taeyeon’s jaw with one hand, thumb stroking gently over Taeyeon’s chin.

“I…” Tiffany faltered. “I want to help you with this. I want to help you deal with this pain.”

Taeyeon smiled sadly. “You are helping me.”

“No, I want to help you do this right. You have to face what happened to you.” She stepped back and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Express what you really feel. Picture yourself as the amalgamation of the child you were and the adult you are now – be yourself and look your problems in the eye and say what you mean.”

Taeyeon tilted her head in question.

“Pretend I’m your mother,” said Tiffany.

She planted herself firmly in front of Taeyeon and crossed her arms over her chest.

“Say to me what you’ve always wanted to say to her.”

Taeyeon swallowed nervously, and then she tried to scoff dismissively. “You want me to pretend that you’re my mother? That’s a little weird, Tiffany.”

“I’m not Tiffany,” said Tiffany, raising her eyebrows. “Right now I’m your mother. What have you got to say?”

Taeyeon shook her head and looked away. She bit her bottom lip. Shifting uncomfortably, she put her hands on her hips, still not looking back at Tiffany.

“I don’t want to do this, Fany,” she muttered.

“Hey.”

It sounded like Tiffany was dropping the act for a moment, using her own voice again, but Taeyeon couldn’t look at her. She felt a hand on her arm, gripping lightly, making her turn around.

“Taeyeon, please.” Tiffany circled her arms around Taeyeon’s shoulders and gave her a brief hug. “Just try this, okay? Even for a moment.”

“Why? This is stupid.”

Tiffany backed off just enough to cup Taeyeon’s face in her hands and stare into her eyes. “This is important. You have to be able to stand up to them. Think of all the things you’ve wanted to say to your mother or your father. Feel everything and say it. You can do this, baby.”

Taeyeon cringed. “Okay, calling me ‘baby’ is just a little too weird.”

Tiffany looked surprised. “Oh. Oh, okay. Well, we can talk about that later. Do you want to try this?”

Taeyeon eyed Tiffany critically, attempting to imagine her mother standing in front of her. She sighed.

“Okay, okay, let’s try it. But if you permanently remind me of my mother after this, we’re going to have to stop seeing each other and I won’t take the blame.”

Her comment made Tiffany smile slightly, and then they separated to stand facing each other. Taeyeon took a deep breath and nodded. Tiffany crossed her arms again and made her face perfectly blank.

For a long time, they just stared at each other. Taeyeon realized she was holding her breath, and she let it all rush out, and then shook her head.

“I can’t do it. I’m just not seeing you as my mother. You need to do something like she would.”

Tiffany shrugged. “I don’t know your mother. Give me some tips?”

There were several reasons why Taeyeon had not told Tiffany anything more about her family, and they all struck her again now. Even saying anything in this current situation seemed too much. She stood there speechless, mouth half-open. She couldn’t bring herself to admit how her mother acted towards her.

Tiffany seemed to know this.

But was it enough?

“No. I can’t.”

Tiffany frowned. “Taeyeon, it’s okay. It’s safe to do this. You trust me, right?”

Taeyeon sighed. “It’s not about that. There’s just too much. I’m miserable, Tiffany. This isn’t going to change anything.”

“Well, I won’t let you give up.”

“There’s nothing to give up on! I don’t want to do anything about this. I just want to keep doing what I was doing.”

“Are you really sure you don’t want to do more? Maybe you feel like you can’t do it, but I know you want something better than what you’ve been left with. You want to make something out of yourself that you made, not your past.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. It was true. Everything she’d been thinking and feeling since she came back from talking with her sister was about how this was the time to make improvements to her life and how Tiffany being there for her would help that. This was meant to be how she began to really recover and patch up those parts of her that seemed beyond repair.

But when she’d talked to Lee about smiling and sticking around, she hadn’t been honest with him or with herself about the other side of it. Yes, it would always hurt. She’d have nightmares for the rest of her life, and she’d have trouble concentrating and she’d feel sad for no discernible reason, and over time she’d experience the physical impact of all that stress.

If she was advocating that people like her should hang around for the good moments and for the people they met – was she ignoring the fact that it didn’t do anything for that pain? Was it all a waste of words? It was just another way to avoid it, to pretend that it created some semblance of balance. Nothing worked like that. While she knew she’d be able to have the positive in her life as well as the negative, one would be stronger than the other; and that depended on which one she fed the most.

Right now, she didn’t think she had the courage to do the right thing, after all. She was willing to take the good moments when they came and get up every day for the slow steps towards something better, but she wasn’t willing to face her problems head on and take real action towards turning the tables in her favour.

Nothing was enough.

Her eyes were wide as she stared at Tiffany. “I’m a coward. I’m selfish. You make me feel happy and I wanted to keep that in my life, but it’s not a solution. Here you are, trying to help me in the right way, and all I’ve been preparing for is a long-term distraction. I’m so sorry. I’ve wronged you.”

“Hey, no, it’s not like that,” said Tiffany hurriedly, wrapping her arms around Taeyeon’s shoulders again. “Don’t be sorry. This is difficult, and no one could ever possibly blame you for how you feel right now; least of all me.”

“No, I ruined this. I’m too lost in my misery to face these things the way I should. I thought I understood what my sister was saying to me but was I just telling myself what I wanted to believe? That I could somehow keep looking forward from now on and it would make the past hurt me less? How is it possible that I could have forgotten the truth so easily?”

