Hyejin could hear Jiho from the kitchen when she entered the cottage. “Today is the day!”
“Today is the day,” Hyejin repeated as the rest of the group began to file into Shiah and Mihyun’s shared kitchen. She’d spent the night there, stopping in the spare room she'd basically claimed as her own since she was there often enough.
It was the twenty first of June, the longest day of the year and the summer solstice. Every year the Seelie Court held a ball out in the meadow to celebrate it, and every year Hyejin spent the night gorging on amazing food and dancing to all sorts of music with people she'd thought of as strangers at the beginning of the night. It was most definitely her favourite time of year.
This year was going to be a little different to the rest. This year, Hyojung would be coming back. It had been at the last solstice ball Hyojung had told her she was going away, sent out on an investigative mission by the Seelie Queen in the human realm. Hyejin had been thrilled for her - she couldn't name anyone more deserving for the job. She’d buried her feelings deep down in her chest and told Hyojung to go for it.
Hyejin had missed her a lot. Shiah had once told her (after many glasses of fruity wine) that absence makes the heart grow fonder and Hyejin had to agree. Her feelings for Hyojung had definitely grown stronger over the past year. It was during a biweekly evening get together with Shiah and Mihyun (and after more glasses of fruity wine) that they'd come up with a master plan: 1) take Hyojung to that same clearing that Hyejin had seen her at last, the one with the fairy lights tangled in the tree branches and lanterns floating in the sky around them (“It’ll be atmospheric,” Shiah had said,”) and 2) confess.
It still felt unreal to Hyejin, that Hyojung would be back so soon. She had been planning this confession for months and it was today that she would find out the result. She’d been too nervous to eat breakfast that morning and had made her way through three cups of tea instead. This was it.
“Will you let me do your hair tonight unnie?” Jiho asked, coming to stand behind Hyejin at the table.
“Of course,” Hyejin said. “Did you bring flowers?”
“I did!” Jiho said, opening up her bag. “I got some for everyone, the colours match the dresses. Do you want them braided in? Or how about a flower crown?”
“I’ll get back to you on that one,” Hyejin said with a smile and Jiho nodded, moving to sit down beside Seunghee.
“I can’t wait for tonight,” Yoobin said with a sigh. “I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks.”
Yewon nodded beside her. “And Hyojung-unnie’s back,” she said, “I can’t wait to hear about what she’s been up to.”
“I’m sure she’ll get roped into telling the story a couple of dozen times tonight,” Shiah said. “Everyone is going to want to talk to her.”
“Let’s hope they don’t keep her too long. I miss her and well…” Yoobin turned to glance at Hyejin.
“What?” Hyejin asked.
“You can’t confess if they keep whizzing her away,” Jiho said.
“How did you know about that?” Hyejin asked, shifting in her seat. Suddenly, the tea leaves at the bottom of her cup were the most interesting thing in the room.
“They overheard Shiah-unnie and Mihyun-unnie talking about it,” Yewon said, and the pair in question exchanged guilty looks over the other side of the room.
“Don’t worry unnie, I’ll make sure you look beautiful tonight. You’ll blow Hyojung-unnie off her feet,” Jiho said, reaching across the table to pat at her hand.
Hyejin smiled at her, her heart racing in her chest.
Every year the fae seemed to outdo themselves. There were lanterns lighting up the path to the clearing, fairy lights strung in the streets and bunting tied from branch to branch.
“It’s so pretty,” Yewon said, linking arms with Hyejin and pointing up at the candles charmed to float above them.
They found themselves a table, tucked away somewhere in the middle of the field in between a few friendly faces and sat down, chattering quietly until trumpets sounded over the meadow and everyone fell quiet.
All eyes were on the Seelie Queen as she rose to her feet.
“Good afternoon everyone. It’s my utmost pleasure to welcome you to this year's Summer Solstice Ball.” She paused as a smattering of applause filled the air. “As many of you will know, last year I sent some of my best out into the human realm in order to investigate a series of unauthorised portal disturbances. I’m pleased to let you all know that the issue, for the most part, has been resolved. If anyone does catch wind of any other disturbances though, I advise you to alert the council immediately. Please, a round of applause for the returning fae.”
There were cheers as the fae stepped up onto the platform on which the queen was stood. Hyejin clapped along, eyes searching until they landed on Hyojung. She was stood at the back of the group, arms crossed behind her back in a floor length red gown with little red flowers braided in her hair. Hyejin’s breath caught in her throat. She looked stunning.
“I’m sure you’re all eager to catch up with one another and start eating, so without further ado, let the feast commence,” The queen announced.
Chatter immediately filled the air as everyone turned to talk to the people on their tables and tucked into their food.
“Hyojung-unnie looks amazing.” Jiho said, peering over the crowds as she looked over at her. “Do you think she’ll come and sit with us?”
