Poet’s Corner; This Side (Taeyeon)

A/N: This is a brief prequel thing to Brainless, taking a look at Taeyeon’s past.

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There was something about overly placid pastel coloured furniture that seemed garish and foreboding. This was an impression Taeyeon carried with her from the first step she took into her foster-family’s home at the age of twelve.

Having come from a small apartment block in the city, the suburban house seemed sprawling and very grassy. Although that grass was unkempt and the house was a simple single-story box-house with a rectangular layout and a raised stone foundation, it felt like it was a whole new home.

And then there was the persistently menacing outdoor furniture in the back yard. Clearly at some point it was manufactured in the same set, but the family of the house had taken the time to paint everything its own colour – each item had a solid block of colour coating it, singly and uninterruptedly covering the entire piece of furniture. Perhaps it was that one-ness of colour that was uncomfortable to see; it seemed thicker than normal monotone things, and if furniture could stare, Taeyeon would feel it was watching her.

It wasn’t as if the colour of the furniture was really the most striking thing about the house. After all, this was where she would be living now, with people she didn’t know, and carrying an uncertainty about her future that she did know and utterly hated, all of which seemed like it should be more important. For many years, Taeyeon had to live with a fear of the unknown, and then the sharp lessons that led her to fear everything she knew, too. Now she was away from that particular life, but she held within her the same heart and mind she had developed. None of it made it any easier for her. Being already afraid didn’t save her the shock, and being already familiar with darkness and anger did not make her immune to the hurt.

So from the first day to the last, Taeyeon’s memories kept only the images of disturbing furniture in a sun-swept backyard. It was better than everything else; simple, firm, and more an indication of something to be feared than an explicit reminder of it.

“You’ll never be anything but a stupid fool.”

Even if those were the last words she would hear at that house, she didn’t have to see who said it, feel the pierce, or be back at that place in any dream. She could lay with her eyes closed for hours and be surrounded by nothing but a dense breeze through messy grass that pushed against pastel coloured furniture, exquisitely coated.

While she lived there, however, there were no dreams. She still had to go through every moment there, every one of the two thousand one hundred and ninety two days, one at a time. And days could be very slow in that house.

She liked to hang over the fence in the front yard, since it only came up to just by her chest, and she could do that for a long time. Not many people walked past in that neighbourhood, and not many cars drove along the street. It was quiet, but Taeyeon learned early on that it was not the quietness of a calm and satisfied place. It was the silence that came after a conflict.

A few years before Taeyeon joined the household, there were a lot of gangs in the area. They were well-known and well-populated, and they took up ninety percent of the neighbourhood. One happy day, there were a few too many bullets flying around, and after several months of disarray the government managed to sort it out – by disposing of approximately eighty percent of the houses in the neighbourhood. Then, there Taeyeon could hang, with the wood of the fence digging into her torso, and nothing but an empty sky to keep her company.

The gang history was not something that was openly discussed in Taeyeon’s foster-family; just like the man. He came to visit once a week, usually on Friday nights but sometimes on Sunday afternoons, and he would take a seat in the living room as if he lived there all his life, and sip at a can of beer. He didn’t have a lot to say, but he sounded gruff when he said it, and he said it all to Taeyeon’s foster father.

In the years to come, Taeyeon would like to pretend she didn’t know that place, or those people, and she didn’t remember a thing other than the colour of the furniture, but she would still know that man. She would work for him, and he would show her a home she could say she knew inside and out, like the back of her hand, like she was born into it because it was worth remembering and worth knowing.

Even when he said he had no choice but to kill her foster father and he laughed at the look of disbelief on everyone’s faces, and he took off his gloves and beat with his bare fists, Taeyeon knew that was what her home really was.

She was sitting in the backyard the day after it happened, but not on the furniture because she preferred to watch it from a distance, when the man came again. It wasn’t a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon; it was midday on a Monday. There was construction going on just down the road, and she had been listening to it for a while. But the rustling of grass and then the booted footsteps over concrete became her focus as he settled down beside her.

“Your name is Taeyeon, right?”

Taeyeon blinked at him. “Yes, sir.”

He smiled. “You’re polite. I like that. You respect your elders, don’t you?”

Taeyeon considered. Respect equalled fear. “Yes, I do, sir.”

He ran a hand over his thin beard; he wasn’t wearing his gloves, and his hands were dark around the knuckles. “Listen, Taeyeon, things are changing around here. You’ve seen they’re rebuilding, but it’s more than just houses. It’s something special, just for me. Just for us, if you’d like. You’ve been looking for a home, haven’t you? Your foster father told me you were displaced from your family a few years ago. Is that right?”

“That’s one way of putting it, sir.”

“Diplomatic, too. That could be a nice skill to have. What else are you doing these days, Taeyeon? Got plans?”

“No, sir.” An easy answer to a simple question. But in the end it was much more than that. Taeyeon might not have known it, being as brainless as she was. Or maybe she wasn’t.

The man smiled again. “Good, good. Plenty of time, right? Plenty of time.”

He took out his phone and tapped away at the screen.

Taeyeon turned away again and looked around the backyard.

Three wooden chairs, one with a cleanly cut-off leg, painted individual shares of pink, green, and white; one table, perfectly round, painted red; ten square meters of green-ish grass with a patch of dirt in the corner where the dead never grew back.

A picture to take home with her.

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Power

A/N: This is technically a sequel to Brainless, but I don’t suppose it’s necessary to have read Brainless. But there you go.

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Blood could be a pain to clean. Sometimes it got under her nails and she would have to get out the little nail brush and scrub away at it for several minutes. It was such an unfortunately long time, but it had to be done. This time, however, it would have to wait.

Taking care to avoid the red-soaked areas, she rifled through the unconscious man’s pockets. A wallet, containing the appropriate identification and a hodgepodge collection of loyalty cards from cafés and fast food restaurants, two credit cards, and fifty dollars in cash. From the very back of the wallet, she tugged free a small dog-eared photograph. A little girl. She replaced it, and pocketed the wallet.

In another pocket she found the keys to the silver BMW parked outside. She returned it, not caring about her fingerprints all over this guy’s belongings. These people would not be calling the police when they realized what had been stolen. Taking his credit cards and identification would be just annoying enough to piss him off for a few days. A cursory search of all other pockets revealed nothing, and she rose to prepare for her departure.

The door leading to the office behind her clicked shut, and she saw Tiffany. Dangling from one hand were Taeyeon’s own car keys.

“You almost left these in there,” said Tiffany, coming closer. “They must have fallen out of your pocket when he tackled you. Luckily for you I kept searching the office while you finished off our party crasher out here. Are you done?”

“As done as I’ll ever be,” she replied, and took the keys. “Did you find what we came for?”

Tiffany reached into her back pocket and pulled out a small black rectangular object. Taeyeon squinted at it.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Taeyeon shook her head. “It’s almost laughable sometimes how much influence a little thing like that can really have over such blood-thirsty criminals. Alright, let’s get out of here.”

“So I was thinking,” Tiffany started as they got into Taeyeon’s car, “we sell this to the guy who hired us, and then we use that money to get a new TV.”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes and turned the key in the ignition. “That’s not really high on the list of priorities.”

“Not on your list, obviously. We can do it, though. We can afford it with this money. We’ve needed it for so long; I can’t watch that screen anymore with that big blue line going through it. It’s driving me crazy.”

“You’re already pretty crazy,” Taeyeon muttered. She kept her eyes on the traffic ahead of them.

“Hey.” Tiffany sounded stern. There was a soft whirr of a window being lowered and Taeyeon glanced, frowning, to see Tiffany dangling their prize out the window. She almost jammed her foot on the brakes before recovering and carefully pulling over to one side, turning off the car. Then she undid her seatbelt and turned.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Tiffany raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“Is this really about some stupid television?”

Tiffany pouted. “Baby, come on, it’s just a TV. And it’s almost Christmas; we can get one on special.”

Taeyeon blinked. “You’re pouting and you called me ‘baby’. How desperate are you for this TV? Jesus, it’s just a TV.”

“Then why is it such an issue for you?”

“For me? You’re the one threatening to throw our business out the window of a moving car.”

“Because you’re making such a big deal about this!”

