"You're listening to kids' Christmas wishes, Nayeon-unnie, not going to the club," Dahyun raised a brow.
Nayeon continued to caress her upper lid lightly with a pencil, shooting a wink through the vanity. "I'm Mrs. Claus, I have to look great!"
Dahyun could only roll her eyes.
The door to the room bursted open minutes later, and a woman dressed in an elf costume walked in, face as red as the sleeves of her red dress. "Are you not finished yet?!"
"Aww, looks like someone's a bit too excited to sit on my lap," Nayeon merely teased as she glided red lipstick across her lips.
"There's a line of children and parents waiting out that door, and none of them are taking me seriously!"
Nayeon pressed her lips together a few times before facing the opposite direction. She could barely suppress a laugh as she looked at her friend from head to toe. "Uou know, Chaeng," Nayeon started, "I wouldn't either."
Red velvet dress, green-striped knickers, and pointed red boots. Chaeyoung felt anything but cute. She felt ridiculous, and here was Dahyun, all dressed in a fancy angel costume. Not to mention Nayeon’s own Mrs. Claus fit, hugging her body in all the right spots.
Now, Chaeyoung was definitely starting to have regrets about this whole gig. It’d been Dahyun's idea to take up the one-day job at the mall, offered by who knows who. The pay was surprisingly good, enough to convince Chaeyoung and Nayeon to tag along. They were college students after all. Not that they were broke college students (not yet, at least), but who'd say no to extra cash? Especially with the holidays right around the corner. If only Chaeyoung had known that she'd be getting the rough end of the stick, maybe she would've given it more thought. She could only hope that the pay was worth the trouble she was bound to get from these children--and this silly costume.
Chaeyoung huffed. ”Not helping, unnie."
"How do I look?" Nayeon twirled in a small circle, the faux fur ends of her skirt flaring. Chaeyoung stepped forward, and centered the woman's belt buckle over her slim waist. "Gorgeous, as always, unnie."
"And y," Dahyun added.
Nayeon chuckled, flattered. She turned to the mirror. “Sorry for the hold up, you two. I just wanted to look...good."
"Don't worry, you look stunning!" Dahyun beamed, and shot her a thumbs-up. Chaeyoung nodded in agreement, forgetting that she was even annoyed at Nayeon's punctuality, or lack thereof.
Nayeon grabbed her plush hat, stuffed it on top of her hair, and took a final look at her reflection before turning to the duo with hands on her waist and a smile spread across her face. "Alright guys," Nayeon linked her arms with theirs as they made way out of the staff room, "Time to listen to some Christmas wishes!"
Nayeon had expected worse. She'd mentally prepared herself for the rude parents and bratty children who'd been waiting for Mrs. Claus' long-awaited arrival. But once she was settled in her little throne, a plush red velvet chair just for her, things turned out to be more modest than she'd thought. For the most part.
There were still a few pesky parents that insisted on being 'first in line' (thankfully, Dahyun came to the rescue each time, maybe it was the angel costume), and a few kids that made Nayeon question whether big ol' Santa Claus would really put himself through something like this.
Still, Nayeon loved kids, and kids loved her. Children always loved it when an older person took interest in them. And with Nayeon's bright personality, she was a natural--reason why she was the first person Dahyun had thought of to take the center role when she was offered the gig. So even with a few uncalled-for, yet expected inconveniences here and there, Nayeon found joy in being Mrs. Claus.
She enjoyed listening to what these children wanted for Christmas, hearing them come up with all sorts of wishes. Toy cars, dolls, games she was sure Mina would love to get her hands on--and even some of the most outrageous things. Not even a magic man from the North Pole could get these kids the pet unicorns and castles they wanted, no matter how nice they were. Either way, Nayeon told every single one of them that she and her elves (never missing the opportunity to point towards Chaeyoung) would see what they could do.
Two hours later, as Nayeon helped a young boy off her lap and waited for Chaeyoung to usher another child towards her seat, she stretched, subtly glancing at the line in front of her that didn't seem to shorten at all from the last time she'd checked.
She let her eyes skim the length of the long line, stopping somewhere along the middle as her attention became glued to a familiar, all too familiar, face. No...Nayeon had that face memorized. The slope of her nose. The angle of her chin. Her lips…she still used the same shade of vermilion. Nayeon knew it all too well.
"What are you looking at?"
Nayeon snapped out her gaze and looked at Chaeyoung as she held the hand of another little boy. Her eyelids fluttered and her voice wavered ever so slightly. "I thought--"
Nayeon looked back, and saw nobody but a line of strangers that would soon join her for a few minutes of wish n' tell and family photos. No familiar face.
"--I saw someone."
Chaeyoung came up to her with the last child in line before they'd finally have their lunch break. The child's fingers played with the pocket of her coat as she made shy steps towards Nayeon's velvet chair. Nayeon held out an encouraging hand. She gave the young girl the same sweet smile she had given every child that had come before her, without a sign of the same weariness that could be seen on the angel's and elf's faces, and helped her onto her lap.
