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dust & gold

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You're the sun, you've never seen the night
But you hear its song from the morning birds
Well I'm not the moon, I'm not even a star
But awake at night I'll be singing to the birds


 

2009

 

Kang Seulgi is fifteen and ready to conquer the world.

   She's been a trainee in a cutthroat industry since two years and she's developed an affinity to see the wolfish nature of everyone else around her—of the other trainee's, of the instructors and of the idols—and it scares her at times to realise it's hard to be kind in such a world. She's not one to tear others just to secure herself a spot and really, no one else has done so to her, yet it's only been two years and their masks are just coming off. Her voice is rich and her movements suave, and she notices the other trainee's whispers behind her back—I wish I was her—and she wishes she could tell them no, don't say that, you're better equipped for this world than I am.

   Seulgi knows it's only their instinct to survive and maybe hers is lopsided because all she wants is for all of them to succeed in fulfilling their dreams. A couple of trainee's huddle together at the back of the practice room, a pack of vultures ready to dissect anyone around them but she hears them murmur about the new girl—she's prettier than anyone I've met and I've met a lot of pretty girls... but have you seen her? she won't survive here, her eyes are too soft... yeah, she's a doll but who knows, she could fuck her way to the top—and her mind weaves the girl an image through the words of those kids.

   It's almost unintentional but she scoffs, rumours destroy and this new girl is already amidst a losing battle—she'll go crying home by the end of the week.

 


 

Seulgi meets her for the first time in under three weeks—a feat because even she thought the girl would never survive.

   Meeting Bae Joohyun is an experience.

   An experience that utterly rattles her heart because Joohyun is completely ethereal and Seulgi has never quite met a trainee like her before. Short, petite and oh so beautiful, her eyes hold a contradiction that sets her apart from every single person in the industry—cold, calculating and shrewd—a kind of cruelty a girl her age should never have. And it tugs at Seulgi until all her mind does is orbit around the sun that is Joohyun.

   "I'm Joohyun." Her voice is soft and silent, tilted at the end with a tinge of an accent Seulgi can't quite place.

   "Seulgi."

   Intelligent eyes flash with a certain interest, "I've heard about you."

   Joohyun is a beauty worth being worshipped—meant to be brought to life on the stage—she commands attention and revels in gossip and her little interest in Seulgi elates the girl in a way she never knew could happen. "Oh."

   There's nothing kind about Joohyun, she's all hard edges and sharp scents and with an astute sense of the world. At eighteen she seems timid and small, ready to cower behind a strong boy—but there's a harsh intensity in her eyes people don't notice because she's the prettiest girl from Daegu—they look at her face but forget to think about what's underneath. She will destroy and conquer and sit on a throne made of the bones of her admirers, yet Seulgi doesn't shy away—and with a morbid curiosity she gives into a handshake with the promise of friendship.

 


 

Seulgi doesn't want to admit it but she feels so goddamn special to be a part of Joohyun's world.

   It's everything anyone her age could ever want—to be wanted and admired by the very people one sets up on a pedestal to idolise—it's new and invigorating and addicting. Joohyun is an enchantress—her smiles cast a spell and her actions retain it—and the spell she's cast on Seulgi is as mysterious as the girl herself.

   She's not one for any kind of affection; she'd shy away from hugs and feel uncomfortable under lingering touches but it's all what Joohyun does and Seulgi is just getting used to it—the way Joohyun would slip their hands together or loop her arm around Seulgi's or the way she'd absentmindedly twirl a lock of Seulgi's hair after practice or suddenly initiate any sort of contact she can. As forward as she is with touching, Joohyun is coy and it's an unsettling trait on her; it's a broad stroke of pink on her violet aura and it clashes violently with her mind. She speaks as though she weighs every word on her tongue, her voice is always pulled taut with politeness and ineffability and despite it all, there's always an undertone of an accent. And Seulgi wonders why Joohyun never speaks in her Gyeongsang dialect for people would fawn over her saccharine tone of voice (she'll never say but she positively adores whenever Joohyun forgets and speaks in the way most natural to her).

 


 

Joohyun is a whirlwind and Seulgi isn't afraid to be swept away.

