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the sun in retreat

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Tzuyu lands at LAX at 2AM.

It’s late, the landing. Not according to plan.

There was supposed to be more time before her 5AM call but at least she slept on the plane. That’ll have to be enough – it’ll be a long day.

The airport is crowded but she moves easily, used to what people do when suspended outside normal space and time. You’re not really anywhere in an airport, and for Tzuyu it’s a familiar feeling. In the six years she’s been a model, she’s spent most of her life in transit.

Passing through an exit, she feels California settle around her. The air is warm and dry even in the middle of the night and she shrugs off the coat she’d needed in New York, skin prickling with the difference.

The agency hired a car for her. They don’t usually, and that they did for this is something between a bribe and a promise.

“Is it your first time in LA?” the driver says, pulling out into traffic.

Tzuyu bobs her head in a polite non-answer, since conserving energy means no small talk. Words cost a lot of effort and she doesn’t understand how other people spend them so freely.

Looking out the window, she sees road and more road, a sprawling mass of highways too tangled to decipher. The city is a smudge of light at the horizon.

So much for first impressions.

Because yes, this is her first time in LA. Before, whenever she had the option to come, there was always something else more urgent. LA has a minor fashion week but it isn’t a fashion city, built instead around movies and TV and platinum blondes, filled to the brim with aspiring actresses.

A category she belongs to now, Tzuyu reminds herself.

Her thoughts turn to how she got here.

It started a week ago, when Jihyo called her in for a meeting. Jihyo is a good agent, honest but kind, and Tzuyu knew she was in for bad news as soon as she saw Jihyo’s face. 

The agency decided to pull her from active promotion. If she was going to make it big as a model, they said through Jihyo's mouth, it would've happened already. She can finish out the gigs she has booked but after that they want to transition her.

“Transition me to what?” Tzuyu said.

“Well, what else are you interested in? Acting? Fashion design? TV hosting?”

"You want me to talk to people for a job?"

Jihyo laughed but it didn't change the need for an answer. Which Tzuyu couldn't give. Modeling was the dream, the thing she worked her whole life for, and the thought of needing a new place to aim her ambitions was – is – incomprehensible.

To her, at least. The agency comprehended it easily enough: they already had an energy drink asking to cast her.

So she said ok. So she finds herself in LA, about to shoot a commercial as proof of concept for a career she never considered wanting.

“We’re here, miss,” the driver says, and sure enough there's a hotel out the window. Tzuyu looks at the time on her phone – exactly 30 minutes before she has to get back in the car.



“Mango, cherry, or coconut?” says the girl who will be Tzuyu’s co-star.

She’s sitting next to Tzuyu as stylists flit around them, adjusting curlers and blending foundation.

Tzuyu blinks. They haven’t been introduced – she doesn’t know the girl’s name – and the random question is confusing. She often feels a step slow with English, where finding the right words is like fighting through quicksand. Even processing speech takes an extra second when it doesn’t follow expected patterns.

Here, Tzuyu was ready for a greeting. That’s simple and easy to respond to, but being asked about fruit preference gums up the gears in her brain, makes her wonder if she’s misunderstood.

She’s about to say what? when the girl gets tired of waiting. She shoves three lip balms in front of Tzuyu’s face: mango, cherry, and coconut.

“Which flavor do you like best? You’re going to taste it as much as me, so it’s only polite you get to choose.”

This sounds flirty, but also impatient. It’s a weird combination.

“Mango,” Tzuyu says slowly.

The girl beams, bunny teeth against heart-shaped lips. Her smile has all the subtlety of an explosion, and the force of it is like staring directly into the sun. Tzuyu has the impulse to take a step back. Maybe take cover.

Then she realizes: that smile is familiar. She knows this girl, not for real but by reputation (talking less makes her a collector of other people’s words). Her mind supplies a name – Nayeon – along with scattered details: South Korean but based in LA, an influencer who’s walked a few runways and has a webseries, too. According to the whispers, she’s blunt, chaotic, and guaranteed to sell.

That smile is her signature.

Tzuyu looks away from it. She’s been looking too long already.