“I’m not doing anything! You’re really overreacting.”

“Exactly, you’re not doing anything. Do you even care?”

“About a TV? Honestly, no. I don’t even watch it.”

“Then you won’t mind if I get us a new one.”

“Look, if we were rolling in cash I wouldn’t blink twice. But we’re not. We have to budget wisely if we want to follow the plan.”

“Taeyeon, it’s been two years. Has anything in your plan worked?”

There was a brief silence. Tiffany sighed and closed her window. She put the small flash drive back into her pocket.

“I don’t mean to diminish your ambition,” Tiffany said. She cupped Taeyeon’s face in her hands. “Maybe you just need to change the plan a little. Be more flexible.”

Taeyeon slapped her hands away and started the car, focussing on the street to find a space to merge into the traffic. Tiffany sighed again, flopping back in her seat and tugging at her seatbelt. She knew when it was hopeless to try to talk to Taeyeon, and this was such a time. Speeding precariously through the city did little to concern Tiffany, because this happened often and she knew that even though Taeyeon was angry, she was still an excellent driver. She decided to watch the streets they passed through, the layers of frost on the surfaces, the cloudy breathing of passers-by, and the odd early Christmas decorations in shop windows.

They reached the docks soon enough, only having to sit through the tense silence for a short while, before Taeyeon settled into her usual cool exterior and held out her hand as she brought the car to a stop. Tiffany dropped the flash drive into her palm, keeping her eyes pinned on the trio of suit-wearing gentlemen standing in front of them, and the large black SUV at their backs.

At the click of Taeyeon’s seatbelt, Tiffany tore her gaze away from the men and looked at her. Taeyeon was clearly assessing them before getting out of the car and she made no attempt to hide it from them. For their part, the men simply stared back blankly.

Tiffany reached over and placed her hand on Taeyeon’s knee. The men outside would not have been able to see as she gave a small squeeze. Taeyeon showed no response at first, and then she inhaled deeply and let out a slow sigh before getting out of the car.

The exchange went smoothly. Though they had never done any work for or with those men before, Taeyeon had a reputation, and it was a very useful reputation to have. Though in her time of service to her previous employer she was known simply as a lackey, it was generally well-known that even a lackey can pick up a thing or two from the most ruthless man in the country. And so, even though none of the other criminals in this town had personal experience with Taeyeon and many had never even met her boss, they knew enough to consider keeping things civil rather than starting out on the open offence.

Tiffany watched as Taeyeon endured the polite chat, or perhaps the leader of the trio was making an attempt at posturing. It was inevitable that the kind of people they worked with would try to imply their authority over Taeyeon, though it was clearly just a force of habit and so Taeyeon paid little mind to it as long as it didn’t delay her work too much. Soon enough the chat was over and she held out the flash drive. The leader took it and was promptly given a small tablet computer by one of his lackeys. He inserted the drive into the USB port and tapped at the screen a few times. Then he looked up at Taeyeon without expression, and turned off the device before handing it to his lackey with the flash drive still inserted. With one hand he reached into his jacket, and quickly pulled out an envelope. Taeyeon accepted it and they bowed briefly to one another, before they all turned on their heels and went their separate ways.

Taeyeon tossed the envelope onto Tiffany’s lap as she got in, and started the car. They pulled away from the docks first, and in the rear view mirror they saw the SUV start its engines. The deal was a success.

They drove on in silence again, surrounded once more by the softening weather, the air not quite as tense as before, and Tiffany gauged the distraction of business had cooled Taeyeon’s temper enough.

“Do you really want that TV so much?” asked Taeyeon quietly as they stopped at a light.

Tiffany reached out and gently massaged the back of Taeyeon’s neck. “No. I want you more.”

Taeyeon rested a hand on Tiffany’s knee, keeping her eyes forward. “We can go get one tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to do this just because we talked about it earlier.”

“It’s not the only thing we talked about, though, is it?”

The light changed and Taeyeon’s hand returned to the gear shift. Tiffany watched her, and then she leaned closer and kissed her on the cheek, sliding her hand to Taeyeon’s shoulder.

“You’ll achieve it,” she murmured. “Your plan will work. I’m here with you.”

“You’re right, though. I need to be more flexible.”

Tiffany kissed her cheek again. “Just relax.”

Taeyeon slowed to a stop at another red light. “I can’t relax if you keep kissing me while I’m driving, you know.”

Tiffany grinned, and turned Taeyeon’s head to face her. She kissed her on the lips, gently. “Are we almost home yet?”

Taeyeon just smiled. She gazed at Tiffany for a long moment, and then she held up her hand. The lights from the streets, in the diminishing greyness outside, flickered over her skin, and made patterns over the thick scar running length-wise down her middle finger.

“This scar used to mean my life,” she said softly. “Without it I was nothing. I was trash and I was treated like it. When my boss took me in, he gave me this, and he told me a little story.”

She glanced up to see the green light above and returned her hand to the steering wheel. As she drove, she talked. Tiffany didn’t look away.

“Many years ago, there was a young man who was angry. He wasn’t smart, and he wasn’t handsome. He had no money, no family, no friends, and no lover. All he had were these two big, fat fists. And he was angry. He was mad. He was furious at everything and everyone. He used those fists to destroy faces, bones, and lives. He started small, with the local boys and their gangs, the kids who used to laugh at him all his life. One punch at a time, he ploughed his way through the bodies that stood in his way, moving up ranks he barely understood the consequences of. Somehow, without any plan, he became the head of one of the largest criminal organisations in the world.”

She shifted gears and took a slow turn.

“Then one day he was going about his business; he was no longer a young man, and now another young man wanted to challenge him. See, the boss man had developed a bit of a thing about honour. Honour amongst thieves, honour in family, and the way to defend that honour was by putting yourself on the line. This challenger wanted to take something that he had no right to. So the boss man took off his soft leather gloves, his tailored suit jacket, rolled up the sleeves of his dark silk shirt, and he beat that young man. He beat him, and bashed him, and killed him. That was how an honourable man dealt with those who wanted to end him. He always said that. He always said it was the answer.”

They reached their apartment building and Taeyeon eased the car through the entrance to the underground car park.

“That was the home I knew, the place I grew up in. Until recently, it was the only home I knew and I was fine with that. I didn’t think I would ever be offered any better, nor did I have the inclination to go searching for it myself.”

The car park was dark, with only a flickering light over the elevator on the far side, and as the car was switched off and its lights flicked out, they were plunged into blackness.

Tiffany felt the warmth of Taeyeon’s palm as it squeezed her knee, and slid onto her thigh. It was too dark in the car to see the blood under Taeyeon’s nails, but Tiffany remembered it was there.

“You’re my home now, Tiffany. And you’re more than I ever thought I could deserve. More than I ever imagined. A better home than I ever dreamed I could have.”

Soft lips pressed together in a kiss.

“We’re home now.”

Tiffany wasn’t above the use of the word ‘swooning’, and she thought it almost suited her right now. Her knees went weak, the core of her body turned soft and liquid, and she instinctively rested her hand on Taeyeon’s to twine their fingers together, feeling the slight roughness of that tiny bit of dry blood and the callousness of the past.

Two years ago, hearing words like this from Taeyeon was impossible. Taeyeon despised such conversation, expressing romantic feelings in such a flowery way, saying things that sounded like helplessness and love. A lot had changed over the past two years, but this change was one that was special to Tiffany; not because she found it so incredibly charming, but because she knew Taeyeon only ever bared this side of her to Tiffany. There was never a question that she could be like this with someone else. Taeyeon still viewed this behaviour as insecurity, but the difference was that she opened all her weakness to Tiffany and she would only ever allow it with one person. Only Tiffany.

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Brainless. 5; Finally

5; Finally

The fact that Taeyeon’s boss thought he knew what was going on made no difference in the end when it became clear that he did not know nearly as much as he thought he did.

Yuri was a cop at first, and then an undercover cop, and then she seemed to settle into her double life entirely too comfortably. He let her stay, because she had her uses and he saw something of himself in her at times. She wasn’t quite his protégé, and she could never be until she finally ditched the police, but she had a way of playing this particular game that he couldn’t help but admire.