   But after practice as they're sat together, Joohyun pressed up against her, head on her shoulder, sleeping, that she finally sees the girl she first thought of when she heard about the infamous Bae Joohyun—as the small pretty girl who'd never survive in this industry. Six months in and she's seen her flourish as if the industry was made to accommodate people like her—unattainable stars seen through blurry telescopes, whirlwinds never meant to diminish.

   "Seulgi-yah," Joohyun says, "take a nap." She shifts and Seulgi's shoulders tense.

   "But we have vocal training in half an hour." Seulgi pouts unsurely, as Joohyun moves to sit up straight before placing an arm around Seulgi and pulling her close.

   "Relax, I'll wake you up in fifteen," is all Joohyun says but Seulgi can't process it because all she can smell is something exotic and fresh and cool—a strong base of mint mixed with a tangibly sweet deodorant—it invades her thoughts and curls into her skin before she can think Joohyun unnie smells wonderful. "I promise. Now sleep."

 


 

It takes Seulgi's brother three times before he can get her to realise that her mind's been elsewhere throughout the weekend.

   Going home for Christmas was a decision made more out of guilt than anything else—SM offered an escape all those years ago and she took it—but she always went back to retain some sort of sanity in case all those hours spent training short circuit her brain. This year, though, was all about Joohyun, Joohyun, Joohyun, yet she can't even explain why she's so distraught to vie for the attention of another human—why she wants to impress her, why she's so attached, why she forces herself to do anything just to see a smile—and at moments like these Seulgi is so confused. Confused because her life before meeting Joohyun was simple and now she'd even kick a nerd in the nose just to please a girl.

   Yet all these thoughts fly out of her head when she hears Joohyun's voice through the phone saying, "I miss you."

   There's a joy that sparks up in her heart and it bleeds into her veins—it's unexpected but lovely to be wanted—that someone as admired as Joohyun could miss her. She wants to immortalise this feeling and it doesn't matter that she didn't care much about anyone else during Christmas, all that matters is she's important enough to be missed.

 

2010

 

Seulgi isn't sure why Joohyun is still her friend.

   She's heard people whisper, ask each other the probability of this impossibility—they have no answers and neither does she. A person like Joohyun should've never even spared a glance at her, yet here they are; inside a clothing store with their arms linked together like they're children.

   Joohyun takes out a hoodie to examine it and comments, "You know, purple's my favourite colour. What's yours?"

   Seulgi shrugs but she's more surprised at Joohyun disclosing something as trivial as a favourite colour—she isn't really secretive, she's just selective about the information she relays. She tugs at Seulgi's arm. "I get that the question wasn't original but at least gimme an answer."

   "I don't have a favourite colour, really. They're all great," she takes the hoodie and leans it over Joohyun's shoulder and goddamn—purple suits her too well. "You should buy it."

   "Never knew you had it in you to be diplomatic, Seulgi-yah." Joohyun quirks an eyebrow at her which is such an odd mixture of condescending and fondness that Seulgi's only response is to blush. "You'll only be dissected and examined after debut. Are you sure you'll be able to handle that?"

 


 

Seulgi's sixteenth birthday is spent like any other day.

   They practice and practice and practice and the circle starts over again the next day. School is off. But Joohyun's wish was the best present she's ever gotten. They've never discussed birthdays, yet Joohyun knew somehow and was the first one to wish her precisely at 12 o'clock.

   Her bones ache with a certain tiredness that's always present after a dance routine and she slumps down on the floor, her back against the cool mirror. All the others make their way to leave except Joohyun, she lingers by the door until everyone else has left. She moves with a lithe grace that hides a reservation about her posture—Seulgi believes she's the only one who's ever noticed it.

   "So, how was it?" Joohyun asks, sitting down beside her. There's a rush of a minty fragrance and Seulgi's mind blanks—why think—and she inhales, closing her eyes, content. She just hums in response, skin brushing against skin—Joohyun leans in close—the scent is so sweet Seulgi can almost taste it. "I asked you a question, sweetheart."

   The way Joohyun says sweetheart isn't as patronising as it is adorable, it's what she says whenever Seulgi's attention wanders off. Her eyes snap open and she almost recoils at how close Joohyun is—the girl never really understands the concept of personal space. Clearing her throat she says, "It was ok, I guess. Never really had a chance to celebrate."

