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fragile desolation

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TENNIS "Swimmer"

It was like a shattered prophecy, aged by the blood on Seulgi's knuckles—whispered, hummed, forgotten. She baptises her own blood in the sink of a girl's bathroom, and it stings.

   She wonders if the skin will scar, if the scabs will remain the only testaments to her anger. Minho didn't bleed—that thought alone rekindles the righteous rage she felt rumble all quiet and icy in her bones.
   Joohyun's frustration follows her like simmering bubbles suspended in the stale and cramped air, but she's silent in the presence of strangers that linger near the sinks; their own babble whispered in imitated devotion. One of the taller girls spares them both a glance, no more than a moment and hurries away with hands still wet, her flock twittering right behind her.
   Seulgi quite likes this notoriety.
   She catches Joohyun's reflection in the dirty mirror as she paces like a limping predator, chewing on her thumbnail—some of the bubbles pop once the door closes and she whirls around. "I can't fucking believe you," she says, and Seulgi pats her hands dry, careful around the inflamed bruise, it's rather furious with the ache it shoots up her arm, "I can't fucking believe you punched Minho."

   "It's the least I could do." Seulgi shrugs, balling up the tissue and aiming it at the bin. "Honestly—he deserved much worse."
   Minho didn't bleed—and for the first time in her life, Seulgi had hoped to draw blood as some sort of twisted reckoning for all that he said. Violence isn't her forte, she prefers the honeyed beauty of compassion and empathy, but there—at that moment she'd hoped for retribution. Maybe in the form of a glass bottle shattered against his temple like offerings left at a broken altar. She wouldn't mind getting arrested for that.
   "D'you even hear yourself?" Joohyun's voice ricochets across the stained tiles; amplified, echoed until the words turn warbled with the anger that trips into each syllable. It's anger that sits on her shoulders—puppeteering her body and tongue, she doesn't remember who she is, as it rises, insidious like pinpricks through her throat, goading all she would never have said—heart severed open.
   "Quite clearly. I should've broken his jaw—given him a couple of months to think about never opening his damn mouth again."
   "You should consider yourself lucky he didn't call security."
   Oh—she isn't lucky, due to all courses of logic, Minho would never have called campus security, would never have given his impudent friends a chance to lash back at him with boorish laughter made to puncture his ego. She hadn't thought of it at that time, instead lead forward with serrated fists and blurred morals, unable to think of the consequences. Her hand now feels in midst of a strangled shout, knuckles ruptured and swollen, but she's all right—she will be as long as that punch made him stumble like a newborn, afraid to stand up with howls of revenge.
   "Cool. Tell him I said thanks," Seulgi says, heading out once a number of girls enter, gossip spilling from their barred teeth. She knows Joohyun is following.
   Outside isn't any better—the air is full of a burning hunger, void and insatiable. The sun has begun its descent, heralding marigolds in the sky. She's pulled back by her elbow before she reaches the quad—the hallway stretches eerie and empty behind them. "You could've landed in jail."
   "No, I don't think so."
   Joohyun's grip tightens, sharp. "Oh my god—you're being unbelievably stupid right now, maybe I should knock some sense into you."
   "Go ahead." A corner of Seulgi's mouth tilts up at that, doesn't understand why she'd actually prefer that outcome—she leans in, seeing the way sunlight caresses Joohyun's cheek. "I won't press charges."
   Joohyun lets go as though singed, and staggers a step back, cornered like unwound prey. Seulgi hasn't seen her full of a hunted fury before, an icy stillness carved to mute Seulgi's words. It doesn't irritate her, no—when all these years Joohyun has let only petals form on her lips, quiet like the first dawn of sunlight. Or perhaps, Seulgi doesn't know her at all.
   "You're so bloody infuriating."
   "Minho is a douche, he said shit about you and I couldn't control my temper—end of story," Seulgi says, "I don't care for him, or for people like him. He's lucky I didn't break his damn face permanently."
   Shock colours Joohyun's face pale—air frightful with all Seulgi could've said, she's always been tender, throat full of songbirds and divinity, that these words, this vile and damp virtuosity blooms like weeds in blood. It isn't that she harbours petty dislike for him. It is sown together by his actions—when he struts about the university with arrogance tipping his head back, with a sticky scowl etched onto his eyebrows, eyes made of ebony diamonds to eat away at your conviction, when he considers Joohyun a luxury only befit to his grandeur—and when he stalks off during a party and Joohyun is left to frenzy through the crowds like an aimless spirit in search for its body, for Seulgi, for safety.
