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.

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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.

Think Twice. (Part 6)

“We’re so glad you could finally join us for dinner. After you ignored all our previous invitations, I was afraid we would have to give up on you ever returning to your family.”

Taeyeon kept her gaze firmly fixed on the plate of food in front of her. It was a good meal, hearty and healthy and made to look like it was imbued with a mother’s love. Everyone else was eating steadily but they kept watching her and she could feel it on her skin.

“Well,” she said haltingly. “Thank you for the wonderful meal, mother.”

“Oh, this? If I’d known you were coming I could have made your favourite, dear.”

An elbow jabbed her in her ribs and she briefly saw her sister nodding towards Taeyeon’s untouched plate. Taeyeon lowered her head further and took a sip from the glass of water by her hand, ignoring the unspoken suggestion to eat.

“I apologize for the sudden visit. I came to see Hayeon.”

If she didn’t look at them, it was almost as if they weren’t there in full force. Out of the corner of her eye she could sense the movements of her sister as she ate, and she could hear her parents on the other side of the table, but it was all like an echo.

“Today? But she has school tomorrow. You should let her rest and prepare.”

Taeyeon’s shoulders tensed even further. Faced with the wall her mother placed between her and her sister, she knew it would be a struggle to get them both out. Any excuse she came up with would be shut down with the prospect of school attendance and Hayeon’s age.

“Why are you slouching like that, dear? You should straighten up so you have better posture. And eat more of that food, you look like a skeleton.”

Taeyeon did as she was told, sitting upright and beginning to place food in her mouth with very little regard for the experience. She refused to look at them, though, so for as long as she could she tried to look down without slouching.

“I was thinking I could take her for a drive,” she drilled out. “Maybe we could get some ice cream. I haven’t seen her in such a long time; we should catch up so she can tell me how it’s going at school.”

“No, that won’t be happening,” said her mother, simply and neatly and painfully politely put.

There was no more speaking for a long while. Everyone else finished their food, and Taeyeon managed to consume almost all of hers without choking despite the tightness of her throat. She and her sister gathered the dishes and took them to the kitchen under the watchful eye of their mother.

Taeyeon was stacking the plates beside the sink when she felt a hand on her shoulder, making her jump and turn slightly. Her mother hovered just behind her, fingers clenched on Taeyeon’s shoulder, and with a stern look on her face.

“You seem to have forgotten how to behave properly since you left us, Taeyeon,” she said. Her voice wasn’t sweet but it had a tone that could be cited as happily inoffensive if questioned. “You can’t show up suddenly and think you can disrupt everyone’s schedules. Your sister needs a strict routine and she needs to focus on her studies, especially since her grades have been abysmal this year. Why would you suddenly want to take her away from that when you haven’t spoken to her in such a long time?”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened, but she didn’t know what was safe to say.

“Oh, she’s told us about how you ignore her, dear.” Her mother actually smiled slightly as if they were just chatting. “She was heartbroken. ‘Why doesn’t my big sister want to talk to me?’ This is a hard time for her, you know. Exams are just around the corner. Now you think you can come strolling back in and just whisk her away?”

Her mother removed her hand.

“Do you still drink coffee?” she asked. “When you’re done with the dishes, you can have coffee with your father and talk.”

Taeyeon saw the silhouette of her father pass by the doorway, heading towards his study, and she swallowed her nerves. She didn’t reply, simply providing her mother with a sedate expression, and her mother smiled again.

“Don’t take too long with your chores, dear.”

She petted Taeyeon’s sister gently on the cheek before she left them to clean.

They stared at each other, alone in the kitchen.

Her sister looked different. She was more tired, older, and Taeyeon felt as if she was standing here as a seventeen year old again, watching herself begin to crumble under the pressure of all those childhood years.

“I’m sorry.”

Taeyeon’s heart stopped briefly. “What? Why are you saying sorry? I should be the one apologizing to you. I left you here on your own.”

Hayeon sighed, leaning back against the counter. “I’m sorry you have to go through this again. I know why you left, Taeyeon. At first I didn’t get it, because you wouldn’t talk to me anymore and that hurt me a lot, but I can see it so easily now. You had to save yourself, I understand that, and I don’t hate you for it. Sure, I wish I could have done the same, but let’s be realistic. I’m still a kid even now, and when you left you would have had no way of taking care of me. It’s all right.”

Taeyeon balanced herself with a hand on the edge of the sink, looking down at the floor beneath them. She felt her hair fall into her face, shielding her face.

“It’s not all right,” she mumbled. “I was scared. I know you’re not like them but every time I thought of you or saw your name come up on my phone, I got scared and couldn’t do it. I couldn’t help you, and I should have helped you.”

“Is that why you’re here now? Are you trying to get me away from them?”

Something in her sister’s voice made Taeyeon’s resolve break even further. She raised her head, unsure of what to say, because it sounded as if her sister was disappointed already.

“You… You don’t want to leave?” Taeyeon ventured.

“I want to finish high school so that I can get into a good college, and I also want to leave with you, but what can you provide for me, Taeyeon? A place to live and the support of my big sister but what are we going to do? I’d have to change schools and you’re not my legal guardian. We’d have no way of justifying it. As far as everyone else is concerned, staying here would be what’s best for me and you taking me away would be what creates insufficient care of a minor.”

Taeyeon glanced over her shoulder at the empty doorway. The house was quiet, and she had no idea where her mother was lurking now. She looked back at her sister, frowning, and her heart was racing because she didn’t know what she was here for anymore.

Then suddenly her sister was pulling her into a tight hug and burying her face in Taeyeon’s shoulder.

“I miss you.”

For a moment, Taeyeon remembered very clearly a winter day many years ago when they made a snowman and it turned out perfectly. Her little sister said it was the best day of her life because she was having fun with her favourite person. It had been the first winter without their brother, and Taeyeon hadn’t known what to do for her sister but after that day she knew exactly what was needed. She just had to be there.

She’d failed miserably at doing that, and it wasn’t something she could forgive herself for even if her sister did.

“No wonder you’re taking so long to make coffee.”

They broke the hug and turned to see their father, unsurprisingly. The lack of dish washing taking place was a significant risk when Taeyeon already had other things forced onto her list while she was there. Their father crossed his arms and gave them a tense frown. Taeyeon could tell from the set of his jaw that it wasn’t just about the cleaning and the coffee; he was likely not interested in seeing her after her abrupt escape from the family, particularly when it was obvious to everyone that she was only there with the intention of taking her sister away. And yet he would still expect her to make his coffee and sit down with him in his study so that they could chat awkwardly and briskly about pointless topics because that was the necessary thing for the family.

She could remember the night her father threatened to throw her out of her bedroom window if she didn’t behave, and she could remember the days her mother wouldn’t let her speak unless it was about schoolwork – so she turned around and rolled up her sleeves to begin washing the dishes.

Her sister seemed to hold their father’s stare for longer but then bowed her head and helped Taeyeon.

As the dishes clacked against the side of the sink and they fell into the familiar rhythm of washing and drying, Taeyeon called herself useless. Here she was, an adult now, standing in her mother’s kitchen with her father watching over her as she did the household chores. Her mind could not compensate for the lack of disparity between this moment and the same years she spent here long ago. While she was away she thought she’d managed to change herself and her life at least enough to be better than her past even if it was still a mess – but now she’d gone right back around. Was it any different? She prepared a mental checklist.

Number one: she was uncomfortable because of her family’s presence. Number two: she was cleaning very particularly because if she didn’t do it right she would be sermonized. Number three: her mother had chipped away at her courage. Number four: her father was displeased and frowning at her for not being good enough. Number five: she was scared. Number six: she wished she was anywhere other than here. Numbers seven, eight, and nine: she couldn’t fix her own life, she couldn’t help anyone she cared about, and she wanted very badly to never have been born in the first place.

It was as if she was just a kid again, washing dishes with her sister. She could even reach up to number ten: she was starting to feel as if she was nothing at all.

The chore was completed quickly, and her sister didn’t look at her again before she went to her room. Taeyeon wondered if it would be the last time they saw each other. Her father sighed and left the kitchen, most likely going to the study to wait for her. Again. Taeyeon began making coffee. She thought if she lowered her head any further her neck would break, and she would sink into the ground. Briefly she began building momentum towards wishing it to be true, that she could disappear right now.

But then the coffee was ready, so she went to her father’s study.

Taeyeon thought they might actually go the whole time without making a sound as they drank and her father passively ignored her – but then he cleared his throat suddenly, which made her jump.

“Have you been enjoying life, Taeyeon?”

Taeyeon blinked at him. She felt instinctively as if it was a trap, despite the innocent sound of the question. “Sir?”

“I know you felt you would be better off without us, Taeyeon,” he said. “So, did it work? Have you made a good life for yourself?”

Taeyeon almost curled in on herself but thought she might be scolded for slouching as if her mother could pop over from the other side of the house every time she sensed bad posture.

“A good life?” Taeyeon echoed.

She had a job, a place to live, a car, a computer, games to play and movies to watch. The cats in the neighbourhood liked her. Especially that small ginger one that sometimes visited her at Tiffany’s house too – oh, and she had Tiffany. Somehow, whether as a friend or something else, she had Tiffany in her life, and Tiffany would probably still be there when she got back so technically she still counted. But she had nightmares, and she didn’t do her work for days on end sometimes, and she didn’t eat as much as she should or sleep right. She freaked out when Tiffany wanted to be closer, like that poor disastrous hugging kissing thing that happened and the questions about her childhood. She was only sometimes content and the rest of the time she felt unfulfilled and restless. The challenges in her life were not positive and she didn’t feel like she improved herself often enough.

“Um –”

Her father cut her off immediately. “What was that? ‘Um’? Is that a word?”

“No, sir.”

He clicked his tongue. “I told you about hesitating like that, Taeyeon. Don’t make such grunting sounds like an ape. You have to speak like a civilized person. If you’d ever served in the military you would be a laughing stock.”

Something in Taeyeon sparked an image of herself rolling her eyes. Her father brought up the military any time she didn’t speak correctly because when he was a naval officer he learned the value of eloquent speech and felt that anyone who wasn’t capable of doing it right was not worth the oxygen they breathed. Taeyeon was almost comforted by the fact that some part of her was still not willing to put up with him. Maybe she could get out of here without any further permanent damage.

“How’s your work?” her father asked. He set his cup to one side; his coffee was finished.

Taeyeon glanced at her own cup; she still had a bit left. “It’s going well.” She swallowed the rest of her coffee and set her cup aside too.

They looked at each other, acknowledging the mutual signs of being finished, and they stood up at the same time.

“And you’re still single?”

Taeyeon opened her mouth to reply, but an arm wrapped around her shoulders as her mother answered first.

“Of course she is.”

She said it so lightly, and she smiled at Taeyeon like she was laughing inside. Her father crossed his arms. Taeyeon hadn’t felt so cornered in a long time, feeling her gut draw in as she automatically tried to do the impossible by rolling herself into a ball. She shrugged her mother’s arm off and stepped away, taking a deep breath as if she was coming up for air after being trapped underwater.

“Thank you for your visit, baby,” her mother cooed. She reached out and pinched Taeyeon’s cheek.

Taeyeon shook her head and felt her body shiver. “Thank you again for the meal, mother. Thank you for the coffee, father. I’ll be on my way now. Tell Hayeon I hope she does well with school.”

It wasn’t Taeyeon’s fault that they were all trapped in that toxic house. She considered her sister’s wellbeing to be partly her responsibility but if there was nothing she could do then she had to get out. It was not her fault that her parents were like that, despite the way they looked at her sometimes and the things they said that made it seem like her flaws were what made them all miserable. She didn’t have to feel accountable for the state of their lives. They were older than her and had more than enough power to handle their own existence.

She reminded herself of this as many times as she could, making the words rumble around in her head and bounce off the walls as she trudged down the hallway. It was as if her parents’ eyes drilled into her back all the way out of the house, and their silence followed her like a bubble of pain trying to encase her.

It was raining again. She stayed focused, placing one foot in front of the other until she reached her car. She dropped her keys twice but did not get angry. She was holding her breath in order to keep her body upright.

Then she was slamming the car door shut, blocking out the world. The rain was muffled, the house was not visible in the darkness, and the connection to her family was broken off again.

She did her breathing exercises; eight seconds in, three on hold, and eight seconds out. She closed her eyes and opened them again. In the car her breath sounded louder, more ragged, as if she had just run a long way trying to escape. The longer she sat there with only herself for company, the more she remembered and thought and felt. All the times in the past when she blamed herself, all the times when they blamed her, all the times she had to tell herself it was no one’s fault, and all the times she cried so hard because she wanted to melt away.

Tears pricked at her eyes again at the memories. She slapped her palms over her face, trying to deny it. She grumbled at herself.

She sniffed, took another breath, and raised her head. The only one who could reach her in that car was herself, so she started the engine and began to drive home.

The road was difficult to manage as the rain strengthened and the night lengthened. Taeyeon found all her attention taken up by tense driving, for which she was grateful. It was much easier to focus on not crashing than to look for something to distract herself from her thoughts.

As she got closer to her house, she relaxed a bit more and let herself briefly split her attention in order to put on some music. The Good Charlotte song that played seemed appropriate for her surroundings, because despite the growth in number of streetlights the world seemed dark and silent, and again Taeyeon could comfort herself with the image of being completely alone. It echoed a loneliness she was familiar with, now like a pang in her chest, and yet she was safe, too.

When she closed the front door behind her, turned on the lights, and went through to the living room, it was only ten o’clock. She sat on the couch, playing with the keys in her hand, and stared at the wall opposite her.

Being so close to Tiffany made her wonder if she’d been gone long enough. The goal was to go get her sister and then she could easily avoid seeing Tiffany for at least a day while she tried to fix every other problem in her life. Now that hadn’t happened. She was home, her real home, the one she made for herself and chose to live in – without her sister but with Tiffany again.

All she had to do was cross the street.

She could wait until the next day, go over in the sunlight and try to make things right on a fresh morning. If she went there now she would still be barely containing all the hurt from seeing her family again and all the heaviness of what happened between her and Tiffany earlier.

