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flowers of love

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Byulyi has always dreamt of falling in love. Maybe it’s the tall tales her mum used to tell her, or the look in the eyes of lovers she saw in the streets, or the fairytale endings she would read over and over again, but Byulyi has always hoped the flower-bud etched into the skin of her left wrist would blossom as she meets her soulmate, and falls hopelessly, irrevocably, infinitely in love.

Years pass, and Byulyi’s flower-bud doesn’t bloom. Thousands of strangers bustle around in her city, hundreds brush against her in the subway, and dozens turn into friends, but her flower-bud doesn’t change, doesn’t morph, sterile and silent against her pale skin. So twenty year-old Byulyi resigns, pulls down her sleeves and resolutely quits her habit of rolling them up every night just to check for a splash of colour beneath her palm. She stops looking for love in every dark corner she chances by, and closes her eyes.

But Wheein whirls into her life like a light breeze, and for the first time in years, Byulyi thinks it might be love.

“You’re Byulyi, right?” Byulyi spins around to see an unfamiliar girl standing behind her, beaming brightly, a black snapback worn backwards on her head. Byulyi nods, eyes widening with curiosity. Her dance team didn’t usually accept new members, so she chances a glance up at Amber across the room, who flashes her a big thumbs up.

“I’m Wheein! I’m new, and Amber says I can ask you for help,” the girl sparkles, and Byulyi feels affection stirring under her skin. It's a spring morning when Byulyi takes Wheein under her wing.

Wheein comes to practice three times a week, turning up with a yellow backpack and wristbands without a fault, setting aside her belongings before plugging in her iPod and starting a routine. Wheein dances like nothing Byulyi’s ever seen. Less of a breeze, and more of a whirlwind, rhythm flowing through her twists and turns like the liquid in her veins.  Byulyi cheers when she’s done, patting the younger girl on the back encouragingly, until Wheein turns and smiles at her, still panting from the exertion.

They become fast friends, when Byulyi brings Wheein to her most frequented coffee house for brunch and they talk about their favourite singers after practice one afternoon. Wheein is teasing, playful, and uninhibited. She coaxes Byulyi into laughter with silly expressions and endearing mannerisms, steps into Byulyi’s comfort zone with laid-back ease, and presses her shadow into the very recesses of Byulyi’s mind, until Byulyi accepts resignedly that never in her life will she forget the warmth and cheer of Jung Wheein. Her feelings for Wheein grow, along with her hopes that her flower-bud will blossom in Wheein's radiant presence.

But in the fall, Wheein introduces Byulyi to Hyejin.

“This is Hyejin,” Wheein smiles, tugging lightly on Hyejin’s fingers, “she’s my girlfriend.”

Hyejin is absolutely gorgeous, in every sense of the word. Her blonde hair dusts the top of her shoulders gracefully, her lips a ruby red. There’s a glint in Hyejin’s dark, kohl-rimmed eyes that draws Byulyi in, pulls Byulyi closer, despite Byulyi’s grudging resistance. Hyejin is nothing if not utterly magnetic.

When Byulyi snaps out of her trance, shifting her gaze back to Wheein, the girl is still looking at Byulyi with wide eyes full of anticipation, biting her bottom lip in an excited grin.

“Oh,” Byulyi responds, a little dumb-founded, a little heart-broken. “Uh, hi. I’m Byulyi.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Hyejin laughs, and the intimidating image of Hyejin shatters immediately, replaced by a dazzling grin, smiling eyes, and soft cheeks. She chances a glance at Hyejin’s arms, and to Byulyi’s disdain, there’s a delicate calla lily resting on Hyejin’s right wrist. A bitterness fills Byulyi’s mouth, but Wheein’s holding Hyejin’s hand so tightly, and she’s smiling at Hyejin more lovingly than Byulyi’s ever seen, so with a sigh, she lets it go. Hesitantly, fearfully, she lets her gaze flicker to Wheein’s wrists, bare for the first time since she’s met her, and sees that just below her left palm is a pink viscaria, beautifully in bloom. Byulyi rubs her own arm as her heart sinks deep into the burning pit of her stomach.

“It’s nice to meet you too.”

Salvation comes in the form of Kim Yongsun.

