Meet Lee Luda; one of the most esteemed personas in a private women’s university located in Jeju-do. She’s a Dean’s Lister ever since she started her first semester, and an exceptional artist with more than a dozen of her works displayed at the local art gallery. Even if she’s only a sophomore, she’s already rumored to be vying as the representative of the College of Arts & Design to the student council of the university.
Not every artist needs a muse but having one is a life-changer. Luda met hers not too long ago, a few weeks in the new semester, near the end of summer, a girl running around the school’s field as quick as lightning.
Son Juyeon; the ace of the school’s track team, the youngest sister of the legendary Son sisters who won regional and international meets one after another.
Her records surpassed her sisters’ when they were her age, an outstanding 53.44s in 400m. Last year, she bagged a bronze in the 400m run in the biannual IAAF World U20 Championships held in Poland, landing her a sweet spot in the country’s qualifying heat for the 2018 Asian Games.
She’s a rising star in the otherwise bleak environment of the country’s young athletes in the international field. A multitude of fans rally behind the hope she signifies.
Luda is proud of her more than anything.
It is searing that day but Luda sits on her usual spot, the middle of the topmost row in the otherwise vacant benches beside the university track field.
Watching Juyeon is part of her daily routine; a comfortable seat on folded knees, slim shoulders hunched over her sketchpad, a messy bun held by a pencil.
Light strokes outline a moving silhouette, charcoal-stained fingers moving swiftly to capture the moment as Juyeon passes by her, a swift blur of white and red against the field’s green and dark Terra cotta.
This continues for several more rounds. When she’s done, Juyeon exchanges a few words with her coach before she climbs up the benches, stopping on the row beneath Luda’s to give the shorter girl her much desired equality.
Luda opens her sketchpad, stretching her arms outwards on both sides, and shows her what she’s done.
Juyeon leans her face closer to the page and squints her eyes. “Where is my face? Why am I faceless?”
“I did a scenery of you running, not your portrait. Anyway, you did good.” Luda snaps her sketchpad shut and hands her a white towel, even if Juyeon already has a pink one around her neck.
Juyeon accepts it, as she has accepted all of her towels every morning and beams. “I did great. Coach says I’m at my peak.”
When Luda turns to gather her things, Juyeon grabs everything and stuffs them in Luda’s pencil case swiftly; charcoal sticks, charcoal pencils, kneaded erasers, a small sanding block, chamois and a small cutter.
Luda stares straight through her, clutching her sketchpad tight against her chest.
Juyeon massages Luda’s furrowed brows with her thumb and forefinger and laughs. “It’s bad to be this grumpy early in the morning.”
Luda reaches for her case, but Juyeon raises it high up in the air with her long limbs.
“Your hands are full. Can’t you notice that gigantic sketchpad of yours is twice your size?” Juyeon says.
Luda doesn’t even try reaching for it. She knows that she’ll be subjected to the other’s height jokes if she does. “You know I don’t just let anyone touch my art materials.”
“But I’m not just anyone. I’m your muse. And I didn’t decide that on my own, too.” Juyeon whistles, following Luda as she steps down the benches in careful steps. “Have you eaten yet? Wanna go to the cafeteria? I’m on a strict diet but I’d be full just watching you eat.”
“You’re so greasy.” Luda replies, wanting to leave the school grounds sooner because compared to Juyeon who’s in her zip jacket and joggers, she’s in her shorts and it’s getting hotter by the minute.
Juyeon catches up with long strides, wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her close. Luda wraps her free arm around the taller girl’s waist in return.
Luda suddenly remembers something and shoves Juyeon away, but not before they cross the open field.
“What’s wrong?” Juyeon asks.
“You ran several laps. You’re all sweaty!” Luda clears her throat, somewhat confused. “You’re sweaty and disgusting.”
Juyeon tugs the collar of her zip jacket and leans down to sniff. “Oh? But I smell good.”
Luda would’ve said ‘Exactly.’ but the heat crept faster to her cheeks than words to her lips. Juyeon laughs at her silence and embraces her again. Luda doesn’t protest this time. She clutches her sketchpad and leans against her.
For an athlete, Juyeon always perspires and yet she manages to look… clean and fresh to a degree, as if it’s just cold water sticking on her skin and not actual sweat.