But if she didn’t go now then she would most likely spend the remaining hours of the night sitting around agonizing about everything or she would try to play games and be absolutely horrible at them. Work definitely was not going to be an option.

Taeyeon stretched her jaw as far as she could; feeling the way it made her muscles pull woke her from her thoughts. She jumped up before she could second-guess, and she went right back out the front door.

Every house on the street was quiet, with the lights turned off and only the sound of leaves being rustled by the ongoing rain. Taeyeon paid no mind to the weather, watching her feet travel over the wet road. She didn’t stop to think that perhaps Tiffany was already asleep. Maybe some part of her assumed Tiffany would be awake until late, thinking about what happened. Taeyeon hadn’t looked at her phone and it probably wasn’t even working but perhaps Tiffany was trying to contact her, worried about her disappearance, wanting to make sure she was alright and looking for a way to help her.

She did have to pause when she reached Tiffany’s door, though. She needed to take a few deep breaths. She didn’t think about anything, she just didn’t want to fall over.

She didn’t know how hard she knocked on the door. All the sounds around her were fading as she stood there.

Tiffany opened the door quickly.

They stared at each other, Tiffany wide-eyed and looking panicked, Taeyeon lost for words.

“So, you’re okay,” said Tiffany. “I’ve been calling you.”

Taeyeon shifted awkwardly. “Yeah. Um, my phone is broken, somehow.”

Tiffany half-smiled, not seeming much more relaxed. “Somehow.”

“Can I come in? I was hoping we could talk.”

“Yeah, that seems like a good idea.” Tiffany stepped aside to let her in.

Taeyeon couldn’t tell if Tiffany was upset or not. It was awkward, as expected, and the request to talk hadn’t been denied which was possibly a good sign. But Taeyeon knew that even though they both made mistakes, she had to apologize for the way she left it. It wasn’t a good thing to do, running away like that as if she could solve her problems by avoiding them. Taeyeon didn’t know a lot about how to actually do the right things in life but she knew enough to recognize when she was able to recover from a fault. And Tiffany was important to her, so doing the right thing to salvage their connection seemed less imposing the closer she got.

“I’m sorry,” said Taeyeon as soon as they were standing in the living room.

Tiffany just crossed her arms and watched her silently.

“I shouldn’t have left you like that. It was a messy situation and we were going back and forth between anger and apology. Leaving right after what happened was a stupid thing to do, but I was scared and I ran.”

Tiffany didn’t say anything, though her eyes softened a little. She was getting closer to showing an expression.

Taeyeon sighed. She thought going to her family’s house to pick up her sister was hard, but this was a different kind of difficulty.

She stepped forward and held out a hand, palm up. Tiffany blinked at it, and then looked back at Taeyeon’s face. Eventually she reached out and placed her hand in Taeyeon’s.

Taeyeon came a little closer and lowered their hands to hang between them.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, keeping her eyes on Tiffany’s. “I know you’re doing your best and trying to be here for me, and that means a lot. I panicked because we kissed and I thought it was happening too fast. It wasn’t the right timing, sure, but I didn’t read my feelings correctly. I like you a lot. I didn’t need to freak out like that.”

“What are you saying exactly?”

Taeyeon glanced away for a moment, squeezing Tiffany’s hand. She searched for words. “I went to see my sister. I haven’t told you anything about her and that’s because I’m ashamed. There are things I’m still not sure how to talk about but your guess is correct in terms of my whole ‘family’ situation. Anyway, my sister told me some things I needed to hear and seeing my family again was a pretty big shock to my system. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I’ve made a lot of progress with my life, too, and it’s easy for me to forget that. I’m ready to get back to trying, and to keep going with my new life so that I can really make things right.”

Tiffany moved, shifting her feet like she was nervous. “Taeyeon…”

“I’m not good with touching a lot,” she said, nodding at their hands, “and I’m not good with talking about my feelings but that’s because I’ve spent too many years being uncomfortable in my own skin. I can’t go back to that. There’s no reason for it. All it’s done is made me afraid. And you deserve better. I mean, I’ll still be like that a lot of the time, but you – I trust you. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. And if it’s okay with you, I would like to kiss you.”

“Wait, wait.” Tiffany separated their hands. “Taeyeon, just to be clear for a second here; we had an argument, we apologized, you accidentally kissed me? I guess it was an accident, and then you ran off for the whole day – then you show up at night, soaking wet from the rain, and ask to kiss me. I just want to be sure you’re doing the right thing for yourself. Don’t let this all be because you’re having a messy day and your emotions are all over the place.”

Taeyeon almost laughed. “Okay, that’s true, I am having a messy day and my feelings are out of control for the most part. That’s kind of how I am a lot of the time. Being around you helps but only if I’m honest with myself, and today I wasn’t honest with myself until it was too late. Yes, I accidentally kissed you, but it wasn’t a bad thing to do, just a bad time to do it. Previously when we talked about our relationship I was being held back by my fear. I’ve been reminded of why that’s a bad thing.”

The look that Tiffany gave her was the most sincerely searching gaze Taeyeon had ever experienced. Tiffany really was worried that Taeyeon was doing the wrong thing and would regret it later. In truth, Taeyeon had no guarantee that she wouldn’t change her mind the next day when her terror had time to haunt her again, or in a week when she’d had her nightmares and stared at her broken self in the mirror. She didn’t know anything for sure, but she remembered what she’d always intended when she made the decision to escape and make her own life. She had to run away to get out. She didn’t have to keep running once she got away, no matter how much her fear and self-hatred tried to convince her that she wasn’t free when she was freer than she’d ever been before.

“We’d still be going slowly,” she said, as if to reassure Tiffany and herself. “And it’s not going to be smooth sailing or whatever, but I mean… we don’t have to hold back quite so much anymore. I want to get to know you better, too. I want to know how you made yourself into who you are. We can share that.”

Tiffany tilted her head as she considered Taeyeon.

Then she nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay, you can kiss me.”

Taeyeon grinned, and it was the most honest reaction she’d allowed herself to have in several hours. She leaned forward and kissed Tiffany, softly but confidently, and was incredibly glad that she didn’t ruin it. She didn’t hesitate to return Tiffany’s hug afterwards. They were able to hold each other for a long time because she knew how it felt to hug Tiffany now and it was nothing to run away from. She knew what to expect. She was comfortable.

She hummed along to a random song when she went home, the smile on her lips made by her kiss with Tiffany still there with her as she crossed the street.

She even had a quiet night. She went through her bedtime routine and settled down to sleep at a record early time. At first she just lay there staring at the ceiling, and she felt some of the same dread she usually did at night, but it wasn’t overwhelming. She screwed up her day. Then she did one thing right. It was enough to get her to sleep comparatively peacefully at least for one night.

She still played her music loud in the morning as she got ready, but she ate more than half of her attempted breakfast and didn’t forget that she had to suit up for a meeting.

The buttons on her shirt needed a bit of fiddling so she had to keep trying with them as she went out the door, but it wasn’t stressful. She even managed to notice the sun shining and the birds singing and she was wholly on track to call herself a horrible cliché because she almost never had these kinds of mornings.

She twirled the car keys in her fingers as she went to check the mailbox.

A cat bounced up to her with a tiny meow.

“Oh hey, guy.” She crouched, holding out a hand for the cat to approach. “Haven’t seen you in a while. How’s it going?”

It was the small ginger cat. It purred happily, its tiny body vibrating beneath her palm as she stroked its back.

“I wish I knew your name, buddy,” she murmured to it. “Don’t tell the others, but you’re secretly my favourite.”

“His name is Lemon.”

She jumped up. The boy, Lee, stood a distance away and gave her an awkward smile. Taeyeon felt extremely self-conscious and pretended to ignore Lemon as he rubbed against her ankle.

“Oh, hey, Lee,” she said.

“It’s okay, it’s normal to talk to cats,” he assured her. He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with talking so much.

She found it odd that he was making an effort, but she couldn’t perceive it negatively.

“So, Lemon, huh? Cute name for a cat.”

He shrugged. “He was about the size of a lemon when he was born, so I went with it. He’s the baby of the house.”

At the mention of his house, Taeyeon glanced towards it. She looked back at him. He could probably tell that she was thinking. She wondered if Tiffany ever tried to have the same conversation with him about the shared experiences between them, but figured it was unlikely.

So she took a deep breath, and said, “Have you got some time later? I think we should talk.”

Lemon curled up around her foot and lay there with his tongue poking out slightly.

Think Twice. (Part 5)

Rather than getting interested in decorating her new house, Taeyeon spent more and more time at Tiffany’s home, becoming comfortable in the heartfelt environment. On days when Tiffany didn’t have to be anywhere or only worked half-days, they would gather in her living room with their respective laptops and paperwork, a selection of refreshments, and Tiffany’s dog. The summer continued at a leisurely pace. If it weren’t for her calendar indicating that the season was almost over, Taeyeon would have expected it to carry on forever with her and Tiffany lounging around until late at night, working and talking and laughing.

The dog certainly enjoyed the attention. Looking at his little face as his stomach was rubbed until his leg twitched, Taeyeon could imagine having a dog of her own.

Spending so much time at Tiffany’s house provided Taeyeon with another benefit; escape. It was no longer just her own thoughts that plagued her about leaving her sister behind – now her sister wanted to know, too. Being next to Tiffany, across the street from her own house, made it easier to leave her phone at home and pretend she’d forgotten it. The only person she wanted to hear from was Tiffany, and it was easier and terribly cowardly to stay at Tiffany’s place for as long as possible, cut off from the other side of her life.

This also meant that, for as long as she could, Taeyeon wanted to keep those parts of her life separate.

“So when you say you’ve only climbed a tree once, is that because you got scared?”

“I wasn’t scared, I was just… cautious. And anyway, I wasn’t allowed to climb a tree again. I fell and broke my arm and that was enough for my parents.”

“Wow, you broke your arm the very first time you tried? That sucks. At least I managed three years of safe climbing before I broke my arm.”

“They wouldn’t even let my sister try once in case she broke her arm too.”

“You have a sister?”

Taeyeon paused in the act of ruffling Prince’s ears, causing a confused yelp from the dog. “Uh, yeah.” She picked up Prince and gave him a light squeeze.

“Younger? Older? What’s her name?”

Taeyeon put the dog on the floor and turned to lie on her back on the couch, tossing an arm over her eyes as if she was settling down for a nap. Her hesitancy to provide answers must have been obvious but Tiffany didn’t say anything, and Taeyeon could hear her typing on her laptop as if it didn’t matter whether Taeyeon answered or not. Partially for this reason, Taeyeon intended not to answer.

The doorbell rang before she could decide to change the subject. She kept her eyes closed and listened to Tiffany getting up and going to the door. The way she greeted the person there suggested she was surprised, and hushed discussion followed. Taeyeon slightly lifted her arm from her face and tilted her head in that direction, trying to hear something. After a while, Tiffany stopped whispering.

“Well I’ve got Taeyeon here right now,” she was saying, and Taeyeon tensed. “You’ve met her, right? Would you feel safe with her around?”

This made Taeyeon frown. She sat up, tucking her hands idly behind her back and straightening her spine. Her focus remained on the conversation at the door.

“Come on. You’ll be safe, I promise.”

What she did not expect at all was for their young neighbour to follow Tiffany back into the living room. He lingered behind her, eyes locked on the floor beneath his feet, clearly uncomfortable.

“Taeyeon, this is Lee. You don’t mind if he joins us for a while, right?”

Taeyeon stared at the boy. His gaze was drilling a hole through the carpet as if his neck was a hinge. The slight movements of his chests showed his breaths were shallow, uneven. Taeyeon pondered the lingering physical effects of a panic attack.

“Lee hangs out here sometimes,” Tiffany said.

Prince finally gave up on regaining Taeyeon’s attention and he hopped over to the teenager. His excited greeting suggested he was a fan of the boy, and Taeyeon watched quietly as Lee immediately crouched and accepted the dog’s kisses.

“Sure,” Taeyeon answered, far too late but feeling like she needed to show her acceptance if only so that the boy could adapt to the situation easier.

The dog squealed with delight as Lee picked him up and stood straight. The boy pressed his cheek against Prince’s fur. His eyes flicked over to Taeyeon, blank.

“Nice to meet you properly,” said Taeyeon, returning the look, “Lee.”

She was able to see him better for the first time as he stood in Tiffany’s living room. He was probably in his last year of high school, tall and gangly but baby-faced. His clothes were scruffy but not unusually so for an adolescent male’s lifestyle. Noticeably, he was only wearing one sock beneath his scuffed sneakers.

“I’ll get you a drink,” Tiffany said to him, and she turned to Taeyeon. “Do you want something too? You can give me a hand in the kitchen.”

Taeyeon took the opportunity. Trying to look as casual as possible, she got up and followed Tiffany to the kitchen, deliberately not renewing her eye contact with the boy.

Tiffany grabbed two glasses from the cupboard before she put them down again and took Taeyeon’s hand. Taeyeon twitched in surprise but didn’t pull away.

“You are okay with it, right? If he stays here?”

The questions caught her off guard. Tiffany was earnest, concerned.

“Yeah,” Taeyeon said when she found her voice. “Of course.”

Tiffany seemed relieved. Her hold on Taeyeon’s hand relaxed slightly, tangling their fingers together.

“He told me about the incident with the cars,” said Tiffany. “He thought you were upset and wouldn’t be nice to him ever again.”

That didn’t seem particularly surprising.

“I could tell he was feeling that way,” Taeyeon sighed. “I tried to show that I sincerely wasn’t upset but I guess it wasn’t enough to get past his personal instinct to blame himself.”

“Yeah, he gets that way sometimes. I’ve been talking to him about it. No matter how much I tell him he doesn’t need to feel guilty about every little thing, I can’t quite get him to feel better about himself. At least here he can relax for a while.”

Taeyeon nodded. “This is a good place to relax. You’re a very relaxing person.” Some small part of her only said that in order to make Tiffany smile, and it worked so it was worth it.

Tiffany’s other hand lightly brushed along Taeyeon’s arm and went to her shoulder. This recaptured all of Taeyeon’s attention, and she glanced at the point of contact before fixing Tiffany with a curious gaze.

