Joohyun watched as passengers poured out of the plane in a single file, offering the best smile she could to each one as they passed by. Her cheeks were beginning to tire from hours of keeping abreast a radiant smile with what had been a 6-hour flight going to Pattaya, and her second leg of the day. Still, Joohyun regarded them with a friendliness that reached her eyes as if she hadn't been awake the entire trip, even when most of Joohyun's farewells were returned with sluggish responses, if any. It was almost midnight after all.
She leaned against one of the chairs near the entrance once the last passenger walked through the aircraft door, making certain that she wasn't standing too close to the gap that separated it from the bridge. Tingles crawled up her legs just by staring for a second too long.
Joohyun might've been a flight attendant, but her fear of heights remained. A lot of people thought she was odd in that way, as though questioning her height wasn't enough. But it didn't matter whether her toes ached, her ankles sprained, or most of all, was belittled. She'd get the job done, and she was happy. To hell with damned weaknesses. This was her dream.
She looked over her shoulder at Nayeon, another stewardess, saw the concern on her face, and gave a reassuring nod. "Mmh, just feeling a bit tired."
"Well, you were supposed to be deadheading, Joohyun. We would've understood," Nayeon said. She fetched for a trash bag from a stock cabinet, closing it before Joohyun could do the same for herself, and gave her a look. ”At least sit this one out."
Hands raised in surrender, Joohyun laughed. Still, she walked alongside Nayeon through the aisle, picking up any garbage she might've missed. To this, Nayeon rolled her eyes, but let the woman be. "Did you expect me to snooze off knowing that I could've helped out?" Joohyun asked.
Attendants that were part of the deadheading crew were technically off-duty and flying as ordinary passengers, though dressed in uniform. They were no longer obligated to assist inside the aircraft and were able to rest as they "repositioned". So Nayeon, and the rest of the working crew of the flight, really would've understood if Joohyun decided to get some shut-eye. And it was Joohyun's intention to do so, especially when she'd just gotten off from a hauling 8-hour trip with less than two hours in between. She had already been seated at the first row with a shawl over her body to avoid questioning looks from passengers, set on falling asleep even before takeoff. But when talks about someone in their team falling ill on very short notice and a very much fully-booked flight had reached her ears, it was more than enough for Joohyun to unwrap herself of the piece of fleece around her and bypass sleep entirely.
Nayeon grabbed the empty soda can from Joohyun's hand and tossed it into the bag. "What was that thing your pretty singer friend called you?" she grinned.
"Ah yeah, Son Seungwan," the woman nodded. Nayeon paused, stopping midway of the aisle, to think. Joohyun could imagine the figurative light bulb above her head waiting to blink on. "Ha!" Joohyun flinched from her friend's sudden outburst. There went the on switch.
"The greatest woman of this generation! Bae! Joohyun!"
By that time, the rest of their crew had heard and seen Nayeon, who had made ridiculously exaggerated hand gestures to punctuate her statement. Everyone shared a good laugh and joined in on the playful yet sincere appraisal of "the generation's greatest woman." Joohyun was flattered, naturally, but didn't stop her from prying them to finish up as quickly as possible. If she did want anything at all to recompense for her efforts of the day, it was some well-deserved rest. If the way Joohyun fell asleep later, inside their shuttle despite being a short, quick drive was any indication, the hours of cordial avail were catching up to her greatly.
"Alright, that's enough you guys," Joohyun told her co-workers when they'd started to carol her name once again--in the middle of a hotel. Thankfully, they listened for the rest of the walk to each of their rooms. Joohyun waved everyone goodnight and followed her roommate of the night, Jennie, inside.
"Rest up, Joohyun," Nayeon reminded her as she stepped into the room across from theirs. "Thank you for today."
Joohyun nodded kindly. "Think I might stay in bed for as long as I can."
In Joohyun's ideal world, "as long as I can" meant staying in the comfort of the hotel's oversized duvet until she had no choice but to get out of bed and doll herself up for her upcoming itinerary. Which again in Joohyun's ideal world, translated to nine more peaceful hours--if she wasn't being dragged by the wrist into a bus that had set off shortly after they took their seats.
The hurried, ceaseless exertion so early in the morning made her blood rush to her head. Joohyun finally shook her hand free and held her head, impeding the pounding in her temples and a bounding headache.
"God, I can't believe you, Jen," she sighed to her roommate as she massaged her throbbing temples. She couldn't even bear to glare at her.
Jennie, on the other hand, was far from apologetic. "You weren't exactly objecting to anything, you know?" she shrugged.
Joohyun dropped her hand and scowled at Jennie. "Like you weren't literally jumping on my bed at 6am, pushing me into the bathroom, and hauled me into this bus!" She leaned back against the headrest and let out a churlish sigh. "Now thanks to you, I'm all barefaced."
"Please. That should be the least of your worries, Joohyun. You always look pretty," Jennie said, nudging her shoulder.
"Oh yeah? Then what should I be worrying about?" Joohyun's lips pursed into a wry smile that soon turned sour. "Maybe the fact that you still haven't told me where the hell you're taking me!"
Jennie laughed out loud, throwing her head back, knowingly vexing Joohyun even more. She deliberately relished on any occasion her friend lost the prim and calm demeanor many took her for, including Joohyun herself. Such a sight to see everytime she proved herself wrong. "I know you're probably angry with me right now, but I'm just looking out for you! You don't have any flights for two days after you head back to Korea, so why not make the most of your time now?"
"I've been to Pattaya already, Jennie. You know that."
"Yet whenever you are, you choose to sleep in," Jennie countered, "You have highlights of almost every place you've been to on your social media, one of the unlucky few being Pattaya itself."
"Wow. Someone's been keeping tabs on my social media."
Jennie pointed towards the window beside Joohyun. "Just look, Joohyun, it's gorgeous out here."
Joohyun gazed out the window and took in the scenery. It was indeed beautiful, changing from an urban landscape, to a wondrous view of the city's sandy coast, and to a much greener vast of nature and forestry.
"If I didn't know any better, I'd think you had some tragic history here. Was it a bad one night stand?" Jennie asked tongue-in-cheek. She fake gasped when Joohyun said nothing in return but laughed softly. "Oh no, it was a bad hookup, wasn't it?"
"It's nothing like that." Joohyun tore her sight away from outside and lightly slapped the woman's forearm. "Just a matter of bad timing, that's all."
It was the truth. There were no bad memories that could make her despise the city, and certainly no awful one night stands either. The last time she'd fooled around was months ago with a Japanese model (...Sana, was it?) during a layover at Osaka, and it was everything but awful. Pattaya just seemed to be one of those places where she happened to be too jetlagged to roam around each time she was there.
"Hm. Well don't you worry then, I've got you covered. Leave it up to me!"
Arms crossed and a brow raised, Joohyun asked, "How about we start with you telling me where we're going?"
Jennie checked the time on her phone. "The ride should be about an hour long. I'll rest my eyes for now," she said, eyelids falling shut as she ignored Joohyun's question.
"Jen--" Said woman did her best attempt of a yawn and turned away.
Joohyun scoffed. "Unbelievable."
Jennie smiled without opening her eyes. "You'll thank me in no time."
"This was your brilliant idea?"
Those were Joohyun's very words as they stepped out of the bus, in front of an arch entrance that bore foreign text. Zero knowledge of the Thai language was needed for her to understand where it led to. Clusters of people walked in and out, school children wearing plush animal hats, couples with stuffed animals, a chorus of animal cries, and--"Oh god--" Joohyun swept a finger under her nose.
"Dammit, Jennie. Of all places, you bring me to a zoo? You know that--"
"You're still afraid of animals?!" Jennie's jaw dropped from disbelief.
It'd been ages since she'd learned of Joohyun's strange fear. What was supposed to be a simple catch-up between them and a few other friends over a meal, became quite the discovering experience. Though as observant as she was, Joohyun had failed to take notice of the scurrying figures behind the cafe's plate glass windows, paying no mind to the patrons that were chirpier than usual. She'd made it to their table, clueless as ever, and mindlessly engaged into small talk with her friends--that if Joohyun remembered correctly--lasted no more than a minute before her friends fetched for their phones and cooed at something she couldn't see. Curious, Joohyun had finally taken a good look around the cafe, stiffening in her seat as soon as she registered that the animal prints adorned on the walls were for more than pure aesthetic. She also remembered how she regretted turning around, to where her friends’ attention had gone. The ear-piercing screech that left Joohyun’s lips were still fresh in her, Jennie’s, and their friends’ minds…mayhap in the innocent terrier’s too. The poor dog had chosen the wrong table, at the wrong time, to flaunt at.
