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The sadness comes creeping in at three in the morning, when everyone else is asleep except for her. It slowly seeps into the crevices of her heart and she is entirely unaware until it is too late—her heart is overflowing with emotions and nothing can stop it from spilling over. Under the cover of darkness, she allows tears to fall silently, cupping a hand against her mouth to muffle choked sobs. Her chest heaves in and out violently and she buries herself under her blanket so that no one can hear her harsh breathing.

The day had been filled with busy schedules but now that work can no longer distract her, she finds herself missing her family back home in Japan. While she has a second home in Korea with all the Twice members, nothing beats the way her parents and brother would welcome her home. Even though she has been living in Korea for three years already, all the Korean sometimes leaves her confused and overwhelmed. She misses the familiar Japanese that she does not need to struggle to understand.

When she manages to find a picture of her family on her phone, she feels her heart physically ache because it is a poor substitute for the affectionate voices and warm touches that she yearns for. The frozen smiles on her phone screen do not feel right and she wishes she can be showered with her family’s love.

Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, she slips out of bed and tip-toes out of the room, turning on the living room lights. As she passes by one of the other bedrooms, she pauses before turning the knob and opening the door. The single beam of light allowed through the gap of the open door illuminates the room slightly and she can see her members still sound asleep. She sniffs quietly before entering the room, lightly padding across the room and towards the bed near the window. She kneels down by the bed, smiling softly.

Chaeyoung is asleep.

She threads her fingers through Chaeyoung’s hair gently, careful not to wake the girl up. Chaeyoung looks at peace, free of worries, not weighed down by any burdens. The girl looks so painfully young—Mina wants her to stay this way.

“Chaeyoungie, I miss my family,” she confesses, whispering more to herself than the girl.

Chaeyoung stirs and Mina panics, immediately rising hurriedly and backing a few feet away. The younger girl shifts a little but stays asleep, eyes closed and lips slightly parted. The panic settles and relief courses through her, but it is soon replaced by the ache of missing her family.

Tears blur her vision again and she tries to blink them away but they just end up staining her cheeks. Her fingers twitch, yearning to hold Chaeyoung’s hand. But she ignores the desire, clenching her fists instead, nails sinking into the palm of her hand. She grits her teeth, trying not to make a sound. Not wanting to wake Chaeyoung up, Mina withdraws out of the room, closing the door behind her.

She steps into the kitchen, pouring herself a glass of water. She sips at the clear liquid and her throat no longer feels as parched and constricted but nothing really helps with the ache behind her ribs. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she takes a deep breath, wishing her heart did not feel so heavy.

The lights suddenly flicker on and she hears a yelp coming from the doorway. The noise startles her and she very nearly spills her water, now holding the glass with both her hands.

“What the hell? Mina, you should have turned on the lights!” Jeongyeon nags in hushed whispers.

“Oh, Jeongyeon,” Mina starts, but then she realizes that she has been crying and she turns around, lowering her head and setting the glass down on the counter.

She hopes that her hair might be able to cover her face but then Jeongyeon asks, “Were you crying?”

Mina is quick to deny, “No.”

Jeongyeon approaches her and rests a gentle hand on her shoulder but she stubbornly keeps her head down anyway. The older girl bends down, trying to catch a glimpse of Mina’s face.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Jeongyeon tries, voice steady and reassuring.

“No, it’s okay. I’m fine. My period must be coming,” Mina tries to laugh it off but her laugh comes out all wrong and her voice is shaking.

She bites her lower lip to stop it from trembling but nothing hides the way her hands grip the counter tightly like she might lose all sense of control if she ever lets go. Jeongyeon’s hand reaches out to tuck Mina’s hair behind her ears, revealing her tear-streaked face. Loneliness wraps itself around her heart and squeezes the organ tightly. Because it hurts so much, because Jeongyeon is here, Mina cannot help herself, turning around and burrowing into Jeongyeon instead.

Her hands let go of the counter and tugs at Jeongyeon’s shirt, wringing and leaving creases in the fabric. She feels Jeongyeon’s arms tighten around her and the older girl leaves comforting pats on her back.

“I miss my family,” Mina chokes out. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay to miss your family. You don’t have to be sorry. It’s okay to cry,” Jeongyeon comforts.