She pulled away from Tiffany, perhaps a little harshly, and took a few steps away.

“I’m such an idiot,” she said quietly. She covered her eyes with one hand and took a slow breath. “I can’t do this. I knew what to do and I failed immediately, and then pretended I was doing it right so that I could feel good.”

“Taeyeon, just because you couldn’t do this right now doesn’t mean everything has gone wrong. I believe in you. I know you.”

“No, I don’t think you do,” said Taeyeon sharply, as she removed her hand and showed her red-rimmed eyes. “And I don’t think you should. I don’t deserve you. I was a fool for thinking this was the right thing to do.”

Tiffany’s expression fell, and was tinged with panic. “Taeyeon, don’t. We’ve made it this far. We’re being honest with each other now – I just want you to help me help you. That’s all we need to do. Don’t complicate this more than it already is.”

“It’s not my fault!”

This time she used both hands to cover her face, digging her fingertips into her skin.

“It’s not my fault,” she said again, her voice crushed.

“I didn’t say it was your fault – and it isn’t your fault. Please, don’t shut me out. Don’t let this happen.”

“What do you know about this? You don’t understand what I’ve been through. You haven’t seen the world I live in.”

“Yes, I have,” Tiffany said immediately. “I’m looking at it right now. I see your pain, Taeyeon. I see you.”

The brief silence was shuttered by Taeyeon’s sigh – it was clear she was having trouble holding back her tears. She kept her face covered, but didn’t turn away.

“How many times do I have to tell you? I know you. And I mean that. You’ve shown me your world and every day I see more of it. Don’t underestimate what we have between us just because of moments like these.”

“These aren’t just moments,” said Taeyeon. She lowered her hands. “This is my life.”

“And so am I. At least, I’m part of it now. You told me that’s what we were doing. We’re already there. Don’t run away from this. You can do what’s right.”

Taeyeon only looked at her.

We can do what’s right. We can have the courage. You’re not doing this completely alone – I’m not saying it’s my place to do this for you or to carry you through this, but I’m here for you. I’ll show you that you have courage.”

At this point, she simply didn’t know how to respond. She shook her head heavily. She felt ashamed again. She felt a lot of doubt. Her pain and fear was lingering as it always did but now it was no longer at the forefront of her sensations. Maybe Tiffany was right in what she said – and it was this thought that enabled Taeyeon to calm down enough to see more clearly.

There would be a lot of stumbling blocks like this. Moments when she tried to do the hard thing, the right thing, and go head-to-head with her issues; and in those moments she would sometimes feel utterly convinced that she couldn’t do it. She would tell herself that she had failed and that she shouldn’t bother, and it would be something she believed. She knew that this was going to be added to the cycle that she went through every day. Tiffany called it a step in the right direction. It went with what she said to Lee, and what she wanted to tell her sister. Having the good moments in a bad life was one thing, but she would have to make herself earn it if she didn’t want to call it another distraction. Maybe sometimes she would get it right. She could only stick around and see if the effort was worth it.

She had to feed the positive, not the negative.

She looked at Tiffany; by far the most positive part of her life right now even during this moment. She still didn’t know what her future held, whether it would become more negative than positive, whether it would break her down, or perhaps she would overcome it. Maybe Tiffany would always be the most positive part of her life, and maybe one day she would no longer be positive.

But she stood in front of Taeyeon right here and now. She was ready to help drive the counter to Taeyeon’s past.

Taeyeon wouldn’t be able to stay on the path of recovery every day.

“It’s okay,” is what Tiffany would say, “we’ll get back up and try again. That’s what’s most important.”

No matter what happened, Tiffany had a profound effect on her already. She’d become used to running from the pain, or letting it take over when it became too much; until Tiffany made her really feel again.

It seemed ridiculously cliché, but Taeyeon saw her life as little more than a common tragedy anyway.

It wasn’t a happy ending – which was good because Taeyeon didn’t think she deserved such a thing – because it wasn’t an ending and it wasn’t totally happy. This was a journey that would go on for the rest of her life and would be difficult but rewarding if she did it right; with Tiffany’s help, at least for now. And she had to be there for her sister, and Lee.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Tiffany’s face cleared and she started to smile, obviously relieved at the calmer tone of Taeyeon’s voice. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I was scared for a minute there… but we’re okay, right?”

Taeyeon shrugged, and nodded. “We’re okay, I guess.”

“We won’t be stuck like this,” said Tiffany. She stepped closer and reached out slightly. “We’re not going to be trapped, wondering why we can’t go anywhere. Right?”

Taeyeon took Tiffany’s hands without hesitation. “We’ll keep trying.” Her mouth twitched a little in a smile, still shaky but showing. “You’re amazing, do you know that?”

Tiffany grinned and kissed her, slow. “You’re pretty marvellous yourself.” She draped her arms over Taeyeon’s shoulders, and Taeyeon returned the embrace.

She could get used to more than just the simple moments with Tiffany. They would go on dates and do normal things and sometimes they would struggle through a lot of pain – whether or not it was a good thing that she could get used to that pain too, she wasn’t sure, but she was starting to place trust in Tiffany because every time it happened, Tiffany proved to her that it wasn’t totally hopeless. It was a valuable influence to have in her life. Tiffany was a person who could very easily be loved.

