23: Seeing You

Yooji: Love is War

               Weekends were lazy days.

               This was when I would only cuddle with my bed and watch movies all day long without having to worry about anything. A habit that had begun as a way to somehow assure those people who cared for my well-being that never would I unreasonably overwork myself again because rest had been added back to my vocabulary again long ago.

               There were days, however, when a certain someone would drag me out of my room and force me to go somewhere with them, like this particular day for example.

               “Tell me again why we are in a mall on a Saturday morning?” I asked, exasperated while trailing behind my best friend who was marching toward a familiar boutique, excited and all.

               “We are going to buy you a dress for Auntie’s birthday celebration tomorrow, of course!” she replied, sounding as if I should’ve already known that.

               “I have a fair amount at home.” I sighed, remembering those clothes that Jisoo had bought for me which were just collecting dust in my closet. “There is no need to buy me a new one.”

               “Nonsense.” She stopped walking to gaze over me with her eyes bulging comically. “You need to look your best since you will be meeting your in-laws!”

               I pursed my lips, fighting off the heat creeping up on my face. “Ri, they are not my in-laws. Winter and I are not really together.”

               “Winter?” She looked at me, amusement all over her face. “It’s funny how the first person that came up in your mind was her.”

               I blinked, my mind failing to comprehend her point. “W-What’s that supposed to mean?”

               “I was actually talking about Ryujin,” she said. “Since it is her who you like, right? Or is there something you aren’t telling me?”

               As soon as the last word left , it dawned on me.

               Crap.

               This was not so good.

               “O-Of course not,” I answered, internally cursing myself for stammering. “I just t-thought that you were referring to Winter since we are technically dating even if it’s fake. Yes, that’s it. It was an honest mistake. There is no need to make a big deal out of it.”

               Aeri appeared unconvinced, her eyes holding mine for a while as if to see through me before shrugging her shoulders, continuing to walk.

               “If you say so.”

               I discreetly released a sigh of relief.

               , that was close.

               What was I even thinking?

               I was in trouble.

               The more time I spend with Winter, the more I was getting used to our setup.

               Calling her my girlfriend doesn’t sound foreign now in my ears nor do I feel myself cringing in distaste because thereof as if it had become the most natural thing in the world.

               Unknowingly, I was falling deeper into the trap.

               The moment we entered the boutique, Aeri made me try several kinds of clothes; from dresses to gowns right away, and I, as a good friend, just obeyed and let her have her way without a single complaint. I knew she was currently having fun since it wasn’t every day we get to shop together.

                Since Aeri was very meticulous when it comes to fashion, it took us almost an hour before we found the “perfect” outfit for tomorrow’s event. I think if it wasn’t for the fact that we made a reservation in our favorite BBQ restaurant, I would still be inside the fitting room until dusk.

               “So, where’s the celebration going to be held, anyway?”

               She stuffed a chunk of meat inside before answering. “In their house in Busan. I haven’t been there myself, but I guess, it is big enough to accommodate everyone they invited.”

               “Oh, that’s kind of far.” About five hours if we were to use our car and less than three hours if we were to take the KTX. I could already feel the numbness my would be suffering from. “Why does it have to be there?”

               “Because it’s Auntie’s hometown.”

               Oh.

               That made sense.

               “Was Winter also born in there?” I asked out of curiosity because Winter doesn’t share much about her so such a small detail was unknown to me.

               “Nope.” She picked up some more meat with her chopstick, swallowing them almost immediately. “She was born and raised here in Seoul.”

               “I see.”

               I guess that was to be expected.

               It’s not like she had an accent or anything.

               “But Busan is special to her,” she added on, earning herself a questioning look. “Ever since her older sister passed away, Minjeong made it a routine to go there at least once a month to escape— to rest. Being in there makes her feel at peace, according to her. I don’t know the reason behind though.”

               “Oh...”

               So, Winter had a place like that.

               Interesting.

               That’s another addition to the many mysteries I had to unravel about her.          

               I mindlessly poked the meat on my plate.

