20: It’s Not

Yooji: Love is War

               I was having trouble falling asleep.

               Winter’s words wouldn’t stop replaying themselves on my mind like a broken record as if to remind me over and over again of how insensitive I was to ask her that question.

               The silent treatment that she gave me when she drove me home didn’t help either. It suffocated me that I had to take in a long, deep breath as soon as I got off her car. The distance from her place to mine wasn’t that far, but it felt as if I traveled from north to south because of how tense the atmosphere was.

               I would assume she was mad at me. After all, I did kind of judge her in a way. I’d be mad too if I was in her shoes. However, she didn’t forget to say I love you with a faint smile on her lips like she usually does before we parted ways. That had me confused and I wasn’t brave enough to message her and clear things up.

               But what if she was really mad?

               What do I do?

               Do I apologize?

               Or should I pretend that nothing happened?

               I rolled over my bed.

               No.

               I don’t think I should do that.

               It hurts too much to be anything else.”

               That was the first time I heard her admit that her feelings for me were hurting her. I mean, I was sort of aware of it. I wasn’t that dumb. It’s just that she had never shown me any obvious signs that she was, in fact, in pain.

               I remember quite well how she would always just smile whenever I would fail to filter my words and say something awful to her. That was probably the reason why I never thought too much about it.

               Minjeong...

               What did I ever do for her to fall in love with me?

               Had I ever treated her well?

               I couldn’t recall any instances that I did.              

               Ah, for crying out loud.

               No point in mulling over that for now.

               I glanced over the clock on my bedside table. It was almost one o’clock in the morning. There were seven remaining hours before my first class and I needed to wake up by five to prepare. For sure, I would be going to school looking like a fusion of a zombie and a panda.

               I closed my eyes and hugged my pillow close to my body. These questions wouldn’t answer themselves. Later in the morning, I would talk to her.

               It was still dark outside by the time I woke up. My eyes felt heavy and the bags under them probably got darker. I wanted to sleep again, but I might oversleep and miss my class if I did.

               I dragged myself out of the bed and proceeded to head out of my room. The smell of bacon and fried rice invaded my nose as I neared the kitchen. Our cook was probably in the middle of preparing our breakfast.

               The moment I arrived, I saw one of our maids placing down two sets of utensils and two plates on the table and someone I wasn’t expecting to see seated at one end of the table.

               Sensing my presence, she turned in my direction and smiled warmly.  “Good morning,” she greeted; then with a frown on her face, “You haven’t been sleeping well, have you?”

               “What are you doing here?” I strode over on the opposite end, pulling the chair just enough for me to fit before sitting. “Don’t you have work?”

               She pouted. “Why so cold?”

               I scowled at her childishness.

               “Just answer the question, will you?”

               That earned me a round of laughter.

               “Well, it has been a while since the last time I saw you for you weren’t here last weekend.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I was worried you haven’t been taking good care of yourself so I came here to check up on you before I go to work.”

               I huffed.

               This woman was treating me like a child as if I wasn’t way taller than her.

               “I informed you that I’d be attending a training camp, didn’t I?” I said, annoyed. “And you have nothing to worry about. I have been doing good.”

               Our cook set down the plate of bacon on the table, the fried rice following shortly after. The smell was so good, my stomach grumbled.

               “Those huge bags under your eyes are telling me otherwise.” She raised a questioning brow. “What have you been doing lately, Jimin?”

               I sighed. “I am a student, Jisoo. This is normal.”

               She narrowed her eyes to slits.

               “This isn’t the same as before, right?”

               “No.” I shook my head. “I’m a grown-up now in case you have forgotten. I won’t do something as stupid as that again.”

               “That’s good to know.” She served herself a large portion of fried rice and three strips of bacon. “How’s school?”

               “There is nothing worth mentioning aside from we’ll be performing in the school festival before the month ends.”

               “I see.” She gave me a proud smile. “I know you’ll do well. You are my sister.”

               “It’s just a school festival and not a major competition.”

               “As if that would stop you from performing your best. That isn’t how you are raised, Jimin.”

               She didn’t lie.

               I was always serious about music.

               It was my passion, after all.

               That was something I got from my mother.

               The need to strive hard for the things we love.

               “How’s work?”

               “Stressful as usual.” She sighed before pinching the bridge of her nose. “Remind me again as to why I am in this line of work.”

               I snorted. “Isn’t it because the old hags forced you to?”

