“Maybe you should try something new.”
“Yeah, huh, should I?” Sakura thought that the something new might come in the form of modeling, putting up her own fashion line, or even perhaps picking up a new instrument and forming her own band. It wouldn’t have crossed her mind in an eternity that the kind of something new her manager recommended her would be sending her to another country and putting her in a survival show against other girls, who were separated from her not only by an ethnicity, language, and cultural barrier, but also one simply built out of experience. Some people could find it insulting that it was even a suggestion--even Aoi was a little miffed at the offer at first--but here’s the thing: They say if you could be a success in Korea, you could be a success almost anywhere you wanted.
That’s the something new her manager wanted for her, and after seven years of seeing the same studios and same stages and same girls, perhaps it was time for Sakura to stretch her legs out as well. “You’ve basically already accomplished everything all the other girls want, Kura,” Aoi told her. “I want top three in Senbatsu too.”
“I hope you’re not saying that in hopes I’ll leave and then you can take my spot for yourself,” Sakura joked back. She knew that’s not what Aoi meant, because not only was Aoi going to take the same offer as her, but if Aoi failed and came back home, she’d still have many things she could still work towards.
Perhaps much of what was left for Sakura would be the final stages of success for an idol, and then where to next? Acting, perhaps? Modeling? Or even getting married and settling down with a home and a husband and the prospect of children?
“You’re still twenty-one, Kura,” Aoi hummed. “You’re not even that old compared to a lot of Korean idols.”
Aoi was, and is still right. Everything had convinced Sakura that this was the right direction she was heading in. This was the best opportunity she could take not only for her career, but also for her own self-interest. There’s nothing quite like getting good at your job of seven years and then suddenly being relinquished only to wonder which next path you should take, and if you’d even be a success walking down that path.
Sure, she is taking a risk, but if she fails, it’s not like she’ll have lost anything she didn’t have before.
This is what Sakura came to Korea for. Her objectives were to not only survive, learn, and experience, but also to continue down a path she could never imagine no longer walking down.
These were the only things on her mind as she stepped off of the airport landing strip, besides the language and social and cultural barrier, because that would be very difficult too, but she is not there because she is immigrating. She is there for herself and her work, and to support her friends that came along with her. Aoi approached it like she was going sightseeing, wringing her hands with nervous excitement and a giddy smile on her face, but Sakura pursed her lips, gripped the handle of her suitcase tightly, and walked with determined steps.
She arrived in a foreign country with an expectation and a hope that she could improve herself and earn an audience, and sure, while those were accomplished, those were not the only things that she gained.
It’s quite a strange, but forgiving and daresay powerful thing, that is companionship. Simply because of the construct of human nature all of them had expected tensions between themselves and the Korean girls. Sure, at the end of the day, they were all just girls chasing the same goal, but that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be difference in how they spoke and acted and thought that could breed conflicts and misunderstanding.
So Sakura walked in with the expectation that maybe she could befriend a few Korean girls or so, but no one would have her back like her friends from the same country. That seemed to be the expectation of the rest of them, too.
That’s why she didn’t quite expect to become so reliant on another person that wasn’t Aoi and wasn’t part of HKT and wasn’t part of AKB and just wasn’t Japanese, no, instead she was another Korean girl who just so happened to catch Sakura’s eye during auditions and now somehow they’ve become each other’s second half.
“I-I don’t know how to--” she remembers herself trying to explain while picking out individual parts in a song.
“It’s okay!” Someone replied in relatively broken Japanese. There, crouched in front of her, was someone Sakura picked purely because she could both sing and dance well. There was really no other motivation.
“Chaeyeon, r-right?” The syllables of Chaeyeon’s name sound uncomfortable on her tongue. Yes, she knows this is Chaeyeon, but at the same time, she doesn’t know what else to say, both in Korean and Japanese.
Picking Chaeyeon was probably the best decision Sakura ever made, because not only did she become the strongest support pillar for the rest of the trainees in the group in terms of being able to handle both the song and the dance, but also because Sakura ended up relying heavily on her in order to navigate the simple process of just how do I do this?
This is what the “eo” vowel sounds like.
You see, here, just relax and don’t try to put too much pressure in your shoulders when you move.
Spot as much as you can without moving your focus from the audience. Use the corners of the stage to help you figure out your positioning. It all looks like it changes, but trust me, that’s just the props.
It was probably the best lesson she’d ever gotten the entire show (with the exception of some tips from the trainers), and that is one reason she’s insanely grateful to Chaeyeon.
The other reason, well, is that Chaeyeon is the first and closest friend Sakura’s made over the last few months. Chaeyeon doesn’t need to use words to make people laugh. She’s expressive enough with her body and facial expressions that gets the message across (most of the time) at the expensive of several peals of laughter from Sakura who’s trying to take her seriously.
“The best way to learn a language is from immersion,” Chaeyeon once told her in Japanese, very brokenly and heavily-accented and while holding a Korean to Japanese dictionary. “Speak Korean to me, Kura-chan.”
Sakura kind of failed then and there, but at least now she knows how to say the different variations of thank you very much and please and farewell and how spicy is the chef’s special? in Korean. Sakura can’t imagine the competition without someone who taught her how to say how spicy is the chef’s special? with included variations of replacing chef’s special with tteokbokki and bibimbap and jajangmyeon amongst other things.
That’s why she ended up on the second level of the giant pyramid practically biting on her fingers as she watched the group of girls down below on the stage standing side-by-side with a burning ball of anxiety rolling in her stomach while cold sweat began to slide down the back of her neck.