A moment stretched between them, and then Tiffany removed her hands and stepped back. She turned to the fridge, running one hand through her hair absently.

“What would you like to drink?”

The physical contact confused her. Tiffany was an affectionate person but there had to be a reason for those particular touches. It all seemed as if Tiffany wanted to provide some comfort. Did Taeyeon seem panicked? She didn’t feel panicked. Uncomfortable around the boy, nervous and awkward; nothing especially alarming, she thought.

She narrowed her eyes at Tiffany’s back.

“We have orange juice, pineapple juice, grape soda, milk, water…”

When Tiffany turned around, her listing stopped. Clearly she could tell Taeyeon was thinking.

Taeyeon figured that if the boy spent time at Tiffany’s house and talked to her about things that happened in his life, then she knew something about his home life. This meant that if Taeyeon was right in her speculation about the boy’s situation, Tiffany would know about it, and maybe she noticed some similarities here and there or put together some pieces and she had an idea that Taeyeon would feel disturbed by the boy’s presence because –

Taeyeon frowned.

They heard prince barking playfully in the living room, and the surprised laughter of the boy.

“I’ll have orange juice. Thank you.”

Mostly Taeyeon did not want to talk about it, but she definitely did not want to even think about it any further while Lee was in the house with them. It could wait. Possibly for all eternity.

Lee was quiet again when they returned to the living room. He must have assumed he would not be allowed to take the couch where Taeyeon was sitting, and so he was curled up on the floor with the dog hopping all over his body. The laughter from before didn’t seem likely to come again, but he had a small smile on his face that satisfied Taeyeon.

She didn’t know what to do with him in the room. He was capable of entertaining himself; especially with Prince hanging around, so she didn’t expect to converse with him, but previously this was her time with Tiffany. It wasn’t as if they were doing anything expressly private. Taeyeon just liked having Tiffany all to herself.

Tiffany would look at over at them both every now and then, appearing pleased that they were comfortable enough and nothing bad was happening. Taeyeon caught her eye and they smiled at each other, and a few times Tiffany instigated a brief conversation about something insignificant. There was nothing loud or tense or risky about their behaviour, and Lee became so relaxed that he closed his eyes. Prince cuddled up on his chest.

He stayed for two hours, leaving his own glass of juice untouched until he got up to leave. Taeyeon watched him down the drink rapidly. He grinned at Tiffany, waved at Taeyeon, and gave the dog a quick hug before he disappeared.

Once the front door clicked shut behind him, Taeyeon and Tiffany looked at each other.

“He seems like a nice enough kid,” Taeyeon said.

“He doesn’t talk much but he actually has a great sense of humour. When he opens up a bit more, you’ll see.”

Taeyeon shrugged. She dragged a section of text from one place to another in the word document open in front of her. Prince jogged out of the room, presumably to gorge himself on food.

“I think it would be good for you two to get to know each other,” Tiffany commented, going for the off-hand approach but failing.

Taeyeon pressed her lips together. One finger tapped the mousepad of her laptop a few times, highlighting and un-highlighting a superfluous sentence.

“You might have a lot in common.”

The words disappeared as she jabbed the delete button.

“Oh really?” she replied. The disinterest in her voice was deliberate and she knew Tiffany could tell.

“And maybe you could, I don’t know, give him some advice sometimes.”

She set her laptop aside, and clenched her fists on top of her thighs for a moment. She did everything she could to avoid looking at Tiffany, and eventually she could feel Tiffany’s gaze on her.

“He needs someone like you to help him.”

Taeyeon got up, and turned to face her.

“Okay, what are you doing?”

Tiffany hesitated, but only briefly. She rose to match Taeyeon’s pose, and started to wring her hands together.

“You’ve both experienced something that’s very influential to your lives. It’s something that only other people who’ve gone through it can relate to, really. As much as I want to help him, there are certain things that I just can’t do. If you were to talk to him, he would understand and he would listen and you could –”

“Do you even know what you’re talking about?”

“I think so.” Tiffany straightened up, losing her uncertainty, and set her jaw firmly. “I’m confident enough in my feelings about both of you. Are you saying I’m wrong? Didn’t you go through what he’s going through – the family thing?”

Taeyeon didn’t say anything. Anger was bubbling up in her chest, from the deepest pits of her emotions. This wasn’t something anyone ever asked about, this wasn’t something she faced in the daylight hours when she wasn’t having a nightmare and disintegrating until she was nothing but this one crippled soul whose only haunt was from the past.

“Talking about it with him could help both of you,” Tiffany started to say.

“Why would you even ask something you clearly think you already know the answer to? What do you think I’m going to say?”

It almost gave her a rush of energy to see how Tiffany faltered, slowing to a halt and then taking a step back. The confidence she’d managed to portray slipped away. Perhaps she hadn’t been expecting an open response.

“What do you want from me?” Taeyeon hissed. “What do you want when you ask me something like that?”

“I just want you to feel better,” Tiffany said, her voice breaking briefly. “You need to talk about this, Taeyeon, you can’t just let it burn you up from the inside forever –”

“Shut up!” She grabbed the first thing she could reach – her phone on the table beside her – and slammed it at the wall. “Stop talking. Stop it.”

Tiffany stared at the cracked screen of the phone that lay on the floor, before turning her fearful gaze on Taeyeon again. “No, you stop. You’re scaring me, and you’re hurting yourself when you do this.”

“You wanted me to let it out, didn’t you?” Taeyeon stepped closer. “Well that was all you’re getting.”

The new look on Tiffany’s face was not what she expected. There was thoughtfulness, tenderness, and finally resolve.

“Okay,” Tiffany said quietly. “You’re right. You don’t have to let it all out. You let some of it out by getting angry and that’s still valuable.”

Taeyeon blinked. She paused, her breath halting momentarily, her lips pressing together.

“Why do you do this?” Taeyeon asked eventually, barely even. She sounded like the small, fragile girl that she saw herself as. “Why do you put up with me?”

“At first, I was just curious,” Tiffany admitted. She felt safe enough to step closer but refrained from reaching towards Taeyeon. “I meet a lot of people that are hiding parts of their lives, but you were nice and you seemed like you were trying. I was interested. I wanted to know why you were making an effort to change your life, and I liked spending time around you because you just have this way – I don’t even know how to say it. I feel comfortable around you. You’re thoughtful and intelligent and caring, and funny and cute and I just want to know you as much as I can because I like you so much. I like you a lot.”

Taeyeon swallowed. She couldn’t bear to look at Tiffany anymore. Shame simmered inside of her.

“And I know I went too far this time,” Tiffany continued, her voice serene. “I told you I wouldn’t push you about things you don’t want to talk about and I really, really meant it. Usually I can tell that you aren’t ready but at the same time I want to be there for you so badly. I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I messed up.”

Pity was something Taeyeon had only a little contact with, but she knew it well because she was constantly expecting it. If people heard her life summarized in one or two blunt sentences, they would feel bad for her, they would think about how unfortunate it was that anyone had to go through that, and they would consider her a broken and lonely person. Taeyeon hated that. She didn’t want anyone to think anything of her; least of all when they got that little crease between their eyebrows that showed how pitiful the whole mess was because that mess was Taeyeon and it was all she had.

The look on Tiffany’s face had nothing to do with that kind of pity. She knew Tiffany felt sad about whatever bad there was in Taeyeon’s life, but only because it hurt and Tiffany wanted to help with that pain. Taeyeon could believe it when Tiffany said she didn’t mean to break her promise and go too far, and she could trust that Tiffany really meant to do what was best. This was something Taeyeon didn’t know quite as well as she knew pity.

Subsequently, her reaction was not ideal – but it was honest, and if there was one thing Taeyeon was starting to value most about their relationship it was the honesty.

“I’m sorry too,” said Taeyeon. She shifted her weight from one foot to another, ran a hand through her hair, and finally looked at Tiffany again. “This isn’t your fault. Yeah, you probably shouldn’t have asked those questions, but I shouldn’t have responded like that.”

She reached down and picked up her phone, stroked the crack on the screen with the tip of her forefinger.

“It’s not something I’m very good at controlling,” she murmured. “I’m not a violent person. This kind of thing… You’re right; I do need to deal with it. Just – not yet. Please?”

“Of course,” Tiffany said immediately. She stepped closer, her hand twitching like she wanted to reach out but she didn’t. “I’m here for you.”

Taeyeon stared at her for a long time, jaw tense, and saw her feelings mirrored in Tiffany’s expression. She slipped her phone into the pocket of her jeans, just to waste some time, because her heart was aching.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, the echo sounding like it wanted to continue a hundred times over in the way that it did when she apologized to herself for being lonely.

“It’s okay,” Tiffany said. The corners of her mouth tilted slightly. “You accept my apology and I’ll accept yours.”

Eventually, Taeyeon nodded.

“Can I…” Tiffany hesitated. “I mean, I know I have no right to ask this after what just happened, but can I hug you?”

Taeyeon nodded again before she could think because she knew it was what she wanted.

The sensation of a living human right in her face with their clothes making contact and warm bodies pressing together, just standing there with no intention of further movement while arms circled her body – it was different, something she was not accustomed to, but mostly awkward because she didn’t really know what to do. Hugs were not her specialty. Hugs conveyed an emotional intimacy as well as physical, and that was something Taeyeon generally avoided in her relationships with people.

It was not as complicated as she expected. Only kind of weird. It didn’t feel too uncomfortable, as far as standing still while being held could go. But it was definitely intimate.

She returned the hug, the movements unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first. Her arms went around Tiffany’s waist and she spread her hands flat along Tiffany’s lower back, not knowing how to stand or how to settle. Tiffany shifted slightly, relaxing into the hug and resting her chin lightly on Taeyeon’s shoulder.

“It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

Taeyeon tried to be less tense and it mostly worked. She trusted Tiffany could tell that hugging was not going to be a regular thing yet, and that it was the conclusion to their first fight.

She found herself sinking in to the embrace a little, getting used to the warmth and the awareness of Tiffany being so very close for long moments.

“Can you promise me something?” Tiffany murmured. “Please?”

“What is it?”

“Will you talk to me about it one day?”

Taeyeon wondered. She shrugged, lightly jostling Tiffany. “I can’t promise that. I’m trying but nothing is ever certain.”

“Then, will you let me know one day when I can kiss you?”

Taeyeon turned her head. Tiffany moved marginally to meet her gaze.

A stage further than getting used to a hug; their faces were close.

Tiffany understood so much already. She made a mistake by asking the wrong questions too early. She apologized and she meant it. She waited to express their resolution through a hug, knowing there was a chance it would not happen. She wanted to kiss Taeyeon, but on Taeyeon’s terms.

That was how she knew that when their lips touched, it was because Taeyeon was the one who leaned in.

It was entirely too overwhelming.

She pulled away immediately, ripping the embrace apart. She stepped back, almost stumbling, and her hands were shaking as if she’d tripped and fallen much further than expected.

“Sorry,” she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s too fast. I don’t know why I did that. Right after the conversation we just had.”

“Taeyeon,” Tiffany sounded like she was pleading and Taeyeon realized it was because her backward steps were taking her into the hallway. “Please don’t freak out. I shouldn’t have mentioned it –”

“Can we just not go through the whole mutual apologies thing again?” Taeyeon gasped. Her chest couldn’t quite keep up with her breaths. She turned around and sped towards the front door.

“Tae –”

The slamming of the door cut off Tiffany’s shout. Taeyeon ran across the street without bothering to check for traffic. She couldn’t hear anything over the pounding heartbeat in her ears. A cat sprinted out of her way, heading to Lee’s house.

The second she was safe inside her own house, she leaned back against the door and slid to the ground. Her palms were clammy, making a sound against the wood as she clutched at it and dragged down. All the curtains were closed, giving her darkness in the hallway where she sat, and she felt tears well up in the corners of her eyes.

The conversation was good. Intense but necessary. They were honest, Taeyeon was angry, Tiffany was understanding. The hug was okay. It was doable. Awkward, but nice. Taeyeon got a little carried away and made a mistake.

It was too much.

She jumped up, feeling the compulsion to move. She paced around in a circle in front of the door. Part of her tried to calm herself but she knew she was freaking out.

She wandered into the living room. Papers and folders lay strewn over her coffee table. She dumped herself on the couch and leafed through them desperately, eyes skimming over words like non-taxable, refinancing, perpetuity – suddenly they had no meaning. All the time she’d spent studying this stuff just went right out of her head. Even the sight of the familiar documentation seemed wrong. None of this was going to make her feel better.

She stood again, letting the papers fall to the ground, not caring where they landed or what state they would be in later. She didn’t care. Right now she didn’t even know if there would be a later; a time when she would be able to focus on work again.

Tiffany was such a comforting person.

After everything that Taeyeon went through in her past, she didn’t allow herself to use a person for comfort. She spent a lot of time at home, she relaxed when she could, she played games and watched movies and read a book from time to time, and she avoided extreme sports or dangerous habits like smoking or over-drinking. In essence she was the provider of every likeable thing in her life and on a low-risk basis, and that was exactly how she wanted it.

But every now and then there were things she simply could not predict. Impulse control was not her specialty, in the same way she struggled to make good decisions when she was younger and now whirled around in confusion. She was torn between what was right, what she deserved, and the emptiness that held her back from it all.

Like lashing out. She got angry at Tiffany, she threw her phone, and right now she spun around and thudded her fist into the side of the bookcase.

The pain was instant, like a spear that shot from her knuckle through to her elbow in one smooth shot. She cringed, cradling her hand against her body and taking a deep, shuddering breath. It was exactly what she wanted.

It was because she was angry at herself for getting angry at all. Normal people would be fine with getting to know Tiffany, normal people would be glad to find out that Tiffany was interested in them, normal people would date Tiffany and feel happy and comforted and better about themselves. Taeyeon was a mess. On her own, she was able to have that mess and not need anything else. Now she spent so much time thinking about other people, her self-hatred grew and grew.

Taeyeon stared at the bookcase, pinpointing the area she’d just punched. This was a bookcase she’d bought specifically for this house. This was a house she’d chosen as her new start. The new start to her life that was already crumpling to the ground when it only just managed to rise slightly. Her work lay ignored on the floor here and in Tiffany’s house.

