“Fuck, it’s hot.”
Sae-byeok blinks, turning her gaze from the sand beneath her feet to the girl sitting beside her. Ji-yeong is glaring at the sun as if it has offended her on a personal level. She stifles a snort at the sight. Ji-yeong is wearing the skimpiest bikini she’s ever seen. If it even counts as a bikini, she’s honestly not sure. She doesn’t think Ji-yeong is sure of that either, but knowing her, she probably—definitely—doesn’t care. They bought the bikinis together—an experience so painful and embarrassing it makes her want to curl up and die just thinking about it—and Ji-yeong had insisted to buy exclusively the most revealing of them, citing that it’s “within her rights as a former Catholic who went to Catholic schools in all her schooling years.” She then proceeded to spend five minutes ranting about school uniforms and double standards and fucking nuns and—Sae-byeok doesn’t understand half of what she was saying, so she just tuned her out and murmured a “hmm” every now and then, and that seemed to be enough for Ji-yeong.
(She did, however, Google catholic school uniforms back in her apartment that she’s currently sharing with her brother and her mom and had to pretend she got sunburned on the way back from the mall because she was blushing so hard from imagining Ji-yeong in one of those uniforms, but there’s no way she’s going to confess that to anyone.)
“I think this is even hotter than Hawaii,” Ji-yeong nods to herself.
This time, Sae-byeok doesn’t resist the snort.
“Are you still on to that?” She’s back to marvelling at the sand she’s standing on because wow, she’s in Jeju, what the fuck, and it’s soft and warm like a personally-made blanket by nature. It’s amazing, is what it is. Jeju is amazing, and no amount “but Hawaii!” from Ji-yeong is going to change that.
The other girl huffs. “Hawaii is much more elite.”
“Jeju is cheaper.”
“Sae-byeok, we’re billionaires.”
That’s one of the things she learned about Ji-yeong in the year following that damned Squid Game—she’s not used to pinching pennies. Her family, as it turned out, was quite well-off. She had been the only child and sole inheritor to their wealth, too. Which kind of pissed her off at first because why did she even enter the Squid Game in the first place if that’s the case, but then again, Ji-yeong said she got recruited right after she got out of prison. I don’t have anything else to do, she had said.
I don’t have anyone or anything to lose, not anymore, is what she didn’t say.
She couldn’t exactly relate, sure—her brother and her mother had been her sole purpose of living ever since she got to South Korea—but she could understand the feeling. Without her family to think about, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do, either.
“We could still go next year,” she offers, burying her hands in the sand.
“I—what are you doing?!” Ji-yeong yanks her hands from the sand frantically. She blinks. Another thing she learned about the girl: she’s dramatic for the strangest reasons. Watching people die in front of her? Sure, whatever. A KPop band she likes is performing on the TV? Shrieks. Lots of tears. “You can’t just bury your hands in the sand, for God’s sake! Jesus. Your nails! Look at them, they’re all dirty now!”
She snorts again.
“It’s fine,” she says, brushing the dirt off her hands nonchalantly. “We’re on the beach and you’re worrying about me getting sand on my hands? Seriously?”
Before Ji-yeong could respond, a waiter comes with their drinks.
Just like that, Ji-yeong’s attention is diverted.
Another thing Sae-byeok learned about her: she’s very easily distracted.
“Ooh!” Ji-yeong stares at her glass of margarita with wide eyes and jaws opened, disturbingly similar to her reaction the first time they used their golden card and saw the amount of money they had. “Look at this! Sae-byeok, look—it’s so cool!”
She looks at her margarita.
It looks just like any other drink.
“Uh-huh,” she says, watching as Ji-yeong excitedly snapped pictures of the two margaritas from different angles. That’s another thing she doesn’t understand about her—her attachment to her phone. Sure, she likes her phone alright (it’s Samsung—Ji-yeong insisted she got the newest (and most expensive) version of it instead of an iPhone because “it’s our national company, that’s why.”) but she’s not attached to it the way Ji-yeong does (Ji-yeong told her this makes her an exception rather than the rule. Apparently, it’s normal for people their age to be attached to their phone. She clapped back by saying normal people their age doesn’t join shady life-or-death games for money, either). She’d bet her golden card that at least one of those photos would end up in an Instagram post with some silly caption Ji-yeong is so fond to make.
After what seemed like hours, Ji-yeong finally puts down her phone and raises her glass. “C’mon, do it like this,” she says, gesturing for her to do the same. Sae-byeok raises her glass hesitantly.