Then there was Taeyeon. She was a little weird. She followed his orders very well, to the letter, never stepping a foot out of line, but also never taking the initiative. She wouldn’t do anything unless he told her to. He found it useful in some ways because she was a sharp tool to have total control over, but she would never rise much higher in the ranks of her community if she retained the subservient mind-set.

Tiffany was a pawn, and he wanted to have her so that she could be carved into a queen. Not for himself, but for later. He wanted to take her and turn her into something even better and stronger than himself, so that she could take his organisation to new heights. The moment he met her face-to-face, he knew her reputation was truer than true. She was intelligent, determined, quick-witted, but bored with her life and entirely willing to take risks, especially after the sudden death of her family. He knew she could be trained to use that mixed bag of powers for exactly what he wanted her to become.

And that was what he thought he knew. He thought that was how it was, the whole scene.

He underestimated them all a little too much.

What he didn’t know was that all those traits he had identified in his toys were precisely the traits that led to them doing exactly what they were doing now: arguing with each other in the closed office of Tiffany’s club.

Yuri didn’t like Taeyeon’s plan, and Tiffany liked it a little too much.

“Why would I want to leave everything I have here?” said Yuri, crossing her arms, seeping with anger. “I’ve made a life for myself which I rather enjoy. I’m getting the best of both worlds in this grey area of mine.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Tiffany disbelievingly. “You’re crazier than I thought you were, Yuri.”

Yuri shrugged. “So? Look, I’m flattered you think I’d join you, but I’d rather stay.”

“The boss doesn’t like you quite so much anymore,” Taeyeon replied, eyes cold. “He’s let you play your game for long enough that you both know exactly what’s happening, but now you’re still playing and he wants you to get serious.”

“I am serious,” Yuri said, frowning. “I’m serious about doing exactly what I’m doing now.”

“Well I’d rather get the hell out of here,” Tiffany contributed. “I’m sick of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. The cops and the gangsters all want me to do their bidding, this place needs me to stay afloat; I’m over it. I just want to be free. I have nothing and no-one left for me here.”

Taeyeon looked at her. “So you’ll come with me?”

Tiffany looked back. “Yes.”

“Excuse me,” interrupted Yuri, “I hate to stop your moment of intimacy but what the hell is going on? Are you two really just going to ditch everything and run?”

“We are.” Taeyeon absently ran a finger over the scar on her hand. “This organisation was my only family for a long time, since the moment they gave me this scar as my identity, and it’s time for me to move out of my parents’ house, so to speak. I want to have my own life now, and it would have to be away from here.”

Tiffany stepped closer and wrapped an arm around Taeyeon’s waist. She kissed her lightly on the cheek.

Taeyeon still didn’t know what to feel about Tiffany. She was very confused, kind of happy, and rather scared. She invited Tiffany to come with her, anyway, so now that was going to happen.

“You two really are weird,” Yuri said, and she shook her head but she smiled. “And I wish you luck in your future, because the boss is not going to be willing to let you go that easy.”

“He won’t be a problem for me. It’s you who should be worried. He’ll get tired of you.”

Taeyeon and Yuri eyed each other for a long time, communicating something deeper than what they showed on the surface. They had both been part of this same family for a long time, and both were genuinely convinced the other would not succeed on their different paths.

Yuri smiled, and shook her head.

That was the last time they saw each other.

Because Taeyeon never liked to do important things half-assed, she planned to make her exit a big one. It was going to be spectacular, so that she could leave a message to her boss. She wasn’t a lackey, she wasn’t a pushover, she wasn’t just a weird kid; she was Taeyeon.

And she had Tiffany.

She knew it would piss him off when he found out that Tiffany went with her. The old man had made it clear that he wanted Tiffany to join his organisation very much, and so it was an easily identifiable weak spot. Take Tiffany, and she would break him just a little more.

That wasn’t her main motivation when she asked Tiffany to join her, and she knew it. It was something she only considered later, as she lay beside Tiffany in the darkness of Tiffany’s bedroom. Sounds of the city brushed past the curtained windows and drove her thoughts. So far she had pondered her feelings for Tiffany, the strategic points of having Tiffany with her, and now it was time for suspicion to settle in. It was only right.

Tiffany was pursuing Taeyeon – or maybe she already caught her – and at first it seemed like she was making a silly and wild decision, but now that it was the night before their departure Taeyeon finally took the time to entertain the possibility that Tiffany was scheming.

In exactly the way Taeyeon was underestimated as a thoughtless lackey, perhaps Taeyeon was underestimating Tiffany as a foolish daredevil.

She made a list of things that had been too easy. Tiffany kissed her first, initiated affectionate embraces and touches, but never said words like ‘love, commitment’ or any of that junk. She obeyed when Taeyeon suggested they should go to Tiffany’s apartment, gladly accepted it when Taeyeon made a move, and didn’t try to cuddle when Taeyeon made it clear she didn’t want to. So how was this possible? It was the only kind of arrangement Taeyeon would ever allow in her life, and it all came together far too smoothly.

Taeyeon turned her head. She could barely make out the outline of Tiffany’s body beside her, curled up and facing away from her.

Disregarding the strategic double-guessing for a moment, she decided to sort out the whole ‘feelings’ thing.

Suffice it say, she wasn’t one for emotional intimacy. But as it turned out, this didn’t do much to blunt her emotions about others, and triggered by Tiffany were certain emotions that she was afraid of. They were the kind of emotions that distracted her, made her lose control, and could very well be used to make her the thoughtless lackey she pretended to be. And then were would she be? So she had to be incredibly certain that Tiffany was not just manipulating her.

But Taeyeon did not know how to do that.

She sighed, and looked at the ceiling again.

In the morning, she would begin to execute her plan, and Tiffany would be right beside her as they escaped the trap they were both in.

And she was inclined to go with it, just like that, losing regard of the doubts and emotions.

Tiffany stirred. She rolled onto her back, took a deep breath, and then rolled onto her side to face Taeyeon. Her eyes were only half open, her face almost indiscernible in the darkness.

“Tae…?” her voice held the thick edge of sleep, and the deep openness of something else altogether. “You’re awake?”

Taeyeon didn’t answer. She stared at Tiffany.

Tiffany moved again, wiping an eye and taking another breath. “You okay?”

“Tell me why I should trust you.” The words came very matter-of-factly; just a casual conversation, but the implications were daunting.

Tiffany took a few moments as if she was still waking up. She thought about what to say. Not only about whether she should lie, but also about what the truth was. Did she trust Taeyeon? She was surprised to find herself thinking that she did. Why? God only knew.

“Because I trust you.”

Taeyeon couldn’t hold back her frown. “What’s that supposed to mean? What do you trust me to do?”

“I trust you,” Tiffany continued, “to take control of your own life and get out of here. And I trust you to want me to join you, so that I can take control of my own life, too.”

Taeyeon sighed, long and heavy and full of the unspoken words she couldn’t grab hold of. She looked away, up at the ceiling, and adjusted herself slightly to be more comfortable on the mattress.

“Hey,” Tiffany murmured, rolling closer and laying an arm over Taeyeon’s waist beneath the covers. “Do you trust me?”

Taeyeon rolled her eyes, avoiding Tiffany’s earnest gaze. “I hate words like that. Trust, promise, belief, reliance, dependence. Horrible words.”

They lay together in the darkness. Tiffany shifted to curl against Taeyeon’s side, staring at the profile of her face.

“I know,” she whispered. “I know you don’t like those words or any other words you know I’m thinking of right now. Or rather, you’re scared I’m thinking them right now. You know them, right? Love, dating, all that stuff. I know you don’t like it. And I know it because I know more about you than I thought I did.”

Taeyeon moved, mirroring Tiffany’s curled-up position. “What do you mean?”

“When I kissed you, I wasn’t exactly thinking far into the future. I was basically just thinking that I’ve wanted to kiss you for a while so I might as well do it. And then we kissed some more the next day, and it kind of became a thing and I realized that I like having that with you. I thought about why I like it.”

Taeyeon knew where this was going. “Don’t go there, alright? I understand what you’re saying.”

Tiffany kissed her, fleetingly and then more pressingly, and breathed, “I like you. Is that okay?”