Mina can feel the vibrations ripple across Jeongyeon’s chest as she speaks. Her voice is low and warm and Mina wants to hear more of it. The girl lets Mina clutch and cling on to her desperately like a lifeline, holding her close.

“It’s okay,” Jeongyeon says again and Mina believes her.

///

Mina finds herself being slapped awake by a softly snoring Nayeon. Blinking blearily, she gently removes Nayeon’s hand before sitting up, rubbing the sleep away from her eyes. When her vision is clear, she checks her reflection through her phone and she is not surprised to see that her eyes are still slightly swollen from yesterday’s crying. She hopes none of the members are awake yet to see her in this state. Slipping out of bed quietly, she passes Jihyo and Sana who are still sound asleep.

Her throat goes dry when she notices that she isn’t the only one awake. Mina is an early-riser and usually the ones that wake up earliest are her and Tzuyu. She does not expect to see Chaeyoung and Jeongyeon at the dining table, the former munching on fruit loops doused in milk.

“Oh, Mina unnie, good morning,” the younger girl greets cheerfully, waving her spoon.

Mina feels her heart clench, admiring the way the morning light wraps around the younger girl softly. She looks like an innocent angel, young and naïve.

“Morning,” Jeongyeon says casually, flashing a smile.

The older girl wears such a nonchalant expression that reveals nothing about last night. It seems like Jeongyeon respects and understands Mina’s wishes not to let anyone know and Mina does not know how to express her gratitude.

It takes a while for her to respond with a smile, “Morning, Jeongyeon unnie. Chaeyoungie, you’re early today.”

Chaeyoung makes a face, “What are you saying, unnie? I can wake up on my own too…”

Even though her legs feel like they are made of lead, she makes her way to Chaeyoung anyway, ruffling her hair hesitantly.

“Is our little Chaeyoung a grown-up now?” she coos.

“Of course!” she exclaims, puffing her chest out to look more mature but it only makes her look more adorable in Mina’s eyes. “You always do this, unnie...”

Mina blinks in confusion, “Hmm, what?”

“Treat me like a child,” she pouts, looking even more like a child.

“That’s because you are, Chaeyoungie,” Mina sing-songs, ruffling Chaeyoung’s hair again.

Jeongyeon laughs at the banter between the two, getting up and shaking her head at the same time. As she passes by Mina, she squeezes Mina’s shoulder lightly, causing the latter to look up at her. Jeongyeon’s eyes are filled with concern and Mina can read her unsaid questions. She smiles, already feeling much better than yesterday, nodding her confirmation.

Jeongyeon, older and dependable, leans in and says, “I’ll be here if you need me.”

Not waiting for a reply, she enters her shared room with Momo and leaves Mina and Chaeyoung alone. Mina turns to look at Chaeyoung when she hears the sound of a metal clinking against porcelain, noticing that the girl has set her spoon in her bowl, no longer eating her cereal.

“Is the cereal too bland? Should I cook something for you?” Mina asks, a little worried that Chaeyoung has stopped eating her breakfast.

Chaeyoung stands, the back of her knees hitting the chair, causing it to slide outward. Even at her full height, she is a few centimeters shorter than Mina. Her shorter stature makes Mina want to baby her, coddle her, and shower her with lots of tender loving care.

“I need to tell you something, unnie.”

The younger girl wears a slight frown and her eyes are wandering, looking at everywhere but Mina. She takes Mina’s hand quietly and gently, saying nothing yet, merely letting her thumb trace random patterns on Mina’s skin. Mina can feel how nervous Chaeyoung is—her hands are cold and her palms are sweaty. The hold on her hand is weak and unsteady; Mina knows she can easily shake her off.

The silence stretches out for too long and Mina can feel it wrapping around her neck and suffocating her. She knows exactly what Chaeyoung wants to say, but she masks it with a soft smile, simply pats the crown of Chaeyoung’s head lovingly.

Mina knows why this love she harbors cannot blossom beautifully.

“Is it important, Chaeyoungie? We have a schedule to follow,” Mina says nonchalantly.

Just as Chaeyoung parts her lips, Mina is saved by the entrance of a disgruntled Momo. The latter groans as she throws her arms up in the air, eyes half closed and stretching. Upon seeing Momo, Chaeyoung withdraws her hand hastily, hurriedly sitting back down and returning to her cereal. Mina hides her relief by placing a concerned hand on her shoulder.

