It wasn’t everyday that Seulgi woke up to the smell of homemade breakfast. Bacon, eggs, soup, and...Seulgi took a deep inhale. It was faint, but she could make out the smell of her favorite hot chocolate. Seulgi rolled onto her stomach and took in another sniff that stirred her senses, humming appreciatively.
She cracked an eye open. The sun was barely up. Taeyeon, her cousin, must have been in one splendid mood for her to come in the crack of dawn and cook her a hearty breakfast. She was the only one who had a copy of her keys.
Seulgi thought hard, trying to remember if there'd been an occasion that she'd forgotten about. New year's was last week and her birthday wasn't until a month later. Taeyeon must've seen the remains of her "struggle meals" for the past few weeks in the trash bins outside, and took pity on the lack of real nutrition going inside her body.
Seulgi groaned. Her delicious breakfast was going to be paired with an earful, it appeared.
She rolled over again, closer to the edge of her full bed, feet dangling loosely in the air. The smell permeated through the paper sheets of her bedroom door, and her stomach rumbled. Living in a traditional home truly had its perks. If only the door would slide open and her cousin would walk in with her food in tow. Now, that would be great.
When her stomach made another plea that she couldn't ignore for any longer, Seulgi drowsily kicked herself out of bed. She stretched her arms above her head with a yawn, and slid the door open.
She was met with the sight of a woman's back, preparing the table diligently with two sets of everything - chopsticks, spoons, and bowls. Seulgi gulped from the assortment of food, while the woman continued to set up the table, fetching two glasses from the cabinet, unaware of her presence.
Seulgi squinted curiously at the woman. Her cousin was just about the same height as she was - maybe an inch shorter - but this woman was certainly smaller. And the last time she checked, Taeyeon's hair was a light-brown, almost blonde color. Not a chocolate brown. She sure had poor eyesight, but she was not colorblind. Then again, she'd just woken up. She dashed back into her room and grabbed her glasses.
"Taeyeon? What's the occasion? Did I miss something? And did you dye your hair again?" she asked, adjusting her glasses.
The woman - who was clearly not Taeyeon, Seulgi quickly figured - jumped in her spot, dropping the packet of marshmallows in her hands. "Oh my god!" she gasped, a palm pressed to her chest as she turned around.
The woman was beautiful. Pale skin, dark hair, and the softest facial features she'd laid eyes on. How did a woman like her end up here?
"You're not my cousin," Seulgi stated calmly as she knit her brows.
Seulgi closed the door behind her and walked further into the kitchen, to the opposite side of the table from where the woman was standing. "Well, are you going to tell me who you are, or do we need the cops to do that?"
"No, no, no!" The woman waved her hands in front of her.
"I'm uh- Taeyeon- Your cousin let me in a few hours ago. She said she'd talk to you later, but I guess I already woke you up. Sorry about that," she said, rubbing her arm. "I'm Bae Joohyun, the new cook at Reve's."
Seulgi's brows raised. "Ah."
So that's what she forgot.
The old cook, Mr. Song, had resigned a month ago, and the diner had been temporarily out of commission since then. The old man's eldest son would be starting college that coming spring, and his family would be moving to Seoul, closer to the boy's university than this ramshackle town would ever be. A farewell party was thrown for the whole family, in-and-out of Reve's, the open area of the shopping center taken up by the people that couldn't get a spot in the diner itself. The entire county was in attendance. It was that small. One of those places where everybody really knew everybody.
A selfish part of Seulgi wished that Taeyeon and her wife, Miyoung, hadn't made everything on-the-house that night. She was thankful, though, for the people - mostly their regulars - that snuck a few bills underneath their plates.
Seulgi was actually envious of Mr. Song's children. She'd sat down with the youngsters on a number of occasions, whenever they'd visit their father at the diner on weekends. Seulgi would serve them their favorite pancakes, and they always had these bright and lively expressions on their faces.
Aside from having a family - a real family - the kids had a one-way ticket out of this small county. (Because who would want to go back here?) Two things Seulgi didn't have. Taeyeon and her family were the only blood kin she'd ever had, and she loved them dearly, but sometimes it wasn't enough to fill the void in her heart.
Everyone seemed to love the idea of living in a small place where everybody knew who you were. Well, everyone but her. For years in her childhood, Seulgi had to endure the ordeal of being called "Sluggie, the orphan", before adults had finally put a stop to it. The nickname "Sluggie" stuck around even for the years after, that most people eventually forgot how it'd become a thing in the first place. But never her.
Mr. Song's youngest would be moving out of this rickety town at the age of nine, while Seulgi had been living here since the day she was born, and would be left with her last few terms at community college. Seulgi was lucky enough that the college was just a district away from Daegu's metropolitan area, where she could get a taste of the life she'd always wanted. A life in the big city.
Her aunt, Taeyeon's mother, had been Seulgi's guardian until she wasn't, right before she started college. She began working at Taeyeon and Miyoung's diner as a waitress at the same time, and saved up every cent possible for the past year.
Just one more year of Seulgi waiting tables, she would get her degree and whatever was left of her parents' savings, then leave this place forever.
"Kang Seulgi," the woman introduced with an outstretched hand, "I'm a waitress at Reve's. Sorry, too, for acting like that earlier. I forgot that you were coming today."
Taeyeon had proposed the arrangement four days ago. Until further notice, the new female cook would become Seulgi's housemate and stay in the guest room at her place. The same guest room that she still hadn't unlocked and touched in ages. (Seulgi looked towards the sofa in the next room, a neatly-folded blanket and a half-zipped luggage on top of it.)
Seulgi had agreed with her cousin's idea without too much thought. For all she cared, the cook could have the house all to herself once she left.
"Oh it's nothing. I would've done the same," Joohyun said, reaching out for a quick handshake. The steam from the table below reminded Joohyun of the food she'd prepared as she pulled away. "So...breakfast?"
Seulgi's stomach growled unceremoniously. She covered her abdomen and looked down in embarrassment. Joohyun giggled softly. "Take a seat, Seulgi. I'll get the hot chocolate."
Seulgi's lips curved into a smile, pleased at how her name rolled off Joohyun's tongue, but quickly shook it away, realizing that she probably looked like a complete fool in front of an extremely attractive woman she'd just met minutes ago. Her hand flew to her head, positively a wild mess of hair, then to the corner of . Oh god, this is embarrassing.
"I, uhm- I'll be right back!"
"This is really great, Joohyun. Wow. I think Taeyeon and Miyoung hit the jackpot with you," Seulgi praised in between bites. Her spoon clattered against her teeth from how fast she was eating. "I didn't even know bacon and scrambled eggs could taste this good."
"Hey, slow down some," Joohyun said as she modestly brought a mug to her lips to sip.
Seulgi obeyed, grinning coyly. "Heh, it's been a while since I've had food this good, I can't help it."
"You don't cook much, do you?"
"Not lately, no. I'm sure you've seen the inside of my cupboards," Seulgi admitted.
Joohyun chuckled. "Your fridge wasn't any better."
Seulgi rubbed her nape. "Reve's will have everything you need, don't worry. Consider this a battery test," she joked.
The chef's lips twitched in a smile before she glanced down at her food. "About the rent and-"
"Taeyeon didn't tell you?"
"She did," Joohyun said, "But I won't agree to it."
Seulgi's mouth pursed in a slight frown. "One person isn't going to make that much of a difference, Joohyun. There's no need for you to pay for anything."
Hopefully, Joohyun didn't have a problem with cold showers in the winter, though.
"I don't want to be a freeloader."
"You saved me from being jobless for any longer, and gave me one of the best breakfasts of my life. I think you're just fine," Seulgi said as she took another bite. She smiled when Joohyun sighed, and they continued to eat in silence.
Long done with her meal, Joohyun watched Seulgi as she finished hers, who hadn't stopped with the shower of compliments. Seulgi willingly scraped her bowl clean, not leaving a single trace.
"You like it that much, huh?"
Seulgi hummed her agreement, chugging the last of her hot chocolate. She sighed a contented 'ahh' and said a chuffed thanks.
Joohyun, who seemed to be in deep thought for a moment, looked at Seulgi, a smirk on her face. "We split the utilities bill, and I'll keep your stomach full with real food," she proposed.
"And if you don't want to, I'm very capable of cutting down my servings to one," Joohyun shrugged. She pretended to be fascinated by her nails as she waited for a reply from the woman that gaped at her. "Hm?"
Turning down this woman's cooking would be like turning down an all-expenses-paid trip out of the county. A downright stupid decision. Joohyun wasn't being fair at all. Seulgi huffed. "Fine."
After minutes of another argument over the dishes, Seulgi's eyes followed the other woman to the sink, and just stared. She hadn't even realized that she was smiling, until the sound of her cellphone alarm buzzed from the bedroom and her cheeks slackened.
Back to work, Seulgi.
Taeyeon dropped the two women off in front of the building.
She'd arrived at Seulgi's home right after the woman had stepped out of the shower, all smiles. Seulgi had laughed when Taeyeon had offered to drive them to the diner, something her cousin would only do whenever she wanted to get on Seulgi's good side.
Apparently, Seulgi wasn't the first to get a taste of Joohyun's cooking, and the woman did have a battery test with the married couple at the diner after all. No wonder Taeyeon was putting her best foot forward. First, a hassle-free place to stay, and now a free car ride on her very first day. They were confident that they'd struck gold with this woman.
Taeyeon rolled down her window and waved as she said to them, "If you need anything, just tell Seulgi! See you guys later!"
With Joohyun behind her, Seulgi opened the door into the building, their arrival signalled by the chiming of bells above them and the glowing eyes of their animatronic mascot, Reve.
For a diner in the middle of a rustic county like theirs, Seulgi had to commend the take Taeyeon and Miyoung had made on the place. Instead of taking on the classic antique look for the diner, they'd decided to go for a more modern direction. Retrofuturism.
Neon signs and flashy art prints decorated the walls as shiny, vinyl tiles spread the floor. Sleek interior pieces of queerish shapes filled the dining space, from chrome tabletops and stools, to leather booths. And all kinds of accents, solidifying the overall retro feel to the place, including a model of a space minivan with the words "Umpah" on both license plates, a guaranteed eye-catcher for first timers. Seulgi's favorite had always been the four-foot jukebox standing in one of the corners next to Reve. It was the first thing she'd go to everyday, even before punching her time card, and the last when she was on closing shift. Setting the mood with the right music wasn't only for the customers, Seulgi would say.
"C'mere," she said to Joohyun, waving a hand. She brought her to the jukebox, switching it on to life. Her finger trailed the large song list. "You a fan of old music?"
"I love it," Joohyun replied, "Specially the 80s."
Seulgi smiled, then pressed a few buttons before the machine's mechanical arm started to move and lifted a CD to the center. Seconds later, the first few beats of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" resounded from its speakers. As the first verse played, Seulgi and Joohyun punched their time cards.
"Hey girls! Just on time!" Miyoung, stepped out from the double doors of the kitchen and smiled brightly to the two women. She looked out the window to where her wife was waiting in the car and blew a kiss.
"God," Seulgi rolled her eyes. "How have you guys been married for four years?"
"Don't fret, dear. When you find the one for you, I'm sure you'll be just the same," Miyoung snickered, patting the woman's head. "Alright, catch you two later. If you need anything," she began.
"Just tell Seulgi," the said woman finished for her. Miyoung and Taeyeon were really meant for each other.
Miyoung laughed with another loving tap to Seulgi's crown and walked past the two, heading outside to her wife. The car drove off into the main road. They both had other jobs in the city, Miyoung in the interior design industry, and Taeyeon at a music label. Seulgi wondered all the time why the couple hadn't moved out and just lived there for good yet.
Joohyun pushed the doors to the kitchen. She wore a black apron, tied her hair into a bun, and covered the bunch with a net. The sounds of pots and pans told Seulgi that she was already continuing the prep Miyoung had started.
"Good luck on your first day," Seulgi said playfully as she passed by the window that separated the kitchen from the rest of the diner. She could hear Joohyun chuckle as she entered the bathroom. For once, Seulgi looked forward to work.
Seulgi kicked the door closed on her way out, buttoning the last two buttons on her uniform. Her glasses were replaced with contact lenses and her hair was brushed into a ponytail. There was a blue pickup parked out front when she looked up. She must've missed Miyoung flipping the sign from 'Closed' to 'Open' on her way out.
A man and a woman were seated on one of the farther booths. They sat on opposite sides, but appeared to refuse to look at each other at all costs. Seulgi was quite familiar with these kinds of scenarios. She groaned inwardly. She didn't want to experience a restaurant breakup so early in the day.
"Hey, Joohyun. How long have they been here?" she asked quietly, reaching for a pair of menus.
"Umm, probably when you went in the bathroom?"
"Crap." That was almost ten minutes ago. Seulgi rounded the counter and walked to the couple - maybe an ex-couple by the time they stepped out of here.
"Hi, good morning," she greeted. The woman had the decency to mumble a half-hearted 'hey', unlike her boyfriend who stared outside blankly as Seulgi laid the menus on the table. "Feel free to call me when you know what you guys want to order. I'll be back with some water."
She turned around, and not even five steps away, she heard the man say, "Why are you acting so upset with me? It's not like I asked for the traffic!"
"Because it's our second anniversary! Everything was supposed to be perfect, and now we're hours behind our plan!"
Seulgi winced. Eating at a diner in the middle of nowhere on the morning of your second anniversary? She'd be a bit upset too.
"Maybe if someone didn't take forever to get ready, we wouldn't have been caught up in traffic in the first place!"
They fell silent. From behind the counter, Seulgi could see the scowl on the man's face, while his girlfriend was on the verge of tears. She never liked witnessing these things, but it wasn't like she could do anything about them. Offering extra napkins and water refills were the best she could do. A rub on the back, too, if she felt like it. Relationships weren't her thing.
She grabbed a pitcher and two glasses, and placed them onto a tray. The ding of a small table bell turned her head towards the kitchen.
Joohyun pushed a steaming plate of food onto the window.
"What's this?" Seulgi asked, giving the plate a tiny spin. The platter had two pieces of French toast, that by the looks of it, could feed four. Each was stuffed with strawberries and cream, topped with blueberries, more strawberries, and a generous squeeze of whipped cream.
"For table five."
Seulgi looked around to check if there was anybody else she hadn't seen. Nope. Just the miserable couple. "Joohyun, they haven't even ordered yet," she said.
The cook pushed the plate closer to the waitress' edge. "This is for table five, Seulgi."
"I'm telling you, I just gave them their menus."
"Take it to them."
Seulgi sighed, and placed the plate onto the tray, joining the pitcher and glasses. Walking to the table, she looked back to Joohyun just in case the woman was playing games with her, but was granted a small smile instead.
"Umm, here's your food, I guess," she said. Seulgi cleared . "I mean, here's your French toast."
The man looked at her strangely. "We haven't ordered yet, though."
"Right," she agreed, shooting a side glance at Joohyun. "You haven't-"
They heard a sniffle, and both she and the man turned their gazes to the woman. Seulgi immediately passed her some napkins.
"Remember when you made me something like this before we started dating? Berries and all," the woman laughed as she dabbed at her eyes. Her boyfriend's expression softened. "I ended up kissing you and we didn't talk for days. We were such idiots."
The man nodded. "Yeah, we were," he chortled in memory. Both of them broke into smiles. They were starting to look more like a real couple now.
"Do you guys want it?" Seulgi asked gently, feeling as if she was intruding.
"Yes, we'll keep it. Thank you," the woman said.