Byulyi meets Yongsun at the bus stop, on a particularly cold winter morning, when the streets are lined with icy white, and the air with a biting chill.

Byulyi shivers, teeth chattering, as she pulls her jacket tightly around her, shoving her hands into her pockets firmly in a desperate, yet futile attempt to escape the freezing cold. A sudden surge of anxiety fills her as she realises she can't feel her toes, and she prays quietly they haven't fallen off in her shoes. She flips up the collar of her jacket as a harsh wind blows against her neck, and wishes she’d thought to dress more warmly.

“Um, excuse me.”

Byulyi turns around rigidly, sniffing softly. Beside her is a girl with long brown hair,  and a bright yellow scarf in her hand.

“You look really, really cold. Do you want to borrow my scarf?” The girl asks, holding up the bundle of wool, and Byulyi has to fight the instinctive urge to play it cool and say no.

“Y-yes please, that would be amazing,” Byulyi says, and takes the yellow scarf, quickly wrapping it around her neck, and sighing in content when the next icy gust of wind doesn’t immediately send chills tumbling down her spine. “Hold on, don’t you need it?”

“No, I’ll be okay,” the girl beams, dimples appearing under rosy cheeks. “You can return it to me tomorrow.”

“You’ll be here?”

“I’m here every weekday morning, just like you,” the girl says, blushing slightly, “I hope that doesn’t sound weird.”

“N-No! It doesn’t,” Byulyi hastily replies, just as a bus pulls up into the stop and the girl makes a move to board it.

“That’s my bus, so I’ll see you tomorrow?" She smiles shyly, waving a mittened hand before boarding the bus, disappearing behind foggy windowpanes, leaving Byulyi a little breath-taken, and warmer than she felt before.

The next morning, the girl, or Kim Yongsun, as the navy blue lettering embroidered into the the hem of the yellow scarf suggests, is waiting patiently for Byulyi at the bus stop, this time in an olive green coat. The girl beams brightly, waving as Byulyi makes her way to the bus stop, as if Byulyi was the loveliest flower in a whole summer meadow. The thought stirs a pool of endearment in Byulyi’s chest, and she waves back.

The next time Byulyi meets Yongsun is when she takes her out for lunch to thank her for the scarf.

She learns that Yongsun is in fact older than her, despite her round eyes full of kindness easily mistaken as naïveté. She learns that Yongsun is a business major, determined to make it big in the corporate world with her own two hands. She learns that Yongsun is still a flower-bud herself, working too hard for growth to care for the empty spaces between her fingers that plague Byulyi with anxiety every night.

The time after that, they meet to walk along the Han River, too romantic for Byulyi’s taste, but Yongsun has fun, so Byulyi thinks it’s worth it. She learns that Yongsun is a gardener who tries really, really hard not to pick a favourite between the flowers she grows, but quietly concedes that she thinks sunflowers are the prettiest. She learns that Yongsun sings like an angel, when she hums a song a little too loudly under her breath, too caught up in the atmosphere to really notice Byulyi’s presence next to her. She learns that Yongsun’s childhood dream was to be a cashier at the supermarket so she could use the cash register just once. She learns that Yongsun looks incredibly cute when flustered, and pledges to make Yongsun blush with embarrassment for as long as Yongsun lets her.

The third time they meet, Byulyi introduces Yongsun to Wheein and Hyejin over breakfast, and their trio turns into a quartet.

This time, Byulyi learns that Yongsun likes her coffee with too much milk and too much sugar. She learns that Wheein’s playful arguments leave Yongsun a little speechless, a little fluttered. She learns that Hyejin’s favourite songs are some of Yongsun’s favourite songs, when they promise to go for a karaoke session together.

Yongsun fits snugly into the gaps of their dear trio, like the space was made for her and all her little idiosyncrasies.

“I like her,” Wheein whispers afterwards, when they’re walking home a few paces behind Hyejin and Yongsun, talking about Amy Winehouse and her best singles.

“Yeah, me too,” Byulyi breathes, tense, as Wheein links their pinkies together, swinging their arms gently as they walk.

“More than me?” Wheein mocks, curling her finger tighter around Byulyi’s.

“Maybe.”

