The sun is directly overhead as I reach More Than Youth Ballet Studio, breath laboring in my lungs. An oppressive dread rides my shoulders as I barrel through the door. My sweat-drenched shirt clings to my rib cage.
But as the faded pink walls and air-conditioning envelope me, and the strains of Swan Lake reach my ears, a sense of refuge closes around me.
I run toward the music.
The familiar ballet posters—Coppélia, Nutcracker—feel cliché after Aunty Yumi's art collection. But that disloyal whisper is swept away when my eyes fall on Madame Yoo in the studio, the scooped back of her maroon leotard reflected in the wall-length mirror. Before her, a handsome man with trim black hair executes a stunning barrel-turn, arms out, leg whirling, while a girl in a white leotard sashays around him. Prince Seigfried, auditioning more Odette hopefuls. I'll beg her to squeeze me in. Stay past closing if she needs me to.
Darting into the dressing room, I dump out my bag and have my tights in hand before the door swings shut.
But it never does.
Instead, it opens again to admit Madame Yoo, ebony hair swept back into its usual graceful chignon at the nape of her neck. Her teotard pulls taut over her straight shoulders and small .
"Madame, I'm so sorry—"
"You're no longer welcomed here." , usually soft with fondness, pinches like a shriveled apple.
"I'm so sorry I'm late." APologies tumble from my lips. "I was hoping—"
She seizes my bag and shoves my things back inside. The papery tear of Joohyuk's note reaches my ears.
"Please, Madame," I say, but she grabs my arm and half drags, half steers me through the reception room, while I babble explanations and try to right myself. The firm hand that showed me how to hold my midriff now pinches my flesh like a talon. Maybe she can't give Odette to the girl who shows up an hour late, but why is she kicking me out?
"Please, I don't under—"
"Our young ladies have reputations to uphold. We cannot allow anyone to tarnish that. Not even a girl from America." She drops me like a filthy rag at the door and hurls my bag into my stomach.
"Can't I just dance with the chorus?" I cry.
"Leave, Ms. Bae." She holds the door wide. "Don't require me to call security."
"Security?" I cling to my bag. The doorjamb hits my shoulders as I back into merciless sun. "There must be some mistake."
She throws a wallet-sized photo at me. I snatch at it but miss, and it flutters to the cement.
"I don't presume to know how dance studios run in America, Ms. Bae, but in Seoul, we don't operate this way. Please don't come back. Same to your friend."
My hand shakes as I stoop to recover the photo. Of a girl.
She's back-dropped in white, the only object in her rectangular world. Her hands open like fans at her sides. She gazes out at me, chin raised boldly, dark-red lips parted with a seductive intake of breath, coils of black hair swept up to show off every curve of skin from the slope of her neck to her coyly cocked ankle—and everything in between.
All oxygen is from the world.
My glamour shot.
While I was sleeping this morning, Sohee must have picked it up from photo studio.
And delivered it here.
The door squeaks as Madame Yoo begins to swing it shut. I grab its edge with both hands.
"Wait! Please let me explain."
I'm forced to pull my fingers away as she shuts the door in my face.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
I am out of cash, so I walk the two hours back to campus. I've lost a week's tuition at More Than Youth's but I can't ask for it back. My feet feel as heavy as the concrete blocks that rim the shoreline against typhoons. Vehicles race by, spewing clouds of grit over me. My pocket bulges from the crumpled photo that I can't bring myself to look at. My lips sting—I need to speak with Kang after running from him, but I don't know where we go from here. As for Joohyuk—
My fingers rise to my chin. I can still feel the imprint of his fingers there.
I need to understand why he gave me those socks.
Why he told his aunt we weren't really together.
I need to explain.
I drag myself up the brick steps to Yonsei and enter the lobby through a side door. It's unusually deserted. Panicked voices are shouting in the salon next door, but I can't muster up an ounce of curiosity. The demerits board covers one wall: our Korean names in a long row, raining down demerit check marks, with a long column under Kang's name, and a matching column beneath mine. It's so juvenile.
"Stop it! Stop it right now!" a girl shouts next door.
"Do something!" yells another.
"Guys! Cool it!" Dohyun yells.
Hitching my bag higher on my shoulder, I round the corner and crash into a sweaty back.
A ring of kids has formed around two wrestlers: Kang's arms are locked around Joohyuk's neck, both bent double as they lurch into Dohyun, who grabs at them, earning himself a punch in the stomach.
"Quit it already! Let go!"
"Break it up!"
Other hands yank at them, but they're inseparable, a force of muscled arms and legs and rage, knocking over everyone in their path.
Before I can cry out—dive forward—Joohyuk jerks free. His shoulder surges, then his fist explodes in Kang's face.
"Joohyuk, stop!" I cry.
Both boys turn to face me, mirror expressions of rage. Blood streams from Kang's nose. Joohyuk meets my eyes and flinches. Then Kang grabs the back of his shirt and they're at it again like a pair of wild beasts.
I've never been the girl fought over by boys, but I don't need any kind of ego to understand this fight has to do with me ... but why? Because of the kiss?
"Nam Joohyuk! Song Kang!" The Dragon in her green dress jostles past me, Jungwoo on her heels. I never thought I'd be happy to see her. She snaps her fingers, barks orders, and Jungwoo, Dohyun, and two other boys pull Joohyuk and Kang apart. The glower at each other. Kang scrubs at his nose, which drips red petals onto his cream shirt. His eyes flicker to me, dark and unreadable, but Joohyuk doesn't meet my eyes.
I wacth in numb silence as the Dragon dispatches Jungwoo, March, and Joohyuk to take Kang to the infirmary and have a talk—that's the Dragon's way. Joohyuk looks as furious as if she's ordered him to donate both kidneys to Kang.
"Sooji!" My name is like shrapnel on her lips. "Yeogiseo gidalyeo?"
"Mwoga munjeyo?" I blurt. What's wrong?
She motions me toward her office. Only now do I see that in her hand, the Dragon holds another photo, of me.
Sohee struck again.