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Sana crosses her arms. Taps her foot impatiently. The high school she is at is probably prestigious, given its huge compound and well-developed infrastructure —  the football field in front of her is already twice the size of the one back in her old school, and everything about this place screams money. But then times have changed, because people are definitely richer now: the comparisons are easier to make, and the whiplash is less severe.

 

It is silent, for the most part. She frowns at the building. School should have ended by now, but this Mina girl is nowhere to be seen. Sana unlocks her phone. Checks the address that Nayeon sent over, with specific instructions to bring her back in one piece!! and something about being annoying Jeongyeon’s replacement and a very, very pixelated photo of the target in question. Like, okay. Sure, they are entitled to a little more power than the others because of their long service, but how the fuck was she supposed to find a girl based on nothing but her name, and a shitty photo?

 

She walks towards the classrooms. It gets much noisier. Students are streaming out, clogging up the hallways —  it is a touch of nostalgia that makes her pause just so, and the smile that graces her own lips is a wistful one now that she has more or less made peace with it. Her fingers trace the outline of her name tag sewn right across the emblem, stopping right above where her heart would have still been — 

 

Someone yells. Sana looks up. The classroom she is standing right in front of looks exactly the same as the others, but her feet are suddenly moving and she finds herself at the door.

 

And then she sees her: 

 

Mina.

 

Somehow, she knows, in the same way she knows there are exactly ten moles on Mina’s face. The girl’s identity is further confirmed when Sana’s eyes drop to the name tag pinned on her blouse — Sana feels her body tingle with a strange familiarity that propels her forward. She waves; Mina does not. Stares at Sana a second longer than necessary, until one of her classmates walks right through Sana, and Mina gasps.

 

“Who are you?” She asks. Sana thinks there is a hint of panic swirling in the disbelief she sees, but it is mostly concealed by a nonchalant facade that seems rather translucent. Before she can answer, Mina folds her arms and looks away. Her jaw is set in a look Sana thinks she knows only because she herself has done it too many times: a determination to tamper down any unwarranted curiosity that will get her nowhere. 

 

There is one last glance spared to Sana, before Mina moves to exit the classroom from the backdoor. She walks fast. Avoids her other classmates, and breaks into a run — Sana can only sigh as she starts to give chase. What is it with humans and running? Jeongyeon runs around all the time. Even at the hotel, when she scurries around to serve guests and help out — it makes her look like an idiot with way too much energy to spare. Nayeon has yet to do anything about it, which is extremely uncharacteristic for someone who cares so much about upholding the pristine reputation of the hotel, and Sana can only wonder if Nayeon secretly likes it.

 

But hey: professionalism is always self-defined. And maybe the idiocy is what makes them human, along with the need to feel their hearts beating out of their chests —  that she will vouch for, because it is one of the things she misses the most. The one thing she does not feel, as her feet play catch-up with the other girl’s and bring her to the end of the hallway. 

 

There is a flight of stairs. Mina is already there, attempting to go down two at a time, when Sana sees it: Mina’s right foot missing its intended target, and slipping off the edge —

 

She moves. Closes her eyes and focuses her energy on appearing right next to Mina, at the top of the stairs. Time and space no longer limit her as much as they did before, when she has spent the last seventy years as a seventeen-year-old high school student. All this extra time here has only allowed Sana to learn about the different things they can do, and the limitations of their powers —  Nayeon calls it their final form. Sana thinks Nayeon watches too much anime.

 

Mina screams. It dies somewhere in between Sana grabbing her by the wrist, yanking her backwards, and eventually catching her by the waist. She meets Mina’s fear-filled eyes, and holds them until they soften into warm waves of tranquility, and then finally: embarrassment. 

 

“Thank you,” Mina says. The tips of her cheekbones are dusted pink, and Sana has absolutely no idea why her chest constricts weirdly. But she ignores it to smile politely, like the well-mannered employee she is, as Mina steps back and out of her embrace. “But really, who are you? What are you? A ghost ?” 

 

Sana bows. “Yes. My name is Minatozaki Sana.” Gives her standard introduction. “I’m here on behalf of Nayeon, to bring you to the hotel. You know Nayeon, right?” 

 

“Yeah,” Mina’s eyes clear with recognition. She nods. Then tilts her head questioningly. “What hotel?” 

 

It is adorable. The naivety of a school girl, who knows absolutely nothing about the greater world she lives in, and how her fate has already been changed — another terrifyingly human trait Sana sometimes misses when she just wants to go back to living in blissful ignorance. The guilt that comes with the explanation of it all creeps up her spine, and a part of her feels sorry for Mina. Because nothing will be the same after this, and the one thing Sana hates about the system is how they have to always, always tie a random human to this mess. Just because the nicer Jihyo said so. 