With a small bow, Seulgi poured them glasses of water and left, heading straight to the serving station window. Her arms propped up a head of curiosity on top of the surface. "Joohyun," she called out. The woman was busy washing dishes, yet glanced her way in acknowledgement. "What was that?"
"What was what?"
"That. The French toast."
Joohyun towelled off her hands and made her way to the opening, mirroring Seulgi. "They needed it," she said pointedly.
When Seulgi looked back, she saw a totally different couple from the one she first saw coming out of the bathroom. The man had moved to the opposite booth, and the two were locked in each other's embrace. The French toast looked as if it had been abandoned after one or two bites, but Joohyun didn't seem to be bothered by the fact. It had served its purpose.
Although Seulgi was thrilled that she wouldn't have to watch over another breakup, it didn't make sense. Did Joohyun know these people? That was the only explanation Seulgi could think of. But if she did, surely Joohyun would've said something, right? The growing curiosity was biting her. Seulgi had to ask.
"Joohyun, how did you know-"
The red glow of Reve's eyes reflected on the wall adjacent to them. Bells jingled. A rowdy, traveling family entered, and Joohyun was back in the kitchen. Cooking. Already.
Seungwan came in an hour before her shift in the afternoon.
“You’re early,” Seulgi remarked, pinching a bill left as a fat tip from a middle-aged man, that Joohyun had charmed with a platter of sizzling meat, into her pocket. It’d been that way since the morning, Joohyun cooking exactly what each person that walked in wanted, without them saying a word. And even when Seulgi did tell her their orders, Joohyun would transform them into something of her own. Seulgi didn’t complain, about how the chef cooked meals that weren’t even on their menu, or how she’d given Seulgi different dishes from the ones she asked for. Whatever was going on in that kitchen, was giving Seulgi the biggest tips she’d gotten in a year. None of the customers were complaining either, so there was no use in stopping her.
“It’s nearly been a month. You just kinda miss it,” Seungwan said.
“Miss what? Dealing with cranky customers?”
“Oh come on, Seul," Seungwan giggled, fixing the collar of her best friend's uniform. Her eyes darted to the back. "How's the new cook?"
Seulgi clicked her tongue. "Everyone loves her," she said truthfully.
Seungwan raised an amused brow. "Really now?" Seulgi slid a hand into her pocket to reveal a thick, folded bundle of banknotes. "Woah."
"I know right?"
"I knew I made the right choice coming early."
The door jingled. "Hey Sluggie!"
The waitress almost frowned at the nickname, until she realized who had said it. A tall woman wrapped an arm around her best friend's shoulder.
"Sorry, Sooyoung. No free snacks today, I'm afraid," Seulgi chuckled.
Sooyoung was the perfect example of how her infamous nickname got passed down throughout the years. Both Seungwan's and Sooyoung's families had moved in the county during their sophomore year of high school, orphan remarks long ceased, but "Sluggie" remaining like a dull stain. Sooyoung had become one of those people who'd cluelessly picked up the name from others, thinking that it sounded cute. Seulgi didn't hold it against her.
"No way! And here I was hoping that I'd get a free smoothie!" an additional voice chirped.
Yerim plopped down onto a booth, brushing past the three women.
Seulgi shook her head as she wiped the table clean. "Didn't think you two would show."
"Your cousin wouldn't stop chattering about the new cook. We wanted to see what the fuss was about."
The fuss is that she's gorgeous and talented, Seulgi said in her head...Okay, the first part was her fuss. It wasn't like everybody saw Joohyun. The woman hadn't stepped out of the kitchen at all, and you could barely see her petite form through the service window unless you were one lucky waitress. Nonetheless, Joohyun's cooking was enough of a fuss already.
Seungwan unfurled the arm around her with a light tap. "I'll get changed," she announced, leaving a kiss under Sooyoung's jaw.
"Why don't you let Sooyoung help you undress while you're at it!" Yerim teased for the whole diner to hear.
Seungwan quickly faced away to conceal the deep blush on her cheeks and made a dash to the bathroom, as Sooyoung shoved the loudmouthed girl by the shoulder. Seulgi bowed to the rest of the customers in apology.
"Yerim, I swear to God," Sooyoung groaned, slumping next to her.
"Don't act like you guys haven't done it."
"There's no need for you to tell the world."
Seulgi dropped onto the booth opposite of the two with sparse laughter. All of the customers were enjoying their meals happily. She could afford a few minutes to sit down with her friends.
Seungwan and Sooyoung's relationship was still new, even if it was a longtime coming. For years, per se. With their families moving in during the same term break, and by coincidence ending up in the same neighborhood, the two high schoolers relied on one another as they adjusted to their new lives. And before they knew it, Seungwan and Sooyoung were falling for each other.
For girls that wore their hearts on their sleeves, they did their absolute best in hiding their growing feelings. Neither of them wanted to "ruin" their friendship. But while Sooyoung was in touch with her preference for the fairer ...Seungwan was a different case.
Both of them dated in the midst of it all, hoping it would distract and in time, harbor the affections they had for one another. Sooyoung's were of casual flings, never with someone from the county as to avoid ungainly gossip.
At first, Seungwan didn't entertain the idea of dating, and seeing Sooyoung with other women only made it more difficult for her to come to terms with herself and what her true desires were. It had lasted for three years. Three years of helplessly watching Sooyoung bring along a new woman every other month or week as she remained single, with nobody to confide to other than her best friend, Seulgi - until one day, sometime after she and Seulgi started working at Reve's.
Everyone was there - Seulgi, Yerim, and Sooyoung. There to see how Seungwan entered the diner, holding the hand of a man, with collective looks of shock. Sooyoung knew that it shouldn't have hurt her as much as it did, especially when she'd brought another girl to Reve's just the day before. But that girl, and every single one before her, were flings. Distractions. So when Seungwan had walked up to their table and introduced Chanyeol as her boyfriend, Sooyoung's heart ached at the thought that Seungwan would never truly be hers.
It hurt Sooyoung even more knowing that she'd be seeing the couple together often, because by coterminous fate, Chanyeol lived in the same old county.
All of a sudden the tables were turned for them. Sooyoung's flings stopped since then, and if Seungwan ever noticed, she never said a word. Her feelings for Seungwan remained unchanged, but she couldn't do anything about them. Not when the woman seemed so happy in Sooyoung's eyes. For the sake of their friendship and Seungwan's happiness, Sooyoung had to fake her own.
Then, ten months after, on the night of Mr. Song's goodbye party, their facades crumbled to the ground. The party was mostly over, and Seungwan had left Seulgi's side as they were tidying up to pull Sooyoung away from the crowd.
Behind that shopping complex, four years of repressed emotions assailed from both women, and they'd realized how foolish they had been all along.
Sooyoung was a fool for not knowing that it was still with her when Seungwan smiled the brightest, laughed the hardest, and loved the most. Seungwan was a fool for thinking that Chanyeol could make her feelings for Sooyoung disappear.
Seungwan tried to make it work with Chanyeol - he'd been her first relationship, first kiss, first time. But even then, her heart and mind had fluttered back to a certain woman. They say that your first times are memorable. Seungwan wished she could've said the same for hers. She'd remembered how the whole room had just stopped when she'd called out for Sooyoung's name - while in the arms and bed of her supposed boyfriend.
Little did Sooyoung know, she'd been the cause of the couple's many fights dating back weeks before the party. 'It's always Sooyoung this, and Sooyoung that,' he'd told her. Chanyeol thought he could "fix" her, and Seungwan thought she could learn to love him. And from that moment, as Seungwan uttered the last name Chanyeol wanted to hear on the one night - the one damned night that was supposed to be just the two of them, Seungwan and Chanyeol knew it was finally over between them.
Behind the diner, Seungwan finally confessed the words she longed to say all those years. She and Sooyoung were a mess of tears by the time she'd finished her heartfelt speech. Sooyoung had been sobbing so hard that she couldn't say her own without choking on her words, and just claimed the woman's lips halfway through. But it was alright. Because after four long years, Seungwan and Sooyoung were finally in the arms of the one they truly loved.
"What happened to taking things slow?" Yerim teased again.
"Hey. Give them a break, Yerim," Seulgi said.
Sooyoung sighed. "Thank you! I knew I could count on-"
"We all know Sooyoung's been waiting for years to get into Seungwan's pants."
After a short pause, Yerim and Seulgi fell into an onset of idiotic giggles and high-fived each other like a pair of children. Sooyoung sank into her seat and covered her face with her hands. "I can't believe you guys," she groused. "I know my reputation back then wasn't the best, but..."
"We're just kidding, Sooyoung. We wouldn't want our dear Wannie to be with anyone who isn't you," Yerim consoled as she slung an arm around her shoulders in a side hug. "You two really deserve each other."
"Mmhmm," Seulgi agreed with a nod. "We haven't seen you and Seungwan this happy in a long time. I know you two have been friends since the day you guys met, but it's just different now."
"I really love her."
"We know you do."
Sooyoung was about to say something again, when the table bell rang. Seulgi looked back and saw Joohyun peeking from behind their window. She grinned. "Duty calls," she said to her friends, standing.
"What's up?" Seulgi asked through the open space in the wall.
"Are..." Joohyun pointed to the table the waitress had come from. "Are those your friends?"
Seulgi nodded. "Yeah, don't worry about them. They'll probably get going in a few- What's this- Oh no, did you hear them talking about free food? That was just a joke, I promise," she said as a plate was presented in front of her.
No it wasn't. Those two rascals always made her pay for their food every chance they got.
"It's fine. I wanted to," Joohyun responded shyly.
Seulgi felt a presence behind her left shoulder. "Oh, hi! You must be Joohyun! I'm Seungwan!" her best friend cheerily said. "Wow, you're beautiful."
The cook let out an airy laugh. "Thank you. I look forward to working with you."
"Me too! Ah, this looks great. What table?" Seungwan asked, eyes also darting to the plate below.
"Your two friends..."
"Ugh. Did those two talk you into buying them food again? I'll make sure to have a word with them," Seungwan said to Seulgi.
"No, it's nothing like that," Joohyun interjected. "I just wanted to make something for them. I'll take care of the pay, don't worry."
Seungwan looked at her best friend who shrugged lightly and gave a knowing smile.
"You should be the one to give it to them. If you want," Seulgi told her.
Seulgi gestured to the plate. "Of course."
Joohyun skipped happily out of the kitchen and approached the two women. She took the dish with both hands, and with Seulgi and Seungwan trailing behind her, went to the two girls' table.
"Wait a minute," Seulgi said. Joohyun and Seungwan paused. "Yeri isn't much of a pizza person, right?"
"Right!" Seungwan nodded, pointing an affirmative finger. "And Sooyoungie likes tomato sauce the best, too."
The three women looked down at the large plate in Joohyun's hands. Crispy pizza rolls and coils of pasta smothered in cream sauce. Seulgi and Seungwan exchanged a look.
Seulgi rambled, "But it's not like they won't eat it! They're not picky eaters. It's just that, you know, sometimes you prefer one thing over the other and-"
"I get it, I get it," Joohyun chuckled, understanding their worries. "Trust me on this, okay?"
The pair shared another look before bobbing their heads. "Okay."
Yerim and Sooyoung were ranting about who had the prettier Instagram feed when the three women finally reached their table. "Please, Yerimie. You wish you had thought of my three-tile layout first."
"No way. I like to keep things different visually, mind you."
Seulgi tapped a hand on the table. "Yerim-ah, Sooyoung. There's someone we want you to meet," she said.
They looked and saw a woman wearing a black apron standing behind Seulgi and Seungwan. "Oh. Is she the new cook?" Sooyoung asked, waving kindly to Joohyun. 'She's so pretty,' she silently mouthed to her friends.
An awkward cough escaped Seulgi. "Yeah...umm, this is Joohyun."
Seulgi and Seungwan allowed a small gap for the woman to walk between them. "Hi...this is for you guys."
Yerim straightened in her seat, eyes anticipant on the plate, the two almost forgetting to greet the woman back. The food was placed in the middle of the table. As the waitresses predicted, Yerim and Sooyoung had unsure expressions as they stared at the plate.
"I know what you guys are thinking. They told me that you don't usually eat these, but if you could give it a taste, it would mean a lot to me," Joohyun said with an unassuming smile.
"Of course!" Sooyoung answered after an odd silence. She bumped her shoulder against Yerim's, hinting for her to speak.
"Y-yeah! Thank you so much!"
Yerim and Sooyoung awkwardly picked up their forks. It didn't help that Reve's waitresses and cook were all watching them. They spun the forks once, and Seulgi and Seungwan found themselves leaning forward as the strands slowly disappeared into the girls' mouths.
They chewed once, twice, thrice, then swallowed. They each picked up a pizza roll, chewed, swallowed...then stopped. Their heads turned and made eye contact before,
"Yah! Give it to me!"
"No, I'm older than you!"
"More of a reason for you to give it to me!"
The plate rasped on the table as Yerim and Sooyoung pulled it back and forth across its surface. Neither were letting up. When it seemed like the two would break the dinnerware with their stubbornness, Joohyun held both of their wrists. They stopped immediately, facing her.
"Let me get another plate, hm? There's more than enough for the both of you," Joohyun said in a motherly tone. And like children, the girls nodded obediently, letting go of the plate and sitting back on the booth, arms crossed over their chests.
Seulgi and Seungwan looked on with amusement. Controlling those two's silly antics was something they often struggled with, and Joohyun had made it look like nothing.
"Here." Joohyun returned with an extra plate, and took the initiative to split the food between the girls. As soon as she finished, they dove right into their plates.
Sooyoung brought a golden roll up to Seungwan's lips. "Try some, baby."
Seungwan took a bite, and her eyebrows raised in surprise. "This is amazing, Joohyun!" she exclaimed, holding her girlfriend's hand and taking another bite.
Feeling her stare, Yerim jerked her head to meet Seulgi's expecting eyes. She smirked, and continued to eat without any intention of offering the waitress. "Sorry, baby," she mocked, "I'm pretty hungry."
Seulgi scoffed. "Wow, Kim Yerim."
Joohyun laughed and reached for Seulgi's arm. "Come, I think I have some more at the back. We're not busy at the moment anyway."
Seulgi mouthed a yes, made a celebratory fist, and followed the woman.
Seulgi timed out an hour later, but stuck around for a little longer to see how Seungwan reacted to Joohyun's way of doing things. Her best friend had the best reactions. From how her eyes would go wide in confusion whenever Joohyun gave her a different dish, to how would go agape in awe when customers accepted them, in spite of.
"You weren't kidding," Seungwan said.
Seulgi spun in her stool across from the counter Seungwan leaned on, facing the rest of the diner. Everyone was eating with big smiles on their faces. "Tell me about it."
She jumped off the stool and walked around the counter to gather her things. "I'm gonna head home now. Today's really been something."
A woman from table three raised her hand.
"Mmh. See you tomorrow?"
Seungwan patted Seulgi's head, then approached table three with a toothy grin.
Seulgi turned towards the kitchen, where Joohyun's back was facing her. Securing the bag strap on her shoulder, she pushed through the doors leading to the kitchen. Now that she was closer, she could hear the woman humming a song as she moved about. Seulgi swore it was Kim Wansun.
The woman flinched slightly before turning around. She set down the knife in her hand. "Hey. Need something?"
"No, I...I just wanted to tell you that I'm going home. I can come back to pick you up later in the evening."
"Oh, there's no need. I was thinking of taking a little stroll around the county before heading back, so...I appreciate it though."
