Chapter 1: caramel latte with almond milk
Ryujin tapped her foot impatiently. The line had hardly moved and it's been ten minutes since she arrived at the café. She had been coming here every day (except weekends) for the past - how long has it been? Three months? It never took this long. Usually, she'd be in and out within three minutes. She leaned to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of the front of the line to see what was holding up the queue... or who. No luck; The café bustled with people, it was hard to see.
Her phone suddenly buzzed.
New iMessage from Yeddong
yeddong: ryu where r u???
yeddong: class is starting soon!!!
yeddong: hurry up!!
ryuddaeng: im still at the café
ryuddaeng: the line is sooo longgg
yeddong: just come back!
yeddong: im sure lia will survive without coffee for once
ryuddaeng: bro ive been doing this for like 3 months now
ryuddaeng: im not about to give up
Ryujin watched as the three little dots appeared and disappeared several times. She was about to text Yeji that she'll be there soon when her contact name appeared in the middle of the screen. Yeji was calling her.
"Hello? It's kinda loud in here," Ryujin answered the call.
"Oh right, sorry I'm just carrying my textbooks and I can't type but anyway, don't you think she would've let you know by now if she was interested in you?" came Yeji's response.
Ryujin swallowed before answering, "ha... well you see... you know how I said I would write a note to tell her that the coffee is from me?"
Yeji hummed to urge Ryujin to continue.
"I may or may not have chickened out."
"Shin Ryujin! You-"
"Wait, sorry Yeji, I'm next in line, talk to you later!" Ryujin hastily ended the call. She let out a breath and pocketed her phone, ignoring the buzzes.
At least it wasn't a lie, it really was finally Ryujin's turn to order. Lia's favourite drink was engraved in her mind (and I guess you could say, in her heart as well). What she didn't expect was to be greeted by someone unfamiliar to her - she knew everyone who worked in that café. The new barista looked younger than her. Does she go to this university as well? The girl smiled at her brightly and Ryujin wondered whether her cheeks hurt from smiling that wide all morning.
"Um hello?" the girl waved her hand in front of Ryujin.
Ryujin snapped out of her thoughts and realised she had been staring at the barista. Suddenly, she couldn't remember Lia's favourite drink.
"I like your name," Ryujin blurted out.
"What?" the girl asked confusedly as she looked down at her own name tag.
"It says trainee," the girl chuckled, her eyes curving into crescent moon-like shapes.
Ryujin stood there frozen. She felt the heat rise to her cheeks and she wanted, more than anything, to run away but her legs refused to move.
"Don't worry! I won't tell anyone about this," the girl reassured her with a smile as she wiggled her pinky.
"So what would you like to order?" the girl asked again, the smile never leaving her face.
"I- um- caramel latte," Ryujin stumbled over her words.
The girl gave her a quick nod and proceeded to press the buttons on the register. Ryujin wondered whether the reason the line moved so slowly today was because everyone else before her was also stunned by the new barista and her million-watt smile. That had to be the reason, Ryujin couldn't have been the only one. It wasn't because the new barista was unfamiliar with the function of the cash register and coffee machine... no way...
Normally, Ryujin was very polite. She would always say please and thank you but that morning, all her manners flew out the window in favour of Ryujin not making a fool of herself by trying to say more words than necessary. So when the cute barista handed her the coffee, she quickly grabbed it, bowed a little and sped out the door.
When Lia arrived to her first class that day, she found her best friend, Chaeryeong, already sitting in their normal seats.
"Another day, another coffee," Chaeryeong teased, "I wonder how this secret admirer of yours isn't broke yet."
"It's sweet but I really wish they would stop spending money on me," Lia sighed, "Who gave it this time?"
"I don't remember her name but she did say it was from a friend of a friend of a friend when she handed it to me to give to you."
"That's helpful," Lia replied sarcastically.
"Hey! Before you use that tone with me, check the label," Chaeryeong urged.
Lia turned the takeaway cup in her hand and read aloud, "My name is Yuna."
There was an attempt at a smiley face drawn on the cup as well.
"Wait, who is that?" Lia asked.
Ryujin rubbed her heavy-lidded eyes. The professor was droning on and on about spectophotomary or spectrophotometry or whatever the fuck it was. She would ask her friend Heejin about it later since the other girl devoted all her attention to the professor. They were a funny pair. Heejin was at the top of the class, always had her lecture notes printed out beforehand, answered the professor's questions and had a gleam in her eye. On the other hand, Ryujin could barely keep her eyes open. She stopped sitting next to Heejin after the first week and opted for the back row so she could rest her head on the cold table, hidden by the students in front of her. She wished she got herself a cup of coffee in the morning, despite detesting the bitter taste. Maybe coffee would help her focus.
"Oh shit." Ryujin snapped awake as realisation hit her. People around her looked at her with raised eyebrows but she paid no attention to that. All she could think about was Lia. And how Lia is lactose intolerant. And how she forgot to order the caramel latte with almond milk. And how Lia has probably already finished the coffee. Oh boy.
Chapter 2: chaeryeong the wing woman
Lia didn't care about whatever Etruscan and ancient Roman style buildings the professor was showing the class with the projector. All she cared about was finding a way out of the lecture theatre without being caught. She felt her stomach tightening more and more with every second that went by.
"I need to get out of here," Lia whispered to Chaeryeong, although it came out more like a whimper.
"You okay?" Chaeryeong looked at her with worried eyes, her eyebrows knitted.
But Lia didn't have time to answer her. As soon as the professor turned around, facing away from the students, she bolted out of the room, leaving her all her belongings behind. Sorry Chae.
She barged into the ladies' bathroom, the musty scent filling her nostrils. She threw herself into the first and nearest cubicle, promptly locking the door behind her. Her stomach was making all kinds of gurgling noises and by then, her bladder really couldn't wait any longer.
For the past three months, this Yuna person seemed to know that Lia was lactose intolerant. In the beginning, when Lia received her first coffee from her secret admirer, she was wary but it came with a cute little note that really made her day.
Earlier that year, when everybody was studying for their mid-semester exams, Chaeryeong had suddenly handed Lia a cup of coffee. Despite Chaeryeong's claims that it wasn't from her, Lia suspected her anyway. Who else would know that her favourite type of coffee was caramel latte? But then again, when did Chaeryeong ever buy her anything besides birthday and Christmas presents in their seven years of friendship? The handwriting on the sticky note didn't seem like it was Chaeryeong's either. It said, "Hi Lia! Best of luck for your exams! Hopefully this will help you. P.s. I heard you're lactose intolerant so I ordered it with almond milk! :)" There was no name, not even initials. From that day, Lia made it her mission to find this person and thank them for brightening her day.
For the next few days, Chaeryeong would give Lia a cup of coffee but there weren't any notes anymore. It was always the same - caramel latte with almond milk. But it was also always different - a different girl every day would hand the coffee to Chaeryeong with the instruction to pass it on to Lia.
"So on Monday it was Heejin, right?" Lia asked, using her fingers to keep track, "Then it was Hyunjin, Haseul, Yeojin, Vivi, Jungeun, Jinsoul... who was next?"
"Honestly Lia, I don't remember anymore, it's someone new everyday," Chaeryeong sighed, "I barely remember the dates for when Notre-dame and Chartes were built, let alone the names of all these random people."
"Hey, it's okay," Lia consoled, rubbing her back, "We've studied hard for this, it'll come to you during the exam."
"No, I'm going to fail," Chaeryeong wailed , "Why is architecture so hard?"
Lia thought her little benefactor (she didn't want to flatter herself by calling them her secret admirer until it was clear) would stop buying her coffee after their exams were over but boy, was she wrong. She began to suspect that Chaeryeong knew who the person was but her best friend never faltered when Lia confronted her.
It never came with a note again until the day Yuna finally revealed herself (or so Lia thought).
Ryujin paced the floor, fiddling with the straps of her backpack. What was taking Heejin so long? Ryujin was always the first student out the door while Heejin always hung back to ask their professor questions. They really could not be more different but opposites attract, right?
"Bonjour mon ami!" Heejin beamed as she skipped through the doors.
"Salut!" Ryujin chortled at their little inside joke.
Two years ago, Ryujin was watching Yeji try to flirt with a french exchange student (heavy emphasis on the word 'try').
"Ryuddaeng help me out here," Yeji pleaded, "How do I introduce myself?" Her gaze never left the blonde French woman.
Ryujin's stifled laughter only made Yeji scrunch her nose and cross her arms, letting out an exaggerated huff. With her hair styled as pucca buns, Yeji really looked like a 5 year old kid instead of a 21 year old woman.