 

So she tells Mina about ghosts, and the hotel. How they host souls, and help them fulfill their leftover wishes, before guiding them into the afterlife. Keeps it short and sweet —  it is complicated enough, and okay. Maybe she is lowkey afraid that Mina might run away. Again. And that means more running herself, and she can already feel the phantom ache in her legs that should not be there.

 

“Not everyone can see us,” Sana continues. “Sometimes Jihyo decides. Sometimes Nayeon decides. But at the end of the day, it is a duty we have to follow —”

 

“Duty?” Mina rolls her eyes. “This is the twenty-first century.” She scoffs. Folds her arms defensively. The ends of her lips curl up just so, because Mina is absolutely right. Everyone hates the system — of course Mina would argue. They all do at first, with the same fight the other girl has in her eyes. They fight, and they fight, and they fight. Until they realise how pointless it is, and they stop. 

 

Just like she did. 

 

“I know,” Sana holds up both hands, like a surrender. The last thing she wants is to deal with an angry Mina, who is already flighty, and tries to approach this as neutrally as possible. “But Nayeon saved your life,” she reminds Mina. “You owe her.” 

 

Mina goes silent. Her eyes do not leave the ground, and Sana pushes through. “Come to the hotel. Give it a chance.” She extends her hand, palm up. Watches as the other girl eyes it, contemplating. Victory is close. Already at the tip of her tongue, with the way Mina chews on her bottom lip —  

 

Her phone pings. Sana checks it, like the millennial she thinks she is. There is a message from Nayeon, to leave the girl for now, and okay. What the hell. Was this a complete waste of time? The irritation that sparks in her causes her to exhale slowly, because there were a million other things she could be doing right now, instead of trying to convince a human girl to accept a burden that she never asked for. She takes a deep breath, and wills herself to not seethe — 

 

“Are you okay?” There is a hand on her wrist, albeit hesitant. Sana’s eyes snap open. Mina is there, curious more so than waiting, and the touch pulls Sana back into the present. Her smile is back in place, perfect as ever, with less effort than she remembers, and she bows.

 

“Nayeon wants to postpone the meeting.” Sana delivers the message. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time. You may go.” Directs Mina to the school gate. And only after, does she realise how stupid it is to give a student of this school directions to their own school gate. “I hope you remember what I told you about the hotel.”

 

Mina stares at her incredulously. Sana thinks she shrinks a little, at the sheer intensity. Time is precious, to humans, and she wants all of them to treasure it. By spending it wisely, and not waiting for things to happen just for them to be cancelled, or postponed. But then the other girl grins, for the first time that night. Her lips curve around pink gums, and her eyes disappear into crescent moons that are miraculously wired to Sana’s would-have-still-been heart, and the way her body heats up at the sight is absolutely. Impossible. 

 

“Okay then,” Mina giggles. The sound of it filters into a thrill she swears she has heard before. It is light in her heart and heavy in her memory, circling around the back of her mind like a hook, as though trying to fish for something. To pick something up. “See you when Nayeon decides to meet me again.” The other girl waves, a hint of seriousness slurring into her eyes —  it is enough to sober Sana out of whatever the fuck was happening to her, and holds in her sigh until Mina turns around.

 

Mina.

 

Mina leaves. Sana does not follow. 




/




“I thought we were kicking Jeongyeon out?” Sana grouches. Purses her lips. They are all gathered in the middle of the lobby to watch today’s episode of What is Nayeon Thinking? Do We Know? Let Us Find Out! because Nayeon has once again kicked up a fuss about Jeongyeon being the most annoying human manager to ever exist, and Jeongyeon is still standing firm in her decisions (to not let Nayeon waste her money on another stupid handbag). Bless the girl.

 

“Beats me,” Momo shrugs. “You know how she is, with her changing her mind all the time. Nothing new.” 

 

A shrill scream hammers right into her ears, punctuating Momo’s sentence, and Sana winces. Watches the other employees cover their ears, just like Momo and her do. Nayeon stomps off, and Jeongyeon scurries after her — the ending credits roll, and they disperse, each heading back to their positions: Momo, the lobby, and she, the front desk. Downstairs, on the ground floor. It is terribly mundane, even if Nayeon tries her best to make things interesting every now and then: like making Jeongyeon serve the most hideous looking guests to watch her quiver in fear. 

 

Contrary to popular belief, being a ghost is not all fun and games. Sure, there are times they get to be somewhat of a superhero, with the teleportation and slightly above average strength — showing off is Sana’s second nature and she loves to bask in all its glory. But then there is the more pressing matter that has Momo and her slightly worried: 

 

The tree. The immovable tree. The fucking tree that they all thought was dead, has now sprouted leaves. With time losing meaning since they had become ghosts, complacency might just fuck all of them up. Day-to-day life has been watering down the purpose of her extended stay, and Sana does not want to forget. Has to see it through, no matter what. Because even Nayeon herself is powerless against this development — which can only mean one thing: that there is a possibility that they might not be able to stay until their grudges are resolved, and will end up going into the afterlife with regrets. 

