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This is What Kissing Means

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It's only natural for Chaeryeong and her older sister to fight over trivial things, but they never involve their mom. That's unfair, and it's petty, and for crying out loud, Chaeyeon's the older one, so of course she'll be the one listened to.

"I think it's a great idea," their mom says. She's driving the two of them to a contemporary dance class on the other side of the city. "You two will finally be in a club together. And Ryeong, you'll be able to make new friends in your first year of high school!"

"Right?" Chaeyeon says, her voice dripping with faux sweetness. "Come on, Chaeryeong, we need you on the team."

Chaeryeong makes a disgruntled noise. To say that they need her would be a massive exaggeration. Besides, Chaeyeon knows about her plans for freshman year, which involve nothing but studying and sleep. She doesn't need an entirely new thing to worry about.

"I don't really want to overload myself the first year," Chaeryeong says.

"Dance team is only until five every day," her sister counters. And then she gets that scheming glint in her eye, and she's looking at their mom in the rearview mirror when she says, "It would look good on your college applications, too."

"Oh, it would!" their mom agrees. "Chaeryeong, you want to get into Seoul National, right? You really should join! You'll get to compete!"

"Yeah," says Chaeyeon, raising an eyebrow. "Join. Auditions on Monday."

Auditions?

She has an idea.

They're going to be screened. She could just purposefully flunk auditions, and she'd be able to put a stop to this conversation and be free. Chaeyeon's only going to be a sophomore, anyway, so she can't be the one judging them. It's a win-win.

"Okay," says Chaeryeong. She sits up straight. "I'll audition."

Chaeyeon grins, and Chaeryeong almost feels sorry. She really thinks she's won.

There's an unexpected obstacle on Monday, and it comes in the form of Shin Ryujin.

Really, Chaeryeong's plan was to flail around like a possessed octopus and go back home to sleep. She didn't even prepare a routine.

But it's obvious that Shin Ryujin, the girl who was her lab partner in Chemistry for the entirety of middle school and who she barely spoke a word to, actually wants to get in. And she's good.

The screening of contestants begins with them performing their prepared two-minute dance, and then freestyling for another two minutes. Ryujin's routine is intricately choreographed, a clean mix of hip-hop and so much more.

Chaeryeong finds herself watching intently the entire time. She wonders how on Earth the girl can move like that --- was she that fluid while they were learning how to use a Bunsen burner? How could she have never noticed?

And then Ryujin stops. She isn't out of breath at all. She looks at the seniors of the team expectantly, and then they choose a song.

It's slow, somewhat jazzy, but it doesn't trip Ryujin up. She moves to the beat, and Chaeryeong's so entranced, because this is something that she herself is still learning after years and years of dance. In all those years, she's never once seen Ryujin at a showcase, which means that this is the fruit of her own hard work.

Chaeryeong doesn't have it in her to present her sorry excuse for a dance anymore. She'd feel guilty, honestly, that people like Ryujin are so clearly putting their heart and soul into this, and she isn't.

Dance team is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She doesn't want to throw any more of those away.

So when it's her turn, she performs the dance she's been rehearsing at their contemporary class outside school. She doesn't know if it's good, only that she's definitely been able to catch up.

The judges are smiling at her when she stops, though, so hopefully it is.

When she freestyles, it's a fast rap song, so she lets loose and just tries her hardest to express the beat. Like Ryujin, she keeps telling herself. Show something that would impress even Ryujin.

She bows and walks off the stage. Her turn is over.

"I have to admit," says Chaeyeon at the dinner table that night, "I thought you'd throw your dance on purpose. But you were actually really good."

So was Ryujin, Chaeryeong wants to say. But she doesn't.

The results of the auditions are posted on the bulletin board the next week. Chaeyeon literally drags Chaeryeong there the second they arrive in school. And it's so early, too --- Meiqi, the team captain, is still putting up the list when they run up to it together.

"Congratulations," she says, grinning at Chaeryeong. "See you later."

Chaeryeong scans the list. Sure enough, her name is on there. She answers Meiqi with a hasty thanks, and then looks back at the other names.

Ryujin's is on there too.

Chaeryeong's heart skips a beat.

That Chaeryeong has a tiny crush on Ryujin is of no doubt in her mind. She gets reminded of it every time Ryujin offers her a polite smile when they make eye contact in the halls, and every time in dance, when she gives her one hundred percent solely because Ryujin might be watching.

In fact, one time,  Ryujin's hand brushes against Chaeryeong's shoulder while they're stretching, and she whispers, "Sorry, Ryeong."