They kissed again, a smooth softness that became more familiar with each touch of their mouths. Taeyeon pulled back slightly and regarded Tiffany’s face so close to her own, felt the warmth of their bodies sharing the space of a bed, and the tingling sensation that always followed their kisses.

She burrowed her head into the crook of Tiffany’s shoulder, and in the night she mumbled comfortably, “Yeah. That’s okay.”

“Seriously? You thought I would hurt an old guy like that?”

Taeyeon slammed the door of her car. She was angry, very angry. Tiffany stumbled into the front passenger seat beside her and barely had a chance to shut her door before Taeyeon had the engine started and set the car jerking into motion.

She knew Tiffany was staring at her. She kept her eyes on the road.

“I’m sorry, okay? You just seemed like you were about to smash his head in or something.”

Taeyeon scoffed. “Haven’t you ever heard of an empty threat? Why would I kill some old guy during a bank robbery? I’m not stupid.”

Tiffany gulped and looked away. For a moment the only sound was the straining of the engine as it kept up with Taeyeon’s ever increasing speed, and then at last the sound of gears changing. They slowed, turned a corner, and settled into a more normal rate of movement.

“I thought you knew me,” Taeyeon said at last, softly invading the silence that was descending.

Tiffany’s gaze snapped back to Taeyeon instantly. “I do! I do… Please, Taeyeon, don’t get mad at me. I just didn’t want you to kill that man.”

Taeyeon sighed, and didn’t answer.

Within minutes, this part of town would be crawling with cops. Among them would no doubt be Yuri – because despite their intention to commit an anonymous robbery, there was now video and eye-witness evidence of Tiffany’s face being revealed as she removed her mask and yelled Taeyeon’s name.

“It was a foolish thing to do, I know,” Tiffany said. “I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry.”

“Apologizing is not going to keep us out of prison.”

“We won’t go to prison!” Tiffany sounded exasperated, desperate. “Yuri won’t let us, she’ll cover -”

“Yuri will do whatever is most beneficial to her,” interrupted Taeyeon. She glanced at Tiffany. “As a police detective it’s in her best interests to prosecute us. As the servant of my ex-boss it’s in her best interests to persecute us.”

Tiffany was quiet, lowering her eyes again.

“We’ve just got to get out here,” Taeyeon concluded. “Fast.”

So she drove, and they crawled their way past town borders. The sun reached its place to mark the middle of the day, and wind built up to push through sparse trees on the sides of the open country roads. Tiffany felt like her head was about to explode from the stress and the silence, when Taeyeon pulled over and turned off the engine.

They didn’t look at each other.

“Last night you said that –” Taeyeon broke off, and swallowed. She tried again. “You said that you knew me. How well do you think you really know me now?”

Tiffany reached for Taeyeon’s hand right away, as if afraid that she was missing her chance to do so.

“Taeyeon, look, I was just scared. I was afraid. We’ve done crazy things before, dangerous things, and this was fun – it was thrilling – until I saw that old man getting up to try to stop us and the look on your face as you shouted at him and got right up in his face. I was scared.”

Taeyeon sighed. She didn’t move her hand from Tiffany’s grip, and stared at their fingers touching. “Are you sure you want to do this? Whatever this is that we’re doing, that we’ll do, are you sure you want to do this with me?”

It was obvious what the real question was. Those words they whispered to each other in the dead of the night before were now lying on the side of the road where they sat, with hot sunlight beating down on them. Taeyeon wanted to know if words and promises and feelings that were born from brainless pursuits could stand up and walk on their own. And she wanted to know if Tiffany could breathe life into them.

“What you really want to know is if you’re running away from what I represent to you or if we’re running towards a big and scary future with something new connecting us.”

Taeyeon looked up, into Tiffany’s eyes, and she didn’t dare to blink.

Tiffany smiled. “I do know you, Taeyeon. I do. But sometimes I get scared, and I’ll just have to get better at not letting that fear cloud my mind. I know you. I trust you.”

She seemed about to say something else, but stopped. She leaned forward to place a light kiss on the corner of Taeyeon’s lips.

“I really like you,” she whispered. “I know you don’t trust words and I like that about you, because words can be fickle and thoughtless things. I’m not going to waste my time anymore with words I know you’re not used to yet. I’ll show you. I’ll stay with you and we’ll be together, and whatever comes our way I won’t let my fear crush what I know and believe; you. You’ll give me that strength, and I’ll give you strength too. Okay?”

Taeyeon would never admit it, but she was scared too. She started to feel like there was a chance that Tiffany knew that. Her fear was a thing she never showed to anyone, and maybe she didn’t have to because Tiffany knew her. And Tiffany was willing to trust her. Was it really so foolish and wild after all?

Yes. It was utterly brainless.

And she loved it.

“Okay.”

____________________________________________________________

Brainless. 4; Fade

4; Fade

Tiffany was used to seeing Taeyeon in her office these days. Sometimes she would return there during the course of the club’s business hours, after making her rounds to check on staff and greet some of the regulars, looking to relax and get the weight off her feet for a while. It was hard work to smile non-stop as if her face had no other function, even when the people she talked to were obnoxious or vulgar, or just not as interesting as they thought they were. But they were her customers and her employees, and she cared about doing her job well and taking good care of her business even though it was mostly in the hands of a criminal organisation.

Being owned by gangsters hadn’t made a huge difference yet. Every now and then the people at the rose tables would get little coloured bags beside their drinks, and it made them happy and relaxed, which Tiffany appreciated. Most of them were the more mature, sleek business types, but there were a few of the rougher thugs that made her feel uncomfortable with the way they eyed her employees, so any distraction was good even if it was a bag of drugs.

Taeyeon never told her what was in those little bags and she never let Tiffany go near them. It was obvious that they held different things at times; the shape of the bag showed if it held powder or pills, so Tiffany guessed sometimes they were ecstasy pills. All she knew was that despite how useful it was to satisfy the men at the rose tables, she would kill Taeyeon if some idiot thug overdosed in her club.

“Long night?” Taeyeon asked, briefly looking up from the screen of the laptop on the desk in front of her. She hadn’t used Tiffany’s laptop since Tiffany was arrested, choosing instead to bring her own.

Tiffany threw herself down on the couch against the wall, face first, and let out a huff that was absorbed by a cushion. “Yes. I’m so tired.”

Taeyeon glanced at the time. They were only halfway through the long night. She reached for her coffee and took a sip, taking the opportunity to run her gaze over Tiffany.

“Any trouble?”

Tiffany turned her head to look in Taeyeon’s direction. “Not yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

Taeyeon smiled slightly. “Don’t worry. No men at the rose tables tonight.”

Tiffany returned the smile easily. “Good.”

They watched each other for a while, saying nothing. Eventually Taeyeon snapped her laptop shut and stood. Tiffany sat up and kept her eyes on Taeyeon as she stepped over to the couch. After a moment, she sat next to her and smiled properly.

“When’s the last time you talked to Yuri?”

Tiffany frowned. “What?”

“My boss thinks Yuri is a nice little pet detective to keep in his pocket. She acts like one of us, probably more than most of us do. I certainly never really felt like I fit in, but she’s right at home here.”

“So?” Tiffany shifted uncomfortable. “Why should I care?”

“She’ll be here tomorrow night,” said Taeyeon, glancing at her watch again, no longer smiling. “We need to meet with someone.”

“At a rose table?”

“Yes. But no drugs; at least, not that I know of. He may need some sweetening up. Anyway, since Yuri will be here, I think the three of us should have a little talk. You see, we all know about each other and what’s really going on here, and it’s time for us to be honest with each other.”

Tiffany searched Taeyeon’s face in an effort to get an idea of what she was thinking, but Taeyeon was good at being blank.

“Honest with each other,” Tiffany echoed. “But not with your boss?”

Taeyeon nodded. “Exactly.”

Tiffany stared at her. “And this is a good thing? Or bad? How should I be feeling about your suggestion to leave your boss uninformed of whatever we’ll be discussing?”

“He knows what we know so far,” Taeyeon said. “He doesn’t need to know what we’ll talk about. I doubt he’d want to know, anyway.”