Their glasses clink.
Ji-yeong laughs, loud and easy as she always does, and she’s taken aback once more by how happy she looks. For the first time since arriving in Jeju, she realizes that people would look at them and probably label them as rich teenagers on a holiday. And while that’s true, it’s not exactly the reality either—none of them had it easy, for once. But no one would look at them and guess that one of them is from the North and the other watched her dad killed her mom in front of her—and it’s a strange feeling, knowing someone better than anyone else does.
And no one knows her better than this girl sitting on the lounge chair beside her.
If someone had told her that joining the Squid Game would gain her a friend, she’d probably spit on their face.
She sips her drink slowly, marvelling at the taste of the margarita. It’s obnoxiously expensive, just like the resort they’re currently in, but the price suddenly makes sense because wow does it taste so good. She smiles, turning to look at Ji-yeong’s reaction.
Ji-yeong is silent.
Traces of laughter is gone from her face, replaced by a lingering shadow and something almost like fear in her eyes. (She remembers then, a stupid game they started to play a few months after their hard-earned victory. Their apartments are side-by-side, but Ji-yeong is more often than not stayed in hers. “It makes me lonely,” she said, “being in the apartment all alone.” And with Cheol busy with school and her mom still recovering from finally getting out of North Korea, more of than not, there were only the two of them together in the living room, watching some drama or reality show, splayed out on the sofa, bored out of their mind.
“Wanna play a game?” Ji-yeong had asked.
Sae-byeok shivered at the question.
Turned out, the game she wanted to play wasn’t really a game at all. It’s called Truth or Truth. You give a truth and get a truth in return. Deeper truths will have to be met with similarly deep truths, while lighter truths are met with other light truths, and so on and on. It started silly—her favorite color is black, while hers are blue. Ji-yeong’s hobby is singing. Sae-byeok doesn’t have one. She doesn’t have any friends—even in the North. Ji-yeong used to have a few of them, but they all stopped contacting her after she got into prison.
And then, one day, she said: “I’m scared of alcohol.”
It’s a far cry from the Ji-yeong who cheerfully invited her to drink margaritas in Hawaii, but the vulnerability in her voice made her stiffen. She wasn’t used to this kind of intimacy, sharing secrets. She wasn’t used to trust. But still, little by little, Ji-yeong warmed her way into her life, kicking the defences she’d put up a long time ago like they were nothing, and let herself in.
Here is me, as if she was saying. I’m baring myself to you, so you can do the same to me.
“Why?” she asked.
“My dad,” was the answer. “I’m scared if I drink, I’ll turn into him.”)
“You don’t have to,” she offers hesitantly, because even after two years of knowing her, Sae-byeok is still unused to this intimacy thing. Still, she has to say something. “I can drink it for you.”
Ji-yeong looks up from her glass and straight into her eyes, her face filled with wonder. “No, no,” she hastily says. “I can do it. It’s not Hawaii, but—” Sae-byeok rolls her eyes, and the girl finally drinks her margarita.
“Ohmygod, this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” she gushed.
Sae-byeok lets out a surprised laugh.
The next half an hour is spent with them drinking and laughing (Ji-yeong mainly did the laughing) and ordering refills. By her third glass, Sae-byeok is feeling lighter than she’s ever been in her life. She’s even grinning, humming a little song her mom used to sing back when in their village. She feels—content and giddy and high.
Alcohol, she decides, is a wonderful thing.
“You’re humming.” Sae-byeok turns to her friend—because, yes, Ji-yeong is her friend, damn it. She’s her best friend. She’s her only friend. She’s… “Sae-byeok, are you drunk?”
“Hmm? Me? No.” She shakes her head in a very convincing manner. “I don’t get drunk.”
“Yes, you do. Look at you. Your cheeks—” There’s hands on her cheeks, Ji-yeong’s hands are on her cheeks, warm and damp and so, so, soft. “Your cheeks are super red.”
She frowns. “Are they? I think it’s ‘cause of the heat.”
“No, it’s not. It’s ‘cause you’re drunk, you—”
“Hey, do you regret going to Jeju with me instead of Hawaii?”
For a moment, the world is silent.
“Let’s play Truth or Truth,” Ji-yeong says. Before she could formulate a respond, her best friend continues, “I’ll start first.”
“I’m really, really happy that I’m with you.”
“In Jeju?” She asks, hating the vulnerability in her voice.
Ji-yeong shakes her head. “In anywhere.”
A blink. And then, “Oh.”