“Is something wrong?” she asks, knowing full well that nothing will make its way past Chaeyoung’s lips today.

Chaeyoung mumbles her response, looking preoccupied with her fruit loops, “No, it’s not important anyway…”

She hums her faux acceptance, “Okay then.”

She leaves Chaeyoung with another pat on her head before making her way to the shared bathroom. Despite the relief, it is accompanied with disappointment—the dull realization that Chaeyoung cannot fulfill her wants and needs.

After she makes sure the door is locked, she turns the tap on full, water gushing out uncontrollably. She cups her hands together to gather water and splashes it against her face repeatedly until she feels awake and sober. Her hands clutch at the sink as she studies her own reflection in the mirror.

Chaeyoung is too young to be reliable, and Mina needs someone to depend on. This is why her love cannot bloom.

///

When Chaeyoung and Jihyo approach her, she does not expect to be greeted by a demo song. They have her seated on the floor and they form a small triangle around Jihyo’s phone. The leader makes sure that the phone is not muted and she presses play, rubbing her hands together in anticipation. The maknae looks like she might be facing a mental breakdown with the way she is chewing on her bottom lip, restlessly playing with her fingers.

Mina understands why the two might be pressured and worried—it is their first time writing lyrics—but it is not a plausible explanation for how anxious Chaeyoung looks. Jihyo has a frown etched on her forehead but she does not look nearly as worried and panicky as the other girl. She decides to save her comments for later and concentrate on the song instead.

The song is very upbeat and even though the demo only has Jihyo and Chaeyoung’s voices, Mina can picture the rest of Twice singing it. The lyrics are about a girl’s first love and the fluttering feelings associated with it. As she listens carefully to the lyrics, she gradually comes to an understanding why Chaeyoung is so nervous. The realization hits Mina and she has to lower her head to hide away a smile.

The lyrics are about her.

But then she remembers that Chaeyoung is young and even though Mina wants her, it is not what she needs. Her nails press into her clothed knee and her jaw tenses—she allows her emotions to manifest this way, knowing that the two members will not notice.

When the song ends, she lifts her head. Jihyo’s expectant eyes are on her while Chaeyoung seems to be observing the dorm floor with great precision.

“So how is it?” Jihyo cautiously asks.

“I think it’s perfect. The lyrics mesh well with the song and it’s very cohesive. I like it,” Mina praises, managing to flash a reassuring grin at Jihyo, who visibly relaxes upon hearing the compliment.

Chaeyoung still has her eyes on the floor, looking very timid. It is certainly quite adorable to Mina, how shy she is acting. There is a kind of dissonance between how she feels and what she wants to do. She wants to keep this cuteness to herself, even though she does not deserve it.

“Where did you guys get the inspiration from though? The lyrics actually sound quite specific,” Mina prods.

The comment successfully gets a rise out of Chaeyoung, who finally looks up, meeting Mina’s eyes. Chaeyoung is even more uneasy now, eyes unsure where to look. Mina is sure that Chaeyoung must feel hot and flustered, especially since her cheeks are flushing. Mina is not quite sure how to feel, now that she knows the full extent of her effect on the younger girl.

Jihyo pipes up, “Well, most of the ideas came from Chaeng, really. She deserves more credit.”

“Really? Our Chaeyoungie must be in love then,” Mina teases, giggling at the girl and making a jab at the lyrics, “This person you like must have ocean-like eyes.”

Chaeyoung’s cheeks grow redder by the second and Mina did not think that was possible. Jihyo lets out a boisterous laugh, slapping Chaeyoung’s shoulder repeatedly.

“Chaeyoung-ah, I don’t mean to make fun of you, but you’re so whipped,” Jihyo barely manages to complete her sentence, trailing off into laughter.

The leader picks up her phone, mentioning something about going to the company to submit the lyrics—still chuckling at Chaeyoung—and leaving the two alone in the living room. The girl is quiet and obviously still embarrassed. Mina understands why—laying all her feelings bare on a sheet of paper must have taken her a lot of courage. Even so, Mina cannot help but tease the girl even more. This side of Chaeyoung is cute.

“Ah, I’m jealous. Who is this person you’re writing about? How dare they snatch my Chaeyoungie away from me?” Mina boldly declares, throwing her arms around Chaeyoung.