               “Don’t call them that,” she chastised, earning herself a nonchalant shrug. “And no, they didn’t. Where’d you even get that?”

               “Sure, whatever.”

               A defeated sigh escaped her lips.

               She probably finally realized it was futile to defend them from me. Funny that it took her long enough when I was being very obvious about it from the beginning.

               “Anyway.” She cleared . “There is something I have to tell you.”

               There it was. I knew she had other reasons to be here. “Whatis it this time?”

               I took a spoonful of rice and put it inside my mouth, humming in satisfaction afterward because of how tasteful it was. I had Jisoo to thank for hiring such a great cook.

               “Mom wants you to attend a birthday celebration with us this coming Sunday.”

               It was a good thing I already swallowed the rice. Otherwise, I might’ve spit everything out.

               “What?”

               “You heard me, Jimin.”

               “I don’t want to.” I refused, firmly. “I am a busy person.”

               “Jimin.” She eyed me disapprovingly. “You will come with us whether you like it or not.”

               Oh, for the love of God.

               “What reason do I even have to be there?” I argued. “You know how much I dislike socializing with elitist people. They always have a hidden agenda.”

               “Because the birthday celebrant is someone you know.”

               I furrowed my brows in intrigued.

               Why do I have a bad beeling about this?

               “Someone I know?”

               She nodded. “The top neurosurgeon in the country.”

               Neurosurgeon?

               Do I even know a neurosurgeon?

               Wait—

               My eyes widened.

               “You mean...”

               “Yes.” She stared at me. “Minjeong’s mother.”

               I knew it.

               Her mother.

               Minjeong didn’t tell me anything about that.

               Now that I think about it, she doesn’t talk about her parents. She doesn’t even have a photo frame of them displayed in her room. It had always been just her deceased older sister. It was like she doesn’t acknowledge their existence.

               I made my way to the bathroom to wash and prepare myself after I finished my food. Once I was done with everything, I bid Jisoo goodbye and moved toward our gate where a certain someone was waiting for me.

               Okay, here it goes.

               The inevitable.

               “Good morning, babe.”

               Fetching me from my place to go to school together had already become our morning routine. She had never missed a single day. Consistency had never been this... consistent.

               “Uh, good morning.”

               She pushed herself off the car to open the door for me. “Hop in.”

               I obliged without saying anything.

               I couldn’t even look her in the eye.

               The need to apologize was bugging me to no end.

               But how exactly would I do that when she was acting as if nothing happened?

               “Barley tea?” she said as she held out a familiar bottle.

               “T-Thank you.”

               Twisting the cap open, I gulped a large amount to calm my nerves down. Part of the reason why I loved this drink so much was that it had that kind of effect on me. It was like magic.

               “You didn’t forget to eat your meal, I hope?”

               “No,” I muttered. “Jisoo was there to make sure I wouldn’t.”

               “Really? She doesn’t have work?”

               I shook my head. “She said she only stopped by to check up on me.”

               “Ah, I see.”

               “And to force me to come with them to your mother’s birthday celebration.”

                I noticed how her body flinched for the briefest moment.  “Ah, is that so?”

               The lack of interest in her tone was so apparent, confirming my suspicions. She does have an issue with her mother.

               “Will you be there?”

               She scoffed. “I don’t have much of a choice.”

               I nodded and ought not to say anything further. It doesn’t look like she was comfortable talking about her. 

               I wonder what happened between them.

               Was it the same as mine?

               Silence enveloped us.

               Only the music coming from the car’s stereo was making noise. I’d expected us to be awkward after yesterday, but I guess I was just really overthinking things. I was tensed, however, because I knew I did something wrong.

               I think it’s time.

               “Uh, Winter?”

               “Yeah?”

               She wasn’t looking at me as her eyes were riveted on the road ahead and that was exactly what I needed to push through. If else, I would surely get tongue-tied and chicken out.

               “I-I wanted to apologize.” I swallowed, my fists curling on my lap. “For what I said last night.”

               Her reply didn’t come right away.

               That had me sweating buckets assuming the worst-case scenario.

               Maybe she was really mad...

               “You are really stupid,” she said after a few seconds of silence. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

               I don’t even have the right to be offended by the insult because I knew I deserved it. One would think I’d already learned my lesson after that one time in her room, but no, I did it once again.

               “B-But I judged you...”

               “I had it coming.” She shrugged. “That was what I instilled in your brain, anyway. That I am a womanizer.”