"Okay, if you say so. But try not to stay out too late. I'll just...wait for you at home then." The words sounded so strange coming out of . They sounded so domestic and homey. She didn't know the last time she'd said something like that. If she'd ever said something like that at all.
Joohyun smiled. "Sure."
Seulgi stood dumbly in front of the door for the longest time. She stared at the set of keys in her palm, then shifted back to the door. ‘I can’t let her sleep on the couch forever,’ she thought. Seulgi sighed and looked down at her hand again. Finding the right one, she put the key in the lock. It’d been months since she’d opened the guest room. Even then, she’d just swept through the room for a quick clean. Seulgi was sure that there’d be cockroaches inside by now. The lock was stiff to the turn.
With more force, Seulgi twisted the key until the lock snapped. As soon as the door opened, cockroaches indeed scurried out. She laughed out loud.
Seulgi pushed the door wider open and stepped past the doorway. The smell of parchment and cardboard enveloped her. The smell of long-stored memories.
Her fingers grazed the wall until she felt the slope of the light switch that brightened the room. It was just as she remembered. Boxes on boxes on boxes. Big and small, sealed and unsealed, the room was filled with boxes. Backed up on walls, stowed on shelves, and even on the twin bed in the middle of the room.
Scanning the room, certain handwriting on one of the packages caught her eye.
If the crooked penmanship wasn't enough, then the hearts and flowers surrounding the words were a dead giveaway that it belonged to a much younger Seulgi.
The box was hardly closed, tape hardly holding down its flaps. A part of her itched to rip it open and see what was within. She took another step forward into the room, eyes trained on the box.
Soft knocks snapped her out of her daze. Quickly, she backed up, flicked the lights off, and pulled the door shut with a slam. She twisted the key and pocketed it. "Coming!"
Seulgi ran across the outdoor space that connected with the rest of her home, to the main door. She unlocked the sliding latch and swung the wooden double doors open. She pulled a shivering Joohyun inside. They went into the living room where Seulgi led Joohyun to sit on the couch and wrapped the woman in a blanket.
"Are you alright?" she asked Joohyun as her shaking lessened.
Seulgi left her side to adjust the heater, then knelt at her feet. She rubbed the woman's arms, warming her up. "Joohyun. You okay?"
Joohyun responded with a nod, bringing the blanket tighter around her body. "I am now. I couldn't think straight because of the cold...Thanks."
Cold showers were off the list now, Seulgi guessed. It was one of the many things she did to pin up extra money in her savings. Keeping her heater system at the minimum at all times, even if it left her freezing in the mornings.
"Have you eaten yet?" Seulgi asked. Joohyun shook her head. The waitress glanced up at the clock. It was forty-five minutes past Reve's closing time. Customers were typically already gone before that, and the walk home was no more than ten minutes too, so what had taken her so long? "Joohyun, I know this place is safe and all, but that doesn't mean you can stay out for too late-"
"Seungwan got dizzy and lightheaded all of a sudden just as we were heading out. She didn't want to have Sooyoung pick her up for some reason, and I didn't want her to go like that on her own, so I decided to walk her home. I wasn't keeping track of the time, then I remembered that you were waiting for me, so I rushed here as fast as I could. I'm sorry..."
That was the most Seulgi had heard Joohyun speak at once so far. She thought it was adorable.
"No, no. You did nothing wrong. I was just worried," she stated. "Thanks for looking out for Wan. I'll check up on her first thing tomorrow."
Joohyun made a small sound that came from .
"Let's have dinner, shall we? I haven't eaten yet, either." Seulgi got on her feet and held out her hand. Joohyun's fingers were cool on hers. "It may not be as good as your cooking, but I tried," she said, trying to lighten up the mood. It seemed to work, because Joohyun began to smile.
Seulgi exhaled with a sense of relief. Living with someone was going to take some getting used to.
They didn't talk much during dinner. It felt different from when her friends would come over - there was never dead air. Seungwan, Sooyoung, and Yerim managed to fill the room with random chatter every time. With Joohyun, it was almost the opposite. Seulgi had questions in her mind that she wanted to ask her, and get to know the person she was going to be living with better, but she didn't know how to bring them up casually. After each swallow she took, Seulgi contemplated whether she should just let the words out, only to end up taking another mouthful of food. Their meal ended quietly.
Seulgi joined Joohyun on the couch after dinner, holding two cans of beer. Joohyun had her nose buried in a book the waitress couldn't see. She didn't want to interrupt her reading, but Seulgi didn't want the night to end without having struck up a conversation either.
"Want a beer?"
She saw Joohyun's shoulders tense, like she was shivering. Did she feel cold again?
"Is it cold? Should I turn up-"
"No, it's- I'm okay," Joohyun said, setting her book aside and focusing on Seulgi. Her eyes glanced at the can in the woman's hand. "...No thanks."
"Okay." Seulgi placed one of the drinks on the floor and opened hers, taking a sip. She cleared . "Umm," she started, "About the guest room. I didn't get to tidy up yet, so you can sleep in my room for the meantime."
"Your couch is actually pretty cozy though," Joohyun told her. She gave the cushions a few pats to support her point. "See?"
Seulgi chuckled. "It's warmer in my room- I mean- the heater's better in there, so you should sleep there and I'll sleep here."
Joohyun seemed to consider it for a moment. She shook her head. "It's fine. I made it through earlier, didn't I?" she grinned.
The waitress' mouth opened in protest, but Joohyun was faster to change the subject. "Today was fun, don't you think?"
Seulgi didn't answer right away. She'd never thought of working in Reve's as "fun" before. First, Seungwan, and now, Joohyun. It made her wonder. A lot of good moments did take place in the diner. Perhaps she was too caught up in something else to realize. Seulgi responded with a question of her own, "Did you have a good time?"
Joohyun nodded enthusiastically. "I did. I look forward to being here. Not just because of Reve's, but the county itself. I've heard stories about this place."
Seulgi looked at her in disbelief. "You've heard stories...about this place? Are you sure you're in the right place, Joohyun?" she joked.
"Yeah. Is that shocking?" Joohyun laughed through a yawn.
Taking another sip of her beer, Seulgi leaned back onto the couch. "It's just...this place isn't much. I've lived here my entire life, so I would know."
"Are you not happy here?"
"Asking the hard questions, huh?"
Joohyun giggled, relaxing back as well. She muffled a yawn behind her hand. "Is it though?"
"I..." Seulgi set her unfinished beer on the floor. "I don't know, to be honest. I think I'm happy. Or at least, I should be. I have Taeyeon, Miyoung, Seungwan, Sooyoung, Yerim, and everyone else. They make me happy. But somehow, I’ve felt like I'm stuck. And if I don't do anything, that I'll be stuck forever...Am I making sense?"
What she got in return were soft snores. Joohyun's head was leaning on her arm. Seulgi smiled at the peaceful rise and fall of her shoulders.
"Hah. It's been a long day, huh? You must be tired," she whispered.
Seulgi gently stood up, careful as to not wake the woman up. She then carried Joohyun as quietly as possible to her bedroom, and laid her on the mattress. She covered her with the sheets and remembered the box in the guest room, and the memory that came along.
Great job at school, princess!
Seulgi tried to push the memory away as she looked down at the sleeping woman fondly. ”Great job on your first day, Joohyun. I forgot to tell you."
Oh, you got a golden star? Our Princess did so well!
Stepping outside, she closed the door, grip tight.
"You did well."
For the second day in a row, Seulgi woke up to the heavenly scent of Joohyun's cooking. But it wasn't only the riffles of maeuntang that greeted her in the morning - Joohyun's face was right in front of hers as she opened her eyes, who'd gently roused her from her sleep. The cook beckoned her from the couch to the kitchen for breakfast with a balmy grip on a half-awake Seulgi’s wrist. Making a quick grab for her glasses from the coffee table, Seulgi made a nearly incoherent complaint about Joohyun waking her up so early, not knowing that it was actually the opposite.
Joohyun herself had gotten up later than she would have preferred, thanks to Seulgi's extra comfortable bed and perfectly-set heater, just as the girl had told her. All the same, it was still rather early in the morning, and definitely earlier than any time Seulgi would wake up.
Joohyun had tapped Seulgi awake just two hours before Reve's opening time, her promise of "real food" all prepared and laid out on the kitchen table. She'd quickly learned that Seulgi could be a tremendously deep sleeper. Dragging a lethargic Seulgi wasn't easy, but with every step closer to the food, the sleep in the woman's system was washed away by the fragrant waves of their breakfast.
Seulgi quickly dug into her food as soon as she settled at the table, not waiting for Joohyun to take her own seat. When she realized this, she gave the cook a stuffed, lopsided grin, and returned to the food in front of her.
Joohyun shook her head at the woman sitting across from her. Minutes passed and Seulgi didn’t seem to notice the steam from her stew fogging up her glasses, or simply didn't care. Joohyun was curious if she could even see anymore at this point. She called out her name repeatedly, but the woman was lost in a prandial reverie.
Unable to resist the itch on her fingers, Joohyun stood and leaned over the table, successfully catching Seulgi's attention. Seulgi paused mid-bite and raised an eyebrow. With a hand on each side of her head, Joohyun removed her glasses, setting them carefully onto the table. Even as Joohyun sat back down in her chair and nonchalantly continued eating her breakfast, Seulgi was taken aback, cheeks now as red as the soup in her bowl.
From what Joohyun had gathered in the one day she'd spent with the woman, Seulgi was independent, and probably had been for most of her life. But Joohyun also saw an endearingly childlike side to her, shown in the way she joked around with her younger friends and in her darling quirks that she was probably unaware of. One too many times, Joohyun had seen her squint too hard as she wrote down orders in her pad, and anxiously bite her lip as she waited for customers' reactions to their food.
Joohyun shooed the other woman away to get ready for the day and let her handle the dishes when they finished, leaving no room for argument. As she went to Seulgi's side of the table, she wasn't surprised to see her bowl completely spotless. Another thing Joohyun liked about the woman was her endless shower of compliments - whether it was through the kitchen window or in the seat across from her.
Joohyun found Seulgi's personality refreshing - like the perfect iced drink on a sunny day - and was thankful to have someone as accommodating as her as a host. With Seulgi by her side, settling in the county had become appreciably easier.
Seulgi washed up and got dressed in a haste, having breakfast take much longer than she'd expected. It was Joohyun's fault for being such a great cook, having her going for seconds and thirds until only fishbones and unwanted vegetables remained.
Before they left, she rang her best friend to make sure she was feeling better, and was answered with Seungwan's instant reassurance that last night was nothing but a minor headache. Seulgi didn't nag her for long, but reminded Seungwan not to hesitate to tell her if it ever happened again, willing to shoulder a few more hours on her shift if it meant that her best friend could have some rest. Both of them looked out for each other since the day Seulgi had befriended the newcomer in high school, and became one of the closest things to family that she had alongside Sooyoung and Yerim.
Though, she was yet to reveal her plans to them. Sometimes, the thought of them made it harder for Seulgi to leave. But Seulgi couldn’t let any commitment to anything or anyone hold her back.
The early morning was chilly, and normally Seulgi didn't mind the walks over mats of white snow, but with Joohyun's clear disdain of the cold, she kind of wished that she'd gotten her license. Oversleeping on the day of her road test was a big mistake that she was sorry for, but Seulgi hadn't made any effort to book another one either. Commuting when she needed to go out of town wasn't that bad anyway. She didn't know that a year later, she'd be regretting it.
She'd lent Joohyun a thicker coat, the ones packed in the woman's luggage obviously unfit for the weather. The oversized jacket was much bigger on Joohyun than it was on her, its shoulders unflatteringly loose and her hands indistinguishable within the sleeves. Joohyun disliked how small it made her look, but loved the warmth that enveloped her, and the distinct, lingering scent that belonged to Seulgi. It'd been the same one on the sheets wrapped around her the night before. Through discreet gestures, she'd purposely hug the jacket over herself from the house to the diner in a way it would drape the lower half of her face, just to breathe in the fabric.
They shook off their jackets as Reve glared at them with his red eyes upon entrance, and wordlessly went to the jukebox. Seulgi smiled seeing the other woman follow behind her, as if it was now a part of her routine as well. She stepped to the side of the machine and gestured for Joohyun to pick a song this time. The cook scanned the list of hit after hit, recognizing all but a few. Seulgi watched on as Joohyun eventually punched the numbers that cued the unmistakable intro of "Footloose".
Sharing a timid smile with Seulgi, Joohyun lightly danced to the song as she headed to the kitchen, and left Seulgi leaning against the jukebox, to watch the woman's movements in silent delight. She bobbed her own head to the rhythm as Joohyun disappeared inside the kitchen, then remembered that she also had work to do before the diner opened.
Seulgi removed the chairs from their upside-down position on top of the tables, and arranged them neatly on the ground to the sound of the music. Feeling lighter on her feet as the song progressed, Seulgi glided across the diner and danced more freely. When she strummed an invisible guitar and rhythmically shook her shoulders, the sound of little giggles emanated from the kitchen. Seulgi whipped her head to the side, meeting Joohyun's eyes, who had a hand over . Instead of looking away from embarrassment of being caught, Seulgi had a better idea.
As Seulgi began walking towards the kitchen with a different look in her eyes - a gleam of mischief - Joohyun slowly caught on what was in the waitress' head. She turned away from the window and busied herself with some vegetables that she'd been getting ready before Seulgi grabbed her attention, just in time for the woman to pop in the room.
Footsteps approached, and Joohyun bit down on her lip but not enough to hide her smile. Seulgi stood next to her, their shoulders touching, and tilted her head to see the latter's barely repressed grin herself. "Something funny, chef?"
Joohyun shook her head, but refused to look at the woman. Her teeth dug harder into her lip.
"Really? I'm pretty sure I saw you laughing at me just now," Seulgi said with a smile.
"You must be mistaken," Joohyun countered. She slid a mound of diced onion from her chopping board into a plastic container, and automatically reached for another.
But before Joohyun could even pick up her knife again, Seulgi snatched the onion from her hand and brought it behind her back. "Since you think it's so funny, why don't you come and dance with me?"
"I don't think so," Joohyun said, trying to get a hold of the vegetable in Seulgi's grasp. Her eyesight was shielded by the waitress' body. "We need to open up soon, Seulgi."
"Yeah, in fifteen minutes," the waitress pointed to the wall clock, "plenty of time, if you ask me."
Another futile swing of her hand towards Seulgi's backside was all it took for Joohyun to admit that the latter had the upper hand here. She sighed. "I don't dance."
"You just were. Unless I was mistaken again, which I highly doubt," a self-satisfied smirk across Seulgi's lips as Joohyun's resolve visibly wavered, letting go of the knife and turning her entire body towards the college student. Seulgi gently held her wrist. "It'll be fun!"
"You're not in your uniform yet," Joohyun said.
"It's not like I'm gonna wear a ball gown," Seulgi chuckled, pulling Joohyun along with her, out of the kitchen.
"Wait, I think I left the stove on or something."
"Wasn't even on when I got there."
"Oh? Is that the faucet I hear running?"
"You really think I'm gonna fall for that?" Seulgi laughed. They made it to the middle of the dining area, a space between the counter table and the booths.
Joohyun pressed her lips together into an adorable pout. Her words may have opposed Seulgi's, but other than that, she did nothing to stop the woman, trailing compliantly. As a final (and idle) attempt, she uttered, "Well would you look at that? The song's over!"
Seulgi chuckled. "Nothing we can't fix," she said, steering Joohyun back towards the jukebox, just before the song came to an end. She pointed to the list and gave a nod to the cook, "Go ahead, pick another one."
