Stirring my cup of barley tea, I had my eyes glued at my phone screen, expecting a message that would usually arrive around this time of day. I'd been waiting for thirty minutes now and still hadn't received anything.
This was frustrating me.
I hadn’t heard from her ever since she left me last night.
The ride back to Seoul had me exhausted that I could hardly keep my eyes open when we arrived backk home, but I forced myself to stay awake for her because she always make sure to message me before we sleep, only to be disappointed.
This was what I hated the most.
To be utterly clueless of what was going on.
I knew she already made it clear that she doesn’t want our relationship to be just purely platonic; that she doesn’t need friends. However, the fact that she left me in the dark was still maddening considering things were going so well between us for the last couple of days.
Our relationship was improving.
I don’t understand.
The sound of a car honking broke my train of thoughts, causing me to scurry toward our gate in expectation of seeing her and give her a piece of my mind. But instead of a familiar figure leaning against her Nissan GTR with a dull expression on her face, I was met with someone I least expected to see in front of our abode.
Her lips curved into a blinding grin, pushing herself off her car to walk up to me.
“Good morning, Jimin.”
I bit my lower lip.
This was strange.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m driving you to school,” she replied, the smile never leaving her face. “Is that okay?”
I stared at her, puzzled.
“W-Where’s your sister?”
The minimal change in her expression didn’t go unnoticed, leaving me wondering if I said something wrong.
“Mj won’t be attending school today.”
The creases between my brows deepened.
She won’t be attending school?
That was unheard of.
Winter was a slacker and was always ditching her classes, but never even once did she skip school.
“Why?” I probed. “Is she sick?”
“I don’t know, Jimin.” She sighed. “She didn’t tell me the reason.”
I fought the urge to interrogate her further.
Just as when I thought she couldn’t get any weirder, here was her sister turning up to inform me that she basically wasn’t going to show herself today.
What in the world was going on?
Ever since we became acquainted with each other, not a single day would pass by that we wouldn’t see each other. That girl was literally everywhere that I was beginning to suspect she placed a tracker on me.
I gave her a meek nod in response before hopping in her car.
No one tried to strike a conversation on the way to school; it was spent in absolute silence save for the sound of the engine. Ryujin was focused on the road; throwing me occasional glances as if to ask if I was alright which I would answer with a mere nod.
It was frustrating.
I shouldn’t be behaving this way.
This was Ryujin who I was with, after all.
I should feel as if I was in heaven.
I should be trying to keep my face from breaking out into a dopey smile along with the thunderous pounding of my heart at the mere thought of us together inside her car.
But neither was happening.
Not with the current situation I was in.
I was bothered.
My mind had been too restless by the sudden surge of surmises and questions.
It was driving me nuts.
When we arrived at the parking lot of our campus, I heard Ryujin faking a cough, snapping me out of my reverie.
“I’d like to apologize for leaving like that last night.” Her voice was small as if genuinely ashamed. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
I had almost forgotten about that matter.
I think that was one of the factors why it was so awkward to be alone with her all of a sudden. She left in a hurry to follow Winter without saying a word to me; not even a single hi nor hello.
“I should be the one apologizing,” I remarked. “Regarding the favor you asked of me. I did the exact opposite.”
She stared at me, amusement clouding her warm brown eyes.
“You don’t have to apologize.” She chuckled. “I understand.”
I released a sigh of relief.
That was one problem solved.
“But I had to know.” She turned her body to look at me properly. “Why, Jimin?”
There it goes.
The primary reason why I didn’t want us to meet in the first place.
I swallowed the lump in my throat.
A bead of sweat trickled down on my face.
“B-Because your sister asked me to stay.”
She looked like she wasn’t expecting the answer that I provided.
“You chose her over me,” she observed. “Is that what you are trying to say?”
My eyes widened at the implication.
That was absurd!
“It’s alright,” came her soft reply. “I’m not mad or anything; not that I have the right to be. I just needed to know.”
I wasn’t thinking straight when I blurted out the words that I shouldn’t have. My mind was in disarray and I wasn’t able to filter my mouth.