 

She shudders at the thought. Crosses her fingers, and hopes the Deities would be kind enough — at least for Nayeon. 




/




Sana forgets. Nayeon reminds her, when she shows up at the garden with a bucket of champagne, with only one glass. It is a Thursday night, which means that Nayeon will be in one of her scheduled sombre moods reminiscing about the past — Sana thinks she takes Throwback Thursday to a whole new level.

 

The tree stands tall, looming and alive, right in front of them — the perfect confidante. There are more leaves than yesterday, and Sana does not need Nayeon to tell her that this is just the beginning.

 

“Did you meet Mina?” Nayeon asks, grabbing a bottle. Sets it down on the table. “I hope you didn’t scare her too much.” Pops it, and pours out just enough for Sana. 

 

“What am I, you?” She quips. Rolls her eyes. Takes the offered glass. Tries not to cringe, because the only people who use champagne to drown their sorrows are wannabe alcoholics who cannot stand the bitter aftertaste of hard liquor. “She smiled at me, so she obviously loves me.”   

 

Nayeon snorts. Her nightgown is a good representation of the heavy air that sits between them: midnight black, and silky — the moonlight shimmers down the length of it. It shines the brightest at the hem right by her ankles, like the light at the end of the seemingly never-ending tunnel to the afterlife, when they close their eyes and relive their fondest memory. The one with all the stars and the moon. The one that every ghost wishes to keep forever, but alas —  they leave it behind, like everything else. 

 

“Jeongyeon is staying.” The words are final. Then again, it sounds like an order that has absolutely nothing to do with her, but Sana looks at Nayeon anyway. The older girl is still staring at the tree, unblinking — her eyes are weary with the weight of a deep-seated grudge no one but Jihyo knows the extent of, and this is the only time of the week when Nayeon allows herself to be vulnerable. Sometimes with Sana. Sometimes with Momo, too. Sometimes with the both of them.

 

She nods. It does not surprise her, because Jeongyeon is definitely something, in the mess that they all desperately want to sort out. Her presence alone has brought about more changes to the hotel than anything has in a very, very long time, and it is as terrifying as it is exciting. Even Nayeon is different. Warmer. Softer. 

 

“You should spend more time with Mina, even if she doesn't end up being the hotel manager.” The other girl says. “Bring her over someday. She’s a nice girl.” 

 

“Should?” Sana raises an eyebrow. “Is this an order?” Feels the suspicion worm its way to the bottom of her belly, because of all the weird shit Nayeon makes her do, this is something that does not make any sense. Never has the older girl encouraged any of them to have repeated interactions with people outside of the hotel, or worse, actual humans. But the seed has already been planted, because her mind goes to Mina, and her toothy smile, and her moles that scatter across her face in a constellation that Sana has already mapped out. Mina, and her backstory that Nayeon never really talked about — 

 

The glass is snatched out of her hands. Nayeon downs it easily, and Sana already has an insult ready. Nothing but a well-practiced snipe at how annoying the older girl is, and how her greed might just end her one day: there are literally five untouched bottles right in front of her, and Nayeon just has to take the one she was holding. How nice. 

 

Then Nayeon turns to look at her, and Sana sees the openness of it all — the velvet white sadness carried across centuries, reflected off the moon, and straight into her own heart. The snark in her is watered down instantly to reveal the underlying concern that at this point, is a guaranteed presence — 

 

“Just — ,” Nayeon starts. Opens her mouth to say something else, but eventually decides against it, and shrugs. “She’s nice.” 

 

Mina is nice. Sana knows that. To have Nayeon emphasise it repeatedly? It is a poorly packaged attempt to convince Sana to befriend Mina. Something is definitely up, but she does not push, because a glassy-eyed Nayeon breaks easily, and she will not be responsible for the other girl’s next meltdown; giving Jihyo extra reasons to be mean to her is just plain stupidity. 

 

So she agrees. Grunts a small acknowledgement. The smile that stretches across Nayeon’s face is far from reassuring. There are layers of something more peeking out from behind her bunny teeth, but Sana looks away; not today.

 

Whatever. It’s not like she wasn’t already making plans to see Mina, anyway.




/




Sana finds Mina easily. This will later be one of the things she dog-ears and comes back to, with deeper clarity and unfurling revelations. But today, she walks with just a single thought in mind: Mina.

 

She stumbles upon the other girl in the piano room. The entire scene looks like it just came right out of a cheesy high school romcom, with the sunlight framing Mina’s face perfectly, and the white curtains behind her billowing gently with the morning breeze that only serves to make her hair look softer, for no reason at all.