"Why is that so shocking to you?” It was Joohyun’s turn to look incredulous. “Yes, I'm still afraid of animals!"
"I work on a plane for a living and that hasn't cured my fear of heights. What made you think..." She pinched the bridge of her nose as she regained her composure. Jennie took this as an opportunity to come up with answer that hopefully, wouldn’t tick her off. That was one side of the woman she’d rather not see.
In the end, she conceded that she had no other plausible explanation than an apology. She hadn’t felt an ounce of guilt earlier, but now she felt bad. “It slipped my mind,” Jennie said honestly, “It really slipped my mind, I’m sorry.”
Joohyun sighed. Of course Jennie wouldn’t have done it on purpose. And by the troubled look on her face, Joohyun could tell that Jennie was thinking of all of the trouble she’d put both of them through, just for this to happen.
It would’ve been easy, to catch the next bus going to the nearest tourist attraction, the same way they’d shamelessly moved to another cafe following Joohyun’s cringeworthy encounter with a terrier. Knowing Jennie, she’d agree beyond question.
“Well,” she started after a few awkward moments of silence, running a hand through dark locks—she hoped she wouldn’t regret this, “What are we waiting for? Let’s buy ourselves tickets, shall we?” Joohyun took in a breath, walked past Jennie, and led the way inside.
“Three, please,” Jennie said to the ticket clerk, handing over several bills.
In the normal course of events, the two women would have a drawn-out debate over who’d pay for this and who’d pay for that. Not today, though, because for Jennie, “It’s the least I can do.”
As the man behind the booth processed their purchase, Joohyun peeked over her friend’s shoulder. “Wait…why’d you get three?” she whispered.
“Oh, umm, about that.” After she received their tickets, Jennie bowed her head to the clerk and brought Joohyun to the side. However, before Jennie could continue, someone had called out for her name.
The two turned to the voice and saw a young woman waving, walking towards their direction. She was tall, easily towering over them both, even more so with each stride closer. She had jet black hair, large doe eyes that remained locked on Jennie, and a smile that grew wider and wider. Joohyun took one glance at her friend and saw that she was just the same. That’s when Joohyun had put two and two together.
The tall woman sprinted the last few feet between them and bear-hugged Jennie, lifting her slightly off the ground. Joohyun turned away, only reminding the couple of her presence by the audible clearing of a minute after.
A faint blush slowly rising to her cheeks, Jennie pulled away from the woman but kept an arm around her waist as the latter bowed politely to Joohyun. “I’m Lisa. You must be Joohyun. Jen’s told me a lot of good things about you,” she said with a smile.
“Likewise,” Joohyun giggled, “she won’t shut up about you sometimes.”
Jennie shoved her on the shoulder. “Hey!”
Lisa laughed, and patted her girlfriend gently on the head. “It’s nice you were able to join us, Joohyun. Jennie mentioned that you haven’t been around Pattaya much, so we thought this would be a great idea,” she explained. “What better way to spend the day than in the zoo, right?”
Jennie let out a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, baby, actually—“
“Absolutely!” Joohyun cut her short, linking her arm around Jennie’s, giving it a light squeeze. “Let’s head in, hm?”
Everything was going well...so far. Joohyun was able to admire the creatures with the assurance of a barrier standing between her and the animals, pulling away if they got too close for her comfort. As long as there was a fence or glass that separated them, everything was going to be perfectly fine. She was having fun, Joohyun had decided, and she enjoyed Jennie and Lisa's company.
There was one little thing, though, that bugged her.
The couple was doing their best not to make Joohyun feel like an unwelcome third wheel, even if the whole setup seemed to put it that way. They'd made sure of it right from the beginning. Lisa had been two hours away, staying at her hometown, and had planned on paying her girlfriend a visit. While Jennie, upon learning that Joohyun's schedule was concurrent with hers for the first time in weeks, took advantage of the situation. Two birds with one stone.
But it was inevitable. Joohyun was a woman with a keen sensibility, and the couple was very in love. Jennie and Lisa were opposite poles of a magnet, and Joohyun was the barrier keeping them apart, the force of attraction almost palpable. Not to the point she felt uncomfortable, but where the couple's unnatural, labored gestures made her want to laugh. Her friend had already done her a favor to keep them away from any open range areas without Lisa noticing...yet. Joohyun believed she owed her at least some time alone with her partner. For her, it was one less barricade she'd gladly do without.
She brought it up once it was just her and Jennie, Lisa going off to buy them drinks. Except for a packet of biscuits they'd shared on the bus, they hadn't been able to eat a proper breakfast. So after nearly an hour of walking, they finally sat down at one of the food courts.
"We can meet up again after a couple hours before heading back to the hotel. I just want you to spend some time with Lisa," Joohyun clarified.
Although a bit hesitant, Jennie didn't oppose to the suggestion. "Where would you go?"
"There's always the aquarium, botanical gardens, I suppose I could watch animal shows..." Joohyun pointed to different sections of the map on the table. There were still so many parts of the zoo that remained unexplored--and they'd already been walking for an hour. The place was that tremendous in size.
Jennie agreed when she was confident that her friend wouldn't secretly leave on a bus the second they would part ways. "Alright, alright. Sure. You should tell Lisa when she comes back."
And when Lisa did, with a plastic bag full of beverages, she joined the two, and listened. And then, the same hesitation, the same question, the same answer.
It appeared to be that not many people appreciated nature's foliage and bunch of blooming colors. At least not with the dozens of animals that seemed much more interesting. Joohyun was yet to see another face inside the garden, since the caretaker that had greeted her at the entrance, and a zookeeper who'd scrambled off when Joohyun had seen him in a corner next to an innocent bed of mints, probably clogging their pores with the smog that arose from the stick between his lips. He'd looked more surprised to find that someone was inside the garden than the fact that he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't have been doing, at someplace he shouldn't have been at.
Joohyun couldn't blame the man. The sunlight shining down from the transparent panels above and the brushing, cool mist alone offered a quietness and calm one could only imagine getting outside the glass dome. The exhibit was a cornucopia of sensations, and Joohyun had to stop once in a while to read about the plants that caught her attention, whether by sight or smell.
A distant, happy squeal sounded in the distance, and the woman remembered the couple, who she could guess were riding on a safari van by now, clinging closely onto each other. They could have all the fun they wished without worrying about being too affectionate with her presence.
Joohyun sighed to a group of evergreen shrubs. Was she having fun, she thought to herself.
She heard another happy noise, this time laughter, and felt she was being teased. Sure, it was her genius idea to temporarily go different paths, but there was so much pretty-looking flowers could do for her. Joohyun swore she'd seen this exact same bush at the first garden exhibit she went to.
Having reached the end of the exhibit, dwarf conifers beyond the trail, Joohyun her heels to leave. Maybe the aquarium had something more to her liking.
A small shadow emerged from the nearest curb, a good couple of meters from where Joohyun stood. Her brows furrowed and her steps slowed. As the dark blur got closer and closer to the mouth of the junction, Joohyun made up the silhouette of four legs...going about a jagged pace, like how a toddler would. Then with the shadow came a low tonal hum that resembled the vibrations of a motor. Was it what one would call a purr? Joohyun couldn't tell, she'd never stick around long enough an animal to know.
The woman took one, two steps back, then stopped. Both of her hands were balled into fists, nails digging into the fabric of her shoulder bag in one, and her map crumpled in the other.
Her eyes were trained onto the shape casted onto the ground, watching as it shrinked, until a black paw trod in sight. Joohyun let out a small yelp, only to cover with a hand right after, but it was too late. What had revealed itself to be a black bear cub was already making its way to her with shaky steps.
An endless string of profanities roared in her mind, as her head shook wildy side-to-side, checking her surroundings. With what clarity she had left in her brain, Joohyun considered her options: 1) run towards the exit and risk getting mauled by a bear cub (mind you that calling it a baby bear didn't make her feel any better), or 2) run straight back into the dead end of prickly trees and hope for the best.
In her head, Joohyun had chosen the latter, but at that moment, her body had a mind of its own, and tripped over thin air. Now, she was eye-level with the small animal that had not stopped with the humming.
Adamant about her arboreal escape route, Joohyun crawled backwards, not having the faith in her lower limbs to pick herself up. The cub must've noticed too, because it stood on its hind legs and walked faster. The sight might have been cute if the woman wasn't so threatened.
"Help! Help! He--Ah!" her wails for rescue turned into plaintive shrieks with the cub now in arms' reach. She hoped that someone would hear her. The caretaker, the mint-killer, anyone.
