“You have nice hands,” says Seungwan, holding Seulgi’s hands in her own like they’re something to be treasured. She traces the heartlines of her palms, gentle fingertips leaving trails of simmering heat in their wake, and Seulgi holds her breath for a moment.
It’s nice outside, on the little balcony of Seulgi’s apartment. The sun is at just the right angle to cast its warm rays on their bodies without hitting their faces, and the wind is gentle in a childlike and goodhearted way, which means every now and then a few flyaway hairs fly into Seulgi’s mouth. She’d invited Seungwan over for afternoon tea, bored out of her mind and at a loss for any inspiration or motivation. She can’t say she regrets it. Seungwan had quickly made herself at home, sitting slouched in a flimsy lawn chair, her feet kicked up on the metal railing, and she melds into the scene as if she had always been there. She looks like she owns this apartment more than Seulgi does, which is funny because she actually lives in the unit next door.
It’s Seulgi that’s on the edge of her seat, sitting in an awkwardly delicate position as Seungwan examines her hands. “Really?” she asks, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. “People usually don’t say that.”
She flexes her fingers slightly before stretching her palms out, splayed out wide and open on top of Seungwan’s. They’re a nice enough shape, she supposes. Her mother used to say her hands had potential, before she’d made them like this. She never meant anything mean by it, but her disappointment was always tangible, if light.
Potential, in her mother’s eyes, meant thin, straight fingers and smooth skin, clean white porcelain to be put away in a museum and brought out to admire every now and then. Potential, to Seulgi, has manifested itself in cracked skin, calloused fingers, wood dust under her nails that she can never seem to get out no matter how hard she tries. A tool to be used and a power to be harnessed.
These aren’t really a girl’s hands, she’d said, dropping Seulgi’s hands. It wasn’t the first time she’d said it, and it probably wouldn’t be the last either.
Seulgi had let her hands fall into place at her sides, swinging gently. Why not? she’d asked. I’m a girl, and they’re my hands, are they not?
To her mother, the Venn diagram of girl’s hands and artisan’s hands were two separate circles. To Seulgi, they are concentric. It’s impossible to tell where the overlap starts and ends, and in the middle of it all, there is only one label: her name.
But back to the present. She’s gone outside for the first breath of fresh air and human interaction she’s had in days, and she’s gotten lucky enough to have both lovely weather and a very pretty girl holding her hands. Seungwan’s eyelashes drape artfully over the high ridges of her cheekbones as she looks down at Seulgi’s palms. “Well, they should,” she says matter-of-factly. “You have good hands.”
She says it like it’s a fundamental truth of the universe. The sky is blue, the earth orbits the sun, and Seulgi has good hands. “How so?” she asks.
Seungwan shrugs. “You just do,” she says, slowly pulling her own hands away and letting Seulgi’s fall into her lap. Seulgi mourns the loss of contact, pleasant warmth fading away as she leans back into her seat. She picks up a forgotten teacup on the side table and wraps her hands around it just to give them something to do. Seungwan’s eyes track the motion. “They’re strong. Capable. They have a lot of potential.”
To her mother, potential means grace and beauty. To Seulgi, potential means skill and grit.
“That’s kind of you to say,” she says. The teacup in her hands is cool to the touch, liquid inside already chilled from the wind. “Would you like more tea?”
“I would, thank you very much,” says Seungwan, cheerful in a way that’s utterly charming. The smile on her face is soft but strikingly genuine, and it makes Seulgi wonder what potential means to Seungwan.
After Seungwan leaves and Seulgi’s back staring at her desk, the sketch she’d been desperately trying to push out of her pencil to no avail just hours before suddenly flows out smoothly, graphite skating across paper and congealing into shapes. Slowly, the picture comes into view. Seulgi blows out a breath and sets down her pencil, hands tingling with what feels like potential.
Seulgi rolls backward onto the floor with a groan, legs kicking at random scraps of newsprint lying around as she folds out of her sitting position. She holds the block in her hand high above her head, the light brown of the pear wood standing out against the background of her white popcorn ceiling, and taps it lightly with the chisel in her other hand.