That and Juyeon smelled good. A small part of Luda thinks that it’s probably that expensive perfume of hers or maybe a magical lotion. A greater part of her believes Juyeon won the genetic lottery and is blessed that nothing will ever get in her way, not grime, not sweat, not anything.
Heck, Luda thinks Juyeon could spend a week in a landfill and come back as beautiful as ever. Hers is a timeless beauty, and Luda is convinced she’s the only artist in the university who sees it; if otherwise, she’d be someone else’s muse and not hers.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Juyeon is scheduled for an intense training of two weeks and another week of conditioning before the actual competition - a total of a month’s worth of absence. Luda thinks one month isn’t that long but they avoid talking about it if they can. It’s become a taboo and only becomes real when you speak of it.
Not until Juyeon begins packing bags before the day she flies to Seoul.
Luda suggested cutting all forms of communication because it’s very important that Juyeon needs to focus hard on her training if she wanted to make the cut, no matter how fast or how great her records are.
“That doesn’t make any sense. I need inspiration too, you know!” Juyeon says, louder than her normally loud voice.
“You have the attention span of a goldfish. What you need is focus, Juyeonie.”
“Why are you using the ‘Juyeonie’ card on me now? That’s cheating!”
“Stop whining. We both know how much you’ll regret it if you don’t give it your best.”
Juyeon doesn’t say anything after that, but it was clear that she detested the idea so much because she went on a full day with a sour mood. Luda argued one last time that it would ultimately help her, and she’ll still be here when she comes back.
“You will wait?”
Luda smiles. “Of course. I’ll wait. It’s just a month.”
“That’s thirty days.” Juyeon pouts.
“You’re just making it sound longer.” Luda pokes her cheek and repeats, “I’ll wait.”
That got Juyeon to agree to it, eventually.
No texts, no calls, no anything over their sns accounts until Juyeon gets back from Seoul.
The first few days without Juyeon were bearable. Half a week in, Luda had asked her best friend Dawon to hide her phone whenever possible because every waking moment feels like needs to have some form of communication.
In the weeks that followed, she started to become unfocused. Her mood swings have become rampant (though perhaps she’s overthinking it). Holding a brush feels odd to a degree, the colors swirl in the wrong direction and her paintings stopped looking as lively as before.
Luda never thought something as simple as waiting could be the hardest thing she’s ever done.
The clock strikes five. She looks out the wide glass windows of the art studio. Above, a flock of birds take off atop the nearby bell tower. Below, the track and field start their tryouts and gymnasts perform their routines on the school grounds.
The sunset has been sitting on her canvas for three hours now. She’s not done yet. Not quite. There’s something amiss among the brilliance of colors, a gaping void where emotion should be.
Luda frowns. The blandness of her work doesn’t surprise her anymore. The grimace that settles on her lips only encourages the frustration gnawing at each stroke of her brush.
Even her art teacher, who had nothing but praises, doesn’t say a word. She sees her teacher’s expression livid with disappointment when she finally decides to leave after reminding her not to stay too late and clean up.
Luda wipes the stains of acrylic off her wrists and the back of her hands a little too hard. When she turns to gather her things she sees Dawon by the doorway, arms-crossed, staring at the canvas by the window and everything that’s wrong with it.
“I know what you’re going to say.” Luda says as she resumes stuffing her belongings in her bag. If Juyeon were here she would’ve been done a minute ago. “Don’t.”
“As I’ve told you a lot of times before,” Dawon hesitates for a moment. “Maybe you need to find some other source of inspiration. Or call her, maybe? I know you both agreed to cut all forms of communication but--”
Luda marches past her and locks the door to the art studio with knitted eyebrows.
“I’m just saying it could help you more than you think.” Dawon jogs to catch up. “You haven’t seen or talked to each other in weeks and clearly this isn’t doing you any good.”
“I’m just feeling under the weather. I’m going to-”
Dawon frowns. “To hang out on the rooftop again. I know. But that doesn’t work anymore, does it?”
Luda speeds up, skipping down the stairs two steps at a time because the truth is slipping under her skin. As much as she hates to admit, she misses Juyeon and her absence stings more than ever.