The weight of Mina causes the younger girl to fall back on the floor, shoulder colliding against the ground. The fall knocks the breath out of Chaeyoung and her face scrunches into a wince as she tries to massage her shoulder. Mina’s hands are on either side of Chaeyoung’s head and she is pretty sure that they are in a rather compromising position, legs all tangled together.

“Ow… Unnie, that hurts…”

“Now you know how I felt when I listened to the lyrics,” Mina sulks, jutting her lower lip out.

The realization that they are in an awkward position seems to strike Chaeyoung and she flails about in panic, hands grabbing Mina’s shoulders to push her off.

“Unnie, you should get up first,” Chaeyoung says hurriedly.

“No,” she says stubbornly, intentionally pressing her weight against Chaeyoung. “Are this person’s eyes prettier than mine?”

“N-No… You’re the prettiest,” Chaeyoung mumbles, averting her eyes.

Mina cannot help the laughter that bubbles at the back of her throat. The compliment is flattering and because Mina knows it is genuine, she feels happiness blossom in her chest. Mina likes that Chaeyoung likes her. She likes the way Chaeyoung tries to subtly convey her feelings through a song. She likes how easy it is to be around Chaeyoung at this moment, how easy it is to throw her worries to the back of her head and just laugh.

“You’re laughing at me again,” Chaeyoung accuses, pouting adorably.

“No, I’m laughing because I like that you said I’m the prettiest,” Mina giggles. “Even though I practically forced it out of you.”

She rolls off Chaeyoung, dusting her pants and getting up. She offers a hand to Chaeyoung and the girl takes it, allowing Mina to pull her up. Mina takes the chance to pull the younger girl into her embrace, squeezing her tightly. Closing her eyes, she rests her chin on Chaeyoung’s shoulders. (Like this, Mina can pretend that being with Chaeyoung isn’t difficult at all.)

“You really are the prettiest to me though…” Chaeyoung murmurs and Mina pretends not to hear.

///

Chaeyoung is asleep again.

Mina is tasked to wake the girl up because it is a Thursday night and they are supposed to watch a movie. It is a routine that Jihyo put in place for the Twice members to bond and they try as much to stick to it when they are free to do so.

The room is silent, save for the whirl of the air-conditioner and the soft breathing of Chaeyoung. She sits on the floor next to Chaeyoung’s bed, resting her chin against the mattress. She watches as Chaeyoung’s chest rises and falls steadily, wondering what the girl is currently dreaming of. Mina sincerely hopes that Chaeyoung will only have good dreams forever, because the girl is too pure and too kind.

“You’re so young,” Mina breathes.

As if she heard Mina, Chaeyoung shifts, eyes fluttering open.

“Mina unnie?” her voice is hoarse. “Is it movie time already?”

She cannot help but smile fondly at a sleepy Chaeyoung, “You don’t have to wake up if you’re still sleepy.”

The younger girl sits up, shaking her head, “I should watch it with them.”

Mina watches as she swings her legs out of bed, trying to rub the sleep away from her eyes. Chaeyoung yawns, patting her messed up hair in an attempt to tame it and make it stay in place. Before Mina is even aware, she is already reaching out, fingers gently combing through brown hair.

“There,” she says quietly. “It looks pretty now.”

Her fingers wrap around Chaeyoung’s wrist and she leads the girl out of the room. The rest of the members cheer when the duo appears in the living room, obviously excited that they can finally start to watch a movie. A grin makes its way to Chaeyoung’s face at this and the girl laughs at her members, obviously very amused by how impatient they are.

Mina likes watching Chaeyoung like this—so open and honest. Every emotion is written on her face and spelled out in her actions. Her cheeks turn to the color of apples when she is shy, she scratches her cheek when she is unsure, and she breathes heavily when she is frustrated. Mina likes it, how she can understand the girl without scrutinizing her, how she knows how to act and react around her. It’s easy and Mina likes easy.

Just like how easy it is to cuddle up to Chaeyoung on the couch, their shoulders brushing against each other lightly.

Sana passes out blankets just as the movie starts, the logo of Studio Ghibli flashing once, illuminating the dark room. Mina casually takes it, laying the fabric on both her and Chaeyoung. At the corner of her eye, she notes how Chaeyoung’s cheeks are slowly painted a faint red. She leans in, wanting to whisper to Chaeyoung when she realizes how shallow the girl’s breathing is.

“Chaeyoungie, do you even like Studio Ghibli movies?” Mina asks, watching as the girl averts her eyes.