“I didn’t know you were into acting,” Nayeon says, which means she also recognizes Tzuyu. It makes Tzuyu wonder what keywords Nayeon attaches to her (maybe face of an angel, stiff as a board – the phrase that's stuck ever since debut).

“It’s new.”

“Any reason you’re starting with this commercial?”

Tzuyu shrugs.

“They offered it to me.”

Nayeon nods and Tzuyu looks down, eyes finding the script clenched in her hands. She’s nervous, anxiety seeping into her too-tight grip, because though she knows how to be in front of a camera these cameras might be different. They might want things from her she doesn’t know how to give.

“I think it’ll be fun,” Nayeon says. “This shoot. It’s kind of an indie movie in the guise of a commercial, you know? Lesbian coming of age story that happens to end with an energy drink. That’s where the industry is going with ads, narrative and atmosphere over product details. Brands as shorthand for an entire lifestyle.”

Tzuyu hums, feeling even more out of her depth. Her first thought in reading the script was: at least it’s all set to music so there are no lines to memorize.

Nayeon continues to ramble.

“I’m glad they got someone else gay for this, too. It feels less like queerbaiting that way. Like it still is a little, making us kiss to sell a drink, but at least I’m kissing someone who might enjoy it instead of a straight girl who’s thinking about her paycheck. Straight girls don’t deserve the privilege of kissing me.”

“How do you know I’m gay?”

“I keep track of pretty people.” There’s a suggestive eyebrow, and when Tzuyu doesn’t react Nayeon’s face becomes a pout. “You don’t know me, do you. Well. That’s disappointing.”

“I do.”

“You’re just saying that.”

Tzuyu adds exhausting to Nayeon’s mental entry.

“You're Nayeon Im. Instagram thinks I should follow you.”

“And what do you think, Tzuyu Chou?”

“I don’t have opinions about people I haven’t met.”

“Then I’ll make the most of today." Nayeon winks. "Maybe I’ll earn that follow by the end of it.”



According to the script, the commercial goes like this: there are two girls who live next to each other. They exchange longing glances from their respective bedrooms but a backyard fence separates them. They’re stuck in a cycle of sad, impotent pining until Nayeon’s character drinks an energy drink. Then she’s transformed, and she climbs over the fence to kiss Tzuyu’s character as the brand name and tagline appear on screen: Energy to be you.

The first scene to shoot is the kiss, and while production sets up around them Tzuyu wonders internally why start at the end.

“We’re starting here for the light,” Nayeon says, as if she’s a mind reader. Tzuyu pushes away that thought, reminding herself that when you talk as much as Nayeon you’re bound to stumble into relevance at some point. “We can shoot the interior scenes whenever but the sun will get too harsh later in the day. Makes things look flat.”

Tzuyu nods, undecided whether Nayeon's chatter is annoying or a helpful distraction. 

“Ok,” the director says, coming over to them. “Remember, you’ve been dreaming of each other forever. Give me passion, make me feel that this is your moment. But keep it PG. We need to be able to run the spot on network.”

“Got it!” Nayeon says, shooting him finger guns and a bright smile.

Tzuyu swallows.

She hears "Action!" and the cameras are rolling and Nayeon pulls her down for a kiss.

It’s just lips, the kiss. Tzuyu doesn’t feel anything, and that isn’t really a surprise since it's a kiss for cameras instead of for feelings but it’s still a profoundly weird experience. To go through the motions with no investment. She’s never done that before. She only kissed people at all a handful of times, despite the assumptions spun out around her face and body.

“How’d you like the mango?” Nayeon says after the first take, in the time it takes the crew to reset.

“It’s fine.”

“And how about me? Do I get better than fine?”

She bats her eyelashes, looking up at Tzuyu with flirtation too overblown to be serious.

“No.”

Nayeon’s expression is dumbfounded, and Tzuyu realizes she probably shouldn’t have said that even if it’s the truth. At least not when she still has to kiss Nayeon an undetermined number of times and the more awkward they are the higher it will be. That comment alone adds a few takes, probably.

Then Nayeon bursts out laughing, her whole body shaking with it.

“Wow. You’re something,” Nayeon says. 

That is…not the reaction Tzuyu expected. She wants to ask if something is good, but the cameras are ready and the director is telling them to kiss again.