Luda spends the late night on the dormitory rooftop after dinner. The bustling cityscape brings form to her ideas, whether it be daybreak, nighttime or high noon. It’s the gentle breeze caressing her face, the bright lights of Jeju, the sprawling urban growth beneath the mat of stars of the purple-tinted sky.
Yet, it’s not enough. Everything feels like a blur. A worn pencil hovers above a blank page of her sketchbook, unsure and unmotivated.
Luda wonders if she outgrew her fascination for the growing metropolitan and its sunsets or if she’s only enthused by it because Juyeon was the one who introduced it to her in the first place.
It’s Juyeon’s loud laughter against the white noise of the rush-hours, Juyeon’s hand, tightly around hers, Juyeon’s ticklish breath against her cheeks and neck when she teases her playfully, and all the kinds of shivers that run down her spine that make every place magical.
The past few weeks without her has Luda drowning in the inevitable anathema of losing her muse.
How long has it been? Two weeks? Three?
She wonders if Juyeon ever feels the same loneliness that embraces her every night.
She offered Juyeon nothing but company when she asked her to be her muse. There’s nothing for Juyeon in it, no free food, coupons or even the guarantee of a good company. Juyeon is everything Luda isn’t; extroverted, active, excitable, tall, the list goes on.
In fact, sometimes Luda couldn’t help but think of herself a hindrance to the rising super-athlete. The time Juyeon spends with her should be used for her training; she has massive potential no one can deny and she’s healthy, above all, the perfect combination for success.
Luda or no Luda, Juyeon would continue to thrive. But without Juyeon, Luda wouldn’t. Not without her muse.
She returns to the dormitories when the breeze gets too cold, hands clean and sketchbook empty. She greets Dawon, who’s also her roommate, with less enthusiasm and stacks her pencils on the desk.
“I thought the student council’s keeping you busy?”
“It is, but I finished my work early. Jiyeon unnie said the president gave everyone a mouthful because the request for the special coverage for Juyeon’s match almost didn’t went through.” Dawon runs through the channels of the flatscreen embedded on the wall across the room, remote in hand and wrapped in blankets. “But we got everything covered. Don’t stress yourself too much about it.”
“I trust you too much to be worried over something like that.”
“Thank you. We’re doing our best. So, were you able to draw anything?”
Luda shakes her head and flops herself on her bed. She sighs into her pillow and allows herself to melt into the mattress after checking her phone for messages for the last time.
Tomorrow, she’ll be better. Hopefully.
A few seconds in mid-slumber and Dawon is already shaking her shoulders. Luda mumbles something unintelligible before Dawon covers her mouth and points to the television.
“They’re doing a quick feature on the athletes competing in the next week’s preliminaries. Look!”
Luda sits up and stares, wide-eyed, rubbing the sleep off her eyes because there she is; Juyeon in her standard white and red zip jacket emblazoned with the school logo, her dark hair tied in a ponytail, unmistakable with her high-bridged nose and superior cheekbones. She stands against an empty track under a bright sunless sky (which also means that it’s not a live recording), smiling confidently while the reporter poses her question.
“...It’s the preliminary round and you’re up against tough competition. You’re one of the youngest and it’s inevitable that your performance might be affected by your sisters’ past records. The pressure must be intense. How are you feeling, Juyeon-ssi?”
Juyeon beams in a heartbeat and looks at the camera. “My coach and school train their athletes very well. My sisters are also very supportive and gave me pointers. I’m feeling confident.”
Luda grabs the biggest Pokemon plushie on the corner of her bed and hugs it tight, smiling with her muse on the screen.
“We’ve received reports that you’re gaining popularity fast not only in the city but in the region as well.” The interviewer continues. “I take it you have a growing number of followers. Do you have anything to say to the people waiting for you back home?”
“Well, she is pretty.” Dawon comments. Luda clears her throat instinctively.
Juyeon’s eyebrow perks and her gaze averts from the center of the camera. It’s a known fact that she is most comfortable under the spotlight, whether she’s in the middle of a crowd or in the field. Her sudden uneasiness is suspicious and Luda doesn’t miss it; she tries not to miss anything about Juyeon no matter how small.
Juyeon looks back at the camera before the reporter could ask her again, the wide confident smile back on her face.
