When she arrives back in Seoul, it's dusk. It's all way too romantic, a gust of pinks and oranges that are glossy enough to be a cheesy postcard. The kind you find in airport gift shops.
"I saw Jin-ri," her sister says into the phone. Eternally awkward. "I went to an art exhibit and boom! There she was."
"Are you okay?"
Jessica grits her teeth. Struggles with her suitcase. She tries to balance her phone against her shoulder. Her assistant has disappeared to get coffee or make a call. Her brain is foggy enough to not care.
"Don't sound angry," Soojung chides, laughing. "You'll get wrinkles."
"I can't stand you." Jessica stops. She eyes the line the restroom. Her face feels bloated. These days, she hates flying. She blinks and Soojung is still laughing. "Look," she says. "I'm serious. Are you okay? I know it's still weird."
"It's always going to be weird because she makes it weird."
There's an edge to Soojung's voice, but Jessica doesn't press. Never does. Her sister isn't one to say things lightly. Or ask for help. She breathes instead. Straightens her shoulders. Ignores the fact that all she really wants to do is take a shower.
"But," Soojung murmurs, "she did mention Taeyeon-unnie. Which was probably the only really weird part. Because it was like she was trying to ask me to ask about you for Taeyeon."
"Jin-ri was asking about you for Taeyeon."
"Like directly?" Jessica blinks, confused.
"Well, no. We just went through it. She's terrible at getting to the point. Probably I'm the only she still talks to. Barely."
"But why would she ask about me?"
Confusion is unsettling. Mostly, she hasn't thought about this in years. Made her bed. Laid in it. Made her peace with it all. Metaphors are easier when people come around to closure. She talks to a couple of the girls; that's true. But it changes and she remembers them like belated birthdays or Christmas cards. Maybe it's because she's gotten intensely private as she gets older. Maybe not.
"Does she have your number?" Soojung seems amused.
"Probably? I don't know? It hasn't changed." Jessica wracks her brain for explanations. Then she's over it. "Doesn't matter," she mutters. "I doubt she'd reach out to me. She's never been like that."
The words hang heavily.
"I didn't mean to make you upset."
Her sister's words are startling. They don't mean to be. Jessica feels herself soften. Across the ways, her assistant appears. Coffee is in hand. Jessica's shoulders set back and then she breathes.
"I'm not upset."
It's a response. Some part of it is a lie.
That's what she decides - it's a small world and when the memory of just how small the industry really is, she's irritated.
"I'm going to call her," she tells Irene who, if anything, just rolls her eyes. It's a funny juxtaposition, Irene serious and surrounded by a million variations of unicorn paraphernalia. Jessica sits at a desk chair, spinning around like she has the time. They both know she doesn't.
Irene meets her gaze, hair in her face. She kicks a unicorn plushie accidentally. "Is that why you're here?" She asks dryly, "for moral support?"
"Something like that," Jessica mutters.
She grabs at her phone and watches the glitter rain down to the bottom on the opposite end. Time to change it, she thinks.
"It's really bothering you."
Jessica looks up. She's opened her contact list. "What?"
"That she asked about you," Irene counters. She studies her, seemingly confused. Or pretending to be. For argument's sake. "That she continues to ask about you. In her own weird way."
Jessica's eyes widen. The realization hits and she hates it. Hates that her palms grow warm and that she almost drops her phone when she finds Taeyeon's number.
"She's asked you too?" Her voice cracks. She hates that too. "What is this? Passive Aggression 101?"
Irene looks at her sympathetically. Her gaze softens. There's glitter on her face. The sun catches it. Her hair spills and hits her chin. There's a pang in Jessica's throat; maybe, maybe, maybe. This is stupid, she thinks.
"You know I just want you to be happy."
Jessica looks away. "I know." She can't lie about this. She sighs. "I know," she repeats.
She listens to Irene stand and shuffle to the desk. Suddenly, there's a unicorn plushie in her face, grinning widely. Suddenly, it's simple.
"Just call her, dummy," she says.
Jessica doesn't like to mope.
But set the scene: no one brings up Taeyeon again, not like they can't, but no one is stupid enough to do it except her younger sister and Soojung could really murder someone and she'd be okay with it. Someone needs to hide the body, after all. So she's home, a rare night home and home alone, staring at empty kitchen, an opened bottle of wine and cookies she could make but they're still in the wrapper. There's logic somewhere in all of this.
Somehow, she finds herself making the call anyway.