"I think it's jumabell Yeji," Ryujin answered. Does anyone actually remember what they learnt in sixth grade french class?
"Hey, no offence but she's not going to find it cute if you butcher the pronunciation like that," Heejin laughed as she watched the pair from the table next to theirs, "It's je m'appelle and then your name."
"Ah! Je m'appelle Yeji! thank you...?"
"Thank you Heejin, you're the only one I can trust here," Yeji grinned as she not-so-subtly jabbed Ryujin in the ribs.
"Was that necessary?" Ryujin rubbed her side and feigned hurt.
The pair sauntered towards the cafeteria where they had agreed to meet up with their group of friends.
"I'm screwed," Ryujin fretted along the way.
"Oh don't worry, you know I'll always share my notes with you, right?" Heejin (the absolute angel that she is) reassured.
"It's not- thank you but it's not that," Ryujin shook her head.
"Then what's up?"
"I may or may not have accidentally given Lia coffee with dairy milk in it and she's lactose intolerant and oh my god, what if I poisoned her? Do you think she'll be okay? I can't exactly ask her about it because she doesn't even know me and how can I even tell her it was me all along when I just poisoned her!" Ryujin prattled, a sense of helplessness eating away at her insides.
"Okay okay, relax a bit Ryu," consoled Heejin, "She'll probably have a stomach ache for a while but she'll be fine."
"You think?" Ryujin relaxed a little after hearing Heejin's words. Heejin was the smart one after all.
She gave Ryujin a firm nod.
"So when are you going to buy me a cup of coffee?" she wiggled her eyebrows, a teasing grin plastered on her face.
Ryujin shoved her (gently).
"Shut up," Ryujin said in a playful tone.
"So I think I found your secret admirer," Chaeryeong announced.
Lia's eyes lit up. "And?" she prodded when Chaeryeong fell silent, a small smile playing on her lips.
"I asked around and turns out, Yuna works at the café Want It? which is... drumroll please, Lia," Chaeryeong's tease was excruciating.
"Oh my god, please just tell me," Lia whined.
Chaeryeong quirked an eyebrow.
"Dugeun dugeun dugeun," Lia reluctantly complied. She drummed her fingers against her best friend's shoulder.
"The same café that your coffee is always from!" Chaeryeong exclaimed triumphantly. (If only you could see the smile on her face, she looked so proud of herself.)
"I-" Lia was lost for words. "Do you know what she looks like?"
"Nope but let's go find out!" Chaeryeong bubbled, linking her arm with Lia's and pulling her in the direction of the café.
"Wait none of these workers are Yuna," Lia whispered as she eyed their name-tags.
"Maybe her shift ended," Chaeryeong reckoned.
Lia nodded in agreement and turned to leave, just as Chaeryeong grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
"Wait! What about the girl with the name-tag that says trainee?" she gasped, "It could be her!"
Chaeryeong could hardly contain her excitement and pushed her friend towards the short queue of exhausted young adults.
They silently watched as the trainee worked. Her smile was like a blooming flower and everyone who had the honour of witnessing it would feel the irresistible impulse to smile back.
"She's so pretty," Lia found herself whispering breathlessly. The praise escaped her lips when the man in front of them moved away with his drink and they were next in line.
"Sorry, what was that?" the trainee asked. She smiled apologetically but otherwise, her expression didn't change. There was no hint of surprise or nervousness in her voice.
"O-oh, nothing!" Lia squeaked. She cleared her throat, "One caramel latte please, with almond milk."
She tried her best to give the barista her most enthusiastic smile but it looked more like a grimace.
"Sure!" the trainee beamed, "And you?" She turned to Chaeryeong.
"Oh me?" Chaeryeong blinked, "I'll just have an iced tea, thanks."
She nodded in response, a slight crease visible below her eyes as her lips curved and her cheeks lifted. Chaeryeong nudged her best friend, communicating with her eyes when Lia gave her a side-glare.
Chaeryeong raised her left eyebrow and subtly tilted her head towards the trainee: Ask her!
Lia furrowed her eyebrows in response, shaking her head ever so slightly: No!
Chaeryeong narrowed her eyes: If you don't then I will!
Lia shot her a threatening glare but ultimately gave in. Her curiosity peaked - either the barista was a really good actress or she really didn't recognise Lia.
"Um, sorry this is really random but are you Yuna?" Lia asked with hopeful eyes. She bit the insides of her cheek when the girl looked up at her. She was sure everyone could hear the tumultuous thudding of her heart beat.
"Yeah, I am!" the trainee, Yuna, grinned. If it was even possible, her smile grew wider as she handed Lia and Chaeryeong their drinks.
"Oh!" Lia blinked a couple times, "Well, um..."
She paused, scratching her head. How would she word it? She thought Yuna would admit that she was the one who had been giving her coffee anonymously for the past few months but the girl looked like she was ready to dismiss them and serve the next customer.
"Um I- I just wanted to say thank you for buying me coffee for like the past three months and it really isn't necessary but-" Lia spluttered.
"But you know I'm lactose intolerant, right? I mean, it's no big deal but you kind of forgot to put almond milk instead of dairy milk this morning and that wasn't good but it's okay because I'm okay now," Lia rambled. She breathed out in relief when she finally got out all the words that were bottled up inside her.
"Oh did I mess up your order this morning?" Yuna frowned at her mistake, "I'm so sorry, it's my first day. I hope you can forgive me."
"No, no! Don't be sorry," Lia put Yuna at ease, "I'm the one who's sorry for not figuring out that it was you all along! You wasted so much money, I wish you would've just told me. You seem really sweet so I would love- I mean like to get to know you too! When do you finish work?"
Yuna was overwhelmed at how quickly this customer was speaking to her. It took a while for her to register what exactly Lia was saying.
Yuna glanced upwards, her eyebrows knitted. Sorry for not figuring it out it was her? If Yuna was the one who took her order this morning, what exactly was there to figure out? Wasted so much money on her? What money? Yuna wondered what the fuck this girl was on about.
"Wait- sorry, I don't know what you mean," Yuna said, wearing a puzzled expression.
"You gave me this, didn't you?" Lia showed her the empty cup of coffee that Yuna had written on.
Her eyes darted between Lia and the cup. This was not the same flustered girl she had met this morning. Yuna was fairly certain that the girl had pink hair.
Chapter 3: ryujin: 0 wins
Ryujin fiddled with the post-it note in her hand, scanning for any spelling errors. She planned on buying Lia one last coffee, accompanied with an apology note. It's not that she didn't like Lia anymore - she was just too embarrassed to actually reveal herself now that she's accidentally poisoned her long-time crush. She stayed up last night writing draft after draft for a damn apology note. Her mum scowled at how messy her bedroom was; all the crumbled notes were scattered on the floor - she'd have to clean that up when got home. Honestly, she really needed a cup of coffee herself, otherwise, she'd fall asleep in her classes and would have to ask Heejin for notes again.
"If you stare at that note any more, you'll bore holes into it," Yeji poked fun at her.
Ryujin mumbled inaudibly, something along the lines of, "shut up."
She tucked the note into the pocket of her jacket and pushed the doors of the café but it wouldn't budge.
"It says pull," Yeji snickered, "Haven't you been here a million times before?"
Ryujin was just about to retaliate since Yeji was so keen on being such a smart-ass so early in the morning, but caught the barista's eye.
And just like that - a simple but heartwarming smile from the barista melted away all her worries.
"I'll wait at that table," Yeji informed her friend but Ryujin wasn't listening. Her feet seemed to have a mind of its own and was already moving the rest of her body towards the counter.
She patiently waited in line, silently reminding herself to remember her manners this time and for the last time, rehearsed the order in her mind, "one caramel latte with almond milk, with almond milk, with almond milk, with almond milk, with almond milk..."
"Hey!" the barista greeted her, snapping her out of her trance.
"Hi," Ryujin breathed out.
"What would you like?" she asked as her fingers hovered over the buttons on the register.
"With almond milk," Ryujin answered confidently (she even managed to smile), only to realise a beat later that she completely forgot the first part of her order.
"One caramel latte with almond milk!" Ryujin practically screamed to cover up her mistake. Yeji looked up from her phone questioningly, not that her best friend even noticed.
The barista nodded slowly as she pushed a few buttons before $3.80 was displayed on the small screen in front of Ryujin.
"So is this coffee for you or are you buying it for someone else?" the barista asked her as she handed over the amount in coins.
The smile that the barista had been wearing all morning faltered.