 

Mina is playing Chopin’s Nocturne. In E-flat, of course. There is so much grace encompassed in her slender fingers as they move gracefully across the keys, with range and dynamics that speak volumes of the years of practice — Sana cannot help but watch in awe, and feels the itch to play, too. Lets the familiar tune tickle the rust on her old memories, and oil the recollections that she could never really seal away. Closes her eyes — 

 

“Are you here to bring me to Nayeon?” The interruption is jarring, and snaps Sana out of her reverie almost immediately. Mina is still there, seated and serene, but the small wrinkle on her forehead suggests the smallest possibility of unease. 

 

“No, no.” She takes a step forward. Holds up both hands in surrender. Again. Then drops them, when the other girl remains unimpressed. “I’m just here to see you. I have the day off, and I was bored.” 

 

Mina cocks her head. The frown disappears, along with her eyebrows, into her fringe. “Ghosts get bored too? Don’t you have things to do, like saving people?” 

 

Ouch. That one hurt. But the laugh that tears out of her lips makes her shake her head endearingly. High school kids these days are brazen and mean, and Mina is one of them, but Sana knows by now that there is always more than meets the eye. 

 

“You’re cute,” she says, offhandedly. Changes the subject in the easiest way she knows how to. Moves to sit beside Mina on the piano bench, and takes small satisfaction in seeing her blush up close. Close close. Close enough to see her eyelashes flutter as she blinks, close enough to count all her moles on her face — 

 

Sana was right. There are ten. What the fuck. Her eyes are still drawn to the ivory skin on Mina’s face, and the slope of her lips — 

 

The bubble bursts, when Mina’s fingers close around her wrists. Brings them up to the piano. “Play for me.”

 

Mina is warm. The keys are cold. They are solid and do not slip through her fingers, like she thought they would. Sana supposes she, too, is entitled to touch outside objects once in a while, and her fingers find their way to the correct notes as she presses down on them experimentally. 

 

The sound is just as she remembers. “I haven’t played in years, Mina.” She smiles. Does not bother hiding it. “This is me humouring you.” 

 

She closes her eyes. Plays the C-sharp minor nocturne. Lets her fingers move the way they want to. The way they used to. It's like stretching an old, unused muscle, and the satisfaction streaks all the way to her fingertips — muscle memory never fails. It brings about an onslaught of memories that come hand in hand with this song, that grip her in apologies and longing, that tear open the seams of regret she had carefully sewn shut; she welcomes it with open arms. 

 

Her mind conjures up her favourite images of Tzuyu: Tzuyu, at the piano. Tzuyu, sitting on her shoulders as they played in the yard. Tzuyu, pouting at the dinner table, because she hates vegetables. 

 

Tzuyu, whom she had left sitting at the creek while she went to find food, before she herself had gotten caught by the Japanese soldiers and shot on sight. Tzuyu, whom she never got to say goodbye to. 

 

The agony comes out easily, with the same anguish that makes her drag out the broken chords as painfully as they sound. Its spindly fingers wrap around her throat, blackened nails digging right into where it hurts the most, and Sana wonders if this was what Chopin felt. Flows through the runs lightly. Listens to the melodic lilt of the trills, and feels it reverberate in her chest. 

 

To my sister, she thinks. For my sister.  

 

The ending is delicate. The glissando glides the hope and despair across the keys, and the final chord haunts her still, even after she releases the pedal. She does not cry, for they will meet again, and anchors herself in that thought. Exhales slowly, and turns to Mina — 

 

Mina’s eyes are wet. She looks heartbroken. Sana thinks there are fragments of a past love that never made it through. Or just enough empathy to make her swallow all the emotions spilled, and reflect it raw as day, on her face. 

 

“Why are you crying?” Sana is taken aback. Thumbs a stray tear off the other girl’s cheek. Then two, and watches how the remnants sparkle across her skin like dust in the evening sun. A trail to an oasis that even a blind man can follow.

 

“I don’t know,” Mina whispers. Cracks a watery smile. “It was beautiful. It felt like my heart was being ripped out.” 

 

Something unfurls in Sana. Something that was embedded a long, long time ago, underneath her skin, underneath her ribs, underneath the many layers that hide her nonexistent heart. It is warm and velvet and fluoresces in the cold, dark crevice in her chest — that has not seen the faintest trace of life in the past seventy years. It makes her return the smile, and makes her feel like dancing.

 

“So morbid,” Sana tuts. Ignores the rush in her mind. Feels her lips quirk a tease in response. “Do you always cry whenever people play for you?”   

 

She moves out of the way just as Mina’s hand comes close to her shoulder. But the piano bench is too tiny, and Mina still manages to whack her good, and Sana laughs, loud and free. Puts on her pleading eyes, like the one emoji everyone abuses. “Play for me. I promise I'll cry.” 

 

Just like that, Sana learns that Mina can be competitive as hell. The afternoon is well spent in sloppy giggles and dissonant chords smashed together to spite each other, and the thing in her chest tickles, featherlight. Maybe this is Jihyo’s way of showing her mercy. Because if it were anything but, she would have spotted it a mile away.