It was the second or third ring, or it is the second or third ring, maybe the fourth, and Jessica is staring straight ahead at her fridge, frowning. Her heart does a heavy thump, shifting into her ribs. She presses her fingers into her throat and finds her voice.
"Heard you were asking about me," she greets. It feels roundabout; she hears Taeyeon choke. "I'm painfully sober by the way," she adds. "Sober-ish, really."
Taeyeon snorts. "Good to hear." There's music in the background. Maybe a television. Or the studio.
"So here I am... talking to you."
She doesn't know where to go from here. She's a planner; there's just no plan. If anything, thinking about Taeyeon and trying to talk to her are two entirely separate things. Everyone thinks they ended with a bang. Or snap. She can't really remember; what she does know is that their awkward attempts at anything, it just fizzled with indifference. It wasn't personal. All things that still make her feel like the worst.
That's the problem.
"I'm near your place," Taeyeon murmurs. "If you still live in the same place."
"I do." Jessica is surprised. "You remember?"
"I just feel like talking on the phone is really dumb idea." A half a second later, there's a laugh. Taeyeon is that awkward. "I mean, if you want to -"
"I'm baking cookies."
Jessica snorts. "Seriously?"
There's another laugh and she means it this time, the sound coming out in a low hum. There's warmth, there's that, and Jessica feels knots start to grow and twist in the bottom of her stomach. It feels like nerves.
One of them says it though; maybe it matters.
i'll see you soon
It's very clear that they do, in fact, Instagram-stalk each other. But will never admit it out loud.
How they get from the door to Jessica's kitchen will forever remain a mystery of small talk, painfully awkward small talk about the neighborhood and the really cute, closed coffee shop that they both somehow go to but never even realized. Or knew. Or care to know. Let's be honest, it's probably all of the above.
"Your kitchen is beautiful."
"Thanks," she replies. Finally, wine-in-hand.
She watches quietly as Taeyeon looks around. Fingertips to countertops. Shuffling even. Her shoulders are set back even as Jessica takes a seat on one of the stools by the counter.
"Store bought?" Taeyeon meets her gaze. There's a slight, sardonic twist of her mouth. "Really?"
Jessica shrugs. "Don't judge."
"I thought you baked."
It's loaded. She doesn't know what to do with that comment. Usually, it's the simplest responses that carry the weight.
"Who really has time?" Jessica still shoots back. "At least, I didn't buy them."
"Do you have chocolate chips or candy?" Taeyeon asks again. Ignores her. Rolls the plastic wrapping and dough around the countertop.
"Leftover icing," Jessica replies, studying her. She looks tired, she thinks. There's a pang; a lump rests in her throat. "I usually get ambitious and then hate myself later."
"That's too bad."
She shrugs. "And that's why there's wine, you know."
Taeyeon only smirks. Something happens; it's acknowledgment enough that she's here, but even weirder that she takes it upon herself to start rummaging through the kitchen. She finds a pan. She finds the non-stick spray. Then Jessica finds herself sipping at her wine and watching Taeyeon program her oven like she's been here before.
What else can she do, she wonders. Nothing. Something. Her head starts to throb. She usually tries to avoid going into things blindly.
"This is weird."
She blinks and her mouth is open. Taeyeon stares at her.
"Baking cookies?" Alternatively, there could be an insult. Taeyeon seems to choose carefully with a small joke. "Or you thinking you can?"
Jessica shakes her head, snorting. "No." She pushes her wine glass forward. "You, here," she says. "Me over here and being okay with you being here. Wondering if we're ever going to talk about everything and then kind of, sort of being okay that we won't. Because we don't talk about things."
Taeyeon's expression is unreadable. "We did."
The words are out of her mouth as quickly as she thinks them. A knee-jerk reaction. This should feel toxic. It's not.
"We did," Taeyeon replies. "Way back when. We just... I don't know."
"Seems redundant to talk about this now." Jessica reaches for her wine glass. She takes a sip and frowns. "I don't know. Just found out that you've been asking about me again and don't really know how to take it."
Taeyeon looks at her with confusion and Jessica is immediately embarrassed. Has enough presence in her mind to look away because oh god, this is her home and there is nowhere to run. If anything, she picks the oven clock and stares at it hard, willing it to not say two twelve like she hasn't been drinking and Taeyeon hasn't been out doing whatever it is that Taeyeon does these days.
She's still quiet though, Taeyeon. And Jessica still hates that. With a burning passion. Needs noise to fill the silence because she doesn't trust herself like this. She listens to Taeyeon move then. Thinks well there go the cookies until the empty stool next to her screeches a little and there are knees pressing into her legs.