It’s teasing. Typical Wheein and typical Byulyi, but a corner of her mind tugs at her conscience, and Byulyi knows there’s a little more truth to her words than she tries to let on, reflected in the way the corner of Wheein’s lips tugs into a smug smile.

“But I like everyone more than I like you, Wheein.” Byulyi says, off-handedly, casually, before rolling her eyes when Wheein looks back at her like she’s not sure who Byulyi’s really trying to convince. Byulyi looks away because she doesn’t know either.

After that, they start meeting in the local library, where Yongsun studies and Hyejin pretends to, or in the coffee house, where Byulyi and Wheein fight over strawberry cheesecake until Yongsun offers to buy them another slice. There’s a balance with Yongsun’s presence, a careful weight, tipping the scales gently in Byulyi’s favour. The tide settles and the water stills.

There’s still a tang of sadness when Hyejin leans into Wheein’s space to steal a hundred kisses, or when Wheein takes Hyejin’s hand under the table when she thinks Byulyi can’t see. But there’s less resentment, less bitterness, and less hurt than before.

The equilibrium is spun off kilter in the heat of the summer.

“Are you ready to go?”

Byulyi runs out the door, slamming it shut carelessly behind her, and flings her bags into the backseat of the car, onto Wheein’s lap. She slides into the passenger seat and jabs her seatbelt hastily into the buckle.

“You’re always late, man.” Wheein sighs, shaking her head disapprovingly, tossing Byulyi’s bags into the front seat. “We’ve been planning this beach trip for ages.”

“Yeah, are you gonna pay for the gas? Because we had to keep the car running while waiting for you,” Hyejin chips in, reaching around the passenger set to wag a manicured finger in Byulyi’s face.

“Fine, I’m sorry. I’ll pay for dinner, okay?” Byulyi concedes, rolling her eyes at the sound of Wheein and Hyejin’s celebratory high-five. Yongsun laughs from where she’s comfortably seated in the driver’s seat, looking over at Byulyi with fondness.

The drive to the beach starts with Hyejin convincing Yongsun to hand her the aux cord, followed by an enthusiastic performance by the two young girls in the back. An hour in, Wheein challenges Yongsun to a rap battle, which Yongsun eventually loses, blaming the fact that she had to focus on the road anyway.

The ocean is a pure blue when the beach comes into view, dazzling under the sunlight. Wheein and Hyejin leap out of the car, racing to the shore as soon as Yongsun pulls the car into a parking lot.

“Kids,” Byulyi scoffs, when Wheein splashes cold seawater at a squealing Hyejin, who passionately retaliates.

“Hey, don’t be a party pooper,” Yongsun laughs, holding out a hand for Byulyi to take, palm open, but a flash of golden catches Byulyi’s eye. There’s a yellow tulip painted onto the skin of Yongsun’s wrist, radiant under the sun. Byulyi feels the air leave her lungs.

“W-When did you- when did this happen?” Byulyi blurts, glancing down at Yongsun’s thin wrist bewilderedly.

“Oh, uh. A few days ago?” Yongsun says awkwardly, pulling her hand back out of Byulyi’s grasp, out of her line of sight. “It’s no big deal.”

Byulyi splutters, as Yongsun walks away, disappearing into the sea behind Hyejin.

Of course it was a big deal, it was love. It was Yongsun falling in love.

Somehow, time flows more slowly for the rest of the trip, as Byulyi’s head starts to fill with numb static, a dense cloud of fog around her mind. She’s spiraling, falling into a dark chasm of uncertainty, at what it all is, and what it all means. Thoughts swim around pointlessly in her head throughout the day, even holding her back from sleep at night. It’s her brain taking time to piece together a puzzle, to make sense of reality when it comes as a blow. She knows what this all is, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before. It happened the day she lost a singing competition when she was seven. It happened the night she learnt Santa Claus wasn’t real, on her eighth Christmas. It happened when she met Hyejin on that fall afternoon. She’s just reeling, wavering and faltering, but this time, she isn’t sure from what. This time, a piece of the puzzle is missing.

It’s not until Wheein knocks on the door of her hotel room and tells her to snap out of it, that she does.

Whirring, unwinding. Slowly, Byulyi lets go of the haunting thoughts, tucks the incomplete puzzle into the back of her mind, presses a yellow tulip dry between the pages of a book, and shelves it behind inklings of withering flowers and unbearable loneliness.