 

Right? 

 

 

 

/




Her feet feel heavy. They always are, whenever she walks past the glass doors that open automatically with a whoosh, releasing cold, sterilised air that smells of death. 

 

The one downside of being a ghost, other than being well, dead: the affinity for it is second nature. The signs, the souls, and more importantly, the stench — it is putrid and rancid and makes all of Sana want to throw up. Even though she no longer has a functional gag reflex. 

 

She finds the room easily. The one all the way at the corner, that Nayeon had told her about after one of Nice Jihyo’s random acts of benevolence: the whereabouts of Tzuyu. Because Jihyo knows everything, of course, and getting information on anything would be as easy as snapping her fingers. 

 

But it will come at a price. This is a fact, because Deities never do anything out of ‘goodwill’ despite whatever they want you to believe, as Nayeon so very kindly put it. A price that Sana does not care about, as she willfully ignores Jihyo’s knowing smile, because she would do anything just to see Tzuyu again. 

 

She walks through the closed door. Winces at the lingering smell. It seems as though it has gotten stronger. More intense. Clings to the bed, and every surface that it can latch onto, and Sana knows that it is almost time. Two weeks, give or take. Moves nearer — 

 

Tzuyu is sleeping. Age has done a number on her, skin wrinkling along with the waves of time. But still, Sana sees the little girl that used to look up to her with her bright, big eyes that held so much curiosity for the world. The machine beside her beeps every now and then, an ice cold reminder of her waning mortality.

 

Sana does not know what to feel. Happy? That there might be a reunion, soon. But that would be selfish, to Tzuyu, who is fighting tooth and nail to keep breathing. The nurses whisper about Tzuyu’s admirable willpower, for holding on for so long — they think she is waiting for something. Or someone. 

 

Then there is that elderly man who comes in every day to change the flowers in the bedside vase, and comb her hair with the sweetest devotion Sana has ever known. Sometimes she finds herself watching him for the entire day, how he greets the nurses with a smile on his face, how he hobbles slowly into the room with his walking stick, and how he lights up whenever he sees Tzuyu.

 

It is irrational jealousy at its finest; Sana is just mad that she isn’t the one by Tzuyu’s side. Her hand itches to rip them apart, and hold Tzuyu’s hand and never let go — until the day the other girl grips hers back, and they walk back to the hotel, and into the afterlife. Together, forever.

 

But today, the man talks. Sana sees how his bottom lip wobbles. He takes Tzuyu’s hand in his, and kisses them, gentle and loving — 

 

“You don’t have to keep holding on,” he whispers. The desperation in his voice catches Sana off-guard. “I know it’s tiring, and I’m sorry. I’ve tried my best to look for her, darling.” 

 

Her?

 

“I know you’ve spent your entire life searching.” His voice grows louder. Breaks a little at the end. “And yet, nothing. Not even a trace. Even the generals at that time have no idea, because of how many unidentified dead bodies they buried every day —” he stops to take a shaky breath. 

 

“Stop waiting, Tzuyu.” The man swallows. “Stop waiting for Sana.”

 

Something slams into her chest. The shock factor increases tenfold as she tries to understand exactly what just happened, right in front of her eyes —   

 

“I’m sure you’ll meet her in the afterlife. She always said you would always find each other no matter what, didn’t she?” He thumbs her knuckles. “I hate to see you leave, but don’t stay for the wrong reasons, darling.” 

 

The wrong reasons. Tzuyu was staying for her. Her. Because they had promised to find their way back to each other, no matter what, and the truth socks her right in the jaw, together with the guilt that rises like bile, because she was supposed to be by Tzuyu’s side. 

 

But then she died.

 

Wait for me, Tzuyu. I’ll be right back. The words ring in her head as Sana remembers the last thing she said to the other girl. She closes her eyes. Thinks of the endless promises she made — 

 

The memories come back easily. Her, sending Tzuyu off on her first day of school, and Tzuyu not wanting to let go. Tzuyu, learning to be independent. Tzuyu, having to go off to run errands on her own.

 

We’ll always find our way back to each other, she had said, before a sobbing Tzuyu had stopped crying, and pinky-promised to be there. Always.  

 

She runs. Out of the room. Her feet are moving, fast, of their own accord, and all she knows is she has to get out of here, before she drowns in the things that she could have done, that she should have done, and her eyes burn with the weight of knowing the extent of the ripple from her butterfly effect that she never asked for —

 

“Sana?” 

 

There is a voice that silences every thought in her head. Slams the brakes on everything that had threatened to flood her entire being just a second ago. Sana’s vision clears, black clouds parting to allow well-deserved sunlight to waltz through. Like it should. She turns to the sound, and finds Mina looking at her with worry shining through her frantic eyes.

 

Sana gives in to her instincts. Grabs Mina’s arm, and pulls her into a hug. Folds into the embrace, and lets the warmth of it fill the white emptiness that is her mind. Feels it seep into the void that was just slammed into her non-existent heart, that hurts just the same.