               Talking about her like this had me recalling the favor Ryujin had asked of me yesterday. I tried pushing it to the back of my mind since Winter beseeched me to stay anyway, but hearing that I was hurting her from her own lips sent me into a whirlwind of unpleasant emotions.

               I don’t know what to do anymore.

               Was ignoring Ryujin’s favor the right thing to do?

               Was staying by Winter’s side would only break her more?

               God, this was so confusing.

               “Yooji,” Aeri spoke, pulling me out of my thoughts. “Are you okay?”

               I gazed over her, worry evident in her eyes.

               For the past days, I’d been keeping everything to myself as I do not want to be a burden to anyone; especially Aeri. Though, I guess, the heaviness in my chest would only disappear if I manage to let it all out in the open.

               “Honestly, no.”

               Her face turned serious; then she was standing up to settle herself beside me. “What’s the matter?”

               “It’s just, I don’t know, I—” I paused, sighing in frustration due to my inability to put my thoughts into words. I never knew this was going to be this hard.

               “Calm down, Yooji.” Aeri was quick to rub my back soothingly. “You don’t have to tell me if you can’t.”

               “No, I want to tell you.” I gave her a determined stare. “I need to tell you.”

               Aeri eyed me, a hint of disbelief etched on her face.

               Confused as I was, I didn’t ask about it.

               It was making me a little uncomfortable though.

               “I understand.” She pulled her lips into a small smile, looking somehow happy. “But calm yourself first and foremost. Breathe and collect your thoughts.”

               And those, I did while having my eyes closed.

               Once my mind was no longer in mayhem, I looked up to meet Aeri’s patient gaze.

               “Ryujin and I talked yesterday,” I started.

               Aeri scooched over. “What’s it about?”

               “It’s about Winter.”

               “Minjeong?”

               I nodded. “Ryujin asked me to stay away from her if I can’t reciprocate her feelings.” I stopped, gauging her reaction; carrying on when her face remained neutral. “I told Winter about it and she pleaded with me to just wait until our deal ends.”

              “And?” Aeri prodded.

               I trained my eyes up the ceiling, remembering the feeling of her tight embrace, her warm lips on my nape, the rawness of her voice as she begged me to stay, everything was still vivid in my mind.

              “I chose to stay.” I took a deep breath. “And I don’t know if it’s because of Winter or because I wanted to.”

              I braced myself for her delirious outburst along with her repeated slaps on my arms for that was what she normally does when she was overexcited. However, for some reason, it never came. Instead, a prideful smile adorned her face, eyes glazed in joy.

               “You like her.”

               I blinked, taken aback at the blunt declaration.

               “W-What?”

               “You like her, Yooji,” she repeated with more conviction this time. “The fact that you are questioning yourself right now is just proving my point.”

               No...

               I made myself believe for years that I hate her to the core and only recently had I come into terms that it was all just a product of my ineptitude to win against her. Now, everyone’s telling me that I like her? Give me a break.

               “That’s not true.”

               “The one who was asking you a favor is Ryujin; the person you insist to like ever since you first met her,” Aeri’s voice was firm while speaking. “And you ignored that favor for who? For someone you used to hate for years. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

               I shook my head, refusing to acknowledge her conjecture. Even if she was making sense, I don’t care.

               “I c-can’t like her.”

              There could be another reason...

               “And why is that?”

               I paused.

               Why, indeed?

               What would I even lose?

               ...oh.

               Right.

               “B-Because...”

               “Because what?”

               “Because I would lose the game...”

               “Game?” She furrowed her brows. “What game?”

               “Our deal, Ri.” I bit my lip when her frown deepened. “I-I can’t afford to lose against her this time.”

               Aeri appeared dumbfounded for a while before she regarded me with judging eyes as if I had just said the most incredulous thing she had heard.

               “So, it’s still all about winning against her?” She scoffed, clicking her tongue in apparent disappointment. “God, you are so childish, Jimin.”

               My eyebrows twitched.

               “Excuse me?”

               “I suggest you sort out your feelings as soon as possible,” she said calmly, ignoring my appalled expression. “Before it’s too late.”

               “Ri, what are you saying?”

               “You know exactly what I am saying.”

               “But—”

               “Every person has a limit, Yooji.” She puffed a breath. “Don’t wait for Minjeong to reach hers.”