“Let’s go for a walk,” said Tiffany, smiling again as she tugged at Taeyeon.

It was nearing sunset again at the riverside. Taeyeon saw the ducks lingering near the edge as they approached it, hoping for some treats, but neither of them brought any bread. She thought about what Lee said about bread being bad for their health. They didn’t seem to care whether it was good for them or not, and when they realized no bread was forthcoming, most of them disappeared.

Taeyeon liked the feel of Tiffany’s hand in hers, the casual comfort it provided, knowing Tiffany was there for her.

“So, I take it that ‘baby’ is not an option? What can I call you, then?”

Taeyeon squinted at her. “Well, there’s my name. It’s Taeyeon, by the way. That’s a good one. Classic.”

“You know what I mean.”

Taeyeon shrugged. “Call me whatever you feel like as long as I know it’s me you’re referring to. Just not ‘baby’, it’s….” She hesitated, slowing her steps. “It’s something my mother called me.”

The look on Tiffany’s face confirmed that she knew how important that was, and how much she appreciated that Taeyeon had admitted to it. But she didn’t explicitly mention it, and Taeyeon was thankful for that after the up-and-down day they’d already had and were likely to have again.

Tiffany nodded. “Got it. I’ll think of something. You’re cute enough, I’m sure it won’t be difficult.”

They shared a smile, like they were creating something just between them. When they reached the bench, they sat close together, thighs touching, and Taeyeon took in the sensation of an attachment she hadn’t formed before.

“I think I should get a dog,” she remarked eventually, eyes on the sun as it lowered itself into the horizon. “Maybe a small breed like yours. It would be nice to have a little ball of energy rolling around the house while I’m working.”

Tiffany kissed her on the cheek lightly. “That sounds good.”

They didn’t say anything for a while. The last of the ducks floated away as slowly as the sun set.

“You know I meant it, right? When I said you’re marvellous.”

Taeyeon turned slightly, looking at Tiffany’s profile in the fading light.

“You’re strong. Stronger than you think.”

Their eyes met. Taeyeon smiled slightly, absently. “I know,” she said.

Even if she didn’t believe it.

It’s Unreal

If there’s one thing Taeyeon finds most inconvenient, it’s wandering around a graveyard in the middle of the night. Not that it’s a lifestyle choice, but it’s happened a few too many times and she’s starting to get a bit fed up with it.

“What makes you so sure it will be here this time?” she asks again, for what feels like the hundredth time, warily picking her way over the overgrown garden this side of the fence.

Tiffany doesn’t answer immediately. This part of the path is somewhat treacherous to traverse in the darkness. If it wasn’t the tenth or eleventh time they were doing it, they’d be tripping all over the place, caught off guard by weeds and tree roots and stones. As it is, Taeyeon is still taking very particular care with the placement of her steps, and she even manages to keep the flashlight mostly steady as she goes.

“I just have a feeling,” Tiffany says finally. Her voice has that hushed, secretive quality that it gets when she’s talking about it. “Tonight is the night. It has to be.”

Taeyeon fights the urge to roll her eyes. Again and again they’ve had this conversation. They’ve known each other since they were in diapers and Taeyeon has never seen or heard this thing, yet she keeps coming along to tiptoe around the dead because Tiffany keeps saying it’s going to be here.

“Can I at least bring hot chocolate next time?” She’s thinking of the thermos she has at home, and how it would look filled with chocolatey goodness, topped with marshmallows –

“There won’t be a next time, because this time it will be here,” Tiffany answers impatiently. She glares over her shoulder before returning her focus to the ground beneath her feet.

Taeyeon shrugs. “Okay.”

Why it has to be a graveyard of all places, she has no idea. Maybe it’s for dramatic effect. It is pretty spooky, she is not afraid to admit, and the first few times they went, she was disturbed. Now it’s a place like any other. It’s becoming so familiar that it’s hard to believe anything supernatural would happen here even in the dead of night. Without hot chocolate or anything to do other than hang around staring into nothingness, the graveyard’s becoming rather boring. Perhaps she doesn’t have the flair of imagination required in order to be a werewolf.

Tiffany stops suddenly. She throws an arm out behind her, mostly to stop Taeyeon too, and then she laces their fingers together. The way she squeezes shows Taeyeon that this is it.

They strain their ears to listen. There’s a distant cracking sound, like snapping twigs and tumbling pebbles. This must have been what made Tiffany stop moving.

In all the years they’ve been going to this place, they’ve never heard a sound like that.

For the first time, Taeyeon feels really truly scared.

“Okay let’s go,” she whispers, tugging on Tiffany’s hand.

The look Tiffany gives her is burning with a very certain absolutely not and shut up. They turn in the direction of the noise. It seems to be getting louder – is it getting louder? – Taeyeon thinks she’s losing her perception in favour of her fear, but then Tiffany is pulling her along and they’re going closer to it.

“Look, I know I’ve expressed my doubts –”

“Shh!”

“And really this isn’t about the existence of werewolves –”

“Shut up!”

“But should we be going closer to the –”

They crunch to a halt right up against a bush that has seen better days. Ahead of them, crouched between two decrepit gravestones, is a giant black shape that is crackling and ripping either itself or something else. Now they can hear the sound of breathing, thick and harsh, presumably straining from the rough thing in front of them.