Seulgi drops the block on her stomach, groaning again. The fan in the corner of the room whirrs noisily, but it’s not enough. There’s still sweat pooling on the back of her neck, dripping down her shirt, accumulating in the crevices of her hands and making her grip on the chisel slippery. She’d turn on the AC too, but she’s already sworn it off for the month—last month’s electricity bill was through the roof, and she can’t afford it again. If she lies here long enough, maybe she’ll melt into the floor and never have to move again.
The chisel slips out of her hand and onto the floor. Seulgi picks up the block again, holding it close to her face and squinting at it through tired eyes. Technically, this should be the easy part. The design has already been drawn up and overlaid onto the wood, and now all she has to do is gouge out the negative, scratch out the spaces in between until the wood gives way to reveal the picture that was always inside, destined to come out like a baby chick hatching out of its egg. She runs her fingers over the raised bumps—bas-relief in motion.
But it’s hard to want to do anything when even being in your own skin becomes too unbearably warm. Seulgi flings her limbs out on the floor like a starfish, listening to her little old fan chugging away with all its might. To the cicadas outside, humming their song to herald the midday sun. To the sound of her own breathing.
In, out. Her pulse beats a heavy rhythm, blood flowing through her veins so loudly it almost sounds percussive, and it takes her a minute to realize that the steady tempo reverberating in her ears isn’t just from her own body.
Slowly, she pushes herself up into a sitting position, leaning heavily on her hands, and now she can hear it better—the faint sounds of a piano, tinkling softly through the walls.
It’s almost impossible to hear the full melody over the racket of the fan, blades clicking as they spin around the axle. Seulgi casts a mournful glance in its direction, reluctant to give up her last source of comfort, as weak as it is. Her curiosity wins out eventually, though. She crawls over to the corner of the room where it sits, relishing the last few moments of cool air before she switches it off.
The heat is oppressive, its weight suddenly twice as heavy before. Seulgi falls forward, limbs splayed out again except this time she’s lying prone, cheek pressed to the floor.
It takes her a few beats to notice the piano again. It comes through the walls clearer this time, the notes of the melody floating whimsically through the air. There’s a muted vibration where Seulgi’s face touches the floor, the chords of the harmony especially resonant through solid concrete and polished wood. With far more effort than is reasonable, she manages to turn her head to hear better.
It’s a lovely tune. It makes her glad she turned the fan off. She closes her eyes and drinks in the sound, imagining herself in an 18th century European ballroom dancing along to the music. It’s a partner dance, of course, and her left hand rests lightly on someone’s waist. The face of her partner is blurry, but if she really focuses, it starts to look like—
The music stops abruptly, so fast it takes Seulgi’s brain a few moments to process the fact. She opens her eyes again. The cicadas outside chase away the empty silence with their song, as if they can’t bear to not have any music playing.
Still half-asleep, she pushes herself up off the floor, legs stumbling towards the door as if controlled by the phantom strings of a puppeteer. She opens the door at the same time as the unit next door, staring dumbly as Seungwan lets herself out of the apartment and locks the door behind her.
Seungwan smiles when she notices Seulgi, and Seulgi can only hope the expression on her face doesn’t look too stupid. They could be matching today, Seungwan’s t-shirt and cotton shorts a classier version of Seulgi’s pajamas. There’s black text on her white tee that looks like it’s in French. Seulgi looks down and the flip-flops Seungwan’s wearing are adorned with rubber frog faces. Classy indeed.
“Going out to get groceries,” Seungwan offers without any prompting. Seulgi’s eyes dart to the tote hanging on her arm, decorated with blue oranges—even that’s cute. Seungwan is a living, breathing shoujo protagonist, and the realization hits Seulgi harder than she thought it would.
“Was that you playing the piano?” she asks, a non-sequitur.
Seungwan nods, ducking her head. There’s a faint pink on her cheeks, cherry blossom dust on golden skin. “I haven’t played in a while. I’m a bit rusty.”
“It sounded lovely,” says Seulgi. “What was it called?”