Byulyi lets everything go back to the way it was. Even though somehow, deep down, she knows some things will not stay the same. There’s an invisible space between them now, a deep chasm, the kind of space unspoken rules and painful grudges are made of. But Byulyi looks the other way, and if Yongsun’s noticed, she doesn’t say a word.

Byulyi asks Wheein how she fell in love, one night when she's over at Wheein's place, talking over drinks.

They met on the first day of spring, when Hyejin had walked into the wrong classroom in her daze. The two of them locked eyes for only a mere second, Wheein proclaims.

“What was it like?” Byulyi asks. “How did it feel?”

“Like magic,” Wheein says. Like there was a stirring in her gut and a tug in her veins, like Hyejin was the moon and she was nothing but the tide.

You’re drunk,” Byulyi laughs, and Wheein laughs along. 

“Then?” Byulyi prompts, pressing a cold glass against her reddening face. “What happened then?”

Wheein folds her arms on the coffee table, and rests her head in the wooly sleeves of sweater, sighing softly. In reality? Nothing. The world around them spun on, oblivious to the universe blossoming between them. And at the same time, everything. The flower-bud etched into her wrist twisting into bloom, into a small viscaria, pale pink against her skin.

“Love at first sight,” Wheein shrugs, smiling, unperturbed by Byulyi’s raised eyebrow and teasing expression.

But the flowers don’t always bloom at the same time. Hyejin’s lily bloomed in the fall. Sometimes one takes a little longer, Wheein explains. Sometimes one doesn’t bloom at all.

“I was lucky,” she says, before grinning, and poking her dimple cheekily, “the luckiest.”

“You’re so cheesy when it comes to Hyejin,” Byulyi groans, covering her eyes petulantly, as Wheein’s laughter fills the room.

“You say that now, but I bet you’ll be even cheesier when you find your special someone, Byul.” Wheein smirks, knuckling Byulyi’s shoulder playfully.

Byulyi sinks into her seat with a pout, drawing little flowers on the smooth surface of the tabletop with the condensation pooling her glass. Yongsun briefly flickers into mind, as one watery flower turns into a sun. She wonders about the tulip on Yongsun’s wrist, about who could’ve shone brightly enough in Yongsun’s eyes to make it bloom so perfectly.

“Don’t mind it too much, Byul. What will be will be,” Wheein sings softly, and for a moment, Byulyi is reminded of Wheein’s beauty, the charm of a girl just like the spring.

Byulyi gets up and makes her leave when she starts feeling a little too tipsy, as Wheein’s giggling starts bubbling out of hand, and Hyejin wanders out of the bedroom to give them a pointed look. Hyejin rolls her eyes as Wheein starts pressing clumsy kisses against her cheek, when she tries to shuffle Wheein into the bedroom over cries of no, I’m not sleepy, Hyejin! and goodnight Moony, good luck with love!!!

Hyejin comes back out into the living room with four new lipstick marks on her neck, and sighs resignedly when Byulyi raises an eyebrow.

“You know. Love is different for everyone, Byul. There is no one way to love and be loved,” Hyejin says quietly, with casual consideration, cleaning up the coffee table as Byulyi gathers her belongings.

“Wheein’s love dawned at the very beginning, young and tender and honest. Love at first sight,” Hyejin smiles fondly. “But for me, love came slow.” A natural, inevitable, surrender to the flow of time and the pressure of Wheein’s gentle presence. Like the fall. “It’s different for everyone,” Hyejin reiterates.

“What will be will be?” Byulyi smiles lopsidedly, slinging her bag over her shoulder.

“Yeah. So don’t worry about Yongsun,” Hyejin says, eyes twinkling, as she opens the apartment door. Byulyi glances at her confusedly, alcohol-addled brain buzzing with too much static to process the weight of Hyejin’s words. She waves a hand dismissively instead, slipping on her shoes, and into the cold night.

(If Byulyi stays up, sleeps late, thinking about yellow tulips and a pretty girl with the voice of an angel, she doesn’t say a word.)

Winter arrives again, in a festive flurry of white and green and red. This year, Wheein and Hyejin decide to take a trip to Jeonju for the holidays, so Byulyi spends Christmas alone with Yongsun.