As expected, the girl trips over her words,” Y-Yeah, sure.”

She snickers, “And someone was saying that she was a grown-up already.”

“Who says adults can’t watch Studio Ghibli movies?” Chaeyoung scrunches her nose.

“Sure,” Mina says patronizingly.

Under the blanket, she can feel Chaeyoung’s warmth. She winds her arm around Chaeyoung’s own, clinging on to her. The action has Chaeyoung tearing her eyes away from the television, turning to stare at Mina questioningly instead. Mina just shifts closer to Chaeyoung, smiling in satisfaction upon stealing Chaeyoung’s attention successfully. She can feel the girl’s eyes on her but she pretends to watch the movie instead.

When she no longer feels the younger girl staring at her, she takes a quick peek at her. Mina does not bother schooling her expression, letting her lips spread into a grin when she sees Chaeyoung wearing a small smile, eyes reflecting more than just the light from the television.

Upon seeing this, she lets her fingers trail downward, dancing along the length of Chaeyoung’s arm, only to loosely intertwine her fingers with Chaeyoung’s. She can feel Chaeyoung stiffen and the girl turns her head so fast, Mina is worried she might get whiplash.

Despite her discomfort, Chaeyoung does not pull her hand away, letting Mina hold her hand. Mina knowingly intrudes on her personal space, going too close for comfort. She lets her thumb caress Chaeyoung’s hand, toying with her fingers. She can hear Chaeyoung inhale sharply in response to her actions.

Unnie,” Chaeyoung lets out a shaky breath.

Mina has never heard the younger girl like this, so nervous and out of breath. It is a harsh reminder that Chaeyoung has feelings and these feelings are real. This is not what Mina should be doing, leading Chaeyoung on even though she has no intention of pursuing a relationship with her. She gasps, hands stopping and numbly holding on to Chaeyoung.

Chaeyoung seems to have noticed her unease because leans backwards to look at her, “Unnie? You okay?”

Round wide eyes stare at her. All Mina sees is confusion and naiveté. She merely blinks as realization hits—she has played with Chaeyoung’s feelings due to her own selfishness.

She jerks her hand away before getting up, her share of the blanket falling pathetically to the floor. Mina feels her chest tighten to a point where it physically aches. She turns away from Chaeyoung, feeling the constriction in her chest subside a little—it’s easier to breathe this way.

For a moment, she worries that her members might be able to read the guilt in her eyes, or that she might not find the right words to escape because her throat feels tight. Then she remembers that she can lie and pretend (it’s all she has ever done, anyway) and she mumbles something about needing to check her phone and retreats into her shared room.

As soon as the door is closed, she leans against the wooden frame, sighing. Perhaps, in a different timeline, if Chaeyoung was older and Mina could depend on her, things would be easier. Her feelings are spiraling out of control and she can’t find it in herself to control them.

Mina foresees an incoming train wreck, but she doesn’t know how to stop anymore.

///

“Raise your hands if you want to be on groceries duty,” Jihyo says, since she is the leader and naturally in charge of assigning daily duties.

Momo’s hand immediately shoots up and it is obvious that she wants to shop for more snacks because she has been complaining that Jeongyeon keeps stealing her food. Jeongyeon volunteers since she has been a health nut recently and has even started working out.

Seeing that Chaeyoung does not seem keen on leaving the dorm, Mina raises her hand, wanting to avoid her. Suddenly, Chaeyoung links her arm with Mina’s own.

“I’ll go too then,” Chaeyoung says.

The sudden participation has Mina panicking and she blurts hurriedly, “I guess I should stay then.”

Out of reflex, she yanks her arm out of Chaeyoung’s grasp. Nothing distracts her from the hurt in Chaeyoung’s eyes. The girl’s miniscule actions seem to be magnified to Mina—lowered eyes, lower lip caught in between her teeth.

“That’s a good idea. Without Mina helping with the cooking, the house might burn down,” Jihyo shrugs, quickly diffusing the tension. “Sana, you go instead.”

Mina averts her eyes, not wanting to look at Chaeyoung any longer. She doesn’t want to witness the damage she has just caused, preferring to act as if everything is fine. She knows she’s running away from her problems, but being selfish is easier, is what she has always done. She turns and goes back to her room, turning a blind eye to the repercussions of her own actions. (She doesn’t know any other way of handling things.)