“Ah!” Seungwan’s eyes gleam with excitement, and Seulgi makes a mental note to ask her about her music more. “Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat major, opus 69 number 1. The name more people are familiar with is the Farewell Waltz, though. It’s an old favorite of mine.”
And Seulgi is the type of person who promises to listen to people’s music recommendations and then forgets, but for some reasons when she says, “I’ll have to check it out later,” it feels like she actually will.
Seungwan beams. “Really? It’s a lovely piece. Goes well with iced green tea.”
The last part catches Seulgi off-guard, startling a laugh out of her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just trust me,” says Seungwan, smiling at her like they’re sharing a secret, just between the two of them. “You have to pair drinks with music for the full experience. When I come back from the store with a big bottle of Oi Ocha, you’ll see.”
The rest of the summer passes by in andante, one waltz after another. Seulgi keeps whittling away at her woodblocks, sanding the details into place. Every week, Seungwan invites her over for music and afternoon refreshments. She pops a different vinyl into the record player, pours Seulgi a cup of her latest concoction, and lies down next to her on the floor. Together they watch the ceiling fan spin, exchanging only silence until the record is finished.
“It’d be nice to be able to play like that,” Seulgi lets slip one day, when the last of Liszt’s Liebesträume fades away and only the dregs of her iced Americano are left sitting at the bottom of her cup. It was a good combination—all of Seungwan’s music-drink combos have been good so far.
“Do you want to?” asks Seungwan, sitting up. From this angle, the late afternoon light hits her in just the right spot to make her whole face glow a soft, warm gold. “I can teach you.”
“You couldn’t really,” Seulgi replies, raising an eyebrow.
“Not like that,” Seungwan laughs. “It’ll take you ten years to play like that. But we can start simple.”
She pulls Seulgi up from the floor, fitting their hands neatly together and tugging. Seulgi obliges her, if with a few grumbles. “Come on,” she says, beckoning her over and lifting up the fallboard on her upright piano. She maneuvers Seulgi onto the bench, hands firm on her shoulders. “We’re gonna learn how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star today.”
She cups Seulgi’s hands in her own, fingers curved where they touch the keys. Like a cat’s back, she says, in the kind of voice she would use to teach kids in primary school. Like you’re holding an egg on the keyboard and you don’t want to break it. Her hands are soft and slender, the perfect example of girl’s hands except for the callouses on the tips of her fingers, hardened from years of practice. Seulgi sees the guitar propped up along the wall every time she comes over. Seungwan presses down on one of Seulgi’s fingers, eliciting a note from the piano as they hold down the key together, and Seulgi thinks that Seungwan’s hands hold a different kind of potential—but potential nonetheless.
“Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are,” Seungwan sings quietly by Seulgi’s ear, words staccato as she presses Seulgi’s fingers down in time with the melody. Her arms rest lightly against Seulgi’s, and the heat of being so close should be too much for the season, the scorching weather outside, but in this place, in this moment, it’s just right.
Seulgi doesn’t have a record player, but she does have Spotify. Seungwan curates playlists for her, a whole library of them stored in her phone. Not all of them are classical—the grin on her face when she’d showed Seulgi her punk rock playlist was striking, to say the least—but a good portion of them are. Seulgi picks one at random, a collection of Chopin’s pieces, and puts it on shuffle.
She’d looked up Farewell Waltz the other day. Her 18th century ballroom dancing piece was actually written around 1835, an anachronism in the gala of her dreams. Somehow, it doesn’t ruin the appeal. Her imagination is as vivid as ever, and the more she listens to the piece, the sharper the picture starts to become.
Phone safely docked in her wireless speaker, Seulgi turns her attention back to the wood blocks littering her workspace, waiting to be inked. This is the simplest part—just running the ink roller over the block and making sure it spreads evenly.
Normally she’d let herself just sink into the mindlessness of it, zone out and think about the birds outside or the bakery down the street or something equally as unremarkable. But normally there’s also music floating through the walls instead of out of her phone, or the sound of a coffee grinder, or tinkling laughter, high and full of life. Normally she’d be able to take two steps out of her apartment, knock on the heavy wood of next door, and be let in with a smile and a drink.