               “But—”

               “Karina,” she said, cutting me off. “It’s fine, seriously. I am not mad. I could never be mad.”

               I bit my lip to prevent myself from speaking.

               She said it was fine.

               But why does it feel like it wasn’t enough?

               The nagging feeling in my chest wouldn’t go away.

               “However, you must know that those girls don’t mean anything to me.” I saw the side of her lips curve upward. “It’s only you.”

               “O-Oh.”

               I was speechless.

               That was so unexpected.

               She really wasn’t afraid of expressing her feelings.

               Her feelings for me, at least.

               Oh, the envy.

               “Free your schedule after school,” she ordered, pulling me out of my thoughts. “I’ll be bringing you somewhere.”

               “Okay.”

 



 

               Winter never left my mind for the rest of the morning. I tried to focus on the discussions, but once every minute, I would somehow find myself thinking of ways to make it up to her to ease my turbulent heart.

               It was becoming an irritant to my attention.

               I couldn’t come up with anything.

               I had never felt so incompetent.

               “You look worried,” Aeri commented while playing a game on her Switch. “Is something bothering you?”

               My eyes turned to her.

               “How can you tell?”

               “You have been sighing for a while now.” She turned off the gadget before putting it down on the table. “And I happen to know you quite well.”

               Now, for the nth time, I let out an exasperated sigh.

               “I think I ed up, Ri.”

               “What do you mean?”

               “Minjeong...”

               She leaned forward. “What about her?”

               I looked around the library.

               All of the students were busy chatting in hushed voices and some had their eyes fixed on a book they were reading. I guess, it was safe to say no one would overhear us talking.

               “I may have told her something I shouldn’t have.” I fiddled with my fingers. “I already apologized for it and she said it was fine, but I have a feeling that it wasn’t.”

               “What makes you say that?” she asked. “Are you a fortune-teller now?”

               “I don’t know.” I huffed. “A gut feeling, maybe?”

               “You are worrying yourself over nothing, Yooji. If she said it was fine, then it was fine.”

               I scratched my head in frustration.

               “It isn’t enough. I want to do something for her.”

               She cocked a brow. “And that is?”

               I opened my mouth, only to close it again as something dawned on me before lowering my head in embarrassment.

               “I haven’t thought about that yet...”

               “Girl.” Aeri palmed her forehead, looking so disappointed. “Here’s a suggestion: Try to be a good girlfriend for once. That, no doubt, will make her happy.”

               My ears perked up. “You think so?”

               She nodded. “I know so.”

               Okay.

               Be a good girlfriend.

               That wasn’t so hard to do.

               Google was there to help me.

               “You care about her now, huh?”

               “I have no reason not to, Ri.” I pressed my lips together. “She earned it.”

               “Wow.” She laughed. “I never thought I’d heard that from you. Are you sure you are Yooji and not some kind of demon?”

               I scowled. “Just say you’re proud of my character development and go.”

               Her laughter ceased; then she stared at me with a small smile on her face. “I am proud of you, Yooji. You are finally free from that fabricated reality you made.”

               “What fabricated reality are you talking about?”

               She avoided my gaze. “Hey, someone messaged you.”

               I glanced down at my phone on the table, eyes widening when I saw the contact name.

 

               1 Message: Ryujin

 

               What the hell?

               We’ve had each other’s number for a while now, but this was the first time her name popped up on my phone screen.

               What’s going on?

               I opened her message with a trembling hand.

 

Ryujin:     Jimin?

Jimin:     Hello, Ryujin
                  What’s up?

Ryujin:     Can we talk tomorrow?
                    I have something to tell you

Jimin:     About what?

Ryujin:     It’s important.

 

               I suddenly got nervous.

               Different possible scenarios crossed my mind.

               What was so important that she couldn’t tell me through text?

            

Jimin:     Sure

Ryujin:     Great. See you!

 

               How nice.

               Now I had another matter to worry about.

 

 


 

               As we discussed earlier, I went to the parking space as soon as my last class ended. My heart was pounding so fast inside my rib cage as I approached the familiar black GTR. I had already made up my mind, but I was still nervous as hell.

               I heaved a deep breath.

               She was going to be weirded out for sure.

               But what matters to me right now was to make her feel better and erase the memories of yesterday in her mind. It was the least I could do for her.

               Alright.

               Operation: Act like a good girlfriend for once was now commencing. 

               “Good afternoon, babe,” I said in a cheery tone after getting myself inside the car. “How was your day?”