She had to get out.

When the music was so loud that she could feel the steering wheel vibrate beneath her fingers, Taeyeon knew it was time to go home. She’d been driving around for three hours, taking loops around the city along familiar routes and into unknown areas, every now and then reaching over absently to turn up the sound of Paramore dripping through the speakers until it could smother her thoughts. Slowly as the car swung around a corner, she remembered her list of things to do. Several documents awaited her return. There were a few chores to do around the house. They were things that should keep her calm, centred; the mindless actions of routine.

Taeyeon sighed. She pulled over and looked around for a sign to see what street she was dawdling on. The subtle humming of the engine crept through as she turned off the music altogether. The movement brought her knuckles into view again.

She sighed again, heavier. Clenching her fist made the skin stretch slightly. The redness was flaming.

A light pattering against the windshield made her look up. It was raining.

She curled her arms around herself and closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the seat and listening to the rain.

What happened with Tiffany was too deep. They were meant to be taking it slow. They were meant to be just friends. Barely friends, even, perhaps. They were not meant to go from tentative to extreme already. How was she supposed to slowly open up to her when things like that happened?

And she had no idea how to make up for it. There was no way she could just go back to Tiffany and be casual about it. She didn’t even know if they would be pretending it didn’t happen or if there was some way to go on from there. Every time she saw Tiffany, Taeyeon would think about it.

Maybe it was time to stay away from Tiffany for a while; give her bruise a chance to heal.

She bit her lip, hard. Hanging out at Tiffany’s house had been her way of escaping her problems, but now she needed to run the other way.

Maybe it was time to get her sister.

She didn’t bother going back to pack anything. The town was only three hours’ drive away. It was already two o’clock in the afternoon. She fully intended to get there, pick up her sister, and leave right away. They could be home by nine at the latest. Together. She’d let her sister have the bed for the night and in the morning they could go get stuff for the spare room so that she could stay longer.

That was the thought that she rolled around in her head as she drove. The rain followed her all the way, consistent and reassuring. It created the sense that barely any time passed, and suddenly she was pulling in to the driveway of her childhood home.

It was a small house, physically, but it carried an imposing force on her. No other place in this town could ever be so meaningful to her despite all the things she did when she lived here.

Taeyeon took a deep breath. She wrestled her phone out of her pocket, but she couldn’t get it to work. She rolled her eyes to cover the spike of fear; with no way to call her sister, she would have to go to the door. With falsified bravery, she hyped herself up to get out of the car.

If she’d arrived an hour earlier she’d have an almost pure guarantee that her parents would not be home but her sister would be. As it was, she was taking a gamble, because the time on her watch only just ticked into five o’clock.

Now she didn’t know when she could ever go home.

Think Twice. (Part 4)

As bearable as the summer weather had been thus far, there always had to be the odd overly-windy day. Taeyeon had a great dislike for windy days. They were fine when experienced from inside a house with the curtains drawn, but naturally she would not always have the luxury of being able to stay at home on a windy day. Her work allowed her much flexibility until she needed to hold meetings with clients again.

After spending the morning traveling between numerous companies to deliver and discuss the drafts of their most important documents, Taeyeon felt a sense of relief as she exited the final building. She unbuttoned her suit jacket, and then immediately buttoned it up again when the brisk wind caught hold of it. That was another thing about windy days; she could so easily lose control of her clothes.

But aside from finally being free of strenuous meetings, there was something else that cheered Taeyeon’s spirits. Tiffany was in the same part of the city for some work meetings of her own, and they were going to have lunch together.

Tiffany’s little speech about taking it slow had initially done little to diminish Taeyeon’s nervousness. While she previously felt pressure to figure out her intentions towards Tiffany, it was nothing compared to the knowledge that they were definitely edging towards to option of getting closer. At first she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She would imagine how various situations would be different if they were dating, and she would tell herself that she dreamed the whole thing – but then Tiffany would give her that smile or have a unique glint in her gaze or she would call Taeyeon cute, and Taeyeon was reminded that it was not a dream. Unfortunately her logic for handling the situation was still uncertain. Every now and then she would spend a good deal of time thinking about it, and then there were the moments when she felt so comfortable around Tiffany that it hardly crossed her mind. She still wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not, but it didn’t feel too bad so she carried on.

Before the wind could completely tangle her hair, Taeyeon pulled a hair tie from her pocket. From where she was standing, she would walk around the corner and down the street a bit to get to the restaurant where they’d agreed to meet. She made sure which way she was going, and then lowered her gaze to the ground as she tied her hair while she walked. In a few minutes the crowds would thicken with other people going to get lunch, but for now she didn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone while she was distracted.

“Taeyeon!”

The call came as soon as she rounded the corner. She looked up in surprise but relaxed when she saw Tiffany waving at her from a short distance away. She smiled and waved back.

“You’re early,” she said when she reached Tiffany, and they stood to one side on the pavement as the wind strengthened briefly. “I thought I’d have to walk slowly to make up for extra time.”

“My meeting ended sooner than I expected. All the better for me.”

Taeyeon was only a little astonished when Tiffany linked their arms together and lightly squeezed her elbow. It wasn’t really a big deal.

“And for you, of course,” Tiffany continued, winking at her. “Now you get to spend even more time with me.”

Taeyeon put on a blank expression. “Lucky me,” she retorted, voice dripping in faux sarcasm. But she couldn’t hold it for long, and they ended up laughing together.

They barely made it two steps further before a loud squealing noise made them both jump. Tiffany dropped Taeyeon’s arm and turned when someone yelled, “Tiffany Hwang, is that you?”

A middle-aged woman with finely styled hair and just the right amount of makeup was tottering towards them on high heels. Taeyeon ran her gaze over the woman’s outfit, and wondered if she was one of Tiffany’s clients.

“Oh my god,” Tiffany squealed in response, and the two women air-kissed each other’s cheeks. “It’s been so long! How have you been?”

Taeyeon wanted to shake her head to get rid of the sound of Tiffany over-emphasizing the final word of each sentence. She eyed them both critically.

“Absolutely fantastic,” the woman replied. She tapped Tiffany lightly on the shoulder. “All thanks to you. You know, just the other day I went to an interview on that late night talk show, and I was wearing the black and red outfit you created for me, and guess what? The wardrobe people at the studio said I looked perfect! They didn’t want to change a thing.

Tiffany gripped the woman’s arm and they giggled together. “That’s great! I’m so happy for you.”

“When I mentioned your name, they even said they weren’t surprised! Everyone in the industry knows about you now.” The woman, having resumed normal speech patterns, finally caught sight of Taeyeon lingering by Tiffany’s shoulder. “And who’s this? It’s a pleasure to meet you, dear.”

The woman obviously assumed Taeyeon recognized her from television or whatever. Taeyeon cringed internally because, of course, she had no idea who the woman was, but she smiled politely and shook the hand that was offered to her.

“This is Taeyeon,” Tiffany said, before Taeyeon could say something to the same effect. “She’s a friend of mine. And my new neighbour.”

The woman looked like she was going to say something else, when another person jogged up to them. Taeyeon noticed the camera slung around his neck and her eyes widened. She instinctively took a step back.

“Mrs. Lee! Good afternoon to you. How about a quick photo and some questions? I’m from Star Daily.”

Tiffany reached out and took Taeyeon’s hand, ignoring the man as his focus remained on the other woman for the time being. She laced their fingers together and tugged, bringing Taeyeon back from the edge of the street. Taeyeon concentrated on the reassuring look that Tiffany was giving her.

Mrs. Lee made a sound of disapproval. “You again. Have you been following me?”

The man chuckled, but he circled his hands around his camera as if he was preparing to strike with it. “Of course not, Mrs. Lee. Just a quick photo? And maybe you’d care to comment on your husband’s latest scandal?”

Mrs. Lee rolled her eyes. She turned her back to the man, giving Tiffany an apologetic smile. “Sorry about this, Tiffany. I’d better get going, I don’t want you and your friend –” did her gaze just linger on their joined hands? “– to be inconvenienced by this rude man.”

The man popped his head around Mrs. Lee’s shoulder. “Oh, is that Tiffany Hwang? The stylist, right? Say, would you be able to confirm your attendance at the local fashion show this weekend? And how about the rumours that you’ll be launching your own winter collection?”

Mrs. Lee rounded on him, taking a step forward so that he had to stumble backwards. “How about you contact my publicist if you’d like to arrange an interview with me, Mr. Star Daily? For now I think you and I should both leave.”

She strode away with a huff of distaste, nose in the air. The man glanced between her and Tiffany, narrowly missing the sight of Tiffany releasing Taeyeon’s hand, before he decided to head after Ms. Kang, clearly searching for the possibility of a bigger story from the more famous person.

Immediately, Tiffany turned to Taeyeon and took hold of both her hands. “I’m so sorry about that! I didn’t think we’d have to worry about anything like that ever. Mrs. Lee was my client a while ago, but I didn’t expect a reporter would come up to us on the street. That was so awkward.”

Taeyeon was still tense, but she tried to make light of it. “You know what was even more awkward? She totally thought she was so famous that I’d recognize her instantly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her face before in my life.”

Tiffany stared at her for a moment. Then she laughed. “Oh no, you’re serious, aren’t you? You don’t know who she is?”

“Should I?” Taeyeon shrugged.

“No, I suppose not,” Tiffany said. She took Taeyeon’s hand again and pulled her towards the restaurant. “She’s an actress and her so-called scandalous husband is running for Mayor this year. I guess since you’re sort of new here you wouldn’t know about him, but she’s been in films and television for nearly two decades. You’re sure you’ve never seen her?”

Taeyeon shrugged again. “Didn’t really watch much television,” she muttered, her reply almost lost in the bustle as they entered the restaurant and were guided to a table. She could tell Tiffany heard her, though, because of the confused little frown and smile that she received from her. Taeyeon just waved it off and they picked up their menus.

“So, everyone in the industry knows about you now?” Taeyeon echoed. “Even that reporter knew about your schedule. You must be getting pretty famous.”

With typical grace, Tiffany looked sheepish. “Yeah, I guess so. Business has certainly been picking up lately. I even had to print a new set of business cards because I ran out; which may sound mundane, but it was a big moment for me.”

“That’s pretty impressive. Well, if you ever need a document controller, I’ll give you a discount.”

Tiffany giggled. “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. How did you get into a job like that, anyway? Somehow I don’t imagine little Taeyeon telling everyone she wants to be a document controller when she grows up.”

The thought was amusing. “I doubt little Taeyeon would have known what a document controller was. I can’t really say I know for sure even now. I studied a certificate of business administration and the internship was offered to my class, so a few of us got positions learning how to do the job. Later I knew enough to go freelance, and here I am.”

“So you have a certificate in business administration? Is that like a shorter version of a degree?”

Taeyeon coughed awkwardly. “Yeah, it’s like a broad overview of the type of things that are covered in the degree. It focuses more on the day-to-day functions of administration and knowing your way around an office.”

Tiffany tilted her head. “Sorry, am I missing something?”

The waiter popped up beside their table and gave a customary greeting. Normally Taeyeon would have jumped on the chance to have a distraction, but she didn’t really want him to hang around a lot. Somehow she would manage to be more open around Tiffany, although she was pretty sure she already knew where her limits would remain. Taeyeon rattled off the name of the first decent-seeming dish she spotted on the menu and waited as Tiffany placed her order. The waiter filled their glasses with what Taeyeon thought of as fancy-lemon-water when they didn’t order any drinks, and he smiled too many times. Eventually he gathered up their menus and departed.

Tiffany just looked at her, clearly choosing not to say anything but still remaining on the same topic of conversation.

“I didn’t finish it,” Taeyeon said quietly. “I skipped the final semester. So, no, I don’t actually have a certificate in business administration.”

“Oh.”

For the first time in a long time, the silence between them was uncomfortable. Taeyeon closed her eyes for a moment and at first she cursed Tiffany’s ability to pick up on the subtleties of Taeyeon’s behaviour in a way that brought up her obvious avoidance. But blaming Tiffany didn’t last long, because there was no possibility that it was ever valid. Taeyeon’s own fault was in thinking she could do what they were trying to do.

Now she felt herself facing a choice. Some imperative need willed her to act right there in the restaurant. Either she was going to do this the way more normal people did and just be honest about herself and her past, or she was going to cover it all up again and run away from the issue until Tiffany realized she wasn’t worth it.

Having made up her mind in those quick seconds, she opened her mouth –

And promptly shut it again when the waiter returned with his silly jar of silly water and his silly smile that begged for a thirty percent tip.

Taeyeon just sighed when he unnecessarily refilled their barely touched drinks. She was being too dramatic anyway. A valued part of taking it slow was not treating every moment like a life-changing decision.

“So, what’s on your schedule for the rest of the day? More clients?” Taeyeon asked politely. She took a small sip of her water, fearful that the waiter would scramble nearer again if it dipped below a certain level.

“Oh, yes, actually it’s kind of exciting,” Tiffany said, carefully avoiding Taeyeon’s gaze at first as she ran a hand through her hair. “I’ll be visiting one of my clients at a photoshoot. He’s going to be in a fitness magazine and he said it’s an open set. I figured it would be a good chance to get an angle on the image he’s developing when he presents his personal side.”

“You do that a lot for clients? Help them when they’re doing stuff like that – magazines, talk shows?”

“Definitely,” Tiffany said. This time she looked right at Taeyeon and smiled. “Celebrities have an unfortunate duality in their lives already – their personal and professional sides both lack privacy. But they have the ability to control this by introducing a third position; the professional personal image. This would be how they present themselves on talk shows, in interviews, magazine articles that are meant to show them in their natural habitat. Some even the reach the point where their casual grocery shopping appearances are heavily co-ordinated. They can show something that’s meant to look like them but hides the most personal sides of themselves, so I help them get the right style to match that image.”

“That’s an honourable pursuit,” Taeyeon ventured. “I’ve never understood how a famous person could possibly cope with the horror of modern media.”