“I know you’re cheering me on. Thank you. Wait for me. I won’t disappoint you.”
The segment fades to another young athlete’s interview, Choi Yuna, from the nearby university.
Luda thanks Dawon, who gives her a thumbs up in return as she continues to watch the segment, before covering herself with blankets.
She’s reminded why Juyeon is her muse, and it’s a choice she’ll stick with through the end.
On the day of Juyeon’s qualifying heat, the school is in chaos.
The event is broadcast on a private channel, arranged by the university for the students to watch. Classes are suspended. Every room is crowded; the auditorium, the audiovisual rooms, multimedia classrooms, multi-video rooms and video libraries. Even the sound library’s hidden television set is put to use.
There’s rumors that Juyeon is often referred by outsiders as a school-idol. Though many others rivaled her popularity, her superiority in sports and the legacy of her sisters propelled her to an entirely different level of fame.
And to think, she’s only a freshman who barely attends her regular classes.
Luda knows Juyeon is popular, but she definitely did not expect this level of popularity to the point that everyone’s basically scrambling to watch her run.
Just when Luda made up her mind to settle for the auditorium, Dawon finds her in the growing crowd, grabs her wrist and drags her to the far side of the building, zigzagging past the sea of students who are also looking for less packed classrooms.
“The dormitories are not that way!” Luda protests but Dawon doesn’t relax her grip.
They stop by huge mahogany doors at the end of the corridor. She hasn’t been in this part of the building before. Her eyes catch a black metal plate beside the door engraved with gleaming gold characters. Her jaw slackens as her mind races to read the letters.
“Hey, isn’t this-”
“The student council’s very own audiovisual room, yes.” Dawon pushes the doors open. “I asked for permission to let you in this special streaming and they already said yes a couple of weeks ago so you don’t have to worry about anything.”
Except for the fact that the student council terrified Luda for a number of reasons.
Perhaps it’s the absolute authority given on their hands, how they flawlessly ran the student body, how flawless each one of them looked, or how the students revere them and trust them completely. No student council could be this suspiciously perfect. It must be some form of brainwashing or black magic.
Except for Dawon, who was her best friend before she became a part of the council as the representative of the College of Liberal Arts, and Kim Jiyeon, a Journalism Major who once approached her to consider being the representative of the College of Arts & Design next year (which Luda politely declined on the spot), Luda doesn’t busy herself with school politics.
The room is unlike any other audiovisual rooms in the campus; burgundy and beige and graphite gray blended in a regal color palette shown in the oxford-upholstered seats on the sloped floor, mahogany podiums and long tables, unsurprisingly tailored for the elite taste of the owners of the room.
Luda bows immediately at the presence of silhouettes moving around. The moment she looks up, someone tackles her into a hug and makes her step backwards.
“Welcome!” Jiyeon squeals in her ear before breaking her hug.
The first time they met a couple of months ago, Jiyeon looked cold and was in all frowns right after Luda told her she didn’t want anything to do with the council. Even then, Jiyeon looked like a princess straight from a castle.
It’s the first time Luda sees Jiyeon smile from ear to ear paired with a lovely eye-smile
“Sunbaenim, hello.” Luda immediately puts Jiyeon in the almost-muse category; the almosts, muses in another lifetime, ethereal beauties that lack the vital factor that Juyeon only has.
“I told you to call me ‘unnie’ instead, remember? When Dawonie asked us if she could let you watch Juyeonie’s event with us, I was really excited. I could show you around, you know. Maybe tell you about the work we do here and all. We’re not that bad!”
Luda couldn’t care less because the moment Jiyeon called Juyeon as ‘Juyeonie’, she stops listening altogether.
“Juyeon? Ju-juyeonie?” Her Juyeonie? Luda asks, eyebrows knitted together.
“Oh, we’re close friends. All of us.” Jiyeon laughs, waving her hands as if to dismiss any assumptions. “She told us she’s your muse. How does that work? As a writer, I have an inner muse but is it that different - artists’ muses?”
All of us?
Juyeon never mentioned being close to the student council before. She’s never mentioned anything other than random names from her enormous social circle.
“Don’t overwhelm her, now, Jiyeon-ah.” Someone tall looms behind Jiyeon and hooks an arm around her neck, as if ready to pull her away in case she starts again.