Joohyun closed her eyes and lifted an arm to shield herself.
Suddenly, there was a weight on her, her back pinned to the ground. She didn't have it in her to push the animal back and just continued to protect her head from its next move.
Joohyun's neck flexed and eyes opened to the voice of her savior, a running woman in high-waisted khakis and a matching top--only briefly--before squeezing her eyes closed again, because of the bear invading her...everything. She knew that the woman had finally made it to her when she felt the air shift above, and heard her deep pants.
"Off, off, off!" Joohyun squeaked in English.
Joohyun felt how the woman tugged at the animal on top of her, and how the animal relentingly pressed down even more.
"Stop being so stubborn, Guleum-ah! Get off the poor lady!"
It didn't even cross Joohyun's mind for a second that this woman was speaking her mother tongue. Her body was frozen stiff and her neck was beginning to ache from craning it away from contact. She needed this bear off.
After a few more tugs and dips to her body, she was relieved of the weight. She stayed lying on the ground and let her muscles go slack. If she weren't lying on cement in a zoo, maybe she would have started making snow angels just because. Joohyun hadn't been so tense in such a long time, not even when a passenger had fainted in the middle of a 10-hour flight. She was calm and collected then, like a hawk with everything under control. But right now, Joohyun was nothing but putty waiting to seam the tiny cracks below her.
Joohyun opened her eyes, gaze to the glass ceiling. From her peripherals, her savior looked down at her as she tried to keep the cub in her arms still. The woman went on, "Miss are you alright? Are you hurt?"
As far as she was concerned, Joohyun had zero scratches. Only an ache on her neck and shoulder that was already fading away. Joohyun understood English, of course. She probably wouldn't be able to speak to half of their passengers if she didn't. She answered, "I'm okay. Thank you."
Once Joohyun was back on her feet again--it took her a while--the cub in the woman's arms reacted immediately, shaking like an infant who'd seen her mother and asking to be held. That, Joohyun had no plans of doing. She kept a safe distance between them.
"Hey, Guleum-ah! What's up with you today, seriously!"
Three thoughts formed in Joohyun's mind. One, by the looks of it, uniform and embroidered patches and all, this woman was a zookeeper. Two, she'd just spoken Korean to the bear. And three, this zookeeper was exceptionally charming.
"Thanks for the help. I have no idea what would have become of me if you hadn't come," Joohyun said gratefully, looking at the letters stitched on her shirt, "Seulgi."
The woman's expression lit up from the familiarity of the words. "Oh, wow, it's been a while since," she clearly struggled with her words as the animal wrestled to be free from her grasp, "-since I've talked to someone in Korean in person- darn it, Guleum!"
A certain lunge of the bear caught both women by surprise. The zookeeper was too late to chase after the cub with her hands, Guleum on the ground and clinging onto Joohyun's leg right away.
"Eek--!" In turn, Joohyun leapt and clinged onto the zookeeper for dear life. "Please! Oh my god, oh my god, get it off!"
Unfortunately, the latter was in a complete daze. A ridiculously beautiful woman was hugging her with the side of her face laid against her chest! This feels like heaven...
A slap on the shoulder refrained her from hugging back and snapped her out of her lovestruck state.
"Yah! Do something!"
The zookeper backed up slightly, though was close enough for Joohyun to hold onto.
"She likes you," Seulgi mumbled, looking down. Guleum hugged Joohyun's leg as she fondly rubbed her head onto the fabric of the woman's jeans, and made a purring sound.
The purr-like sound was one of the vocalizations bear cubs did when they were very comfortable. Seulgi's had her fair share of instances where the cub purred inside her arms, not once hearing it whenever the other keepers held Guleum. Everytime they did--hold Guleum--Seulgi would silently tarry around in anticipation, a little part of her wishing that the cub would keep mum. She would never say it aloud, but knowing that only she could coax the sound from Guleum, was a different kind of special. Until now, that is.
Had it been anyone else, Seulgi would have felt a twinge of disappointment, as childish as it may seem. But looking at how Guleum affectionately clung onto this woman, Seulgi's heart swelled with joy. Despite how much she wanted to leave the cub be, however, whom the leg belonged to was utterly disconcerted. Her limb was beginning to look more like an accessory than a part of her body.
Seulgi bent down and pulled the cub by its torso, Guleum detaching from Joohyun with almost zero reluctance, suprisingly.
Guleum sat down on the ground adorably (at least in Seulgi's eyes), and allowed herself to be slid by Seulgi until she was beside the zookeeper and away from the other woman. Seulgi had a feeling that the cub would merely act up if she tried picking her up again.
All the while, Joohyun's fist was balled in Seulgi's uniform and refused to let go even after Seulgi stepped between her and Guleum. Joohyun noted the slight height difference with their close proximity, being eye-level with a pair of lips. She thought she could see her lips moving.
"What?" Joohyun tilted her chin up as she breathed out, embarrassed that she'd just got caught staring at her lips and not understanding a single thing Seulgi said. To her luck, Seulgi wasn't far off. She was looking above and around her, nowhere near Joohyun's eyes.
"I said I'm sorry for all of this trouble. Guleum must have snuck out behind me while- I'm not usually this careless, I promise! I wasn't even looking away for that long! It's just that Guleum can get really mischievous sometimes, but I'm not making any excuses. I'm really sorry-"
The woman looked away from the plant she'd been speaking at and abashedly faced Joohyun. Too bad, the plant seemed like a good listener, too. The unconscious gulp in was immediate, and in spite of being taller by an inch or two, Joohyun's stern tone and equally stony stare made her feel the size of a child that had broken their mother's favorite flower vase. The grip on the shoulder of her uniform tightened, and she let out a tiny noise, the one you'd make when your mother expected an explanation to rationalize whatever thing you'd just screwed up and you had nothing. And then, it would be your mother's turn.
"So you're saying that this was your doing? You're the reason that bear," Joohyun pointed at the cub leaning onto Seulgi's calf, eyes not leaving the zookeeper's, and with an up-and-down motion, beat out the syllables that followed, "jumped me and scared the out of me? That was your fault?"
"I'm so sorry. Yes, it's all my fault, I wasn't being mindful. One minute she's there, and the next she was gone! Look, I won't stop you if you want to report me to the higher-ups, but if you decide not to, I'll be in your debt. I'll do anything you want, I swear! I love my job, please."
Joohyun stared into Seulgi's pleading eyes for a few seconds, as if to comprehend the words, then the muscles in her face relaxed. She contemplated not whether she'd actually report Seulgi--Joohyun couldn't bear to do such a thing--but rather, the offer the woman had laid out. Surely, those weren't empty words from desperation. They sounded much sincere to her ears, and Seulgi didn't look like that kind of person.
She unballed the fist in Seulgi's uniform and sighed a long sigh. "Do you really mean that?"
"What? Oh, of course! It's not even my workday today and I just came by to check up on this little rascal over here, so I am totally at your disposal."
"Chose a pretty bad day, then." Joohyun shook her head, but a smile tugged at .
"Hm. Honestly, I like my chances so far," Seulgi shrugged with a smile of her own. She asked, “So...do we have a deal? What can I do for you?"
Joohyun looked from Seulgi to Guleum, uneasiness on her features. "I'm sorry but that bear has been staring at me since this conversation's started and it's kinda creeping me out," Joohyun mused, taking a single step back.
"No worries. Your secrets are safe with Guleum, whatever they are, " Seulgi attempted at a joke.
"...Okay, umm- I'm gonna bring her back. It's all the way in the back. You can come with, if you want-"
The zookeeper picked up the cub in a haste, acknowledged Joohyun, and walked down the path.
Seulgi could still feel Joohyun's unamused glare at her back the entire walk. Maybe it was all in her head. Or maybe, Seulgi decided, she should just stop making a fool out of herself in front of the woman. It might've been an overstatement, and on the other hand, probably not, but her beloved job was on the line. The management wasn't one to take these errors lightly, especially when it involved their patrons, and their animals.
As though Guleum could read her thoughts, the cub let out a whiny huff. Seulgi chuckled, patting the black fur under her palm. "I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."
Seulgi opened the door to a room, and gestured for Joohyun to go ahead. Joohyun instantly shivered and rubbed her arms. The garden was chilly enough, but the air conditioning made goosebumps prickle all over her body. Seulgi was quick to put the cub inside a crib and turned up the temperature.
There was a basin on one of the countertops, and an improperly-lidded pot on its side, obviously done in a hurry.
"I was going to feed her before I left. I put her on this table, started mixing the milk, looked back, and she was gone. Then I remembered that I hadn't fully closed the door when I got in. Dumb, I know." Seulgi leaned on the white table in the center of the room, while Joohyun looked at her with her back against the door.