 

“Hey,” Mina says, into her ear. It soothes the tiny pin pricks that were just starting to become erratic. Numbs the pokes into gentle nudges that eventually fade out into fingers tapping along her skin, that lulls her out of her whirlwind of memories, into reality:

 

Mina.

 

Her mouth is lead. But in the words that she does not say, she thinks Mina understands. The other girl does not question. Pats her shoulders reassuringly. They stay like that, before Sana finally regains semblance of where they are: in the middle of the registration lobby. 

 

She lets go immediately. The loss of touch sends an unpleasant jolt that zips through her. The frown on Mina’s face goes unnoticed, because there are people staring weirdly at the school girl who had just hugged the air, and Sana doesn’t want that for Mina. She pulls them to the waiting area, and sits. 

 

“Why are you here?” She asks. The last place she had expected to meet Mina would be a damn hospital, because never would she willingly associate anyone with the lingering gloom that shadows the entire place.

 

“My mother came for a check-up of sorts.” Mina gestures to the back, where the screening rooms are, and Sana heaves a sigh of relief. Of course. Mina is fine. Mina is fine. Mina is — 

 

There is a hand on hers. “Why are you here?” The question is tossed back to her. A harmless, soft concern that melts into her skin. Loosens her lips, and seeps through her walls — Sana tells her everything. Or most of it, at least. Gives Mina the shortened version: her sister is ill, and has been ill, for the last two years.

 

“Are you waiting for her?” The other girl’s voice is smaller. Still curious. But Sana cannot bring herself to answer, for there was no longer any need to tell Mina about the workings of the hotel, and how the souls would come naturally — 

 

“Nevermind.” Mina shakes her head. Sana thinks the hesitation in her eyes was a little too obvious. “You don’t have to answer that.” 

 

Mina does not push. Sana is thankful. Forces her mind to think of something to say, to not let the tense atmosphere linger any longer, but the other girl’s phone pings. She glances at it, and stands up almost immediately — bids a hasty goodbye. Something about Mina’s mother finishing up, and offers a flimsy promise to meet up sometime later. One that Sana immediately agrees to, and unbeknownst to Mina, has already safeguarded it in her clenched fist.

 

Mina leaves. Sana watches her as she disappears into the corridors of the hospital, and feels a weird heaviness settling into her limbs.




/




“Sana!” 

 

Sana doesn’t look up from her phone. Social media is far more interesting. But the pitter-patter of footsteps grows louder, and she definitely does not appreciate Momo calling her name twenty times in three seconds. 

 

“What?” She gives up easily. Sue her, maybe. She’s bored of doing the same damn thing every day. But Momo rarely calls her name with such intensity, and rarely runs — 

 

“The tree!” Momo yells, for a poorly hushed whisper. Then looks around pointlessly. The lobby is mostly empty where they are, and most of the staff are probably at the banquet hall because Nayeon had decided she was in the mood for some ‘remodelling’ — but then again, the tree really isn’t as much of a secret as Sana thinks it is: only Momo and her were nosy enough to ask. The other girl gestures wildy. “There are flowers now.” 

 

Now that is interesting. Her interest peaks, in the form of widened eyes and not-really-subtle brisk walking to the garden, with Momo in tow. It is one thing to believe rumours, and another thing to verify it — not because of Momo’s credibility, which might have been affected because of the number of stupid pranks they play on each other, but the other girl’s tone and actions today are obvious enough to suggest otherwise. Sana takes a small comfort in how they always know when to be serious.  

 

Then she sees it: the tree. Blooming with flowers on almost every branch. Standing magnificent and proud and tall like it isn’t afraid of anything. Like the world owes it everything. Here, as they stand, Sana sees Momo’s words actualise in the form of the tangibility right before her very own eyes.

 

“Holy shit,” she stares. Knows Momo is doing just the same, because the silence that comes next is one that strikes both of them with blatant speechlessness. The purple flowers decorating the branches seem to be mocking them, in the way they glitter brilliantly under the moonlight. It is an old fashioned but elaborate middle finger to everyone who thought that the tree was dead. Mostly Nayeon, she thinks. But if the tree could talk, it would probably have introduced its comeback along the lines of: Bitch, you thought. “They actually look pretty.” 

 

“They are.” 

 

If Sana still had a heart, it would have probably jumped out of her chest. Not in the way that Mina makes her feel, (Mina?) but in the way that would have made her scream murder; Momo, too, startles, and clamps her hand over her mouth in lieu of the ear-piercing scream that can probably rival Nayeon’s — 

 

Nayeon steps out from behind the trunk, black hair flowing down her back gracefully. She reaches out to touch a petal, from one of the lower branches. Caresses it slowly. Admiringly, even, before letting go, and taking her place in between the both of them. 