               She coughed violently, her face reddening all the way up to her ears. “W-What?”

               I stifled a laugh.

               Oh my god.

               That was the first time I heard her stutter.

               She was so adorable.

               “I said, how was your day?”

               “...it was fine,” she answered, hesitantly. “Why are you asking?”

               “Shouldn’t I?” I raised an eyebrow at her.

               “I didn’t say that.” She chuckled, amused. “It is just not so you.”

               “Huh? What do you mean?”

               “You are behaving differently,” she pointed out as she turned the engine on. “Did you hit your head or something?”

                I refrained myself from rolling my eyes.

                I had a mission to carry and I wouldn’t let her annoying nature to foil everything.

               “I just thought it won’t hurt to be nice.”

               “Oh, really?” The smirk she showed me spelled doom. “Are you sure it isn’t because you are finally falling for me?”

               I turned rigid on my seat.

               Her words rang inside my head.

               I was finally falling for her?

               Me...?

               My brain short-circuited.

               “I-I am not!”

               “The way you respond to my kisses is proving that statement to be false though.”

              “I-It’s...” I racked my head for a believable explanation, something, anything, and when I found one, I blurted it out right away without hesitation. “Y-Your one and only condition is that I have to pretend to be in love with you, remember? I was just doing my part. I am p-pretending.” I paused to allow myself to breathe before speaking again. “That’s all there is to it. It d-doesn’t mean anything to me.”

               “Whatever helps you sleep at night, babe,” she said in a sing-song voice, obviously not buying my excuse. “How was your day?”

               I breathed before composing myself.

               This was a lot harder than I thought.

               I didn’t take into account that she had a unique ability that could unleash the darkness within me just by opening . But I wasn’t the one to back down until I succeed.

               Okay, take two.                      

               “Same as yours.” I beamed at her; then frowned when I noticed something on her face. “Hold on, stay still.”

               She looked at me. “What?”

               “Eyes on the road, babe.” I took out my handkerchief and reached to wipe the dirt off her cheek. “There you go.”

               I watched as she swiped her tongue across her lower lip. “I hope you know what you are doing, Karina.”

               “What’s that supposed to mean?”

               “We’re here.”

                I looked out the window upon hearing what she said to see that we were already in front of the l'Park Mall at Yongsan Station. I was too engrossed in our conversation to notice that the car was already parked.

               “What are we going to do here?”

               She held up two tickets using her index and middle fingers. “This.”

               I squinted my eyes to read the printed words.

               Studio Ghibli: The Exhibit

               My eyes bulged in disbelief.

               “Oh my god.”

               “I figured.” She grinned. “Let’s go, babe.”

               I allowed her to pull me toward the building as I was too dumbfounded to walk on my own.

               I couldn’t believe she got me a ticket.

               This was my dream. To see an exhibition of my all-time favorite animation studio in my lifetime and the one who was about to make it happen was someone I used to hate. How ridiculous.

               There weren’t many people lining up, allowing us to get inside without having to wait for long. I was so giddy and so thrilled. If Winter wasn’t holding my hand, I would’ve run around the place like a maniac.

               As we entered the exhibit, we followed a little white Totoro down a dark hall. It appeared to serve as a guide for the visitors. I had my eyes glued on them as we walk, so entertained at the sequence.

               When was the last time I watched My Neighbor Totoro? I couldn’t seem to remember anymore. 

               “Careful, babe,” Winter whispered. “You might trip.”

               “Hush.”

               Turning on the corner, we came face to face with a huge moving model of Howl’s moving castle. It was so marvelous that I had my jaw hanging wide open in the air the whole time as I stood there taking it in, imprinting every detail in my mind before capturing several photos with my phone.

              “This is so amazing.”

              “Indeed, it is.”

              “Reminds me.” I turned to her. “Are you also a fan of Ghibli?”

               She shrugged. “Maybe.”

               Once satisfied, we moved into the next room, which brought us right inside Howl’s castle. There, in the fireplace was Calcifer that was brightly lit and then the kitchenwares on the side. A dining table was situated in the center of the room with piled books, scrolls, and magical spells. Life-sized statues of Sophie, Marckl, and Howl’s were also here for us fans to see. The amount of detail that was put into this room was insane. The door even had the colorful dial next to it which lead to different places.

               “This is my third favorite film among the other films of Studio Ghibli,” I shared with my companion. “Howl’s a bit dramatic, but the movie itself was great.”