Seulgi cleared . “I haven’t gotten your name, yet,” she said.
“Joohyun,” the woman replied shortly.
Seulgi nodded. ”So umm, what do you..."
"You should feed the bear first. I haven't come up with anything, yet," Joohyun lied. She had thought of something the moment the proposition was offered to her. She was only stalling by now, because with every minute that passed, the idea seemed better as just an idea than something actually happening.
So, Seulgi finished making the cub's milk and fed her on the table. Joohyun simply watched the two from what she called a "safe distance". With a few feet between them, she could finally appreciate and admit that the cub was cute. And the zookeeper...
"Got anything yet?" Seulgi asked. Everything that needed to be washed had been washed, and Guleum was back in her crib.
"Does the bear sleep there?" Joohyun stalled again. Seeing a small stable with the cub's name engraved on the wooden gate earlier, beyond the room, she bought herself time.
Thinking that Guleum's presence still made the woman uncomfortable, Seulgi left the cold room with the cub tucked in her arms.
Seulgi had taken a while to come back, that Joohyun had almost thought she'd been ditched, but when she did, the zookeeper was in a new change of clothes, the tips of her hair wetting her shirt. Joohyun's lips pursed. It was supposed to be another excuse to stall--politely getting her to change. Now, she had none.
"Let's hear it," Seulgi said to her.
Joohyun's mouth opened, then closed. She took a deep breath. What was she thinking? She was wasting her time. "You know what, nevermind."
"Thanks for the offer, but no thanks. I won't report anything to anyone, so don't worry. Just be more careful next time okay?" Joohyun said.
Taken aback by her sudden shift, Seulgi held her wrist before Joohyun could turn away. "Wait. Why?"
"I don't want you to feel indebted to me, that's all," Joohyun replied. "Let's just forget this happened."
"No, no. Please. I think I'd feel much worse if I let you walk away. You had something in your mind, I could tell," Seulgi insisted.
Joohyun muttered under her breath, "It's stupid." Seulgi urged her with the grip on her wrist and with warm eyes.
She gave in.
"Will you spend the next seven hours with me?”
"Okay, let me get this straight," Seulgi began. She and Joohyun were sitting on a bench in the open area of the zoo outside the garden, basking under Pattaya's sunshine. Seulgi held out a hand and counted off with each of her fingers. "You're a flight attendant who has a flight in seven hours, a friend of yours, who is also a flight attendant dragged you here to have 'fun', then said friend's significant other came, you separated from them, had an unexpected encounter with a cub, and now you're with me."
"Yeah. That's about it," Joohyun confirmed. Now that she was hearing it from another person's words, her morning should have sounded eventful--it's not every day you get pounced by a bear--but that was it. She hoped things would finally take a turn in her favor though, with Seulgi by her side.
Joohyun had expected a different reaction from the woman when she'd submitted to her insistence, something along the lines of Are you kidding me? or You're right. Let's forget this ever happened. But after a millisecond of clear surprise, all she got was another warm smile and a friendly squeeze on the wrist as Seulgi told her, "Come on."
"That's cool...you being a flight attendant," Seulgi said.
"How so? Because I look too short?" Joohyun spoke in jest, yet baiting nevertheless. She wanted to know if this woman beside her was just like everybody else. So far, Seulgi fared well. And deep inside, Joohyun hoped that the woman kept it up.
Seulgi shook her head. "No, of course not! I wasn't even thinking about that! It's just that I haven't known one personally," she defended. Trying to stay on Joohyun's good side for the sake of her job was way past her now, and she was genuinely intrigued by the woman. Seulgi added, "I don't think that should be a reason to stop you from being good at what you do."
The answer satisfied her, but it was too early for a celebration. Joohyun wasn't finished. "What if I told you that I'm also afraid of heights?" she questioned as she quirked an eyebrow.
"Oh." That caught her off guard.
"Then," Seulgi said not long afterward, "I'd tell you that I think that makes you even cooler. If you're anything like me, you love your job, and you're content with what you have. I'm pretty sure you don't let your fears get in the way of that, instead, you face them. Otherwise, we wouldn't be speaking right now. For me, that's worth admiring."
"Are you flattering me, Seulgi?"
No signs of playfulness were shown when the zookeeper looked at Joohyun. "No. I'm being honest," she answered. "Life is full of ironies, and not all of them are as bad people make them appear to be. That's what I like to think."
Joohyun tore away from Seulgi's gaze. How could Seulgi possibly know the right words to say? They were exactly what she wanted to hear, and Joohyun didn't know it. Joohyun, when she was just starting domestically, was constantly veiled in her insecurities, only finding comfort in her family and closest friends. As her assignments grew larger in scale and moved into the international picture, she eventually learned how to cope. Still, there were instances that she couldn't help her invasive thoughts, especially when people--passengers 9 times out of 10--made half-spoken remarks of how she was in the wrong career. A short phone call with those who knew her best always did the trick when things got overwhelming, reassuring her that she was on the right track without invalidating her concerns. It was a nice feeling to have. And that's how Joohyun was feeling now.
Joohyun had thought of replying with a sarcastic quip, in hopes of making their conversation light, but soon realized that it was a derivative of her fight-or-flight. A stranger, one she's been with for less than an hour, was making her feel something only people closest to her heart had ever did. The notion of it alone was so foreign to Joohyun, this woman climbing up her walls like it was nothing.
She looked at Seulgi thoughtfully and smiled, the pads of her fingers touching the zookeeper's arm. "Thank you."
Seulgi wanted to evaporate right there and then. It all made sense to her, why Joohyun had been so afraid of Guleum, a walking teddy bear, and why she was at a botanical garden in the first place. The weight of the events seemed a lot different now, and Seulgi imagined if she had been in Joohyun's shoes. She looked at the woman with a combination of remorse and sympathy.
"I didn't tell you that to make you feel guilty. I just wanted you to know," Joohyun said. "Considering where we are."
Seulgi giggled. "Is it strange that I want to thank your friend?"
Joohyun rolled her eyes and walked ahead of the woman, but not before Seulgi caught the grin on her face.
Joohyun had made it clear to Seulgi that she had no need whatsoever to push through with accompanying her, and was free to go anytime she wished. Seulgi also made it clear to her that it was the best thing she could do that day. She explained that she really just had come to check on Guleum, and would've spent the rest of her day sleeping in her apartment. Joohyun smiled at their correspondence.
Seulgi promised to give Joohyun a great time. She knew this place like the back of her hand. Put a blindfold on her, and she could probably bring you from the lions' den to the monkeys' jungle unmarred. The obvious downside of course, you guessed it, Joohyun could only take so much.
That's how they found themselves back to Joohyun's original plan, walking to the aquarium. Seulgi watched Joohyun enter the building ahead of her, in deep thought. She had to come up with something pizazz. Then, when the door shut behind Joohyun, Seulgi saw the plastered poster. The perfect idea struck her.
Seulgi pushed through the door and tread towards Joohyun, who was already looking at a cylindrical fish tank. She grabbed her hand, pulling her outside again. "Hey, where are we going?" Joohyun asked when Seulgi pulled her to the side of the building and into a narrow alley.
With the hand that wasn't holding Joohyun's, Seulgi reached for her back pocket, revealing an ID. She looped the lanyard around her neck. "Taking a shortcut," she said coolly, but Joohyun saw the excitement right through her eyes.
Seulgi opened a door boldly labeled for 'Authorized Personnel', and led the way.
Joohyun's fear of animals was totally rational, Seulgi had coincided with her. A lot of them were big, burly, and frightening creatures, and very capable of hurting you. So, Seulgi brought Joohyun to the domain of not only an animal that fell under none of those categories, but one she could easily interact with.
They were one of the friendliest and altruistic creatures out there, a better reputation than the majority of the species in the zoo. Seulgi swore she had this one in the bag.
Joohyun should have mentioned it earlier. Before they'd went inside the aquarium. Before they'd even decided to come to the aquarium.
With every door Seulgi opened and every corridor they passed, the pungent, tangy smell of the ocean got stronger. Just when Joohyun thought it couldn't get any stronger, they entered a large room, and the scent completely invaded her nostrils. Laughter and the sound of water splashes echoed from wall to wall. Beyond the bulk of people, Joohyun saw the dolphins, playing with humans, and ascending and descending into a deep pool. She felt herself paling.
"Pretty neat, huh?" Seulgi's voice was enthusiastic. Her eyes were focused on the pool as well. She tried to pull her along towards the rest of the people, but Joohyun didn't budge.