“– very real possible danger,” Taeyeon finishes her sentence, barely whispering.

It’s like her limbs have turned to lead, heavy and unwilling to bend. All she can do is stand there and stare. She can feel Tiffany shaking, their arms and shoulders pressed together. She very deliberately does not lift her flashlight and quietly clicks it off. If the thing hasn’t seen it yet, it’s best to keep it that way. Its hulking form swells in the dimness, occasionally picking up the moonlight, and it rocks back and forth briefly.

There’s fur, quite a lot of it, and it’s covering pretty much everything, so either it’s a creepy hairy big guy or it’s –

“Werewolf,” squeaked Tiffany. “Is that a werewolf?”

It hasn’t heard them yet, still shaking what seems like its shoulders and an arm waves upwards; there’s a glint of something sharp that looks an awful lot like a claw.

“Whether it’s a werewolf or not, we should definitely run in the opposite direction,” Taeyeon mutters quickly. She grabs Tiffany’s elbow and starts tugging her backwards, away from the creature. “Maybe even do a zig-zag pattern, like when running from an alligator.”

Taeyeon doesn’t believe in werewolves, and despite what they’re seeing right now this belief has not been revaluated, and she’ll deal with both options in the same way. Or she would like to, but Tiffany’s not moving.

“But we have to see if it’s a –”

It lets out a scream, terrible and scratching. Taeyeon jumps a foot high and loses her grip on Tiffany – which allows Tiffany to scramble forward out of the bush.

“No, wait!”

The thing hears her shout rather than Tiffany’s fumbling footsteps approaching it. The moonlight falls on its face for the first time, illuminating the long snout and wet nose, the bared fangs dripping in saliva, the ears that swivel in their direction, and the sharp yellow eyes that zero in on Tiffany.

It unleashes a thunderous roar that’s laced with an edge so severe it makes Taeyeon’s skin ripple in fear. Tiffany stops her advance, throws her arms up in front of her and turns her face to avoid the slobber that bursts from the creature’s muzzle. It’s shaking its whole body, stamping its hind legs on the ground as it shifts into an imposing stance intended to frighten them away.

It works perfectly.

Once Taeyeon sees Tiffany do an abrupt about-face, she joins her as they tear through the bushes and trees back to where they came from. She knocks her hip against a gravestone, which hurts like hell and the flashlight drops from her hand. It slows her for only a second but Tiffany reaches back and like a grappling hook, latches onto Taeyeon’s hand and whips her closer.

They haven’t heard any sign that the beast is pursuing them, but neither is willing to take this moment to find out. Taeyeon keeps her head firmly facing forward as they make it to the graveyard fence.

Tiffany slams the gate behind them and grips it tight like it’s a lifebuoy and she’s in shark-infested waters. She’s looking back into the graveyard, eyes wide as she takes in the darkness, waiting for any indication that a werewolf is going to tear them apart tonight.

There’s nothing.

Everything’s gone quiet. They can’t even hear it in the distance. Its roar faded away while they were running, and if it moved anywhere it did so silently. Now the night has settled again, far too quickly for Taeyeon’s comfort, but they keep waiting until it’s clear that nothing is coming for them.

She smacks Tiffany’s shoulder. “Why did you run towards the giant scary monster?”

Tiffany rubs her arm and looks perturbed. “I thought if it could see us it wouldn’t be so scared of us.”

Taeyeon blinks at her in astonishment. “Scared? Of us? That thing? The hairy, slobbering, muscular, sharply fanged and clawed –”

Yes, that thing,” says Tiffany. She leans her back against the gate, making it wobble slightly, but she seems to be past her fear of things that go bang in the night at least for now. “Wouldn’t you be scared? Imagine you were a werewolf who can’t control that part of you and some humans find you at your most vulnerable moment.”

“Vulnerable? Vulnera–” Taeyeon pauses, she takes a breath, and she bites her fingernails. “Let’s just get out of here, okay? I think we’re done werewolf hunting.”

Tiffany shrugs, and they hold hands again as they walk to the car with only slightly hurried steps.

“I mean really, we should be focusing on midterms,” says Taeyeon. “Not hunting for werewolves. I can’t believe it took our whole lives. We didn’t see one until we were already college students. What’s the point of that? Can we agree that we’re finished with this now?”

Tiffany wraps her arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders and brings her in for a soft hug. “Hmm, I don’t know. Hanging out in the dark with you for all these years has been so nice.”

Taeyeon smiles, and looks down shyly. Then she shakes her head, stands up straighter, and unlocks the car.

“Werewolves,” she mutters to herself once Tiffany is in her seat. “Of course they’re more likely to happen.”

Malfunctioning

“Make peace with yourself, kid.”

How simple for her to say. How dare she – she was just some old woman – what did she know? Nothing, not about Taeyeon’s life or any other life at all. Make peace? How much could she possibly know about this world if she thought that was ever possible; least of all making peace with oneself? Some old woman had no right to say that, and no basis to believe that.

All these things Taeyeon thought as she scrunched the steering wheel. Traffic was thick tonight, but the glittering city lights had generally not lost their novelty. Coming from a small country town, she often didn’t mind being stuck in her car, practically stationary in one long stretch of street, because all of this was so new and so special to her.

Tonight, however, she was steaming. She still didn’t care about being stuck in traffic, but the uniqueness of the city surroundings took a back seat to her single-focused anger.