Normally she goes to sleep with the knowledge that Seungwan is tucked safely in her own bed next door.
Seulgi doesn’t know how you can so badly miss something that never meant much to you just a year before, but loneliness has taken root in her stomach and constricts like a vine. On the surface, nothing about her life has changed—she’s always considered herself quite independent, and her schedule remains largely the same. The difference is more intangible than that. It’s in the way she’ll come home from a run to the grocery store with a big bottle of Oi Ocha and raise a hand to knock on the door next to hers, knuckles poised over the wood, before realizing and dropping her hand. It’s in the way that the second pair of slippers by the front door has started to collect dust.
Emptiness is insidious. Nothing has really changed, but Seulgi can’t help but feel like something is missing, even as immersed in her art as she should be. She presses the freshly-inked blocks to a clean sheet of paper one at a time, watching the clock run down as she waits for each layer of color to dry.
When the last layer of ink is pressed on the paper, drying in the chill of early evening, Seulgi sets the blocks aside. The rest of her agenda for the day was to wait for the print to fully dry and start cooking dinner in the meantime, but now she can’t think of anything she’d like to do less. It’s too stuffy in here—she’s filled with a sudden restlessness, hands tingling with the need to get out.
Seulgi lets herself out of her apartment and skips down the stairs to the street below. Outside, the leaves are a colorful array of reds and oranges, hues at their peak vibrance in the middle of autumn. There’s a light breeze pushing fallen leaves rolling down the street and past other pedestrians walking by. She nestles her hands deep into her coat pockets, and the path her feet start to take reminds her of the last time she took this path.
As the summer runs down and August starts to blend into September, she finds herself lying on Seungwan’s floor as per usual, the ceiling fan spinning at the same lazy speed as the vinyl on the record player. This week is a collection of Kabalevsky pieces, happy-go-lucky and just a little quirky in the way that pieces written for children usually are. Seungwan picks the needle up as the last piece finishes with a series of chords that doesn’t have the same sense of finality as the rest of the pieces they listened to today.
“A half cadence,” explains Seungwan, without prompting. Seulgi watches her slip the record back into its sleeve and into the case where she stores the rest of her vinyls. “To give the listener a sense of incompletion. The to be continued of music theory.”
“You make music pieces sound like serialized cartoons.” Seulgi laughs, sitting up and stretching her arms out. “Like I’m twelve and watching Cowboy Bebop again.”
“What’s to say they’re not?” Seungwan replies. There’s a laugh written into the layers of her voice, rich and warm, and her eyes are twinkling in the golden light of sunset streaming in through the windows. “They both tell stories, right? This one just happens to be unfinished.”
They’d finished later than usual today. Seulgi glances over at the clock on the wall, its hands telling her what her stomach already knew. “I forgot to prep anything for dinner today,” she says casually, leaning back on her hands. She doesn’t want to be presumptuous or anything. “Didn’t go grocery shopping this week. I think my fridge is empty.”
Seungwan laughs. “Me neither,” she admits, and Seulgi hopes they’re on the same wavelength here. “To both counts. Did you wanna go out and grab something together? We can get groceries on the way back.”
Yes, yes, yes! she cheers internally. “That sounds great,” is what she actually says, hopefully sounding a lot cooler outside of her head than inside of it. “Do you have a place in mind?”
“I do,” says Seungwan, her smile brimming with happiness. Just looking at her makes Seulgi feel warm, limbs loosening in a relaxed sort of intoxication. “I think you’ll love it.”
Seungwan brings her to a hole in the wall she’s never been to before, the line going out the door and wrapping around the block. It serves what she swears are the best deep-fried rice dogs she’s ever had. Seulgi’s inclined to agree—the flavors burst on her tongue with the first bite. The wait is well worth it.
They follow the flow of the crowd to another side of the jam-packed room, standing room only. Seungwan holds her frozen lemonade up to Seulgi’s mouth, letting Seulgi take a sip before she drinks out of the same straw. Seulgi’s eyes track the motion, mouth drying up at the realization. Seungwan doesn’t bat an eye when Seulgi asks for another sip.