"Seulgi, there's one more thing you should know."
Joohyun swallowed nervously. "I'm not so great with water...the ocean and all."
Confusion flashed over Seulgi's face. Then it became knowingness. "...Like with heights and animals?"
It dread her to see Seulgi's face fall from an accomplished grin to a frown. God, why didn't she mention this earlier? Joohyun felt horrible.
Joohyun felt even worse when Seulgi's hand pulled away from hers. She'd consciously stopped herself from taking it back into her grasp. She stared down at her feet.
"Okay, uh...We can head back a few doors, and we'll be right at the freshwater fish exhibit," Seulgi suggested.
Seulgi exhaled, covering it up immediately with a tight-lipped smile. She tried not to show it outwardly, but Joohyun could sense her disappointment. More at her "failed" idea than anything, although it hadn't been her fault."Or do you want to watch the dolphin show instead? I think it's in the next room from here."
"Or we can go all the way back to the entrance-"
"-and start from there."
Joohyun reached for the woman's hand with her two smaller ones to get her attention. "Seulgi."
The zookeeper glanced at their hands, then up to meet Joohyun's eyes.
"I'll do it. I'll get in the pool." . Where was this coming from, Joohyun thought.
"No, I'm not forcing you to do this," Seulgi said. "I want you to have fun, not a therapy session."
Seulgi meant it, she really did. She just had to prove to Seulgi that she did too.
"I understand that, and I think that's sweet of you, but I want to at least give it a try."
Her fear of water was better described as the fear of drowning, getting carried away by giant waves. She wouldn't dare to step inside a pool if her feet weren't able to reach the bottom. As for beach outings with friends, taking photos and walking along the shore were as far as she went. Whether Joohyun knew how to swim or not was out of question.
Joohyun trusted Seulgi enough to make her feel safe. She was sure of it during the few minutes Seulgi's hand wasn't in hers.
"I don't want you to be uncomfortable." Seulgi shook her head.
"I won't," Joohyun eased, looking straight ahead to the dolphins' pool. Tingles centered at the pit of her stomach as she let out a breath. "Because you'll be right by my side."
Gutsily, she maneuvered so her fingers properly twined around Seulgi's. She felt herself already calming down.
Yup, Joohyun was definitely sure of it.
"Here we go."
Seulgi returned to the bench Joohyun waited at with an orange life vest for her in toll.
They'd tied their hair up, left their clothes and shoes in lockers, and changed into rash guards and swim shorts Seulgi were able to rent for free because, "I'm a favorite around here," she'd boasted.
Joohyun stood up and silently allowed Seulgi to help her get her life vest strapped on. Seulgi stepped closer and slipped the vest over her head, reaching around and behind her body to ensure it was a snug fit.
The next few seconds felt like an eternity for both of them. Seulgi's hands couldn't seem to cooperate with one another at all, and Joohyun struggled to ignore just how close they were and stood there like a plastic mannequin. No doubt, they looked as awkward as you could imagine them to be.
The end of the strap finally found the buckle, Seulgi clicked it shut, and adjusted the band. In doing so, she unintentionally pulled a bit too hard, causing Joohyun to stagger forward and ring an arm around the latter's neck. (The slippery floor beneath them was no help.) Hands consequently rested on her waist.
Joohyun let out a squeak. They were essentially sharing the same air, flushed and wide-eyed.
Seulgi separated from Joohyun and whispered an apology, leaving the stewardess to readjust her life vest on her own as she waited at the poolside.
Seulgi redid her bun and alternated between fanning herself and plucking at the collar of her rash guard. When did it get so hot in here?
She tried to shoo the memory of Joohyun's face so close to hers away--watched the dolphins interacting with visitors instead to get it out of her head. Yet for some reason, the sight of a dolphin bopping its snout onto a child's cheek for a kiss, turned into the thought of the dolphin bopping its snout onto Joohyun's cheek, which turned into Joohyun kissing--
Seulgi tapped the side of her face with her palm. "Stop, stop, stop," she told herself.
A touch to her shoulder gave her a sudden jolt.
"Oh hey, Joohyun!" Seulgi cringed at how unnatural she sounded. As if she wasn't daydreaming about her seconds ago. "Are you all set?"
"Mmh." Joohyun's gaze was distant.
Seulgi figured she was feeling nervous again. She approached her and held out a hand. When Joohyun took it, she gave it a kind squeeze. And both of them would agree, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
An employee walked them to a spot of the pool near the back. He was a friend of Seulgi's, obviously. If not, he wouldn't have asked, "Seulgi, is that your girlfriend?"
Joohyun looked away shyly while the fellow zookeeper elbowed him in the stomach. "She understands English!"
The man realized his mistake and bowed his head to Joohyun. "Ah. Sorry."
"I still want an answer, though," he said to Seulgi, a dumb smirk on his face.
Seulgi sighed, glancing at Joohyun who giggled at their exchange.
"Joohyun, this is Ten. Ten, this is Joohyun. A friend from Korea."
"Pleasure to meet you." Joohyun smiled.
"Pleasure is all mine," Ten said, looking down at their hands and sneaking a wink. "You must be some special friend. You're the only one's Seulgi's ever bothered to bring here."
Joohyun stammered with her words. "She didn't really have a choice--"
"She is." Seulgi in. Joohyun's head snapped in her direction, lips parted. "Now, are you going to bring us to the dolphins or what?"
Ten turned a blind eye to the profuse blushes on both women's faces. "Gotcha." He nodded to the stairs leading to the water. "You two get settled in the water, I'll be back with Shelly."
Seulgi took the first step into the pool, turned to Joohyun, and gestured for her other hand. "It's a little cold," she warned.
Joohyun followed her lead tentatively, cool water reaching halfway through her leg. She shuddered. "Okay," assuring Seulgi she was fine.
"You're doing great," Seulgi would tell her every once in a while. They went at a slow pace for the next two steps down, allowing Joohyun to accommodate herself with the rising water. By the third, the water was just at the level of Seulgi's chest.
Joohyun squirmed. She was shorter than Seulgi. She thought she'd suffocate if she went in that deep.
Seulgi saw her discomfort, knew she was having second thoughts. Instead of encouraging her forthrightly, she looked her in the eye and asked, "Do you want to go back?"
The words worked like magic. Joohyun shook her head like a child, but the perturbed expression was all the same. She let go of Seulgi's hands, momentarily taking her by surprise, but giving the woman no time to react before Joohyun pushed Seulgi into the rest of the depth of the pool. With her body weight.
Seulgi stumbled back with an oof. Her arms instinctively hoisted Joohyun up so that the woman was higher up than she was. High enough that Joohyun had no choice but to hook a leg over one of Seulgi's. "A heads-up would have been fantastic," Seulgi said.
Joohyun, whose arms had once again found its place around the latter's shoulders, laughed wholly. Not to be a sap, but it was music to the Seulgi's ears.
And then, a literal wave washed over them, leaving both women agape and dripping.
"I did not expect her to do that," Ten commented. He looked as surprised as Joohyun and Seulgi.
The dolphin, Shelly as Ten mentioned, on one hand, seemed pleased with what it'd done. So pleased, that it did it for a second time.
Seulgi turned to the woman in her arms. She waited for the horrified look--for the frightened squeal--for her to be pulled in tighter in the woman's panic. And as much as Seulgi wouldn't have minded the last one, she thought this was much, much better.
Joohyun swiped the short strands of hair out of her drenched face and continued laughing, louder than before. Seulgi stared up at her with a twinkle in her eyes, and soon found herself doing the same. Even the dolphin squeaked as it bounced in the water, in their own way of showing happiness.
It was the widest she'd seen Joohyun smile since they'd met.
"I'll leave her with you guys." Ten rubbed the underside of the dolphin's beak, to which the dolphin made a whistling noise and returned the gesture with a snuggle to the man's neck.
He left on the flight of stairs nearby, and it was just Joohyun and Seulgi...and the dolphin.
The dolphin swam to them, and Joohyun wasted no time and spun around in Seulgi's arms to reach out to it. It was like the Joohyun that was afraid of animals, afraid of deep waters, was nowhere to be seen. She was just a girl playing with a sea animal in a zoo in Pattaya.
Seulgi stuck to her like glue, being the one to actually get them to wherever Joohyun wanted, her feet--toes as the sole support keeping their heads above water. That didn't stop Joohyun from swinging her feet in the water as if it made a difference, only kicking Seulgi's shins in the process, but Seulgi didn't say a word. A few tiny bruises were worth seeing Joohyun smile. (Still not a sap, she'd say.)