   "He isn't—"
   "I don't get what you see in him."
   "You don't know him."
   "Huh, well—I guess I'll just have to thank every deity up there that I don't."
   She doesn't know him, it's true—hasn't wept at his feet like the mindless horde of worshippers he collects, or looked upon him with a reverence reserved for saints. He bestows everyone with the same pomposity, and those closest to him haven't the brains to realise he doesn't spew gospels. She doesn't care for them, either—for they are made in his image.
   "Why didn't you walk away? Why'd you have to go and do that?"
   "Why do you care what happens to him when he's not in bed with you?"
   Joohyun pushes her and it reminds Seulgi of some small prey animal kicking up a riot. "Shut up."
   "Oh, hey, c'mon—do it. Aren't you angry I had the gall to beat up your pretty little boyfriend?" Seulgi's calm, hands full of spears—she's ready to push Joohyun, push her until anger trembles out of her heart like a broken epiphany.
   She pushes harder, and Seulgi stumbles back, about to hit the brick wall when Joohyun shouts, "Shut the fuck up!"
   Seulgi winces, sure that must've roused the curiosity of those milling about in the quad. She says, winded—voice caught on some bristles, "Y'know, it's funny you're angry at me when I was the one who defended your honour."
   "Honour?" Joohyun's voice aches, full of an unanchored pain as it spills outwards, swiping at Seulgi with talons, and she flinches. "What honour are you talking about?"
   Lips parted, Seulgi's finally unable to say anything in response. She could enclose Joohyun in a feather tipped embrace, forget this mission to entice the truth from the willowy depths of her scorch marked soul, forget why Minho didn't bleed and build Joohyun a pyre for forgiveness. But she doesn't, and Joohyun continues, "It wasn't any of your business—didn't your parents teach you it's rude to meddle in someone else's affairs?"
   Irked now, Seulgi frowns, "My parents taught me that a good person doesn't—"
   Joohyun cuts her off, "Oh my god—could you stop pushing your fucking morals down my throat? Go get off on the internet by boasting about the stupid shit you did on Twitter."
   "At least I might find someone who'll agree with me that way."
   A wind picks up somewhere—heavy and humid, billowing over their skin—it screams in the hallways, and Seulgi wonders if she's the only one who can hear it.
   "He doesn't deserve you," Seulgi manages over the ire that shudders out in tandem with the screams, "you weren't there—you weren't there when he said he fucked you so good in the back of his dad's car that you changed teams. I couldn't stand there and listen to him talk like that about you. Don't you even care about what he says about you?"
   "Why should I when all my life I've heard worse?"
   Seulgi fears her heart has split open now. "But that doesn't mean you let people get away with shit like that! You can't give someone else the right to talk about your character."
   Joohyun groans at that, already tired—unable to even comprehend the concept, as though it were an unfound miracle lain to rest, away from the vestiges of humanity. "Stay out of my business."
   "I don't think I can," Seulgi says, pocketing the unbruised hand in her jean shorts.
   "Are you out of your mind?"
   A smile teases on her lips—she's heard that one many, many times before. "I mean, yeah. I am your friend after all."
   Pinching the bridge of her nose, Joohyun exhales, furls back inside, a little too tired—weary in the way only a resurrection can fix. "Look, I'm… asking if you could apologise to him?"
   Seulgi's knuckles scream over the bones as she curls her hand into a fist strong enough to shatter light, and remould it in the names of the stars. She takes the moment to really look at Joohyun and sees the way her hair bun lies loose at the base of her skull, and how her eyes speak of an exhaustion that's settled in the curve of her throat—and yet, she looks ethereal, like a hymn sung for angels.
   "Only if you break up with him," Seulgi says.
   "I am not doing that!"
   "Ask him to apologise to you."
   "Seulgi-yah, please," Joohyun murmurs, rubbing at her temples—sunlight catches onto the black nail polish, "I'll forget about it if you could just go and say you're sorry, you didn't mean it, or your hand slipped."
   "What's he got on you that you're still with him? I can't believe genuinely like him—he's despicable."
   "Shut up."
   "All right, gimme one reason—one good reason why you haven't broken up with him despite all the shit he's put you through."
   Joohyun turns away and the silence weaves mysteries until she says, "Minho's the only one who talked to me after…" She trails off, vacant—grief bleeds inside whatever is left unsaid. "He was the only one who didn't care. He was the only one who'd have me."