They spend the morning in Yongsun’s apartment, sending last minute Christmas cards back home, and spend the afternoon out about in town, shopping for matching couple sweaters under Byulyi’s grand command. Then, they spend the rest of the evening walking along the river, amongst couples and families.

By the time they begin to make their way home, weary but contented, the moon is already floating high in the night sky. Byulyi hums in soft appreciation at the way the moonlight skims across the river water, rippling across the glassy surface. She chances a glance up at Yongsun beside her, and the way the light gently peters out against her cheeks. Byulyi takes a deep breath.

“Y’know, whoever it is you’re in love with is really lucky to have you,” Byulyi grins, linking her arms around Yongsun’s and pulling her in for warmth as they walk.

Suddenly, Yongsun stops in her tracks, expression unreadable, fists clenched tightly at her sides.

“What’s wrong?” Byulyi asks, smile faltering. There’s a long pause, before Yongsun finally explodes.

“You’re really stupid, Moon Byulyi. You’re so dense. How can someone be so dense?” Yongsun huffs angrily, spinning around to jab an index finger into the grey wool of Byulyi’s coat, sending Byulyi into a paralytic shock. "It’s you. I love you. I’ve always loved you.”

“W-What?” Byulyi breathes, misty air swirling into the night sky.

“You’re the one I want, Byul,” Yongsun mumbles, cheeks burning red, looking decidedly away from Byulyi. “I can’t believe I fell for an idiot.”

Oh. Oh.

“Oh.”

Byulyi feels her face grow hot with embarrassment, and feels panic pool in her gut. She opens her mouth to say something, steps closer to Yongsun to make a move, but nothing happens. Byulyi doesn’t know what to do. She freezes in place, until the pillar of emotion amassed over the years of knowing Yongsun, learning about Yongsun comes tumbling down in a landslide of comprehension. The last puzzle piece clicks into place. 

Maybe the envy she felt wasn’t bitterness that Yongsun had fallen in love without her, leaving her behind, all alone again, but that Yongsun had fallen in love with someone that wasn’t Byulyi. Maybe she’d been looking for love in all the wrong places, because love had been right in front of her all this time.

Hesitantly, Byulyi pulls up her cuff of her left sleeve, afraid of what she might not find, and peeks down slowly to see a small bluebell in full bloom, painted delicately onto the pale skin of her wrist. With wide eyes and a startled gasp, she looks up. Yongsun is still there, still waiting patiently for her reply. Even after waiting so long.

“I’m so sorry,” Byulyi blurts, as she reaches out and pulls Yongsun into a desperate hug, holding her tightly, as if she’d lose everything she’d just found if she lets go.

“It’s okay,” Yongsun laughs, rubbing away a little wetness forming in the corner of her eyes. “It’s okay.” Yongsun pats Byulyi’s back soothingly, and they stay like this, Byulyi buried in Yongsun’s warmth, both of them standing in the cold, feeling a little foolish, until Byulyi finally steps back, cheeks flushed, hair tousled.

Standing in the snow, Yongsun looks like an angel, with snowflakes in her dark hair and twinkling eyes. Her lips are red from having bitten down on them so hard, watching anxiously as Byulyi came to her senses. She’s so beautifully ethereal, Byulyi can’t believe she hadn’t fallen in love before. And it strikes her, a bolt from the blue.

She’s in love, somehow, after twenty-two years of lonely, hopeful waiting, and it only feels as amazing as it does because it’s Yongsun.

“I still can’t believe I took this long,” Byulyi mumbles, a little later, when they’re on the way back home, hand in hand.

“I wasn’t pretty enough for you, huh.” Yongsun jokes, a fondness in the curl of her lips and the tilt of her head.

Apt, Byulyi thinks, that she fell in love in the middle of winter, when the flowers are tucked away, asleep under the snow, impatiently waiting, waiting for the cold nights to pass and finally bloom; waiting for the sun to shine brightly enough to melt the ice.

“I always thought you were pretty, Yong.” Byulyi grins, wiggling her eyebrows teasingly at the girl beside her.

Lucky, Byulyi thinks, as Yongsun punches her in the shoulder, laughing, that she fell in love with a girl brighter than the summer.