   "What?" Joohyun's brows furrow, she gets up and offers a hand to Seulgi. "Come. Let's celebrate."

   "Celebrate? Unnie it's almost over—" But she's pulled up, and she stumbles. Joohyun laughs, helping her regain her balance.

   "We have time and the room to ourselves." Seulgi can feel her cheeks heat at the tone behind Joohyun's words—her smile is a secret and Seulgi suddenly has the urge to know everything.

 


 

Seulgi can't understand why people are in awe of her at times.

   She's just another trainee, one person in a sea of talented people who can do more than her—better than her—and yet they complement her and treat her with respect. Maybe it's the gift of being Bae Joohyun's friend. But she still can't understand.

   It's been 3 years since she signed up, and she hasn't debuted, she hasn't even heard of SM thinking of a girl group recently. If she were better, they might've thought to introduce her as a solo artist—but of course she's just Kang Seulgi—and she'll have to wait for it.

 


 

School is a major bore.

   Of course it's not as boring as she thinks it is, she does have friends she can talk to in class and sit with during lunch—she's not a target of the bullies that lurk in the halls but neither is she one of the people that are at the top of the school hierarchy—and the thing is she's always wanted to be them. They're above it all; skin wrought with gold and diamonds—they're almost mythic and bitchy as fuck. They didn't bother with her and she didn't bother them, that's how it'd always been. But now as Seulgi has seen better, met better, their aura of authority seems like a charade—fake and chipping.

   Seulgi feels like she can breathe again on her way back, school is not only a bore but it also stifles her in a way she can't understand. It hinders her from being herself, she thinks twice before saying anything and recoils at the looks she gets from some boys. It's not her haven—she has no safety, no crutch.

   She finds Joohyun outside the building, a smile on her face that reminds Seulgi of all things soft and serene. It's a smile Seulgi sees rarely directed at anyone and each time she's the recipient, she feels as if Joohyun built her cathedrals.

   "You look tired." She's pulled closer by Joohyun as she links their hands together—it's a habit she's accustomed to yet every time their hands touch, the heat from Joohyun's hands lights a fire over her skin. "Do you wanna get some coffee before practice?"

   "I wanna skip everything and head straight to bed."

   "Oh, you cutie," Joohyun says, poking at Seulgi's cheek. "At least take me out on a date first."

 


 

Everyday Joohyun reminds Seulgi of something different.

   Today she's the gentle wind that brushes against your skin on a spring day—Seulgi's hands itch to transfer this moment to paper, to immortalise it in case she forgets but she hesitates, knowing she'll never be able to capture the feeling in its raw form—she hasn't sketched since over a year. It's the impish muse she despises that leaps from her mind when she's in need and rushes to her in moments she's otherwise occupied. And now, with Joohyun's scent of wild mint flooding her senses, all she wants to do is drown in these sheets.

 

2011

 

There's a certain sting that comes with abandonment.

   Seulgi isn't used to the way Joohyun includes a child in their conversations—Kim Yerim is twelve but there's something about the way she sits and speaks that indicates she's older—and with each passing day, she becomes a new addition to their so-called clique. Yerim is young but old—a paradox unto herself and Seulgi believes that's why Joohyun is so interested—because she's not the type of girl to make others feel included without a reason.

   There's nothing much to get out of the younger girl, she's apparently too trusting to tell you her life story five minutes after meeting for the first time but being under Joohyun's wing makes her immune to all things vindictive related to trainee's—she's protected in a way others never get to experience.

   Yerim not only becomes a constant, she commands Joohyun's attention in a way never before, she's always there to latch onto her unnie's arm and pester her about the most mundane of things. Seulgi tries to swallow her pride at being bested by a girl with an undistinguishable personality.

 


 

Seulgi realises there's something in the way Joohyun looks at her from across the room.

   She notices it time and time again these days, she can feel Joohyun's gaze on her every time—she's caught her looking four times in less than a week. There's never a hint of embarrassment at getting caught, maybe a sly smile urging Seulgi to do something about it but she can't be sure as things too far off get blurry and squinting only makes her look stupid.