For a hole in the wall, the place is bustling. Its limited space is filled up with other patrons, all talking and laughing with each other, people brushing elbows with Seulgi as they pass by. Even as densely packed as the place is, there’s an intimacy in being caught in the middle of it with Seungwan. Everything going on around them, people surrounding them on all sides, yet Seulgi’s the only one paying attention to the small but satisfied hum Seungwan makes when she chews on her hot dog. The commotion fades into the background; all she can focus on is how close they’re standing together. Part of her wants to take a picture, preserve the moment, except she thinks she’d rather just live in it now.
“Isn’t it good?” asks Seungwan, cheeks stuffed.
Seulgi’s eyes rest lightly on her face, catching on a crumb near the side of her month. Without thinking, she swipes it off, letting her thumb linger for a second too long before it falls back by her side. “It is,” she agrees.
The walk back is quieter, the sun having disappeared from both of their notices until night set in and Seulgi was left blinking back at the stars. Someone passes by them on the sidewalk, and Seulgi moves in closer to let him pass. She doesn’t move back out when he’s gone, though. They’re walking close enough for the backs of their hands to brush by each other a few times. Briefly, Seulgi thinks about just grabbing Seungwan’s hand and linking their fingers together, but she quickly backs down from the idea. She’s already been brave once today.
She’s still too aware of her hand, though, as it comes up to point at something. “Look,” says Seungwan, and Seulgi follows the line of her finger.
There are fireflies flitting among the thin canopy of trees in the park, darting in and out of sight as their tails blink happily. Seungwan stops walking to watch them and Seulgi’s mesmerized by the shape of her mouth forming a small ‘o’ as she stares in wonder.
The fireflies cast a soft glow on Seungwan’s face, her eyes lighting up. “They’re beautiful,” she whispers.
Seulgi can’t tear her eyes away to look back at them. “Yeah,” she agrees. “They are.”
There’s a bubble of happiness growing in her chest, so big it feels like it’s going to pop. Seungwan drops a big bottle of lychee Calpico in her basket when they get to the small mart near their apartment building. Seulgi will probably end up drinking some of it next week, but you can never be too sure with Seungwan.
It takes a pointed reminder from Seulgi that they’re here for groceries before Seungwan starts putting actual food in her basket. She shops for food like a child, throwing all kinds of random sweets into her basket as soon as she sees them. When they finally leave the store, Seulgi ends up with one more ice pop in her mouth than she’d intended on having—Seungwan had coerced her into eating dessert together, paying for both of their ice creams herself before Seulgi could argue.
“What’s next week?” she asks, as they make the final walk back to their building. “More Russian composers?”
Seungwan’s very particular about the order of music she plays, and she usually has an agenda planned out already in her head. It’s telling when she doesn’t answer right away—telling of what, Seulgi’s not sure. She feels rather than sees the smile drop off Seungwan’s face, and the impact of it is like a bucket of ice water. “Actually, I won’t be here next week,” she says, brightness suddenly muted. “I’m… going home for a while. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“You’re moving?” Seulgi asks, expecting the worst but trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
“No!” says Seungwan, quick to dispel the notion, thank god. “No, I’m not. But my mother is sick, so I’m going home to take care of her. I’m taking time off work, but I didn’t think I needed to sublet my unit. Hopefully I won’t be gone for too long until she recovers.”
Seungwan trails off, eyebrows knitted together, and Seulgi tries not to think of the alternative. “I hope she gets better soon,” she offers, sorry for bringing the topic up and making Seungwan worry.
“Me too,” says Seungwan, a small smile starting to ease back onto her face. It’s only now that Seulgi can see the faint circles under her eyes, and her heart hurts at the realization. “Don’t you worry. I’ll be back soon and then we can keep listening to Russian composers. Prokofiev is next on the list.”
They part ways in the hallway, Seulgi stopping in front of her door and trying to find a way to invite Seungwan in, in a futile attempt to prolong their time together just a little more, but she’s at a loss. “Good night,” says Seungwan, not noticing Seulgi’s awkward pause.