As if her strength is drained after that one confession, Ji-yeong lies back on her chair, closing her eyes as the sun shines on her face.
She looks pretty.
This isn’t exactly news. Sae-byeok has eyes—she could perfectly well see that Ji-yeong is pretty from he first time she saw her. It just never mattered the way it matters now, the knowledge clogging up her throat as she stares at her only friend in a way that she doesn’t think is very friend-like. Because Ji-yeong is wearing a skimpy thing that doesn’t even constitute as a bikini and a drop of sweat is trailing down from her forehead to her neck and further down to her breasts. Because the only thing covering her breasts from the world is a flimsy string she could easily snap in two with her teeth. Because she’s opening her eyes and she’s looking at her with that soft look in her eyes that she likes to call as hers, deep down in her heart. Because she’s licking her lips an she wonders if her lips are as smooth and soft and they look like, and—
“Can I go again? You can go two times after this.”
“What?” Sae-byeok blinks furiously. “Oh. Oh. Right. Yeah.”
Ji-yeong smiles. “Okay,” she says.
She leans in until her face is only a few centimetres away from hers, and her fingers are on her face again, softer this time, more thoughtful. Ji-yeong draws the lines of her cheekbones and her nose and ends up on her lips.
“I think your name is really pretty,” Ji-yeong blurts out.
Sae-byeok swallows her disappointment. “Yeah, you’ve said that countless of times already.”
“But you know what’s prettier?”
She’s afraid to breathe. “What?”
“You.” Ji-yeong taps her lower lip as if chiding her. “You’re the prettiest person I’ve ever seen.”
“No way,” she refuses. She knows her, knows the videos she likes to watch—KPop bands made of girls. Pretty girls. Far prettier than her. Sae-byeok doesn’t particularly care for her appearance but she knows she’s not that bad looking but she isn’t pretty, either. She’s mediocre at best. Especially compared to—
“I think you’re the prettiest person in the whole world, actually,” Ji-yeong taps on her nose this time. “You don’t notice it, but I do.”
“I—” the words died before she could shove them out. What was she saying again? She’s not even sure anymore. Ji-yeong is staring at her and smiling in the giddy, helpless way she does whenever she looks at her, and her eyes are light brown in the sun and she couldn’t help but trails her gaze down to her plump lips, wondering, wondering—
“It’s your turn now,” Ji-yeong says, her voice breathless.
“I want to kiss you,” Sae-byeok blurts out, feeling braver than she’s ever been. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you since—since—”
Ji-yeong’s lips met hers, and words don’t matter anymore.
It’s as soft as she thought it would be. She tastes sweet like the margarita they’ve been drinking, like her smile, like her. The kiss is as tender as it is hesitant, their firsts, and it ends as abruptly as it started. She gasps. Ji-yeong is pulling away, an apology ready on her lips, but she ends it before it could even start and kisses her again.
This time, she kisses her harder, taking her cheeks in her hands—dirty nails, she thinks, and tries carefully not to touch Ji-yeong’s skin with them—and kisses her fully, like she’s been dying for this moment. As if that first kiss had brought her back to life. As if Ji-yeong is her lifeline. Ji-yeong runs her fingers on her hair, arms tangled in each other as they try to pull closer and closer and closer—
When they both pull away this time, they’re laughing and smiling and their noses are touching each other and it’s perfect.
If someone had told her that joining the Squid Game would lead her to happiness two years ago, she would probably rob them off all their wealth.
But now? Now, it feels like the truth.
“Truth or Truth,” Ji-yeong says to her lips, “it’s your turn again.”
“I love you,” Sae-byeok confesses before kissing her once more.
Her friend. Her best friend. Her only friend.
“I love you, too,” Ji-yeong answers between their kisses, and she smiles.
The person that matters to her the most in the world.
Later—much later, when they’re both curled up in bed and their hands are holding between their pillows, Sae-byeok watches as Ji-yeong slowly falls asleep.
“You’re a sappy drunk,” she informs her in a whisper.
Ji-yeong doesn’t even deign her with opening her eyes. “And you’re my girlfriend.”
She buries her smile into her pillow, cheeks warming at the word.
“Girlfriend,” she tastes the world in her mouth. It feels right. “Yeah, okay.”
Ji-yeong smiles in her sleep, and for the first time in her life, Sae-byeok feels safe.
The next morning, Sae-byeok opens her Instagram to a new photo of her sleeping face, posted a few hours earlier by Ji-yeong.
my favorite person, the caption says.