Joohyun hesitated, her hand hovering above the machine, then glanced at the other woman with an unsure look on her face.
"Just one song," Seulgi's tone more pleading.
Joohyun watched Seulgi ease into a smile as she nodded curtly, her hand finally lowering onto the buttons. She scanned the song list carefully. The last thing she wanted was to embarrass herself in front of Seulgi, and have no choice but to deal with being in the same space afterwards.
"Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go?" Seulgi hummed, amused at her choice.
"It's a fun song!" Joohyun reasoned. Her eyes were trained on the mechanical arm moving the disk about. She felt a tug on her hand, suddenly aware that it'd been joined with Seulgi's this entire time.
Seulgi pulled her towards the center of the diner. There wasn't much space to work it with all of the furnishings, but it wasn't a problem for her. She let go of Joohyun's hands and began to move this way and that, animatedly, yet still pleasing to watch. She was circling around tables, grabbing onto chairs like they were stage props, and mouthing the lyrics with devotion. Joohyun compared it to watching a musical, and giggled as Seulgi put on a show, barely clapping along.
"C'mon!" Seulgi said, a hop in her step as she approached Joohyun. The cook's hands were taken into Seulgi's, controlling the woman's movements with her helpless resignation. The two laughed as they swayed to the music together, disjointed but not any less cheery.
Finally, Joohyun moved on her own, dancing with abandon as she pulled away - dancing with Seulgi instead of being led by her. All of a sudden, Seulgi's one-woman show turned into a performance between the two of them - still a musical, Joohyun thought - as Seulgi grabbed her hand and twirled her around.
They separated, united, separated again, and united again as the song went on, whatever awkwardness from earlier replaced by a feeling of synergy and synchronicity. And not once did the smiles leave their faces.
Seulgi may not have known her for long, but figured that this side of Joohyun was one that didn't come out often, and loved to be witnessing it.
As the song was nearing its end, Joohyun and Seulgi found themselves in close distance again, joining hands in a happy shuffle. The song finished with their bodies facing one another, hands clasped in front of them, both beaming. No words were exchanged, the room filled with panting and laughter rumbling off their chests.
The slamming of a car door snapped the women back to reality, as they pulled away and created a small distance between them. An early customer. A man, probably traveling.
"Perfect timing," Seulgi sighed.
Joohyun tapped her elbow, taking a second to catch her breath. "That was really fun, Seulgi. Thank you," she said.
The waitress grinned adorably.
The man outside politely gestured to the door, where the sign showed 'Closed'.
"Ready?" Seulgi teased.
Joohyun laughed. "All warmed up."
Seulgi smiled kindly as she flipped the sign and opened the door, the man thanking her on his way inside. When she closed the door, Seulgi looked back, where Joohyun had just entered the kitchen. There was a smile on her face, the rush of their dancing still evident.
She could feel heat rise to her cheeks as she recalled it herself, but then Seulgi slapped her hands to her face, trying to rid of it. Because- no, Seulgi.
Because you dread this place and can't afford to get attached. Not to Joohyun. Not even if she's crazy talented, gorgeous, and kind.
Not even if she's made you feel the most - genuinely - happy in ages, in a matter of minutes.
The diner was busier than yesterday, even more locals flocking to their door, all coming to see if the wonders happening in Reve's kitchen were a hoax. As expected from their small county, word about Reve's spread like a wildfire.
Joohyun wasn't deterred by the sudden inpouring of customers. In fact, she even looked ecstatic that so many people seemed to love her cooking. The wads of cash worth of tips in Seulgi's pockets were more than enough to prove it.
Joohyun and Seulgi didn't get the time to sit down and talk, other than a few words exchanged at the kitchen window - Seulgi asking which table each plate belonged to, because seriously, nothing written on her notepad matched anything that Joohyun presented to her. And maybe Seulgi was thankful for that, that they were both too occupied with their own duties to speak more than two sentences to each other.
It was stupid, but for Seulgi, it was also necessary.
Halfway through her shift, the diner was less crowded but the atmosphere was still buzzing. People were talking and laughing as they ate Joohyun's dishes. It was odd for Seulgi. New. Reve's hadn't had this much life since…well, ever. The place was even more of a party than what the old cook's goodbye party had been.
All of the children inside the diner were enthusiastic, but not an ounce overbearingly noisy as they chowed down on whatever sugary treats and colored drinks Joohyun had prepared for them. Zero cases of mid-morning crankiness - what exactly was inside these mugs? The old woman that normally refused to look her in the eye, smiled at her! And even made small talk! Seulgi couldn't believe herself. If miracles truly existed, one of them was right behind those white doors.
Seulgi had just come out of the kitchen after bringing a batch of dirty dishes to the back when the bells chimed. She looked towards the door with a big smile, that dropped as she realized who it was. Mr. Lee, one of their regulars. Seulgi knew all of their regulars’ orders by heart, but had Mr. Lee’s drilled in her brain like it was the preamble:
Tenderloin beef steak, medium-well, sliced into thin strips, glossed with butter and freshly ground pepper. Mashed potatoes not too thick and steamed broccoli on the side, and a cool glass of ginger ale.
The first time Seulgi had taken his order, she'd only been able to jot down five words before getting lost. It'd been another two, three more repeats before she finally had it down in print, and another two returns from the man until she no longer needed to ask.
Got one thing slightly different from his liking, and Seulgi was up for an earful. Sometimes, Seulgi wished she could just tell him off to make his crotchety demands at some high-end restaurant instead of their little diner.
Mr. Lee raised an eyebrow as he looked around, surprised to see the amount of people the same way all of their other regulars had. He sat down without a word, and gave Seulgi a knowing, pointed nod.
The waitress could already imagine the words register in her head like a robotic cue.
Writing them down on a note, she pushed her shoulder to the doors and entered the kitchen. She peeled the note and stuck it onto the counter, next to Joohyun.
"What's this?" Joohyun asked, looking down at the sticky note, then to Seulgi.
Seulgi pulled her away from the pots she was washing and towards the window, pointing to Mr. Lee. "That's Mr. Lee, and that's his order. No matter what you do, cook specifically what's on there."
Joohyun grabbed the order, reading it.
"He has a habit of yelling at me when something on his order looks wrong, but I know you can make him walk out of here with a smile on his face just like everybody else. You just need to follow exactly what's written here," Seulgi said, tapping the piece of paper.
Joohyun hummed, then stuck the note onto a random spot on the counter as she turned away to get some ingredients from the next room.
Seulgi was hot on her heels, uneasy. "Okay, Joohyun?" plead over her shoulder, watching Joohyun take a few cans from a shelf.
Joohyun grabbed a number of vegetables. "Mmh."
Seulgi leaned against a counter and shook her head desperately. Joohyun didn't seem to understand the situation. "Joohyun, please. Just this once, cook what he wants. Him yelling won't be good for us especially when the diner's been doing so well."
The cook left her side, coming back with shrimp.
"Hey, that's not-"
Joohyun finally looked at her. "He's not going to yell at you, Seulgi. He won't have any reason to. I won't disappoint you, just trust me," she said with certainty.
Seulgi let out a resigned sigh. Who was she kidding? She wasn't going to listen to her.
Joohyun laughed. "Don't worry. Now get out there and give him something to drink."
"Is this new chef any good?" Mr. Lee asked the moment Seulgi placed a glass of ale on his table. (At least they'd be getting one thing right.) "I didn't want to believe hearsay. Good riddance to Song," he chuckled distastefully, "Calling himself a chef when he couldn't even make my steak properly. So tell me, is this one any good?"
Seulgi clenched her jaw in frustration. God, the nerve of this man!
"She is," Seulgi stated sternly. "More than good, actually."
"Hmph. We'll see."
She paced the front counter nonstop, everyone too busy with their meals to even notice. Except Mr. Lee, of course, looking bored and uninterested with a newspaper in his hands.
As soon as Seulgi heard the small ding! she'd been waiting for, she made a dash for a tray and instead of the service window, went inside the kitchen.
"So what'd you cook for him?"
Joohyun placed a large, piping hot bowl onto Seulgi's tray. "Seafood chowder. Just a little change-up from all that meat," she chuckled, sliding a smaller bowl of bread beside it.
Seulgi's mouth watered just by looking at it. It looked great, and smelled even better. Hopefully, the man who'd be receiving it thought so too. "Okay," she nodded.
Joohyun narrowed her eyes. "That's it? You're not going to say anything?"
The waitress grinned as she held onto the edges of the tray. “I trust you.”
“Oh.” Joohyun blushed. “Thanks.”
Seulgi lifted the tray completely and walked out of the kitchen. She’d be lying if she said that she didn’t feel nervous. Still, Seulgi was confident. Maybe the nerves were really just out of thrill, anticipation to see the look on the man’s face when he’d be proven wrong. As she set down the food in front of him, his face was just as she expected. Shocked. Very.
“Here’s your order,” she said when Mr. Lee didn’t speak a word.
“This isn’t my order,” he snarled, voice beginning to rise as he continued, “You know what my order is.”
Seulgi nodded. “Yeah, uhm- the new cook-”
“Wait-” Mr. Lee took his spoon and stirred the soup a couple of times. “Is this seafood chowder?"
Seulgi nodded again. “Yes?”
The man scooped some of the thick soup and brought it to his mouth. Seulgi hugged the tray to her chest as she waited for his reaction.
When crow’s feet extended from the corners of his eyes, Seulgi let out a breath. His smile was short-lived, switching back to his neutral expression, as if smiling was something foreign to him. Seulgi would agree, that being the first time she'd seen him smile, opposed to the nasty smirk she saw regularly.
Mr. Lee cleared his throat after more spoonfuls. “I’ll keep it.”
“Great! Enjoy your meal, Mr. Lee!”
“Also,” the man began, “Pass my regards to the new cook. Tell her, she’s more than good.”
Joohyun had a large smile on her face, ‘I told you so’ written all over it when Seulgi entered the kitchen. The waitress raised her hands in surrender.
“What’s your secret, Ms. Bae?” She leaned her hip against a counter, looking at Joohyun intently. “How can you just make the right food every time?”
The cook shrugged. “There is no secret.”
This was finally Seulgi’s chance to get to know her better. As a housemate, she told herself. Nothing more.
"How did you end up in a place like this, Joohyun? Obviously, you're good enough to be working somewhere bigger than this diner. Somewhere that pays well. So why here?"
"What do you mean? This place does pay well."
"Okay, fine. But my point still stands. You could be a chef for some big-time restaurant in the city with your skill."
Seulgi knew that if she had the same opportunity, that if she were Joohyun, she wouldn't hesitate to work in the city, where she could make five-times more than what she had been at Reve's.
Joohyun reorganized some of the containers left in the open. "I like small towns. They're cozy."
Seulgi scoffed. "Suffocating would be a better way to put it."
The cook faced her with a tilt of her head. She seemed curious. But before she could say anything, Seulgi beat her to it, pushing on: "You saw one of those flyers Taeyeon had posted around town, right?"
Joohyun nodded. "Right. At a bus station."
"Hm. Where did you-"
She stopped mid-sentence when she saw a hand rise from one of the tables in her periphery. "I'll be right back," Seulgi sighed.
Once she brought the extra plates a family had asked for, Seulgi started on her way back towards the back until another group walked through their front door.
There went her conversation with Joohyun, that got her absolutely nowhere.
Forcing a smile, Seulgi grabbed a pair of menus.
"Hi, good afternoon! Welcome to Reve's!"
Seungwan and Sooyoung arrived moments after Seulgi clocked out, in the midst of gathering her things.
Her best friend looked bright and cheerful as always, no sign of what Joohyun described the previous night.
"Look at you, Sooyoung. Did you come here for Seungwan, or for Joohyun?" Seulgi teased.
The woman rolled her eyes. "Ha-ha. Hilarious."
Seungwan shook her head at the two, leaving them to punch her card.
Sooyoung sat down on a stool across from the other waitress. "Since the diner's closed for tomorrow, Seungwan and I were thinking that the four of us could get a drink? The last time we really got together was before the holidays," she said, then quickly added, "Five- if Joohyun wants to join us."
Seulgi marveled at the idea. She did miss hanging out with her friends, and thought that it'd be a great chance for Joohyun to warm up to the others, too.
As her housemate.
"Joohyun's stuff hasn't been moved into a room yet, so we could just hang out over here after closing time," she suggested.
"Mmh, no problem," Sooyoung replied. She peeked out toward the kitchen. "How's she settling in?"
Seulgi turned around for herself, and saw Joohyun giggling as Seungwan told her something. She had a big, crooked smile whenever she laughed, Seulgi couldn't help but adore. Similar, but different to the smile she had on her face when they'd danced in the morning. Seulgi preferred that one.
"She's handling everything with ease. Hasn't complained about a single thing. And she seems to love it here, like really love it," she ended with a chuckle.
"That's nice to know," Sooyoung grinned, then looked at her friend. "And you? How's it like sharing a space with someone?"
"Feels weird, honestly. I feel like I'm always embarrassing myself in front of her," Seulgi laughed, scratching her head as she remembered how both of the past mornings had gone. "But she's really kind, has that warm vibe to her. I still don't know much about her, though. I don't even know where she's from."
Sooyoung's face contorted in disbelief. "What the hell do you guys do at home? Stare at each other?"
"No- I just, I just haven't found the right time," Seulgi said.
Sooyoung patted her friend on the shoulder and gave her a smile. "Don't worry, Slug, you'll get your chance later!"
Joohyun used a finger to part the blinds, taking a peek outside. It was dark, only streetlights and the few cars that passed by on the road every once in a while giving light against the landscape. She pulled back, the vane uncurling with a snap, and leaned back onto the booth.
No better than outside, all of the lights were shut off, leaving the neon signs above them to cast a dim glow of various colors around their table. The blinds were drawn, and the low hum of the heater buzzed through the diner.
Seulgi was seated next to her while on the other side was Seungwan.
"Taeyeon and Miyoung are okay with all of this?" she asked.
"Yeah, they're cool with it, as long as we don't cause any ruckus and get any complaints-" Seulgi replied, assuring her, "Which hasn't happened yet so-"
Seungwan shot her a skeptical look.
Seulgi chuckled, touching her hair out of habit, "Okay, there was this one time on Sooyoung's birthday where we may have been a bit too noisy."
"'A bit' is kind of an understatement for earning a visit from the cops," Seungwan said, shaking her head.
Joohyun laughed. "No way!"
"A passerby thought somebody was getting mauled in the middle of the night," Seulgi explained with a meek smile, "When we were really just laughing our asses off about one of Yerim's dumb stories."
Propping her head up on one elbow, Joohyun said, "I'm guessing Taeyeon and Miyoung didn't take that very well."
Seulgi blew out some air. "Neither of them did. My ears were ringing for days after that night."
The three of them laughed, as the two waitresses shared more of their experiences together.
Head turned to the side, Joohyun studied Seulgi's face, whose eyes crinkled with delight. She wondered how Seulgi could have so many beautiful memories and still have so much disdain for this place.
The door opened with a loud thud, Yerim and Sooyoung barging inside with plastic bags. "We're back!" Yerim sing-songed.
They laid the bags on the table, taking out cans of beer and a box of chicken. Sooyoung took her spot next to her girlfriend, as Yerim pulled a chair, sitting at the end of the table.
"Here's the soda you asked for," Sooyoung said. Seungwan pecked her cheek in thanks.
"You?" Seulgi whispered to Joohyun, reaching into the plastic bag.
"I'll just have some soda, too."
"So, Joohyun," Yerim started after taking a bite from her drumstick, "Has Seulgi been giving you any trouble?"