Joohyun hadn't felt this way in a long time. Her daily life revolved around travelling--from historic sights to cities' nightlife pleasures. Just last week, she was sipping wine from her suite's balcony with the perfect view of The City of Love's most superb tower, and walking the busy streets alongside anime cosplayers the week before. You'd think nothing more could appease her. Yet here she was, having fun with an animal in the water--a combination she'd never dreamed being a part of. Something so simple, yet it sent an unfamiliar rush in her veins. She was doing something new, and she was just so...happy.
And through it all, was the charming, warmhearted Seulgi.
Shelly made circles around the two women, and Joohyun--Seulgi--did her best to chase after her. It rose into the air and dove down with a twirl.
Joohyun turned within Seulgi's arms, facing her, as they braced for the cascading water.
The dolphin emerged from behind Joohyun. Then with a bump of its body, pushed the woman into Seulgi's embrace. Their noses grazed.
This time, it was Seulgi who lifted a hand and brushed the hair out of Joohyun's face. Joohyun beamed.
"You look even more beautiful when you smile, you know?" Seulgi said softly, that it could pass as a whisper.
"Do you say that to all of your friends, Seulgi?" Joohyun asked jokingly.
Seulgi grinned. "Only to the special ones."
Joohyun let the words sit in the air, drawing patterns on Seulgi's back.
"Smile for the camera!"
Ten was crouching on the poolside with a camera dangling on his neck. He whistled, and Shelly appeared next to Joohyun and Seulgi.
Ten held up a fist. "1...2..."
Seulgi tried to pull away. Again. Thinking Joohyun wouldn't like it if they stayed that way for too long.
Joohyun gave her a look that screamed oh, you better not, and pulled her back.
Joohyun smiled for the camera.
Seulgi smiled because of Joohyun.
They ended up buying three of the souvenir photos. Seulgi had picked out the "best" of the takes. The one where she was actually looking at the camera, and not at Joohyun like some infatuated fool. Joohyun got the other two anyway, telling her that they came out great.
And totally not so she could tease Seulgi for the next ten minutes to her heart's delight.
"Okay, okay. I'll stop now. Don't get so sulky on me." She put away the photos in her bag.
They moved with no destination in mind, walking aimlessly in the zoo.
Joohyun took put her phone and raised it in front of their faces. "Let's take another picture."
Seulgi looked at her accusingly.
"Hey, I'm being serious!" Joohyun hit her on the arm. "I want to save these memories forever!"
She sighed. "Please?"
Ugh. Joohyun knew what she was doing with those innocent eyes and jutted lower lip. How could Seulgi say no?
Seulgi hid her smile with a pretend grumble. "Fine." She snatched the phone from Joohyun and held it in the air. She snapped a shot then showed it to the latter.
Joohyun nudged her again. "Oh come on, you can smile better than that! I have proof!" she ribbed at the zookeeper.
Seulgi groaned, but did as she was told, bringing up the phone once more. She handed it back to its owner after another shot. Joohyun grinned at the result.
"So," Joohyun began, "where to next?"
"I...I haven't thought about that yet."
Seulgi had gotten lucky with the dolphins, even if it almost ended up as a failure in the beginning. She felt a hearty feeling resembling pride when Joohyun saw around her fears, and entrusted her hand into hers. But she wasn't going to make Joohyun stay in the water for the next six hours they had together, waiting for science to prune their fingers. This wasn't a waterpark. Waterparks weren't the ideal first date in Seulgi's books anyway, not by a long shot. (...Was this a date?)
She was spacing out again. "Yeah, sorry, is there any place you want to go?"
"Stop apologizing. It's not like I presented you with the most convenient circumstances," Joohyun said. "But..."
Joohyun bounced on the balls of her feet. "What we did earlier...it felt so great. So thrilling, doing something I've never done before. I really had fun, thanks to you." Seulgi didn't reply. She grinned, and waited for Joohyun to continue.
"And I don't want that feeling to go away just yet, now that I've gotten a taste of it." Joohyun suddenly grew shy--Seulgi didn't stop grinning, if only, it got bigger.
Joohyun didn't need to finish herself.
Seulgi held out her hand in what was such a familiar gesture now. "I'll make it worth your while," she promised.
Joohyun had no doubts.
If Jennie were to see how Joohyun’s gallery was filling up, she would probably shed a tear.
Seulgi didn’t want Joohyun to become too overwhelmed at once. It wasn’t like Joohyun’s animal fright simply disappeared into thin air. The zookeeper first brought her to sites where they fed animals, ranging from elephants to giraffes to rhinos, straight out of their hands. The barricades that stood between them permitted more contact than the mesh and glass walls Joohyun had initially encountered—reduced to picket fences that allowed the animals to peer out as much as their heads and necks. Just enough for Joohyun to get used to sharing the same space bit by bit.
Things weren't all that easy, though.
Seulgi needed to hold Joohyun’s hand repeatedly until she stopped flailing the chunks of feed like frisbees. By the time Joohyun got remotely within reach, the animals likely got cramps, her body making all sorts of comical dispositions. (Seulgi silently took note of the woman’s flexibility.)
On a good note, nobody's hands were bitten off--an actual thought of Joohyun's that she'd raised to Seulgi. The zookeeper tried not to laugh. She decided for them to grab lunch afterwards, and ended up being fed by her too. It was unannounced, surely, but not unwelcome. Absolutely not. Seulgi swallowed each spoonful gratefully, brown eyes wrinkling into an appreciative smile till the last grain of rice.
She could get used to this.
Seulgi lead the way to the petting zoo next. Definitely a step-up from the animal feeding. Joohyun looked around and noticed that she and Seulgi were of the older ones there, save for the parents and teachers that came with children. She remembered how her younger self would quietly wait for her classmates and friends at the entrance during every school trip. They entered the wooden pen, Joohyun skimpily trailing behind the more experienced of the two when it came to animals. Cattle, lambs, dogs, ponies, and everything petite and docile, were grouped into smaller divisions. Joohyun set out to visit most of the animals, all of them were very fond of her, Seulgi noticed, but couldn't get away from flinching here and there as she touched them. Old habits die hard.
Bunnies were last, and were the easiest for Joohyun to acquaint herself with, surprisingly. She picked one up into her arms without a wince of trouble and pet its short-haired coat. Seulgi didn't pass the chance to get a picture, but not before tucking Joohyun's hair behind both ears, saying something about a striking resemblance. The flight attendant had been too flustered to argue.
As they left the pen, Joohyun's thoughts travelled back to another small animal. She'd been so passive towards the cub, and blamed her peculiar fear for the way she acted. Seulgi told her it was no big deal, yet when she revealed that she'd never seen Guleum like someone as much as her until Joohyun, the woman felt guilty.
It's true--when people say that time flies when you're having fun. Only a little over an hour remained until Joohyun had to regroup with Jennie and Lisa. Realizing so was quite a punch to the gut for Seulgi. She didn't want the day to end. Didn't want her time with Joohyun to end. From the way they bickered, her playful wisecracks, her soft stares...Joohyun made her smile so effortlessly. Seulgi wasn't one to be clingy, but she always found excuses to touch Joohyun. God...was she living in some cheap version of Before Sunrise?
Joohyun pulled her towards one of the mirrors inside the souvenir shop. Getting on her tiptoes, she perched a faux fur bear hat on Seulgi's head, wearing a bunny hat of her own. She took out her phone, and posed in front of the mirror for some selfie photos with Seulgi.
"Mmh?" Seulgi slipped off her hat, also taking Joohyun's to pay for later on.
Joohyun fixed the stray hairs mussed by the bear hat, then rested her folded hand onto her cheek. "Have I told you how beautiful you are?"
"Huh?" Seulgi lowered her chin in an attempt to hide her blush. "I- uh-"
"And cute," Joohyun giggled. She gently pressed her finger against the zookeeper's nose. "C'mon, let's make the most of our time. You did promise."
Save the best for last. Save the worst for last. It could go either way, Joohyun thought, as she and Seulgi took their seats in a van. Metal screens made up its sides and roof. Those are sturdy, right? She'd handled everything up to this point pretty well, but didn't know what to expect now.
Seulgi looked at Joohyun worriedly. She must have looked nervous.
"Just hold onto me, hit me, pinch me, or whatever you feel the need to do. I think I'm used to it by now," Seulgi kidded, offering her arm. Joohyun knew it was said to cheer her up, and appreciated it. She linked their arms and leaned towards Seulgi, just in time for the van's engine to start.