It’s better, the second time. Not spectacular but more comfortable, and by the third take Tzuyu is learning how Nayeon moves, how to match her rhythm. After the fourth, they get to move on.

“Too bad,” Nayeon says, low enough only Tzuyu can hear. “We were getting the hang of it.”

Nayeon bumps her shoulder into Tzuyu’s, conspiratorial, and though the kisses didn’t affect her somehow that brings heat to her cheeks.



The shoot keeps going. Mostly it's fine. 

Nayeon is the commercial's focus so she handles the emotional heavy lifting. She turns out to be good at it. Really good, actually. As Tzuyu watches her on a monitor, the depth in Nayeon’s expression is startling, longing and sadness and fear all shading together in the plains of her face.

Tzuyu doesn’t have to do as much in her scenes, in general. Just sit and look pretty and be marveled at. All of that is within her skill set, and though it’s an adjustment having cameras capture a stretch of time instead of a moment she sees why Jihyo thought she might like this.

The trouble comes in her solo close-up. It's a scene where she's supposed to pine for Nayeon, to make clear that everything is mutual.

You don't often communicate pining on a runway, and though Tzuyu has shot editorials it’s different when all the audience will see is her face. It makes her nervous, having to tell a whole story with only one piece of her, and after watching Nayeon she’s fighting down inadequacy before she even starts.

Nerves make her extra stiff. After a handful of takes and no progress, the director sighs into his baseball cap.

“Let’s break for lunch,” he says.

Tzuyu fills up a plate at craft services, finds a quiet nook where she can be out of sight. She’s not really hungry but she eats anyway, because passing up food on a day this long is a recipe for passing out.

“Miss me yet?” Nayeon says, plopping down beside her.

“It’s been five minutes.”

“That’s a long time to go without my presence.” Tzuyu rolls her eyes halfheartedly, wondering how bad it would be to tell Nayeon to go away. It’s not about Nayeon in particular; she just doesn’t want company right now. So of course Nayeon settles in for a conversation. “How are you holding up? It doesn't seem like this is your first time.”

“Please don’t make fun of me."

Confusion twists Nayeon’s features, and Tzuyu realizes the mistake. She knows better than to project like that - when she's gotten enough sleep, she can keep her insecurities in line instead of painting them onto the people around her. But she hasn't today and there's so much vulnerability to all of this, being in a new place and trying a new thing knowing it might soon be her only thing. 

"I'm sorry," Tzuyu says. "Ignore that."

“It's ok. But since I gave you a compliment and you didn't believe me you should tell me what’s wrong.”

“My last scene wasn’t good. And, just. You’re so much better.”

Nayeon is shaking her head before Tzuyu finishes the sentence.

“Nope, none of that. You and me, we’re not competing. We’re in this together and you’re doing a great job. That scene wasn’t your best, maybe, but it still wasn’t bad. And believe me, I’ve worked with a lot of bad.”

“I want to be better than not bad.”

“I could try to help? If you want.”

“How?”

Nayeon shifts to face Tzuyu, solemn and focused. Their knees touch and Tzuyu finds she doesn't mind it. Kissing someone gets you a baseline level of comfort, apparently. 

“For me," Nayeon starts, "the key with emotional scenes is finding something from my life that has the same resonance as what the character is going through. So, for this…have you ever wanted someone you couldn’t have?”

Tzuyu thinks about it.

“Not really.”

Nayeon laughs.

“Get everyone you want? I believe it.”

“No, that’s not-”

“Ok, forget romance. How about a sad memory? The longing kind, not the angry kind.”

Tzuyu has one immediately. Her family dog got sick when she was halfway across the world for work, and though she tried to make it home she didn't make it in time. He died before she could say goodbye, and though that was years ago she still wishes she could change how it happened.

She tells Nayeon, then gets self-conscious.

“I know it sounds small. Silly.”

“No, I get it. Pets are family too.”

Nayeon talks her through how to harness the memory, how to use her face to externalize the emotion.

“That’s it!” Nayeon says, after Tzuyu tries a few times. “Keep that expression, what you’re doing right now. Everyone will believe you’re hopelessly in love with me.”



