Most Unexpectedly (3981 TaeNy Fanfic contest)

January 23, 2014 in One-shot! by itsakyo

Most unexpectedly, this story managed a third place in the contest. I’d like to take this space to thank the voters who made it possible and SeeKo, who was the beta for this piece. Thank you! <3

I raise my hands to my lips and blow hot breath on them only to realize that my hands are snug in thick woollen gloves. My lips are amused by my silliness and aren’t afraid to show it, even though nobody is around to see. I’m used to it; having no one around me to see the silly things that I do. It isn’t so bad once you get used to it. It used to hurt. But no longer. Now, I simply shake my head and let it go.

Besides, I’m not really alone if I think about it. No. To say that I’m alone would be wrong. Not when the cages surrounding me are occupied by the cutest things in the world. And there is a little white, furry creature that would probably be sad if it senses my loneliness. And the people I work with. Yeah, I’m not alone. Not really.

I take another look through the criss-cross of the well-gnawed metal to make sure each occupant has its own warm blanket. Yes, yes, and yes. Good. They’re all warm and tucked in for the night. Most of them are already sleeping, bless their canine souls, except for a few felines whose eyes are alive and alert. How could anyone be as cruel as to toss them out onto the streets, I do not know, cannot understand and never wish to comprehend.

“Goodnight, babies. Merry Christmas…” I say to them as I turn out the light.

And even as I take one last look before leaving the compound, my heart aches for the victims of callous, irresponsible acts committed by heartless souls.

My well-worn boots serve me well, protecting my feet from the cold and the snow that I’m shuffling through to get to my office. The light is on even though nobody is in it. It has become a habit of mine, leaving the light on so that I don’t return to darkness. Call it escapism if you will, I prefer to think of it as pragmatism.

A little white furry creature yips and bolts at me the moment I enter and I smile as I stoop to pet it. Then, I shut the door on the cold outside and remove my boots and coat, moving through my office to the inner room, furnished with a bed, wardrobe and dressing table. It is here that I stay, most nights, to be close to the creatures that depend so much on me for their happiness.

But who do I depend on for mine?

The stray thought slams into me like a sledgehammer and I close my eyes to fight off the welling of tears in my eyes. I’m not usually like this. Why am I so emotional tonight? I sigh. I know why. This is the season that rubs it in my face. This is the season that makes me feel worse than any other time of the year. This is the Christmas season, full of cheer.

My head is shaking at the thought.

I have no one to be with, no presents to open and nobody to hug. And the mistletoe that hangs over the doorway of my bedroom is a cruel joke that my colleagues unwittingly played on me. I sigh again. My colleagues are not to be blamed for putting it up. They did it out of kindness, I’m sure. Just like the little Christmas tree they put up in the corner. For some cheer, they said before leaving to join their families. I shake my head again.

“Prince, looks like it’s just you and me tonight.”

My little white furry friend yips at me in response, its tail wagging and I smile again, my mood lifting a little.

Hot chocolate is in order, I decide. It will cheer me up. So I head towards the pantry and make myself a steaming mug of molten sin. Armed with a promising book that I picked up last weekend, I curl up in bed, covers up to my chin and take a sip to warm myself before starting to read.

The story is engaging and I fall headlong into it, engrossed in the fictitious lives of characters that are probably truer to life than I would like to admit. So focused I am on the story that I barely notice the rapping of knuckles on the door. I look at the corner of my bed where Prince is cuddled up tight like a ball, wondering if I imagined it since he doesn’t even stir but I hear it again so it must be real.

Wondering who it could be, I get out of bed and head for the door, glancing at my watch as I go. It is five to nine. We’re closed so this person must have seen the light on and decided to try her luck. But why anyone would be knocking on the door of an animal shelter on the night of Christmas eve, I really don’t know.

The door swings open and the first thing I notice is the little ball of black fur in the person’s arms. It’s little. Really little. And too still.

“Can you help it?” a soft, gentle voice eases in, disrupting my focus on the little black thing and my eyes lift to look at her.

Her eyes are wide open, earnest and she looks straight at me, piercing right through to the other side.

“Bring it in,” I say without hesitation, my heart instantly aching for the bundle of jet black fur. I need no reason, no story. Gesturing to the examination table in the room to the left, I instruct her. “Put it down over there.”

She follows my instructions without saying a word and shifts when I stride over with my trusty surgical gloves on. It is only on closer inspection that I ascertain the pup is not in dire straits, albeit, weak, cold and shivering. It is but a baby poodle, very young, barely three months old from what I can see and certainly shouldn’t be wandering about the cold, cold streets of winter at night.