"I've been drinking," Taeyeon says. Awkwardly again.
"No." Jessica turns to look at Taeyeon with surprise. Taeyeon makes a face and pushes her hair from her face. "I usually tend to say a lot more when I drink. Verbal vomit, actually. It was probably not a good idea to come, but it seemed to be the most logical thing to do."
"That's weird," Jessica mutters, flushing. Taeyeon's fingers brush over her knee.
"I know, isn't it?"
Someone should laugh; no one does. Jessica tries not to follow the tips of Taeyeon's fingers from her knee to her thigh back to her knee again. The denim she is still wearing seems pointless.
"I just," Taeyeon starts again. Sighs through her teeth. "I don't want to do this anymore, you know? Be angry at you for things that I'm probably not angry about anymore. I can't even remember why I'm pissed or sad or whatever it is that I feel about you anymore. I can't even remember asking about you - oh stop," she says when Jessica makes a face into her wine glass, "I'm being serious. You want me to be serious."
Jessica swallows. "Maybe."
"The point is," Taeyeon ignores her, "that there's a lot of things that I'm trying to work through and you're one of those things... the only reason I can say it out loud is because you're here and it's just you, not the others or a million other people that are trying to teach me new things 2-k-nineteen."
"That's what I said too."
They both laugh. Don't mean to. Taeyeon takes Jessica's hand. A little braver, probably. Jessica follows her tongue as it darts out and slides over her lips. Alcohol, she tells herself. It's alcohol. The reality is that she hasn't been drinking that much.
It's just easier to have something to blame. Taeyeon's mouth opens and closes. She might have just caught Jessica watching her. Jessica tries not to care, but her heart stumbles back into her throat.
"We've got a lot to sort through," Taeyeon murmurs, studying her. Shyly presses her fingers to her jaw. She sees mystified by her own gesture. "I wouldn't even know where to begin."
"I already have a headache."
"Sure it isn't the wine?"
Jessica rolls her eyes. She's in the middle of processing how to say something smart. Fill the silence, you know. Bigger fears about actually having to sit there and address the honesty that she's always wanted, but wants to run away from too.
But the thing is, Taeyeon's expression changes. Not suddenly - it's a slow, gradual change that makes her forget about the nine million things she could say. Staring with i miss you. Maybe an i'm sorry. Or better yet, not saying anything at all and being able to sit there with her for a moment. The change catches Jessica midway instead. Growing slowly into an expression that she hasn't seen in years. That she's spent more time convincing herself that she hasn't seen in order to sort through her own unresolved feelings.
"Don't do it," she hears herself murmur.
"What?" Taeyeon tilts her head. Shifts and leans into her knees. "Do what?"
Jessica feels her mouth dry. "What you're about to do."
"I'm not doing anything."
Her ears are ringing. Taeyeon is a terrible liar. So she says it: "You're a liar, Kim Taeyeon," and it comes out of her mouth soft and breathy, the pitch of her voice rubbing into her throat, her teeth, and then reappearing in the pit of her stomach.
"I -" Taeyeon might laugh. Jessica won't remember. "I know," she says.
What happens is simple: there's no fanfare, just Taeyeon sweeping her hand under Jessica's chin and Jessica letting Taeyeon kiss her. She doesn't remember how closely she leans into her. How there's weight from Taeyeon's knees against her thigh. How she tastes sharp and sour because she remembers Taeyeon is a beer drinker and how she hates it. What she does know is that her mouth is soft, that Jessica hears herself exhale and bites into Taeyeon's mouth because that is the only thing she can think of doing outside of hitting her. Her brain sways with all the things she's ever thought of saying, exploding into a kind of self-righteousness that is embarrassing to say the least.
Then it disappears.
Instead, she's left with the motions of drawing back. How her face is flushed. How her lips are swollen. And how Taeyeon looks, eyes closed and satisfied into making some kind of mess.
"Was this -" she stops herself, indignant and out of breath. Her chest rises and falls as she makes some sort of noise, pressing her mouth into fingertips because oh my god what was that.
"I didn't plan this well," Taeyeon says finally. Means it. Because, well, what else can she really say.
Jessica doesn't know how to laugh. She should, or maybe it'll be funny later. When she's alone. Wide-awake. But they're in agreement, for once. Rusty, for sure. That's saying much more than it needs to.
"No," she manages. "Then again, neither did I."
There's the truth.
(This isn't it.)