               I watched as she stood up to return to her seat across mine, finishing the rest of her food without a word.

              The action had me looking down on my own steak that suddenly looked unappetizing.

               it.

               The unwanted questions Aeri had imposed on me had my brain cells wreaking havoc that I couldn’t bring myself to get a grip. It felt as if I was in the middle of a cumulonimbus cloud, fighting off the turbulence myself.

               Winter reaching her limit, huh?

               Frankly, I have already thought of that even before Aeri mentioned it. It just seemed highly unlikely that she’d give up on me now when she had been a constant in my life even after my numerous attempts to push her away in the past so I chose not to dwell on it.

               However, if Aeri was right, then our one month deal would finally make sense.

               What if it wasn’t entirely about helping me with Ryujin?

               What if her apparent reason for proposing the deal was just a façade?

               What if she would also take it as a sign that if she failed to make me fall in love with her within 30 days, she would finally give me up?

               What if the last day was her limit?

               What if...

               Oh my god.

               This was making my head hurt.

               “Someone’s calling you, Yooji.”

               I darted my eyes down on my phone, her caller id showing on the screen.

               How funny.

               The timing couldn’t be any greater.

               “Hello?” I said after accepting the call.

               “Where are you?”

               The tone of her voice had me paying closer attention.

               It was like she was having a hard time getting the words out of .

               Something was wrong.

               “Are you fine?”

               Silence.

               “I’m fine. Where are you?”

               I see.

               She was intending to keep whatever was bothering her to herself like what she was used to do.

               “I’m at the mall with Aeri.”

               “Did she bring her car with her?”

               I looked over Aeri who was also looking back at me curiously.

               “She did,” I answered, wary of how heavy her breathing was. “Why’d you ask?”

               “Could you come over? Ask Uchi to drive you.”

               I chuckled lightly.

               It’s funny how she felt the need to ask.

               I’d definitely go and check up on her even if she doesn’t want me to. Aside from the fact that it was my responsibility as her “girlfriend” to make sure she was doing fine, it was what I was planning to do in the first place the moment I heard her talk.

               “I just... I just...” I heard her take a deep, shaky breath. “I need you here. Please?”

               “I’ll be there,” I muttered as softly as I could. “Wait for me.”

                As soon as she dropped the call, I immediately gather my belongings on my feet.

               “What’s going on?”

               “Drive me to Winter’s place.”

               “Huh? Why?”

               “I don’t have time to explain.” I grabbed her arm. “Let’s go.”

               Not a single word was uttered all throughout the ride. Though I could feel Aeri’s gaze on me every once in a while and her desire to squeeze out answers from me, my lips remained shut.

               I hopped off the car first when we arrived in front of the gate. It was already a 10 minutes drive since the mall was close to where this village was located.

               “Thanks, Ri.”

               “Sure.” She shrugged. “You owe me an explanation.”

               “I know. Take care on your way home.”

               “Give my regards to Minjeong.”

               After saying our goodbyes, she started driving away. I waited for her car to disappear from my sight before approaching the gate. Since the guard was already familiar with my face, they let me in immediately.

               It took me another minute to cross the driveway to their porch, and just as when I was about to knock, it opened up by itself; revealing a disheveled Winter who I almost didn’t recognize. Her unruly bangs were covering her dark, lackluster eyes. Her expressionless face turned into that of something as if she found solace upon seeing me.

               “You’re here,” she muttered, her voice raspy. “You really came.”

               “Of course, Winter.”

               A weak smile tugged on her lips.

               My heart swelled in pain.

               God, she looked so broken.

               “Could you hold me?”

               She didn’t need to ask me twice.

               I stepped closer, stretching my arms to envelope her in a tight embrace— the kind that tells: I am here. She nuzzled my neck as she pulled me close, her fingers securing their hold upon my waist before releasing a soft sigh as if she was contented, her body relaxing into my arms.

               A lot of questions were running through my mind right now, but I remained silent as what she needed right now was someone to keep her grounded and not someone who would interrogate her.

               We stayed in our position for a while; just basking in the comfortable silence surrounding us, holding each other as if our life depended on it.