“It’s a challenge. That’s another reason I found that journalist outside just now so off-putting. I’m not used to a stranger knowing where I’m going to be during the weekend. And I’m not planning to launch my own winter collection, so I guess I have to deal with baseless speculation already too.”

Taeyeon nodded in commiseration. With disappointment she spotted the waiter zipping towards them and realised she had been steadily and absently sipping her water until the glass was half empty. She sat through his tending with a tight smile and he reassured them their food would be ready soon. When he was gone again she let out a sigh and fiddled with the glass, turning it in her hands but not drinking from it.

“You should come with me.”

Taeyeon looked up. “What?”

“To the photoshoot,” Tiffany clarified. She didn’t blink much as she watched Taeyeon and it made it seem like she had a lot to say but didn’t say it.

“Really? Would I be allowed?”

“Sure, especially if it’s with me. I mean, you don’t have to tell them you’re a document controller,” Tiffany almost laughed, “but you can just tell them you’re my – my friend and it’ll be fine.”

Taeyeon nearly wondered why Tiffany seemed to say something else when she used the term ‘friend’, but she knew they both knew. Unlike when she introduced Taeyeon as her friend earlier, it was different when they were alone.

“Okay,” Taeyeon said. “I think I’d like that.”

The set itself wasn’t particularly interesting. Lacking in child-like naivety, Taeyeon knew it was just another workplace, and the people certainly reflected that. They were focussed and professional, except for a few hanging around the buffet table presumably gossiping. The celebrity in question was probably the guy posing in front of the camera. At least it was interesting to watch someone move around and stand with comparatively odd facial expressions for a few minutes. Celebrities on magazine covers always seemed to be trying hard to convey a look that was different from normal people. In Taeyeon’s mind it was amusing and annoying.

Tiffany talked her through some of the details of the photoshoot, telling her about the usual processes and pointing out the wardrobe section where various outfits were prepared. The photographer was not in the fashion industry but often took pictures for movies and TV. Tiffany related this to the action-packed image that a fitness magazine would capture.

Taeyeon nodded along, quietly impressed with how comfortable Tiffany seemed here. Strategizing about images and appearances was clearly her specialty, Taeyeon knew that, but seeing Tiffany analysing every aspect of the professional environment was incredibly attractive.

As soon as the photographer called for a twenty minute break, Tiffany squeezed Taeyeon’s hand and went over to her client.

Are you free to talk right now?

Taeyeon glared at her phone. She didn’t know why she was angry so suddenly but at the same time she knew it wasn’t the type of anger that had a specific reason or a particular direction. She was just mad at life, and the sight of a message from her sister rapidly brought this to the surface even here in the unfamiliar environment of a photoshoot. She swallowed it down.

Not through call, but text is okay. Is something wrong?

She stared at the open conversation, anticipating a quick response. Then she figured it might take her sister some time to type if it was a lengthy answer, so she lowered her arm and the phone dangled by her side. Her eyes swept over the room. Tiffany was chatting with her client as workers changed the set for the next round of photos. There was probably nothing in the way Tiffany’s hand rested on her client’s shoulder; Taeyeon wouldn’t assume that Tiffany wasn’t going to be interested in other people just because of their discussion, but at the very least she was certain Tiffany would never date a client.

Her hand had been on his shoulder for quite a while, though. Tiffany would probably never date a client but Taeyeon started thinking that maybe some friendly flirting was not entirely off the table. She shook her head at herself. Tiffany was a friendly person, and sometimes her behaviour would seem like flirting – but only to someone who assumed that just about any interaction was flirting. Taeyeon was being foolish. Not everything Tiffany did was flirtatious, otherwise she would have been flirting with that woman they ran into before lunch, too, and that was not a thought Taeyeon wanted to entertain.

The phone in her hand was still when she checked it. She sighed and looked around again.

“Well, hello again.”

Taeyeon spun around. She was hardly surprised to recognize the man. He was tucking a small roll of cash into the pocket of his suit. He grinned at her, and gestured at the people around them.

“Show business,” he said, as if in explanation. “It’s become a steady income. The employees in this industry get awfully stressed and need something to energize them from time to time when they work long hours. Greener pastures, remember? It’s much better here. Back home my biggest payers were the council members and that was a little too dicey even for me.”

Taeyeon glanced towards Tiffany, who was now talking with her client over by the wardrobe area. “Look, I’m not your friend or anything. I only went to your little dinner parties three times, it should hardly count.”

“Yeah, you sure did get out of that whole game pretty quick, didn’t you?” His voice was light with reminiscence. “Well, that’s all right. I could tell you never really liked it anyway. It’s smart. You could have ended up like every other deadbeat addict in that town if you didn’t stop yourself. Good for you – and I really do mean that.”

Taeyeon swallowed nervously. “So why do you keep talking to me? Just pretend you don’t know me.”

His smile was softer when he answered, “Honestly? You remind me of your brother.”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened. Her heart sank lower as her chest deflated. She stared at the man and he stared back.

“Well, what am I supposed to say to that?” she muttered.

He chuckled. “Nothing. It’s fine. I’m not going to try to be your friend or anything. But every now and then, if I run into you, maybe I’ll say hi. I’d say I’m sorry but I’m not, so I won’t.”

Taeyeon looked at her shoes, unsure of what to do. Then she shrugged and met his gaze again. “Fine. Whatever.”

“You miss him too?”

Taeyeon sighed. “I’ll let you say hi sometimes but we’re not going to talk about it.”

The expression on his face was enough, anyway. He knew she missed her brother without either of them having to say anything more.

“Speaking of which,” he continued after a beat, “I didn’t think there would be a chance that I’d run into you very often, but here you are. You work in this industry?”

“No,” she replied.

He seemed to accept that she would not be elaborating on that. “Okay, then. Maybe I’ll see you around. And a word of advice, or maybe a warning: one day you’ll have to face your past. That includes him.” He gave her a little wave before he walked away and called, “Bye, Taeyeon,” over his shoulder.

“Who was that?”

Again Taeyeon whirled around in surprise. Tiffany was approaching her, without her client. Reflexively Taeyeon wanted to clench her hands into fists when she heard the question and she was reminded of the phone in her hand. She shoved it into her pocket and plastered on an innocent expression.

“No one,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know. He was trying to make conversation.”

Tiffany raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. For the first time Taeyeon was struck with the possibility that Tiffany may have overheard part of the conversation. If she knew the man had called Taeyeon by her first name or what he said before he left, then her act was not only diminished by her lack of skill in lying. Luckily or unluckily, Tiffany chose not to pursue the matter.

“Shall we go? I’m done here,” said Tiffany, adjusting her grip on a folder in her hands.

“Sure.”

The ride back to Taeyeon’s car was mostly quiet. The phone in Taeyeon’s pocket seemed to burn a hole into her leg through her pants as Taeyeon thought about all the things that her sister could possibly want to talk to her about. She didn’t want to check with Tiffany sitting right next to her, but it distracted her enough to kill her ability to initiate conversation.

By the time they were standing next to her car in the dim light of the parking garage, Taeyeon was caught off guard when Tiffany tried to hug her. She automatically stepped back and raised her hands.

“Woah,” she squeaked, throat tight with shock.

Tiffany looked surprised, but stepped back and lowered her arms. “Oh…? Sorry, I didn’t….”

Taeyeon straightened up again. “No, I should apologize. I’m not good with stuff like that. I should have told you. I’m sorry.”

Tiffany’s lips twitched into an uncertain smile that Taeyeon could tell was mostly forced, even with good intentions.

“It’s okay. No hugs. I get it.”

“It’s not because of you or what we talked about,” Taeyeon said quietly.

Tiffany nodded without a word, but it was the kind of nod that carried the disappointment of not being given something she innocently wanted. Taeyeon shuffled her feet. She knew Tiffany didn’t have a cruel bone in her body and wouldn’t seek to purposely hurt her physically or emotionally, and that the way she reacted to the denial of a hug was not a manipulation. She repeated this thought a few times, and then she reached out to lightly take hold of Tiffany’s fingers with her own.

“I mean it. I’m not good with physical contact but I do feel safe with you,” she said. “I don’t even mind holding hands with you sometimes, like we’ve done today.” She stepped closer. “I know I already told you I need time, and this is part of that. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to keep saying sorry, Taeyeon,” Tiffany finally said. She looked at Taeyeon in a very determined way. “I understand.”

Taeyeon wondered if she was willing to try the hug again right now, but reminded herself of that important value of taking it slow, and slightly tightened her hold on Tiffany’s fingers instead.

“We…” she hesitated. “We live in different worlds. I’ve enjoyed getting to see more of yours, and you’re seeing more of mine. And I know you’re capable of understanding a lot about my world, just like I’m learning about yours with every moment I spend with you. So far, I’ve been quite surprised. But I like it.”

Tiffany blinked at her and the action showed that her eyelashes were long enough to touch the hair that was falling into her face. “I wasn’t sure if you enjoyed seeing the photoshoot, you seemed kind of bored.”

Taeyeon smiled sheepishly.

“But I know what you mean,” Tiffany added softly. She squeezed Taeyeon’s hand, and let go.

“Thank you.”

Again, Tiffany demonstrated her ability to leave Taeyeon with an earnest feeling in her mind. Something about her made Taeyeon sense a kind of happiness that she wasn’t entirely familiar with. Once Tiffany was gone and she was alone beside her car, she took a few slow breaths.

Her phone was heavy and warm in her hand, the light from the screen too bright in the darkness.

Why did you leave me?

Think Twice. (Part 3)

When Taeyeon knew she wasn’t going to sleep well, she liked to stay up all night. It was a lot easier. She had a different kind of energy on sleepless nights, as if there wasn’t any chance of being tired in the near future. Those nights felt like days.

What she especially enjoyed doing on sleepless nights was playing games. Despite the fact that her job already required spending a great deal of time staring at a computer screen, she developed a habit of getting a little drunk and listening to weird bass-heavy music with her headphones on while tapping away at her keyboard and occasionally forgetting to blink. And then she was able to see the dawn at the end of the night, which was always a nice sight.

Nothing spectacular. Just nice.

For the most part, this was a valued habit for Taeyeon. It was an easy way to accept the inevitable sleeplessness without feeling like she was avoiding sleep or having to overthink the situation. In many ways, that ritual saved her a lot of stress.

She wasn’t used to having someone talk to her during that time.

Now she was distracted by a noise from her phone. She frowned, staring at the simulated people on her computer, and paused the game. There was one new message from Tiffany.

are u alergic to anything

Taeyeon stared at the wall as she thought, and finally replied.

nuts

She barely resumed her game and managed to click once before Tiffany messaged her again.

do u like e eeel

Taeyeon took a few minutes to absorb the experience of talking to Tiffany like this. In the month since they’d exchanged numbers, they had mostly just called or texted brief messages like times and locations to meet up. She hadn’t yet had the opportunity to see this kind of communication.

It’s okay I guess

Only okay??

Taeyeon smiled, frowned, and went back to playing her game. The next messages came in a rapid series that Taeyeon almost ignored.

I’m making dinner for us 2morrow nite

If ur free

and iff thats ok

I mean I figured u dont have a bf

or gf

but srry if im wrong

Taeyeon’s eyebrows could hardly go any higher. She wondered where all of that was coming from. Was she right to think Tiffany had been checking her out? It might even mean Tiffany was not as straight as Taeyeon assumed.

Also, did that mean Tiffany was asking her on a date?

Taeyeon swallowed nervously. Dating was not something she spent much time on in the past. She had little interest in attempting to develop a relationship with someone when she had so much baggage, choosing instead to save from wasting time. Here and there she’d tried something casual but the lack of any serious growth led the flings to an early and unsatisfactory end. Even if Taeyeon were to attempt something more substantial, her own fears were bound to make progress so slow it was hardly worth making an effort.

She couldn’t even tell if Tiffany’s messages were as serious as she thought. Either Tiffany was drunk or she typed like that all the time and Taeyeon didn’t know which was applicable. After all, it was the middle of the night.

Choosing to ignore the separate layer of communication, she answered.

Sure I’m free. What time?

And just like that, she was going to have dinner with Tiffany as a maybe-date.

After their arrangements were made and the conversation ended, Taeyeon stared at her computer screen without focus. The game didn’t seem so interesting anymore. The clock on the wall showed her she still had five and a half hours before her alarm would go off. She weighed her options, knowing the faded attention to the game would leave her alone with her thoughts if she stayed awake. Heaving a sigh, she got up to check the medicine cabinet in her bathroom.

Taeyeon popped two sleeping pills into her mouth and turned on the tap, cupping her hand to gather some water which she then used to swallow with. She brushed her teeth, criticized her reflection, and went around making sure everything was locked. Once all the lights were off and she was lying in bed, she closed her eyes and regulated her breathing.

Her house was deathly silent; it wasn’t a surprise when her own voice echoed in her head after only a few minutes. There were a lot of memories to sift through, discussions she had to have in order to work things out, but in all her years Taeyeon never took the time to actually do it, and she wasn’t prepared to start now. It was better to count sheep.

Clenching her eyes tightly shut, Taeyeon tried to ignore herself.

An image of sheep appeared in her mind. They stood in an empty field of hyper-green grass. The sky was cloudy but some form of light came from somewhere and left it looking distorted. The sheep didn’t have anything to jump over, so Taeyeon pictured a low fence made of wood and figured it was accurate enough. The last time she’d actually seen a farm was when she still lived with her family. Her brother and sister had convinced her to leave the house without telling their parents, and they wandered along the highway for about an hour. Taeyeon remembered the way they teased each other. At one point she’d had to pull her sister back to the edge of the road when she drifted away from her brother’s tickling.

Something in Taeyeon’s memory flashed as she recalled the movement of turning her head rapidly to see if any cars were coming. Of course the road was deserted. Her cheeks were hot when her brother made fun of her for being so uptight, but she kept a dutiful eye out when he started spinning around in circles with his arms spread wide and laughed up at the sky.

Taeyeon walked that road again a few years later, but it was raining, it was dark, she was alone, and a big truck went slow beside her for a good deal of the distance. That time, there was no teasing, and she had only herself to keep out of danger despite all the moments when she almost let herself drift into the middle of the road. That would have been the last time she saw that place, but the night was black and she could barely lift her head as she stumbled.