Seulgi clicked her tongue.
Joohyun giggled. "No, of course not. She's been the best host I could ever ask for."
The waitress shrugged a shoulder coolly as she sipped her beer.
"If you don't mind me asking," Sooyoung followed casually, "what were you doing before you got here?"
Joohyun paused before answering. "Oh, I'd just finished up my studies, and I wanted to get away from the city life. Eventually, I found my way here."
Seungwan leaned forward. "You're from Daegu?"
"You sure came a long way," Seungwan mused.
From there, the women expressed their interest in Joohyun's life in Seoul, asking her questions one after another - except for Seulgi, who simply listened in on their exchange.
She and Joohyun were opposites. Joohyun wanted an escape from the big city, and she wanted to disappear from this run-of-the-mill town. But how could Joohyun have possibly gotten tired from Seoul? That was Seoul, for crying out loud. The center of pop culture, with tall buildings, streets bustling with activity, diversity and creativity roaming every corner. There were endless opportunities, endless possibilities.
What did this place have to compare to any of that? Peace and quiet? Yeah, right.
Seulgi couldn't help but think...why?
After a while, the conversation had drifted away from Joohyun's life and to a variety of subjects, the women making sure that Joohyun felt included at all times. They talked about what each of them had done over the holidays, funny episodes in the diner, until the topic had become their future plans - especially for Seulgi and Seungwan, who'd be graduating soon.
"I- uhm...I plan on getting into med school," Seungwan said softly.
Sooyoung, who didn't like the timidity coming from her girlfriend, dropped an arm around her shoulder, giving it a light squeeze "Of course you'll get in! There's no doubt about it!" she encouraged her. The others agreed with haste.
Seungwan leaned against Sooyoung, smiling some. "Thanks."
Seulgi shifted on her seat. "O-oh, me? To be honest, I haven't given it much thought yet. I'm just focused on saving up right now," she said. At least it wasn't a total lie.
"What do you take?" Joohyun asked.
"Ah, that's nice," the woman said. "Well, there's no need to rush. There's plenty of time. You'll have things figured out soon enough."
Seulgi nodded kindly. "Yeah."
There was a beat of awkward silence until Joohyun spoke again, directing her attention to the younger pair of the group. "What about you guys? You two aren't that far off, right?"
Sooyoung answered first. "Actually, after I get my degree…" she looked at her girlfriend, who gave her a smile that spelled approval, "Seungwan and I agreed that we would move in together. Close to wherever she gets in."
Seulgi gulped a large sip, not expecting that. Though, she should've seen it coming. They all should have. "I'm happy for you two," she said.
"Ha...you guys are all grown up," Yerim sighed, wiping a fake tear.
Sooyoung knocked her friend in the arm. "You're one to talk. I've heard that you're in talks to get signed by Taeyeon's label as soon as this year."
"Really?" Seulgi chimed in. "I haven't heard about that."
"Yeah, because nobody was supposed to!" Yerim groaned. "It was my mom, wasn't it? God, I've really got to make her stop. Nothing's set in stone, anyway."
"Nah, you've got this in the bag," Sooyoung told her. "And I have the evidence to prove it," she said with a devilish grin, pulling out her phone.
"No, hey, don't you dare!"
"Joohyun, you've got to listen to this song she made just by thinking about Seungwan," Sooyoung snickered, avoiding Yerim's reaching hands with ease because of her height.
"Nooo," Yerim whined, but it was too late. She buried her face in her hands when Sooyoung played the song at the highest volume.
Seulgi and Sooyoung teased the poor woman all throughout, while Seungwan and Joohyun listened to their full attention - Seungwan with a motherly smile, and Joohyun, a look of awe. By the time the song finished, the flush on Yerim’s cheeks were no longer from the alcohol alone.
“I never get tired of listening to it,” Seungwan said.
Joohyun bobbed her head, adding, “You’re really talented.”
The woman thanked her, losing the sly slump on her shoulders and taking another swig of beer.
Sooyoung let out a happy sigh as she held up her can. “Let’s make a toast. To Reve’s, to Joohyun, and to having more times like these in the future, even when we lead on lives of our own.”
Seulgi’s chest tightened at the last bit. She wasn’t so sure if that would be possible, if she even wanted to. She just wanted to leave everything behind and restart with a clean slate. With a conflicted heart, Seulgi raised her drink.
“Baby, can you drop me off at home? I’m getting sleepy,” Seungwan said, voice heavy with a tired slur.
Sooyoung rubbed her arm gently, before facing the others. “I guess we’re calling it a night.”
Yerim was already half-asleep, and Joohyun was settled in the crook of Seulgi’s shoulder, her arm having found its way around the waitress’ elbow at some point of the night.
Seulgi nodded. After tapping Yerim awake, she looked down at Joohyun. “Still with me?”
Humming, Joohyun lifted from Seulgi’s shoulder and helped tidy up the mess on the table.
The group gathered at the front of the diner once everything was clean and taken care of, bidding each other good night.
"Welcome to the family!" Yerim said as she squeezed Joohyun into a hug before hopping into Sooyoung's car. Joohyun and Seulgi stood by and watched the vehicle pull out of the lot, then fade off into the night.
Seulgi kicked a lump of snow in front of her shoes. "Let's go?" she said, offering her arm.
With a soft smile, Joohyun took her arm, and they started on their way.
"Hey, Seulgi," Joohyun called while they were walking. Seulgi turned to look at her without stopping, the moonlight faring her nicely. "Are you tired?"
The waitress chuckled lightly. "I should be the one asking you that. Why?"
"There's this place I've been curious about."
"I heard something about a hilltop here, overlooking both the countryside and city?"
"Oh...yeah. I think I know the place," Seulgi replied.
Joohyun stopped walking, and so did Seulgi. "Can we go there if it's not too far?"
"Are you sure? It's even colder there."
The woman shook her head. "I'll be fine. I like your coat, it's really warm."
"Alright." Seulgi moved her arm free from Joohyun's and took the latter's hand instead, leading them to a different route. "This way."
A coat draped over Joohyun's shoulders, as Seulgi sat on the white-patched grass next to her. She'd begun shivering terribly when they'd reached it to the hilltop, just as Seulgi expected. Now she had two of her coats.
"What did I tell you?" the woman teased, adjusting the garment on her shoulders.
"Sorry," Joohyun apologized. Seulgi was left in a simple sweater, and although Joohyun felt awful, she couldn't bring herself to return the coat.
"Don't worry. I'm used to the cold," she smiled.
Joohyun faced the view. "Thanks for bringing me here," she said.
From their hilltop view, a wide, quiet prairie stretched across the landscape, trees and humble houses scattered in bunches, all of which were covered in a layer of winter snow. Beyond its vast grandeur were the blinding lights of Daegu's skyline, that even at the dead of night, was roaring with life. It was a breathtaking sight.
Seulgi glanced at Joohyun, whose eyes seemed to sparkle at the scenery. "You know, for someone who wanted to get away from the city, you sure are enjoying the view a lot," she joked.
Joohyun chuckled, her breath forming wisps of cold in the air. "It's not like that. I love Seoul, really. But sometimes, it feels…" she turned, to see Seulgi already looking at her, "...suffocating."
Seulgi averted her gaze to their surroundings, feeling somewhat ashamed as if she'd been discovered for a crime.
After a brief moment, so Joohyun wouldn't feel totally dismissed by her, she asked, "Who told you about this place? Not many people go here anymore, not even the locals."
Joohyun lowered her eyes, one hand toying with the zipper of Seulgi's second coat. Her expression was unreadable in the almost-dark. Then, she looked back up, to the view in front. "My...my mom. She's the one who taught me how to cook."
"She must be a great cook just like you. Did she live here?"
"She was," Joohyun nodded. "This was her hometown."
Seulgi took notice of her use of past tense, digging her feet in the snow. "Has it met your expectations? The town?" her tone lighter now. She saw the corner of Joohyun's mouth twitch into a smile, and knew that she'd noticed.
"It's far exceeded them."
Despite herself Seulgi smiled too, as they both continued to admire the view in silence.
The two hurried inside the house, Seulgi closing the door behind them and flicking on the light switch. They'd only stayed at the hill for a little less than an hour before the cool breeze became unforgiving and left them no choice but to head back home. The walk home was a nice one, a pleasant relief from all of the boisterous atmosphere the whole day.
"I promise I'll clean out the other room tomorrow, I really apologize," Seulgi said, sitting down on the couch where her blanket and pillow were.
"Hey, move it. I'm sleeping here." Joohyun tried to pry her away, but Seulgi wouldn't budge. "Seulgi," she whined.
"No, I'm sleeping here. You sleep there until I finish cleaning out the other room," Seulgi said, pointing towards her bedroom. "Like I said, I'm used to the cold. You, on the other hand…"
Joohyun groaned. "Fine, I'll sleep in your room-"
"But I'm taking the floor."
"What, no! I'll take the floor!"
"Seulgi, oh my god. That is literally your bed."
Their back-and-forth went on as they made it inside Seulgi's bedroom. The banter was silly, but comforting - like the banter of longtime friends. They'd grown considerably closer.
"Okay, okay. Listen," Seulgi told her, sighing. "We'll both take the bed. So that way no one sleeps on the couch or floor. If you don't mind sharing, of course."
"Do you mind sharing the bed with me?"
"Not at all," Seulgi answered casually, although the words carried an unexpected weight to them. The thing was, she hadn't shared her bed overnight since childhood. God, it'd only been nearly two days, but the lines she was crossing with Joohyun came off tenfold. Weirdly enough, however, everything felt natural with her.
"It's settled then," Joohyun said quietly. "I'll go and wash up."
"Are you cold?"
"No, I'm fine. Thanks."
"Are you lying?"
Joohyun let out an embarrassed laugh. "Yes."
Seulgi rose from the bed, twisting a knob near the door. Then she slid back underneath the covers, reached for the night lamp and killed the lights, and faced Joohyun. "Better?"
The older woman nodded against her pillow.
"Try to get a good night's sleep." You deserve it.
"You too," Joohyun replied, getting comfortable amid the sheets. "Thank you for today, by the way. Seriously."
Seulgi hummed softly. "Don't mention it. Good night, Joohyun."
"Good night, Seulgi."
She didn't know where to begin. There were so many boxes. Seulgi was sitting in the middle of the room, determined to fulfill the promise she'd made to Joohyun, who'd volunteered to get groceries for them because- there's only so much I can work with here, Seulgi.
The woman looked around the room, then saw the same box that'd caught her attention the other night. She reached over, pulled it closer, and lifted it onto her lap, light and easy. Her fingers traced along the childlike writing, travelling to the top edges and stopping at the opening allowed by a loose strip of tape. Seulgi contemplated whether or not she should open it - any of the packages for that matter - or if she should move them all into another room instead. There was a reason she'd avoided it all this time, and it hadn't taken her a will of iron, but her hands begged to scratch the itch that'd stuck since that night.
As soon as Seulgi tore away the tape and opened the flaps, she realized that she'd made a mistake. Inside the box were memories that she'd spent years trying to forget.
Cassette tapes and vinyls she'd collected with her father. A disposable camera gifted by her mother on her fifth birthday. Pictures - dozens of them. Her attachment doll, a stuffed bear, that she'd only stopped sleeping with when-
Seulgi shook her head childishly. For so long, she'd blocked these memories away, but now they had all come crashing back. This was exactly why she wanted - needed - to get away from here. So she could forget and leave everything behind. For good.
Goddammit. I should have never let my curiosity win over me. I should have never opened that stupid box-
A knock sounded on the door. "Hey." Joohyun's soft voice floated in the air.
Seulgi closed the box, almost throwing it away from herself and rose from the ground.
Joohyun stood in the doorway, leaning against its frame. Her expression suddenly fell into a deep frown when the woman turned around.
"Seulgi, are you okay?" she asked worriedly as she rushed over to her. Joohyun lifted a hand to her face, wiping tears Seulgi hadn't even known were there. "What's wrong?"
Seulgi shook her head and gently pushed away Joohyun's hand. "It's nothing," she chuckled, rubbing her eyes.
"Are you sure?"
Giving her the best smile she could muster, Seulgi nodded. "I just took a little trip down memory lane and got carried away," she said. There was a short pause between them. "Anyway, I was thinking about moving all of these into one of the rooms in the back."
"I can help," Joohyun said, going to one of the boxes.
Seulgi held her shoulders, stopped her. "S-sure. But first, just let me sort out a few things, okay?"
"Okay." The older woman still looked worried, but was kind enough not to pry.
She guided Joohyun out of the room. "How did things go at the groceries?"
"I got some questions here and there. Said I was an unfamiliar face. And when I told them I was the new cook at Reve's…"
"Let me guess, they were all over you?" Seulgi sniffled a little as she laughed, taking a peek inside the paper bags on the kitchen counter.
Joohyun smiled. "That's one way to put it."
"You've proved yourself to be quite the celebrity, Miss Bae," Seulgi .
Joohyun chuckled a little, good-humored. She took the groceries from Seulgi's hands, earning a questioning look.
"Leave these to me, I'll join you in a bit," she gestured to the guest room.
Joohyun's eyes always held a tender, thoughtful glimmer, but this time, there was something else in them. Was it understanding, recognition...sympathy? Seulgi couldn't place her finger on it, and it bothered her. Joohyun turned away before she could think anything more of it, bringing with her a handful of food, and Seulgi's thoughts.
Dropping the last stack of boxes, Seulgi plopped down on the floor with a tired sigh. "Whew!"
Joohyun joined her after placing down her own pile, albeit more gracefully.
"Thanks for the help," Seulgi said, wiggling her legs.
"Thanks for having me here," Joohyun giggled as she bumped their shoulders together. Seulgi giggled too.
They remained there for a couple minutes, catching their breath. Soon enough, Joohyun willed herself to her feet. She gave a light tap to Seulgi's crown. "I'll make us lunch," she said.
Seulgi caught her wrist. "Wait. Let me return the favor. I'll help you out."
Joohyun reached for Seulgi's outstretched hands and pulled her up.
The sensation lingered on Seulgi's skin even as Joohyun pulled away. She shook the feeling off. She kept on finding excuses to touch Joohyun. That needed to stop.
"You'll handle preparing the vegetables, then," Joohyun said.
"The vegetables," Joohyun repeated.
"Hm? I don't understand."
Joohyun realized what she was trying to do. "Seulgi!"
She showed her a wide grin. "Just kidding."
Joohyun rolled her eyes. Cheeky.
Seulgi made fast work of washing and cutting the vegetables into small pieces - and nagging Joohyun about it - as she sat up on the counter and watched the cook take care of the rest. It was the first time she actually saw her cook, Seulgi remembered. There was never really a time for her to stop and watch back at the diner. But it wasn't like she was expecting to see Joohyun throw in some kind of potion or cast a spell. She was simply awestruck with the way Joohyun worked around the kitchen without a single moment of hesitation.
Joohyun sprinkled some seasoning inside the pot, stirred for a few seconds, then brought the ladle to Seulgi. She gave it a few blows before raising it to . Holding Joohyun's hand to steady the ladle, Seulgi took a taste. "Mmh! It's so good!" She took another, then finished the whole spoon.
"Yeah, I can see that," Joohyun bit back a smile, using her thumb to wipe the soup stain on the corner of Seulgi's mouth.