"What might your name be, sweetheart?"
"And what would you like for Christmas, Kyeongmi?"
Again, the little girl fiddled with the flap of her coat pocket. She tentatively reached inside her pocket, pulled out a piece of paper, and unfolded it. "I made a list of all of my wishes, but it's not that long, I promise!" Kyeongmi looked up to meet Nayeon's eyes that twinkled with amusement, the corners of curled up. Of all of the children that had leaned over to her ear and whispered the first things that came into their minds, this little girl had come prepared with a wishlist.
Nayeon hummed as she ran her fingers through the child's hair. "Why don't you read your list for Mrs. Claus, then?"
Tiny hands smoothened the piece of paper, and its contents were read aloud. Nayeon paid close attention to everything Kyeongmi said as she did for every child for the past two and a half hours, occasionally nodding and responding with soft hums, until they were finished. Kyeongmi's wishes were simple: she'd asked for a kitchen set, a coloring book, and a keyboard.
Before Nayeon's best attempt at a jolly laugh and deliberate promise to the child so that they could move on, the weight on her lap shifted. "There's one more..."
"Oh! What is it?" with a kind, catlike tilt of her head, Nayeon nodded for her to continue.
Kyeongmi paused, glancing over her shoulder before leaning even closer to Nayeon, making sure that nobody but the woman could hear her. But she didn't need to worry. Whoever had come with the child, was already huddled by both Dahyun and Chaeyoung.
"It's for my Auntie, she doesn't like asking for things a lot."
“Oh, such a kind young lady you are,” Nayeon said truthfully, ”What is it?"
“…I, I wish she could find her Nabongs."
Nayeon's heart skipped a beat at the at the mention of the nickname. Her voice trembled. "H-her what?"
"Her Nabongs! Auntie told me that she really loved bunny Nabongs so much, but made her sad...and lost her!" there was a forlorn look on Kyeongmi's face as she stared at the piece of paper in her hands. Nayeon could see the drawing of a bunny in pink crayon. "So I wish Auntie can find her again...or find a new bunny, I guess. But it wouldn't be the same."
“And why's that?” Nayeon dared herself to ask.
"Because Auntie Jeong says she loves Nabongs the most."
"Kyeongmi-ah, don't take too much of Mrs. Claus' time, now."
The silence was short-lived. Nayeon had almost forgotten where she was after the child's last remark, only coming back to sentience when she heard the familiar voice and the faint sound of Christmas music drifting in her surroundings. It was the first time Nayeon had heard from that voice in a year, and didn't know if she was ready to come face to face with its owner, despite badly wanting to. This was all too sudden. Her thoughts had gone haywire. And her heartbeat akin.
I knew I wasn't seeing things.
Nayeon puffed out her cheeks. She knew that Jeongyeon's eyes would already be on her the moment she looked up, but knowing so made her all the less prepared. She could've pretended all she wanted, that she didn't hear her, but it'd be useless when Kyeongmi's innocent eyes were looking straight into her face, expecting an answer towards her aunt on her behalf.
"No, it's-- fine." Just as she predicted, nervousness clogged the words in as soon as her eyes met Jeongyeon's, voice cracking embarrassingly on the last word. She looked away quickly, but not quickly enough to miss the impish smile that curled on Jeongyeon's lips. Nayeon cleared and forced her attention back to little girl on her lap. "Tell you what, Mrs. Claus can tell that you've been such a nice girl all year long." Nayeon saw the child's face already light up, and was reminded of how much she'd been enjoying this, whatever this was. Not that she'd come back next week for more, though.
"Santa and I, and all of the elves," Nayeon bypassed pointing to Chaeyoung this time, who usually stood where the parents waited--there was no way she'd blunder herself over. And even if Chaeyoung wasn't, she didn't need to see the -eating grin Nayeon just knew would be on the younger’s face. "--will do our very best to make you happy this Christmas!"
"Even Auntie jeong?" Kyeongmi asked excitedly.
Caught off guard once again, Nayeon blinked several times. What the hell was she supposed to say to that? Nayeon let loose a chuckle and nodded. Kyeongmi's obliviousness to the entire situation humoured her. "I'll see what I can do."
Dahyun was standing in front of them, camera in her hands. "ready for the photo?"
Nayeon smiled, posing for the photo. To her surprise, Jeongyeon joined in the last second. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jeongyeon lean closer to them, placing her hand on an armrest for leverage. Nayeon's grip on the very same armrest tightened. Their hands were just centimeters apart. She bit the inside of her cheek, trying to shut out the warmth that came from Jeongyeon. (or was it the heat rising in her own cheeks?) She'd hope that Jeongyeon wasn't doing this on purpose, and that she was just overthinking.