When morning came, Taeyeon slapped her alarm harder than was really necessary. She tried to adjust to wakefulness, lying on her back with her arms spread wide, blinking at the ceiling. She remembered trying to count sheep, and something about a road, but the sleeping pills always left her hazy for a day after she used them and soon the dream dissolved.

One thing she couldn’t shake was the faint, sick feeling in her stomach.

She recalled the year she spent waking up like this. She figured the best way to get sleep despite the nightmares was to take pills that could guarantee unconsciousness. The year she spent regularly taking sleeping pills had become a vague and uncomfortable memory of twisted nights and muffled days, before she had decided it wasn’t good to keep taking them.

Taeyeon went through her morning routine; she spaced out when she was scrolling through her music library but finally chose something, and she stared at the eggs in her fridge for slightly longer than was strictly required. This time she had more than just eggs in her fridge, so she made breakfast and ate quickly, humming along to the song as she cleaned her dishes afterwards.

Settling down at her desk at last, she turned down the volume of the music but left it playing as she opened her emails. It usually took anywhere between thirty minutes to an hour for her to go through her emails, and since it was a Tuesday she had even more to sort through. Most of her clients managed to stay away from work over the weekend and took the Monday to get back into it. Because Taeyeon worked almost all the time including the weekend and the middle of the night, she was able to have some documents waiting for them when they returned to work, leaving messages for her to sort through the day after.

She liked the routine. It fit well with her solitary lifestyle. And if anyone ever thought it was particularly odd to be receiving emails from her at three o’clock in the morning, they never mentioned it.

It wasn’t until after midday that her reclusive routine had to be disturbed. She searched high and low but there wasn’t any paper in her house. Sighing, she evaluated the importance of the documents that needed printing, and eventually she dragged herself together and left her house.

By this stage of her job she already had a preference for what kind of paper was best. She’d only been a document controller for a couple of years, having started through an internship in her last year of study, and she didn’t have to print a lot during this digital age, but she liked to get things just right sometimes. Her job was painfully dull but it paid well and she could work from home. It was the best thing for her, enabling stabilization in her life.

After spending ten minutes tracking down the perfect paper, Taeyeon wandered down the bustling street to get back to the parking garage where her car was waiting. She figured people were heading back to work after their lunch break, so she was completely caught off guard when someone put a hand on her shoulder to pull her to a stop.

She slapped the hand away immediately, feeling her heart swell up in her throat as she almost choked in fright, her eyes wild and unfocussed when she turned to see who it was.

And then she froze.

“It is you!” The young man smiled, charming and handsome. “Fancy running into you here. I never thought I’d see you again.”

Taeyeon blinked. Her brain was dead from shock.

“Guess we both moved here, huh?” the man continued. He chuckled darkly. “Greener pastures got you interested, too? Say, what are you up to these days? I know it’s been a couple of years, but I always have room for you at the table.”

The table. It wasn’t a dining table, Taeyeon knew. It was a coffee table, average size, made of hardwood, which was apparently expensive but had been acquired at a great price. Back in her hometown, the table was in a lounge with a dark grey carpet. They’d have gatherings and he’d call them dinner parties, but he rarely served food.

No matter how old she became, Taeyeon would remember that table the way it was when she woke up the next morning, since her face was usually pressed against it in a way that left the smattering of discarded white powder right in front of her bleary gaze.

She cleared her throat. “You must have mistaken me for someone else.”

He raised an eyebrow. Briefly, he stepped aside to make room for someone to go past, and then he flashed that reptilian grin at her again. “Oh, so it’s like that? It’s okay, I know how it is. Everyone does this to me eventually. You only came to my dinner parties a few times but I never forget a face.” His grin widened. “And I’ll never forget you.”

He started to back away, and waved. She noticed his smart suit, shined shoes, and the deep redness of his tie. His hair was even slicked back.

“My number’s still the same,” he called out as he moved further away. “Give me a call anytime. Nice seeing you again, Taeyeon.”

So many regrets. Taeyeon made so many mistakes those first two years. It was a thrill and a horror to be on her own. Her choices were no longer over-controlled or dictated by the lives of others, so they became empty and seemingly inconsequential. She was timid at first but with every action she took she thought it was the meaning of freedom.

She bit her bottom lip so hard it was probably going to bruise. Her head stayed lowered as she went to her car, and she sat alone in the darkness of the parking garage for close to an hour.

There was only work for her when she got home. She threw herself into it, going above and beyond to complete her tasks to an unparalleled degree of perfection. Her music was loud and angry to match her energy. Any time her computer was too slow, she’d slap it a few times and have to take deep breaths to calm down. In her mind, struggling to be seen behind her work, there were memories; entirely too many memories, clamouring for attention, so she drowned them out as much as she could. Every now and then a stray insult would slip into her thoughts and she’d clench her jaw.

After a while, the alarm on her phone went off. She jumped, and rubbed her eyes as if she had to wake up. Dinner at Tiffany’s was in an hour.

Moving slowly, she closed everything on her computer and shut it down. Her footsteps took her to the window above the kitchen sink that overlooked the street. The metal in front of her felt warm from the summer heat as she leaned her palms against it and stared at the world outside. It was a nice neighbourhood. Even with that boy across the street and his problems, she could imagine staying here for a long time.

Thinking of that neighbour made her frown. If she were to settle here, there was a chance that eventually she’d feel obligated to help him somehow; especially when she was being eaten away by the guilt of abandoning her sister.

Taeyeon rolled her shoulders and stretched. She shook her head to loosen her mind, and went to take a shower, singing along to a Green Day song.

The first thing Tiffany asked her when she opened the door was, “So have you thought any more about getting a dog?”

Taeyeon paused. “Um, yeah I’ve thought about it. I’m still thinking about it.”

“Excellent. Come in, and if my dog ambushes you, just accept his kisses. He’s super friendly.”

“Good to know.”

Tiffany’s house had a similar layout to Taeyeon’s, as mentioned by Tiffany during their first meeting. What made it vastly different from Taeyeon’s was the effort put into the interior design. Taeyeon barely looked away from her computer screen and therefore didn’t care to put things on her walls or colour-coordinate her furniture. She didn’t even know for sure what most of her walls looked like. Tiffany, on the other hand, had taken the time to create a theme for her home that was warm and comforting and very smooth. Considering her career, it wasn’t really surprising, but Taeyeon still took a good look around in slight awe as Tiffany led her to the living room.

“Nice place,” she commented.

Tiffany glowed. “Thanks. I’ve been living here since I moved out of my dad’s house, so this is very much my space.”

“It suits you,” Taeyeon said. She smiled, and held up the bottle of wine in her hand. “I brought a gift, as I hear people with manners do. I wasn’t sure what you’d like but this seemed alright, so…”

“Oh, this is great,” Tiffany gushed, taking the bottle from her. “I love this wine. Should we drink some now? The food will be ready in a little while.”

Taeyeon shifted awkwardly. “Sure, that sounds great.”

As soon as Tiffany left to get glasses, Taeyeon shivered. So far it was going well but they’d only made small talk and she was steadily approaching the outer edge of her comfort zone. She tried her very hardest not to think about the possibility that this was an almost-date.

A small white dog barrelled into the room and collided with her legs, making her squeak in surprise. The dog yapped up at her, tongue flying out of his mouth, and hopped excitedly by her ankle.

“Ah, I see Prince has introduced himself,” said Tiffany, returning from the kitchen. “You’re welcome to pick him up, if you want. I know he’d love it. He doesn’t bite.”

Taeyeon glanced at Tiffany’s reassuring expression. Hesitantly, she crouched down, and the dog huffed at her. She reached out with one hand at first, and lightly petted him on the head. The dog looked like he was going to combust with joy, and she smiled at him. He clamoured into her arms when she picked him up. By the time she was standing again, he was snuggling into her chest.

The dog licked the underside of Taeyeon’s chin, and she caught Tiffany’s grin out of the corner of her eye.

“He loves you already,” Tiffany observed. She placed the glasses on the coffee table between them and began opening the wine. “Dogs like him are very energetic. They can improve moods so easily with their optimism.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows, but said nothing. The dog wriggled in her grasp and she looked at him. Were dogs even capable of smiling?

When Tiffany held out a glass to Taeyeon, she lowered the dog to the ground and he skittered away.

“Does he need a lot of attention?” Taeyeon wasn’t sure if she was just making conversation or if she was seriously considering getting a dog like that for herself.

“A fair amount,” Tiffany replied. She gestured for Taeyeon to sit down and they settled on the couch. “I take him for a walk twice day and he has several toys. Chew toys are particularly important. I’ve had him since he was a puppy and he wrecked an entire couch before I realized the value of a chew toy.”

Taeyeon hummed in acknowledgement, taking a sip of her wine. “I’d be worried about electrical cables if I had a dog that was compelled to chew on everything.”

Tiffany nodded. “I can see that. You practically live on technology. But there are ways to protect your cables.”

Taeyeon felt self-conscious that Tiffany knew she spent so much time on her computer. It wasn’t exactly hard to find out, since her job required it, but she rubbed the back of her neck bashfully and looked away briefly.

When she looked back, Tiffany was just watching her. The expression on her face seemed faintly wistful and her eyes held a spark of fondness.

Taeyeon cleared her throat. “What?”

Tiffany shrugged one shoulder lightly. “I don’t know. You’re cute when you’re being shy.”

Taeyeon felt her nerves erupt and she almost choked on her own saliva. Desperate for some kind of shift, she took a longer sip of her wine. Tiffany laughed once, before setting her own glass on the coffee table and heading towards the kitchen.

“I’ll check on the food,” she called over her shoulder.

There was still no confirmation that it was a maybe-date. A comment like that definitely nudged it more in that direction, but Taeyeon was holding firmly to the belief that it wasn’t like that. She wasn’t sure why; Tiffany was fantastic, and one date couldn’t hurt. Taeyeon was hardly relationship material and she lacked experience with advanced social situations like dates, but she would be capable of handling one evening. Except she had no idea what she was feeling and that left her lost.

Tiffany was more than fantastic, and Taeyeon was certain of that even when they hadn’t known each other for very long. Tiffany was an undeniable source of light in a pressing darkness. She was almost too good to be true. Taeyeon was a little scared of her because she seemed so good that Taeyeon felt like shrivelling up in a ball and hiding every bad thing about herself. But at the same time, Tiffany was welcoming and accepting. She definitely seemed like the kind of person that would comfort anyone in a heartbeat.

This brought Taeyeon to another thought.

What if she finally allowed herself to trust someone again and that person was Tiffany?

She had to take a deep breath, realizing her lungs had been inactive while she was thinking. She glanced towards the kitchen, hearing the sounds of plates and cutlery, and pulled herself together. It was still only a maybe-date and Taeyeon was already strategizing as if they were going to end up getting married.

She scoffed at herself, drained her glass, and went to see if she could help Tiffany with anything.

Halfway into their meal, seated at the dining table with food-related compliments out of the way, Tiffany tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and made deliberate eye contact with Taeyeon.

“So, you never really responded when I mentioned your boyfriend or girlfriend,” said Tiffany. “Are you single?”

Taeyeon swallowed her mouthful of food so hard it felt as if the earth was being tugged down her throat. Tiffany looked thoughtful.

“Um,” she started. “Yeah, I’m single.”

Tiffany was still watching her.

“Don’t have a girlfriend,” Taeyeon clarified, “and won’t ever have a boyfriend.”

This made Tiffany smile. “Good. I mean, that’s cool. Well, not like it’s cool that you’re single or that you’re into girls, but I mean it’s cool…” She seemed to realize the circular nature of her speech and stopped.

Taeyeon returned her smile as well as she could, and immediately looked at her plate again. Tiffany didn’t let the silence linger for long.

“Okay, I feel like I should be totally honest with you,” she said.

Her cutlery came to rest on her plate and she leaned forward. She placed her elbows on the table and Taeyeon’s head echoed with the memory of a sharp rebuke at the behaviour. Their gazes met.

“I’m really interested in you,” said Tiffany, her expression serious. “I want to get to know you better. We’ve been hanging out and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. So much, in fact, that I’ve been thinking that we could be really great together. You know, together. I’d like to date you.”

Taeyeon wasn’t sure if her heart stopped beating or if she just couldn’t tell because of how numb she suddenly became.

So it definitely was a maybe-date.

“I’m not oblivious,” Tiffany continued, once her previous words had sunk in. “I can tell you’re reserved and there are certain topics of discussion that won’t go far. You’re carrying a lot of hurt around and I completely understand that it’s not something we can talk about at this stage. But I want to know more about you.”

Taeyeon braced herself, moving words to the tip of her tongue.

“So we can keep hanging out just as friends,” said Tiffany. “We don’t have to be dating or anything. I just want you to know how I’m feeling and tell you there are… options available here.”

The words faded from Taeyeon’s mouth. She gritted her teeth as she tried to organise her thoughts. Tiffany looked at her expectantly, but what she said was sincere, Taeyeon could tell. No matter how Taeyeon were to respond to this, Tiffany would be absolutely accepting.

“Well,” Taeyeon said. She swallowed. “I’d like for us to be friends.”

As expected, Tiffany’s face fell but she immediately tried to hide her disappointment.

“I like you,” Taeyeon added, quietly. “I like you a lot. I mean, not all my feelings towards you are strictly platonic.”

She turned her stare to the table. There was no way she could keep looking at Tiffany.

“You’re right, I was hurt badly in the past and it’s left me with a lot of damage,” she admitted. “I’m trying to change. I want to have a good life. And it’s sort of a no-brainer that you’d be able to provide some good in my life. But I can’t…. I can’t move fast.”

“It’s okay.” Tiffany’s voice was soft, tender, and Taeyeon could imagine she was on the verge of reaching out but deliberately holding herself back.

They looked at each other again. Some of the warmth from Tiffany’s gaze settled in Taeyeon’s heart.

This would stay a maybe-date, and Taeyeon was certain now that everything they did would be drifting that line between friends and everything that lay beyond. That knowledge terrified her, and intrigued her.

If she could hold herself together for long enough, maybe her life really would become better.