“But Xuan Yi-” Jiyeon whines.
Luda bows again at another senior. Wu Xuan Yi, a Visual Communications Major. Luda doesn’t know much about her except that she’s initially a transferee student who stayed and was more than good enough to earn a spot in the council.
And that her smile reminds her of the warmth of sunshine slipping through the windows that wakes her up every morning.
“Excuse her. She just finds you really cute.” Xuan Yi tells her, pulling Jiyeon away. They sit in the middle row and continue to bicker in loud voices.
A couple of rows in front of Jiyeon and Xuan Yi, Dawon is on her seat, waving for Luda to come because she has not taken a single step further since Jiyeon tackled her.
Luda takes notice of the three other figures who were dead silent until now; one leaving the podium with a thick bundle of papers in her hand, one sitting in the front row, a book in hand, and the one nearest to the door, with headphones around her neck.
At one point, Luda could swear the three of them are all looking at her. The next moment, their gazes seem to pierce through the space behind her.
Her anxiety must’ve shown through her infallible facade because the one closest to her tugs on her headphones and curls her lips to an easy smirk.
“Go on. We don’t bite.”
Luda bows her thanks before rushing to bow to the girl in the front row, and finally to the one who just got off the podium hastily.
She rushes to her seat next to Dawon, realizing the details in the haze of her mind brought by the unfamiliar territory much later.
One. She just passed by the student council vice president, Music Composition Major, and the university’s Major Girl Crush (MGC) title holder, Chu Sojung, who sat near the door.
Two. The girl who looked as small as her is the College of Music representative, Park Soobin, who’s known for her angel-like voice.
And three. The girl who just got off the podium is none other than the student council president, black hair and eyes as dark as the void, Kim Hyunjung from the College of Law, who radiated power with every move.
The broadcast starts after a couple of minutes, projected into a wide white screen in front of the room. Juyeon’s competing in the 400m dash, and the preliminaries for the 100m and 200m dash has just begun.
Though as much as she tries to detach herself from the conversations happening in the room, Luda hears everyone’s excitement.
Sojung turns from her seat and challenges everyone to a bet against Juyeon, wriggling her eyebrows.
Jiyeon is quick to scold her for even thinking that Juyeon wouldn’t win.
Soobin joins in the fray and with her equally light and loud voice, tells Sojung that, “The probability of Juyeon losing is lower than her winning.”
“You’re not even in the Science and Mathematics Department.” Sojung says.
“I don’t have to be a math student to know basic statistics!”
“Your argument is invalid.”
“Her argument isn’t invalid because there is no argument.” Dawon says, in her strong quiet voice.
Hyunjung looks up from the papers she’s reading and turns to them, “What kind of argument are we talking about?”
“Nothing. It wasn’t an argument.”
“God, I just wanted a bet.” Sojung sighs. “You intellectuals make the simplest things a lot difficult.”
“We’re all intellectuals here.” Hyunjung says, her eyes still glued to her papers.
“True.” says Dawon.
Sojung sighs even louder, as she rolls her eyes at all of them, exasperated.
“I’m not betting against Juyeon.” Xuan Yi says randomly. “Do we have food? Popcorn? Ramyun? Dried seaweed? I thought snacks are provided.”
“I can’t believe you. You just ate.” Jiyeon laughs. “We’re on a tight budget. We spent a lot on this special broadcast.”
“I have candies and chocolate.” Soobin raises a hand.
“Throw me some.” Sojung waves her own hand as well.
“Us too!” Jiyeon says.
Soobin throws candies across the room one at a time. Luda ducks when Soobin flings candies to Jiyeon and Xuan Yi behind her, and hears them noisily clattering on the tables before laughter ensues. Soobin throws Luda a couple of candies too, which she catches with her small hands adeptly.
The topics shift from betting against Juyeon to food, to the upcoming school festival, to the long-lasting rivalry of the College of Liberal Arts and College of Science and Mathematics, to intercollegiate academic events, to who’s dating who.
Luda soon finds herself laughing with them; at Hyunjung’s dad jokes, Sojung’s impersonations and Soobin’s attempt at sexy dance after she lost a game of across-the-room rock-paper-scissors with Jiyeon.