Tiffany turned to better face Taeyeon, looking grim. “Okay, what’s going on? What will we be talking about that your boss won’t like? I don’t want to end up dead, Taeyeon. I like to think I’ve got a long life ahead of me with a chance of getting out of this hole I’m in and doing something better for myself without big criminal organisations owning me.”

“Don’t worry about my boss,” Taeyeon said firmly. “We’re just going to have a little chat.”

“I’m serious,” said Tiffany, reaching out to rest her arms on Taeyeon’s shoulders. She tilted her head to one side. “What are you looking to get out of our little chat?”

Taeyeon seemed surprised at Tiffany’s move, but decided not to comment on it. “It’s just a casual thing. Small talk.”

“Hmm.” Tiffany slipped a hand along the back of Taeyeon’s neck under the fall of her hair and her fingers went beneath Taeyeon’s t-shirt, stroking the soft skin over the bumps of her spine. “You’re not as simple as you seemed, are you? You’re not just following orders all the time.”

Taeyeon just watched her quietly.

“What are you planning?” Tiffany whispered, leaning closer. “You wanna do something dangerous?”

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to get so close to me?” Taeyeon replied. A smile tugged at her lips. “Don’t you think it’s a bit stupid to get involved with me? Especially if I’m planning something so dangerous.”

Tiffany winked. “Especially.”

She kissed Taeyeon slowly, as if to emphasize a point. And because she enjoyed it, too.

Taeyeon knew she looked a bit ruffled when she sat down at the table with the rose. She ran a hand over her hair, tucked it behind her ears, and swiftly wiped her mouth on the back of her hand just in case. She checked her watch and glanced at the door, which was visible from her side of the table; she had chosen it that way deliberately. All around her, the club went on with a life of its own. She fiddled with the drink coasters, and regulated her breathing.

Whatever was between her and Tiffany had taken a drastic turn after that kiss the night before. Tiffany didn’t seem to have many concerns about the lack of wisdom in having any kind of relationship with Taeyeon, which almost didn’t surprise Taeyeon. After all, Tiffany was weird just like Taeyeon was weird, so maybe neither of them was as brainless as they seemed. Yet Taeyeon didn’t really know why Tiffany was so drawn to her, or why she was starting to feel the same. She didn’t expect to like that first kiss as much as she did, though she had assumed it would be good. It was addictive. Tiffany herself was becoming addictive to Taeyeon. It was something about her determination, quiet intelligence, and unforgiving balance between optimism and realism; and her little quirk of being recklessly interested in Taeyeon’s weirdness.

Yuri arrived first, slithering through the crowds of dancers and drinkers as smoothly as a shark in the depths of the ocean. She was already smiling as she sat down across from Taeyeon at the table.

“Good evening,” she said brightly. “Lovely night, don’t you think?”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow, her contemplations about Tiffany banished from her mind. “Why are you so cheerful?”

“Just had a good day at work,” Yuri said, leaning back in her chair. “Made some progress with a certain pet project of mine.”

“Oh,” said Taeyeon, looking away. “Well, happy days, then.”

Yuri scanned the club. “Where’s Tiffany?”

Taeyeon looked at Yuri again. “In her office. Do you want a drink before our client arrives?”

“Not now. Maybe I’ll order something later.”

Taeyeon nodded, and they lapsed into silence. She watched Yuri out of the corner of her eye as she examined their surroundings.

“You and I should join her in her office after our meeting,” said Taeyeon. “Have a little chat.”

Yuri met her gaze. “Really? Alright then, let’s do that.”

When their client arrived, they spent time on pleasantries. He was visiting from out of town so they asked him if he had seen the tourist attractions, what he thought of the local offerings, and the way he leered at a passing waitress was more than enough of an answer. By the time they got down to business, Taeyeon was thoroughly fed up and certain he was going to try to milk them for all he could get in this deal.

“There was one part of the deal that I think could use something a bit more special,” he said, and gulped down the rest of his scotch.

Taeyeon tensed, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. Instead she turned her head away slightly to survey the area around them, leaving Yuri to remain diplomatic.

“Well, I’m sure you have some interesting thoughts about that,” said Yuri, flashing him a smile.

“It was nice of you to offer me some refreshment,” he continued, tapping his glass. “And snacks,” his tooth glinted as he grinned, “but I’m not hungry for that kind of snack.”

Taeyeon noticed Tiffany making her way around the club, tapping staff members on the shoulder and having a friendly talk with them, shaking hands with some people that looked perfectly at home here. Despite having inherited the ownership of the business, she was clearly more invested in it than Taeyeon expected when she first met her. She wondered if it would make it hard for Tiffany to leave it, and if she really cared if Tiffany couldn’t abandon it.

“This is a nice place,” the man remarked, eyeing some parts of it more than others.

Taeyeon tapped her fingers on the table and turned to look at him. “Is our deal not good enough for you?” She knew what game he was about to play and she had no patience for it.

He paled instantly when he noticed her expression. “No, certainly it’s a good deal, I’m honoured to receive such terms from someone with the calibre your boss has.”

“Then what’s your problem?” she snapped.

Yuri gave her a glance, obviously wondering if Taeyeon’s loss of temper was too risky.

He laughed, only half as nervous as he should have been. “Nothing, nothing. Just thought you might be able to help me enjoy this town a little more, that’s all.”

“Accept the terms you’ve been offered or you’ll be dragged out of this town like a bag of manure,” Taeyeon said, not blinking as she drilled into him. “I don’t have time to waste on what you want, and neither will my boss.”

He sat back, stunned. After a while he said, “Wow. Alright. Fine. Obviously I won’t let this opportunity pass me by. You have a deal. No need to be such a bitch about it.”

He left, shaking his head, and Taeyeon rolled her eyes. She tapped the table again, looking again at the spot where she had last seen Tiffany, but Tiffany was gone. She sighed.

“What’s wrong with you?” Yuri asked. “You just completely lost it on that guy. This is so unlike you.”

“Tiffany said she doesn’t want her employees to be prostitutes,” Taeyeon answered.

“So? You know we never would have let it go that far. You didn’t have to get so angry with him.”

Taeyeon shrugged, and stood up. “Come on. Let’s go talk with Tiffany.”

She was getting impatient. It was almost time to do what she had been planning for so long now. Since the moment she was employed by her boss she kept her eyes on what went on around her and began to from a dream and from that she chiselled a strategy. She never expected Tiffany, though. Never expected to be here at this club and to meet someone like Tiffany, and certainly never expected to be doing whatever they were doing together.

It was pretty stupid. She didn’t even know why they were doing it and that should have been warning enough. For years now Taeyeon had been quietly biding her time while she formulated plans, now Tiffany jumped in and scattered her thoughts. She was still on track, and she intended to continue down the path in front of her, but now her steps were more like skips because she was stumbling and looking away in a daze.

Taeyeon snapped back to reality, shaking herself from her contemplation. They were almost at Tiffany’s office, Yuri right behind her.

She knew what she had to do. Now she just had to do it.

Brainless. 3; Wicked

Tiffany slammed the car door and smacked Taeyeon’s shoulder. “Go!”

The tyres screeched with the friction of their movement, and the car shot away. Taeyeon’s steering swerved slightly in the first few metres before settling, and she dodged the thin traffic with ease until they were ten blocks away. She slowed down on a long stretch of road and melded into the more populated lines of cars.

They sat at the red light, behind three cars and in front of twenty more, as Tiffany finally caught her breath. She loosened her grip on the backpack in her lap and let it slide to rest at her feet. Then the grin took over her face.

“I cannot believe I just did that,” she said. She laughed. “I can’t believe it!”

Taeyeon glanced at her, smiling slightly. “How’d it feel?”

“Fucking amazing!” Tiffany slapped her palms on the dashboard in front of them. “Amazing!”

“Good,” Taeyeon murmured. She reached out and flicked on the radio, turning the volume down a bit so that it wasn’t deafening, and she watched as Tiffany started dancing along and laughing.

It went well. Tiffany had gone in, settled, chatted, flirted a little, and then she grabbed the bag and ran. This was all exactly as it was meant to be. She didn’t have to know what was in the bag, she didn’t have to know who she just stole it from, and she didn’t have to know the consequences of her actions. She did it. Maybe she thought it wasn’t anything important, because after all why would an organised criminal leave something important in a backpack under the table of three low-level thugs in a bar? So maybe she figured it wasn’t a big deal to grab it and run. Maybe she even thought of it as a game, a light and playful thing.