The crap that woman had spouted – it was nothing more than the old “love yourself before you can love others” bullshit. The gall to say that she had to make peace with herself before she could make peace with anyone else; it made her burn. And so what if she wasn’t capable of loving anyone else because of her own self-hatred? She wasn’t looking for anyone to love. Anyone who tried to change that was wasting their time and could fall off a cliff for all she cared.

And what was up with calling her “kid”? She was almost thirty, for goodness’ sake. No one was allowed to call her a child even if they were related.

Taeyeon rapped her fingers on the steering wheel in frustration.

She shook her head.

She huffed, and muttered, “Why would anyone bother, anyway?”

There was no point in making peace with herself or with anyone else. She didn’t need it. She didn’t want it. She was doing perfectly fine without it. Why should she care?

Her foot briefly pressed down on the gas pedal, making the car’s engine rev. She clicked her tongue.

That crazy old lady.

“You need to settle down,” she mimicked in a high-pitched voice. “Sort out the problems, smooth over the messes. Rebuild the bridges you’ve burned.”

Traffic finally moved, and she followed the line automatically. Her attention slowly leaked over to her driving. With steadily increasing effort, she made her way through the streets and the clenching press of cars. However, her thoughts refused to stray from their previous concentration. Her mind continued to ring with the words she’d just heard from her grandmother – and the lingering image of a childish concept of Taeyeon with a goofy smile throwing scribbled hearts at random people, holding hands with some angelic human.

No one was perfect, and the old lady needed to accept that. There was no happy ending, there was no ideal person, there were no seamless relationships, and there was no such thing as true love.

The fact that she’d had to waste almost an hour with that old woman when they hadn’t even known about each other’s existence until a few days ago was what made her even more annoyed. Taeyeon was a busy person, and to go through the effort of searching for her lost family members only to be stuck with some idealistic foolish old bat only reinforced her dismissive opinions. There was nothing to be dreamed of, here. It was pointless.

Taeyeon was still alone.

She gritted her teeth as she turned in to the parking garage connected to her office building, barely giving time for the machine to read her card and allow the barrier to rise. The tyres screeched as she went through the maze to her reserved spot.

The door slammed behind her as she swung it shut, juggling her keys and phone in the other hand, and she strode to the elevator with heavy steps.

All that time spent tracking down her grandmother. All the thoughts she’d had about what she would do if she could find her parents or even a stray sibling. All the emotions she didn’t restrict when she still had a chance to avoid disappointment.

She jabbed the button for the top floor five times, rapidly, and then the button to close the doors. The faster it could move, the better.

As it rose, she was glad that she’d removed the elevator music the moment she became General Manager. They used to have some god-awful jingles that would circulate all day long – which were a stupid waste of money and she’d made sure everyone was aware of it. Now she could be taken to her office without the taunting of that horrible sound.

The moment the doors opened, she swept down the corridor. With one hand, she shoved her phone into her pocket and flicked through her keychain to get the one for her office door.

Then she stopped.

In an office beside hers, the door was open and a desk lamp was on. It illuminated the presence of Tiffany, who’d been promoted to regional manager last year and was doing really well, most likely because she stayed at work until ten o’clock at night.

Tiffany looked up at the sound of Taeyeon’s keys, and their eyes met.

“Oh.” Tiffany stood, and bowed slightly. “I’m sorry; I didn’t expect that you would return tonight.”

“You’re here,” Taeyeon said, with an awkward pause, “late, I mean, you’re here quite late.”

“Yeah, I had some things I wanted to finish,” Tiffany replied, waving at her computer screen and the piles of paper surrounding it. “I had hoped to be done by now but, oh well. It takes as long as it takes.”

“Right.”

They watched each other. Tiffany tilted her head.

“Are you okay? Did you forget something in your office?”

Taeyeon shook her head, partly as an answer and partly to rouse herself.

“Uh, no. I just wanted to come do some work. I’ve had a bad night.”

Tiffany was genuinely surprised. “You come here to do more work when you’re having a bad night? Wouldn’t that be the last thing you’d want?”

Taeyeon shrugged. She didn’t feel like explaining and didn’t know how to do it anyway, and even though the unexpected encounter with Tiffany had chased her angry thoughts from her head, she still felt the residual frustration and wanted to get away. Her office was her safe space. She felt comfortable there, like she was exactly where she was meant to be. As a piece of a puzzle, she fit right in.

“I’ll leave you to your work, Tiffany. Don’t stay too long. Resting is important.”

They’d always been casual around each other. Taeyeon never felt the need to reinforce the hierarchy with Tiffany, feeling more like a direct equal because they had similar attitudes to their work. When Taeyeon said something about the company, Tiffany understood perfectly. They dealt with things the same way. The other regional managers needed some poking and prodding, and needed to take her seriously when she gave them instructions. Tiffany just listened right away and knew what to do.

So it wasn’t surprising when Tiffany stepped out from behind her desk and came closer to Taeyeon instead of bowing and returning to her work.

“Are you sure you’re all right? You seem kind of tense. More tense than usual, and I would guess that it’s not good for this time of night.”

Taeyeon looked down, fiddling with the keys still in her hand. She sniffed, and shifted her shoulders. “Nothing. I’m just busy. Work has been hellish lately.”