At the click of the camera shutter, Nayeon let out a quiet breath she'd been holding as Kyeongmi got back on her feet. "Happy holidays, sweetheart,” she said. The child smiled back, gave Nayeon a tiny bow, and waved goodbye, joining her aunt.
When she was fairly certain that the pair were out of hearing distance, Nayeon let out another breath, almost like a sigh of relief. She stood up, ready to join Dahyun and Chaeyoung back to the staff room, when a small voice called for her. "Mrs. Claus! Mrs. Claus!"
Kyeongmi detached herself from her aunt and skipped the bantam distance that separated her from Nayeon, stopping just in front of her. "I want you to have this," she said as she took one of Nayeon's gloved hands and tucked the piece of paper from before inside her fist. Without giving the latter the time to respond, Kyeongmi wrapped her arms around Nayeon's waist. She let go just as quickly and looked up with a wide smile. "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Claus."
The little girl sprinted back to her aunt and took Jeongyeon’s outstretched hand, who smiled brightly at the child. Jeongyeon looked up, as her eyes met with Nayeon’s. From here, despite the distance, Nayeon could see how beautiful the woman looked under the mall’s gleaming Christmas lights, just like in the movies. Perhaps she was even more beautiful than the last time she’d seen her a year ago. Studying abroad fared well with her, Nayeon thought to herself.
She didn’t know when it happened, but she must’ve begun grinning too, judging by the way Jeongyeon’s smile grew wider, her eyes seeming to smile as well. They stared at each other, for who knows how long, before Kyeongmi pulled her aunt’s arm good-naturedly, silently asking to leave. Nayeon saw Jeongyeon mouth a few words to the young girl, then looked up at her again with apprehension.
And maybe it was because of the relationship they had in the past, or from how long they’d known each other, but Nayeon knew the woman well enough to know that Jeongyeon wanted to say something to her, to shout across the space between them. Instead, Jeongyeon gave Nayeon a curt nod, allowing herself to be pulled completely by her niece before disappearing into the mall’s holiday crowd.
After a short, yet much-needed lunch break, the three girls fell back into routine. Chaeyoung attending to the children and adults in-line, Dahyun juggling between handling the photos and helping Chaeyoung keep everything at bay, and Nayeon untiringly delivering her prettiest smiles and being the absolute sweetheart she was. It wasn’t as easy as it sounded, but Nayeon made it seem like a cakewalk.
The next four hours were more than enough to keep Nayeon’s thoughts away from her ex-girlfriend, devoting her full attention to the children waiting in line to tell her their innocent wishes. She was grateful that neither Chaeyoung nor Dahyun had brought it up again, at least not until their gig was finished, and were tidying themselves up in the staff room.
“Hey unnie?” Chaeyoung, who was relieved to have finally gotten out of her elf costume, called out to Nayeon. She was leaning against the same vanity desk the latter used as the latter wiped the makeup that’d been sitting on her face for hours. Nayeon hummed in response, but didn’t look at the woman as she reached for another sheet of wipe. “Did you know that Jeongyeon-unnie was coming home for the holidays?”
Nayeon paused, shooting a leery look at Chaeyoung. “Does it look like I knew?”
“Sorry, dumb question,” Chaeyoung scratched her head. “I just thought that she would’ve at least told someone. Jihyo-unnie if not you, but she seems just as surprised.” She turned her phone around for Nayeon to see, showing a conversation that she had with Jihyo, filled with question marks, exclamation points, and a number of voice messages.
“She said she’d be here until the holidays are over, but didn’t say when exactly she arrived,” Dahyun pointed out as she recalled their conversation with Jeongyeon.
Nayeon chuckled. “I'm sure she has her reasons,” she said, resuming her work on her face. Chaeyoung and Dahyun nodded their heads in mute agreement.
“Ah, unnie,” Chaeyoung suddenly perked up, shaking the desk and startling Nayeon as she did, “You should’ve seen yourself when Dahyun-unnie took your photos! Really!” She mimicked the woman with a mock smile, unattractively lopsided and awkward. Dahyun clapped a hand over her stomach, bursting out into laughter.
“Yah!” Nayeon scolded with a light push to Chaeyoung’s shoulder, though cracking up herself moments later.
As the laughter died down after a few more wisecracks at the eldest, Chaeyoung announced her leave, plans of meeting up with Yerim, a close friend of hers. As if that had reminded Dahyun of her own plans to catch a movie with some university friends, the girl too dismissed herself not too long after, leaving Nayeon alone in the room. She looked through her phone, realizing that she didn’t have anything laid out to do, aside from binge watching a new drama back at home.
She didn’t have as many friends most people thought she did, and it’d oftentimes come off as a surprise to know how shy Nayeon was, especially in the past. Before she’d met Jeongyeon, that is. Even when the two were just friends, Jeongyeon had been the reason why Nayeon had become acquainted with many people, some that were still her closest friends. Jeongyeon had helped her come out of her shell to a great extent. And up to this point, Nayeon was forever thankful.