It wasn’t.

Because Tiffany just stole a bag full of medium-grade heroin from a gang reputed for gruesome retaliation.

And Taeyeon was going to sell it through her newly formed independent network of dealers while keeping some as a supply for the men at the rose tables.

But she didn’t have to know that. She did it anyway. It was the fault of carelessness.

“Hey are you hungry?” Tiffany asked suddenly, still smiling, breathless. “Let’s go get some food.”

Taeyeon didn’t look in her direction, keeping her eyes on the road for a moment. Then she glanced at her watch; she needed to report to her boss in thirty minutes. She looked up in time to see the light change. The car was set into motion while she checked the rear-view mirror.

“Oh come on, just have dinner with me,” Tiffany said, reaching out to poke Taeyeon’s shoulder. “Surely you don’t just live off coffee?”

Taeyeon shrugged. “I like coffee.”

“Then have coffee with me,” Tiffany pressed. She moved her hand over Taeyeon’s shoulder. “Come on, I just wanna hang out.”

“I need to see my boss soon.” Taeyeon shrugged away Tiffany’s hand. “I’ll drop you off at the club.”

Tiffany sighed. She ran a hand through her hair and settled back in her seat. “Whatever.”

The ride was quiet after Tiffany turned off the radio. Taeyeon knew she was disappointed. It surprised her that Tiffany seemed to want to get to know her.

Not only was Taeyeon a weird young woman who worked for a criminal organisation, but Tiffany was working for the police in an effort to deconstruct said organisation. Why did she want to be friends? Surely she didn’t know the secrets behind Yuri’s involvement in the organisation. And she certainly didn’t know what was going on in Taeyeon’s head. Yet she seemed to consider it a good idea to forge a connection with Taeyeon, and she was either playing or she was foolish.

Taeyeon blinked.

The grey area could be hard to navigate sometimes.

“Do you smoke?” asked Tiffany suddenly.

Taeyeon glanced at her. They were nearing their destination. “No. Why?”

“It just seems like everyone else does,” Tiffany answered, looking out the window. “I just found it odd that I never saw you smoke, when the others in your line of work practically breathe nicotine.”

Taeyeon tapped her fingers on the steering wheel briefly. “I quit a while ago.”

Tiffany didn’t question her further, and when they reached the club she got out of the car without a second glance. Taeyeon watched her walk. She checked her watch. She went to see her boss.

“Now, regarding your next meeting…”

Taeyeon made sure not to look at Yuri. The room was dark, with only the desk lamp on to illuminate them. Their boss sat in his chair, and he didn’t blink.

“He’s an important man. Make sure to get a good deal out of the negotiations. He likes to think he has the upper hand. Remind him of the truth if needed.”

Yuri nodded, and Taeyeon blinked. Their boss flicked his gaze away for a moment before he looked at Taeyeon.

“At the end of the month, Tiffany will no longer be necessary. You’ve done a good job, we’re almost at our first goal, and soon the next stage of our plan can begin. I’ll let you take over the club by yourself.”

Taeyeon didn’t hesitate to nod.

Their boss grimaced. “I know what you’ve been up to, Taeyeon. This is your last chance. And if you move to defy me, you will all be dead.”

No one said anything else for a long time. Their boss looked at Yuri in a way that made them both certain that he knew. There was no real deception after all, and they were all a single step away from oblivion.

Taeyeon wasn’t scared. She had known that if he didn’t already know, he would find out, and she’d been ready to die because of the threat she posed. He had big plans, and he was ruthless in trying to achieve them. Any movement from her in the direction she was poised to pursue would go one of two ways; freedom or death.

He let them leave his office, and they walked through icy darkness towards Taeyeon’s car in the parking lot.

Everyone underestimated Taeyeon. She made sure of it. She was just a girl, she was just a lackey, and she did exactly as she was told without a care in the world. Her heartlessness seemed strange and it made it easier to keep people away from her. Even better. The best thing for her life was for people to think that she had no heart and no mind of her own.

So she smiled. Even though the boss knew she had been branching out into her own operation, he still thought he could control her.

He was wrong.

“What are you going to do about Tiffany?” asked Yuri as they reached the car. Her breath made a trail of whiteness in the air. “Will you kill her?”

Taeyeon looked at Yuri over the roof of the car. “She will no longer be necessary, he said. After everything she has been involved in, she must die.”

“You know she’s important to my case,” said Yuri. “You’ve never had a problem with my deception as a police officer, and you seem to have no concern about Tiffany working for me. Could you maybe not kill her and give us a chance to do what we’re here to do?”

“Just because I never had a problem with your attempt to convict my boss doesn’t mean I want to join you.” Taeyeon leaned forward, resting her arms on the car. “I’m not stupid.”

Yuri stared at her for a long time. There was absolutely nothing going on this night; no traffic in the streets, no planes overhead. There weren’t even lights on in the buildings around them. So when Yuri watched Taeyeon, it was as if she was confronting a dead world.

“What are you planning?” breathed Yuri. “He said he knows what you’ve been up to, and so do I. You’ve been building your own little business. Why? You work for one of the biggest guys around, why are you doing something on the side? Are you going to branch out and become a competitor? Surely you realize that’s suicide.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything at first. Then she shrugged, and broke their eye contact. She unlocked her car. “Just making some extra cash. Do you need a ride?”

“No, thanks,” Yuri said immediately. She was frowning now. “You’re really weird, you know that?”

Taeyeon paused with her hand on the door handle. She shrugged again.

“Will Tiffany be safe?”

Taeyeon smiled at Yuri. “Tiffany’s a little weird, too.”

Brainless. 2; Code

Tiffany slouched in the chair. The room was cold, and overly bright, with light blue stone walls and one painted door. She let out a lengthy sigh and crossed her arms over her chest. Her arms were most sensitive to the cold, because she was still wearing the sleeveless dress from the club. It was the middle of the night, and she was not happy.

The door opened and Yuri walked in, eyes carefully trained on an open folder in her hand, and she didn’t look at Tiffany until the door snapped shut behind her. Then she smiled.

“Well, well,” she said coyly, “you know if you want to talk to me, you can just call. No need for all this effort of getting arrested for,” she glanced at the writing in the folder, “internet fraud.” She raised her eyebrows. “That’s new.”

Tiffany grunted, unamused.

Yuri seated herself across from Tiffany, comfortable in her surroundings, seemingly unperturbed by the chill temperature. The folder lay open before her, and Tiffany saw a small picture of herself along with some print-outs of e-mails. She closed her eyes briefly, cursing Taeyeon.

“Okay look, I can explain,” she said, fixing an earnest stare on Yuri’s face. “I didn’t do it.”

Yuri laughed. “Hey don’t worry, Tiffany. You’re working for us. This is a good sign! You’re becoming part of their organisation.”

Silence followed her statement. Her smile dropped and she looked unsure.

“That is what this means, isn’t it?” she asked.

Tiffany sighed again. She ran a hand through her hair, and she shifted in her seat. Here and now she was presented with options; she could pretend that initiating these scams was part of some acceptance with the organisation Yuri was targeting, or she could admit Taeyeon was framing her for it on the orders of the big boss. Being framed most likely meant that the organisation knew she was reporting to the police. Telling Yuri she really didn’t do it would mean she was telling her that she had no cover, and the game was up. Pretending she did it would send her back to the mercy of Taeyeon and her boss.

Not really an enticing set of options.

Taeyeon didn’t seem so bad. A little messed up, all too willing to follow her orders, possibly nice but maybe not very sincere. After all, she was polite enough to Tiffany but she felt nothing about framing her, simply because she was ordered to. She offered to share her coffee but it was bitter and cold. Tiffany always saw her that way.

As for the big boss, this was him giving her a test, perhaps. If she took the fall for this, then she would seem like less of a threat. Surely he knew she was working for the cops, but if she didn’t turn Taeyeon in for this then he would think she wasn’t totally on the wrong side. And she may be allowed to live another day, so to speak.