Tiffany laughed slightly. “Tell me about it. I’m having trouble keeping up with it even though I’ve been staying late for a month.”

“You don’t have to stay late, you know,” said Taeyeon. She smiled half-heartedly at Tiffany. “You’re already the best regional manager by a mile and you’ve had the job for a shorter time than the rest of them.”

“That doesn’t mean I can be slack about my work. I want to do my absolute best,” Tiffany stated firmly.

Her determination was endearing.

“Well, just don’t push yourself too hard. Take a night off every once in a while or you’ll burn yourself out.”

Tiffany was still looking at her with a serious gaze, assessing her. “Are you just going to stay here all night?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes. “What does it matter? I have work to do.”

“You just told me to take a night off every once in a while and you expect me to accept that you’re above that?”

“Okay,” said Taeyeon, almost laughing, “this is too much now. I’m going to my office. Good night, Tiffany.”

She made to keep walking, eyes on the door with her name on it.

“Taeyeon.”

The voice pulled her back involuntarily, causing her to hesitate and half turn back around. She glanced at Tiffany, who stepped closer.

“How about we both take a night off? Like, tonight. Right now. We can go get a drink and hang out.”

Taeyeon narrowed her eyes. Getting a drink and hanging out was not something she did. It sounded like it was meant to be done with a friend or on a date. Taeyeon didn’t invest much in either of those.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m busy.”

“Are you really?” Tiffany asked, eyebrows rising. “It’s the middle of the night, Taeyeon. You said you’ve had a bad time tonight, so let’s go out and do something fun and relaxing.”

Taeyeon shook her head again. “No. Really, no. I’m going to do some work now.”

This time she almost made it another step before a touch on her arm turned her around. Tiffany was much closer now, in her space, and her keys were covered by another hand.

“Taeyeon, you shouldn’t do this to yourself.”

She shook off the hand and moved back, temper flaring. “No, you shouldn’t do this. Why won’t you let me go to work?”

Tiffany breathed out her exasperation.

“Why won’t you be honest with yourself? You were never good at letting me be there for you before we slept together, either.”

Taeyeon glanced around, unreasonably paranoid. “We had a one night stand; it’s not really something to talk about in the office even if it is the middle of the night.”

“You can’t just treat me so coldly,” said Tiffany. “And you can’t do this when you’re in a bad mood. You need to stop burying yourself in work all the time.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. No one has the right to do that, and I don’t need it.”

“Well then why don’t we talk about what you need, huh? You said all this crap about not needing relationships but even though it was just one night, we had something and you can’t throw that away.”

“Yes, I can,” Taeyeon gritted out. “Here I go, throwing it away.”

She made it to her office door and jammed the key into the lock angrily, aware of Tiffany watching her, and flicked on her desk lamp as soon as she was in.

Their one night stand was not something she thought about, let alone talked about. It was a moment of confusion on her part and she wasn’t interested in dwelling on it. She learned what she could from the mistake and left it in her past, that was her policy and she was sticking with it. A brief fault in her system was not something to get emotional about – no matter what Tiffany said about it.

“At least tell me what happened tonight,” said Tiffany.

She’d followed her into the office and stood in the doorway, hands by her sides and her face honest and open.

They squared off in the dimness of the office.

“Look, I don’t owe you anything.”

Tiffany threw her arms up and turned her gaze briefly to the ceiling in frustration. “Are you serious right now?”

“Yes,” said Taeyeon, her voice grave. “You can back off. I don’t need you in my life, and I don’t need to fix things with you.”

“So you admit things are broken?”

Taeyeon’s jaw clenched but she didn’t say anything. Tiffany took the opportunity to approach, coming to a stop directly in front of her.

“It’s been five weeks. We’ve stayed professional, and we’ve been doing our jobs amazingly well. I took it like an adult when you told me we can’t date and when you brushed me off. But I can’t do it like that anymore. I can’t let you wear yourself down with work and anger because you don’t want to face the truth.”

Taeyeon felt like a bird with ruffled feathers or a cat with dishevelled fur. Her anger from the drive to the office building came back to prick at her, along with all the things about making peace and rebuilding bridges. But she didn’t believe there was any point, even with Tiffany standing right here in front of her. There really was no such thing as true love or a happy ending, and Taeyeon was alone. No one could change that.

“And what makes you think you know the truth better than I do?”

“Because I’ve seen the real truth. You pushed it down and you pushed me away.”

She reached forward, and cupped Taeyeon’s face in her hands as if to keep her there.

“I saw you that night. You were happy. We laughed and we had fun and you let me mean something to you. I know that’s the truth, and so do you.”

Taeyeon shook her head, gently enough that she didn’t dislodge Tiffany’s touch. She didn’t have anything to say in her defence. She did have fun with Tiffany, and she did feel something special. It didn’t change the fact that it was also a mistake.

Her cheek tingled when Tiffany’s thumb brushed along her skin.

The kiss was familiar, expected, and soft. Tiffany didn’t want to push too far and probably felt like she was making some progress because Taeyeon kissed her back.

They stayed close.

“Even if I make peace with you, I can’t make peace with myself,” Taeyeon admitted.

Tiffany kissed her again. She let her hands sink to Taeyeon’s shoulders, taking a firm hold and pulling her closer.

“Taeyeon, you’re lonely but you’re not alone. Okay? I’m here.”