“I don’t think so,” Shiah murmured, glancing over at Hyejin as she spooned food onto her plate. “It’s likely that she and the others will be debriefing the rest of the fae council on what they found. I’m sure she’ll join us later though, when the feast is over.”
“I hope so,” Jiho said, before tucking into her meal.
Hyejin hoped so too.
“I never want to move again,” Jiho groaned, dropping her head onto Seunghee’s shoulder.
“I give you an hour before you’re up dancing,” Seunghee laughed, patting Jiho’s shoulder.
“You could walk it off?” Yoobin suggested.
“I think I’m just going to power nap,” Jiho said.
“How about we move over there?” Shiah said, pointing to where a group of other fae were starting to gather. “They’ll start putting music on in a minute, I want to catch up with a few people before we get carried away with the celebrations.”
She got to her feet and Hyejin and Mihyun stood to join her, leaving the others sat at the table.
“Did you see where Hyojung disappeared to?” Mihyun asked, turning to look across the field.
Hyejin shook her head. “No. Last I saw she was still over at the council’s table.”
“Surely they can’t keep her for much longer. They have to know that she has people waiting for her, that she has you waiting for her,” Mihyun said.
Hyejin shrugged, her cheeks heating up. “It’ll happen when it happens. We have all night.” She murmured.
“Exactly.” Shiah said, taking Hyejin’s hand in her own. She swatted Mihyun’s shoulder. “Stop talking your making her nervous.”
After an hour or so of mingling with the crowds, Hyejin could feel herself beginning to relax a little. She was on her third glass of wine and had purposely positioned herself near the dessert table so that she could snack to her heart’s content. Shiah and Mihyun had disappeared a little while ago - to talk, they had said, but Hyejin knew that when Mihyun started drinking she got clingy and they were probably going to go make out behind a tree - so Hyejin was alone. She was considering going to find the others when someone stepped up beside her, picking at one of the cupcakes from the stand.
“I swear, the icing on these gets more and more extravagant as the years go on,” They said, and Hyejin froze, drink halfway to her mouth.
Hyojung was smiling shyly at her, picking at the case of the cupcake. “Hey,” She said.
“Hi,” Hyejin replied.
“It’s been awhile,” Hyojung said. “I’m sorry I didn’t write more often, I was so busy and-”
Hyejin shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I knew that.”
Hyojung smiled at her again. “I missed you,” She said.
“I missed you too,” Hyejin told her. “It’s good to have you back.”
“It’s good to be back,” Hyojung laughed. “I want nothing more than to go home and sleep for a week.”
Hyejin was about to reply when someone else joined them at the table, one of the fae from the council. “I’m sorry to interupt, but may I borrow you Hyojung? There are a couple more people eager to meet you.”
Hyojung looked over at Hyejin, the smile having fallen from her face.
“It’s okay, go,” Hyejin told her. “I’ll see you later?”
“Of course,” Hyojung said. “I’ll come and find you.”
Hyojung reached out and brushed her hand against Hyejin’s own, the warmth of her touch lingering even after she walked away. Hyejin sighed. It was going to be a long night.
Hyejin hummed taking a sip of her drink.
“I saw her too,” Yoobin said, sitting on Hyejin’s other side. “She looks tired.”
“Tired?” Yewon asked.
Yoobin nodded. “When the council members turned their backs, her shoulders drooped. I don’t think she’s used to having this much attention, even when she was training.”
“She looked tired when I spoke to her too,” Hyejin said.
Yewon and Yoobin exchanged a look. “You spoke to her?” Yoobin asked.
“Did anything happen?” Yewon added.
Hyejin shook her head. “It was very brief, and then she was taken away again.”
“When was that?” Yoobin asked.
Hyejin shrugged. “An hour or two ago?”
The ball was in full swing now. Music filled the air and the fae filled the field, dancing, laughing and singing. Hyejin would normally join them, but she wasn’t feeling up to it just yet. She tried to tell herself it wasn’t because Hyojung seemed to constantly conversing with someone else, council members, administrators, other fae who stopped her as she walked across the field, but she knew it was. It had been so long since they’d been able to just sit and talk and Hyejin didn’t want to have to wait any longer.
“I think it’s time for an intervention,” Jiho said as she approached them, sitting down on the grass at their feet.
“We just passed Hyojung-unnie and she looked so drained. I wonder how many times they’ve got her to retell her story tonight?” Seunghee said.
“Too many times,” Jiho murmured. “Do you think if we just pulled her away and refused to leave her alone they would stop?”
“We’ll see her afterwards,” Hyejin said, “they’ll stop eventually.” Hyejin got to her feet and tried to ignore the looks that the others exchanged.
“Where are you going?” Yoobin asked.
“Just for a walk,” Hyejin said, smiling at her. “To clear my head. One too many glasses of wine, I think. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Yoobin bit at her lower lip. “Okay. We’ll stay here so you can find us again.”
Hyejin shook her head. “If you want to go and dance, go ahead. I’ll come find you guys after. Go have fun.”