Ryujin's face crumpled.
"Oh god, she KNOWS! How does she know? Do I lie? Do I tell the truth?" Ryujin's thoughts ran wild.
"I-I u-um, it's not for me," Ryujin squeaked. It sounded more like a question than an answer and by the way the barista's smile had completely disappeared, Ryujin immediately regretted her answer.
"It's for a friend," Ryujin tried to explain, "Or an acquaintance I guess. I made a mistake and I'm trying to apologise for it." It was a half-truth at least.
"That's nice," the barista responded with a small smile before turning around to make the order.
Ryujin could see the girl working with drooped shoulders and even though she couldn't see her face, she knew she wasn't smiling. The café was buzzing like it always was but that day, it was painfully silent to Ryujin. She wanted to start a conversation but her words were caught in her throat and all she could do was stare at the girl's back.
She was mesmerised, almost like she was under a spell... until her phone buzzed in her jeans pocket.
yeddong: if u keep staring at her like that, she's gonna think ur a creep
If she was blushing, she could play it off and say it was getting warm in the café. But no, her cheeks weren't flushed pink. Ryujin's face was beet red. She could feel her face radiating so much heat, she was afraid her fingertips would get seared if she touched her own cheeks.
"You okay?" the barista asked, eyes wide with concern.
Ryujin cleared her throat. "Y-yeah, I think I'm having an allergic reaction." She avoided the barista's gaze, grabbed the cup and made a beeline for the door, completely unaware whether Yeji was following her or not.
"Hey!" Yeji called out as she barged through the doors, chasing after Ryujin, "You good?"
Ryujin didn't know. She was overwhelmed but not because of what Yeji had texted her. It's because she didn't know why she felt so nervous around the barista. She didn't understand how the barista's existence could take her breath away. She didn't know why every time they locked eyes, it was like the rest of the world disappeared. What was it? Attraction?
Still, she nodded slowly and let out a breath she didn't realise she was holding (she doesn't realise a lot of things these days) before wordlessly handing the cup to her best friend. Yeji looked at her curiously as Ryujin pulled out the folded note from her pocket.
"I'm fine," Ryujin told her with a tight-lipped smile. "Give Lia these when you see her in your architectural history class later please?"
"Not through Chae first?"
Ryujin shook her head. There was no need to if that would be the last time.
Ryujin looked back at the café before they walked across the lawn, towards their classrooms. Maybe she needed to sort out her feelings first... could she even call them feelings? She wasn't sure what they were.
"Hey isn't that Yeji?" Lia asked as she pointed at the pair exiting the café, "You know, you can't expect to get close to her if you don't talk to her first."
"Yeah, yeah," Chaeryeong dismissed, "Easier said than done. Who's the girl with pink hair though? I've never seen her."
"No idea." But Lia wondered.
Chapter 4: ryujin's love life is more confusing than shakespeare
Yeji stepped inside, eyes wandering around the lecture hall until they landed on her. She quickly made her way up the stairs, taking two at a time.
"Hey," she greeted, "This is for you."
"Oh?" Lia's eyes darted between Yeji and the coffee cup before finally settling on the note.
"Are you the one who's been buying Lia coffee everyday?" Chaeryeong asked carefully. Her stomach shifted uneasily.
Yeji shook her head quickly. "Nope," she replied, popping the p.
Chaeryeong's heart rate slowed down as she softly exhaled. 'Thank god,' she thought.
"Oh okay," she tried to sound as nonchalant as possible. "So, do you know who it's from?"
"Not at all," Yeji's voice was a little higher pitched than normal and that didn't go unnoticed by the pair.
"Oh," Lia mumbled. She wanted to sound disappointed to try and guilt Yeji into revealing the truth. "I've been looking for them for so long."
"Well... um... good luck!" Yeji forced a smile and turned to find a seat elsewhere before they could ask her any more questions.
"Wait-" Lia gently pulled her back. "This is kinda weird but who's the girl with pink hair you're always with?"
Yeji looked back at her, stunned.
"I'm asking for a friend," Lia added quickly.
Ryujin slumped back in her chair. She had been cooped up in the library with Heejin for only twenty minutes but it felt like they had been there all day. She looked around the room, searching for something to relieve her boredom. There was nothing that interested her in the slightest: The shelves of books, spines facing outwards, were arranged like a maze. Several students slouched over their textbooks and scattered notes. A faint coffee scent masked the usual musty smell of the library.
Suddenly, she jumped back, almost falling backwards in her chair. Heejin had slammed her textbook shut right in front of Ryujin's face.
"What?!" Ryujin hissed.
"You're getting too distracted!" Heejin whisper-yelled back. "I'm gonna quiz you."
Ryujin groaned but deep down (somewhere), she was grateful that her friend was willing to help her study and pass these exams.
"First question," Heejin hummed as she scanned her notes, "What type of pipette would you use to accurately dispense 1.5 microlitres?"
Ryujin held her head in her hands. She remembered reading her notes (well, Heejin's notes actually) on this stuff but her brain just couldn't recall the answer. She pressed her index finger to her temple and closed her eyes.
"P10?" She asked hesitantly.
"Well...yeah!" Heejin nodded with a smile, "The better answer is P2 but P10 works as well!"
Ryujin breathed out in relief, maybe she wouldn't fail.
Suddenly, her phone buzzed on their table. As she reached out for it, Heejin stopped her.
"No distractions!" She whispered as she swatted Ryujin's hand away.
"Wait, no!" Ryujin protested, "it's from Yeji! She never texts when she's in class, let me just see if she's okay."
Heejin nodded and retracted her hands.
yeddong: CODE RED CODE RED!!!
yeddong: LIA AND CHAERYEONG SAW US AT THE CAFE AND NOW LIA'S ASKING ABOUT YOU!
"Fuck!" Ryujin screamed.
"Sorry for getting us kicked out," Ryujin spoke quietly, barely above a murmur (something it should've been when they were in the library), "Where should we study now?"
Heejin snorted. "Man! You should've seen your face, your eyes were about to pop out of their sockets!" She widened her eyes with her fingers, trying to imitate her friend before doubling over from laughing too hard.
"At least one of us is having a great day," Ryujin huffed, crossing her arms.
"Hey, come on," Heejin toned down her teasing when she saw Ryujin miserably kicking the dirt, "She only saw you walking with Yeji."
"Yeah, but she's smart," Ryujin whined, "She'll put two and two together and then she'll hate me for poisoning her!"
Heejin placed her hands on Ryujin's shoulders and shook her.
"How many times do I have to tell you? You didn't poison her!"
Heejin sighed heavily and lowered her voice, "Even if she figures out that it was you, she wouldn't hate you for one tiny, little mistake you made. Three months, Ryu... If she's as smart as you say she is, she would know that you're the sweetest."
She released her grip on Ryujin's shoulders.
"Besides, don't you want her to know it's been you all along?"
Honestly, Ryujin wasn't so sure. On the one hand, she wasn't afraid of Lia hating her anymore (Heejin had a way with words that always made Ryujin feel better). But there was something else tugging at her heart, pulling her further and further away from Lia. And she had no idea what it was.
"I don't know Heekie..." Ryujin's voice trailed off.
"No! Absolutely not!"
Ryujin came to an abrupt stop when she saw where Heejin had led her to.
"I can't go inside," Ryujin panicked as she started backing away from the café.
"Why?" Heejin turned back to look at her friend.
"I just can't." Ryujin stood her ground, adamant about her decision.
"Traumatised 'cause of Lia?"
"What? No!" Ryujin replied defensively.
"Sure Jan..." Heejin mumbled.
But it really wasn't because of Lia. How could Ryujin face the barista two times in one day? Her mind was sent into a chaotic spiral, chased by thoughts of the barista. Among other things, Ryujin wondered whether the girl could help plants photosynthesise because her smile could literally outshine the sun. (It's a wonder how Ryujin even majors in Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences).
"Oh, come on! She's not even here," Heejin linked her arm with Ryujin's and pulled her inside the café.
What Heejin meant was Lia wasn't in the café but when Ryujin walked in, she noticed a certain blonde barista wasn't there either. Her stomach turned rigid. She didn't understand why she felt like a child finding out that Santa Claus isn't real. Wasn't she just hoping to not run into her again? Why didn't she feel relieved at all?
The café was supposed to be warm and cosy at 8:47am, but it felt like she was standing in the bleakness of night.
"Ryujin?" Heejin asked for the nth time, as she waved her hand in front of her friend's face.
"What?" Ryujin was brought back from her daze.