Tzuyu survives the rest of her scenes. She thinks she does better after Nayeon’s coaching, but that might also be exhaustion-induced hallucination.

Shooting is scheduled to be all in one day and the sun is setting by the time everything gets done. In the parking lot, waiting for her driver, Tzuyu watches shadow transform distant high-rises into strange, jagged teeth. The view feels foreboding, almost hungry, like the city is a creature about to swallow her down. 

“So,” Nayeon says, appearing at her side. “It’s the end of the day, what’s the verdict? Is the Tzuyu Chou going to follow me?”

“Maybe.” Tzuyu suppresses a smile at Nayeon’s pout. “I’m kidding. Yes. Thanks for today, I'm glad you were the one I got to do this with.”

“I am pretty great, aren’t I.”

Tzuyu watches Nayeon’s self-satisfied smirk turn to something softer, and there’s a moment when she wonders. If Nayeon could be more than a social media acquaintance. If she should do something before Nayeon leaves.

Nayeon’s stomach growls.

“I should go fix that.” Nayeon takes a step away and the almost-moment disintegrates. Of course today was only make believe, Tzuyu thinks. You can’t make something out of nothing. “It was a pleasure working with you. See you around?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Tzuyu watches Nayeon’s retreating back, a bitter taste in her mouth.

Only Nayeon stops.

Spins.

Retraces her steps until she's an arm’s length away. She bounces on her heels like she’s nervous, or maybe just filled with too much energy. That seems to be her default state; in the entire day Nayeon hasn’t sat still for more than two seconds.

“So, hey," Nayeon says. "Want to go out with me?”

“What?”

This is another moment when Tzuyu doesn't trust words - not because they don't make sense, but because they're too close to what she wanted. That makes them suspicious.  

“You already got a kiss. Might as well have a date, too, right?” It has the sound of a joke but the feel of truth, and Tzuyu squints at Nayeon, trying to read her intention. “I mean, I’m going to a party tonight. You should come with me, if you want to. To meet people.”

“Why?”

“Why meet people? Don’t they teach models about networking?”

“No, why are you inviting me?”

“Why not?” Nayeon shoots back, thumbs fiddling with her belt loops. “Look, you’re new to this. I remember being new. The city is all about who you know and it helps if someone shows you around. Come on, it’ll be fun and I’ll make sure you get home ok after. Pinky promise. And, I don’t know. I want to hang out with you more.”

Up until that last sentence a no was hanging off Tzuyu's tongue. But Nayeon's eyes are earnest and hopeful, and they light a spark in Tzuyu's chest.

“Ok,” Tzuyu says. "I might need a nap first."



Nayeon picks her up in a red convertible, wearing a cutout dress that bares teasing pockets of skin. She looks like a fantasy come to life, and her eyes flicker with fire as they scan Tzuyu over.

“Aren’t you a dream,” Nayeon says.

The drive takes a while but LA’s endless roads are better with the top down. Tzuyu closes her eyes, enjoying the wind in her hair and the way Nayeon’s voice blends with the radio.

Maybe she could stay here. Could like it, even.

That feeling lasts until they get to the party, which is loud and crowded and everything Tzuyu would rather not deal with right now. At the epicenter is a giant, columned mansion. Knots of people spill out from it and onto the decadently landscaped grounds. Tzuyu spots ferns two stories high – who would plant those in a place where it never rains?

“Come on,” Nayeon says, taking Tzuyu by the hand and tugging her into a grand entrance hall.

They seem to be headed toward a cluster of men in artfully shabby clothes and Tzuyu braces herself. That aesthetic is not a good sign. But Nayeon swerves around them, revealing a wall and a couch and a girl who looks happy to be alone with her phone.

“Mina!” Nayeon calls and the girl looks up, wariness giving way to warmth.

“I love that you make me come to this party and then show up late,” Mina says, standing to hug Nayeon.

Nayeon gives her a sheepish smile and tugs Tzuyu forward, like she’s about to make a presentation for show-and-tell.

“This is Tzuyu. She was in that commercial with me and I had to go pick her up. And there was traffic.”

“There’s always traffic.”