   Seulgi listens to the roar that rises at them, fiery and tender, near enough that it collapses in the air. She doesn't understand Joohyun's sudden switch, what it means when it falls into her hands—should she continue this pointless crusade to satiate the curiosity which led her here or build a pyre for these words in hopes they turn into ashes?
   "I'll have you," she barges on ahead lest Joohyun linger, afraid of the way she'd meant it, "I mean, I'm your friend, aren't I? He's not the only one—you've got plenty of other people who'd have you."
   "Stop acting like you know everything about me."
   "I thought we were friends."
   "We are," Joohyun says, all quiet—the fervor in her voice now stolen, swept away by the sun as it dips slow beneath the horizon.
   "Friends are supposed to know stuff about each other."
   "God, you don't stop." Amusement creeps inside the vowels and it feels like Joohyun gifted her a wreath made of jewels.
   "'Cause I care about you—it hurts me to see you stuck in a relationship like that."
   The slant of fading light falls on Joohyun's face when she sits down on the nearest bench—it isn't electric anymore, more dull—a lamp extinguished, stagnant. "Can you please drop it?"
   A moments consideration, Seulgi touches the knuckle most bruised. "No, I can't do that anymore."
   "Oh my god."
   She rolls her lips into her mouth, a song brays in the distance but she can't decipher why it makes the blood race in her veins; cutting, restless. She can't find any more ways to make Joohyun talk, no other ways to weave nightmares into ashy flowerbeds. "I stood up for you and here you are—asking me to go apologise to him for something you should be angry at him for."
   She catches Joohyun pull at her earlobe—wonders why she never thought she'd go as far as to make the stars fall for Joohyun. It's odd that she'd go to such lengths for her, when Minho isn't even some schoolyard bully.
   "You don't know what I've got with him," Joohyun offers like a finality.
   "Explain it to me."
   "Haven't you got anyone else to bother?"
   "I've bothered them all."
   Seulgi's love for those closest to her glows incandescent hymns in the sky, formed in the dim flecks that bind the very souls of constellations. Her heart spills with the love, and even more so for Joohyun—she cares too much until it tears and the hurt she gleams from the wreckage remains her last companion. But it's all she knows, to offer this stitched up, broken sort of devotion.
   The dying embers of light shine into Joohyun's eyes, a hazy brown now, unfocused. She pulls herself up, brushing away the dust on her jeans as a means to stall the conversation. Some shouts linger in from the quad, laughter following like little tremors.
   "I don't think you've got any right telling me to break up with him," Joohyun starts, running her tongue over her teeth, forming a cradle full of anger and resentment, "you don't know me, or my life—you're just someone I know from university, a fucking nobody. Say that again, and I'm gone." She takes a step closer, each movement precise—a prayer bleeds on the floor beneath them. "We're friends 'cause Minho had asked me to talk to you at that party, I didn't even know you existed."
   Minho didn't bleed.
   "I didn't think they were right but you are his little bitch," Seulgi says, and before she can even react, Joohyun's grasped the collar of her shirt in a grip made of the blood of titans—she's finally punctured the prophecy, guts spilled into the dirt. Her heart leafs through her ribs in search for an escape, she suspects even Joohyun can listen to the fear pounding at the base of her throat. "Afraid of a little truth?"
   "Why can't you shut up!?" Her grip tightens and the material of Seulgi's shirt stretches heavy at the back of her neck, almost chaffing the skin; a feral fury now tug, tug, tugging—Seulgi can only remember that time they shared the same bed, shy hands weighed by the gaze of the moon—now Joohyun's hands shake under the weight of it.
   "Why should I?" Joohyun scrunches her eyes closed, Seulgi continues, "You chose him. Cross that line and get me right in the jaw—an eye for an eye."
   The shirt hanging off Joohyun's shoulders hides the tremors erupting from her bones, she says, voice pulled tight on a string, "I don't—I don't want to hurt you."
   Seulgi reaches out to palm Joohyun's wrists and shoves her against the wall, a flock of birds scatter upwards at that moment, their wings beating to the sound of an unwritten ode. Her eyes snap open, half awake, pupils meeting the edges of brown.
   "You chose him—and now you say you don't wanna hurt me? D'you even hear yourself?" Fingers tighten, stronger, wilder; goaded by the tar building in her bloodstream. "Come on, do it already. Knock some sense into me." Joohyun sinks onto the dusty bricks, all fight slithers away, and her breath comes teared out of her lungs. "No—no. You can't do that to me, you can't. Make me bleed, punch me, do something."