Heejin looked at her with knitted eyebrows and a slight frown. "C'mon, let's go order."
Ryujin gave her a small smile and let her friend pull her towards the counter. At least Heejin's hand on her wrist was warm.
Ryujin's eyes quickly scanned the menu printed on the wall behind the counter, as the line was getting shorter and shorter in front of her every second. She's never ordered anything for herself so it was kind of new to her. When it was finally her turn, she immediately recognised the barista from last week.
But the girl didn't even look at Ryujin.
"So what do you want?" she asked with irritation in her voice when Ryujin didn't say anything. Her eyes flicked up momentarily before being trained on the buttons of the cash register again.
"Oh, a yoghurt smoothie please."
The barista sighed heavily as Ryujin handed over the amount in coins, tutting as she counted them.
Ryujin watched as she carelessly threw the coins into the tray of the cash register before spinning around to make the drink. Hardly a minute later, she slammed the takeaway cup on the counter, almost spilling some of its content, and turned to take the next customer's order.
Ryujin forgot that not all baristas have smiles that could light up the whole world.
Chapter 5: ryujin's ALMOST 1st win
Ryujin watched as the small beads of rain trickled down the window. The morning sky was painted with a thousand different shades of grey and the trees outside were shivering after being continuously bitten by the harsh wind. She imagined how soothing the soft pitter-patter would sound if she was still sitting in her bed at home. Surely it would relieve all the stress she had been feeling lately. (From exams... nothing else).
She would've been able to hear the rain if it weren't for all the other college students on the bus yapping random bits of information at each other. She couldn't blame them though because one: she forgot to bring her airpods, and two: everyone was just trying to urgently cram and prepare for the hell they were about to go through (hell is synonymous with exams).
Beside her, Yeji was leaning her head against her shoulder. She wasn't asleep, just 'resting her eyes' (she said). The girl had been up all night, studying the exquisite ornamental tile-work of Antoni Gaudí. Yeji has a strong passion for architecture and she's all for learning from what people did in the past, but when the two came together to form 'architectural history', it was her biggest enemy (not that she even had any enemies to begin with but anyway).
Ryujin, on the other hand, went to bed at 10pm. When she came home late in the afternoon after studying for many hours with Heejin, she was drained. Absolutely drained. Like, to the point where she could not even lift a finger, let alone clean up the scrunched up balls of paper scattered on her bedroom floor. She told Heejin she would study (she very consciously decided not to promise Heejin anything) when she got home but one glance at all the important parts that she had highlighted was enough to send her into a slumber.
She woke up at around 8pm, only to eat dinner, clean herself up and then drift back to sleep. So, 'screwed' would be an understatement. Ryujin was fucked for her exam.
The bus suddenly jolted to a stop, to everyone on board's dismay. Yeji snapped awake. The doors flung open as other students reluctantly filed out into the light drizzle. That meant one thing: it was 8:12 am and Yeji had exactly 48 minutes to force her brain to remember all the Spanish buildings Gaudí had created, as well as a few other things she's sure she hasn't thoroughly revised yet. Or 38 minutes if she took a detour and got herself a much-needed coffee. It was going to have to be 38 minutes.
Once again, Ryujin found herself inside the café, ordering something for herself. It was like, the more she avoided going there, the more the universe decided to fuck her over and bring her there.
Ryujin didn't even need to look at the counter to know that h̶e̶r̶ ̶f̶a̶v̶o̶u̶r̶i̶t̶e̶ ̶b̶a̶r̶i̶s̶t̶a̶ the blonde barista was there. The atmosphere was different; Outside, it was winter but inside the café, it was spring. There was only one reason for that: The blonde girl's lips quirked upwards, reaching her crinkled eyes.
Yeji mumbled something incoherently (probably something she needed to remember for her exam) before dragging Ryujin towards the short queue.
"Hey!" the girl greeted the pair (with a natural, exuberant smile, of course!) when it was finally their turn, "What would you like to order?"
"I'll um... get a cappuccino?" Ryujin didn't want to order a yoghurt smoothie like she normally would. It seemed too childish and too... embarrassing.
"Wait what? I thought you didn't like coffee," Yeji butted in.
"Well I like it now," Ryujin whispered as she jabbed Yeji in the ribs, her eyes telling her best friend to shut up.
She avoided eye contact with the barista, only to notice that she didn't have a name tag with 'trainee' anymore. It said Yuna.
Yuna chuckled at the small exchange between Ryujin and Yeji. "And what about you?" she looked up at Yeji after pushing a few buttons on the cash register.
"Espresso please," Yeji responded, "Wait - can you make it a double shot?"
"Sure!" Yuna beamed.
Ryujin desperately wanted to strike up a conversation with Yuna but no matter how hard she looked for some courage, even just a tiny little bit, she couldn't find it. What she didn't expect was for Yuna to speak up first.
"So, do you guys have an exam soon?" Yuna asked as she ground the coffee beans. It wasn't a direct question for Ryujin but she was ecstatic anyway.
"Yeah, I have one today at nine," Yeji groaned, earning a look of sympathy from Yuna.
"Same." That was all Ryujin could muster. One single word. She hoped Yuna wouldn't think she was being cold.
"What about you?" Yeji continued the conversation as Yuna moved on to add the grounded beans to the portafilter.
"Not today," Yuna smiled, "I have one tomorrow though."
"What are you studying?" Ryujin blurted out, a little too loud. But Yuna didn't seem startled at all.
"Veterinary science!" Yuna's voice was laced with passion and intense enthusiasm. She locked the portafilter into the grouphead and clicked on a button. Ryujin wanted to tell her to slow down because when Yuna was done making their coffee, she would have to serve the next customer, which also meant their conversation would have to come to an end.
"Oooh," Yeji cooed, "Do you have any pets?"
"I do! I have a kitten," her eyes lingered on Ryujin for a moment too long, even though it was Yeji who asked the question.
"Good luck for your exams," Yuna beamed as she handed them their cups.
Ryujin found herself mirroring Yuna's infectious smile, "You too!" she managed to say before the blonde moved back to the cash register to take the next customer's order.
"Wait, why are you leaving a tip for the barista?" Yeji asked as the pair passed by the small jar fixed on top of the counter in the corner.
"Why not? The service was great!" Ryujin was dancing with the stars on the inside.
"This isn't a restaurant," Yeji looked at her curiously as she dropped a few coins in the jar.
"So?" Ryujin brought the warm cup to her lips, taking a sip of her cappuccino. Coffee had never tasted sweeter.
"You just like tipping pretty girls," Yeji smirked.
Ryujin rolled her eyes, a small smile playing on her lips. But that smile soon faded. She froze in her tracks. The door swung open and in walked Chaeryeong and... Lia.
Chapter 6: truths, half-truths and little white lies
Ryujin swiftly turned around, taking a sudden interest in a pot of… big leaves? (She had no idea what they were called). Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be just green plastic. And wow, was that a new painting hung up on the wall? Such intricate strokes of the brush, a remarkable masterpiece, absolutely breathtaking, sensa-
“Hey Yeji!” a soulful voice called out, unmistakably Lia’s.
Ryujin chugged her cappuccino, ignoring the flames in her throat. But she couldn’t ignore it for long. Water. She really needed water. Or anything icy. Her tongue was singed and the roof of her mouth was scorched. Her day really wasn’t off to a good start. Just for a moment, she forgot she even had an exam until she overheard Lia and Chaeryeong talking about how screwed they were for their architectural history exam with Yeji.
She propped her elbows on the counter, fanning herself as she looked around for a jug of water.
“That’ll be $5.40, thank- Oh my god, are you alright?” Yuna immediately ran over to Ryujin, leaving a very confused customer behind.
“I’m fine!” Ryujin wheezed
“Doesn’t seem like it, I’ll get you some water,” Yuna offered with worried eyes.
Ryujin took a huge gulp from the glass of water that she gratefully accepted and immediately felt a wave of relief wash over her.
“Was my coffee that bad?”
Ryujin looked up, meeting eyes that were the colour of dark, rich hot chocolate - the kind that spreads more warmth throughout your body than a blanket, the kind that guards you from the winter onslaught. She felt mesmerised by the deep swirls of fallen autumn leaves infused in her orbs and-
“Was it really really bad?” Yuna’s lips were slightly parted as her gaze dropped to the floor.
“What?” Ryujin was alarmed, “No! It was so good that I drank it too fast while it was still hot!”
It was a little white lie that Ryujin was glad she told because she wouldn’t trade the sight of Yuna’s smile growing brighter and brighter, just like a sunrise, for anything in the world.