“Come on, be nice! Tzuyu’s new and she’s quiet too. I thought you might enjoy each other.”

“So this is a quiet people playdate?” Tzuyu says, out of a sincere desire to understand what she's doing here. Whenever she's been taken somewhere for networking before, it involved a lot of listening to men who love to hear themselves talk. That isn't happening now, and while she likes whatever this is better she doesn't quite get it.

Mina snorts and Nayeon whines and Tzuyu gets the feeling she’s missing something important.

Before she can figure out what, Nayeon and Mina break into a practiced “welcome to LA” routine. Nayeon does most of the talking with Mina jumping in now and then to correct, reining in Nayeon’s exaggerations and fixing her grammar. Which makes Tzuyu notice: there are flaws in Nayeon’s English. She hadn't realized before because Nayeon is so confident that she sounds right even when she isn’t. Like language is meant to work how it rolls off her tongue, like her way is better than actual correctness.

Eventually someone calls Nayeon from across the room.

“I’ll be back in five,” Nayeon promises.

“She’ll be at least an hour,” Mina says wryly. “She means well but she gets really into making people laugh. Anyway, do you want a drink? Or are you leaving too early tomorrow?”

“I’m here for a week. Maybe longer. This is kind of a test run – my agency wants me to move out.”

“Interesting.” Mina’s eyes sparkle. “You should tell Nayeon that.”

"Why?"

"You just should."

“Um. Ok.”

“So. Drink?”

“No thanks. I think I’ll look around.”



Tzuyu sits on a lounger by a pool, petting the dog who’s befriended her. She’s not sure where he came from but it’s not important: he’s gentle and fluffy and he nuzzles into her hand when she scratches behind his ears.

“I see this is a theme with you,” comes Nayeon’s voice.

Tzuyu stiffens. Part of her is happy to be found, but the rest is petulant that Nayeon left her alone in the first place. For much longer than five minutes.

“Dogs are good company,” she settles on saying.

“Are you implying I’m not?”

Tzuyu shrugs.

Nayeon sits down on the next lounger over, staring at her with complete focus. It’s intense, the weight of her attention, and more direct than when they shot scenes together. There, Nayeon was looking at Tzuyu but seeing into the future, imagining how the commercial would come together and what the eventual audience would see. Tzuyu is used to being a mechanism to achieve a goal – knows how to recognize the feeling. That’s what modeling is, after all. You show off the clothes, not yourself.

Now, though. Now it’s different.

Nayeon is looking at her like there’s nothing else in the world to see.

“You don’t react much, do you?” Nayeon says. She nods toward the house, and Tzuyu follows her gaze through a wall of glass to where two men are involved in some kind of lap dance. One is wearing a purple feather boa, but the flicker of interest that provokes fades quickly into indifference.

“Are they worth reacting to?” Tzuyu says. “I don’t know them.”

“You could know them. I brought you here to meet people.”

“I don’t want a lot of people.”

Tzuyu ponders the preposition: she might’ve meant from, not of. Language is messy. She decides it’s true either way so she doesn’t bother correcting.

The dog headbutts Tzuyu’s leg and she grins, returning attention to him. She figures Nayeon will find other people for entertainment, since nothing about her suggests a long attention span.

“I bet I could make you want me,” Nayeon says, voice much closer than it had been.

Before Tzuyu can react Nayeon is in her lap, straddling her as the dog scurries away.

“What are you doing?”

Tzuyu hears the edge of panic in her own voice. Nayeon smiles, impish shading into something darker.

“Seeing how far that blank face of yours goes.”

Nayeon rolls her hips, and Tzuyu realizes belatedly that there’s a song playing inside. The bass line bleeds through the walls and Nayeon matches it with her movement, grinding down into Tzuyu.

It's too much. Her heat, her closeness. Tzuyu hides her face as best she can, trying to escape Nayeon’s questing eyes.

“Now, now,” Nayeon says. “Look at me. If you’re so stoic surely you can do that.”

Nayeon tilts Tzuyu’s chin up. Above her Nayeon is dark and dangerous and inescapable, pull equal to a black hole.