               “I was right,” she murmured into my skin.

               “Hm? About what?”

               She pulled away, creating a small distance between our faces to stare at me; her dark orbs had light in them again, a lazy smile on her lips. “That you are the only one who could put my tempestuous mind at ease.”

               “Should I feel honored?”

               “Nah.” She bent her body, resting her forehead upon my shoulder. “I’m glad it’s you.”

               I pinched her side, causing her to let out a small yelp. “You are so greasy.”

               “Damn, you really are violent.”

               I rolled my eyes good-naturedly.

               “Do you feel better now?”

               “Yeah.” She gave me a toothy grin. “Thanks to you.”

               There.

               That’s the Winter I know.

               “So, are you going to let me in?”

               “No,” came her quick reply. “L-Let’s go somewhere else.”

               I cocked a brow in intrigue.

               Was it just me or did panic seem to cross her face for a second?

               “Okay...?”

               “I’m sorry.” She hung her head low, her hand rubbing her nape. “My parents are here.”

               I nodded.

               Ah.

               So, that’s why.

               I guess, she doesn’t want to see them.

               “Do you have a place in mind?”

               She gave me a curt nod.

               “Your place.”

               “Huh? Why there?”

               “Enough questions.” She placed a finger against my lips. “Wait for me here. I’ll just get the car key.”

               Then she was gone before I could even utter a word of protest.

               Ah, whatever.




 

              
               We engaged in idle talks on the way.

               She asked about my day and what was I doing at the mall with Aeri. At first, she seemed really interested to know about it, but when I mentioned that it was for her mother’s birthday, the sudden shift of her mood had me kind of regretting I answered her question.

               I swerved the topic to avoid the awkward silence, asking her about a certain matter that I knew would get her back in the mood.

               “There’s this anime Aeri mentioned to me,” I started, glancing over her to make sure she’s paying attention. “It’s called Moriarty the Patriot.”

               “Really?” She straightened up upon hearing the name of her favorite villain. “Tell me about it.”

               See?

               “It focuses on the youth of William James Moriarty. Aeri said it was very different from the source material, but was enjoyable nonetheless. It is also interesting to read the point of view of the Napoleon of crime, wouldn’t you agree?”

               “Oh, indeed.” She smiled broadly, eyes gleaming in excitement. “He’s an amazing villain. The perfect nemesis for Sherlock Holmes. I would very much like to watch how he orchestrates the events that will lead to a successful crime from his own point of view.”

               I couldn’t help but mirror her smile at the unrestrained display of enthusiasm. She’s really just a child at heart.

               “Wanna watch it together?”

               She briefly looked at me, surprised.

               “Am I hearing you right?” she said, her tone teasing. “You are volunteering to watch a series with me?”

               Ugh.

               She just really had to be an .

               “Never mind.”

               “Of course, babe.” She reached for my hand to give it a gentle squeeze. “That’d be really fun.”

              We settled in a comfortable silence after that, softly bobbing our heads to the music playing on the stereo.

 

               Remember those walls I built
               Well, baby, they’re tumbling down
               And they didn’t even put up a fight
               They didn’t even make a sound

               I found a way to let you win
               But I never really had a doubt
               Standing in the light of your halo
               I got my angel now

 

               As soon as we arrived, Winter made her way straight to my room as if she was the owner of the house. Since this was her first time here, she took her time observing everything she could see. From the clear acrylic cabinet housing the trophies I had won from joining various piano competitions, the bookshelves containing hundreds of books of different genres, my keyboard situated on the corner, to my study table that was full of academic stuff.

               “So, what are we going to do here?” I asked as she plopped herself on my bed, crossing her legs. “Should we start watching the anime now?”

               “Sit here,” she ordered while patting the space beside her. “There’s something I want to tell you.”

               I climbed on the bed wordlessly, settling myself to where she wanted me to as she appeared to be preparing to say something serious.
              
              A round of silence passed by us.

              Winter was just looking blankly ahead, seemingly deep in thought.

               I patiently waited until she was ready.

               “Are you familiar with photographic memory?” she spoke after a few minutes.