With her newfound surge of confidence, she managed to introduce herself without stuttering (honestly, she was surprised herself). “Thanks for the water by the way, I’m Ryujin.”
“No problem, Ryujin!” Yuna grinned as the words rolled off her tongue. She could finally put a name to the pretty face she was beginning to look forward to seeing (even if it had only been three days since she started working).
“I should probably go do my exam now…” Ryujin’s voice trailed off. “But I’ll be back later for another coffee!”
Her enthusiasm died down along with Yuna’s fading smile.
“I only work early morning shifts so I won’t be making your coffee,” Yuna told her, “But I hope you enjoy it.”
“Hey, I’m still waiting to pay for my coffee,” a voice piped up.
“Sorry, gotta get back to work,” Yuna smiled apologetically, “Good luck, Ryujin!”
She gave Ryujin a double thumbs-up before scurrying back to the cash register, quickly spewing out apologies, which the customer seemed to accept. Ryujin smiled unconsciously as she walked towards the doors, feeling giddy after talking to Yuna all on her own. She thought about patting herself on the back but then decided it was best to do that when Yuna wasn’t around to see. Lost in thought, she didn’t realise she was going to walk into someone until it was too late.
Ryujin rubbed her forehead.
“Oh Ryujin, where’d you go?” Yeji asked.
“I went to get some water,” Ryujin replied as she looked up. It was only then that she realised Lia was still in the café… standing right in front of her. Her throat tightened.
“Hey Ryujin! I think I’ve seen you around before but we haven’t met yet, right? I’m Lia.” She extended her hand for Ryujin to shake.
“I know.” The words slipped right out of her mouth before her brain could register and form a response.
“I mean, Yeji has mentioned you being in her class before,” Ryujin hastily added.
She stared at Lia’s outstretched hand for maybe a moment too long before hesitantly shaking it.
“And I’m Chaeryeong!” the other girl (who Ryujin obviously also knew) chimed in and gave her a little wave.
“Do you come here often?” Lia suddenly asked.
Ryujin felt her heart leap out of her chest, and not in the “oh my god, my crush is talking to me!” kind of way. It was the, “holy fuck, she’s gonna realise it was me” kind of way.
She thought about lying but remembered Yeji’s text. It would be even more suspicious.
“Yeah kind of…”
“Oh! Do you know anyone who regularly- ”
“Sorry! I have to get to an exam!” Ryujin exclaimed before scampering out of the café.
“So that really is the friend she was apologising to,” Yuna surmised as she watched Ryujin brush past Lia with gravity-drawn shoulders.
“Wait, sorry, I don’t know what you mean,” Yuna said, wearing a puzzled expression.
“You gave me this, didn’t you?” Lia showed her the empty cup of coffee that Yuna had written on.
Yuna brought the cup closer, recognising her own handwriting and the wonky smile she had drawn on the curved surface. Except, she was fairly certain that the girl she handed the coffee to had shoulder-length pink hair (it’s hard to forget such an eye-catching colour), not long black hair. She didn’t normally write her name on people’s coffee cups either - it was only because the customer had amusingly claimed that trainee was a nice name.
Yuna backtracked a little. “I just wanted to say thank you for buying me coffee for like the past three months,” she recalled the customer in front of her saying. Three months...
“I guess I did write this, but I didn’t give it to you,” Yuna admitted, “I’m sorry but I think you’re asking out the wrong person.”
The girl in front of her visibly deflated as she tried to hide the rosy shade that crept onto her cheeks.
“Oh god,” she murmured, “I’m so sorry too.”
“Wait - do you remember who bought this?” Chaeryeong pressed on. This was the closest they’ve ever gotten to finding Lia’s secret admirer.
Of course Yuna remembered. She didn’t know the girl’s name but it was easy for her to tell them she had pink hair. How many girls at their university had pink hair?
“I’m sorry, I don’t really remember the faces of customers I’ve served,” Yuna lied.
Yuna was a lot of things but a liar wasn’t one of them… until that moment anyway. Maybe it was something about the way the pink-haired girl’s whisker-like dimples danced under her eyes while she texted on her phone. That was the first thing Yuna noticed about her when she walked into the café on Yuna’s first day.
Chapter 7: got a secret, can you keep it
Ryujin's eyes flitted to the clock hung high on the wall at the front of the lecture hall and returned to her barely marked test paper on her desk. She bit her knuckles as her eyes skimmed over the next question... and the next... and the next... She hadn't picked up her pencil in ten minutes, which was bad, considering she had thirty minutes or so left and a little more than forty multiple choice questions left.
"When in doubt, pick C," she thought to herself as she gripped her pencil and shaded in the bubbles for a few questions she had scribbled a question mark next to.
The interphase stage of the cell cycle comprises of which combination of the following?
a) G1 phase, S phase, G2 phase, G3 phase
b) G3 phase, S phase, G2 phase, G1 phase
c) G1 phase, S phase, G2 phase, G0 phase
d) G0 phase, G1 phase, S phase, G3 phase
"What the fuck is the difference?" Ryujin thought out loud, earning glares from other students around her. Luckily, she was sitting too far back for her professor to hear her complaints.
"Eenie meenie minie moe," she tapped her pencil along the bubbles before landing on option d. She already knew her fate was sealed as soon as she opened the test paper, it was too late to take Heejin's advice instead of sleeping the rest of the day away.
What type of pipette would you use to accurately dispense 950 microlitres?
c) P100 9 times and P50 once
"Oh thank god, finally something I know." Maybe her study sessions with Heejin were paying off afterall.
What is the role of sunlight in photosynthesis?
Instead of recollections of the section of Heejin's notes on photosynthesis that she had thoroughly read in the library, Yuna's smile swam back into Ryujin's mind.
She flicked her pencil on her forehead, trying to will herself to archive those fresh memories of Yuna for a moment. She closed her eyes, massaging her temples, and thought about Heejin's notes again. Something about chlorophyll... and light energy... But then she was distracted by the thought of how great of an idea it would be if humans could store and open particular memories whenever they wanted, like a USB.
A torturous twenty or so minutes passed by before the professor rang the bell, puncturing the silence. Ryujin didn't feel relieved at all but at least it was over. One down, three to go. She was only sure about forty out of the one hundred questions but she hoped she would've guessed at least ten out of the remaining sixty questions right. That's all she needed to pass anyway.
As she plodded back down the stairs of the lecture hall, tailing other students in front of her, she caught Heejin's eye. Ryujin scrunched her nose and shrugged in response to Heejin's raised eyebrows, which the latter then answered with a pout.
"How was it?" Heejin asked as Ryujin finally made it outside.
"Probably could've done better," Ryujin sighed wearily as she plopped down onto the bench and rested her elbow on the picnic table, leaning her head against her palm.
"The seat," Heejin motioned, "It just rained."
Ryujin groaned as she stood up, almost twisting her neck as she tried to check her backside to see if her pants were damp. They were. She reluctantly took off her jacket as the cool wind nipped at her arms, and tied it around her waist.
"What would you do without me?"
"I couldn't imagine life without you," Ryujin simpered, but there was a subtle hint of sincerity in her voice.
Heejin fake-gagged before they both burst into a fit of giggles. As much as Ryujin loved to clown Heejin, the girl was one of her favourite people in the world. She was her best friend, besides Yeji. And although she'd never admit it out loud, she loved Heejin.
"Hey guys! How was your exam?"
The pair, still clutching their stomachs, trying to subdue the pain in their ribs from laughing too hard, looked up to see Yeji approaching them, with Lia and Chaeryeong.
Ryujin immediately straightened up, fiddling with the hem of her t-shirt and avoiding eye contact with everyone.
"It was alright," Heejin answered for both of them, "How were yours?"
"I swear some of the shit they asked weren't in the textbook or lectures but whatever," Yeji replied with a quick, careless wave of her hand.
"That sucks," Heejin sympathised.
"Oh by the way guys, this is Heejin," Yeji introduced (because Ryujin just couldn't find her words), "She does science with Ryujin."
They exchanged greetings and Ryujin was ready to part ways with them to study with Heejin, her hand already on Heejin's arm.
"We're going to the library," Chaeryeong started - and before Ryujin could turn to leave - "Do you wanna study with us?"
"We can book a room since we have more than four people," Lia added.
"Sure! Sounds good," Heejin agreed, lightly patting Ryujin's hand that still clung to her arm.
"Think of it as just a study session," Heejin whispered behind her hand as she and Ryujin trailed slowly behind the trio, "Like the ones you and I always have."