 

“It happened last night.” She offers. “Jeongyeon said she fell asleep here during her break, and woke up to see the tree covered in flowers.” Snorts softly. “Girlie said she almost had an aneurysm.” 

 

Sana smiles at that, jumpscare easily forgotten. “And then Mina can come?” (Mina, again? Her mind seems to be pulling out thoughts of the girl for no reason at all.)

 

Momo mimes a whipping action that doesn’t go unnoticed. Nayeon rolls her eyes. “I already asked you to bring the girl here! Why are you going around cursing other people? The audacity —”

 

“Cursing?” Sana counters easily. “You were the one who said she almost died —”

 

“ — An aneurysm isn’t the same as dying, Sana. Maybe you should consider going back to school with Mina for a refresher —”

 

“Liking the view?” A voice cuts in. A few steps down from loud, maybe. Sana doesn’t need to look to know who it is, for the power in that voice alone is enough to make Nayeon shut up and fold her arms defensively. From the corner of her eye, Momo takes a small step back; Sana puts a hand reassuringly on her shoulder. Mouths not the same, and grins in satisfaction when Momo nods in response.

 

Nice Jihyo walks towards the tree. Places her palm on its trunk. Sometimes Sana wonders how so much power can be stored in such a tiny body, given how Jihyo is actually shorter than all of them. “Ah, it has bloomed. Isn’t it pretty?”

 

“Of course,” Nayeon deadpans. “My soul is tied to it, so it’s obviously got to be as beautiful as me.” 

 

Nice Jihyo giggles. At times like these she passes off as any other human girl next door, with a happy-go-lucky disposition that everyone is jealous of. Then she lets out a burst of laughter that has all three of them smiling slowly, easily — 

 

“You’re changing, Im Nayeon.” It comes to a halt. The sombre atmosphere is back, but with a lining of wistful appreciation that Sana does not quite understand. Maybe it’s just the shiny stuff from the flowers. Nice Jihyo moves to look Nayeon in the eye, and Nayeon, to her credit, does not flinch. “I hope you’ll be ready.” 

 

Nayeon narrows her eyes. “Ready for what?” 

 

“To be brave.” Nice Jihyo says. Sana coughs, at the same time Nayeon huffs. Deities these days are really saying whatever they want, despite it being cheesy as hell and sounding like something straight out of a self-help book she would never buy. Then there is a moment, where they share a look: Nayeon’s eyes look like they are this close to vibrating out of their sockets, and Sana swears she sees Nice Jihyo’s lips twitch —

 

“I’m rooting for you. Always.” But it is over, and Sana snaps out of it to be met with the full frontal stare of the Goddess. Being under Jihyo’s scrutiny only means that something will be happening. Many things, in fact. Things that have already been set into motion, for them to piece together the entirety of it from the breadcrumbs they discover along the way. “How is Mina?”

 

Mina?

 

“Good as always,” Sana tries. They had met after her embarrassing meltdown at the hospital, as though nothing happened, just because she was bored. And Mina, just like any other high school kid, hates school. Having a student as a friend means a whole lot of studying to be done (on Mina’s part, of course), and Sana just sits through it all while Mina mumbles her way through textbooks of history and literature. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable, because the pout that forms along with Mina’s hundred and twenty percent concentration may have become Sana’s new obsession — 

 

“Familiar?” Nice Jihyo tilts her head. 

 

She frowns. Lets the word wash over her, as the vines of its meaning curl slowly around her chest. Familiar? “Uh, maybe?” 

 

“Sometimes the body is more powerful than the mind, because it remembers the things that we don’t.” The Goddess says, this time, to no one in particular. “Time is running out.” Then there is a gust of wind that picks up from absolutely nowhere, and blows Sana’s hair around her shoulders into her face, and she closes her eyes — 

 

It goes as quickly as it comes. She sweeps her hair out of her eyes. The garden is as it is: not a flower out of place. Nice Jihyo is gone, and Sana really wants to tell the Goddess to choose another mode of transport. Preferably one that doesn’t cut into her eyes, or mess up her uniform. 

 

“Ugh,” Nayeon grunts. Her hair, too, is all over the place. But the air thickens with Nice Jihyo’s departure, and Sana’s chest is suddenly heavy, and tighter with the gravity of the words from the Goddess. It gets exhausting, to be pawns in the Deities’ game of fate, and to pick up lessons along the way that will supposedly help for ‘character development’ or whatever this growth classifies as.

 

None of them talk. It’s like they are suddenly forced to confront the questions uprooted from the depths of their consciences. Time, it seems, has started ticking again, for all of them; its hands turning with no mercy, even for the ones like them that do the dirty work for the Deities, to maintain the balance. Maybe it was just her wishful thinking — that they might be entitled to some extra brownie points. 

 

The worst part? Sana doesn’t think any of them are ready to go. 