Hyejin walked off into the crowd, smiling as she passed Sojung and Yerin and waving at Nayoung and Hyeyeon as they danced passed her. The sky was just beginning to darken and the lights that decorated the meadow lit up her path, greens and reds and yellows leading her through the trees. She stopped when she got to a small clearing - that same clearing she had last seen Hyojung in the previous year - and stepped into it, sitting down on a fallen log that looked out onto the river down the hill. She could hear yelling and laughs and wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the fae had decided they wanted to take an evening swim.
Hyejin lost track of time as she sat there alone, staring out into the forest. It had been a long time since she’d really been alone, the others doing their best to make sure that she remained involved in everything they were doing after Hyojung left. As much as she appreciated it, she had missed this. It was nice and peaceful.
“Penny for your thoughts?” A voice asked from behind her and Hyejin jumped, wobbling on the log. “Woah, careful.” They laughed, taking hold of her arm. It had been forever since Hyejin had last heard that laugh.
Hyojung sat down beside her, folding her hands into her lap. “Hello again.”
“Hey,” Hyejin said.
“I looked for you earlier but I couldn’t find you. The other’s were getting a bit worried but Shiah told me you might be here,” Hyojung said.
“It’s a good place to think,” Hyejin told her and Hyojung hummed.
“Anything you want to share?” She asked. “It’s been a while, I know, but I’m hoping things will just… go back to normal. I don’t think I’m going to go on any more missions for the queen for a while, at least, not ones in the human realm. It’s too far away from everything, everybody that I love.”
“Did you have a good time?” Hyejin asked, looking over at Hyojung.
“Yes,” Hyojung said, her eyes lighting up. “I have so much I want to tell you but to be quite honest, I feel like it’s all I’ve spoken about tonight. I want to hear about you, about the others. What have you been up to whilst I was gone? How are you?”
Hyejin cleared her throat, looking away from Hyojung. “I’m good. Keeping busy. Missed you.” She paused and looked down at the ground. “Everyone else is good too. Shiah and Mihyun finally got that cottage they were looking at. I’ve basically taken up residency in their spare room.”
“Oh?” Hyojung asked.
“I’m probably there too often,” Hyejin said with a quiet laugh.
They fell into a comfortable silence and Hyejin realised just how much she’d missed being in Hyojung’s company. Just sitting there, together, in the quiet of the clearing. The bright lights in the trees and the rushing of the river at the bottom of the hill. Shiah was right. The clearing was atmospheric.
“I missed you a lot when I was gone,” Hyojung said, “I knew I would, but I didn’t realise just how much. It was so odd, to not see you every day after years and years of living right next door. It made me realise a few things.”
“It made me realise a few things too,” Hyejin said and she took a shaky breath.
“You go first,” Hyojung said, “I feel like I’ve talked to much. I want to hear your voice. I’ve missed hearing you talk.”
“You sure?” Hyejin asked and Hyojung nodded. “Well, okay then. You’re my best friend. You’re right, it was so strange not seeing you around. I felt so selfish for wanting you to come back. If we could go back a year, I wouldn’t have let you go without letting you know that I love you. That you mean the world to me, and I would like to just be with you. Always.”
Hyojung reached over to take Hyejin’s hand in hers. “I’ve been waiting a year to tell you the same thing,” she said, laughing quietly. “I had it all planned out but the night didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I would like that. For us to just be.”
“I had a plan too,” Hyejin told her, her chest filling with warmth. “All the girls, they were trying to figure out how to steal you away from the council members so we could talk.”
Hyojung laughed. “So that’s what they were doing. I’ll have to go back and thank them all after. First though, do you want to dance? Summer solstice is your favourite time of year, but I haven’t seen you dance once yet tonight.”
“You were watching me?” Hyejin asked. “I wasn’t really in the mood earlier. Too busy thinking about. well, this.”
“Of course,” Hyojung told her. “I’ve been trying to work my way over to you all night. We could dance here. Hidden in the trees. Plenty of privacy and you can still hear the music.”
“Okay. I’d like that.” Hyejin said, and Hyojung pulled her to her feet.
They stepped into the middle of the clearing and Hyojung pulled Hyejin close with a grin, spinning her around in a circle. Hyejin laughed, dropping her face into Hyojung’s neck, her skin soft.
“I like your dress,” Hyejin told her, fingers tracing over the red and silver details on the sleeves.
“I like yours,” Hyojung said. “Pink suits you. You look so pretty.”
“I thought you looked amazing when you stepped out onto the platform earlier. Really, you looked stunning.” Hyejin admitted, lifting her face from Hyojung’s neck to look at her properly.
Their dancing had come to a standstill as they spoke, the pair swaying in each other's arms. This close, Hyejin could see all the details - the red flowers tangled in Hyojung’s hair, her red eyeshadow and the dusty pink covering her cheeks. Under the warm lights, she looked amazing and, as Hyejin pulled her closer and pressed their lips together, Hyejin felt at home.