Settling on her bed, all she can think about is how wounded Chaeyoung looked—something that she caused. Mina does not know how to love and Chaeyoung deserves someone whom she can rely on. Mina cannot love Chaeyoung like this, not when she herself needs to depend on someone.

“Mina? Are you okay?”

A hand waves in her face and she blinks in surprise, the voice managing to pull her out of her train of thoughts. Jihyo is seated on her bed with an eyebrow raised in concern, still waving her hand in front of Mina.

Mina forces a smile, “Sorry, I was just daydreaming. You were saying?”

“I was wondering what we should do for Chaeyoung’s birthday. Should we bake a cake? It’s a bit hard since we’re busy preparing for comeback though,” Jihyo says, pursing her lips.

Mina stills upon hearing Jihyo’s words. She has been so caught up in her own thoughts that she failed to notice Chaeyoung’s birthday nearing.

“Maybe we should just buy a cake and sushi. Chaeyoung loves sushi, right?” Jihyo contemplates out loud.

“Shall we try making sushi?” Mina suggests absent-mindedly.

“Ignoring the fact that we cannot cook to save our lives, yes, that’s a brilliant idea,” Jihyo chuckles.

 “She’s going to be an adult soon…” Mina whispers, more to herself than anybody.

“Well, Chaeng isn’t really childish in the first place. She has pure thoughts but her thinking is actually pretty mature for her age,” Jihyo comments before playfully adding, “Unlike Nayeon unnie.”

The jab at Nayeon is obviously meant to lighten the mood but Mina finds that she can only let out a soft laugh because her throat feels too dry and parched and her tongue feels too big for her mouth.

“But why do I keep thinking that she’s a child?” Mina blurts.

“Probably because you really adore her? You guys are pretty much the closest to each other, aren’t you?”

Mina can feel her own face contort and she lets her walls shatter. She is not aware of how she looks but she thinks it must resemble a grimace with how sympathetic Jihyo’s gaze on her is. The leader pats her shoulder twice before giving a gentle squeeze.

“You were avoiding Chaeyoung, weren’t you? Do you want to tell me why?”

“Something happened. I… I hurt her. I didn’t mean to, but I did,” Mina admits, and the confession is so heavy, she feels like it’s choking her.

Jihyo does not pry for details, just tries her best to suggest solutions despite how vague Mina was. Mina does not know how to show her gratitude towards her same-aged friend but it seems like the latter understands the turbulent feelings inside her because she wears a gentle, understanding smile.

The leader squeezes her shoulder again before standing up. She does a comical fist-pump and mouths fighting, and Mina knows the girl is trying to get her to cheer up. She does manage a small smile, putting Jihyo at ease. The girl leaves, closing the door behind her, giving Mina some privacy and space to think.

She exhales softly, but none of the tension inside her leaves. The image of Chaeyoung biting her lip, hurt and vulnerable, flashes in her mind again. Burying her face with her hands, she closes her eyes and grits her teeth. The silence is broken when the door opens again and Mina expects to see Jihyo at the door. When she does lift her head, her eyes widen upon realizing that Chaeyoung is standing by the open door with an uneasy expression on her face.

“Jihyo unnie said that you were in here?” she asks, unsure of herself.

This is the last thing Mina wants right now, for Chaeyoung to stand in front of her, wearing an expression of contriteness even though she hasn’t done anything wrong. Her heart squeezes at the sight of a distressed Chaeyoung. Mina wonders why she is such a terrible person, why she hurts the person she loves so often, why she cannot do anything right.

Chaeyoung tries, “Unnie, did I do something wrong?”

“No, why?”

The younger girl scratches her cheek lightly, eyes wary, “It just feels like you’ve been avoiding me.”

Mina fakes a laugh and her own voice sounds unnatural and foreign to her, “What are you talking about?”

The wariness in the younger girl’s eyes fades away, only for it to be replaced by an unconcealable grief. She watches as Chaeyoung grips the ends of her shorts tightly, tears gathering in her eyes. Her back is hunched, and she looks so defeated. The gaze directed at Mina is still filled with love, but it is also tinted with disappointment and pain. Mina feels the burden of her gaze weigh down on her heart, her chest tight and heavy.

“You’re so unfair, unnie,” Chaeyoung whispers, voice airy and trembling.