I rub its tummy as I go about doing my routine checks. Nothing is critically wrong with it so I feed it to provide some energy. It’s quiet and makes no fuss, allowing me to do what I need to do. Such a darling. I smile and stroke it. The procedures are done. What it needs now is some warmth.

Don’t we all.

I shake my head as I reach for some warm sheets. Picking a mid-sized one, I swaddle the little black canine snugly. A moment later, I step back to admire my handiwork. Yes, that’ll warm him up. It’s a him, I discovered while doing the checks, a handsome little him. What did he do to deserve the abandonment? How could its owner ever have the heart to be rid of him? Just look at it, its cute little nose, floppy little ears, adorable little tail…

“Will it be okay?”

The question reminds me that she is still here, beside me, anxious, so I smile to assure her.

“It’s going to be okay. All it needs is some warmth and a good rest. It’s gotten some food and water and sleeping peacefully now so I’ll see to it in the morning. You probably saved its life by bringing it here before any real harm was done.”

“Good…it’s…good to know…”

Her eyes soften and she actually smiles, the act lighting up her features and making her look youthful all of a sudden. It is only then that I notice her jet black hair, much like the puppy’s, contrasting against her skin, as fair as the princesses in fairy tales. She is still wearing her thick coat and shoes which have left little pools of melted ice and bits of dirt on my otherwise squeaky clean floor. Darn. I’ll have to clean that up.

“Thanks for bringing it in…” I trail off, awkward. She doesn’t seem to want to leave but I’m not planning to invite her to stay since people who bring in the animals don’t usually stay on. Some do come back the next day to see them again but that’s about it. So…

“I’d like to stay and watch it, if you don’t mind.”

“Is it yours?”

Technically we don’t open our clinic to pets, only strays but I hadn’t bothered with that rule when I saw it. A life, canine or not, is more valuable than a stupid rule, surely.

She shakes her head and her fringe falls over her eyes. Her fingers brush it back carelessly, clearing the view to hold her steady gaze, keeping her eyes locked on mine, pleading silently to stay.

“You do seem…very concerned…for a dog that you just picked up from the street.”

“I just want to make sure it’s okay.”

“I’m telling you that it’s okay. I’ll check on it again in the morning. You can come back after Christmas if you want.”

Ironic, really, how a shelter is closed to those in need on a day like Christmas.

“But it’s alone.”

“It’s sleeping. Let it rest.”

“I…I don’t want it to be alone this Christmas.”

A pang strikes my heart and I almost wince.

Neither do I…

I shake my head, knowing that I shouldn’t but the words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. “Alright, you can stay. Just…don’t touch anything else, okay?”

“I’ll only touch Ginger, I promise.”

“You named it Ginger?” I squeak, unable to mask my surprise.

She shrugs, barely. “I like to name things.”

“Right…well…since you’re staying, I’ll need you to put your shoes at the door and maybe you’d like to take off your coat too.”

She looks down at her shoes, small sized but proportional for a petite girl like her, and looks back at me sheepishly.

“I’m sorry, I’ve made a mess.”

“It’s okay. I’ll clean it up.”

She takes off her shoes and I realize that her eye level has dipped from my eyes to my nose. She is much shorter than before and I’m a little surprised since her shoes are flat-heeled. Hmm, a little mystery there.

“Do you have a mop or something? I’ll clean up the floor.”

I don’t know why, but I’m beginning to feel a little irritated by her stubbornness.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I shouldn’t trouble you. It’s my bad.”

“Alright, fine. The mop is in there,” I almost snap as I point to the bathroom. “There’s a bucket too, if you’re in the mood to play clean up.”

She shoots me an arched brow and curious eyes but says nothing as she heads to the bathroom. Her arm brushes mine as she passes by but I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not so I choose to ignore it, heading back into my bedroom to continue my book. Prince is still sleeping at his corner, legs in the air and I can’t help but smile at the sight of him. Ah, my Prince.

Soon, I’m all curled up and comfy again but unable to lose myself in the book anymore. Darn it. That girl. That girl is on my mind, using up all the capacity my brain has. Her eyes, her lips, her hair, her quiet insistence, her stubbornness, her apparent care for Ginger. Ginger. She named him within the time it took to bring him to this shelter. What kind of a person does that?

Sighing out loud, I turn to my side and put the book away. If I can’t read, I should try to sleep. My eyes close but my mind continues to wander. What’s she doing here on Christmas eve? Doesn’t she have a family to return to? Or a Christmas party with friends?

Oh, look who’s asking.

Oh now, don’t you start.

What are you doing here on Christmas eve? You have a family. You have friends to party with.