Slipping her phone back into her jeans pocket, Nayeon felt a piece of paper brush against the skin of her finger. She broke the silence of the room with a quiet gasp as she remembered the paper given to her. By her ex-girlfriend’s niece. Presumably, her niece. Two years, they’d dated, and friends for more, yet she was clueless to the fact that one of Jeongyeon’s sisters already had a kid!
Nayeon pulled out and unfolded Kyeongmi’s Christmas list. Now that she wasn’t looking at it from the hands of a child sitting on her lap, she got a better look at the list. She smiled at the young girl’s cute handwriting, and at the bunny drawn at the very bottom. Her fingers passed the waxy texture of the crayon and huffed an airy chuckle.
“Made Nabongs sad and lost her,” she laughed, shaking her head. Nayeon could only imagine the kinds of stories Jeongyeon had told the child.
Okay, Nayeon had been sad when they called things off, and yes, in one way or another, Jeongyeon did lose her, but Nayeon was sure that Jeongyeon could’ve at least come up with a better story to tell. Something less angstier per se, something more accurate.
After all, their breakup was mutual and they ended the relationship on good terms, before Jeongyeon moved to the other side of the ocean to finish her studies there. Both had agreed that they didn't want the possible resentment for one another if they'd maintained a long-distance relationship. Thinking back, Nayeon knew the right decision had been made -- the change in Jeongyeon evident within the first few months of arriving at a new country. Her updates to their group chat had become less and less frequent each day, to none at all, until Nayeon was convinced that the chat had been muted completely. She probably didn't need the distraction.
Though a part of her -- granted, a selfish part of her -- still clung onto the what ifs.
Nayeon stepped out of the room, eyes straight ahead and deep into her thoughts.
What if they didn't break up? What if she insisted that she'd wait? What if--
"Hey, Mrs. Claus.”
Nayeon froze. She turned around, and there she was. Yoo Jeongyeon. She was leaning against a wall with her signature slouch and stylish clothes. She looked relaxed (Nayeon hoped she could say the same for herself), a small smile on her face.
Remembering that she had been spoken to, Nayeon cleared . "Hey, Jeongyeon," she replied. "Uhm...are you looking for the photos from earlier? I can call Dahyun and--"
"Oh, no. I've already picked it up from her earlier."
"Ah…" Nayeon nodded. She swallowed when Jeongyeon pushed off the wall and took a step closer. "Then why did you…" Nayeon trailed off.
Jeongyeon took another step, her shoulders drawing forward even further. Nayeon then realized that she'd mistook her ex-girlfriend's hunched form for a state of ease. She was just as nervous as her.
"Are you free? For the rest of the day?" Jeongyeon asked timidly. When Nayeon stammered with her words, Jeongyeon spoke again. "I was hoping we could grab dinner together and catch up, maybe?"
"Dinner?" Nayeon said, immediately disliking how plainly the word had left her lips.
Jeongyeon noticed, the corners of sinking towards her chin dejectedly. "it's fine if you can't right now. You must be tired--"
"I'd love to!" Nayeon hurried. She couldn't stand seeing Jeongyeon frown. "I'd love to have dinner with you."
For a second, surprise crossed Jeongyeon's face, and then --
Ah. There it is.
Jeongyeon sat down across Nayeon, laying a pager down onto the table. Their ‘catch-up’ dinner took place at one of the mall's noodle bars, one they'd eaten at many times, as friends and lovers, in the past.
She toyed with the pager in her hands, glancing up to see Nayeon just staring off to the side. She breathed out. Small talk, Jeongyeon could do that.
"So...how did you guys end up being Santa's little helpers?" she started, mentally patting herself on the back as Nayeon finally matched her gaze.
Nayeon moved her seat closer to the table and placed her arms on top of its surface. She suddenly seemed more comfortable.
"It was pretty much Dahyun's idea, actually. Someone had offered her the job, then the next day she sent me a message if I wanted to become Mrs. Claus for a day for some extra money. She said that I was the first person that came to mind when she thought of kids, so," she said with a proud shrug, grinning.
"Yeah, you were always great with kids," Jeongyeon happily agreed. "You even had Kyeongmi wrapped around your finger. She wouldn't stop talking about how pretty Mrs. Claus and how funny the elf looked."
Nayeon cackled. She did her best not to pay much mind to the indirect compliment and replied, "Don't let Chaeyoungie hear that."
Another veil of silence cast over the two after that, but Nayeon knew that the cards were now hers to play. It was up to her to keep them in this awkward silence, or to break it. There were questions she wanted to ask, that was for sure.
Did you miss me?
"Since, since when did you become an aunt?" she asked. "I'm positive that I would've remembered information like that, especially with somebody as cute as Kyeongmi."