She blinks, and Mina can see the tears trail down, staining her cheeks. This is the aftermath of Mina’s actions—a weak whisper. And yet, Chaeyoung’s grief is so loud, Mina wants to cover her ears and pretend again. But she does not get the chance make a choice because Chaeyoung decides for her instead.

“I won’t bother you anymore,” she mumbles, turning on her heels and leaving the room.

Chaeyoung closes the door quietly as she leaves, the door bumping against the frame softly—a note of finality.

Mina is left all alone, with a shameful silence as her only companion.

///

No one really notices the differences, but Mina is subjugated by the clarity of it all. Chaeyoung acts exactly like how Mina would have wanted—like nothing happened. Not even Jihyo is aware that something has changed between Mina and Chaeyoung. That Chaeyoung no longer touches Mina, no longer looks at her, no longer smiles at her.

Chaeyoung does not treat Mina like she doesn’t exist; she is not that heartless. Instead, she treats Mina like how she would treat an acquaintance—never extending beyond polite greetings and pleasantries. Somehow, it feels even worse because she knows she does not deserve Chaeyoung’s kindness.

The openness that Chaeyoung once had is gone. When Mina looks at her, she only sees an endless void. She feels so far away, so distant that it is hard to tell if Chaeyoung ever had any feelings for her in the first place. Mina wants Chaeyoung to look at her again, to love her again.

She feels like a child.

The elastic currently stretched along the underside of her jaw feels like it’s choking her. A silly yellow birthday hat sits on the crown of her head and the barely stretchable string that is supposed to secure the hat is tucked below her chin uncomfortably. It feels like a leash for some reason and it digs into her skin tightly.

Seven of them are cramped together in Jeongyeon and Momo’s room because they lied to Chaeyoung that everyone was out except for Jeongyeon and Momo and they could not celebrate her birthday because of that. Jeongyeon is out there with Chaeyoung in the living room acting as a distraction while the rest of them prepare the birthday surprise. Nayeon is lighting the last of the candles on the cake while Tzuyu picks up the plates of food, getting ready to go out. Jihyo is at the door, listening out for Jeongyeon’s cue. (Apparently, the codeword for them to make an appearance is ohyo. Mina has no idea why.)

“Ohyo ohyo!” Jeongyeon suddenly yells awkwardly.

Mina can hear Chaeyoung’s confusion, “Unnie, what’s with you?”

The seven of them stifle their laughter and on Jihyo’s count, they burst out of the room, immediately launching into a birthday song. As Mina sings and claps along, she sees how Chaeyoung brightens, eyes widening and lips spreading into a grin. They surround the birthday girl—Momo even gives her a backhug, resting her chin on her shoulder and Mina has to banish the thought that she should be the one hugging Chaeyoung instead.

When the song ends, Nayeon approaches her, encouraging her to make a wish before blowing the candles. A moment of silence passes whilst the girl closes her eyes, clasping her hands together to make a wish. When Chaeyoung opens her eyes, Mina finds herself drawn to the candlelight reflected in her eyes. The girl puckers her lips and blows out all the flames cleanly in one breath, earning claps and cheers from the rest.

“Chocolate cake! Finally!” Dahyun raises her hands in the air, ready to get drunk on chocolate.

“Chaeyoung-ah! Happy birthday! Congratulations, you get a kiss from me!” Sana declares, stretching her arms out to engulf Chaeyoung in a hug.

The birthday girl drowns in Sana’s hug, “Unnie!”

It is a joyous occasion—but why does Mina feel like crying? The smile on her face comes out more wistful than cheery. Perhaps it is due to the way Chaeyoung laughs wholeheartedly, with cake smeared on her face, a picture of happiness. It is not an expression Mina is used to seeing—Mina only ever witnesses bashfulness, timidity, and most recently, indifference. Now that Mina has seen how boisterous Chaeyoung can be, she wants to hear Chaeyoung laugh more often, wants to see Chaeyoung happy.

Almost as if Chaeyoung can hear Mina’s thoughts, she turns only to meet eyes with the latter. Her gaze is so intense and heavy that Mina has to avert her eyes, has to look away so that she can breathe easier. The string of the birthday hat clings to her skin and her throat is going dry.

She pulls off the birthday hat, staring at its festive prints. Her hands clench into fists and she crumples the birthday hat. The festive prints look blurry and Mina can’t tell if it’s because of the crumples or because her eyes are filled with tears.