Think Twice. (Part 2)

Taeyeon found it only fitting to use Deep Purple’s music for her morning routine. The new floors were smooth and the hallway had enough room for her air guitar as she slide-danced her away through the house. Another good thing about this area was the fact that the houses were far enough apart that she could blast her music as loud as she wanted without anticipating banging against the wall from disgruntled neighbours.

And there was the fact that she was free to do whatever the hell she wanted.

As the song switched, she pretended she knew how to play the drums and turned the corner into her kitchen with arms flailing. When she found the same two eggs in her fridge, she promptly spun around and swept back to her bedroom. If she got ready fast enough she could get some better breakfast before her morning meeting.

Most of her professional clothes were still crumpled from the move, but she managed to straighten them out well enough to look presentable.

Taeyeon hated meetings. Some of the more bureaucratic clients especially liked to make meetings unnecessarily long and complicated. Business talk got boring fast. But there were bills to be paid so Taeyeon shrugged at her reflection in the mirror, pulled a face, and almost sped out the front door without her shoes.

As an afterthought, she went back inside and turned off the music, too.

She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel absently and thought about how differently she would have behaved just a few years ago. Depending on which year she chose to think about, she’d either be remembering someone too scared to make any noise or someone too reckless to care. She clicked her tongue and started the car, trying to focus on the street in front of her driveway.

The random moments of contemplation were becoming more frequent as she got older. It had yet to happen while she was in a meeting, but often when she was working at home she would spend several long minutes staring into space. One day it could end up harming her productivity, but she shrugged it off anyway, because she spent so much time alone there wasn’t really any need to work fast.

And apparently thinking about not paying attention made her not pay attention, so she almost rammed into a car and figured she came close to stamping a hole through the floor of the car with the force she used to step on the brake.

It was the kid from across the street. He stared wide-eyed at her through his windshield, and Taeyeon knew that look. It wasn’t the shock of being in a car that just got hit by another car. It was the fear of facing punishment.

Taeyeon got out of her car hurriedly, the clumsy action of clambering past the door making her twist her wrist uncomfortably. When she reached the boy’s car, she tapped on the window impatiently before telling herself to slow down so she didn’t scare him further.

With trepidation, he let the window down, his mouth already moving to speak. Taeyeon had no doubt the apologies would be profuse, but she cut him off.

“Are you all right? I’m so sorry for hitting your car, I completely spaced out, which was really irresponsible of me.” Taeyeon swallowed her nerves and hoped her contrite expression was making the kid feel better and not worse. “I hope the impact wasn’t too rough on you.”

He blinked at her for a slow moment. “No I’m- I’m okay, thanks. It was probably my fault, sorry, I always make mistakes when I’m driving, I –”

“No, no, it’s not your fault at all!” Taeyeon said. She held up her hands in as placating a manner as she could manage while trying not to shake. “This one’s definitely on me. I got lost in my thoughts and didn’t pay attention to the road. I’m really sorry, I could have hurt you.”

He was frowning now, and he looked like he wanted to throw up. Taeyeon knew he still felt responsible but her behaviour was making it hard for him to form words. She stepped back and pointed at her watch.

“Anyway, I’ve got to get going. I’ll reverse back into my driveway and then you can go first, how’s that? If there’s any damage to your car, just let me know and I’ll pay for repairs, all right?”

She turned on her heel and got back into her car, doing as she said she would. The boy didn’t look at her as he awkwardly adjusted the positioning of his car, and the speed at which he left the street made it look as if he was expecting something to crush the back of his car at any moment. Taeyeon could picture giant steel jaws clamping down on the kid as he drove away, formed by his own guilt and dread.

Her head lowered automatically with the thought. She closed her eyes and focussed on her breathing. Eight seconds of inhalation, three seconds of pause, and eight seconds of exhalation. The only other sound in her car was the ticking of her wristwatch, and slowly she put her hands on the steering wheel again.

The incident with the cars didn’t take up much time, so Taeyeon still went to get breakfast when she reached the corporate district. She ran a finger over her mouth as she stared at the food in front of her, and her stomach suddenly felt like a solid wall of flesh. After trying to convince herself that it was worth it to eat, she abandoned the attempt. She was ten minutes late to the meeting.

The client wasn’t alone. His boss, the owner of the franchise chain, gave her a stern look and spent five minutes harassing her for being late. She knew before the real business was even discussed that this guy didn’t like the fact that she had been hired to be the document controller for this branch. Whether it was because she was a freelancer, a woman, or didn’t have as much experience as he preferred, she didn’t know, but these were the problems she had prepared herself for when she started the job.

They went over the documents, the schedules, and the upcoming general annual meeting for which Taeyeon needed to edit and approve the agenda and annual report input for the branch, and then the boss glared at her really hard before he let her leave.

She rolled her eyes when she was out of sight. Grown men were so childish.

In the safety of her car, Taeyeon tossed her folder onto the backseat and unbuttoned her blouse to near the point of indecency. She hated wearing office clothes. She got away with keeping it simple but it made her feel stiff and choked no matter how soft the fabric was.

She hummed along to a pop song on the radio as she eased her car along the near-empty streets to get home. Most of the work and school crowd had made their way through the city. Her window was down and she rested an arm half out the door, creating a breeze with her steady speed.

The humming progressed to whistling by the time she got home, and she was almost about to sing along with the chorus as she looked over her shoulder to back the car into the driveway – but then Tiffany Hwang popped up next to her window and she yelped in fright.

“Holy fu- fish sticks, where did you come from?”

Tiffany laughed and raised her eyebrows. “From across the street. I guess you didn’t see me since you were looking behind you.”

Taeyeon put a hand over her heart and started to make a joke. Then she noticed how Tiffany’s eyes followed the movement of her hand and lingered on her chest. In that split second she recalled the fact that her shirt was unbuttoned and Tiffany could most likely see her cleavage from that angle. With as much smoothness as she could muster in the wave of panic that flared up, she shifted her hand to cover a little more of her chest and cleared her throat nervously.

Tiffany’s gaze moved back up and she smiled. “So, what’s your schedule like for the rest of the day? Are you free for lunch later?”

For a brief moment Taeyeon let herself be confused; she wondered if Tiffany really just checked her out, and then she shelved her curiousity for later. “Um, sure, I’m free. My schedule is usually pretty flexible. What did you have in mind?”

“Well, today is my regular day off, and I always have ice cream on my day off. It just so happens there’s an amazing Italian restaurant next to my favourite ice cream place. How does that sound to you?”

Tiffany was leaning against the car now, smiling through the window at Taeyeon, and she crossed her arms just below her chest.

Taeyeon stared with much terror at Tiffany’s face. There was no way she would let herself get caught ogling her neighbour’s chest, but it was right in front of her and with the way she was standing and that shirt – Taeyeon coughed.

“Sure, that sounds great. What time were you thinking?”

“How about one o’clock? I’ll come get you.”

“Great. Awesome. Um, I’ll see you then.”

Tiffany grinned. “See you later, Taeyeon.”

Taeyeon kept staring at Tiffany all the way up until she disappeared into her own house. She shook her head at herself and murmured, “Was I being weird or was she being weird?”

The arrangement left her enough time to get some work done, so she settled at her desk in more casual clothes and opened all the relevant documents. She gazed at the screen for half an hour, daydreaming about commercial space travel, then she altered the formatting of the document in precise detail, and finally she spent an hour soaking up cat videos on the internet. She was smiling at a fat cat sleeping on its back when her smartphone started vibrating.

Frowning, she checked the display. The sight of an unknown number made her hesitate and bite her bottom lip, but eventually she steeled herself and answered it.

“Hello?

“Hey, it’s me. I haven’t heard from you for a while, how’s it going?”

Taeyeon swallowed hard. “How did you get my new number?”

“From that friend of yours. The really tall one. How come you changed it?”

“It was just time for a change. Did you need something?”

The voice on the other end chuckled. “No, of course not. I just wanted to hear what my big sister’s been up to. No one knows where you are these days, have you been busy with work?”

Taeyeon thought about how she spent the past month moving to another city, only told a few people about it, and did the bare minimum amount of work. “Yeah, I’ve been super busy. It’s that time of year, you know, companies are changing over to the new tax year. Lots of paperwork.”

“Well, that’s too bad. We should get together sometime and have coffee. Mother’s been asking about you.”

Taeyeon hesitated for as long as she dared. “Oh, is that so? Well, I guess you can let her know I’ve been busy. Um, I’m not sure when I’ll be free, but I’ll give you a call. I have to go now, okay? Let me know if you need anything. Any time. Love you, bye.”

She hung up before her sister could reply. Her fingers tightened around the phone in her hand, and she felt her palms getting clammy. Through the heavy thudding of her heartbeat, she tried to take deep breaths.

It was a stupid idea to avoid giving her new number to her sister when she moved. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her that she was moving, but hearing her voice made her feel like a bad sister. She wanted to be there if anything happened, and to help her, but instead she ran away without a word.

When she closed her eyes, she thought about the call. Her sister sounded so young on the phone. Small and frail. She was just a kid, even though she was almost done with high school. Maybe she was tired and that was why she sounded a little weak. Taeyeon probably sounded the same at her age.

Leaving her sister behind was a cowardly thing to do, and she felt it more now than ever.

She contemplated her options. For a moment she was seriously considering going back, just for her sister, but there was no way she could be in that place anymore. It would nullify the years she spent sleeping on friends’ couches while she studied and worked. She fought to get away, and finally she was completely gone. Maybe she should have taken her sister with her, but she knew her sister wasn’t ready for that.

“You’re pathetic, Taeyeon,” she whispered to herself.

There was a substantial weight in her chest. She had no idea how long she stayed sitting there, thinking and feeling, but it was long enough that she was shaken by the sound of her doorbell.

She blinked in the direction of the door. It was time for lunch with Tiffany. She took quick breaths. When she looked at her phone again, she saved the unfamiliar number under her sister’s name. Then she jumped up and went to meet Tiffany.

“Hey there. You ready to go?”

Taeyeon returned the smile and locked the door behind her. “Let’s go.”

Lunch with Tiffany turned out to be as comfortable as the evening they spent together the day before. Taeyeon managed to make a few jokes about her work that garnered sincere laughs from Tiffany, and the food was easy to eat. It didn’t take long for the phone call to be pushed to the back of her mind. It might have had something to do with the brightness of Tiffany’s expression, the excitement in her voice as she told stories about her career and her life, and the way she flicked her hair back every now and then.

“I don’t think I have much of a knack for fashion,” Taeyeon said, shaking her head. “I don’t get how it’s considered stylish to buy ripped-up jeans for hundreds of dollars. Or anything for hundreds of dollars, really. It’s insane.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” Tiffany answered, rolling her eyes. She kept a hand in front of her mouth as she chewed, which amused Taeyeon, before she continued. “I always tell my clients that they don’t need to fall for that trap. Just because something costs hundreds of dollars doesn’t mean it’s better than everything else. Especially that ‘distressed’ look where the clothes are meant to look well-worn already. They don’t make the prices high because the material is superior. I want my clients to have an outfit that lasts, so I get them to look for the lower-cost, better-quality stuff.”

“You take good care of them,” Taeyeon commented. She shifted her cutlery around on her empty plate. “No wonder you’re so successful. Your clients must appreciate your attitude.”

Tiffany looked shy for a moment, but Taeyeon could tell she took pride in her success.

“I think they’ve gotten used to people assuming that they should spend a lot of money just because they have a lot of money. But if there’s one thing I learned from my father, it’s the importance of being smart with finances. Even celebrities can get a lot of value from a good bargain and a worthwhile investment.”

Taeyeon smiled and it was only a little strained. “Good advice.” She saw Tiffany’s plate was empty and said, “So, how about that ice cream?”

Tiffany’s favourite ice cream place had a variety of chocolate-laced flavours, which pleased Taeyeon immensely, and she was already absorbed in her treat when Tiffany led them to the nearby riverside to walk while they ate.

“I hope I’m not keeping you from your work for too long,” Tiffany said as they ambled along the path.

Taeyeon glanced at her watch. They’d been out for two hours. She was surprised, but not particularly concerned. “It’s okay. I was mostly watching cat videos. I can just work tonight.”

“Where did you live before you moved here?”

Taeyeon spent a moment consuming her ice cream. It was inevitable that Tiffany would ask more questions about her, since she already learned about Tiffany’s family – one business-owner brother, one forensics-student sister, one retired-CEO father, one deceased mother, one cat who ran away, and one small dog – as well as the book Tiffany was currently reading, and the fact that her car was making a weird noise but she couldn’t be bothered taking it to a shop.

“A small town a couple of hours away,” Taeyeon said eventually. “Well, I lived with a friend on the other side of town here but that was only for a few weeks while I looked for a place and found new clients.”

She felt Tiffany’s gaze on the side of her face but she ignored it and focussed on her ice cream.

“Do you have any pets?”

Taeyeon shook her head.

“Don’t like them or just didn’t have the time?” Tiffany ventured as she finished her ice cream, wiping her hands on her denim shorts and licking her lips.

Taeyeon paused. “Never really settled long enough, I guess. It wouldn’t be fair to the pet.”

Tiffany nodded in acknowledgement. Taeyeon could almost see the gears working in her head as she considered the next question.

“You should get a dog,” Tiffany said eventually. She turned to walk backwards so that she could give Taeyeon a grin. “Something small, like my Prince Fluffy.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows briefly. “I’ll think about it.”

Tiffany stopped walking, her expression softening into something less playful. Taeyeon could almost read it in her eyes. Concern, sympathy, hesitation; it was like she wanted to say a lot of things but was willing to say nothing at all if that was what was necessary. They stared at each other.

“You should come meet him some time,” Tiffany murmured. “My dog, I mean. You can get to know what he’s like and see if it’s what you want.”

Taeyeon tilted her head. Get to know the dog? Sure, she could do that. But figure out what she wanted – that was something completely different, and right now it had nothing to do with any dog.

Tiffany was really pretty.

“I think that would be great,” said Taeyeon.

Maybe if she got a dog, it would help her sleep better.

Or Tiffany.

Not that she was really likely to get either.