   Seulgi isn't stupid because she's learnt that whatever Joohyun does is never without a valid cause—she might be an enigma but certain behaviours stand out when repeated. And all that staring sparks a curiosity as to what could it be that she really desires.

   It's on her mind as they sit together in a café, just the two of them after a long time. "You've been awfully quiet today," Joohyun remarks, head at a little tilt and with a small smile gracing her features—like she knows.

   "Oh, I've just been thinking," Seulgi says, not meeting Joohyun's eyes. She's not afraid and yet...

   "About what?"

   "It's just..." She isn't sure how to phrase her curiosity—why do you stare at me unnie... what's on your mind? what are you planning?—but they might not go over so well, instead she asks, "Are we—are we best friends?"

   Joohyun frowns slightly, reaching out to hold Seulgi's hands in her own. "What makes you think otherwise, Seulgi-yah?" Because you look at me like I'm just a pawn in your little game.

 


 

Seulgi is tired.

   She's not just tired, she's exhausted—and it's nothing physical. Her mind is numb and her thoughts stale, she's been home too long without the pretence of a holiday. And admittedly staring at the ceiling for the past hour isn't considered normal.

   The door to her room is open and she's seen her brother walk past it a couple of times, maybe trying to build up the courage to speak to her after the disaster that was dinner—she's not sorry. She'd rather be dancing till her bones ache and singing until her throat is parched. They all talk, talk and talk about her—and it irks her to no end because it's not their life, the world has no right to her life—not yet, anyway. Seulgi, you should go to a university... get a degree... you'll have the promise to a stable job...

   It's not that she hasn't thought about that—the more she hears it, the more holes she finds in her own ambition and patience. If she doesn't make it in the industry, there's nothing else out there for her.

 


 

Yerim is undoubtedly infatuated with Joohyun.

   Seulgi see's it whenever they're together; in the way Yerim makes herself feel validated by doing everything how Joohyun wants it done—and maybe people see her as she sees Yerim—completely and utterly under Joohyun's control. She's just twelve and she's put Joohyun on a pedestal, ready to do anything for the unnie that protects her. Seulgi can't blame her, not really, when she sees herself in Yerim.

   She never thought she'd feel elated by the fact that Joohyun does her best to divide her attention between both of the girls—Yerim likes to monopolise all of it and Joohyun gives her the illusion that she does—yet she always keeps their hands interlinked to communicate through subtle touches. Seulgi learnt to decipher what Joohyun wants through the way she holds her hand or hugs her, it's a language on its own—secret but easy enough.

 


 

A couple of Seulgi's friends and acquaintances debut together as a new boy group called EXO.

   She's happy enough for them—all smiles and congratulatory hugs—but there's an insidious emotion at the back of her mind she's hell-bent on ignoring but every time she hears anyone say EXO, she wants to tear her hair out because she wants to debut as bad as anyone else. And god, it's been years, three goddamn years.

   Seulgi isn't one to believe in fate or synchronicity, she was brought up on the fact that you work for the things you want and she's been working—working until every nerve in her body burns and her muscles strain—but there's been no result. Maybe she's not made for it, maybe waiting would only leave her tired and alone and she's not strong enough to find out how that ends.

 

2012

 

Seulgi finds an unlikely friend in Son Seungwan.

   Much as her friendship with Joohyun is improbable, she can say the same for whatever bond she shares with Seungwan—other than being the same age they don't have much in common. Seungwan is pleasant with a penchant for making people smile, always willing to help no matter who you are, she doesn't share that magnetic attraction that Joohyun has but there's something about her that's appealing—maybe it's her foreign nature or maybe it's just her utter sense of positivity—people want to be friends with her. In front of Seungwan, Seulgi is just kind—nothing more, nothing less—with nothing else to factor into her personality. She can dance, yes, but so can everyone else; she can sing, yes, but Seungwan has a higher control than she does, can hit all those notes she can't. And yet... And yet, whenever Seulgi sees Seungwan in the practice room speaking to other trainee's that consider her some sort of a saint, she smiles all bright and sweet, forgoing all attention just to be with Seulgi.

 


 

She wonders whether Joohyun thinks of Seungwan as a threat.