She pushed away, flicking Tiffany’s embrace off her shoulders and taking a few steps. With her back turned to Tiffany, she ran a hand over her face and took a deep breath.

It was all just a waste of time.

“At least one night.”

She tilted her head, listening.

“How about one more night? This isn’t about making peace with me or with yourself. It’s not about a relationship or facing a truth you don’t want to accept. We’re going to get a drink and have fun. Like last time.”

“You deserve better than that, Tiffany.”

“This isn’t about what I deserve or about what’s necessary and what’s not. I want you and you want me. This is about us, just us.”

“You want to sleep together again so we can go through all this in another month’s time?”

Tiffany lightly took her hand and made her turn around. “I want,” she said slowly, “you. And that’s what this is.”

Taeyeon shook her head, frowning.

She thought of what her grandmother said – her grandmother whose existence was largely inconsequential to her and had no influence on her life beyond the passing along of DNA – and how that was perfectly accurate for her. Whether the old lady knew it or not, she’d struck a nerve in Taeyeon because it was so obvious that she was right. All the bridges in her life were burned, all her relationships with people were kept superficial and professional, and her heart was locked down because she couldn’t stand herself. She didn’t see how anyone could, and clearly no one had until this point so she must’ve been right. No family, no friends, no love. It was not a good kind of peace.

But here stood Tiffany.

After a year of working together and one night of getting carried away with their feelings, she still wanted Taeyeon.

“Just think about tonight,” Tiffany said after a while.

She was holding Taeyeon’s hand, running her thumb over Taeyeon’s knuckles soothingly. With her other arm, she encircled Taeyeon’s waist and brought them closer together. They stood in the near darkness of the office.

“You had a bad night and we’re going to relax,” continued Tiffany. “That’s it. This is not about your whole life. You need a break from work; I need a break from work. I happen to think you’re pretty cool; you don’t mind being in my presence. We’ll have some drinks. We’ll talk about stuff. We’ll make some jokes.”

“And then we’ll sleep together; and tomorrow we’ll go back to work like pros?” Taeyeon asked quietly, cynically.

Tiffany smiled slightly. “If that’s what you want.”

“And if I want,” Taeyeon paused to emphasize the term, “to have some drinks, tell you what happened tonight and why I’m lonely and angry; and I want to ask your forgiveness and accept the truth…?”

“That’s an option too.”

“It can go either way.”

Tiffany nodded, and then she looked expectant.

Taeyeon looped her arms around Tiffany’s hips, and she echoed the nod.

“Okay. Let’s go have some drinks, and we’ll talk.”

Maybe she didn’t have to love herself before she loved someone else if she could work on both at the same time without malfunctioning.

Think Twice. (Interlude: My Name Is Tiffany)

The straggling Thursday morning traffic provided an unpleasant soundtrack to her life. It was hellishly hot and she’d gotten out of bed briefly just to open the window, hoping for some fresh air but all she got was more sunlight and the noise of the outside world. Not that it made much difference. She still lay sprawled on her bed, staring at the ceiling, feeling the sweat pooling on her skin. The cars passing by her apartment only barely managed to get her attention. Whether they were there or not, she would be thinking about how pathetic she was.

Supposedly, everyone reached a point in their life when they felt lost. She was at the right age for it, but she’d underestimated how long it could go on for. In her mind, people had this feeling and struggled for a while before they found something that worked well enough and they went on, like a hobbling machine that could roll even though it was bumpy. She hadn’t been able to get there yet. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to get there.

Of all the advice she’d gotten on how to deal with this problem, none of it seemed applicable. They told her to go with something she was interested in, or to go with something easy at least in the meantime, or to go for something that suited her lifestyle. It didn’t make any sense to her. She had interests but they didn’t fit into the world of careers. There was nothing she did that sounded like a job to her. She had trouble finding something easy to do while she tried to figure it out because she was unmotivated; didn’t have any energy to give pursuit as well as she should have and it showed in her unsuccessful attempts. Her lifestyle right now was empty and stagnant.

She felt utterly pathetic.

On her bedside table, her phone beeped. She turned her head and stared at it before lazily moving to pick it up. It provided her with a message from her father, asking how her day was going and if she was free for dinner that night. She rolled her eyes. He knew she was unemployed and whenever he asked what she was doing with her time she always said she wasn’t doing much. It should be assumed that she was free, but she considered pretending to be busy just so she didn’t have to go to dinner with her family.

They weren’t doing anything on purpose to annoy her, and they were supportive and welcoming to her every time they got together. She just wasn’t capable of handling their scrutiny, as light and innocent as it may be, when she felt utterly demoralized and deflated. They were all going on with their lives, they had careers and were making little families of their own, and they hung out with friends and pursued hobbies. Her father even volunteered at a homeless shelter three times a week.

But there she was. Lying on her bed on a Thursday morning, listening to traffic, letting the heat smother her, with nothing to do and no inclination to move.

Her savings were going to run out soon. Last year she’d come into age for the trust fund her parents had set up for their children before her mother died. Her siblings had taken only small amounts from it thus far, but she was starting to drain her own share the longer she went without an income. It was a pressure she was well aware of every time she went looking for a job and every time she questioned the purpose of her newly acquired degree. It seemed like a good idea when she was getting it but suddenly she didn’t feel like she could go down that path anymore and that freaked her out more than a little.

She thought of her mother.