Seulgi's eyes cast downward, to Joohyun's lip where her teeth bit into them. Unconsciously, her grasp on Joohyun's hand went tighter, pulled her closer so that her knees touched her stomach. She glanced up, only to find Joohyun staring at , too, hand ghosting her chin. The spot her thumb had touched burned, and out of nowhere Seulgi wondered how it would feel if she ran her thumb along her lip…
Joohyun seemed to have finally realized Seulgi's stare, and looked up. Now they were both looking into each other's eyes. It was different from when they'd danced. The air was charged with a tension that'd never been there before. Seulgi tugged her hand one more time, her nose centimeters away from Joohyun's as the woman took another half-step closer.
Then suddenly, Seulgi pulled back, sitting upright and releasing Joohyun's hand. "I'll set up the table," she said softly. Joohyun hastily stepped away to give space to Seulgi as she hopped down, and coughed.
When she turned her back to Seulgi, the younger woman wanted to hit herself in the face. What the hell was she thinking?!
Awkwardness filled the room. They sat on opposite ends of the table, never looking up from their bowls. When they did, it was to ask the other to pass something.
It was killing Seulgi.
She'd really thought that the two of them had formed a bond, some sort of connection. And now, Seulgi was afraid that she'd ruined everything because of her recklessness.
But this was what she wanted, wasn't it? One less anchor to deal with.
She closed her eyes. Oh, screw it.
In an instant, Joohyun's face lit up, as if she'd been waiting for Seulgi to speak to her. "Yeah?"
Seulgi tried to ignore how happy she sounded. "I've been curious...how do you know what people want to eat?"
"What do you mean?" Joohyun asked with a quizzical look.
"I mean - on your first day, you single-handedly saved that couple's relationship with french toast. You can tame the noisiest children with a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice. You turned the grumpiest of customers into smiling angels - and how could I forget about Mr. Lee? You basically turned Reve's inside-out!...How do you do it?"
Joohyun put down her chopsticks, then answered. "I don't know. I just...see someone and immediately think of a dish that could make them feel good. Like a sixth sense, I guess? Kinda weird, huh?" She laughed shyly.
At least Seulgi got her to laugh. That was a good sign.
"So you're a food psychic?"
"A food- please don't say that again." Joohyun cringed, but let out a tiny smile nonetheless.
"Fine. How about...food magician? Food wizard?"
"Seulgi." The cook found herself laughing again, more freely as she relaxed in her seat.
Seulgi mentally patted herself on the back.
"Okay, no fancy titles. But I still think you have some magic in there," she said, moving her finger in a small circle as she pointed towards the other woman.
Joohyun stirred her soup. She had a ruminative look, contemplative. Seulgi thought that the conversation had ended there, but then Joohyun spoke. "I've had a knack for cooking since I was a little girl, sure, but this 'magic' thing that you're saying didn't really start until recently."
"While I was in rehab."
Seulgi cocked her head. "Rehab?" She was beginning to sound like a parrot. "What for- oh- crap- sorry, dumb question. Don't answer that," she rambled, making wild gestures with her hands.
Joohyun didn't look offended though, only a tad surprised - at Seulgi's rambling, really, rather than her actual question.
"It's okay. Let's just say that I liked to drink away my problems," she said with an openness that Seulgi respected.
Suddenly, the previous two nights made more sense to Seulgi. "Oh." No wonder…
"Everyone had to help around at the center I was in. Whether it was laundry, cleaning, cooking, you name it. I'd volunteered for kitchen duty, and that's where it all started. The staff were nice enough to give me the liberty to make whatever I wanted, so when I had to cook for these people that I barely knew, I just trusted my gut, hoping they'd like whatever I put out in front of them. I was just so happy knowing that I could make others happy, too," Joohyun finished with elated resolve.
Seulgi wished she was sitting closer to her. Her fingers ached to touch Joohyun's, to show appreciation for her honesty - to reassure herself that their connection was still there. She fidgeted with her chopsticks instead. "Thank you for sharing that with me. If I've ever made you uncomfortable…"
"You haven't," Joohyun answered. And Seulgi believed her, finding peace in Joohyun's kind smile.
However, there was something that bothered her. Joohyun had been so open about her past, and probably expected Seulgi to do the same. It was only fair, wasn't it? But - special connection or not - was that a line she was willing to cross with Joohyun? No, she'd refused to talk to anyone about it for years. Not even with Taeyeon, her own cousin. Seulgi wasn't going to start now.
But how long would it take until Joohyun started asking questions? Seulgi hated the unsettling feeling pulling at her stomach.
She looked up. Joohyun was standing beside her, reaching for her bowl. Seulgi hadn't noticed it'd been empty. "Do you want more?"
There was that look again, in Joohyun's eyes. Seulgi felt small.
"Nope, I'm all good," she said. Joohyun took the dishes to the sink, seconds away from turning the faucet on before Seulgi beat her to it, their hands brushing. Seulgi was relieved when she didn't flinch away. "I'll do it."
Hands unmoving under the water, it wasn't until Joohyun left for the living room that she realized that Joohyun had done her a favor.
Things were no longer awkward between them, as if the incident in the kitchen hadn't happened at all. Even so, Seulgi was sure it hadn't just been a figment of her imagination. She'd been so close to kissing Joohyun.
Seulgi mulled over the thought the entire day. Even she didn't know what had compelled her to attempt to kiss Joohyun. Aside from the obvious physical attraction Seulgi had toward her, Seulgi admired who Joohyun was as a person beyond her appearance. There was some sort of pull between them, and guessed it was reciprocated by the attention and regard Joohyun gave to her. An understanding. But all of that couldn't translate to her liking Joohyun in that way, right?
As Seulgi lied on her bed later that night, facing the vacant space beside her, she convinced herself that it was merely confusion. Joohyun was beautiful, talented, and caring, but she was also with Seulgi more often than not, working and living under the same roof - she was bound to confuse friendship with something more than that.
The week went by fast. Although the numbers at the diner hadn't let up at all, by some miracle, being there felt less and less like a chore for Seulgi. And it wasn't just because of the generous tips. Seulgi would never admit that, though.
The second half of the following week, when Seulgi started coming in for her afternoon shift, she was shocked to hear complaints about the food. Okay, not complaints, but concerns. Apparently, Joohyun had begun to cook exactly what the customers ordered without amiss, and stopped making recipes that weren't on their menu. While that was obviously normal in any other restaurant and nothing was different from how great Joohyun's cooking tasted, everyone was stunned at the sudden change.
Joohyun greeted Seulgi with a sigh as she walked inside the kitchen.
"Hi, Hyun," Seulgi said. As the days passed, they'd eventually started calling each other nicknames.
"I'm starting to think that I'm not as magical as you claim me to be, Seul." Joohyun heaved another sigh, scratching out some words she'd written on a piece of paper.
Seulgi approached her side and fixed the strands of hair that came loose from Joohyun's bun. "Did something happen with one of the customers?"
"No." Joohyun shook her head, and another stubborn strand fell down. Seulgi swept it away softly, Joohyun leaning into the touch despite looking very much pissed with herself.
"It's Seungwan," she pouted, and Seulgi had to force herself to look away from her lips. "She seemed a bit down the last few days so I tried to make something to cheer her up, but she hasn't eaten anything that I've given her. I think she might've even looked like she was going to puke one time."
Seulgi did notice that her best friend had been less bubbly lately, thinking it was because of the busyness of the diner taking a toll on her energy, not knowing it was this serious.
"Where is she?"
"Bathroom. Changing," Joohyun muttered.
Seulgi pulled Joohyun away from her writing - most likely a list of food she'd made for Seungwan - and rubbed her forearms up and down. "Don't stress yourself too much, okay? It's probably something out of our control."
Joohyun groaned half-heartedly.
Seungwan came out of the bathroom, greeting the two from the other side of the service window. "You guys are cute." Seulgi made a face at her, and Seungwan laughed back as she passed by the window. Just as Seungwan timed out, they heard a car pull up in front of the diner.
"It's Sooyoung," Seulgi said.
"Oh wait!" Joohyun detached herself from Seulgi, grabbed a plastic container, and rushed over to Seungwan. She handed her the container. "I baked some cupcakes. They're red velvet. I thought you might like them."
Seungwan smiled. "Thanks, Joohyun." Then, she waved at Seulgi before heading out the building.
Joohyun walked back inside the kitchen with a gloomy expression. "She gave it to Sooyoung, didn't she?"
"Yeah," Seulgi replied, nodding slowly. Her best friend had passed Sooyoung the container without sparing so much as a glance, and had gotten in her girlfriend's car. 'That's weird,' Seulgi thought. Seungwan always gave her at least a hug or a kiss on the cheek whenever Sooyoung came to pick her up from work. Just what was going on with them?
"I'm sorry, Joohyun," she said as she watched Sooyoung's car drive off into the road. "I'll try to figure out what's happened."
Joohyun nodded, scratching off another word on her list.
Sooyoung called her first. Seulgi had waited until it was late at night when she knew that Seungwan and Sooyoung would no longer be together (if they were, at all) and that Joohyun wouldn't be around to hear. Sooyoung must've thought the same.
She picked up on the first ring, letting Sooyoung know she was expecting her.
"Park Sooyoung," Seulgi said, voice dour, already feeling her protectiveness kicking in. Both Seungwan and Sooyoung were important to her, but if Sooyoung did something to hurt her best friend…
"Slug, hey...uhm, you probably already know why I've called you…" Sooyoung's nervousness was obvious even through the phone.
"Get to the point."
Sooyoung cleared over the line. "Has Seungwan talked to you about anything? She hasn't been herself lately, and you're her best friend so..."
Seulgi blinked, pushing herself up to sit against her headboard. "I was going to ask you," she said, easing her tone.
The line got quiet for a second that Seulgi thought Sooyoung had hung up on her. Then, she began to talk. "You don't think it has anything to do with Chanyeol, do you?"
"Sooyoung, my best friend is head over heels for you!" Seulgi snapped, a surge of anger rising in her chest.
"It's him I'm worried about, Seulgi," Sooyoung quickly clarified. "He's not over her. And I don't know how to ask Seungwan without coming off as a jealous girlfriend."
Seulgi sighed. Why did things have to be so difficult for these two? "Okay. I'll try talking to her."
"Thank you, Slug."
She pursed her lips at the name, knowing it would be one of the only times she'd get to.
"You're welcome, Soo."
Seulgi arrived half an hour early before her shift, hoping to get to talk with Seungwan. Her chance was at the back of the diner, when Seungwan had gone to throw out some trash.
She carefully grabbed her arm, Seungwan looked her way, and her eyes widened.
Her best friend was a literal human sunshine, even on bad days she managed to look bright, but this time she looked so pale and tired that makeup couldn't help her.
"Wan, what happened to you?!"
Seungwan laughed, ruffling Seulgi's hair. "I just didn't get enough sleep last night, silly."
Seulgi shook her head, not buying it for a single second. "I've never seen you this way, Seungwan. Don't lie to me," she said. Her best friend avoided her gaze. "What's bothering you? We've been worried about you...especially Sooyoung."
"It's...I don't know," Seungwan shrugged dejectedly.
"Whatever it is, we're here for you, you know."
On the verge of tears, Seungwan said, "I know that. I just don't know how I'm supposed to say it to everyone, how I'm supposed to say it to Sooyoung! I don't want to lose her so soon, Seul."
Seulgi pulled her into a hug. Clutching onto her friend's shirt, Seungwan melted into tears. Seulgi ignored the chatter and the dings of Joohyun's bell inside the building as she held Seungwan tightly. After regaining a little composure, Seungwan pushed her away slightly.
"I'll tell her tonight. All of you. I want all of you to be there."
"My place?" Seulgi suggested.
Seungwan nodded, wiping away her tears.
The backdoor swung open, and revealed a puzzled Joohyun. "Ah, there you two are! I was looking all over for- oh, sorry. Is this a bad time?"
Seungwan chuckled. "We were just about to head in," she said, smiling at the two women before entering the diner.
When the door clicked shut, Joohyun turned to Seulgi. "Are things going to be okay?" she asked hopefully.
Seulgi walked towards the door, their hands automatically reaching for one another. "I don't know."
Yerim pointed to the door of the guest room. "So that's Joohyun's?"
"Seul, can you come over real quick?" Joohyun called from the kitchen.
"The wife's calling," Yerim teased, lying back on Seulgi's couch.
"They look cute together, don't they?" Seungwan added with a grin. She had more color to her now, but still had bags underneath her eyes and looked like she'd fall with a small push if she weren't leaning against Sooyoung.
Seulgi rolled her eyes as she stood up.
"You needed me?" she said when she was at Joohyun's side.
Lifting her chopping board, Joohyun slid the spring onion she'd sliced into small bits inside a boiling pot of instant ramen. "How is she?"
"She isn't as pale as earlier, but doesn't look great either."
Joohyun nodded, moving to the other side of the stove to check on her fried rice. Satisfied, she gently shook the food onto a separate plate. Afterwards, she turned off the stove and glanced over her shoulder. "Can you help me get this off? My hands are..." she said to Seulgi as she tugged on the front of her apron.
"Sure, hold on."
Seulgi stepped behind her and undid the knot around her waist. Just as the ties loosened, someone pushed Seulgi from behind, sending her straight into Joohyun, her hands immediately falling to Joohyun's hips to keep them both steady. They were so close you could call it a hug. Seulgi whipped her head to the side and saw Yerim walk past them, giggling to herself.
The woman glanced at them as she opened the fridge, a teasing smile on her lips. "Oops." She took out a few bottles of soju and returned to the living room, winking at Seulgi when she passed by.
Seulgi let out a small sigh. She turned her attention back to Joohyun and mumbled an apology.
"Let's get these to the living room," Joohyun said. "Seul?" she called after a few moments. "You can let go now."
“Oh!” Seulgi released her grip on Joohyun’s hips, scratching her head embarrassedly.
“No wonder they love teasing you, ”Joohyun chuckled as she took up the plate of fried rice and walked to the next room.
Seulgi held onto the pot handle. Am I that obvious?
“I don’t get it. How can Joohyun make instant ramen this good? That can’t be normal,” Yerim mused after slurping some noodles.
The five women were all sitting cross-legged on the floor around Seulgi’s coffee table where the food Joohyun had prepared, glasses, two bottles of soju, and a pitcher of iced tea were placed. It was just like any other night they were together, smiles and laughter aplenty. In the back of her mind, Seulgi wondered how long it'd last, glancing every now and then at Seungwan.
"Why aren't you drinking soju?" Joohyun whispered when Seulgi poured herself a glass of iced tea.
Seulgi shrugged. "No reason."
The loud clang of metal chopsticks meeting the table sounded. "I have something to say," Seungwan announced.
The talking ceased, and all eyes were on her.
"What is it?" Sooyoung asked softly as she leaned in attentively.
Seungwan faced her girlfriend with a guilty expression, her lower lip quivering. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When Seungwan opened back her eyes, she stared at the table blankly.
The room froze in a stunned silence. Shock welled up on the faces of everyone around the small table. Seungwan refused to look at any of them, head bowed down by shame.
"How long have you known?" Sooyoung asked, voice laced with hurt.
"I-i had a feeling for a while now, but I'd just confirmed it a couple days ago."
"Does he know?"
Seungwan shook her head. "Just my parents." Her face scrunched up as she sobbed in her hands.
Seulgi expected Sooyoung to comfort her girlfriend, to wrap her arms around her and tell her that everything was going to be okay; but instead, Sooyoung stood up.
"I'm sorry. I have to go," she said, rubbing her eyes and gathering her things.
Seungwan looked up from her hands, face red and full of panic as she reached for her girlfriend. "Sooyoung-"
Seungwan's face fell even more when Sooyoung avoided her hand.