So she gulped, and looked at Yuri again. “Yeah, okay, it was me. But can you please cut back on the detectives flashing their badges in my club and pounding on my office door? It’s a bad look, you know. Guys go there to watch women take off their clothes.”

Yuri laughed again, worry gone. “Whatever. You know this is how we do it. So listen, it’s clear to us already that the evidence we have on you isn’t concrete, so if this were to go to trial it would most likely be a waste of time. We’ll set you loose, but we’ll have to tail you. Ongoing investigation, and all that.”

“Well, hopefully I won’t give you enough cause to get a warrant for my laptop, right?” Tiffany said dryly. She was calmer now, reassured by Yuri’s attitude. She was almost one of them, and almost one of the others.

Yuri shrugged. “We do have the best computer forensics squad in the country.”

“Right. Am I free to go?”

“Sure, sure. We can’t keep you here. Need a ride?”

Tiffany grimaced. “Not from you and not from any other cop.” She paused. “I’ll call a friend to pick me up.”

Yuri nodded. She flicked through a few pages to the back of the folder. “Would that friend be Taeyeon, by any chance? How are you getting along with her?”

Tiffany squirmed uncomfortably. “She’s alright. Look, I’d really like to go. Can we leave the questioning for some other time? Give me a call or something.”

Yuri watched her for a moment, thoughts indiscernible, before smiling nonchalantly again and getting up to leave. “Sure,” she said again. “Follow me so you can make that call somewhere less unpleasant.”

Taeyeon didn’t seem surprised to get a call from Tiffany, and she arrived at the police station quickly. She must have already known where Tiffany had gone. They sat in the parking lot of the station for a while in silence after Tiffany got in.

Tiffany couldn’t figure out what Taeyeon was feeling. She must have guessed that Tiffany had taken the blame for the scams because otherwise she wouldn’t be in the car, but Taeyeon’s face was blank and she was quiet.

The wind outside started howling, signalling a pre-dawn storm in the darkness, and Taeyeon started the engine of the car. Then she sat unmoving again for a moment before turning to Tiffany.

“My boss isn’t happy with the way you treat some of your customers,” she said.

Tiffany blinked. “What?”

“That’s why he did this,” Taeyeon continued. “He wants you to provide some allowances for certain VIPs, and he wants you to know that you can’t take us lightly.”

“Who said I was taking you lightly? And what kind of allowances are we talking about? I already said –”

“Not that,” Taeyeon interrupted. She frowned. “Don’t worry about that. He means drugs. Give them drugs. The ones that sit at the tables with the roses and I talk to them sometimes. They’re important business partners for the organisation.”

“And he wants me to give them drugs?” Tiffany asked. “And he made you frame me for this other stuff so that I don’t disobey him? Why?”

“Why the drugs or why the arrest?”

They stared at each other for a long time. Tiffany wanted to ask if the boss actually knew about her duplicity, but she was afraid to mention it. If Taeyeon wasn’t going to talk about it, it was better that Tiffany didn’t either.

“You know what, never mind,” she said eventually. “I don’t care. I’ll do it, it’s fine. Let’s just get out of here.”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything. She manoeuvred the car onto the street.

A light drizzle of rain started, the thin veil of water hitting the windshield of the car softly but enough to make Taeyeon put the wipers on at the lowest setting. They made their way through the empty, orange-lit streets in silence. It was tense. Tiffany was getting nervous.

“Do you do everything your boss tells you to?”

Taeyeon glanced at her, eyes glinting in the light from outside. She didn’t answer at first, and then she said, “Why are you so nervous?”

Tiffany looked away, deliberately staring at the storefronts they drove past. “I’m not nervous.”

“And I’m not an idiot,” Taeyeon said. She didn’t go further.

In a way, it could have been an answer to Tiffany’s first question, too. She looked at Taeyeon again, wondering. Of course there was room for more under the exterior she was shown; not just a lackey following orders but someone with a dangerous darkness inside. Like cold, bitter coffee. Tiffany frowned; she needed to stop comparing Taeyeon to that coffee.

“Do you have any hobbies?” she asked, feeling her anxiety ebb away purely because Taeyeon hadn’t tried to kill her yet. “What do you do for fun?”

Taeyeon slowed the car to a halt at a red light, and frowned at her. “What?”

“Well sometimes you seem just like a normal person,” Tiffany said, still looking at her. “Until I see you doing something illegal or being kind of scary. So surely you do some normal stuff too, right?”

Taeyeon blinked at her. “Crime is pretty normal.”

Tiffany rolled her eyes, turning to face forward. “Okay, never mind. Just making conversation.”

They sat without speaking again, and drove on when the light changed.

Music was pumping a heartbeat for the club when they arrived and the bouncers grinded out their cigarettes at the sight of the familiar car. They nodded respectfully at Tiffany and didn’t hesitate before doing the same for Taeyeon as she followed. Inside, it smelled of people and alcohol, and a few cigarettes that made trails of smoke through the flashing red and gold lights.

On the way to her office, with Taeyeon tight on her heels, Tiffany took notice of those special tables marked with red roses. Tonight there were two of them occupied. One seemed like a businessman, the other a thug. She held back a sigh, and jumped when she felt a hand on her back.

“You’re good at not asking questions,” Taeyeon said into her ear, not bothering to lower her voice under the loud music. “And sometimes that gets you all the answers.”

Tiffany stopped, trying to seem casual as she turned to Taeyeon and leaned closer. Maybe someone would think she was getting too intimate with Taeyeon, and maybe it would seem like they were having a conversation in a noisy place.

Taeyeon glanced around, furtive for the first time since Tiffany met her. She followed Taeyeon’s line of sight and saw the men at the rose tables both keeping an eye on them.

“Not allowed to get close to me?” asked Tiffany, smiling at Taeyeon. “Would your boss disapprove? I find you so interesting though. A little creepy maybe, but interesting.”

“Thanks,” Taeyeon muttered. “He knows.”

“He knows I find you interesting?”

Taeyeon moved closer and tilted her head, breath brushing over the line of Tiffany’s jaw as she said, “He knows about you and Yuri.”

Tiffany froze, the blood draining from her face. She pulled back slightly to look at Taeyeon, whose expression was empty.

After a moment, Tiffany glanced at the rose tables again; only the thug-looking man was still watching them as he took a sip from his drink.

Tiffany rested her arms on Taeyeon’s shoulders and leaned closer again, but she found she couldn’t speak. She didn’t know what to say or what to do. She felt like asking questions, finding out more but she couldn’t.

“Are you afraid?” Taeyeon asked. She didn’t move to return Tiffany’s embrace, but rested their cheeks together.

Suddenly Tiffany felt angry. She tightened her grip on Taeyeon, making them sway slightly. “Do you want me to be? You little freak.”

Taeyeon didn’t respond. Tiffany closed her eyes, taking a moment to wish that everything would be gone when she opened them. Taeyeon’s body was warm against hers as they got closer in the dark corner of the club, and she wondered if she could get Taeyeon in trouble by making it look like they were kissing.

“I have to go meet with the men at the rose tables,” Taeyeon said. “You’re good at not asking questions.”

“Have any more answers for me?” Tiffany replied, keeping Taeyeon from moving.

“When my boss wants you to know you shouldn’t take us lightly, there’s a reason,” Taeyeon murmured. “We hurt people, and we make them cry, we make them beg, whether they’re begging for their lives or their deaths. We break. We shatter. We make people bleed what they owe us.”

Taeyeon pulled away, stepping back and detaching herself from Tiffany. In the fluctuating red and gold lighting that pooled the club, Taeyeon’s face was hard to decipher and her eyes changed with the things they reflected. But she smiled, a slight and secretive smile, before turning and disappearing into the belly of the club.

Tiffany felt cold.

Brainless. 1; Four One Nine

Taeyeon’s shoes crunched on the gravel as she stepped out of the black car. She came face to face with the small brick building, a sign flashing its name in dark red, standing out in the dim light of late evening. She took her time to inspect the exterior, eyes tracing the lines of the letters in the sign that spelled out Smooth in Rouge, and the jagged corners of the rough red door set in the stone wall. She tilted her head to one side, and blinked.