Family? Hah. Do they even want me? Do I want them? Friends. I’d rather hang out with my dogs and cats than go to a lame party with them and have to fend off all those guys. I’m not interested in them, don’t like them and never will, no matter how smart or good-looking they are. When will they ever get it?

So you have your reasons. She probably has hers too. You’re judging her too quickly. Or is it something else that irks you?

Oh, shut up.

Tsk, tsk. Ask her, if you’re that curious, instead of lying here, talking to yourself in your head like some pathetic soul with a cute dog.

That’s the last straw, to have my own conscious thoughts mocking me so I sit up and get out of bed. She’s in the clinic, sitting by Ginger (Gosh, even I am starting to call him that) and stroking him slowly. She’s humming too, or cooing, wait. No, she’s singing. I hold my breath and listen. It’s a Christmas song and I recognize it.

I really can’t stay
Baby, it’s cold outside
I’ve got to go ‘way
Baby, it’s cold out outside
This evening has been
Been hoping that you’d drop in
So very nice
I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice~

Her voice is velvety smooth and sensuous even. Low and soft, it holds me hostage until she stops and turns around, arching the same brow at me again.

“I…was wondering… Are you hungry or thirsty?” I ask, grappling with the awkwardness of being caught eavesdropping. I hope she doesn’t think I’m creepy or anything like that.

She blinks, then rubs her tummy and looks at it before flashing a sheepish grin.

“Hungry and thirsty, actually.”

My sudden giggle surprises me more than it does her as I backpedal and jutt my thumb towards the pantry.

“I’ll make us some ramen and hot drinks. Green tea for you?”

“Sounds good,” she manages to answer despite looking as though she has just seen a pig fly over the moon.

“Okay. Be right back.”

I duck into the pantry and snap into action. Out come a pot, two packets of instant ramen, two eggs and an empty bowl. Water goes into the electric kettle, set to boil, and I’m about to crack the eggs when I hear her again.

“How can I help?”

“You can open the packets of ramen,” I reply, keeping my eyes on the eggs as I crack them against the edge of the bowl and empty their contents into it. I toss the egg shells into the bin and pick up a pair of chopsticks to beat them up. I’m about to thank her when I realize I don’t even know her name.

“What’s your name?”

“Taeyeon.”

“Thanks, Taeyeon.”

“You’re welcome, Tiffany.”

“How do you know my name?”

For a second, I wonder if I’m in the presence of a spy or stalker.

“Your name card has your picture on it. I saw it on the counter.”

“Oh.” Now, I feel stupid.

“Anyhow, I should be the one thanking you.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worrying. I’m just thankful.”

“You’re welcome, then.”

“I’m not sure I am.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Am I welcome? Here? With you?”

Her piercing question puts a halt to my actions and I turn to her, eyes searching for clues to the way she feels. She doesn’t look uncomfortable, to say the least. Her posture is relaxed and eyes, as earnest as before. She really is asking if she’s welcome, no hard feelings.

I take a deep breath and search my heart for tmy answer. An earnest question should receive an earnest answer.

“Yes, you’re welcome. Here. With me.”

For the second time, she smiles, baring her gleaming white set of teeth. Braces, no doubt. They’re too neat to be natural. The warmth of her smile is anything but diminished by them, however. It all just comes together so wonderfully, the twinkle in her eyes, lift of her cheekbones, little dimple down by her lips. She has a beautiful smile and it warms me up.

The electric kettle fusses loudly as the water in it comes to a boil and I’m forced to break our gaze to tend to it. I switch off the main and lift the kettle to pour the boiling hot water into the pot.

“Ramen in,” I instruct and she follows, emptying the two packets into the water. I empty the beaten eggs into it and put the lid on. “Done.”

The tea is a breeze to prepare and she carries the two cups of green tea, following me out to the desks in the office. I set the pot of ramen down on a magazine and she puts the cups on coasters. We’re set for a cosy supper. Never would I have thought…

“Why are you on duty on Christmas eve? Isn’t the shelter closed?” she asks out of the blue, amidst sounds of our slurping.

“Why are you spending your Christmas eve with a stray dog?”

“Why aren’t you answering my question?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“Why are you so defensive?”

“Why are you asking so many questions?”

“Why are you avoiding them?”

A stalemate. A stalemate is what this is. We’ll just go on asking why till our faces turn blue and nothing will come out of it.

“I’m not avoiding them.”

“If you’re not, it’d be nice to get an answer.”

“I’m not on duty. The shelter is closed. But I wouldn’t turn a stray animal away on Christmas eve.”

“Why would you even be here if you’re not on duty?”

“Why don’t you answer my question before I answer yours.”

The corner of her lips curl up just a little but it’s enough for me to know that she’s amused.