               I blinked.

               That was what she was going to say?

               “Uh, yes? What about it?”

               “My memory’s a bit similar to that unfounded ability. I can recall past events in detail with great accuracy, but only those of which made a huge impact on me as a person.”

               I gaped at her.

               “For real?”

               “Yeah.”

               I couldn’t believe it.

               The extent of her capability was limitless.

               “That’s so cool,” I muttered in awe.

               “Not really.” She let out a dry laugh. “I’d trade anything to have a normal brain. I never asked for this damned burden.”

               “Why not?”

               Her face dimmed at the question.

               “My older sister passed away in a car accident.” She breathed, nibbling her lower lip. “I was there with her in the backseat.”

               Oh, right.

              Aeri mentioned that to me before.

              But what does it have to do with—hold on.

              Don’t tell me...

               “My mother was on the passenger seat while my father was the one driving. Ryujin had a dance lesson that day so she wasn’t able to come with us. The rain was heavy, but that didn’t stop us from going. I remember how thrilled I was back then because we were going to an opera performance of one of the greatest sopranos of our country.” I noticed how her hands began trembling the more she recalled the event from her memory, prompting me to hold them tightly. “Then our parents started arguing over something that was probably not of importance. They kept on throwing hurtful words toward each other as if their children weren’t there in the scene. Taeyeon tried her hardest to stop them, but they didn’t listen to a word she said. The next thing I knew, Father lost control over the car, sending us crashing violently to a nearby tree.”

               Oh, god.

               I need to stop her.

               She shouldn’t be saying this to me right now.

               “Winter—”

               “I don’t know how many minutes had passed after I blacked out due to the strong collision, but when I came to, Taeyeon was already on the verge of death. Everything is still fresh in my mind like it only happened yesterday. How blood covered the entirety of her face, how small pieces of the shattered windshield pierced all over her body, how she shielded me using her own body from any harm, how tight her embrace was around my small figure. I can also recall the sound of her weak breathing, the look on her face as she struggled to open her eyes, her relieved smile upon seeing me with little to no injuries. Damn, it is like I am looking at a photograph right now.”

               She turned to me, her eyes filled with unspoken pain, causing my heart to clench in the most awful way possible. I thought I had already seen her in her most vulnerable state, but damn was I so wrong. Right now, it was as if she was close to falling apart.

               “Did you know what her last words are?” She smiled weakly when I merely stared at her. “It is: “I am always proud of you” wearing the same smile that showed her chin dimple that I love so much.”

               I didn’t even notice that I was also crying until I felt warm liquid dropping on my lap. Even though I didn’t want to, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking how traumatizing the accident must have been for her and the thought of it was breaking me.

               “After that incident, I never went outside my room nor did I talk to anyone in our house for months; especially my parents. They are the ones responsible for her death. If only they didn’t... if only they didn’t—”

               I pulled her in for a hug, cutting her off.

               “You don’t have to say anything anymore,” I whispered in her ears. “It’s okay, Winter.”

               She peeled herself away from me and held my gaze, looking as if she was trying to figure out what was going on in my head. Then she was inhaling a huge amount of air, releasing them in a prolonged sigh before burrying her face into the crook of my neck.

               “Alright.”

               “You should rest.” I carefully drew circles on her back, feeling her muscles losing its tension as she melted into my arms. “I know you are exhausted.”

               “Yeah.” She nodded. “But there’s one more thing that you need to know.”

               “I told you—”

               “No, hear me out,” she insisted.

                I sighed in defeat.

               “Fine.”

               “That same year was the grand opening of one of the branches of our hospital. Although all of us haven’t healed yet from the accident since it was only 8 months ago, we needed to put on a mask for the public.”

               Ah.

               My assumption was right then.

               She was really concealing her feelings the first time she called me stupid.

               “That was when I met you again.”

               I stopped moving as I processed her words.

               What...?

               Meet me again?

               But that was our first meeting...

               “You might not know this, but seeing you that fateful evening saved me from the chasm of emptiness, Karina.”

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taglamig
This will be updated soon. I'm just caught up w/ work rn so I don't have time to write anything. See y'all soonest.
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