“See? I told you. We’re not half bad.” Dawon nudges Luda in the elbow and chuckles.
“You’re a mess.” Luda says.
“Juyeon joining the council next year as a representative of her college is inevitable, you know. Her popularity and connections are no joke. It will be a landslide. Even I think she’s closer to the people in this room than I am.” Dawon mutters.
“Why do you sound so sad? It’s not like she’s going to replace you next year. You’re in different colleges.”
“I’m just saying that maybe… if you want to reconsider, you can still run as next school year’s representative of your college. You’re smart and talented. Your seniors and underclassmen respect you. As Jiyeon unnie said, we’d love to have you here. There’s me and there will be Juyeon, too. It’s a win-win for all of us.”
Luda takes a deep breath and shrugs. “I’ll have to think about it.”
Just then, Jiyeon’s squeals. “Oh, oh- it’s Juyeonie!”
Everyone turns quiet.
Even if it’s just through the screen, the pressure inside the Seoul Sports Complex is palpable. The camera zooms in and out and pans in all directions, showing the track, ample crowd, and athletes, staggered in their starting positions. There are a number of cameras hovering around; other private broadcasts.
The commentator remarks each athlete’s personal best and brief history, unfailing to highlight Juyeon’s astounding record at such a young age.
The camera zooms in to Juyeon stretching in the fifth outermost lane, taking deep breaths, her hair neatly tied back in a high ponytail. She’s wearing the school’s white and red tank top and red shorts, showing off her slender bare midriff, lean, broad shoulders and strong legs. She makes eye-contact with the camera after she bows to the crowd but she doesn’t smile.
“Her body, really.” Hyunjung comments. “Wow.”
“She gained more muscle mass. And she’s… leaner.” Luda blurts out, wide-eyed. If she compares Juyeon’s picture in the previous month and how she looks now, it would look like half a year’s worth of exercise. How rigorous the training must have been.
As the athletes crouch in their own lanes, Luda grips the edge of the table. She feels her chest is going to explode. The sound of the starting pistol reverberates in the entire room. Juyeon is off running and everyone jumps and turns into a frenzy of cheers and screams.
Luda barely hears the commentator blabbering in a fast mess of the athletes’ prowess against everyone else’s screams.
“Choi Yuna is in the seventh, Park Yooyoung, sixth outside, Son Juyeon in the fifth outside….
Park Yooyoung is running up quickly and closing up on Choi Yuna…. taking the lead…
Yoon Sunmi first to left overtaking Kang Yuri second to left who suffered from a dislocated ankle last year…
Park Yooyoung leads in the moment, in green and yellow stripes…
Son Juyeon, remarkable, isn’t she… roars past Kim Nara, eight outside…
Choi Yuna, showing signs of struggling in lane seven…
Crowd favorite, Son Juyeon, takes the lead coming strong off the bend… hurtling past Park Yooyoung as soon as she meets the straight…
Yoon Sunmi from lane one picks up speed….
Look at Son Juyeon… astounding…
Park Yooyoung, sixth lane, is three meters behind Son Juyeon…
This is extravagant running! Son Juyeon is still going faster like a streak of lightning…
Four meters ahead…. Five… Six…
Son Juyeon is eight meters head of Park Yooyoung in the line…
53.36 seconds, beating her own personal best of 53.44…"
The commentator goes into a train of praises for the great runs the athletes have shown. The camera focuses and stays with Juyeon when she slows down, arms on her hips as she walks around drenched in sweat, gulping lungfuls of air.
Juyeon manages to smile at the camera before it zooms out to an aerial perspective and fades out to a replay.
She did it.
Luda turns to Dawon slowly, her fingers still numb and shaking, her vision blurry. “She did it.”
“Yes, she did.” Dawon reaches out to touch her cheek. “You can stop crying now.”
“Huh?” Luda looks down and sees droplets of tears landing on the wooden table. She raises her fingers to her face, wet with tears, and realizes she has been crying the entire time. “I-I’m sorry.”
Someone pulls her arm from behind and suddenly she’s in the middle of a hyped student council, jumping and chanting ‘Ul-ji-ma, ul-ji-ma’.