“Good night,” she says back, wanting to say something else but not knowing what.
Seungwan lets herself in with a last little wave, locking the door behind her. Seulgi waits for a minute in the empty hallway, watching the motionless doorknob, before she finally follows suit.
It’s been three months since then.
Seulgi’s hand brushes against her phone in her coat pocket, and she pulls it out, looking at the acrylic fireflies on her phone case. It had been a gift from Seungwan, appearing in an unassuming package last month with a little note. Thinking of you, see you soon!
She swipes a thumb over the textured fireflies as she walks, thinking of Seungwan. Thinking of Seungwan’s mom. Thinking of her own mom. She never really thinks about how lucky she is that her mom is still happy and healthy, but she is. Maybe that’s what finds her dialing a number she hasn’t in a while, its presence in the speed dial section constant but relatively untouched.
Her mom picks up on the third ring. “Seulgi?”
“Hi Mom,” says Seulgi, pressing her phone to her cheek. “How are you?”
“Good,” she answers after a pause. “Seulgi-yah, did something happen?”
Seulgi winces at the question—she must be a really bad daughter if her mom only thinks she’s calling her because something happened. “No, nothing happened,” she assures her. “I just wanted to say hi.”
“Well, I’m glad, then,” her mother replies, voice warm and gentle even over the phone. “What did you want to talk about?”
What did she want to talk about? Seulgi lets her feet carry her forward, not thinking so much about where she wants to end up more than the simple need to just go and trusting her feet to bring her somewhere she wants to be. The air is chilly, but some of the local restaurants have set up heaters outside. A few stores have even hung up fairy lights, glowing in the twilight. People pass by her on the sidewalk, families, couples, individuals alike.
“I think I love my neighbor,” she says finally, half lost in thought and half grounded by the feeling that she’s surrounded by people but the only ones she really wants to talk to are hundreds of miles away.
“Tell me about your neighbor, then.”
“She has a nice smile,” Seulgi says without thinking, before the magnitude of what she actually said hits her. She stops abruptly, deaf to the grumblings of the people who’d been walking behind her, and waits with bated breath for her mother’s response.
There is no gasp, no screech of horror, no dial tone as her mother hangs up and prepares to disown her. Instead there is silence, and then a long-suffering sigh. “Is that all you’re going to say about her?” she asks, clicking her tongue, but it’s fond. Seulgi’s hit with a staggering relief, chest loosening when she hadn’t even realized it’d tightened in the first place. “My daughter is in love and all she will tell me is that the girl she loves has a nice smile. Lots of girls have nice smiles, Seulgi-yah, what about this one is so special to you?”
It takes a while for Seulgi to realize that she’s smiling. She starts walking again. What can she say, really, to encapsulate the person that Seungwan is? To sum up what she means to Seulgi, all the ways she loves her?
“She…” Teaches music at a local primary school and is adored by her students. Works part-time as a barista because she likes talking to people. Has a gorgeous voice, better than any pop singer. Impulsively buys anything with cute animal prints and whines about the state of her bank account later. Tries to teach me piano and says I have potential even though I’m horrible at it. Looks at people like they’re the only ones that matter. Looks at me like I’m the only one that matters. “…has nice hands. You’d think they’re pretty. Proper girl’s hands, the kind that has potential.”
“You have proper girl’s hands, too,” her mother says simply. Seulgi blinks, a question lingering on the tip of her tongue. “They have lots of potential. Maybe not the kind I wanted at first, but Seulgi-yah, the art they make is so pretty. It’s art that you love. I’m sorry I didn’t realize it earlier.”
Seulgi smiles, even if her mother can’t hear it over the phone. “Her hands make pretty art, too. Music. I think you’d really like her, ma.”
“If you love her this much, then I already do.”
“I think she’d like you too.”
“Well, I’d hope my future daughter-in-law and I would be able to get along,” her mother teases, and Seulgi chokes. “Don’t wait until your wedding to introduce us! I want to meet her before then!”
“Don’t you think you’re going too fast?” she splutters. “I haven’t even asked her out yet.”