Sorry, Ryeong? Ryeong? Are they on a nickname basis now? Chaeryeong's giddy about it for days, to the point that even Chaeyeon asks her to be just a little bit more grouchy, please, God, you're so weird.

The tide finally washes over, though, when she sees Ryujin in the mall with Shin Yuna that Saturday. Ryujin waves, and Chaeryeong answers her with a kind-of-too-loud "Hey, Ryu!"

Shin Yuna bursts out into this monstrous cackle, and it makes Chaeryeong want to melt into the floor and disappear forever.

"Let me get this straight," says Somi. They're standing right outside the dance room, ten minutes late, and Chaeryeong's way too mortified to go in. "You called Ryujin a nickname, her friend laughed, and now you want to hide from her forever."

"Well, it sounds stupid when you say it like that," Chaeryeong mutters.

Somi crosses her arms in front of her chest. "That's because it's literally the stupidest thing I've ever heard. If you do that, Ryujin's just going to feel like she did something wrong, and you'll lose dance."

"But she probably hates me!" Maybe Chaeryeong's just stalling, and she knows it.

"If she hated you, she wouldn't have waved." Somi's unshakable logic leads her to pull the door open and physically push Chaeryeong inside. "Go," she whispers.

And the door swings shut.

Everyone's staring at her. Somebody pauses the music.

"You're late," says Cheng Xiao, though not unkindly.

"I know," she answers, wincing. "I'm sorry."

Chaeryeong, as always, is the last one out of the shower.

She's packing up her things in the corner, getting ready to head home alone, because her sister's riding with Sakura again, when she feels a feathery tap on her shoulder.

"I was scared you weren't coming," Ryujin says. They're the only ones left.

Chaeryeong turns around and comes face-to-face with her. She's changed into a new set of clothes, and she's let loose her hair so that the pink highlights are more prominent. It makes Chaeryeong's heart jump. She really has to stop staring, because Ryujin for sure already thinks she's weird ---

"Yeah, I just, I had to do something for --- for Chemistry," she says. It's a terrible lie. Chaeryeong's never been good at lying.

"Oh," Ryujin replies. "Well, I'm glad you're here." A small chuckle escapes from her mouth, and she adds, "I like watching you dance."

Chaeryeong feels her cheeks heat up, and it takes her a long second to register what she's heard. "I like watching you dance, too."

It makes Ryujin scoff. "I can't catch up, though."

"But you end up getting it eventually, and, and it's so obvious how hard you work, despite not having formal training or anything!" Chaeryeong says, and all of a sudden she's painfully aware of how her heart's beating so fast right now, because she can't fully grasp that she's actually talking to Ryujin.

"Actually," she replies, "I'm having trouble with that part after the bridge." She looks around. "Uh, could you --- could you teach me?"

Chaeryeong stares.

She replays the sentence in her head.

Her cheeks start heating up. Again.

"Of course!" she says. She takes out her phone and hooks it up to the speakers. "It's like this."

They finish two hours later, all sweaty and breathless.

At the door, Ryujin asks, "How are you going to go home?"

"I texted my mom already," Chaeryeong answers.

"Oh," says Ryujin. "Okay. I'll go look for Yeji unnie now." She smiles. "Thanks for today, Ryeong."

There it is again. The giddy feeling returns. "Thank you too, Ryujin."

There's quiet.

Ryujin stands there, unmoving, and then all of a sudden she presses her lips to Chaeryeong's cheek. "I kind of liked Ryu," she says as she pulls back, her voice teasing. "It was cute."

That night, Chaeyeon has to beg Chaeryeong to be more grouchy, again, because she won't stop squealing into her pillow.

It continues on, them practicing long after hours to polish their dance. Meiqi notices the improvement right away --- and then soon enough, all the seniors are commending them. Even Chaeyeon seems a little confused by it.

Still, Ryujin seals every night with a kiss on Chaeryeong's cheek, so she's more than happy with the way that things are going. Maybe it's those kisses that keep Chaeryeong going, actually.

And one day, she decides it's her turn to return the favor. The kisses are so nice, she decides Ryujin should be receiving them, too.

So as Ryujin's about to lean in, Chaeryeong turns, leans in as well ---

and Ryujin's mouth lands on her lips.

Time stops.

She isn't sure if it's a split-second or an hour, but it's her who pulls away. Looks up at Ryujin. Oh no. Oh, God, no, now she's made it awkward.