   Her wrists are limp in Seulgi's hands, lifeless—eyes glistening with pain. "No."
   That catches Seulgi unawares and she releases Joohyun, afraid of the unspilled panic. "I'm sorry," she mumbles, "I'm sorry." Her ruptured skin smarts like arrows sharpened into her arm, and she reminds herself to go to the hospital later. "I'm sorry. You're right, it's none of my business. He's your boyfriend. I should've stayed in my lane."
   Heat sinks into the evening, infused dark as the sun bids farewell to the rising stars.
   "He's right," Joohyun exhales, tinged dull—Seulgi chances a glance back at her, shoulders slumped like cracked shards of porcelain. "He's right, about—about that, er, his dad's car." Chest caving with held inhales, a monster sits there bare clawed, drawing blood from her lungs. "I—I erm… He." Voice snuffed out by unshed tears. "It's not something I'm proud of, all right? I'm—" Curls her arms around herself. "I'm not proud of it. I don't… I had to, everyone thought I was—everyone thought I was a—" Cutting herself off, she flinches inward. "He's right. He's right. He's right."
   Hysteria scatters in the air around them, and Seulgi is for once afraid of what she did. "You don't have to—"
   "He's right," Joohyun barrels onward as though pulled through brambles, words scratchy, "I was—I was in love with my best friend." She digs her nails into the skin of her forearm, deep enough to draw crescent shaped blood. "I loved her and she—she went and told everyone about it, and I just… I was suddenly so alone, it wasn't right—I shouldn't have fallen for her, it wasn't right." Words come out choked, warbled. "Minho was the only one who'd have me. He was…"
   "Hey, breathe," Seulgi says, dust cloud words disappear when Joohyun doesn't exhale; she reaches out to squeeze her shoulder instead. "Breathe, it's okay. You're all right, I'm right here, you're here. You're going to be okay."
   Seulgi balls up the end of her shirt and presses it to Joohyun's arm—misty panic spreads, Seulgi's own heartbeat fluctuates unbidden, sharp like thorns over the pulse.
   "No. No, no, no—it's not. You—I didn't—" Seulgi pulls her in for an embrace, and it splits open the flesh of sorrow, all frial like rotted fruits crushed underfoot, she doesn't care for the blood that blots onto her shirt, or the tears that finally lay on her shoulder. "Are you happy now?"
   "Extremely," Seulgi says, the confession pulled from the darkened hollow behind her ribs—aching the way Joohyun aches, salt in her veins, soaking the pain like rainwater on scorched firewood. "I'm right here, Joohyun-ah. I'd punch all of those fuckers who singled you out, punch them enough that the blood on my hands isn't mine but theirs. I'm a loser, sure—but I truly care about you, and I'll stay by your side as long as you want me." Joohyun hands grip onto the front of her shirt, fists intangible in her strength. "You don't even have to give Minho the time of day anymore."
   "You don't understand."
   "I do." Quiet settles like gold, pressed deep into the silence. Seulgi holds her tight enough that her fingerprints could imprint themselves into Joohyun's blood. Short breaths cradle the pain, praying to the star flecked gods to satiate this beast. Seulgi could take her home, curl her up in a fleece blanket—yet she isn't a stray cat but a human bathed in her own will. Her survival has the eternal beauty of spring. "Back in high school, a friend of mine accidentally outed me during a stupid party game. He was drunk and I forgave him. But y'know how high school kids are—they weren't really nice about it. He didn't leave, and neither did any of my other friends. And honestly? I don't think I'd still be here if I didn't have them by my side. You've got me, and I'm pretty damn resilient."
   Shame blooms in the way Joohyun sounds when she says, "I didn't…"
   "Yeah." She ghosts her hands over Joohyun's back. "I don't know about anything you went through but what I do know is that there are people in your life who love you, who care about you, who want you happy." She admits—sudden, like a dry twig snapped in half, "I love you, you're my best friend even if you don't think I'm yours."
   "Shut up," Joohyun says, wavering on the precipice of a stray moonbeam—tears purifying like water kissed by Christ's blood.
   "You don't have to do this alone anymore. I'm right here. Let me help you."
   Her laughter shines through a sob like sunlight. "Could you get any more cliche?"
   "Only if you want me to."
   Prophecy now rung empty, Seulgi hopes to reinvent the way love sounds like to Joohyun, hopes to invent new forms of poetry to bury inside her petaled heart.