“You talk about her differently,” says her mother, and there's a ring of truth to that. Seulgi’s had people before, but no one that’s made her want to write home about them, until now. No one like Seungwan. “And anyone you like would be an idiot not to like you back! Our family’s Seulgi-yah, the best in the world.”
“Ma,” Seulgi whines. “You’re biased because I’m your daughter.”
“I am not! I’m a very good judge of character,” she insists. “Hurry up and ask her out soon. I’m not getting any younger here, you know.”
“I know. I’m working on it.”
“Call more, Seulgi-yah.”
Her mother extracts more promises from her before hanging up. Seulgi tucks her phone back into her pocket, feeling lighter. She’d made it all the way to the rice dog place while on the phone without even realizing.
Even in the chill of November, the line is still out the door. Seulgi waits patiently, watching the people around her. It should feel isolating, being around all these people without her own companion, but there’s a comfort in standing in the middle of a sea of people with their own kinds of potential and just watching them live out their lives in this moment, knowing they have their own hopes and dreams too. Her phone is warm in her pocket, as if to remind her that her own loved ones aren’t so far away after all either.
When she finally gets her own rice dog and frozen lemonade (even in this weather she couldn’t resist), she steps outside, taking a deep breath of the crisp night air. It fills her body with energy, sending tingles to the tips of her fingers—the spirit of being alive.
Seulgi snaps a picture of her food, sending it off to Seungwan with a quick tap. Thinking of you, she types, smiling when the heart reaction shows up and the typing bubble appears. Miss you. See you soon.
Seulgi opens her window one day to look down and find a fresh layer of white on the ground. Thin, already starting to melt, but definitely snow. The nip in the air is harsher than it was yesterday, biting at her cheeks until she shuts the window.
She opens the Melon app on her phone and finds that EXO’s “First Snow” has rocketed to the top of the charts again. If nothing else truly heralds the fact that winter has set in, that certainly does.
It’s still early. Seulgi soaks in the quietness of morning, basking in the air while it’s still clean and bright. Her eyes are still smarting with drowsiness when she stumbles out of her bedroom and into the kitchen, popping a pod of green tea into the Keurig machine sitting on her counter. It’s a new addition to her home, having arrived one day on her doorstep without pomp or fanfare. When Seulgi had called Seungwan to yell at her for buying her such an expensive gift, Seungwan had just laughed.
“Think of it as an early Christmas present,” she’d said, voice warm even over the crackle of the phone. If Seulgi closes her eyes, she can almost imagine her standing right in front of her. Almost. “To make up for all the drinks I haven’t made for you these past few months.”
“You don’t owe me anything, though,” Seulgi had replied, frowning to herself.
“But I want to.” And Seungwan had said it with such conviction, such surety in her voice that Seulgi hadn’t argued.
“When are you going to send me your address, then?”
“Not a chance, Kang Seulgi.” Seungwan had laughed, shutting down Seulgi’s nth attempt at prying it out of her to reciprocate the gift-giving. “You’ll have to wait until I get back.”
Her gift for Seungwan has been sitting on top of her coffee table, already wrapped in smiling snowmen and plastic green ribbon knotted together in as neat of a bow as she could manage. Seulgi spares it a brief glance as the Keurig machine beeps, dispensing tea into her waiting mug. She wraps her hands around the cup, its warmth seeping into her skin, and slides the glass doors to the balcony open.
There’s a fine layer of snow dusting the tops of her little chair and table set. Seulgi slips into a pair of flip-flops, still in her pajamas as she waddles towards it, but doesn’t sit down. She swipes some of the snow off with a finger—it melts on her skin, leaving nothing but the dewy impression of what it once was behind.
The air is bitingly clean. Seulgi sucks in a deep breath, blowing it out slowly, and watches small white clouds hang for a minute before dissipating. She stands outside until her fingertips are numb and only the dregs of her tea are left at the bottom of the cup, and a little longer than that. She has a great view from her balcony. What she’s looking for, she’s not quite sure.
Just before she heads back inside, a melody floats to her along the air currents, the notes hanging in the air like fireflies. Seulgi pauses, face relaxing into a smile when she recognizes the tune. Chopin’s Farewell Waltz—after all this time, it’s still her favorite.