Think Twice. (Part 1)

On the first day in her new house, Taeyeon saw one neighbour and heard another. The first was a young woman around her age, smiling at her as she hopped into her car, clearly on the way to work. She seemed happy and comfortable, and Taeyeon took this as a sign that the neighbourhood was not immediately dangerous. She couldn’t help but notice the way the young woman glanced appreciatively at the shirtless (male) furniture movers as they stepped out of the truck, and she sighed at the likelihood that maybe she wouldn’t have a lot in common with that particular neighbour.

The second neighbour she encountered that morning was a middle-aged woman who looked harried as she opened the door for a courier. She signed and stood staring at the package in her hand for several minutes. Then she turned and shouted something into the house. She kept yelling as she closed the door behind her, and Taeyeon ended up having to share an awkward look with one of the movers as her screaming echoed in the background of their activities.

A mixed beginning to her new life.

Part of her was afraid to enter the new house. She’d seen it before but the viewing had lasted little more than ten minutes. All she’d wanted to check was the bedrooms and the facilities. Everything was there, so she double-checked the rent and filled out an application. That same day her application was approved, two days later she paid the deposit, and less than a week after that she stood in the sweltering summer heat hoping the movers wouldn’t drop her computer, listening to the sounds of her angry neighbour.

When the sun was reaching its peak, she handed a sweaty man her credit card and waited as he processed the payment. Across the street and to the right, the door to the screaming woman’s house slammed open and a dishevelled teenage boy hurried out to the car in the driveway. He seemed to fumble with the keys, which made him scratch the door. He paused, and then cursed loudly, hitting himself on the side of the head with the heel of his palm repeatedly. Taeyeon frowned. She watched as he seemed to calm himself down and get into the car. As he drove away, she tried to catch a look at his face, but couldn’t see anything. His car turned a corner and he was gone.

She realised her credit card was hovering just below her nose and blinked at it. With a nervous smile, she took her card and receipt from the man and they said their goodbyes. She remained standing beside her new mailbox as the truck left.

She thought about the neighbours she’d seen, and wondered what kind of place her new home would be.

A cat wandered over from across the street. Following the direction it came from, Taeyeon could see two more cats lounging in the now empty driveway of the screaming neighbour’s house. The one at her feet peered up at her and allowed a chin scratching. Taeyeon watched as it turned and went back to its house. At least the screaming lady’s cats seemed nice.

It took her most of the afternoon to figure out where to put everything. In the end she had to move three bookcases and her desk, and she had to reassemble her bed. She figured it was a good arrangement but the heap of boxes in the corner threatened to change the situation as they revealed their contents. And, since she was thinking about it, the corner where the boxes currently stood would be better for that one bookshelf anyway. She squinted at the boxes, knowing it would be a lot of work, and went to the kitchen instead.

Taeyeon didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but she was a decent cook – in the sense that the slightly-below-average meals she was capable of creating weren’t immediately poisonous. Therefore she had only the bare basics a kitchen required, and she had a basically bare kitchen. Everything fit well into the drawers and cupboards, her fridge held two eggs and three cans of beer, and she was done unpacking that area of the new house in less than ten minutes.

She went out of the kitchen and looked at the boxes again.

It was nearing four o’clock in the afternoon, she was hot and sweaty and tired, and she didn’t want to have a measly egg-and-beer dinner (again). So instead of beginning the immense task of unpacking what seemed like hundreds of boxes when she’d only just finished packing them the night before, she took the time to make sure her internet connection was working, set up her laptop, and ordered pizza online.

As she waited for the delivery, she listened to her movie-soundtrack playlist in the background and skimmed through the news of the day. More wars, more problems, more politics, more humans, more science, more entertainment – oh, wait. She clicked on the entertainment section, leaning closer to the screen as she skimmed one of the articles.

Tiffany Hwang. This was apparently the name of the young woman who she saw that morning. Tiffany Hwang, local fashion consultant, aged twenty-six, and on the list of up-and-coming industry-changing entrepreneurs. Taeyeon knew this because some significant fashionista posted an Instagram dedication to Tiffany for saving her from a styling disaster at a recent nightclub opening, and this made the news because… well, it made the news, and now Taeyeon knew the name of her neighbour and felt immediately pressured.

They had only briefly made eye-contact that morning; it would be simple to ignore her from that point onwards. Taeyeon took a deep breath. There was no need to prepare for any kind of socializing. She looked at the boxes in the corner to remind herself that she would be stuck in her new house for the weekend, getting everything unpacked.

The doorbell rang and she had to think for a moment before deciding the unfamiliar noise was definitely coming from her front door. She grabbed her wallet and slid along the wooden flooring of the hallway on her socks. She almost slammed into the door but caught herself just in time – and then still lost her balance and fell against the wall. Having taken a few breaths to settle down again, she opened the door already feeling nervous but primed to receive pizza and small talk.

“Tiffany Hwang,” was not what she intended to say, or what she expected to say, but it was a knee-jerk reaction because that was the name of the person standing in front of her door.

Tiffany, who was smiling, frowned slightly. “Hi. Sorry, I didn’t expect you to already know me.”

Taeyeon winced, feeling her insides crinkle with embarrassment. “Um, I don’t. Not really. I just – I was just looking through the news and there was an, um, article about you.”

Tiffany’s expression became disappointed for a moment before going blank. “Oh. Well, I thought I’d come say hello and welcome you to the neighbourhood, since I noticed you this morning on the way to work. Nice to meet you…?” She held out a hand politely, smiling again.

Taeyeon wiped her palms hurriedly on her shorts before completing the handshake. “I’m Taeyeon. I just moved here today.” She froze. “Well, you already knew that. I mean, it’s, I – nice to meet you. Tiffany.”

Tiffany kept smiling for a while as they ended the handshake, then she looked down briefly. When she met Taeyeon’s eyes again, she said sincerely, “Look, I hope it doesn’t freak you out. Reading an article about me and then meeting me. I’m nothing special, and I’m your neighbour who wants to welcome you to the community. Please don’t feel awkward around me?”

Before Taeyeon could respond, the loud screeching of brakes came as a beat-up car stopped in front of her driveway. They watched as the delivery boy clambered out, reached back in to bring out the pizza, and practically sprinted up to her door.

“Hi, is this yours?” he gasped, out of breath, almost colliding into Tiffany on the doorstep.

Taeyeon eyed him. “Probably. Keep the change.”

He grabbed the money she held out, shoved the pizza at her, and raced back to his car. When he was gone, tires squealing in the distance, Taeyeon looked at Tiffany again.

“I don’t want you to think I’m being awkward because of the article thing,” Taeyeon said quickly. “It’s kind of intimidating to meet someone even semi-famous, but mostly I’m just awkward all the time anyway. I don’t want to make a bad impression, but would you like to come in and have some pizza?”

As much as she disliked impromptu socializing, Taeyeon was able to recover from the shock eventually. Tiffany seemed nice, and it was kind of her to come over. She clearly had good intentions and Taeyeon didn’t want to make her feel bad.

Taeyeon felt this was the right decision, as they sat on her couch surrounded by boxes and bags, sharing a pizza and listening to the birds outside through the wide open windows. It turned out Tiffany was very easy to talk to, aside from her usual nervousness, and soon Taeyeon didn’t feel intimidated at all.

Besides, the way Tiffany ate her pizza was kind of cute.

“So what made you choose this neighbourhood?” asked Tiffany, delicately wiping the corner of her mouth with her thumb after taking a bite.

“Closer to work,” Taeyeon said. “And there’s that fruit and vegetable shop nearby, too. I don’t cook a lot but it would be nice to get my food from anywhere other than the supermarket.”

Tiffany raised her eyebrows as she nodded in agreement. “I know what you mean. I’ve cut my grocery costs down by almost a third since I moved here. Where do you work?”

“I’m a freelance document controller. This place is closer to the corporate district where I have meetings with clients.”

Tiffany stopped eating and stared at Taeyeon. The silence made Taeyeon look up and she blushed when she realised.

“I know, it sounds boring, right? I edit, audit, and organise company documents for a bunch of businesses in the city.”

“No, that’s actually pretty cool, Taeyeon.” Tiffany grinned. “I didn’t even know a job like that existed.”

Taeyeon smiled slightly. “Well, companies have a way to make a job out of just about anything. Your job seems really cool. Working with celebrities must be interesting.”

Tiffany shrugged, reaching for another slice of pizza. “It’s alright. They’re people, really, so for the most part they’re normal clients. Some of them can be rather eccentric but I love the work. It’s so enjoyable to create and develop a style for a person and have that image presented to others who are interested. It’s always been a passion of mine. I’ve just finally reached a point where I can do it for a living.”

Something about the way Tiffany was talking about her passion was enchanting. Taeyeon watched her, chewing absently on her food, and found herself in awe.  Because of this, she didn’t think of anything to say in reply, and the resulting silence prompted Tiffany to change the subject.

“I notice you don’t have a lot of boxes,” she remarked, eyeing the piles around them.

Taeyeon’s eyes widened. “Really? You don’t think this is a lot? Just thinking about how long it will take to unpack all this stuff makes me break out in a sweat.”

Tiffany laughed. “Well, I meant relatively speaking. This has got to be less than half of what I had when I moved.”

Taeyeon finished her slice of pizza thoughtfully. “Yeah… I don’t really have a lot of stuff, I guess. I like to keep it light.”

“So that you’re ready to make a quick getaway no matter where you live,” Tiffany said playfully, raising an eyebrow.

Taeyeon knew she was only teasing, but she could only manage a tight, uncomfortable smile in response. She cleared her throat. “In case I ever decide to rob a bank, you know. Better to be prepared for anything.”

At least it made Tiffany laugh. Taeyeon stood, wiping her hands on her shorts, and quickly started cleaning up the mess. Tiffany took the signal and got up to help.

“Oh, it’s fine,” Taeyeon said immediately, holding out a hand. “I can get this. You’re my guest.”

“And in my view, a guest should help clean up,” Tiffany countered smoothly, and collected their used glasses. “It’s not much, anyway.”

Taeyeon squirmed for a moment, habitually opposed to the idea of letting someone else clean up. But she took a quick breath and followed Tiffany out of the living room, watching as her guest found the kitchen without any trouble.

“Your house is kind of similar to mine,” Tiffany commented over her shoulder. “Your kitchen is in the same place.”

“Oh, are the houses around here all similar?”

“I don’t know a lot of the other neighbours very well,” Tiffany admitted as she reached the sink. “But I would imagine the houses have a lot in common since they were built around the same time, and mostly not custom-designed.”

“Why do I get the feeling you tried to get to know the neighbours and it only didn’t work because they weren’t interested?”

Tiffany smiled. “What gave it away? You’re right. After I moved in I went around a couple of times, and I ran into some of them on the way to work. They’re great at being polite but it’s not hard to tell they don’t want to make friends.”

Taeyeon leaned a hip against the edge of the stove, keeping a solid distance from Tiffany. “That’s too bad. You seem like a really good friend to have.”

The remark made Tiffany look down shyly and tuck her hair behind her ear. “Thanks. The people around here… I guess they have a lot of other things going on in their lives.”

Taeyeon thought of the boy she’d seen this morning, and she bit her bottom lip as she considered asking about that. She wasn’t one to gossip, but there was clearly something going on in the neighbourhood and it had Tiffany skirting around the issue. She made a split second decision that she didn’t want to get involved in other people’s problems. Moving here was a chance to keep her head down and stay out of trouble as she stabilized her life. Considering the fact that she had a strong suspicion of what exactly was going on with her neighbours, there were a hundred reasons for her to keep to herself.

She straightened up, putting her hands in her pockets. “Well, thanks for coming over to say hi. I appreciate that you took the time to welcome me. I think I’m going to like it here.”

Tiffany examined her for a moment, as if to make sure she meant it sincerely, before replying warmly. “That’s good. I hope I’ll see you around.”

As Taeyeon walked her to the door and watched her cross the street to her own house, the sinking feeling in her chest told her she certainly would be seeing a lot of Tiffany Hwang.

With no intention of doing any actual work for the rest of the night, Taeyeon curled up on her new couch and watched movies on her laptop. There was no better way to relax than with a good movie and a good drink. Taeyeon could spend weeks or years just watching movies, getting caught up in the stories and the way the film-makers created emotional environments, soaking up every moment of the display. It was almost like meditation for her. A way to escape her life and her thoughts, fully focused on a film, letting her breathe steady.

And yet, despite the calming end to the evening, she still ended up crouched on her cold bathroom floor at a later, hellish hour; barely able to move.

Taeyeon clutched at the edge of the sink and pulled herself up to stand. She took deep, gulping breaths and tried not to throw up again. The queasy feeling wouldn’t go away no matter how hard she swallowed, so she closed her eyes tightly and willed her mind to calm down.

The physical illness she felt was just a reaction to her mental state, she reminded herself. Nightmares for her were more than just dreams; a mesh of memories and pain that made her feel sick. Disgusted. Anxious. She leaned forward slightly, keeping her eyes shut, and spat roughly into the sink. She wanted to get that vile taste out of her mouth, out of her mind. When she opened her eyes, she could feel the tears welling up. Soon she would cry, curled up into a ball. Eventually the morning would come and life would go on.

Her eyes in the mirror were bloodshot and glistening. She absently wiped a hand over her face, touching wetness on her lips that made her grimace again. The tap squeaked as she turned it, but the water was cold and clean; a welcome sensation on her clammy skin. She blew a breath into her fingers, clutching at her mouth. With the cool liquid settling her warm face, she felt the nausea recede slowly. Her eyes fluttered shut again, briefly, and a tear joined the droplets along her cheekbones.

After she sobbed for a while and cleaned up her mess, Taeyeon dragged her feet back to her bed. She flopped face down on the sheets, and achingly turned her head to look at her alarm clock. It was 3:09am.

She tapped a few of its buttons to make sure it was set to go off in three hours and twenty-one minutes, and then she settled down again and closed her eyes. The blankets she left half-off, her body still echoing with panic and smothering.

A heavy sigh rattled all the way through her chest from her bones. Eventually, she dozed, thinking about how she would strive to change her life now that she was truly free.