As a child, there was the usual time when everyone would ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She had plenty of answers for that question, ranging from astronaut to zoo keeper. She was an energetic kid with an active imagination and it showed. People laughed with amusement as she got excited about all the careers she wanted to pursue, because it was great to see a kid with so much eagerness for the dreams she had.

But her mother sat her down one day after school and asked her not what she wanted to do as an adult but what she wanted to do right at that moment if she could do anything in the whole world.

It had made her think about what she was already doing. She wasn’t limited by the fact that she was just a kid because her mother had said there were no restrictions. So she’d thought of how she played with her dolls, the way she sketched princesses and superstars and witches, and the times her mother let her pick out her own clothes. She’d said that if she could do anything in the whole wide world she would just keep doing that all day long. She didn’t think of a career when her mother asked her that question, she thought of her passion.

She couldn’t do anything half-heartedly. She was either all the way in or she did nothing at all. Right now she was on the wrong end of that scale and it was digging into her heart deeply.

A car outside was playing music as it got stuck in traffic. Their windows were obviously down because of the summer heat. She frowned, recognizing the song from her when she was a teenager, but she couldn’t quite grasp the memory. After the cars were stood still for a while, the song carried on more clearly. It was some Green Day song, of that much she became certain. Probably the title was in the chorus, so if she could just make out the words a little better –

The cars rumbled again as traffic broke up and they all continued on their way.

She lay back again, only just realizing that she’d lifted her head to listen. She knew that song, it was something about novocaine. That modern punk rock scene brought so much style with it and it surrounded her completely in her teenage years. For a while it was the cool thing and then it was more of its own thing and she hardly saw it these days anymore but she knew it retained a lot of its classic quality that didn’t have a negative connotation. Some styles became disliked once they went out of fashion but punk rock had a certain charm to it.

Here she was, wasting her time thinking about that stuff again. Maybe it was because she was thinking about what she’d told her mother when she was little.

If her mother were here right now asking her that same question, what would her answer be?

She wondered.

She got up, dragging her feet as she made her way to her desk. She was still wearing the clothes she’d slept in, with the extra-large shirt almost exposing her shoulder and her pants falling off slightly if she moved too fast, which was fine because she was not interested in moving fast. At her desk she stared down at the papers that were scattered around.

Every now and then in the past few years she would pick up her pencil and find some papers and just doodle. They were people she didn’t know, people she’d seen, members of her family, and friends from school. Their faces had enough detail to show something of their humanity but it was their bodies that she focused more on. She sketched clothes, all kinds and shapes and styles. She showed what someone would look like with that outfit or if their shirt looked a little different from something they already had. She made things that went with their personalities and the impressions she got from them as she interacted with them or observed them. On these pieces of paper were entire worlds for people who would never see it.

She never showed anyone these sketches. They were just random little things that lay around in the background of her life.

With the tip of her index finger she traced a sketch of her brother in a three-piece suit. She’d thought it would be good for his award ceremony at the end of the year. Beside it she’d begun to make the structure of a tuxedo that he could use for his wedding next month. These were just thoughts she’d had, things she made up when she was bored and didn’t want to stress so much anymore.

The pages had been piling up in the past few weeks as her empty life seemed to stretch on. She was an intelligent person with a lot of energy somewhere deep inside her. She had a lot to give to the world. Why couldn’t she go anywhere?

She laid her hand flat, trying to block out the image but it peeked out between her fingers and she felt the texture of the paper on her skin. Maybe it was all she was capable of doing with her time anymore.

Switching to auto-pilot, she sat down at her desk and picked up a pencil. Turning over a piece of paper, she settled right in to a new sketch.

Her mother, the way she looked when Tiffany was a young child. The dress she’d worn when they went out to dinner on her birthday. The smile she’d given when her daughter told her what she loved most about her life. She drew those eyes that showed so much love and kindness.

The sketch was more about her mother than the clothes she was wearing, and she set down the pencil so that she could wipe the tears from her eyes.

Soon she was cradling her face in her hands as she cried. There were a lot of things she missed about those childhood years; the innocence, the effortless happiness, the courage with which she explored the world she’d been given. But what she missed most of all was the mother who’d taught her about how she was going to make this life her own. She shared with her everything about herself and her own dreams and passions. She told her about every mistake she’d made and how she’d fought to make it right and to find herself and her family. She gave her daughter a nickname and opened for her an identity that was entirely her own if she made it that way.

She lowered her hands to see her mother’s face again.

Her mother had told her that she could do anything she put her mind to. Her mother had supported her dreams and her interests. Her mother showed her the value of keeping her head up and taking every step that was in front of her.

Her mother had believed that she could do it. Why couldn’t she believe the same?

She finished the sketch, giving it the love and attention it deserved as her heart smouldered.

When it was done, she held it up in the air. The sunlight fell on it perfectly. It felt just right.

That was her mother.

She placed it back on the desk. Slowly, she took up the pencil again, and the tip hovered over the bottom of the page.

In her mind, her mother was asking her that same question again. It trickled through her memory and rested there. That was when she knew her answer had not changed in the slightest. She didn’t want to be an astronaut or a zookeeper, not if she could do anything at all in the world. She wanted to be her mother’s daughter. She wanted to do what she was passionate about because it wasn’t impossible like she’d been telling herself it was.

She signed it: Tiffany Hwang.