“Is this going to be one of those question and answer games that teenagers play?”

I fold my arms, obstinate in the rule I have set. “It’s only fair.”

She shrugs, a slight lift and drop of her shoulders. “Fine. I’ll answer your question. I’m spending my Christmas eve with a stray dog because it needs me and shouldn’t be alone. Besides, I don’t have anywhere better to be.”

“And I’m here because I want to take care of my babies, make sure they’re alright. And I don’t have anywhere better to be either.”

The two of us stare at each other in what some would call a stand-off, only, it isn’t. It’s just our minds working, processing, deciding. And the smile that we give each other is the result of our decision making. We’ve decided that we’re okay with each other. We don’t need to ask anymore questions. We don’t need to know.

I lift my cup of green tea and bring it to her. “Cheers.”

She smiles in return, lifting her cup too. We clink our cups and drink, cementing our truce, acknowledging our similarities, and differences.

“So, puppies over humans, huh.”

My lips curl up at the thought of Prince and I nod. “Dogs are loyal. They don’t leave you just because…”

“Just because…?”

“Just because you’re not what they expect you to be.”

“Interesting…why do I feel like I can totally relate to that?”

I smile and shake my head, “Maybe…but I don’t think you can truly understand.”

She leans back, folds her arms and arches the same brow yet again. “Yeah? Try me.”

Her bewitching eyes beckon me to tell the truth and I don’t know if it’s the tea or the MSG in the ramen soup or the way her fringe falls across her eyes but I suddenly feel like pouring out my soul tonight. To her. A stranger who brought in a stray. A stray named Ginger. It’s just as well, since I probably won’t see her again after tonight. So I take a deep breath and talk.

“Would you understand what it feels like to have your own father tell you that something is wrong with you? And have your own sister and brother try to convince you that you’ve just been traumatized by failed relationships in the past? Or have your friends try to match you up with people whom you know you’ll never, ever like, just because.”

I’m standing now, worked up by my memories, my eyes stinging, burning with tears that have sprung up and my nose, snotty. My throat is stricken with tension and I have to fight to keep my emotions steady as they gush out from the depths of my heart. Then, I’m pacing the floor, trying to calm down when her hands grip my shoulders firmly.

“Tiffany.” The steel in her voice causes me to look at her, and I’m taken aback to see her clear brown eyes, sad and mournful like a wet puppy’s. “I understand,” she continues, her voice frail.

I shake my head. No, there’s no way she can truly understand. But she caresses my face with her palms and locks her gaze on me.

“Tiffany, my family won’t speak to me until I’m normal again. They won’t even let me see my little sis because I might lead her astray.”

She stops, shakes her head and emits a laugh so false and hollow that I forget my troubles for a moment.

“I don’t even dare tell my friends and I’m tired of lying to them.”

Stunned by what she said, I look into her eyes and see for the first time, the deep sadness that dwells inside. It’s in there, and if I look hard enough, I can see it. Her pain cuts to the chase, making me realize that she really can understand, that by some miracle, I’ve met a stranger, most unexpectedly, who can truly…feel…what I feel.

Then, we’re hugging. Arms tight. Chests pressed. Faces buried. Stumbling blindly.

And I’m crying, freely. Letting go the tears that I’ve held back for so long. Prince, awoken by my cries, has run to us, yipping at me while licking my legs to comfort me. But she doesn’t let me go. She hugs me till I stop. She then pulls her sleeve up and dabs my tears, cleans my snot. She is so tender that I feel like wailing again but I don’t. Somehow, I feel stronger now. I feel better.

And as we stare at each other, her eyes glistening, mine still wet, we take no heed of Prince who is yipping on and, if I know him well enough, probably sniffing and licking Taeyeon’s feet as well. We take no heed of the ramen that we have yet to finish. We take no heed of the green tea that’s left in our cups. We take heed of nothing but each other.

Like kindred spirits, we cling on tight, noses buried in hair, unwilling to let go what we have found in each other. It is the last thing we are expecting to find on Christmas eve. But we found it. Better than any bag, shoe or dress, we found each other.

“Tiffany…” says Taeyeon, breaking the peace that cocoons us.

“Yes?”

“We’re under the mistletoe.”

I look up and my heart leaps as I break into a smile. Suddenly, the cruel joke isn’t so cruel anymore. And as the cuckoo clock on the wall launches into the first of twelve, we smile at each other, exchanging unspoken words with our eyes.

“Merry Christmas, Tiffany,” she whispers, arms tightening around me.

“Merry Christmas, Taeyeon,” I breathe as her lips wrap around mine, not at all chaste, as a mistletoe kiss should be.

by itsakyo