Jiyeon dabs her handkerchief on Luda’s cheeks, and gives her a warm hug. Xuan Yi spontaneously announces a group hug and Luda feels everyone wrapping her in a tight embrace. After a while, Luda thanks everyone for letting her watch with them and is about to leave when Dawon stops her.
Hyunjung peeks down from the curtains of the wide glass windows. “It’s probably best to wait for the hype to die down.”
Juyeon’s victory shakes the entire school grounds with cheering students. Luda thinks the hype won’t die down until the end of the semester but she agrees to stay. Jiyeon asks her if she wants to do the honor of calling Juyeon but Luda declines.
“I can’t believe you turned me down twice already.” Jiyeon pouts.
“It’s not like that unnie.” Luda replies. “We agreed to cut all forms of communication until she gets back.”
“Oh, is that so? Well, her flight's later in the evening so just hang in there.”
Sojung lets Luda borrow her headphones, which she uses when Jiyeon calls Juyeon.
Luda remains huddled in the farthest possible corner of the room, playing a game on her phone with the volume maxed while everyone crowds around Jiyeon. At even the slightest hint of Juyeon’s loud voice on loudspeaker, Luda hums.
When the call is over, Dawon gestures for her to come over. Luda notices everyone’s rubbing their eyes when she approaches.
“Is she alright?” Luda asks.
Jiyeon sniffs. “She sounded so happy.”
The student council decides to have a meeting about finalizing their budgets after the outcome of the broadcast at five in the afternoon, which also means it’s time for Luda to leave.
The bells ring in the distance, and even if Luda can’t see it way back from the dormitories, she knows a flock of birds has taken flight, and the track and field and gymnasts are starting their afternoon exercise.
Luda lays on her bed, staring at the ceiling and emptying her thoughts. It’s in the final moments of waiting that ultimately tests her state of mind.
Juyeon must be on her flight back to Jeju right now. Or is about to be. It should be anytime soon.
Luda hopes Juyeon is safe and not carelessly running around. Gods forbid something bad happens to her. Luda would lose it.
The restlessness nips at the back of her head. She gets up and arranges her sketchpads and art materials without reason. The last time her desk’s been clean like this was a semester ago. She takes a quick shower, brushes her teeth, and wears her favorite white turtleneck.
She’s about to ask herself why in the world she’s dressing up but decides against it.
Juyeon is coming back and that’s enough reason.
It’s almost six when she decides to go to the rooftop. She couldn’t stay in a room and do nothing anymore (Juyeon would probably go up the rooftop if she doesn’t find Luda in her room), so she grabs a random pencil from her case and one of her smaller sketchpads.
The open sky greets her in a haze of deep orange and rich yellow; and much like the recent sunsets on her canvas, something is amiss. Nevertheless, she greets back by stretching her hands up as high as she can.
“You won’t get taller that way!” Someone shouts from afar.
Standing against the setting sun on the other end of the rooftop is Son Juyeon, hands cupped around her mouth, wearing a beige coat. The huge grin on her lips is noticeable even from afar.
Luda wants to tell her to stand perfectly still while she holds the moment with her fingers. But her grip tightens around her pencil and sketchpad instead as she marches towards Juyeon, her eyes beginning to sting. “Yah- You!”
“Yes, me! Why?” Juyeon’s loud voice cracks halfway but she laughs through the end of it. She narrows her eyes as Luda approaches. “Oh- your eyes look red and swollen. Why are your eyes red? Who made you cry?”
Luda wants to give her another snarky comeback with her dry humor, or maybe ask her why she’s here when Jiyeon said her flight’s in the evening, but she meets Juyeon’s eyes and her resolution snaps.
She quickens her pace and stops a good meter right in front of Juyeon only to crouch down and place her pencil and sketchpad by her feet. With quick strides, she encircles her arms around Juyeon and laces her fingers behind her waist, hugging her as tight as she can.
Juyeon hugs her back with unexpected longing.
Luda allows herself to become a sobbing mess, clutching tightly at Juyeon’s coat because she missed her more than words could say.
“I missed you.” She manages to say between sobs.
“I missed you, too. So much. It felt like hell without you.” Juyeon cups Luda’s face and wipes her tears with her thumbs. “I heard you cried a lot today. You have to rest your eyes. If you keep on crying, I’ll cry as well.”