Jeongyeon hummed thoughtfully, as if she'd expected the question. "Well, first of all, Kyeongmi is Seungyeon-unnie's--"
"Oh my god, Seungyeon-unnie?! But…"
Jeongyeon chuckled, reminded of old times. "She's adopted," she clarified, "unnie adopted her a during spring break before I left so I got to spend some time with her, but the whole process wasn't finished until about four months later after."
Nayeon gaped at her, absorbing what the woman had said and wordlessly willed her to continue.
"I didn't want to say anything while nothing was final yet, and when everything was settled later on…uh…"
"Yeah, yeah," Nayeon in to save the woman from the trouble of explaining herself, why she'd pulled a Houdini on her friends.
Jeongyeon wet her lips and leaned back into her chair. "I really wasn't supposed to come home, not until I finished up university. But," she rubbed her nape.
"Kyeongmi?" Nayeon laughed.
Jeongyeon nodded, laughing herself. "She was gruelingly persistent, I'm telling you! Sometimes she'd refuse to talk to me over the phone just to prove a point!"
Sounds like something I would do, Nayeon thought.
"She reminds me a lot of you."
Without a tease nor an acknowledgement of unanimity, Nayeon responded with a smile. For the sake of her heart, she let the conversation end there.
They sat in a deafening quiet, and for a while Nayeon contemplated whether she should open up another topic, and was going to, when the pager sitting in between them buzzed aggressively against the tabletop. And just like nothing had changed, Nayeon watched Jeongyeon as she stood up and took it upon herself to get both of their orders. Only when Jeongyeon's back faced her could she stare longingly at the woman. She sighed in reminiscence.
The rest of the dinner went well. They enjoyed their bowls of ramen, and gradually chatted more comfortably. They exchanged stories, of Jeongyeon's life abroad and, by courtesy of Nayeon, the changes to the life she'd temporarily left behind, catching up as Jeongyeon had intended.
It almost felt like nothing had changed at all. After one year, over a simple meal surrounded by sweet memories and new accounts. Nayeon still finished Jeongyeon's sentences time after time. Jeongyeon still endlessly teased Nayeon, starting a bout of bickering until one caved in and called truce. They still stared with a gleam of adoration as the other spoke, fully attentive.
They looked like two women who were still deeply in love.
And when Nayeon slyly took the last fried dumpling (like she always had on their dates) with a mischievous smile that lit up her entire face, all giggly and gummy, Jeongyeon just knew that she still was. Madly in love with Im Nayeon.
She didn't do anything about it, though. She didn't think she had the right. But she could at least buy more time with Nayeon, right? Even if it was just as friends.
"Unnie," Jeongyeon uttered as they walked out of the restaurant and into the rest of the mall.
"Ah, I mean, Mrs. Claus," Jeongyeon said.
The woman turned to her with a puzzled expression, chuckling. "what?"
Jeongyeon stopped in her steps, Nayeon following suit. "Do you think Mrs. Claus would do me a favor?" she asked.
"Come on, you haven't even heard it yet!"
Nayeon rolled her eyes playfully. "What is it?"
"I was wondering if...Mrs. Claus could help an aunt out...and help me make Kyeongmi's Christmas wishes come true?"
"oh my god, yoo Jeongyeon!" Nayeon scoffed, disbelief growing over her face. "I can't believe you!"
"Hey, don't look at me like that! You make it seem like I just asked you to bury a body for me!" Jeongyeon told her.
Nayeon sighed. "Jeong, you do know that your niece would love anything you give to her, right? I bet she's happy enough to even be spending time with you now."
"No, I know, I know that. I already brought gifts for her, and I'm planning to take her to the dog shelter to hang around, okay? I just...want to give her everything. She deserves everything," the younger said honestly. She crossed her arms and lightly shrugged.
Nayeon studied the woman's face for a moment. She wondered if Kyeongmi realized how blessed she was to have a person like Jeongyeon loving her, having experienced it herself firsthand. Jeongyeon's kind heart just had so much love to give.
"Okay," she said.
"Yes, i'll give," Nayeon reached into her pocket to bring out Kyeongmi's list and hand it over to the woman, as the child's drawing and writing flashed in her head. She stopped midway, smoothing out her jeans instead. "...help," she corrected herself. "Uhm, all she really asked for was--"
"I was planning on buying them tonight before I head home. Do you wanna come along?" Jeongyeon tried, then quickly followed, "If you're still free, that is."
Nayeon smiled. "Sure."
After Nayeon told Jeongyeon what her niece's wishes had been, they first went to a bookstore, to buy the girl not just one, but an entire set of coloring books. Nayeon tried her best to keep Jeongyeon from practically clearing a whole shelf, but wasn't able to stop her ex-girlfriend from throwing in an additional paint-by-number kit into their basket for 'good measure'.
"I know you want to be a great aunt and all, but you don't want to spoil her too much, you know?" Nayeon said as they walked towards the cashier's counter.
"You never had any complaints before," Jeongyeon teased, bumping shoulders with her.