"I can't believe you agreed to this," Ryujin hissed through gritted teeth.
"The rooms are the only quiet areas of the library during exam season," Heejin tried to explain, but there was an unsettling feeling in her stomach for not considering Ryujin's feelings first.
Ryujin supposed Heejin was right. But she couldn't shake the feeling that she was going to slip up. The more she dwelled on it, the more embarrassed she felt. She really spent countless pay cheques on coffee for a total stranger. She wished it was something she did as a sixteen year old, maybe then it'd seem less pathetic.
The pair found the room first and filed in, while the others looked for some textbooks.
And as luck would have it, when they arrived, each carrying a short stack, Lia hung her bag on the chair next to Ryujin's.
They worked in comfortable silence for about an hour (well it was comfortable for everyone except Ryujin) before Yeji's stomach grumbled.
"Sorry," she whispered sheepishly.
She glanced at the clock on the wall, just as the minute and hour hands both ticked over to twelve.
Chaeryeong chuckled, "Should we go grab lunch?"
"Yeah, let's go!" Lia closed her books and capped her pen.
"You guys go ahead," Heejin said, looking over at Ryujin, trying to tell her something with her eyes, "I've packed lunch."
"Uh yeah," Ryujin seemed to understand, "Same."
When the trio left and closed the door behind them, Heejin piped up, "Lia kept glancing over at you."
Ryujin sighed heavily. If there was anyone who could help her sort out her feelings, it was probably Heejin. Maybe it was time to tell her about a certain barista.
"I'm not saying that Ryujin's the one who's been buying me coffee but I'm saying she might be the one who's been buying me coffee," Lia babbled when Yeji left to get her order, "I saw her handwriting, it looks just like the one on the note you and Yeji gave me."
Chaeryeong rubbed her chin, pausing to think. "I mean, it's possible..."
"I'm like ninety-nine point nine percent sure."
"Are you gonna ask her about it?"
"I don't know," Lia hesitated as she remembered how her talk with Yuna went, "I have to make sure first."
"Don't you think Yeji would know?" Chaeryeong pointed out.
A light bulb sparked. "Remember when we saw them walking out of the café together?!" Lia gasped, quickly covering her mouth afterwards.
"Wait now that I think about it, I feel like Heejin was one of the people who have handed me coffee to give to you," Chaeryeong mused, "She looked kind of familiar."
"No wait! Yes! She definitely was! She was the first one I think!" Chaeryeong affirmed, clapping her hands together.
Lia's heart stuttered for a moment. She didn't know what to do with what they've just uncovered.
Chapter 8: a smile brighter than the stars
"Wait, so basically, you're crushing on two girls at once?"
Ryujin preferred to admire beautiful things from afar. It's why her countless crushes never really became of anything. Maybe she was a coward or maybe it was because she felt safer staying behind the walls she's built around herself. But it was like Yuna had her own door that she could use to walk into Ryujin's life whenever she wanted. Ryujin didn't know if that was a good thing or not... people can walk out through doors just as easily as they walked in.
"I mean, I wouldn't call it a crush..." Ryujin grumbled as she aimlessly flicked through the pages of her textbook.
"Then what would you call it?"
Heejin slid her chair back and pressed her cheek against her arm, resting on the table.
"Well, which one are you more interested in?" she emphasised.
To Ryujin, Lia was like a star - devastatingly beautiful but does anyone ever feel the desire to get close to the stars?
"I don't think I like Lia anymore," Ryujin spoke quietly.
"You said think."
"You said you think you don't like her anymore," Heejin clarified, "But how do you feel?"
"Okay, I don't like her anymore," Ryujin declared with a hint of finality before burying her nose in her textbook.
But Heejin was unconvinced. "Then why do you turn into a hermit crab whenever you see her?"
"A hermit crab?" Ryujin lowered her textbook, meeting Heejin's gaze with confused eyes.
"Yes! Every time you see her, you hide!"
"I don't hide!"
Heejin crossed her arms and sighed heavily. "Uh huh, I'll believe you when you've looked her in the eyes and still believe that she's not who you want anymore."
"I never actually wanted her, it was just a stupid crush," Ryujin admitted, fidgeting with the hair band on her wrist.
"I thought you said you wouldn't call it a crush?"
"She's an ex-crush or something."
Heejin looked at her like she had just announced to the world that she's a green cat.
"I just don't like Lia, okay? And I feel awkward when she's around," Ryujin exasperated.
Ryujin's heart fell faster than Icarus tumbling out of the sky. Her eyes met Lia's glassy ones and all she could think about was how nice it would be if the floor opened up and swallowed her whole.
"She didn't mean-" Heejin tried to salvage but Lia didn't want to hear it from her.
"Why Ryujin?" Lia interrupted. Her voice wavered.
Ryujin searched her mind for words but it was blank. It was like she was drowning - unable to think, unable to say anything, unable to breathe.
"You were so good with your words a few seconds ago," Lia quipped.
"Hey!" Yeji's head suddenly peeped through the doorway. "Why are you just standing around?"
She and Chaeryeong had fallen behind Lia, chatting between themselves on their way back from the food court.
"I'm going now." Lia's hands were grasped tight around the straps of her backpack as she brushed past Yeji and Chaeryeong.
"What? Where are you going?" Chaeryeong called after her. But she didn't respond.
"I'll check on her," Ryujin swallowed before taking a leap into the Unknown.
"How much of that did you hear?" Ryujin asked meekly as she slowly approached Lia. She found her sitting cross-legged on a bench just outside the library.
"So now you talk," Lia rolled her eyes.
Ryujin shifted her weight from one foot to the other, unsure how to respond as she looked down at Lia.
"The part where you said you didn't like me and you feel awkward around me."
"I don't not like you, and I feel awkward but..." Ryujin paused to think. "It's not really because of you."
"Not really? Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"I'm sorry," Ryujin frowned, "I'm not good with words."
Lia placed her bag in her lap, hugging it tightly, leaving the space on the bench beside her empty. She lightly patted the seat, inviting Ryujin to step out from behind her walls.
They sat together in silence for a while - both of them overthinking, both of them wanting to say something.
Suddenly, like the flick of a switch, Lia unzipped the front pocket of her backpack and pulled out a small piece of paper. She hesitated before showing it to Ryujin, watching the solemn expression on Ryujin's face morph into something entirely different.
"I don't mean to put you on the spot here," Lia started cautiously, "But I was wondering if you're the one who wrote this?"
There was nowhere to hide. But Ryujin didn't plan on hiding anymore. Maybe sometimes Ryujin did want to reach for the stars.
"Yes," was all Ryujin said.
"Yes?" Lia prodded.
"I wrote it."
"So the coffee, they were all from you?"
Ryujin nodded slowly.
"Sorry, by the way," she apologised, "I know you're lactose intolerant but I fucked up the order once. Were you okay?"
The tension between Lia's eyebrows eased away and her expression softened.
"I was okay after a while," Lia reassured.
A heartbeat later, she spoke up again. "I'll forgive you if you come and watch See Sea with me. Hyolyn's in it!"
"After exams, dummy," Lia nudged her shoulder teasingly with a broad smile.
"Sure." Ryujin returned a weak smile.
If Lia told her this a week ago, Ryujin would've felt an explosion of excitement. But at that moment, she could only feel a mixture of different emotions and none of them really enlivened her.
"I can't believe I thought it was the barista," Lia chuckled as she voiced her thoughts.
"Yeah, I thought Yuna, the barista, was the one buying me coffee," Lia laughed, shaking her head at the memory of how she embarrassed herself in front of the younger girl.
Right. Yuna. Funny how a mention of her name was all it took to leave her floating on cloud nine.
Chapter 9: it's not a date
“Yuna, I know we’re not close and I don’t know if you would even consider me a friend but I miss you,” Ryujin admitted.
“This is so stupid,” Heejin groused, “Just tell her already!”
“You’ve been practising in front of us for what?” Yeji looked up at the clock in Ryujin’s bedroom, “Thirty minutes? Maybe forty. I think you’re ready now.”
“No, you’re right, this is stupid,” Ryujin mumbled, scrunching the receipt that she had written on in her hand and tossing it in the bin.
“You would’ve aced all your exams if you revised as much as you revised that one line you wrote on that,” Yeji teased, jutting her chin out towards the bin.
“Shut it.” Ryujin narrowed her eyes.
“Anyway, aren’t you supposed to meet Lia in like twenty minutes?” Heejin asked.
“Oh fuck.” Ryujin sprinted to her closet and rummaged through the drawers, tossing unsatisfactory articles of clothing behind her (one managed to land on Yeji’s head).