Luda pouts, her lips quivering as she tries to reduce her sobbing. She’s embarrassed, but she thinks it’s okay to let Juyeon see her like this. “Congratulations, Juyeonie. I’m so proud of you. We watched.”
“You and the entire school.” Juyeon smiles. “Jiyeon unnie said you watched with the student council.”
“You never told me you knew them.” Luda’s forehead scrunches. “Even Dawon didn’t tell me a single thing about you hanging out with them.”
Juyeon massages Luda’s eyebrows with her forefinger and thumb just like she always does. “I’m sorry. I know you declined when they first tried to get you to run as a representative. I thought if they asked you again and you knew I’m close with them, it would influence your decision.”
“Why do you think so highly of yourself…” Luda mumbles under her breath. “That’s not the case now. After meeting them, they’re not so bad after all.”
Juyeon snorts. “Yeah, they’re a mess.”
“That’s exactly what I said. Are you close with all of them?”
“No, not all of them. I knew Hyunjung unnie and Sojung unnie way back then because one of my sisters was their senior. I knew Jiyeon unnie through them. I’m not that close with the rest but I’m working on it.”
“Wow. I’ve never met someone as extroverted as you, Son Juyeon. You’re really something else.”
Juyeon clicks her tongue. “Aren’t you proud?”
“Very.” Luda replies. “Why are you here? Jiyeon unnie said your flight’s around six.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Juyeon pinches her cheeks lightly. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to.”
“Okay, well, you surprised me a lot.”
Juyeon beams. “Have you eaten yet? I’m hungry.”
“Don’t tell me you went straight to the airport after all your sprinting.”
“That’s exactly what I did.”
“Aren’t you tired at all?” Luda reaches down to gather her things but Juyeon beats her to it.
Always the faster one.
“I was, but seeing you gave me a lot of energy.” Juyeon grins.
Always the greasier one as well.
Luda hits her on the arm. “It’s only been a month since we last saw each other and you’re this greasy already? Did you train to improve your greasiness too? I bet you met a lot of pretty girls.”
“It’s been thirty days!” Juyeon protests, putting an arm around Luda’s shoulders as they walk back to the rooftop door. “Why would I look for pretty girls when I already have you?”
Luda sighs and loops her hand around Juyeon’s waist. “That’s enough grease for today. Save some for tomorrow.”
“I saved all my greasiness in those thirty days I’ve waited.” Juyeon yawns.
Luda feels the arm around her shoulders getting heavier before slowly slipping down to her back. She couldn’t even imagine how exhausted Juyeon must be. When she quietly takes her pencil and sketchpad from Juyeon’s lose grip; she doesn’t even say a word and just lets her.
“Say, Juyeonie, after we eat, we’ll hang out for a while and you’ll go to sleep, okay?”
“Okay.” Juyeon says. “Will you draw me a portrait?”
Luda clears her throat. “What?”
“A portrait. Of me. By you.” Juyeon pokes her cheek.
“Of course. I was originally planning to make a portrait of you when you get back.” Luda smiles a smile so wide she could feel the happiness radiating from her chest. “You are my muse after all.”
It’s a simple request, perhaps easier than asking her if she’s going to wait, perhaps not.
The next day, Luda decides to make a portrait of Juyeon after the track team’s afternoon practice. Fingers and wrists stained with lead, brush dipped in acrylic, flick and smear on a new canvas with much enthusiasm. Students pass by and peer with curiosity and awe at the work in progress. Time ticks at the back of her head, forgotten for the sake of art; an hour feels like three.
Juyeon remains seated on the benches beside the track and field, restless, as Luda continues to work over the details of her face; an hour for her eyes and nose and another for her smile. Maybe two.
When she shows Juyeon her work after idle hours of sitting and standing by, Juyeon, who never runs out of words, turns speechless for a few precious seconds before embracing her.
It doesn’t take too long before Juyeon brags about Luda’s portrait of her to the student council. They harbor the same reaction, frozen in awe, before gushing out praises for Luda’s masterpiece. And at first glance of her art professors, it is immediately added to the local art gallery, amongst a dozen of her previous works.
Luda’s portrait of Juyeon, smiling, in her standard white and red tank top with a gold medal around her neck as she stands against the warm sunset of the track and field is named after Son Juyeon herself.