Nayeon clicked her tongue, but bit back a smile. "tsk. Whatever."
They both laughed.
Jeongyeon pondered if she should be content with this -- how after a year of breaking up and not seeing each other, they could poke fun at the what had beens just like how friends would. Because really, that was all they were, what they had decided to be before she left, but--
The day she'd told Nayeon that she'd been offered to take part in the exchange program, and planned on accepting it. The day she'd told Nayeon how she didn't want them to possibly resent each other if they'd stayed together. How it would be better for the both of them. The day Jeongyeon had explained everything from a to z while Nayeon listened and listened, until Jeongyeon had finished and Nayeon could only agree and express her support. Bless her heart.
She'd been selfish without even realizing it. Too ecstatic with the opportunity that had been given to her, too caught up with the future -- that she'd forgotten what was already in front of her.
She feared that now, they were just a thing of the past.
It was when the two of them had checked out a mini kitchen set from the department store's toy section, and Nayeon had started bringing up memories of their own at-home dates as they passed by a variety of board games, did Jeongyeon tell herself that she couldn't bear it for any longer.
"--then there was that one time where you not-so-subtly hit the table while we were playing truth or dare jenga and--"
"Unnie, I'm sorry."
Nayeon snorted. "For cheating nearly everytime I got close to beating you? Yeah, you should be."
"No," Jeongyeon mumbled, shaking her head. She stopped walking, the two on the way to their last stop at the music store, and called out to her sternly. "Im Nayeon."
Nayeon sighed. How many times is she just going to stop in the middle of this mall? She said to herself. But when Nayeon heard the how Jeongyeon had called her full name in a way she only had when she was serious, Nayeon quickly turned around. "What's wrong?" she asked, full of concern.
Jeongyeon locked eyes with her. "I'm sorry. For leaving things between us the way I did."
"Wha-what are you talking about? What happened between us was mutual and--"
"Was it, unnie? Or did I push you into a decision that i'd already made for the both of us?"
"I didn't even care to listen to what you had to say and you know it, unnie."
"I understood that it was only for the best. It would've only made things--"
Jeongyeon grabbed Nayeon's arm, giving it a shake. "Don't deny it, unnie! I was selfish and self-centered for being so hung up on my own ambitions that I didn't think about you, about us," her voice softened.
"When I realized my mistake, it was too late. I was already thousands of miles away. I felt guilty every time I talked with you guys over the phone, like I never did anything wrong and never acted like some mighty jerk, that I just stopped contacting everyone one day."
"Huh," Nayeon said, "we thought you were just busy with university and everything."
"I know," Jeongyeon sighed. Her hand travelled lower to the woman's wrist, holding it gently. "Nayeon-ah...did you want us to break up?"
Nayeon hesitated before answering. ”God no, of course not. It didn't matter how long I had to wait, Jeong, because I knew you were worth it. But that day when you told me about the program, you looked so happy! You had everything planned out. I didn't want to be the one to ruin that for you, not after everything you did for me."
Nayeon's eyes began to water, doing her best not to bawl right there. The sight tugged at Jeongyeon's chest, pulling hard from the inside.
"when I saw you in line earlier, i'd thought that I was just seeing things. But when you showed up right in front of me...god. I know it sounds stupid, but,” she paused, ”, I still love you after all this time, Yoo Jeongyeon."
Jeongyeon inhaled sharply as she held both of Nayeon's wrists. "Unnie, I'm so, so sorry. Please forgive me, I--"
Nayeon pulled her hands away, shaking her head, embarrassed. "Can we just go buy that keyboard now? Please," she let out a bitter laugh, but her eyes were pleading.
Is this what rejection felt like?
Jeongyeon looked down and nodded. "Okay."
This was her fault.
From there, it was Jeongyeon who did most of the talking with the music store clerks, only looking to Nayeon on occasions she needed a second opinion, to which Nayeon would give her short, curt answers.
Jeongyeon knew it was what she deserved.
After settling on a keyboard that Nayeon had pointed out herself, Jeongyeon paid and led them out of the store in a haste, not bothering to take up anymore of Nayeon's time by getting all of the gifts wrapped at customer service.
They walked out to the parking lot and placed all of the things they'd purchased into the trunk of Jeongyeon's car. Jeongyeon offered to drive Nayeon home, but as she expected, the woman declined, telling her it wasn't even that late at night and there were still be lots of buses. Jeongyeon was a fast learner, and knew rejection when she saw it.
Still, she insisted to at least walk Nayeon to the nearest bus stop, and was glad when the latter let her.
It was a quarter past nine when they arrived at the bus shelter. There was nobody but them, and because of that Jeongyeon stayed, wordlessly accompanying Nayeon in the bitter cold. They watched the traffic go by in silence. Jeongyeon wanted so badly to break it, not wanting to leave matters so poorly for a second time, but not wanting to press Nayeon any further than she already had.
This is it. She was decided.