Joohyun did each of the things Seulgi had mentioned, and more. How could she not when glaring wildcats leapt all around them? More so that their long, sharp claws leered out through the holes of the screen. Gladly, Seulgi took all of it like a champ. Most of Joohyun's shrieks were muffled in the woman's shoulder, but they weren't of fear nor terror, no, they were of thrill of the good kind. She may have bawled her lungs out, but she was smiling the entire ride, a strange mixture of screaming and laughter. Seulgi was lucky to have gotten a decent picture at that rate.
When the van came to a halt, Joohyun hadn't sped off a vehicle so fast before, leaving Seulgi in a snickering fit.
Joohyun was waiting for her at the exit that connected to the rest of the zoo. She'd been staring at her phone as Seulgi approached her side. They both looked into the sky. Early signs of the golden hour touched the horizon. Joohyun snapped a photo of its yellow glow, then turned to take another, with Seulgi in-frame.
Rest assured, Joohyun wouldn't be leaving Pattaya without any memories. And a highlight blip all to itself.
"Time to go, Seulgi," she reminded drearily.
Seulgi gave a weak nod. "Yeah...let's go."
Jennie and Lisa waved, their big smiles morphing into amused expressions when they saw the woman alongside Joohyun.
"Hey Joohyun!...Who's this?" Jennie asked. "I thought you said you had no-"
"We just met today. It's a long story," Joohyun replied, knowing where her friend was getting at. "Her name's Seulgi."
The three were introduced to one another briefly before Seulgi and Lisa conversed about the fastest (and cheapest) way for the flight attendants to return to their hotel. Jennie managed to squeeze in some input on their behalf.
But Joohyun? Joohyun just stood there, looking at Seulgi. Was she ready to say goodbye already? Oh Joohyun, look how attached you've become to someone you've just met.
"Okay, so Joohyun and I should be able to get there in no time if-"
"Jen, wait," she finally spoke up. They looked at her questioningly. She turned to Lisa and said, "Go with Jennie. Don't worry, I'll have Seulgi take me there too. There's just one last place I want to go to."
Joohyun held Seulgi's arm above the elbow. "Only if it's okay with you."
The wooden gate shook and rattled, and the sound of light scratching became incessant as Seulgi and Joohyun got closer to the small stable. Soon, the sounds were joined by low huffs, somewhat peevish, and the women chuckled.
Seulgi peeked over the short gate, saw the bear cub, and rubbed below its ear. Guleum calmed down and immediately purred into the woman's hand, only to start another flurry of whining and scratching when Joohyun appeared beside Seulgi.
Seulgi unlocked the gate, and the cub wasted no time on clinging onto Joohyun's leg. She feigned offense. "Wow, I've raised you for two months and you forget me just like that?"
Joohyun laughed, bending down for a few experimental touches on the cub's head. "What a jealous bear," she said ambiguously with a smirk.
They sat down on a log, Guleum lying across both Seulgi's and Joohyun's laps. The bear purred with every caress of the two women on its back, their hands "accidentally" touching. Ten minutes had passed, and sooner or later, it would really be time for them to leave.
"Guleum..." Cloud. The cub's ears twitched at her name, even in her rest. "You gave her a Korean name, why Guleum?"
Seulgi had been taking care of the bears since she'd began working at the zoo, and it was a job she truly enjoyed. One day, a local, who'd lived in a foresty area, had contacted the zoo about a distinct, nonstop motor-like pulsing in the middle of a stormy night. Mindful of the bear sightings at the same location, their team was ordered to investigate the following day despite the weather conditions.
Seulgi was the one to find the cub, huddled between greens by the riverbank, alone. It was safe to say that it'd been abandoned by its mother. She reached out to the cub, on that immensely cloudy morning. Their connection was instantaneous.
"I've been hands-on with her ever since," Seulgi finished. She smiled at the memory, and so did Joohyun.
"She's lucky to have someone like you, Seulgi-yah."
"It goes both ways," the zookeeper said, "Like today."
"Thanks to her, I got to meet you."
Joohyun the cub's black fur as if trying to etch the feeling into her brain. "I'm glad. I'm happy that we met. Even if it was just for a short time."
We can meet again. We should meet again, Seulgi wanted to say. How easy that would be. But instead, she said, "Yeah."
Joohyun sighed. "You know," she started, "This might have been one of the most impromptu moments of my life. Spending a day with a stranger. I've always been used to having things all planned out for myself, where I had control over them. Even when I hop from one country to another, there's always this time frame that I had to follow, that I wanted to follow. Like my life routine's just one giant itinerary, that I tick one-by-one and do over again."
She stopped her hand where it was, looking at the dark fur crowded between the gaps of her fingers. "But not today. I needed this spontaneity, and you kept your promise and made every minute worthwhile. Thank you, Seulgi." Joohyun finished with a wry smile.
She'd just opened up to a stranger, more than she'd ever to her closest friends, and it felt magnificent.
It was a few minutes later, trapped in their own little world, when Seulgi recalled the inevitable reality. "You're going to be late if we don't leave now," she said. The cub on their laps whimpered softly. Never did Joohyun think saying goodbye to an animal would be so upsetting.
What more when it was time to say goodbye to Seulgi?
Joohyun and Seulgi didn't talk much during the trip back to the hotel. They'd exchanged socials, but spoke nothing of a "next time". They didn't know how to. They didn't speak, just stole glances from time to time, and leaned close against each other.
They stopped in front of a suite door. Jennie had already left, her flight half an hour earlier than Joohyun's.
"This is me," Joohyun sighed, shrugging her shoulders. She'd been sighing way too much for the past hour. She faced Seulgi, drawing in a breath, and held her hands. "I can't thank you enough, Seulgi-yah. I...I don't know how."
Seulgi took a step closer to her. "I may know just the thing," she said, bringing Joohyun's arms on her shoulders and holding them there. If she was misreading this whole thing, Joohyun would push her away, so Seulgi waited.
It never came.
They met halfway, lips parted, for a soft kiss. It was everything she'd imagined a kiss with Joohyun would be--gentle but firm, languid but seductive. Getting greedier, her hands crept around Joohyun's waist and nudged her lips harder.
Joohyun sighed, yet again, but for a different reason.
Seulgi cupped her face and covered with purposeful kisses before pulling away. She rested her forehead to Joohyun's. "We'll see each other again, right?" she asked between breaths.
Joohyun's eyes shone, and her trembling lips broke into a smile. "I promise."
She pulled Seulgi's nape down and they kissed again-- this time, longer, and less rushed--as if sealing the promise.
Seulgi gently pushed her hands to Joohyun's jaw, who had no intent on stopping anytime soon. "Go. Or you'll really miss your flight," she laughed.
Joohyun chuckled and buried herself into the woman's embrace. She gave her one last peck before stepping away.
"Have a safe flight, Joohyun. I'll see you soon."
"See you soon, Seulgi-yah."
The aircraft crew knew better than to compliment Joohyun of her beauty every single day, with the exception of less mundane events like parties and company banquets, but today was different. She was glowing. Her smile reached higher than they could ever recall, and there was this vibrant aura surrounding her as she approached them.
“Something good happen?” Their pilot of the day, Chanyeol, was the first to speak up.
Joohyun laughed pleasantly. “Very.”
Three weeks had passed when Joohyun and Seulgi saw each other again after that day. After that date…And yes, Seulgi had asked Joohyun whether she considered it as a date, too.
How often they were able to meet in a month varied with Joohyun's schedules. Sometimes once, twice, and if they were really lucky, she would be there for three consecutive weeks. The duration of her stays were another story, though. Seulgi always found her way through her own working schedules, especially when Joohyun would stay for less than a day. But let me tell you, both of them took great advantage of the first time Joohyun stayed overnight in the city--sharing a warm night between the sheets in Seulgi's flat.
Of course, their rendezvous were always something they looked forward to. They would go wherever they were in the mood for at that moment--the beach, the national park, fancy restaurants, tourist attractions, double dates with Jennie and Lisa, Seulgi's apartment, and even the zoo, to revisit Joohyun's second favorite bear. It didn't matter. As long as they were together.
For five months, that's how their relationship played out, and was yet to be made official. Each time one of them brought it up, the other would dance around the topic until it was completely disregarded.
Joohyun didn't know what was stopping them. Their feelings for one another were obvious from the start, and hadn't felt such with anybody else. She was sure of it.
Joohyun refreshed her phone for the nth time, frowning when no messages from Seulgi appeared onscreen. She looked out the window. The cloudy and gloomy day only made her miss Seulgi more.
All of her messages over the last six days were left unreplied to, but she knew that Seulgi had read them. It was also six days ago when Joohyun had told her that she'd be coming to Pattaya for a short layover, hoping that they could at least spend those couple hours together. But now Joohyun would be boarding a plane in a short while and would leave the city without a single glimpse of the woman.