"I...I need some time to think. Make sure she gets home safe." Sooyoung threw on her coat and left the house.
Seulgi scrambled on her feet, ready to chase after her friend, until Yerim held her down. "I'll go after Sooyoung. You two stay with her," Yerim said, motioning toward Seungwan.
As the door closed, Seulgi sank back to sit on the floor. She went to Seungwan's side, who was already wrapped in Joohyun's arms. Seulgi gave Joohyun a grateful look, and rubbed her best friend's back.
"What's going to happen now?" Seungwan cried. "She's going to leave me, Seul!"
Seulgi her hair and shushed her soothingly. "Sooyoung's not going to leave you. She just needs time to cool down. You know how Sooyoung is."
Seungwan shook her head stubbornly. "I saw the look in her eyes, Seulgi. She looked so...disappointed, betrayed…"
"Wan, she was in shock, and probably still is. She'll come back to her senses eventually."
"I don't know what to do anymore," Seungwan sobbed in Joohyun's shoulder, looking away.
Damn you, Sooyoung.
Seulgi sighed, poured herself a shot of soju, and drank it. She shared a bitter smile with Joohyun, who continually patted Seungwan's arm in comfort.
Seungwan alternated between sobs and deep breaths, as Joohyun and Seulgi remained silent by her side. Soon, they ceased into shallower, rhythmic breaths.
"Is she asleep?" Joohyun mouthed.
Seulgi peeked around Seungwan's shoulder, then nodded. Relief washed over Joohyun's face. Seulgi smiled in spite of everything. Knowing Joohyun sincerely cared about her friends, having her with her - even in silence - warmed Seulgi's heart. In ways she wished it hadn't.
Seulgi slipped under the bedsheets. "She's knocked out."
Instead of waking her up, Joohyun and Seulgi had decided to let Seungwan sleep in the cook's room for the night, giving her parents a call to assure she was alright. That'd left Joohyun to sleep in Seulgi's room, but Seulgi had no complaints.
Joohyun moved about the bed to face Seulgi better. "Any word from Yerim and Sooyoung?"
"Yerim sent a text. Said she found Sooyoung crying on the side of the street, but she's home now."
"Poor Sooyoung," Joohyun frowned.
Seulgi hummed in agreement. "You must be confused about the whole situation," she said.
"Awfully," Joohyun chuckled lightheartedly.
Joohyun didn't know a thing about the couple's complicated history, let alone who Seungwan's ex-boyfriend was, so Seulgi could only imagine how baffled she must've felt. She spent the next fifteen minutes filling in the missing pieces for Joohyun. When she was finished, yawns consumed the woman.
"Those two are soulmates and it took them forever to realize it," Joohyun said over a yawn.
Seulgi nodded. "I just hope they can realize that even now."
In the middle of the night, Seulgi awoke, feeling her muscles fixed in an unfamiliar position. She was curled into Joohyun, who was lying higher up on the pillows, her face pressed against the woman's neck. Seulgi's arms wrapped around Joohyun's waist, while Joohyun's cradled her head like a pillow, and their legs tangled together. Dazed and quiescent, she went back to sleep, deciding that she liked this unfamiliar feeling. She pulled Joohyun closer.
Seungwan still went to work, had been quite insistent. Seulgi had only been able to get her to work shorter shifts thanks to her cousin's interference, and picked up the extra hours for her best friend. Some times, Seungwan looked better and more like herself, and others Seulgi would find her in the bathroom, crying or puking her heart out. Or both.
None of them heard from Sooyoung since that night. Seulgi understood if she wanted to keep her distance for a day or two, but it'd been almost a week and she was nowhere to be seen! It was absurd and remarkable at the same time, inasmuch as she and Seungwan basically lived in one street. The last time Sooyoung had acted this way was when Seungwan had announced Chanyeol as her boyfriend, running off to find solace in other girls. Seulgi had to keep Seungwan from thinking the worst, and convince her that Sooyoung was way past that vice of hers.
Yerim's visits to the diner lessened too, busy with discussions about music contracts and whatever musical artists like her talked about.
Seulgi felt as if she was at a standstill, like her life was just trapped in the middle of everyone else's. It was nothing new to Seulgi, but for many reasons it'd become more pronounced. But things could've been more difficult, frankly, if it weren't for Joohyun.
Once Joohyun had realized that there was nothing she could do about the changes happening to Seungwan, she'd gone back to her usual course of cooking at Reve's, and the customers couldn't be anymore happy. For once, being at the diner had become the one thing Seulgi looked forward to each day. At the diner or at home, Seulgi was less lonely with the reassuring thought that Joohyun would still be there whenever she looked over her shoulder.
“It was getting kinda chilly, so I invited myself inside. I hope you don’t mind.”
Seulgi had seen Taeyeon’s car parked on the side of the street when she and Joohyun arrived home from Reve’s, but she didn’t say a word. “No problem,” she answered.
Taeyeon was sitting at the table in her living room. Her arms were crossed, like she was hiding something. Seulgi subtly raised a brow. “I saw that you finally moved the stuff out of the other room. That’s good,” Taeyeon said.
“What brings you here?” Seulgi asked, quickly changing the subject.
“I just wanted to talk to you about something important.”
Seulgi felt a touch on her arm. “‘Seul, I’ll be in my room,” Joohyun told her with a weary smile. Seulgi nodded, watching as Joohyun closed the door behind her.
She took a seat on a chair across from Taeyeon. “What about?”
Taeyeon revealed what’d been tucked underneath her arm, dropping a pile of envelopes onto the table. Job offers - some from applications Taeyeon and Miyoung had pushed Seulgi into filling up, and some from companies that’d seen her work from school - that she’d been purposely avoiding. She wasn’t interested, anyway. She had her own plans.
“None of these have been opened, Seulgi. I even found some still inside your mailbox.”
“Huh. So you went through my stuff?” Seulgi scoffed.
Taeyeon sighed tiredly. “Seulgi, you promised us you’d look through these! Miyoung has been doing her best to help you get your foot through the door, but you don’t seem to care!”
“Who even said I wanted your guys’ help?”
Frustration growing on her face, Taeyeon stood up from her chair. “We’re just looking out for you, Seulgi!”
Seulgi crossed her arms, looking up at her cousin. “I can look out for myself just fine. I’ve been doing so for most of my life,” she shrugged as if none of this was a big deal to her. “A few letters aren’t going to change that.”
“We just want you to have the life your parents would’ve wanted you to have.”
Those words struck a chord within Seulgi. She pushed back on her chair with an angry drag and levelled with Taeyeon. “Don’t bring them into this,” she growled, then pointed a finger at her cousin. “You don’t get to patronize me.”
“Seulgi, please. I don’t want to argue with you,” Taeyeon said, pinching the bridge of her nose as she closed her eyes.
The younger woman chuckled sarcastically. “You should’ve thought about that before coming here.”
“Kang Seulgi!” Taeyeon shouted in exasperation as she threw the letters in front of her. Seulgi flinched. “Please...just do it for yourself.”
Taeyeon had never raised her voice like that to her. In fact, she’d never heard her sound so angry, ever. Even when they were kids. It made her feel like a child. And even if she refused to remember those memories, it reminded her of the way her mother used to scold her when she was young. So, like a little girl, Seulgi grabbed the envelopes and took off for her room. As she passed by the hallway, she noticed Joohyun standing outside of the bathroom door, sure she had heard everything.
"Wan, you can get changed. I'll take care of this," Seulgi said, taking the bus tub from the woman's hands.
Seungwan eventually started working all morning shifts. Seulgi visited her at home whenever she could, and hated how disappointed she’d look when she couldn’t come up with a proper answer about Sooyoung’s whereabouts.
"You're not changing into your uniform?" Joohyun asked as Seulgi placed the tub into the sink and the faucet.
Seulgi grinned. "Maybe I'm feeling rebellious today."
Joohyun chuckled, flicking some water at her face. "Whatever you say."
Seulgi was about to make another quip back when her phone vibrated in her back pocket. Drying off her hands on her pants, she reached for her phone. There was a text from Yerim.
'I've gotten a hold of Sooyoung. Can we crash at your place later?'
Sighing, she typed a reply.
'Sure. Has she met with Wannie yet?'
Yerim replied within seconds.
'Won't listen to me.'
Seulgi turned off her phone just as Seungwan came back. She held her phone tight, uncertain if she should tell Seungwan about Sooyoung or not.
"I'm heading out now!" Seungwan said.
Seulgi nodded her head. Then before she could walk away, she called her, "Wan?"
Maybe she shouldn't. Sooyoung would surely go to her when she's ready.
"N-nothing. Get some rest, okay?"
When she saw Seungwan's broad, thankful smile, she told herself that she'd made the right choice.
"Isn't that Taeyeon's car?" Yerim pointed out. She and Sooyoung had come to the diner near closing time, waiting for them so they could walk to Seulgi's house altogether.
Taeyeon's car was indeed parked out front. Again.
As they got closer, Seulgi was surprised to see that Taeyeon hadn't 'invited herself inside', sitting on one of the outdoor benches. And this time, she wasn't alone. Miyoung offered her a small smile which she returned.
Seulgi unlocked the front door and let everyone inside before she stepped in. She guided her friends to the living room while Taeyeon and Miyoung helped themselves to the table in the kitchen.
"I'll be right back," she told her friends as they settled on the couch.
After closing the divider between the two rooms, she leaned against one of the kitchen counters, arms crossed.
"So," Taeyeon started, "have you responded to any of the offers yet?"
"No," Seulgi answered curtly.
"What?" Taeyeon kissed her teeth in irritation. "Seulgi, I thought we talked about this…" She rubbed her temples before asking, "Did you check any of them out at least?"
"No." Seulgi had just shoved all of them under her bed that night, and didn't bother looking at them again.
Taeyeon slammed her hand on the table. "Seulgi, god! Do you not care at all?! These things have deadlines! You'd know that if you'd read them!" Miyoung coaxed her to calm down, as Taeyeon later added in a less agitated manner, "Where are they?"
With heavy steps, Seulgi disappeared into her room for a moment, then tossed the sealed envelopes onto the table. Taeyeon feverishly opened some of the letters.
"Here, look at this company: Miyoung's worked closely with the people here, you'll love it there. Or what about this one? It's just a short drive from my building - not too far-"
"You don't understand, Taeyeon, I want to go far away!" Seulgi yelled, finally letting out what she hadn't been able to say in years. "I want to get away from this place as far as I can! I can't stand it anymore! I'm just going to end up miserable here! I can't end up stuck here like the rest of you!"
"Stuck? Seul, this is our home," Taeyeon said, her expression softening at her cousin's revelation.
The divider slid open - Yerim, Sooyoung, and Joohyun standing there with concerned faces. But Seulgi didn't care.
"This stopped being my home the day mom and dad died," she said coldly. "And I've wanted to leave it ever since. I want to forget about this place - including everything and everyone in it if I need to. At the end of the day, I just feel like some liability here."
Miyoung rounded the table and held Seulgi's arms. "Seulgi, you know that's not true. We all love you so much. None of that's changed. If this is about your parents-"
Seulgi gently pried off Miyoung's hands, shaking her head, and backed away. "It doesn't matter. I'm not going to get anywhere in my life if I stay here," she said, voice cracking at the end.
"I'm not going to be like Yerim, who's been guaranteed to make it big since the very beginning. I'm always going to be Sluggie, the orphan-" She cut herself off and turned to the divider with a sweeping gesture of her hand towards Sooyoung.
"I bet you still don't know where that came from, do you? Well, now you do and I don't want to hear you call me that ever again!" she shouted angrily. "And you know what? You shouldn't even be here! You should be with your pregnant girlfriend, you ing coward!"
The quiet following her outburst felt oppressive. The stares, judging. She couldn't stand being there for a second longer. So without another word, she pushed past her friends and stormed off into the night.
The silence continued long after Seulgi had left, as if her words were still registering in each of their minds. Taeyeon finally broke it, and voiced out a thought they all shared, "She's been holding that in all this time...I should've known."
Miyoung returned to her side, rubbing her shoulders in consolation. "It's not your fault, honey."
"It's so unlike her to run off like that," Sooyoung said with a guilty sigh. Seulgi's last words had stung her badly.
Yerim stepped further into the room. "Should we follow her? Or should we just wait for her to come back..."
"Who knows where she might be at this hour," Taeyeon said.
"I'll do it," Joohyun spoke up. The others looked her way expectantly. "I'll go and make sure she's okay. I have an idea where she might be."
Miyoung perked up a little. "Where? Do you want us to come with-"
Taeyeon held her wife's hand in a silent gesture and looked at Joohyun with knowing regard. "Thank you, Joohyun."
Joohyun’s idea turned out completely wrong.
She’d braved the cold winds and heaps of snow that went past her shins to make it to the top of the hill and hopefully find Seulgi sitting there admiring the view, but she was wrong. There was nobody there. She was alone on that hilltop with nothing but an impending cold, sniffling.
Joohyun bent down slightly, her hands holding onto her knees as she exhaled a plume of frost. After a while she straightened, hugged herself through another one of Seulgi’s coats, and took a deep breath, finding comfort in the newly familiar scent as she stared over the scenery. That’s when it dawned on her. With one last glance at the view, Joohyun marched through snow, and began her way down the hill. There was only one more place that she knew where Seulgi could be.
It was dark when she set foot in the shopping center, but didn’t let that dampen her hope just yet. She approached Reve’s, putting a hand against the window to look for any flicker of light coming from inside. Joohyun saw no sign of Seulgi, and felt discouraged. Disheartened.
“Seulgi?” she called out in vain. She walked backwards to the center of the plaza, shouting the woman’s name. She was cold and losing hope fast. “Seulgi! Where are you?!”
She looked up where the voice had come from. Seulgi was looking down on her from the roof of the diner. “What are you doing here?”
The cool breeze getting to her, Joohyun bit back, “What are you doing here?!”
She could hear her sigh from all the way up there. “Hyun, just go home. You’ve seen me and I’m okay. You can leave now.”
“No! I’m not leaving without you!”
“Stop being stubborn!” Seulgi demanded, “You’re going to freeze out here.”
“Oh yeah? I could say the same to you!” Joohyun yelled at the top of her voice.
Seulgi’s face lit with panic. “Hyun, don’t be so loud! It’s almost midnight!” she whisper-shouted.
Joohyun paused, gave her a challenging look, then screamed, “Aah! What are you going to do about it, huh?! Wah!”
‘She was serious when she said she couldn’t think straight in the cold, alright,’ Seulgi thought in bewilderment.
“I hope nobody calls the cops! Aah-!”
“Dammit,” Seulgi cursed under her breath. She would’ve loved to keep watching Joohyun stomp and shout like a maniac, but it was already so late in the night and the last thing she needed right now. “Okay, quit it! Go around the back, I’ll help you up!”
Joohyun climbed up the rusty ladder bolted at the back of the diner, taking Seulgi's hand when she was near the top.
"You're nuts," Seulgi grunted as she pulled her weight.
"Why, thank you."
Seulgi led her to a folding chair perched beside a heating unit, pulling an empty food crate for herself. Joohyun revelled in the sudden warmth as she closed her eyes. All that screaming in the cold was starting to give her a headache, too.
"I'm sorry you had to see all of that."
Joohyun opened her eyes to see Seulgi restlessly playing with her sleeves. "Do you want to talk about it?" When Seulgi's fingers stopped moving, she quickly added, "You don't have to say anything. I'm more than happy just to be here with you."