Until she caught sight of a bus a few stoplights away and panicked. She looked to the side, glancing at the woman, and her nerves got the best of her. Jeongyeon took in a big breath.
"Nayeon," she faced her, "I love--"
Nayeon snapped her head and put a finger to the woman's lips, shushing her. "There's one more wish."
"What?" Jeongyeon spoke against Nayeon's finger, perplexed.
"Kyeongmi had one more wish."
Dropping her hand, Nayeon properly faced the other. She reached into her pocket and took Jeongyeon's hand, closing a piece of paper inside her fist. Nayeon covered the fist with her hand. "I forgive you, Jeongyeon. And I hope you can forgive me too, for not fighting for us enough."
Jeongyeon's expression scrunched down. "You shouldn't be the one--"
Nayeon used her other hand to press her lips again. "Let me finish, okay?" she chuckled, actually smiling. When the younger nodded, she removed her finger. "I want things to work out between us, but this isn't something we can just fix overnight. We both had our faults, and if we ever want to make this work, both of us need to put in the effort."
Jeongyeon sighed, more from relief than anything. "You're right, I'm sorry. About earlier too, I just really wanted to apologize to you. I'm sorry if it was too much." she sniffled, not knowing if it was from the winter cold or their conversation.
"Does...does this mean we still have a chance?" Jeongyeon softly asked.
She was pulled into a warm hug, and couldn't hold back the tears for a second longer. "Don't be a stranger, anymore," Nayeon whispered, rubbing her back tenderly.
Savoring the moment, Jeongyeon closed her eyes. She wanted to say so much more, how she adored and missed her over the year they spent apart. However, Jeongyeon simply enjoyed Nayeon's embrace instead until they both heard the humming of an engine approach them.
Nayeon pulled back first, wearing a smile. Jeongyeon wiped her tears with the back of her hand, laughed at herself, then looked her in the eye. "Thank you, Nayeon-ah. I promise I won't let you down."
The older her hair before sliding down to her closed fist. The bus had stopped at their side and its doors opened. Nayeon tapped her hand. "Tell Kyeongmi she'll have to wait a bit longer for her last wish," she said with a grin, then turned away.
Jeongyeon watched as Nayeon stepped into the bus, and the doors swooshed to a close. As the bus drove away, opened the piece of paper.
Jeongyeon laughed for pure joy as she felt her heart soar.
"Don't worry, kid," she spoke into the wind, "I'll make sure your wish comes true."
3 years later
Lights were bright outside of the house, full of life and glee. Inside, the scent of cinnamon filled the home, mingling with the sweet aromas of hot chocolate and gingerbread coming from the kitchen. Christmas decor strewed in every corner, from red plaid patterns to ribboned wreaths to mistletoe. And of course, in the living room, was a tall tree surrounded by gifts.
Small feet pattered down the stairs and zoomed around the Christmas tree, then past the fireplace where hands skimmed through the row of stockings hung above, then finally stopped in the kitchen, kneeling onto one of the chairs.
"Can I help?" the young girl asked, watching as her mother decorated the cane-shaped cookie with white frosting.
"Of course, sweetheart," the woman replied, stopping her work and tying the child's hair up with a band. "Which ones do you want to do, hm?"
Her mother laughed and kissed the girl's head. "Alright, here you go. Don't make a mess, okay?"
"I won't, mama," the girl promised.
She flipped her icing bottle, ready to squeeze and give life to her sugary snowman, when the doorbell rang.
"Oh, that must be your aunt," her mother mused. "Let's go and let them in."
"I'll open the door!" the child exclaimed excitedly, jumping down from her chair and running to the front door.
Before the older woman could enter the hallway, the door had already been opened.
"Auntie Jeong! Merry Christmas...eve!"
"Merry Christmas eve to you too, kiddo," Jeongyeon laughed as she hugged the girl whose small arms were around her waist. "Guess who came along with me, Kyeongmi-ah."
Kyeongmi whined. "You know I don't believe in Santa Claus anymore! I'm not falling for that!"
Giggles from behind Jeongyeon sounded. "How about someone younger, prettier, but just as magical?" the voice said.
The young girl gasped, letting go of her aunt, and peeked behind her. "Auntie Nabongs!"
Kyeongmi jumped into Nayeon's arms, who happily picked her up and peppered her with kisses. "It hasn't even been a year and you've grown so much!"
The child giggled. "I'll be just like Auntie Jeong one day, or maybe Auntie Tzuyu!"
Nayeon set her down onto the ground and patted her head affectionately. "Just don't grow up too fast," she pouted.
"You three should come inside. It's freezing out here," Seungyeon, who was leaning against the doorway, told them.
"Hey unnie," Jeongyeon greeted her sister. She and Nayeon took turns in wrapping Seungyeon into a hug before Kyeongmi impatiently tugged on Nayeon's sweater sleeve.