“Do you think I’ll debut, Kura-chan?” Chaeyeon asked her the previous night, sitting across from her on her bunk. It was almost lights-out, and Miho said Chaeyeon should probably go back to her own room a few minutes ago, but she’s still here, picking at a stray thread on Sakura’s blanket.
“Yes. Why wouldn’t you?” Sakura replied easily.
“It’s just--” and Chaeyeon wouldn’t lift her head and look Sakura in the eye. She was too nervous -- both of them were, actually. Sakura knew exactly why Chaeyeon was asking her this.
Chaeyeon groaned, her head dropping even lower. “I’m kind of scared,” she murmured.
Sakura wanted to say it’s okay, there’s nothing to be scared about, you will do just fine, trust your fans, and hey I don’t even know if I’ll debut too, but she doesn’t know how to say all of that, so she just ended up softly whispering, “Debut with me, Chaeyeon.”
“Okay, Kura-chan.” Chaeyeon could and still can understand what Sakura means even though Sakura often can’t even express what she herself wants to mean with her own words.
At the moment, Lee Seunggi is taking too long to talk. Sakura can’t even fit her own fist in her mouth, but at this point in time, Seunggi has dragged on long enough that Sakura probably could’ve used that time to actually figure out a way to wiggle her fist into her own mouth. She kind of wants to, anyways, because she has a bit of an urge to scream. Chaeyeon’s one of those girls standing in that little group of four, and even though voting has long closed, Sakura wants to yell at the audience, even though it wasn’t entirely their fault.
She laces her fingers together and presses her lips against the back of her thumb, trying to silently pray even though the rest of her mind is in absolute chaos. Nako, a row and several seats down, glances up and catches Sakura’s eye. The nervousness is apparent in not only Sakura’s expression, but her body language too, and Nako’s face softens. It’s okay, she mouths. Sakura closes her eyes for a moment and slowly nods. She focuses on trying to clear her mind of everything except hanging onto each of Seunggi’s words. That is the only thing she should worry about now; the rest will come later.
It seems like an eternity before Seunggi begins to speak again. Sakura already went through the last half hour in her head, replaying it like it’s on loop. Her words come back to her, about how Chaeyeon was one of the people she was most thankful for this entire journey, about how it was one of her strongest hopes that they could debut together, about how her friendship was one of the--if not the most--valuable things she’d received through this entire experience. Part of saying all that wasn’t just because it was true, but it was also a loud and clear prayer that she could share with the fans and hope they could understand as well.
Just as those words are beginning to loop in her head again, Seunggi begins to speak.
“Rank 12…” It feels like the entire arena has held its breath, the fans and the trainees and the trainers and the guests all together, maybe even Seunggi himself too--
“WM Lee Chaeyeon.”
Sakura feels unsteady all of a sudden, like her legs are about to give way under her, and so she shakily scrabbles for a hold on the chair behind her before sinking down slowly. Her hands come to cover her face, and everything feels so overwhelming at that moment, all the cheers and applause from the audience and the bright stage lights and the gazes of her peers slamming down on her chest with full force to where tears are sparking at the corners of her eyes, and no, she can’t let the others see her like this, it’s a little too unprofessional to suddenly veer into ugly-sobbing, and so she turns her head away--
It’s like what they said last night was also a prayer, enough hope and desire from the both of them poured into that single moment to make today come true, and Sakura can’t see anything, not only because her vision is blurring with tears, but also because she’s just so overwhelmed that she can’t focus.
Afterwards everything goes by in a whir, and soon enough they’re all allowed to come down from the pyramid and reconcile with their friends. Sakura’s pushing through the crowd of girls as fast as she can before she sees Aoi stuck behind a few girls and rushes up to envelope her into a hug.
“Congratulations, Kura,” Aoi laughs, rubbing her palms on Sakura’s back, and even though Sakura just saw her several days ago, it feels like she and Aoi have been separated for years.
“You’re going to have so much fun, Kura,” Aoi murmurs in her ear, her voice trembling a bit too.
“Thank you,” Sakura whispers, pulling back and rubbing at the corners of her eyes with the back of a hand.
“I’m going to go talk to some others, okay?” Aoi says, squeezing Sakura’s hands in her own. “I’m so happy for you, Kura. Really.” She laughs, the sound high and strung, the same kind of laugh she had when they first landed in Korea, and Sakura eagerly nods, sniffling as their hands let go of each other.
She doesn’t even need to walk far to find who she’s looking for, because Chaeyeon’s already running up to her and throwing her arms around her neck and sticking her face in her shoulder. She’s not crying as hard as some of the rest of them, but Sakura knows that means nothing.
“You’re like a lucky charm or something,” Chaeyeon laughs into the side of Sakura’s neck, her words warm and ticklish.
Sakura didn’t entirely understand what Chaeyeon said, but she thinks she heard the word “luck”. “It’s n-not just--” she tries to begin in Korean, but she can’t, especially not with the rushing of her blood through her veins and the drumming of her heartbeat in her ears. “It’s not all luck, it’s because you’re amazing, Chaeyeon,” she replies in Japanese, words rushed and slightly choked.
Chaeyeon murmurs something back that Sakura can’t comprehend, but that doesn’t matter, because at the moment all that she’s wanted for the last couple of months, past improving her own skills and past learning about a new culture, has come true.
It’s just she and Chaeyeon standing here, beneath the stage, with their arms wrapped around each other, Chaeyeon laughing into her shoulder and Sakura with her lips trembling as she’s smiling but somehow just can’t properly grin, and the stage lights and the audience’s cheers and applause and the gazes of her peers have stopped now, they’re all focusing on something besides her.
She came to Korea with the main objective of her work, yet she has ended up gaining something she couldn’t foresee would become so important to her.