“Do you know why I want your eyes? Because I can’t stop looking at you. You’re so pretty, Tzuyu, it’s driving me crazy. Which is weird because everyone walking down the street in LA is pretty, and you stop noticing it because it’s everywhere. But you – you break the scale. This morning when I saw you for the first time it made me forget what I was saying and I had to just look. You don’t know this about me yet but I’m always convinced I’m the prettiest girl in any room, except I haven’t thought that once all day. I can’t think it when you’re there, too.”

Tzuyu goes hot at the flood of praise, at the the way Nayeon feels rocking against her.

Despite all the times she’s been called emotionless, Tzuyu doesn’t feel less than other people. Just a little more slowly – her emotions take time to kick into gear. But once they’re going they carry that same inertia. Slow to start is slow to stop, too.

That’s why she panics when Nayeon moans and desire sears through her. All she can think of is wanting – wanting to touch Nayeon, wanting Nayeon to touch her. She imagines Nayeon pressing her down into the chair and kissing her until she loses her name. Putting those long, delicate fingers to good use.

Only she still can’t tell if Nayeon means it. If anyone means anything in this stupid city.

“Stop,” Tzuyu says, the word coming out half gasp.

Nayeon obeys anyway, scrambling away so fast she almost falls over. Tzuyu is left cold and shaking as her skin readjusts to air instead of Nayeon’s body heat.

“I’m sorry,” Nayeon says, panting. “I got carried away. I didn’t mean to take it that far. Really, I’m sorry.”

“I need to go now.”

“Can I drive you? I won’t try anything, I promise.”

“I'm not worried about…sure. You can drive.”



In the hotel parking lot, Tzuyu and Nayeon stand beside the car. Nayeon is quiet. She was like that the whole ride, stewing in guilty silence.

So this time Tzuyu is the one to speak.

“I’m here this whole week. Possibly longer.”

“That’s…cool.” Nayeon’s brow furrows. “Why are you telling me?”

“I want to see you again.”

“Really? Even after tonight?”

“I don’t want another unannounced lap dance. But otherwise, yeah.”

“How about an announced one?” Nayeon’s wearing the tiniest smirk. It’s impressive, how fast she can go from damage control to pressing her luck, and Tzuyu raises an eyebrow. “Ok, no, that’s a joke. But I do have one request. Give me a kiss?”

“I mean. You could kiss me.”

“I don’t want to take this time. Want to be given.”

Nayeon has spectacular begging eyes. It’s impossible to deny them (especially when you don’t really want to) so Tzuyu leans to kiss her – on the forehead.

“Not there,” Nayeon whines, huffing out a breath. Tzuyu leans again, holding a fraction of a centimeter from Nayeon’s lips.

“Then give better directions.”

Nayeon snaps. She surges up into Tzuyu’s mouth hungry and fast, like she thinks she’ll only get to do this for a second and she’s determined to fit in as much as she can.

Then she stops. Pulls away enough to look Tzuyu in the eye, making sure this is ok, and when she reconnects their lips it’s gentle. It feels nothing like the kiss they just had or the ones earlier for the camera, and Tzuyu wonders how long she’ll have to spend kissing Nayeon before she runs out of surprises.

When the kiss breaks for good Nayeon doesn’t go far, clinging happily to Tzuyu’s waist. Tzuyu waits for things to stop or escalate, but Nayeon just hangs on.

And on.

“Are you done? I’m pretty tired.”

“You’re so mean to me. Why does that make me like you more.”

Tzuyu shrugs.

“You’re weird.”

Nayeon had been leaning up - presumably for another kiss - but she breaks off with an exasperated laugh, forehead landing on Tzuyu’s shoulder instead.

“You’re killing me, Tzuyu. Do you know that?”

Tzuyu shrugs again. Nayeon’s head bobs with the motion, and Tzuyu is tempted to repeat it just because it looks funny. But that's probably been enough teasing.

“Want to get breakfast tomorrow?” Tzuyu says.

“I thought you were going to run away and I’d never see you again. I thought I was too forward. Too much.”

“If I don’t like what’s happening, I leave.”

“You spent all day with me.” Nayeon gives a coy look. “You must like me a lot then.”

Tzuyu sighs. She kind of does, and she can already tell how annoying Nayeon will be about it.