The door of her car made a click as she shut it behind her, and she strode up to the entrance of the club.

It rattled as she knocked.

The burly bouncer who opened the door was scruffy and unshaven, his eyes ringed with red, and he burped smoke before pulling the cigarette from his mouth.

“We’re not open yet, kid.”

Taeyeon regarded him thoroughly, running her gaze from top to bottom, before nonchalantly lifting her right hand to inspect her nails. The jagged scar that ran lengthwise over her middle finger, rippling through her knuckle, caught the light and the bouncer almost choked on the smoke of his cigarette.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” he gasped, immediately stepping to one side and bowing deeply, holding the door open for her.

She stepped inside without another glance at him, already inspecting the inside of the club.

Two women were practicing a dance routine on the small stage against one wall, waving their bodies and swinging their hips while chatting and laughing. The tall bartender was watching them intently, swirling a dirty rag on the inside of a beer glass with little enthusiasm. Taeyeon grimaced. The bar was backed by a purple light, setting it aside from the redness that lit the stage and the dimness of the floor full of small tables. There were unlit candles in small glass bowls, laminated menus, and a couple of tables had blood-red roses held up in thin vases in their centre. She made note of the positions of these tables.

The bouncer was straightening up his suit, tightening his tie, when she turned back to him. The cigarette had been discarded and he had tried to fix his hair. He shot to attention when he realised she was looking at him.

“Take me to Tiffany,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The corridor that led to the back office was behind a thin door in the corner next to the bar, and it was small and stuffy and dark. She coughed as they made their way past a few doors before reaching one that had a smoky glass window inset and the word Office scratched in gold.

The bouncer raised his hand to knock but she stopped him. With a nod in the direction they came from, she dismissed him. He hesitated before bowing and disappearing. She waited until she heard the door at the far end click shut before she turned to the office door.

She leaned closer, almost pressing her ear against the glass. There were some faint noises on the other side; shuffling paper, rustling clothes, and then nothing for a while. She tried to place the structure of the room. She stared at the glass. Someone inside sighed absently, disheartened. She pictured a young woman going through the financial reports of the club, which she knew were bleak because that was how her boss had been able to buy it so easily.

She stood upright again, waited a moment, and then knocked twice on the glass part of the door.

“Come in.”

She looked directly into the woman’s eyes when she entered the office.

The woman blinked in surprise. “Can I help you?”

Taeyeon eyed her for a moment, just staring at her face, before she inspected the nails of her right hand again.

“My name is Taeyeon,” she stated, and raised her eyes again.

She watched the woman’s expression fall at the sight of her scar, and then it was hidden behind blank politeness. She cocked her head to one side.

“You must be Tiffany,” she said. “You know why I’m here.”

Tiffany closed the folder that she had been perusing and turned to store it in the filing cabinet. “Yes. I know.”

Taeyeon moved to sit down on the couch against the closest wall. She glanced around the rest of the room, eyeing the landscape paintings on the walls, and got comfortable. Then she looked at Tiffany again.

“We won’t have any problems,” she said. “I think we can get along just fine. I’m sorry to hear of your family tragedy and the effect it has had on this business. Unfortunately it’s quite easy for establishments such as this to fall prey to certain predators.”

Tiffany sighed. “Whatever, Taeyeon. Let’s not waste energy pretending to be friendly.”

Taeyeon frowned but didn’t say anything.

Tiffany eyed her intently, taking in the youthful face, caramel-coloured hair, Iron Man t-shirt, jeans, sneakers. Taeyeon let her, keeping her gaze locked on Tiffany’s face.

“You seem kind of young for this job,” Tiffany murmured, meeting her stare. “Are they letting kids take over strip clubs on behalf of criminal organisations now?”

Taeyeon smirked. “I’m a few months older than you, and I’m only following orders from my boss. And if we’re going by appearances, I never would have guessed an elegant, beautiful young lady such as you would become the owner of a strip club.”

They stared at each other in silence for a long time. Eventually Tiffany looked away and stood up, moving to stand in front of the desk.

“One thing,” she said, leaning back against the desk and crossing her arms sternly. “None of these girls are going to be prostitutes. I told that to your boss when we made the deal. Don’t you forget it.”

Taeyeon smiled kindly. “We’ll get along just fine, Tiffany.”

Taeyeon tapped at the keys of the laptop unenthusiastically. She was bored. After two hours of intent concentration, she had produced 50 templates and began distribution. She tweaked some content to make them a little more appealing or specific to the group of marks, and clicked send. And then she pulled up another one, and did it all again. E-mails were whizzing out from her location towards people all over the world, people with money and morals and emotions that she could toy with and profit from. Who would feel sympathetic for the poor young woman who was trying to escape the corrupting clutches of ‘our supreme leader’ and needed to be saved from the life of poverty and despair with a simple loan of only a few thousand dollars to pay the fare to get the almighty and glorious US of A, where a hefty trust fund prepared by a defected relative could be claimed and shared.

After sending another batch, she clicked over to the inbox to check for any replies. Sometimes they bit the line quick, sometimes they thought about it for a while because it was big decision after all, and sometimes they replied with a cute lecture about scamming innocent people instead of getting a real job.

Taeyeon smirked. She reached for the cup of coffee on the desk beside her laptop, and took a sip as she skimmed through an email. It was cold already, the coffee, and a bitter chill that she savoured. Sometimes the emails threatened to report her to the police but she knew two-thirds of people like that didn’t even know who to contact anyway. There was a special organisation dedicated to tracking and reporting scammers but everyone just tapped ‘delete’ on those funny little scam attempts and went on with their lives, and Taeyeon got another few thousand in her pocket after some well-practiced deceit on those more gullible.

When she first got into this game, sending lies through e-mail, she didn’t think it would work at all. She knew some people managed to make good money off it but she thought they just got lucky. How could people fall for it? It was all so obviously shady, and yet on they went and walked right into it thinking they were doing the good thing.

Taeyeon shook her head, and deleted a few of the lectures. She made a mental note of how many she got and which batch they were in response to; while two-thirds of them would never report her, she had to keep track of how many there were in the other third.

The door rattled as it opened and she looked up as Tiffany dragged herself inside. Taeyeon checked her watch; it was almost four in the morning. Tiffany looked exhausted and her expression did not improve when she saw Taeyeon sitting at her desk, on her chair, using her laptop.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

She didn’t sound upset, really, just tired. She closed her eyes for a moment before taking slow steps and slumping down in the chair in front of the desk, letting out a sigh.

“Just some extra little tasks,” Taeyeon said. She pushed her cup towards Tiffany. “Want some coffee? It’s cold.”

Tiffany squinted at her. “Is that supposed to be appealing to me? Cold coffee is gross.”

Taeyeon shrugged, and pulled her cup back. “Okay then. Busy night?”

Tiffany sighed again. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Like, more helpful and club-related? What do you even do, anyway?”

“I follow orders from my boss,” Taeyeon said simply.

Tiffany stared at her. “Well, you’ve been doing that for two weeks already and I see no difference in the state of this place.”

Taeyeon raised an eyebrow. “Good, there shouldn’t be any noticeable change. This place is useful to us in the state that it was when we got it. If you want to make changes using our budget, like improving the décor or whatever, I can pass it along to the boss. But it would need his approval.”

Tiffany considered it for a moment, then waved her hand dismissively and closed her eyes again. Taeyeon figured that meant she would think about it later, and went back to typing on the laptop.

After a few minutes of relative quiet as she tweaked and sent and received and made notes on a piece of paper, Tiffany opened her eyes again.

“What are you doing on my laptop?”

She sounded more awake.

Taeyeon logged out of the e-mail account, closed the browser, turned off the laptop, and tucked away the paper full of treasures before she responded with a smile. “I’m following orders from my boss, of course.”

Brainless. 0

“Here.”

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

“Drink up. You must be thirsty.”

She raised her eyes, brow crinkling.

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

The woman gazed at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then there is you.”

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

“And me.”

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

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

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

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

She winked.

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

“What do you want from me?”

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

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

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

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

“We know they will.”

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

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

“It’s time,” Yuri said simply.

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

“Welcome to your new world, Tiffany.”

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

“Taeyeon.”

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

“Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

It was time.