 

Momo is the first to break the silence. “So what does this mean?” Scratches her head. Sighs loudly enough that it punctuates her question with an equally loud dread that she is sure is reflected in all of their thoughts.

 

And true to expectations, Nayeon only laughs. Because Im Nayeon is the only one, out of all of them, who is insane enough to be able to smile in the face of her worst fears.

 

“I have no fucking idea.” 




/




She ends up bringing Mina to the hotel. Not because Nayeon said so, but because Mina herself had suggested it. Sana thinks it has become impossible for her to say no to anything that the other girl says — point one. If pouts could kill, Sana would be dead (again). Many, many times. 

 

“This is the front desk.” She pats it softly. Then gives it a good ol’ slap, because the mahogany wood has supposedly withstood more of time than any of them ever did. “The receptionist, if you feel fancy enough.” Sana walks to stand behind it. Puts on her game face, with her hands clasped together, and bows politely. “Welcome.”

 

“Is that your customer service voice?” Mina cringes. “Ew. What if you end up driving the guests away?” Takes a step back in faux disgust, before her eyes crinkle into the half-moons that make Sana’s vision a little brighter.

 

“How dare you.” Sana gasps. “I’m like, the best we have here.” Puffs out her chest in pride. It is authentic, despite the teasing — it sure gets boring, but the meaning of this job still stays in between the love and hate of it all, and she will always appreciate it. 

 

The other girl rolls her eyes. Her gummy smile tells Sana that she doesn’t mean it at all. “Okay, model employee, can we go up?” She points to the open lift doors. “This place is kinda boring.” 

 

Mina is insufferable. Sana sometimes forgets how much of a high school kid she is. So they go up, and Sana does her best version of the official tour — the never-ending beach, the banquet hall, the rooms — she’s seen Jeongyeon do it too many times and knows it like the back of her hand. But this is the first time she actually does it, and the words roll off her tongue easily. Naturally. The knowledge accumulated over the years curated with the borderline arrogance that they are, in fact, a one-of-a-kind hotel.  

 

They walk past Nayeon’s room, because Mina asked to see all of it, and they end up on the staff-only floor (see point one). The other girl gapes at the brief sight of Nayeon’s exploding wardrobe, and Sana has enough sense to slow down her footsteps, before dragging Mina off to look at the other vases and flashy art pieces that range from complete-waste-of-space to maybe-I-can-steal-this. 

 

Sana’s mouth hurts. For all the reasons possible, she would never have thought that it would be because of smiling too much — the only time it ever did was when she and Momo tried to stuff an entire box of M&Ms into their mouths because they had nothing better to do. The afternoon passes by like a river runs dry: so slowly it goes unnoticed, until it doesn’t. In this case, it’s Mina’s stomach rumbling a declaration of war.

 

“Let’s go eat something,” Sana laughs. Mina doesn’t protest. They retrace their steps to the lobby, and spend the elevator ride discussing (read: arguing) about food options, which makes absolutely no sense, because Sana cannot eat. But Mina fights her opinion like she will, and it feels like she just might. 

 

The doors open. The question that spills out of her lips is the one that she would attribute to an occupational hazard. But later, Sana will be grateful of it — 

 

“So, Mina-ssi. How did you enjoy the hotel? What did you like best?” She beams. Stands with her hands behind her back this time, like a proper check-out. Just that Mina isn’t going into the afterlife yet, and Sana isn’t going to be returning to her post for today —

 

Mina’s answer is something none of the guests have yet to give. “The receptionist,” she nods towards the desk behind them. 

 

Sana frowns. Opens her mouth to voice her confusion, but Mina beats her to it — 

 

“It’s where people are welcomed in. If they aren’t welcomed in, they wouldn’t want to stay.” An eyebrow is raised. “Isn’t that the most important part?”

 

Well. Sana wants to argue that it is just the most basic thing, and that the ghosts have literally nowhere else to go, but there is a glint in Mina’s eyes that dissolves her words immediately.

 

“Besides,” the other girl says, slower now. “It’s where I get to see you doing your job.” There is a chance that the distance between them thins out, but Sana is too focused on Mina to notice: the mole on her upper lip that always shies away slightly whenever she smiles. “You’re kinda cool.”

 

Then Mina takes another step closer, and the air between them disappears — there are lips pressed to her cheek, fleeting and brief, before Mina is staring back at her like nothing ever happened. The only evidence? Sana’s face heating up impossibly, and her chest about to float out of her body. 

 

She smiles. Recognises the warmth pumping through her as that of courage, and Sana slides her hand into Mina’s. Pulls her along as she walks through the door, into the night. Neither of them say anything. It’s like a secret left in the open, for the world to see, as something blossoms, young and beautiful —

 

But no one does. No one, other than Myoui Mina, and Minatozaki Sana — two ordinary girls with fate tied around them, second chances tossed to play out left, right and center — 

 

And the Deities, of course. 




/