Seulgi started picking at the wool again. “I was just seven when it happened, I was at school. We were in the middle of some lesson about multiplication when someone came into the classroom, saying I'd gotten an important call. And when you’re that age, you get excited over those kinds of things, you know? I thought my parents were picking me up early. Instead, I was told that they’d gotten into an accident.” She laughed at herself, but the laughter had sounded painful.
“Everything happened so fast. One moment I’m being taken to the hospital, the next I’m bowing in front of my parents’ ashes, watching them get buried under the ground, packing all our stuff at home, then moving into my aunt’s house. After that, it was as if nothing happened. Everyone had moved on with their lives, and I felt like I had no choice but to do the same.”
Seulgi’s fingers played with her hair now, and Joohyun knew she was fighting hard to hold back her tears. “I would hear the adults at the time talk about how strong I was for my age; when in reality, I just couldn’t comprehend what was going on,” she confessed. “I don’t think I ever had the time to grieve. So now, every time I remember them...there are no happy memories. All there is, is just pain. That’s why I just want to leave this place for good. So I can finally forget about everything, and start anew.”
“Even your parents?” Joohyun asked.
“Especially my parents.”
Joohyun lifted enough to maneuver her chair so that she faced Seulgi and held her hands. “You can’t just forget about them. Nor should you want to.”
Seulgi’s face clenched as tight as a fist. “You don’t get it, Joohyun. Just thinking about them hurts so much…”
“I may not fully understand how you feel, but I do know what loss feels like.” Seulgi met her eyes as Joohyun continued, “I’m so sorry you didn’t get the chance to grieve properly - no one deserves that. I understand that blocking everything out was your way of protecting yourself, and it may have worked for a while, but look where it’s gotten you. Not only are you hurting yourself, but you’re pushing away the people that care about you.”
Joohyun cupped Seulgi’s face, wiping away her tears with her thumb. “Forgetting isn’t going to heal the pain, Seul. And neither will leaving everything and everyone you love. It’s not this town that’s making you feel trapped. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“It’s not that easy…” Seulgi mumbled, her lower lip jutted out.
“I’m not asking you to do it overnight. I’m asking you to try. Give yourself the time that wasn’t given to you before. It’s not going to be easy, but you won’t be alone, either. There’ll always be someone willing to listen whenever you need it. And if you’d rather talk to someone more qualified, then I’ll come with you. All you have to do is try.”
Seulgi knew it was easier said than done, but she was glad someone had said it anyway, as if it was what she needed all this time.
“Everybody’s right,” Seulgi chuckled, sniffling a bit. “You are way too good to be true.”
“No. I’ve just been through something similar, that’s all,” Joohyun said.
A deeply curious part of Seulgi wanted to ask, but she knew now wasn’t the time. For now, she nodded. “Okay. I’ll try.”
Joohyun looked genuinely happy. Then, Seulgi stood up.
“What?” Joohyun asked.
As Joohyun stood before her, Seulgi wrapped the woman in a hug. It just felt right.
“Not going home yet?”
“I was actually hoping to talk to you first,” Seungwan said, which made Seulgi stop in her tracks.
Seulgi punched in her card slowly. “Who told you?”
Seulgi hurriedly slid onto a stool beside her best friend. “Look, Wan, I’m really sorry that I didn’t tell you about Sooyoung. I just thought that-”
“I know, Seul, and I totally get it. But that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to lecture you or anything,” Seungwan giggled. “I just wanna know how you are.”
Of course Seulgi could count on her best friend to worry about her, even when she was spilling out her guts on the regular. Seungwan could probably be in labor and still ask whether or not she’d gotten enough sleep. That is, if she kept the baby…
Although Yerim had most likely already filled her in on all of the details, Seulgi told what’d happened from her own perspective from top to bottom. From the letters, the texts, to the encounter at her house. She also told Seungwan about her talk with Joohyun on the rooftop and how comforting it’d been, and how relieved she’d felt after. By the time she finished, Seungwan wore a warm, accepting smile. Nothing less than what she expected from her.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell any of you guys sooner,” Seulgi said.
“At least you know better now,” Seungwan replied, her hair gently.
Joohyun, who’d seen the two women as she walked by the kitchen window, waved at them before getting back to work. Seulgi and Seungwan both returned a smile.
“You like her don’t you?”
Seulgi looked at her incredulously.
“C’mon, Seul. If you’re going to be honest with yourself, then you’d better start with your feelings for her.”
“Do you like Joohyun, Seulgi?”
Seulgi could no longer dismiss her feelings for Joohyun as those of simply admiration, or friendship. She didn’t know when it started, but Seulgi couldn’t deny the way her heart would skip a beat when Joohyun would laugh at her lame jokes, the pang of loneliness when she went home without her, all of her excuses to touch her hand - even if she’d wanted to, she couldn’t stop herself from falling for Joohyun. There was nothing left to hold her back, and Joohyun had been the one to make her realize it. It took her long enough to admit it, but...
“Yeah. I do.”
“See,” Seungwan patted her on the shoulder, “That wasn’t so hard.”
“What about you?”
“Do I like Joohyun?” Seungwan asked in disbelief. “Definitely not in the same way you-”
Seulgi laughed. “I meant if you’ve talked to Sooyoung yet.”
“Ah. Yes, actually. Thanks to you.”
“Well, would you look at that,” Seulgi said. She regretted most of the things she’d said that night, but was satisfied at the thought that some part of it had knocked some sense into her friend.
Seungwan instinctively lowered her voice into a whisper despite the preoccupied state of everyone inside the diner. “I told her that I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with the baby. She said that she’d support me no matter what, so I couldn’t have asked for more, really.”
"Yeah,” Seulgi said, staring at Joohyun through the window. "Me too."
“You’re up early,” Joohyun said, taking off a kettle from the stove then pouring herself a drink. “Want one?”
Seulgi couldn't stop herself from grinning. Joohyun looked absolutely stunning even when she'd just woken up. Oversized pajamas, messy hair, and pink, pouty lips. Seulgi vowed to wake up early more often.
“No thanks. Uhm, I was wondering if you could help me with something?”
Joohyun hummed as she took a sip from her mug. “What for?”
“I wanted to make something special. For everyone.”
“What did you have in mind?” Joohyun asked, taking a seat. She was interested.
“Kimchi sujebi.” It was one of Seulgi’s favorite recipes that her mother used to prepare. She’d loved to help her mother make it, especially when it came to kneading and tearing the dough into thin pieces. Memories aside, Seulgi had never tried cooking it on her own knowing she wouldn’t be able to make it quite like her mother did; but she wanted to prove to Joohyun that she'd keep her word, and had to start somewhere.
They worked all morning long. Joohyun guided Seulgi and tipped her on what things were better - don't cut those too small, make these into thinner slices, use that instead, add a little salt into this - while Seulgi did all of the real work. The vegetables and broth were easy enough for Seulgi to prepare on her own. It was with the dough that had Seulgi begging Joohyun to help her, but Joohyun insisted that it’d be more special if Seulgi did everything by herself. She spent almost half an hour kneading two packs of dough, her muscles feeling strung out until the bulks were ‘as soft as a baby’s buttocks’. Seulgi added the ingredients into the broth, both of them laughing at her crooked, pinched bits of dough as they dropped into the boiling pot.
She gave the stew a stir and let herself have a taste, passing the ladle to Joohyun. “There’s something missing,” Seulgi said.
“You’re right,” Joohyun agreed, humming as she had another taste.
Seulgi ended up adding more garlic, vegetables, and soy sauce, but she still wasn’t satisfied. She clicked her tongue, trying to think what was the missing piece to her stew. “Ah! I know,” she said, reaching into the cupboard. “Here we go.”
Joohyun giggled, watching Seulgi tear open a ramen packet and pour the seasoning in the pot.
Seulgi stirred it again, then tasted it. She smiled, looking proud and content. “Try it,” she said.
“It tastes great,” Joohyun told her, and Seulgi’s smile grew wider. "They're going to love it."
Seulgi looked down into the pot. She sure hoped so.
Seulgi peeked inside the living room through the small crack of the divider. She'd invited everyone to her home for 'a meal' that evening, grateful that none of them had declined. They were all present - even Seungwan - sitting together on the only table that Seulgi owned that could fit them. Yet despite the fullness, the table was more quiet than usual. No banter, no whimsical chatter. Just short-lived small talk (mostly courtesy of Yerim and Miyoung). This was her mess. And she was going to fix it.
She walked to the table with the pot in her hands, catching Joohyun's gentle smile as she placed it down. When she removed the lid, Taeyeon's face instantly lit up with recognition. Seulgi's chest swelled with emotions.
"This is your favorite," Taeyeon said wistfully. "My mom tried making it for you when we were kids, but got sad and threw it out, and never tried it again."
"I'll make sure to cook it with her next time," Seulgi promised.
"She'd love that."
Seulgi served everyone one by one. Seeing their faces as they each took a taste of her food brought her great satisfaction, but she wasn’t going to stop there. As she filled the last bowl, for herself, she remained standing. “I want to apologize to all of you. All of those things I said…I was in a bad place for a long time, and thought that if I distanced myself from everything, that the pain would go away. I thought that this place was what was making me miserable, when really, I was just hurting inside. I shouldn’t have kept you guys in the dark.”
Seulgi felt Miyoung’s hand on hers. “Don’t scare us like that again, Seul.”
Taeyeon sighed pleasantly. “Miyoung and I were going to wait until you graduated, but I guess there’s no use for that anymore…” She reached in her bag, and handed Seulgi a manila folder.
Seulgi took out the papers inside. A bank statement of an account that she didn’t even know existed...Under her name. And in it was enough money for her to live off of for years. “W-what is this? How-? I already went through-”
“Your mom and dad always had a back-up plan, Seul. Your dad worked overtime, and your mom worked on the side whenever she could. That’s how much they loved you,” Taeyeon said.
Tears welled in Seulgi’s eyes. “I didn’t know…”
“Neither did I, until much later.” Taeyeon held her other hand. “You’re your own person now. But wherever you choose to go, you can always come back here.”
Seulgi forced Taeyeon on her feet, pulling her into a hug. “I don’t know what to say…”
Taeyeon rubbed her back.
Soon, everybody was out of their chairs. The giant hug was a little uncomfortable as Yerim, Sooyoung, and Seungwan forced themselves in, pulling Miyoung and Joohyun with them, but Seulgi paid it no mind. For so many years, she'd been wrong. Seulgi couldn't be any happier to be wrong.
This was her home.
“So are you two dating yet?”
“Sorry?” Seulgi choked on nothing but the suddenness of her best friend.
Seungwan nudged her in the ribs in jest. “She obviously feels the same way about you,” she said matter-of-factly. “What are you waiting for?”
“Just drop it, Wan...And you don’t know that,” Seulgi said as she fixed the buttons of her uniform.
“Sure I do.”
The bell dinged behind them. Seungwan rushed to the window, getting there before her best friend. Seulgi rolled her eyes.
"Hey, haven't you clocked out already?" Joohyun asked.
"Oh yeah, I'm just here to tell you about one last order," Seungwan said with a grin.
Seulgi pushed Seungwan aside, placing a tray onto the platform. "Just ignore her, please."
"Seulgi was wondering if she could get the chef's special!" Seungwan wiggled her eyebrows.
"Chef's special?" Joohyun chuckled.
"A chef's kiss!" Seungwan blurted out before bolting away as Sooyoung's car honked out front.
Seulgi scoffed as she hoped her blush wasn't as terrible as it felt. "Hey! Yerim's really starting to wear off on you and it's not funny! That's not going to be good for the baby-"
Joohyun pulled the waitress down by the collar and kissed her on the cheek. When she pulled away, Seulgi looked at her, completely surprised.
"You and Seungwan have to realize that these walls aren't that very thick. Oh, and Seungwan is right, by the way," Joohyun said cheekily.
Getting on her tiptoes, Joohyun kissed the same spot again. "Now take that to table four," she whispered as she put a plate between them and left.
"Table four, Seulgi!"
The waitress delivered the order to the table, then leaned onto a counter. "Seungwan is right…" she muttered to herself. "Seungwan is...oh. Oh!"
But before she could run into the kitchen and to Joohyun, a family walked inside, Reve's red glare insulting her.
Later that night, the diner was reduced to drawn blinds and neon signs. Queen played in the background, Freddie Mercury singing a tune about young love.
Joohyun and Seulgi shared a container of macaroons that Joohyun had baked before closing time for the fun of it, giving each customer that'd been lucky to be there, one of the sugary cookies.
Seulgi popped another purple macaroon into . "I don't think I've ever thanked you properly," she said in between chews, which earned her a slap on the arm.
"Thank me for what?"
"Everything...What? I'm not kidding around!" Seulgi laughed when Joohyun made a face. "I never noticed the things that made my life special..but with your help I finally realized that everything that matters had been right under my nose the whole time. You came into the picture and worked so hard to make life special for everyone that walks into this diner. So, who is making it special for you?"
Joohyun broke her gaze from Seulgi's.
"I'm going to be honest with you...I'm just glad to do some good with my life. I was in a bad place, too, when my mom passed. She had developed a drinking problem when she and my dad separated. Every little problem, she just drank and drank and drank. Until one day, her body couldn't take it anymore. So when my family found out that I had the same methods," she sighed, breaking the cookie crumbs beneath her fingertips, "They were so scared that I'd end up like her, and put me into rehab."
Joohyun flicked her fingers clean. "I may have lied to you guys," she chuckled. "I didn't just finish my studies before coming here, I'd just come out of rehab after six months. I didn't lie about wanting a break from the city, though. So I guess I should thank you, too. For letting me have that...and making it special," she finished with a small smile.
The song finished, and the diner fell quiet. Seulgi rose from the booth. “I’ll be right back.”
When she was in front of the jukebox, she immediately pressed a series of buttons, already knowing what songs she wanted. As she walked back to their table, “Heaven is a Place on Earth” started playing, and Joohyun shot her an amused look.
It was kind of cheesy of her, yeah, but Seulgi thought it fit the mood. She held out her hand, and encouraged Joohyun to get up. They danced slowly at first, then let the rhythm of the music gradually flow through their bodies. Under the neon lights, they looked like partygoers dancing at an 80’s disco, without a care in the world. At that moment she shared with Joohyun, Seulgi finally understood what Sooyoung had said before. To more moments like these…
The song eventually came to an end and switched to a slower "C'est La Vie". They held hands now, swaying back and forth in place. Oh, the things Seulgi would do for this night to last forever.
"Remember when I tried to kiss you that one time and we got so awkward with each other?" Seulgi said softly.
Joohyun, who'd rested her head on Seulgi's shoulder, looked up. "What?"
Seulgi raised her eyebrows. "Remember? When you made lunch and-"
"No, no. The way I remember it, I got awkward because I tried to kiss you out of nowhere and you pulled away."
They stopped. "What?"
They laughed at the ridiculousness of themselves.
"Can I kiss you now, then?" Seulgi said, squeezing Joohyun's hands. Without waiting for an answer, Seulgi leaned forward. Joohyun tipped her head up, and Seulgi felt something she’d never felt before. The anticipation had been worth it. Kissing Joohyun was exactly as she imagined.
Soft, sweet, and magical.
Seulgi didn't know what the future held. For Sooyoung and Seungwan and the baby. For Yerim and her music. For her and Joohyun. For herself. But it was fine. Only time would tell.
And Seulgi could afford to believe in a bit of magic.
Neon sign that I for you
Did you see the purple initials? They're coming out well
Follow the dancing light, come on, you came to me
- neon (oh my girl)