But Ryujin's smile returns to her face. "Bye bye, Chaeryeong," she says, and then she walks off to where Choi Jisu and Shin Yuna wait for her.

It leaves Chaeryeong stunned, and even more so when Ryujin actually goes for the lips the next time. On purpose.

(But it's much better. She won't complain. They have more conversations after that, and they learn more about each others' lives. And when she tries to lean in first again, it's not awkward or fumbly at all.)

Chaeryeong realizes that what they're doing is a little weird when she opens up to Somi one lunchtime. She says, "Ryujin and I kiss after we practice," and Somi drops her sandwich.

"You what?"

She repeats it, and then Somi is giving her this really bewildered look. "Chaeryeong, are you dating?"

"No."

"But you want to date her?"

"Yeah? Who doesn't?"

"Chaeryeong," Somi says, shaking her shoulders. "What are you doing? You're going to get hurt!"

"I'm not hurt," she replies. "I'm fine."

But Somi's so insistent that she's not. "What ---" she groans. Buries her hands in her hair. "Look, okay, if you don't clear up what the heck is up with you two as soon as possible, you'll end up expecting too much."

"We just kiss in a friendly way," Chaeryeong says. "It's not a big deal. It's just like, a 'Thank you for practicing with me' kiss."

"Chaeryeong," says Somi, keeping her voice slow, "you have a crush on her."

She nods. "Yeah, I do."

"Okay, so you can't just kiss your crush in a friendly way and expect everything to turn out well!"

"What? You can!"

Somi rests her forehead on the table and lets out this loud frustrated noise.

So maybe it is a little weird. Maybe Chaeryeong's begun to notice how Ryujin leans her head on Chaeryeong's shoulder, yet shies away when Shin Yuna tries to do the same. Maybe she sees how Ryujin goes in for long hugs with her, but one time Choi Jisu tries to hug Ryujin in the hallway and she just stands there like a catatonic telephone pole.

Maybe they're doing a bunch of couple-y things in that dance room after practice, and maybe Chaeryeong's starting to wonder what exactly she is to Ryujin. What if Ryujin likes her too? Heck, what if she doesn't?

It's the reason why she pulls away quick after kissing Ryujin the next few days, and how she ends up in Chaeyeon's room when she gets home one night.

Her sister is pissed off, to say the least. "Get out of my room," she says, not looking up from her laptop.

But Chaeryeong slouches on the bed and stays put. "Is it weird that me and Ryujin kiss each other as friends?"

Chaeyeon turns around.

And right there, on her laptop, are all of her friends, in a group video call.

Yena is the first to speak up. "Called it."

And then it's Yuri. "Very weird."

Chaeyeon fixes on Chaeryeong this very tired look. "You know what?" she says. "Just tell her already. Before she starts thinking the opposite."

Chaeryeong swallows. "Fine. Okay."

(Except she forgets to tell. Except when she sees Ryujin, her mind goes into autopilot and autopilot does not have a "confess your feelings" setting.)

(That is, until one day, about a week later.)

Chaeryeong doesn't usually ask for help in their daily dance practices, but this time, there's this kind-of flip in their choreography that she can't do.

She's hunched over, trying to copy Ryujin exactly, when Ryujin stops midsentence and reaches out to adjust Chaeryeong's arms.

It makes her heart pound faster, especially when Ryujin's hair brushes on her neck, and then she honestly doesn't know what she's doing when she asks, "Why are you so much more clingy with me?"

Ryujin stills. Withdraws her hands. Steps back.

And then cautiously, "Do --- do you not like it? Is it making you uncomfortable? Sorry ---"

"No," Chaeryeong says. "It's not. I just --- " She trails off, moves to stand up straight and look Ryujin in the eye. "I like you. As in, I have a crush on you and I want to date you. I just don't know if what we're doing is a soon-to-be-couple thing, or a friend thing, or whatever."

"I like you too," says Ryujin. She sounds almost confused. "I thought that was obvious, you know, with the kissing?"

"Oh," says Chaeryeong. "Oh. Okay. Okay, good." She can practically hear Somi somewhere in the background, calling her dumb.

Ryujin laughs. "Did you think I thought of you as a friend or something?"

"You didn't say anything!" she protests.

"Chaeryeong, I kissed you!"

Okay, so maybe she is dumb. "I --- I liked it," says Chaeryeong. "I mean, if you want to date, we could maybe do that more than once a day ---"

Ryujin pecks her on the lips right then and there. "Of course I do, dummy." She bends back down into position. "So that was why you never said anything. Now, look. You have to tighten your arms."