And it makes her wonder for a moment—hope for a moment—before she shakes her head, quickly shutting the idea down. Seungwan would’ve told her if she was coming back; Seulgi’s not that lucky to have her impatience mollified so easily.
And yet—the song fades out, and another starts before stopping abruptly. Seulgi blinks, jolted out of her trance. Before her brain can even process the sudden wave of emotion she feels as disappointment, there’s a knock.
Seulgi doesn’t even bother to close the balcony doors as she rushes to the front door.
There’s a thermos in Seungwan’s hands when Seulgi opens the door. “Was I too late to finally make good on my promise?” she asks, spotting the cup Seulgi’s still holding.
Seulgi shakes her head. “I’m still thirsty.”
Seungwan’s face lights up, and the knot that’s been steadily building in Seulgi’s stomach for the past few months falls apart just like that. “Well, if that’s the case.” She tips the contents of the thermos into Seulgi’s empty cup, and the rich scent of chocolate comes wafting out. “Simple but classic. Best thing to drink for the first snow.”
Seulgi takes a sip, and it’s the best hot chocolate she’s ever had. “When did you get back?”
“Just now,” says Seungwan. “I wanted to see you.” Her cheeks grow pink, like she’s embarrassed by her own eagerness. It’s so endearing. Everything about her is so incredibly endearing. Seulgi’s heart has swollen five times its original size like she’s the Grinch or something, except instead of stealing Christmas, it’s just come early.
“I wanted to see you too,” she says, smiling back at her. And Seulgi’s never been prone to impulse, but there’s a feeling bubbling up inside of her that makes her feel like she’ll die if she doesn’t do something right now. “I have something for you.”
“Oh?” asks Seungwan.
“Wait here,” she says. “I’m making good on my promise, too.”
She sets her cup down on the coffee table, picking up the wrapped present instead. When she holds it out, Seungwan takes it in both hands, holding it like it’s glass. “You didn’t have to.”
“But I wanted to,” says Seulgi, parroting Seungwan’s own words back at her. Seungwan laughs.
“Would it be rude if I opened it right now?”
“Not at all,” says Seulgi. “I was actually hoping you would.”
Seungwan rips straight into the wrapping paper, and it’s both so unexpected and so undeniably her that it startles a laugh out of Seulgi. She makes quick work of the paper, and it’s not long before Seulgi’s heart is suddenly jammed into her throat as Seungwan stares at the gift.
It’s terrifying, gifting someone else your art, laying your soul bare to them and telling them this is what you mean to me. This is what my hands made when they thought of you. Seulgi watches Seungwan’s expression closely, watches as her face melts into something like… awe.
“This is beautiful,” she breathes, laying it out flat on her hands. “This is for me?”
It’s one of the woodcuts Seulgi produced in her year of woodcuts—the best one she’d made, the one carved painstakingly with the most love. Trees frame the scene of two figures on horseback, heading out of the mountains as snow falls. Seulgi nods. Of course it’s for her—it could never be for anyone else.
“I— you—” Seungwan flounders, before her eyes take on a steely determination. “Put this somewhere safe for me for a moment,” she says, handing it back to Seulgi. “I don’t want to ruin it.”
Confused, Seulgi obliges anyways, setting it on the shelf by the door. “Ruin it doing what?”
“This,” says Seungwan, cupping Seulgi’s cheeks in her hands, rising up on her tiptoes and tugging Seulgi down slightly so they meet in the middle. Her hands are pleasantly warm, soft where they rest on Seulgi’s face. For a long moment, Seungwan looks at her, silently asking: Can I?
Seulgi looks back, answers: Please.
The millimeters between them spark with energy, another kind of potential. When Seungwan leans in to close the gap, it’s kinetic—it’s potential realized, a soaring feeling in her chest, too real to be magic and yet too powerful to be anything mundane.
Seungwan drops her hands to tangle them together with Seulgi’s, and maybe that’s potential too. Maybe the best use of a girl’s hands is simply to hold another girl’s hands.