“I have nothing to wear.” She let her weight drop to the ground.
“I thought you said it wasn’t a date,” Heejin smirked.
“It’s not but I’m not gonna show up looking like a hobo.”
“Does Lia know it’s not a date?” Yeji pitched the shirt that landed on her head back at Ryujin, though it fell short and landed on the floor somewhere between them.
Ryujin shrugged. “I don’t know, I should probably make it clear, right?”
Yeji nodded as she crawled towards the shirt and flung it up at Ryujin.
“When was the last time you paid for my movie ticket? I thought I was your best friend,” Heejin pouted, her arms crossed.
“Never have, never will,” Ryujin deadpanned.
“It really be your own friends sometimes,” Heejin wailed as she flopped onto Ryujin’s bed, burying her face into the quilt.
“Besides, I never see you watching anything besides Naruto.”
“And what’s wrong with Naruto,” Heejin challenged.
“Weeb,” Yeji quietly added.
“Say it to my face!” Heejin puffed out her chest like she was three inches taller (but really, if she wasn’t on Ryujin’s bed and if Yeji wasn’t sitting on the floor, she’d be three inches shorter ).
“Weeb!” Yeji stood her ground.
“At least I don’t have a thing for sparkly vampires, you Twilight lover!” Heejin retorted.
“At least they’re not two-dimensional animations!”
“At least the main character doesn’t stalk some girl he just met and literally watch her sleep!”
Ryujin’s worries dissolved into laughter as she watched her best friends argue with each other, each trying to get the last word in.
Eventually (and miraculously), they stopped arguing and were able to find Ryujin a decent outfit in the remaining 5 minutes she had until her not-date/hang out with her ex-crush.
“$20 says she won’t be able to say it,” Yeji whispered behind her hand as she and Heejin walked down the street towards the bus stop.
“I’m not betting on Ryujin’s love life.”
“Because I agree with you. There’s no way in hell she’ll say it,” Heejin snickered.
Ryujin dusted her pants as she patiently waited in front of the snack bar with two See Sea movie tickets in her hand. She didn’t know what snacks Lia would want (and frankly, she didn’t know a lot of things about Lia).
Ryujin looked up and broke into a smile. “Hey.”
Before either of them could say anything else, Ryujin caught a glimpse of blonde from behind Lia.
“Oh shit!” Ryujin pulled Lia by the arm.
“Hide!” Ryujin pushed Lia’s shoulders down, making her crouch down.
Lia looked curiously at Ryujin’s face, which was only inches away from hers as they crouched together. If she lost balance, she would plant a kiss on Ryujin’s cheek. But she knew she shouldn’t so she cleared her mind.
“What are we hiding from?” Lia asked. “And do we have to hide behind a bin?”
Ryujin peeked from behind the bin.
False alarm. It was just a blonde foreigner.
Ryujin didn’t really know why she acted the way she did. Was it because she didn’t want to be caught with Lia? But she wondered if she had gone to the cinemas with Heejin or Yeji, would her first instinct be to hide?
Her train of thought snapped when she felt the persistent jabs into her sides.
“Earth to Ryujin,” Lia waved a hand in her face, poking her with a finger on her other hand.
“Sorry, I thought I saw someone,” Ryujin apologised as she helped Lia up.
It was ridiculous and really childish, and Ryujin knew it. Heejin and Yeji wouldn’t let her live it down if they somehow found out about it.
Ryujin flipped a coin in her mind: Heads for tell Lia the truth, Tails for lie.
Heads, she decided. It was better to embarrass herself than to lead a girl on.
“I thought it was Yuna,” Ryujin admitted, fingernails digging deep into her palms.
“Yuna?” Lia questioned. “As in Yuna the barista?”
“But why would you hide from Yuna?”
Ryujin drew in a shaky breath.
“Because I don’t want her to think I’m on a date with someone else…” Ryujin mumbled, her voice trailing off, like she was a child admitting responsibility for the trouble she caused.
“Because I don’t want her to think I’m on a date with someone else,” Ryujin reiterated a little louder.
Lia fell silent.
“So I guess Chaeryeong was right,” Lia cut the tension in the air moments later.
“Yeah, she thinks you like Yuna,” Lia unfolded, “Something she heard from Yeji. She told me not to think of this as a serious date. She also said she’d break your bones if you break my heart.”
“I’m sorry,” Ryujin frowned.
“Don’t be. My heart is still intact so don’t worry,” Lia reassured.
“I meant I’m sorry for not telling you myself.”
“It’s okay, I guess we’re even now, huh?” Lia smiled.
Ryujin pouted slightly. “Huh?”
“Never mind, we can still watch the movie as friends, can’t we?”
“Of course!” Ryujin grinned.
Ryujin shifted uneasily in her seat, just as the lights in the theatre were dimming. All around her, there were men with their arms draped languidly over the shoulders of women. Friends go to the movies together too, she reminded herself. Maybe she was just uncomfortable because there were so many men under the same roof as her.
A smile stretched on her lips when she saw the main character walk past someone who was sipping on a cup of coffee. She could never look at coffee the same way again. She used to hate the bitter taste but nowadays, she couldn’t think about coffee without thinking about Yuna. And she could never hate Yuna. Therefore, she could never hate coffee again. It was strange logic but that was how the mind of a stressed university student worked.
“Are you crying?”
“No need to point out the obvious,” Lia huffed, hastily wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand.
“Sorry,” Ryujin spoke quietly. She didn’t really know why Lia was crying. She thought the script writer was about as intellectual as the pet goldfish she had when she was six (the little dude kept hitting his head against the glass of his fishbowl). “I don’t have any tissues.”
“It’s okay, I’m fine now,” Lia rubbed her nose, sniffling loudly. “Is my mascara running though?”
“No,” Ryujin smiled, “You’re good.”
“I’m sorry for crying on this da- friend hang-out thing,” Lia mumbled, “It was just so sad.”
“Like, when the girl finally realised her feelings for the guy after the guy pined after her for a whole year, but then the guy got a girlfriend and there was nothing the girl could do about it,” Lia sobbed, avoiding eye contact with Ryujin.
“I guess that is sad… but isn’t that kind of an expected, cliché storyline?”
“I thought the girl and the guy would end up together,” Lia frowned.
“I wasn’t really expecting that, the guy must’ve been tired of waiting.”
They walked down the stairs leading to the exit of the theatre as they discussed the ending of the movie. Lia decided to make a pit stop at the bathroom to fix her make-up before they left the cinemas and parted ways.
Ryujin pulled out her phone and scrolled through her social media feed, occasionally pretending like she was busy texting instead of just loitering outside the bathroom. But Lia was taking an excruciatingly long time and Ryujin was running out of social media apps to scroll through (she was up to Tumblr now and she didn’t even remember the last time she opened that app).
She quickly pocketed her phone, glad that she could finally leave (and stop pretending that she wasn’t a loner). But when she looked up, she couldn’t take a step.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ryujin had it all figured out. She was supposed to watch the movie with Lia. Then, she was supposed to go to the café the next morning with Heejin because Heejin wanted to apply for a job there (not that she needed a buddy to hold her hand while she was getting interviewed, Ryujin just wanted to see a certain someone). Ryujin was supposed to see Yuna at the café, not while she was waiting for Lia to touch up her make-up.
This really wasn’t supposed to happen. The plan that she had spent the whole day constructing in her mind and rehearsing in her bedroom with her best friends, dissipated in a matter of seconds.
Yuna’s blonde hair was tucked neatly under a black beret. Thin curled strands hung down, lightly grazing her cheeks. The white cotton of her halter top hugged her body, as her navy checkered skirt sat comfortably on her waist. She was a lot taller than Ryujin had noticed before, but maybe it was the added height from her black platform boots. Ryujin already thought Yuna looked beautiful in her uniform at the café. Seeing her in something other than a white button-up with a dirt-brown coloured apron, put her at a loss for words.
Ryujin had never felt more insecure in her own plain t-shirt and black tailored pants. She felt like she had just been slapped by reality - Yuna was way out of her league.
“Okay I’m done, we can go n-” Lia’s voice died down immediately.
“Oh hey! Lia, right?” Yuna greeted cheerily.
“Yeah, hey Yuna!” Lia tried to return a smile, “Are you watching a movie now?”
“Yeah, we’re watching Aladdin,” Yuna gestured between herself and her purple-haired… friend? Date?
“Hi, I’m Yerim!” the other girl waved. Her bright smile could almost rival Yuna’s. Almost.