///

When the party ends, everyone retreats to their respective rooms, exhausted by the day. Sleep doesn’t come easily for Mina, the look of happiness on Chaeyoung’s face never leaving her head. All she can think about is how selfish she has been, how apologetic she is towards the younger girl. Despite the contriteness weighing her down, she doesn’t think an apology can make it past her lips. She doesn’t know how to apologize, doesn’t think a simple ‘sorry’ can suffice.

She wanders to the kitchen, barely guided by the lights outside their apartment. She slides a window open, taking a breath of fresh air. It is past midnight; their lights are out but the city stays awake. Air enters her lungs, but she still feels like she can’t get enough oxygen. It’s stifling (but Mina knows the one suffocating her is herself).

Arms wrap around her waist suddenly, encasing her in warmth. Her heart jumps for a moment but when she realizes who it is, the organ in her chest only clenches painfully.

“Unnie, why did you look at me like that?” Chaeyoung asks, mumbling the words into the crook of her neck.

Mina’s fingers twitch, wanting to touch Chaeyoung, to feel her skin on her finger tips.

“Like what?” Mina asks even though she already knows the answer.

 “Like you miss me. Like you love me,” Chaeyoung breathes. “You’re so unfair. You can’t push me away but look at me like that with those eyes.”

When Mina turns around, all she sees are Chaeyoung’s wet lashes and the city lights reflected in her eyes. It causes her to tremble, shaking hands haphazardly trying to grip on to Chaeyoung’s sleeves. And then her vision is blurry and her lower lip is wobbling and the words are stuck at the back of her throat. Her chest is heaving, there’s not enough air and she doesn’t know what else to do other than try to breathe even though it feels like she’s got her head submerged under water.

Chaeyoung leans in, bumping her forehead against Mina’s. Mina blinks, vision clearing, feeling tears wet her cheeks.

“Please lean on me.”

Then she feels Chaeyoung’s wet lips on hers.

The way Chaeyoung kisses is clumsy and desperate but Chaeyoung breathes life into Mina, her chest getting lighter. The arms around her waist tighten and she clings onto Chaeyoung frantically, feeling as if she might break if Chaeyoung lets go.

Chaeyoung pulls away a little, looking at her softly. The younger girl is looking at her with kind, loving eyes again, but something has changed—Mina cannot pinpoint what. Her affectionate gaze makes Mina nuzzle up against her, resting her forehead against Chaeyoung’s shoulder.

As she leans on Chaeyoung, she realizes that the words aren’t so hard to get out anymore—that her chest isn’t heavy, that her throat isn’t tight with unsaid words anymore.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs.

Chaeyoung brushes her lips against Mina’s and she knows she is forgiven.

“And I didn’t get to wish you personally earlier,” she mumbles. “Happy birthday.”

Chaeyoung smiles, love and happiness in her eyes.

///

Mina yawns softly, barely covering her mouth as she does so. Seated at the back of the van, she can feel her body longing for some well-deserved rest. The air-conditioner of the van is cold and the blanket wrapped around her body warms her in the most comfortable of ways.

It has been a tiring day, especially so since they have just landed in Korea after countless schedules in Japan. Their Japan activities seem even more stressful to Mina simply because she is Japanese and she has to step up and take the lead occasionally. It is something out of her comfort zone and given her introverted nature, she finds it more difficult to speak up.

They are given a few days of break so Mina seeks solace in the fact that she can unwind before they are shipped off to Japan again for more activities.

A hand sneakily intertwines with her own and she smiles when she finds Chaeyoung looking at her.

“What are you thinking of?” Chaeyoung asks, eyebrows arched downwards in worry.

“Nothing much,” Mina reflexively says.

When Chaeyoung narrows her eyes, Mina surrenders laughingly, “I’m just a bit stressed out over our Japan activities. Just a little tired, that’s all.”

“You’re doing well. You don’t have to worry,” the girl reassures, pressing a kiss against the corner of Mina’s lips. “Now sleep, you need to rest.”

Mina lets herself be guided by Chaeyoung, the latter pulling Mina down to allow Mina to lean on her. Mina relaxes against Chaeyoung, feeling her eyelids getting heavier as Chaeyoung caresses her cheek lovingly.

As her eyes flutter close, she feels lips brushing against her forehead, bidding her a good night.