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love in the air

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At 36,000 feet, there were no yellow lights. There was only an endless obstacle course of winds and clouds, one that Junghwan had mastered long ago. After all, everyday for the past six years, he had climbed into a jet and ripped through the sky.

But this Sunday was different. The cockpit sat two, not one.

“Thanks for taking me up here. This is amazing. I’m the first one out of our gang, right?” Deoksun, for once, was in the coveted aisle seat.

She was right. After all these years, Junghwan still put Deoksun first. He swallowed and focused on the view. It was 6:50 AM, and they were racing against the sunrise, their jet a metallic speck on an orange-red gradient.

“Yeah, but only because Bora has Sunwoo grounded. Taek has matches. Dongryong and Jungbong have no leeway with their bosses. You were fifth choice. ” Six years later, and he still couldn’t resist their banter, couldn’t take the bite out of their conversation.

“Ah, I see. Because you have no other friends.” Neither could she.

“Fifth place is better than 999th, right?”

Deoksun playfully smacked his shoulder. “But I’m still very thankful.”

“You’re up here often enough.” Junghwan glanced over to Deoksun. She was fixated on the landscape—well, skyscape. He stared out at the cumulus clouds, the pink magnifications of cotton candy lazing about the sky. He couldn’t help but think that she blended right in, all soft lines and sweetness. Just another cloud he couldn’t touch.

“Not usually up here with one of Seoul’s up and coming aerial aces though. Also I’m usually handing people peanuts instead of sightseeing myself.”

“And you don’t have the privilege of being in the cockpit,” Junghwan pointed out, smirking.

“Never,” Deoksun sighed. They circled over Seoul in relaxed silence. Deoksun attempted to pinpoint which shabby collection of alleys was Ssangmun-dong.

“So you’re a cadet now, what’s next?”

“I try to go up and up. I actually become Jungpal, a dog for my sunbaes,” His tone was casual, but Deoksun didn’t laugh.

“Not funny. You are Jungpal only to me, got it? If anyone messes with you, I will—”

“Toss packaged snack mixes at them? Pop champagne at their faces?” The frown on Deoksun’s face didn’t even twitch. “Deoksun-ah, it’s okay. I can take care of myself. It’s how I graduated. How I earned the ring.”

She snapped to face him as the sun glared down into their windows. Junghwan didn’t know where to look.

“You want to talk…about the ring?” The words slipped out of her mouth cautiously. The atmosphere in the cockpit had become electric, charged from six years of silence on alley press-ups and twilight bus rides. It was unlike Junghwan to bring the topic up, and they both knew it.

“I did want to talk about it.”

“Did?”

“Do.” He glided their jet toward a puffy cloud, one as pink as the shirt she had given him so long ago.

Her eyes peered up at him, expectant yet anxious. He started, “My confession. It wasn’t a joke. What I said was genuine.” The cloud deflated into a mist of pink, as if the elephant in the cockpit had finally poofed.

“I know.” Deoksun conceded.

“How did you—”

“We were friends before we were crushes, remember? Taek’s said before that love is something you can see in the eyes. I saw it,” Junghwan pressed his lips together. Saw, past tense. She continued, “That ring was important to you. So I knew I was important to you.” Was, past tense.

“You are,” He only corrected one tense. They fell into another pregnant pause before he continued. “I’m sorry I wasn’t straight with you these past six years. I want to be now, because you’re right. No matter what we are now, we’re friends.”

“What are we now—”

“Wait, just let me finish,” he cut in. “I never apologized for the pink shirt. There were two. Jungbong bought himself one, because he loved the color.”

“I know…”

“Because one day you ended up seeing both of us wearing it and you did a double-take. I know. But I never explained…even then.” Junghwan’s fingers clenched around the steering handle. He hated how hesitantly he was explaining his hesitations. Deoksun stared up at him, ignoring the clouds that zipped by and the nausea she was beginning to feel from their ten consecutive circles around Seoul.

“I’m sorry.” 1988 Jungpal would have never apologized, but 1994 Junghwan could. He powered on.

“I’m sorry for so many things I can’t even apologize for, because they were things you weren’t even aware of. Things like seeing you crying in the alley, but faltering until Taek came and comforted you instead. Things like making up plans so I couldn’t go to the Lee Moon Sae concert with you.”

Deoksun’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed. Six years had distanced them from high school, and yet her memories of Junghwan had never fogged. Apparently, it had been the same for Junghwan. The clouds showed no tell tale signs of rain, but her eyes did.

“And I’m sorry I let it all go when I left for flight academy.” 

This time, he didn’t snatch back the truth, and this time, Deoksun had a reply.

“I had liked you then too,” Deoksun said. Her smile, her tone—they were bitter. Cupid was cruel, to shoot arrows at friends under the same roof. To point their heartbeats towards each other, but keep them out of sync at frequencies that only produced destructive interference. “You could tell right? I faked a sprained ankle for you. Our bus ride dates. The shirt. I knew you weren’t the pink type of guy, but I was returning your feelings. A pink shirt for my pink gloves. Like a couple set.”

Junghwan willed his eyes not to water—he had a jet to man after all. He failed, but Deoksun made no comment over his glassy eyes. They relapsed into silence. Junghwan shifted gears. The jet began its descent, no longer cruising. Gravity was tugging them back down to earth.

“It seems like I brought you up here just to list my regrets and say I’m sorry.” Junghwan was only half kidding.

“Yeah, clearing the air, right?”

Junghwan shallowly chuckled. “Honestly, I flew you up here, because… because I wanted to lead for once. Even if it meant just being the first one to get closure.”

“So if this is closure, then answer my question, Junghwan. What are we now?” He met her pretty, expressive eyes. They were completely raw and earnest, and for once, Junghwan could say he had been too.

At 36,000 feet, there were no yellow lights, but Junghwan didn’t need a green light either. He had his own momentum to make, one that didn’t depend on fate or timing.

“It’s up to you, but I’m tired of flying solo.”