“Are you two watching a movie together too?” Yuna asked, her eyes met Ryujin’s.
“We- We just finished watching it,” Ryujin’s voice was small.
“Cool…” Yuna’s voice trailed off.
“Well, our other friends are already inside the theatre so we should get going,” Yuna hurriedly added before linking her arm with Yerim's and waving goodbye.
“It was nice to meet you!” Yerim grinned enthusiastically.
So Yuna and Yerim weren’t on a date?
“Bye…” Ryujin hopelessly called after their retreating figures.
Chapter 10: one step forward, two steps back
It takes me one day just to take one step forward and only two seconds for you to push me two steps back.
"Tell me something I don't know," Ryujin groaned as she flopped onto her bed, accidentally hitting her elbow against the wall. She curled into a ball, rubbing her elbow to soothe the pain.
"I'm glad you know."
Heejin pushed Ryujin aside and pulled up the quilt that was a tangled heap at the foot of the bed, tucking herself under its warmth. She patted the empty space on her right which was reserved for Yeji. Soon, they were like three peas in a pod, huddling together under Ryujin's blankets.
"Why do you get to be in the middle?" Yeji sulked with pursed lips.
"Your legs are too long," Heejin reasoned, "It's better to have your legs dangling over the side of the bed than resting on top of my legs."
"But I want cuddle," Yeji's voice was higher-pitched than normal. She puffed out her cheeks and scrunched her nose. She looked about as angry as a kitten being robbed of their ball of wool.
Yeji sloppily wrapped her arms around Heejin (she reached out for Ryujin too but Ryujin pushed her hand away) and sighed in content. Heejin, on the other hand, felt suffocated by Yeji's hot breath blowing into the crook of her neck.
"So ladies, how's the missus?" Yeji slurred out of the blue.
"How much did she drink?"
"Who knows, she's a lightweight. I kinda wish I was," Ryujin grumbled.
After seeing Ryujin's desperate messages in their group chat, Yeji made a quick trip to the liquor store before showing up with Heejin at Ryujin's door. (The Soju, Midori and even a cheeky bottle of Hennessy were wrapped with Yeji's wooliest jumper at the bottom of her duffle bag so Ryujin's parents wouldn't know).
"We're all single, what missus?" Ryujin rolled her eyes. (It's a touchy subject, can you blame her?)
"Unless... you're not single." Heejin's eyebrows jumped at the sudden realisation.
"Who's the unlucky girl?" Ryujin joked.
"She told me that she's the luckiest girl in the world," Yeji giggled uncontrollably, her eyes crinkling at their corners.
Ryujin thought this was the only time Yeji was kind of cute. Kind of.
"And what's the name of the luckiest girl?" Ryujin made a face as she mocked Yeji.
"Chaery!" Yeji proclaimed, throwing her arms up in the air excitedly.
"You know her!" Yeji bubbled, bobbing up and down.
"I think I would know if I knew any Chaerys," Ryujin sassed.
"You used to like her best friend, Lia," Yeji snickered.
Yeji gasped and clasped a hand over Heejin's mouth. She held a finger to her own lips. "Shhhh, secret!"
Heejin pulled Yeji's hand away and feigned disgust. "Did you wash your hands?"
"Of course," Yeji pouted. Okay, maybe Yeji was cute. "Not!" Yeji threw her head back and burst into a fit of giggles again as Heejin began to fake-gag.
When the laughter died down, the alcohol was beginning to make Yeji drowsy. Soon, her soft snores could be heard over the light chatter between Heejin and Ryujin. They would have to ask her about Chaeryeong later.
"You guys crash at my place so often, you should just live here."
"You go to the cafe so often, does that mean you want to live there?" Heejin wiggled her eyebrows with a teasing grin spread across her face.
"Shut up." Ryujin pulled the covers over her head.
"You know the thing you practised this morning?" Heejin took the opportunity to bring it up. Ryujin hummed in response and threw her blanket back down. "I don't think you should tell her you miss her. You literally saw her today."
Ryujin folded her pillow so it covered her ears. "Why did you have to remind me?" she whined.
"I'm saving you from embarrassment!"
"I've felt embarrassed more times than I can count on my fingers and my toes in the past week. It's a little late for saving."
"No! Listen to me," Heejin pulled the pillow away from Ryujin's ears, "There's a carnival this Friday. Ask her to go with you."
Ryujin stifled a yawn. "Yeah, no, I'm not even going to the café with you tomorrow." She turned around, facing away from Heejin, pretending to go to sleep.
Heejin shook her shoulders, trying to get her to turn back around. "You have to go!"
"Shhh," Ryujin calmly shushed her. "You'll wake up the baby."
Heejin withdrew her hands. "What baby?"
"Come on! You're a big girl now! Literally an adult! You're twenty one or something, basically pushing 30, so stop acting like a prepubescent teen and. Just. Tell. Her," Heejin enunciated as she shoved Ryujin towards the counter. The girl was surprisingly strong for someone so small. Or maybe it was because Ryujin's legs felt like jelly whenever she was around a certain someone. "God, is this what mothers feel like when they send their kids to kindergarten?"
"No, please!" Ryujin whimpered as she struggled to stop herself from moving forward.
"Puppy eyes don't work on me, stop that!"
That only made Ryujin frown even more.
"Don't make me slap you. I had to sit there and listen to you say the same line over and over again yesterday."
"Nobody forced you!"
"It's a duty literally written in our best friend contract!" Heejin whisper-yelled.
"What contract?! I didn't sign no contract!"
"I also won't be signing one if you don't let me do this interview!"
Surrendering to the force of Heejin's final push, Ryujin stumbled towards the counter, where Yuna was standing, pretending not to notice whatever pushing game Ryujin and Heejin seemed to be playing.
Ryujin drew in a sharp breath and set the butterflies in her stomach free.
"Hey Yuna! I was wondering if you would like to go to the carnival on Friday with me?" she recited in her mind. (Yes, Heejin had a way with words that could almost always convince Ryujin).
"Hey," Yuna's eyes flicked up from the cash register momentarily.
The warm smile she used to wear was replaced with a lifeless one, only there like it was simply part of her job. But the sun still shines on cloudy days, doesn't it? All Ryujin needed to do was move those clouds. No big deal.
"Hi." Okay, maybe it was a big deal actually because Yuna refused to make eye-contact with Ryujin. "Um... are you okay?"
"I'm fine, what would you like to order?
"I uh...actually... " Ryujin cleared her throat. "I was wondering ifyouwannagowatchamoviewithme?"
Her heart screamed at her mouth for fucking it all up - literally any other place would've been better than the cinemas. Go to the carnival... watch a movie... they didn't even sound remotely the same so she couldn't even blame it on a slip of the tongue. Her entire body was sent into panic mode - her stomach knotted up as she gnawed the inside of her cheek.
"A movie?" Yuna repeated after a moment of silence, finally looking up from the cash register.
"Or the carnival this Friday?" Ryujin tried to salvage.
It took all of what was left of her courage to add three more words. "As a date."
And one second for her to shrink back into her shell. "Only if you want it to be a uh... date."
Ryujin felt a sinking feeling in her stomach as she watched Yuna avert her gaze and withdraw her hands back to her sides.
"Oh." Ryujin's heart plummeted. It wasn't the response she'd thrown countless coins into fountains and wishing wells for.
Her face crumbled like building to rubble. In all her imaginings and practices, she was too busy trying to remember the words that she hadn't even considered the fairly high possibility that she'd be turned down.
She bit down on her tongue and forced a smile, determine to rearrange her crestfallen face into a nonchalant one, like she didn't just get her heart crushed.
"It's okay! See you around, I guess."
Ryujin had never turned around so fast in her life.
"Wait -" Yuna called her back, "It's just - how do I say this -"
Ryujin's mind flooded with all the possible reasons Yuna could give and among them, 'I'm not into girls' was flashing in large, red, bold letters.
"Don't you like Lia?" The question tasted stale in Yuna's mouth but she forced it out anyway.
Ryujin froze like a deer caught in the headlights. That was definitely not one of the reasons she was thinking of.
"That time you said the coffee was for someone you wanted to apologise to, it was for Lia, wasn't it?"
Ryujin knew she should've denied it as soon as Yuna asked if she liked Lia but she was caught off-guard. And now it was like her vocabulary shrunk to about the size of a fetus's vocabulary... non-existent. How long had Yuna known about Lia and the coffee?
"She really seems to like you too, so I don't think you should ask out or lead on other girls."
"But there aren't any other girls," Ryujin wanted to say, "Just you."