   They stand outside the practice room as there's a murmur going around that an EXO member is in the building, Seungwan is eager and Joohyun isn't around, so Seulgi lets herself be swept in the moment even though she doesn't find the boys to be undeniably charming since she's met them before. But of course, a new idol group is the hot new thing that inspires awe in the other trainee's—it's the appeal that they got that far when just some months ago they were ordinary and aspiring just like the rest of them—and Seulgi's mind whirls with the accusation that it should've been you. All the girls speak about the boys as if they never met them before, as though debuting elevated them to the status of being worshipped.

   Seungwan has only heard about them since she started, all over–embellished accounts of them being extremely talented and gorgeous since the first day. "I really hope it's Kim Jongdae," Seungwan says, her voice an excited whisper. Her hands are on Seulgi's shoulders, trying to push herself up to catch a glance of the supposed member over the crowd.

   "For your sake I hope it's him," Seulgi remarks, "you'll finally shut up and not talk my ear off about how his voice is so—" She cuts off suddenly at feeling someone hold her hand, she's about to pull away when she sees it's just Joohyun and her muscles relax.

   Joohyun's eyebrows are adorably furrowed. "You left me behind. I spent ages trying to find you."

   "Ah, no—I thought you didn't want to come with us."

   "I wanted to come with you, you idiot," she sounds exasperated, even a little annoyed. "And yet here you are with someone else."

   Maybe Joohyun does find Seungwan as some sort of a threat and no matter how much Seulgi tries to suppress it—she feels practically euphoric at the prospect.

 


 

Joohyun isn't one to ask—she commands.

   And despite every rational bone in her body saying no; Seulgi goes to Joohyun's dorm anyway. It's half past midnight, and the tiredness that's ravaging her muscles is slowly conducting her to sleep. Yet one word from Joohyun and she'd stay awake all night long—it's a potent spell, to live for the approval of another—it's the one thing she doesn't long to part away from.

   Years have passed and she isn't an equal. Joohyun commands whilst she fulfils.

   "Unnie?" Her voice is tentative and trembles at the edges. Joohyun stays silent and the lights in the hallway bathe her in a holyesque silhouette—Seulgi knows that if asked, she would even worship her for forever—as though her offer of friendship left Seulgi in a deranged form of debt. In another moment she's pulled close in a haphazard embrace. Her senses are invaded and overridden to the point she feels her own mind tilt on its axis.

   "I'm happy you're here," she says against Seulgi's neck, voice just above a whisper, "I wasn't expecting you to come."

   "But here I am."

   It's precarious to be this close to her—Seulgi can almost feel the scent of mint imprinting itself on her skin—her blood mixing with everything labelled Joohyun.

   "You always defy my expectations." Her tone comes tinged with melancholy, but Seulgi is too overwhelmed to offer any response. One more touch and she might just fall over the edge of her sanity.

 


 

Seulgi's never been quite annoyed by Joohyun—yet she is because of the many roles she plays.

   Every situation is a stage on which she plays her part meticulously and with a studied grace. Her role of the overly concerned friend is grating and the endless questions regarding Seulgi's low performance burn. She's not one to ask for the formalities of friendship—you never really know with Joohyun—her incessant worry and sudden interest seem like means to an end.

   She wants to run away; the walls are too close, too constricting, too white. She leaves, unable to answer any question.

 

2013

 

Seulgi wants to quit.

   She hasn't gotten her yearly contract renewed and the deadline is on Friday. Every hour she wonders if it's really worth selling away the next 12 months for a dream that seems unachievable, for a debut that's slipping away from her hands the more she tries to reach for it. Seulgi is bound here in every room, hallway and corridor—they're transfused with the memories of her youth and stained with emotions that were felt a lifetime ago—letting go of that would be sacrilegious. It's an uncertain edge and she's not ready for the final plunge.

   A shaft of harsh light hits her face and she squints, vaguely seeing a person step inside the room. She stands up in one motion as though a puppeteer pulled her figure taut.

   Joohyun shuts the door behind her engulfing them both in the soft comfort of darkness, the only light being filtered through an open window. "You left right after practice," she says but it seems more of an accusation, her tone measured, "aren't you hungry?"