What if Seulgi was growing tired of their ambiguity? Of dating someone who she was more apart from than together with? Had she found someone she didn't have to say goodbye to all the time?
The flight attendant glanced outside and saw that their plane had just arrived. She refreshed her phone again and sighed. Why couldn't Seulgi at least tell her anything? She typed a quick message, locked her phone, and leaned back in her chair, blinking away the warmth that stung in her eyes before it could ruin her makeup.
Joohyun stood and grabbed her luggage. She let a whiff of air out through pursed lips, trying to calm herself. She couldn't allow herself to be seen like this. Not during work.
One more time, she looked at her screen and scoffed.
if you wanted to end things, you could have said so. i'm boarding now. take care, kang seulgi.
One thing your flight attendants won't tell you, is that from the moment you step inside that plane, they can read you like an open book. Your body language tells all. Whether you're a first-time flyer, a businessperson, a newlywed going to a honeymoon, or a tourist--they'll know. But it's not all just for the talks behind curtains during their breaks. Studying their passengers right from that first greeting past the plug door also tells them of who they could count on for help, may an emergency happen. Which actually seldom happens, so yeah...If you see them giggling and shooting glances at you, they are talking about you.
So far, Joohyun's seen a handful of tourists, and way too many couples for her liking. She wasn't going to deny it, she was bitter. But she still greeted them as if she wasn't.
"Welcome aboard, sir. We hope you enjoy your flight," she nodded her head to a man around her age, hair parted and slicked back. Had an arrogant air to him, as well. Obviously a businessman.
"Now, I will," the man replied with a wink.
Joohyun bit back a snort. This wasn't the first time a passenger tried flirting with her, and she never gave them what they wanted. They weren't Kang Seulgi.
"You're holding up the line, sir," she said politely.
The man cleared his throat, embarrassed, and proceeded to the aisle.
Joohyun greeted the other passengers that came in, helping them find their seats when she needed. The plane gradually filled up. The flight was fully-booked, and she could clearly see which seats were yet to be occupied. She turned back to the door, where the last few passengers were entering. "Good afternoon--"
Joohyun's wide eyes searched the face of the person in front of her, making sure she wasn't seeing things. "Seulgi? What are you--"
Before she could finish her question, Seulgi pushed her square on the chest. Joohyun walked backwards until they were both behind the curtains and inside the galley.
Seulgi grabbed the flight attendant's face with her two hands and lowered her lips to Joohyun's. The kiss was hard as it was unexpected, and it made her knees go weak. If it weren't for the firm grip on her face, she would probably have fallen back to the cabinets behind her. She whimpered unconsciously from the deep kisses she failed to reciprocate.
"I'm sorry," Seulgi said when she was done. Joohyun was looking up at her, chest heaving. "I only wanted to surprise you, I've been planning this for a while. And when I saw your last text...I realized that I went a bit overboard..."
Joohyun punched the woman on the shoulder weakly, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "I can't believe you...I thought you didn't want to see me anymore," she cried as she covered her face. She couldn't help it, everything she'd pent up for the last six days, no--months of insecurities flooded out, now that she was seeing and hearing Seulgi.
"Oh, Joohyun." Seulgi pulled her into a hug. "It's just that I didn't want to spoil the surprise. I knew that it would only be more difficult to keep a secret from you. I'm sorry I went too far," she apologized, kissing the top of Joohyun's head.
"You're such an . First, you smudge my lipstick, and now you're ruining the rest of my makeup," Joohyun mumbled through sobs, still molded against Seulgi's frame.
"Well, I think that you're still the most beautiful person here," Seulgi chuckled as she wiped away the tears on the woman's cheeks and the smudged lipstick with her thumbs, which got her a punch to the stomach in return.
"What is this all about anyway?"
Interrupting Seulgi from answering, Jennie emerged from the curtains. "Joohyun, time to get ready--oh my god are you crying?" She looked astonishedly at Seulgi and said, "Please don't tell me you actually avoided talking to her this whole time?"
"What- You were a part of this?" Joohyun asked, eyes going back and forth to Seulgi and Jennie.
"Of course I was!" Jennie replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "You know what? Seulgi, why don't you take your seat for now," she said, peeking at her ticket, "It's the window seat here on the left."
"Yah! I need an explanation here!" Joohyun demanded.
"You two lovebirds can catch up later. We need to get ready. Fix up your makeup, go," Jennie told her, already pushing the couple in opposite directions.
Joohyun was pissed, both at Seulgi and Jennie, but that had to wait. Her friend had a point, they needed to get ready for takeoff. So after a few minutes of retouching, she joined the rest of the flight crew as they took each of their positions for safety announcements and demonstrations. Unlucky for her, she ended up right next to Seulgi's seat. The brat even brought out a phone to record Joohyun, like she'd forgotten that she'd just made her cry moments before. It took everything in Joohyun not to teach Seulgi a lesson right there and then, and forgo professionalism.
As soon as they were up in the air, Joohyun carried on her usual duties. Preparing food and drinks, taking orders, passing out pillows and blankets, and making sure all was in order. There weren't any chances to stop and talk to Seulgi.
When their captain announced that their landing would be delayed for an hour and a half, Jennie dimmed the plane's lights and told Joohyun to take a break, as she'd been working for three hours with almost no breathing time. She agreed, taking a seat on one of the front rows and wrapping herself with a blanket.
Minutes later, Joohyun felt a presence in the seat beside her. She didn't bother opening her eyes, and leaned farther back in her chair. That unmistakable cloud of perfume could only belong to one person. "If you need assistance, please find another stewardess. They'd be more than glad to help you. As you can see, I'm on a break at this moment," she said lazily.
She heard the click of the seat divider being raised, and was pulled into a hug. She would be lying if she said she didn't like it, so Joohyun didn't say nor did anything.
"I'm sorry, Joohyun," Seulgi whispered in her neck. She buried her head in the attendant's shoulder and tightened her arms around her.
It felt so good, that Joohyun was so close to hugging her back. But she was also still so pissed with Seulgi.
"I'm sorry for making you sad these past couple of days. I really wanted to surprise you, and I didn't want you getting any hints. I wouldn't be able to stop myself from saying anything, so I figured I'd avoid speaking to you for the time being. I hadn't realized how insensitive of me that was until I saw all of your messages earlier. I'm sorry..." Seulgi said softly. She knew that she'd have to be patient with Joohyun, aware that this was her second flight of a 12-hour shift, and how much emotional distress she'd just put her through.
"You already told me all of that, Kang Seulgi. I don't need you repeating yourself. I won't lose sleep over you saying the same things," Joohyun snapped. She wriggled until she broke free from Seulgi's hold, and moved a fraction away. "Tell me something I don't know."
Seulgi was silent after that. Joohyun didn't mean to be that harsh, but she was really, really exhausted right now.
She was seconds away from dozing off to sleep when she heard Seulgi's voice again.
"I love you."
Joohyun's eyes jerked open. It was the first time either of them dared to say that. "What did you say?" she asked, turning her head slowly to face Seulgi. Her face was inches away from the flight attendant's.
"I love you. Did you know that?"
Seulgi scooted closer but didn't touch her. "I resigned from the zoo. It's time I start something new. And I wanted it to be with you. I've told you that I'm a dance major, right? Well, I made some emails and calls...and I'm set to meet up with a well-known entertainment company in Korea next week."
"I know she's in good hands. And...there's someone else I want to take care of from now on," Seulgi said, slowly tucking Joohyun's hair behind her ear.
"You're not tired of me?" Joohyun asked in a whisper. Seulgi could tell from the look in her eyes that this was just the tip of the iceberg. After months of deflecting the topic.
"No." She coaxed open Joohyun's arms, and they huddled under the same blanket. "I'm tired of being away from you," she said, rubbing the woman's knuckles with her thumb. "I'm serious about us, Joohyun. I'm sorry for making you wait for so long, but if you're ready, then so am I."
Joohyun threw herself into Seulgi with a lunge, startling her, and choked back sobs. "Ahh, your makeup..." Seulgi teased.
"Jerk," Joohyun muttered into her chest. There were still lots to discuss, but they had plenty of time in the coming days. She sighed. "I missed you, Seulgi-yah."
"I missed you too."
Joohyun rested her chin on Seulgi's chest and looked her in the eyes. "Tell me again."
"Hm? Oh." Seulgi looked down with a contagious eye smile. "I love you, Joohyun."
Joohyun leaned in to kiss her.
"I love you too, Kang Seulgi."
She was definitely a keeper.