"Come on, Auntie Nayeon! We're decorating cookies!" Kyeongmi pulled her inside the house. Nayeon struggled to keep up with the energetic child, in the midst of removing her shoes.
The pair of sisters standing at the doorway laughed. In the kitchen, they heard their third sister speaking cheerily to Nayeon. Seungyeon threw an arm over their youngest's shoulders and ushered them both into the warmth of their home.
Seungyeon and Jeongyeon sat in the living room, where they still had a clear view of what the three women were doing in the kitchen. Their middle sister was bent in front of the oven, sticking a thermometer into a chicken thigh, while Kyeongmi and Nayeon were full of giggles as they iced a tray of sugar cookies.
"So Jeong," Seungyeon called for the woman's attention, "Nayeon is wrapping up at grad school, yeah?"
Jeongyeon nodded. "It's her last term after this break."
"You guys have any plans after she's all done?"
A sudden shriek broke through the room. The sisters turned towards the direction of sound, and calmed down immediately when they saw the two culprits' faces covered in frosting and sprinkles.
"Yah, Yoo Kyeongmi!" Nayeon squealed as she wiped her face down with a tablecloth.
"Sorry," the young girl snickered before she threw her head back and laughed heartily, in a manner so similar to Jeongyeon's, that Nayeon couldn't find herself to scold the child.
Nayeon sighed. "You're very lucky you're cute," she said, also cleaning up the girl's little face.
Jeongyeon watched the interaction unfold before her eyes. They'd come a long way together in the last three years, since that night in the mall.
A few days before she'd left the country again, Jeongyeon had opened their group chat and for the first time in ages, had dropped a message, asking everyone if they could meet up for a meal. Everyone had been present for the dinner, and allowed for Jeongyeon to take her time and apologize to her friends. After tears had been inevitably shed, the nine girls returned to the banter and teasing Jeongyeon had dearly missed.
Later that night, Jeongyeon had asked Nayeon to stay behind. They'd spent hours talking and listening, and it was just what their hearts needed. Days later, Nayeon saw the girl off with a kiss to the cheek and a promise to look forward to.
Jeongyeon had kept her word, contacting them whenever she could, Nayeon especially. And when she'd returned a little over a year later, Nayeon welcomed her back with open arms, finally giving their relationship another chance. Slowly, everything fell right back into place.
Nayeon had begun grad school and Jeongyeon had found work as an architect in the city. They were pleased. Of course, somewhere in between, Nayeon had reunited with Kyeongmi, in what might have had been the funniest way for Kyeongmi to discover that Santa Claus and the very, very pretty Mrs. Claus were both phonies. Nevertheless, Nayeon doted on the young girl, and Kyeongmi absolutely loved her.
Nayeon had taught Jeongyeon how to appreciate the present moment, how to love the little things, and Jeongyeon just knew this was the woman she wanted to spend the rest of her days with. She was her partner, her best friend, and love of her life.
"We're not sure yet, to be honest. But we'll get there," Jeongyeon replied to her sister. "We've got a long way to go."
After a bloating Christmas eve dinner and a couple drinks of champagne, Kyeongmi and Jeongyeon's sisters retired for the night, leaving Jeongyeon and Nayeon left in the living room, snuggled against each other in front of the fireplace. One of Jeongyeon's Christmas records played in the background.
"Seungyeon-unnie asked me earlier what our plans were after you got your degree," Jeongyeon said, using the hand curled around Nayeon's shoulders to play with her hair.
Nayeon hummed as she melted into the woman's touch. "What did you say?"
"I said that we didn't know yet, but that we would talk about it eventually."
"You're sleepy now, aren't you?" Jeongyeon chuckled softly. "This was your idea, you know? I told you that you'd be tired from our trip."
"Save me from the scolding, gosh."
"Alright, alright," Jeongyeon grinned. Standing, she went over to the phonograph and switched the record on the turntable. As she placed the needle atop the outer edge of the record and the music began playing, she returned in front of Nayeon. She twined their fingers together and pulled Nayeon to stand up with her. "Let's dance."
"How romantic of you," Nayeon teased.
Jeongyeon placed her arms around Nayeon's waist as Nayeon wound hers behind Jeongyeon's neck. Nayeon moved in closer to lean her head on the slope of the woman's shoulder. They began swaying side to side, when they suddenly erupted into laughter.
"Stop stepping on my foot!"
"Well stop moving so fast!"
They tried again, but not without sharing teasing looks with one another. Eventually, they found their rhythm, and slow-danced to the mellow voice in front of the Christmas tree. Holding each other, were two women who were deeply, madly in love.
In a far corner, when the song finished, the grandfather's clock chimed midnight.
Jeongyeon lifted Nayeon's face with her hands and kissed her forehead. "Merry Christmas, Yeonnie."
"Merry Christmas, Jeongyeon-ah."
Jeongyeon leaned in again, the sweetness of the champagne warm in their mouths.
In that moment, everything was perfect.
But they still had a long way to go.