   "No, I'm—I'm not."

   Seulgi expects her to ask a question—no, she wants her to ask because she'll tell her anything—instead Joohyun closes the distance between them in four short steps. In the little space left, the air around them tightens and Seulgi realises that after all these years Joohyun still hasn't changed her mint shampoo.

   "Are you ok?" Joohyun grabs her wrist in a half-arsed attempt at comfort.

   "Unnie," Seulgi murmurs, eyes fixed on a certain stain on the floor, "I—I’m not uh—I don't think I wanna renew my contract."

   She hears Joohyun suck in a quick breath—her fingers tense against Seulgi's wrist—she says nothing. The silence that follows is pregnant with sorrow as it beats with a certain palpability. For a moment Seulgi wonders if Joohyun is somewhat delighted at the prospect of less competition in the race for fame.

   "Are you..." She doesn't continue and Seulgi can almost hear the break in the sentence, "I don't—I don't understand? What're you thinking?" Her voice rises in crescendo with every word, "goddammit, Seulgi—you're going to give away years of training to just go back home?"

   Seulgi blinks rapidly for a moment, not quite registering Joohyun's outburst. All these years and she's never seen Joohyun flustered—she always speaks as though she's the smartest in the room—and now it's as though all her assumptions and theories have shattered and the shards poke at her hands until they bleed.

   "I'm tired," Seulgi says, albeit a little unsurely. "I don't think SM is gonna debut another girl group, anyway. What’s the point of staying for something that might never happen?"

   "Don't you dare give up, Seulgi-yah. Not when the possibility is so damn close. I'd have quit a long time ago but I'm here because of you." Joohyun cups her cheeks and it just knocks the air out of Seulgi’s lungs. "You're the most important person in my life. Please—stay for me."

 


 

Yerim develops hay fever and it changes the hierarchy in the dorms.

   Park Sooyoung behaves like an immature child as she stands miles away from Yerim—arms crossed and positively sulking at being pushed to the side like an old toy just for Joohyun. It's clear from her posture that her ego’s been hurt and Seulgi watches with a certain fascination how Sooyoung isn't entranced by the thought of sharing the same space as the infamous Bae Joohyun. Instead, it seems she wants to be at the centre of Yerim's attention.

   So, the moment Yerim suggests she wants soup and Joohyun promises she’ll buy her some later does Seulgi drag her outside, only stopping when Joohyun pulls her arm away. "What was that for?"

   "We gotta go buy some soup!"

   Seulgi isn't one to notice but can't see anything other than the tightness of Joohyun's jeans as she leans against the counter of the café. She pays for extra garlic bread, and Seulgi scrunches her eyes closed, already feeling the blush spread across her cheeks.

   "I don't think I would've liked anyone other than you by my side."

   Seulgi frowns slightly, "You mean, getting soup for Yerim?"

   But Joohyun doesn't answer, instead the corner of her lip curls in a slightly seductive smirk—like she knows what Seulgi was gawping at earlier.

 


 

Seulgi can't explain why she goes back home on a Sunday.

   Maybe it's that feeling she gets when she sees her mother in the kitchen or when she hears her brother complain about getting up early or when she smells her father's cologne as he enters through the front door—that she's pulled back home by the sheer gravity of a bond she can't seem to sever. Each conversation at the dinner table between all the elders is a veiled argument masquerading as camaraderie. She misses being four and not knowing the meaning behind the jabs intended to wound egos.

   It's half past midnight and Joohyun is on the other end of the line as she wont to do whenever Seulgi is away—her voice soft and slightly raspy from tiredness—they’ve already said their goodbyes but neither wants to hang up.

   "Hey, Seul?" She breathes, her tone almost insecure and hesitant and Seulgi hums, "You—you'll always be my number one, never forget that."

 


 

Seulgi isn't entirely sober.

   She's had a couple of drinks to numb the thoughts that plague her mind—her words aren't slurred but her skin is flushed and she has an intense urge to just dance. Seungwan stands to the side having stolen Seulgi’s beer and despite her insistence to attend the party, she's completely out of place in her oversized jumper and sweatpants—she seems awkward.