               “I thought you had a crush on him?”

               “What? Who said that?”

               “Uchi.”

               Ugh.

               That girl and her blabbermouth.

               “I was young and naïve,” I tried to reason out. “I was fooled with his appearance.”

               “Sure.”

               The next room was Princess Mononoke with the attention-grabbing large projection of the transformation of the spirit of the forest. It was beyond magical and it helped bring the story to life and made me feel engulfed in that world.

               “You have wasted your life by getting in my way!” I spat out while pointing a finger to her neck, causing her face to morph in confusion. “I’ll cut your throat! That’ll shut you up!”

               She kept her eyes on me for a while, her eyebrows knitted together while looking like she was trying to figure out what I was saying out of the blue. 

               “Ah.” An amused grin adorned her face. “I see what you are doing.”

               Finally.

               “Then?”

               “Live...” she rasped.

               “I don’t listen to humans!”

               She held my gaze before saying the next line.

               “You’re beautiful...”

               I knew we were just copying a certain scene from the movie, but Winter said those words as if she meant it and that had me looking away, afraid she would see how flustered I was.

               “A-Anyway, let’s go.”

               Next was Pom Poko. There were picture puzzles that we could do on the walls. This was the only exhibit that the visitors were allowed to touch. Winter solved all of them with ease.

               My Neighbor Totoro that displayed a gigantic tree that houses the sleeping Totoro. The urge to jump on the furball was too strong to ignore, but Winter was quick to hold me down, much to my dismay.

               “Jesus, calm down, Karina,” she said, panting a bit. “You are not a child.”

               “But I thought I am your baby?”

               She turned her head away from my view.

               “On to the next room.”

               Porco Rosso was the smallest room among the others. There was a sand beach where Porco was lazily lounging.

               “Let’s go to the beach next time.”

               She visibly stiffened.

               “Next time?”

               “Yes.” I gave her a look. “We still have eleven days before our deal ends, right?”

               “Oh, right.”

               The last, but definitely not the least, was my most favorite movie of all time: Spirited Away. There was the restaurant where Chihiro’s parents ate the food without permission which turned them into pigs. The huge bathhouse where most of the settings in the movie took place and on the bridge was Chihiro facing the direction of the majestic building. A life-sized statue of Yubaba, and at the end, we were allowed to take a picture with No-Face sitting inside the train.

               “This was the first movie that we have watched together,” Winter remarked as she stared at the bathhouse.

               “Yes. When you pissed me off.”

               I think that was the time when I started having unfamiliar feelings whenever she was touching me. I wasn’t aware yet at the time as to why I was having them in the first place. But now...

               “I did?”

               “You did.”

               At the end was a Ghibli shop where we could purchase all kinds of souvenirs. I bought Winter a little Totoro cell charm because she kept on looking at it. It was so obvious she wanted it in spite of her strong denial.

               “Here, take this.”

               “Sophie’s ring?”

               “Yeah.” She took my hand and placed the ring on my palm. “This ring will always lead you to me, just like how it led Sophie to Howl.”

               I could feel my face heating up.

               Winter and her way with words, really.

               I wore the ring on my right index finger and admired it for a while. It looked so simple, but beautiful nonetheless. “Thank you.”

               We were already outside the building, but I was still high on everything that I witnessed just minutes ago. One of the things on my bucket list had been crossed off today and to say that I was ecstatic was a gross understatement.

               I had no one to be grateful for except for her.

               She made me the happiest today.

               A simple thank you wouldn’t be enough.             

               That was why when we reached her car, I did something I knew I would never regret.

               I abruptly pulled her and pressed my lips on hers.

               It was a quick kiss.

               Didn’t even last for five seconds.

               But I guess that was enough to finally ease the nagging feeling in my heart. Especially when Winter looked like this right now.

                Her eyes were wide.

                Face and ears were burning bright red.

                I could sense that she wanted to say something, but she didn’t.

               “Today was amazing,” I said. “I had a lot of fun.”

               She stared at me for a moment, analyzing, calculating. I got the feeling that I was a Math problem that she couldn’t solve.

               “Is this still a part of your act?” she asked. “Because I feel like it isn’t.”

               Oh, Winter.

               You were so clueless for someone who was so intelligent.

               “Because it is not. I mean that kiss with everything that I have.”

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taglamig
Won't be able to update for a while. PH election is draining tf out of me. Not really in the right state of mind to write anything. Thank you :)
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