   Some sort of mismatched sound wafts from the speakers and if Seulgi wasn't too impaired by the alcohol she would've scoffed at the choice of music.

   "I see Joohyun unnie." Seungwan looks askance, eyes narrowed—a glare specifically reserved for terribly inconvenient people.

   Seulgi turns instantly to follow Seungwan’s gaze and in spite of the alcohol-induced fog clouding her head she feels betrayed. Joohyun had phrased her utter contempt for parties earlier when Seulgi asked her to come and yet she's here dressed in a plain shirt and tight jeans—particularly staring at Seulgi. There's something delightfully strange about her expression from afar and it's making Seulgi's skin tingle. She wants to look away but she's trapped inside the event horizon with no means of escape.

 

2014

 

Seulgi is sure that life without Joohyun would be terribly empty.

   She's been ensnared by that charm that can captive thousands of people with just a smile. Joohyun latches herself onto people—red nails dig deep inside their very souls—she controls and takes but never sacrifices. Seulgi gives until her heart turns into pulp in Joohyun's hands, ready to dissolve in that moment.

   A debut without her would be miserable. Seulgi can't stand to be on the outskirts of Joohyun's life—a world in which she's validated and needed.

 


 

Be Natural is Seulgi's end but it's also a start of something.

   The song is so sensual in its choreography—everything contained and communicated through varying intimate touches and lingering looks. She's practiced enough times that the melody and lyrics are imprinted just beneath her skin but she loses her goddamn mind at finding herself partnered with Joohyun of all people. She stumbles thrice and forgets the next steps whenever she catches a hint of Joohyun's mischievous smile.

   Their eyes meet and Seulgi feels frustrated at the unfamiliarity of it all—there's a secret in her smirk and a gleeful glint in her eyes as if she's aware of the confusion that's been plaguing Seulgi ever since that party.

   It's right there yet Seulgi is painfully oblivious about the palpable intensity that crackles in the air with every brush of skin and scrutinising gaze.

 


 

Bae Joohyun isn't the type of person to be ignored.

   Her presence is everywhere—an unrelenting monarch coiling deeper into one's psyche. Seulgi's forced to avoid her due to the onslaught of feelings that congest her heart until she can't breathe. She hates the way her stomach curls in anticipation just by being by her side—she's never been so weak because of another person and she's scared of what that entails.

   It's hard to hinder the impulse of reaching out for Joohyun once dance practice is over, they usually go out for some ice cream after and spend the time in comfortable silence beneath neon light signs. As she's about to go and find Seungwan, she's pulled back by her arm. Joohyun looks terrifyingly impassive.

   "You've been avoiding me."

   Seulgi purses her lips to stop the guilt that rushes up her throat, not meeting Joohyun's eyes. Her hands fidget—afraid of what she might say. She doesn't notice the words tumble out until she hears the sound of her voice. "Do you love me?"

   And she's reminded of the first day they met, and of her intelligent eyes that crinkle at the corners as she smiles, somewhat smitten. "Of course, Seul. Who doesn't?"

 


 

Seulgi is ridiculously euphoric.

   There's something so delirious in that moment—finally debuting—that her thoughts seem to create a buzz in her head. They celebrate all day, drunk on happiness and laughter—playing board games until realising there's no sure way to beat Joohyun. Sooyoung flips the board claiming Joohyun unnie cheated, as Seungwan and Seulgi practically cackle in the background. Seulgi has never seen Joohyun so alive and happy, her loud laugh is infectious as she jumps like a child, having won for the eighth time. As time settles their thoughts, they disperse to call home.

   Seulgi follows Joohyun outside after an hour. They stand in silence until Seulgi asks, "Are you happy?"

   Joohyun seems surprised for a moment. “Yeah. Aren't you?” They stand close enough that their elbows touch—the wind carries with it Joohyun's sharp scent of mint. "You deserve it the most," she continues, eyes flitting across Seulgi's face as though waiting for a sign, "Seul, I don't want there to be any formality—"

   Her words fade away in her throat the second Seulgi pulls her in for an embrace, and a small part of Seulgi wonders why she was averse to contact when it's so goddamn fulfilling. "As long as I can share a fraction of your time, that would be enough."