“It’s because we have a deal.”
She frowned. “A deal?”
I shut my eyes tight.
Winter was right.
I am stupid.
The truth was out in the open now.
Might as well reveal everything.
“Winter proposed to me that I date her for a month and she will help me with you after in return.”
“Help you with me?”
This was it.
I used to dream of numerous scenarios on how I would finally confess the feelings I had been keeping for years.
This was definitely not one of those.
“You like me,” she interjected coolly. “I know.”
I gasped in panic, my mouth gaped open as I went as white as a sheet and my eyes grew twice bigger than their normal size.
“I know that you like me.”
“When I asked you out on a ramen date, you weren’t exactly being subtle about it. Of course, I would know.”
Oh my god.
She knew all along!
That was so embarrassing!
“That’s what I don’t understand,” she added on. “If you like me, then why did you choose Mj over me?”
I turned away, avoiding her inquisitive gaze.
I had a lot of recent decisions that I had no explanation for.
...and it’s scary.
“I don’t know...”
“Have you come to like her?”
The question rang in my ears.
I had been thinking about that question ever since Aeri presented the idea.
Have I come to like her?
The petty side of me would immediately answer a flat no way.
But what about my logical side?
What about the tiny voice in my head screaming yes, you foolish person.
Does winning against her more important?
“I-I don’t know.”
“If I ask you to date me, would you say yes?”
I had never turned my head in a certain direction so fast in my life I almost got whiplash.
That was the second time I heard the same question in a span of twenty-four hours.
“If I ask you to date me for real, would you say yes?”
“I’m just kidding.” Ryujin retracted, giving me a cheeky smile. “Go now. Your class is starting in fifteen minutes.”
“I’ll see you later.”
The way she said it with finality had me sighing in defeat; having no other choice but to let go of the subject.
It was five minutes before eight when I entered our classroom. I wasn’t sure how exactly I made it here since I wasn’t even aware of what was going on around me as I strode across the school grounds, a blank look etched on my face and my mind was elsewhere swimming in the sea of confusion.
Whether it was because my feet had magically created a mind of its own to navigate the way, or I already had gotten too familiar with the place that I no longer need to put my mind to it, I didn’t care anymore.
I was in a trance-like state to even notice the stares my classmates were giving me as I approached my table with sluggish steps, brushing past everyone who seemed to want to talk to me.
Aeri’s worried stares welcomed me upon dropping myself on my seat to which I responded by showing her a small smile to somehow assure her that I was fine. Though, I doubt that was enough.
She knew me like the back of her hand that was why I’m sure she’d confront sooner or later. I don’t want to problem dump on her again, but I also don’t want to hide anything from her anymore. Besides, I knew she’d be a great help.
I shook my head to rid of unnecessary thoughts before focusing my attention on our professor who had just arrived.
It was a miracle how I was able to pay attention throughout my morning class even though I could barely stop myself from succumbing to my unrelenting thoughts. I was even able to take down a few important notes for reference just in case.
There were times, however, when I would find myself spacing out and would only snap out of it when my name was being called to answer our professors’ inquiries. Thankfully, I had enough knowledge regarding the subject matter; otherwise, I’d be a laughing stock.
When the bell signifying our lunch break finally rang, I was quick to arise from my seat, sending Aeri a brief: “See you later” before I bolted out the room.
To hell with no running in the hallways.
One broken rule wasn’t going to hurt me.
I had to be inside the music room as soon as possible.
That was the only way I know to calm the storm within me.
I went straight to my keyboard as soon as I swung the door open, ignoring the surprised expression on everyone’s faces because of the loud sound my footsteps were making.
Now that the familiar black and white keys were right before me, I could feel my tensed muscles loosening up a little as well as my breathing slowly going back to its normal rhythm.
I glanced around the music room to see everyone now focused on practicing; each one of them so devoted to perfecting their crafts; some were even helping those who were clearly struggling, utmost patience audible in their tone every time they would speak to give their insights and suggestions.
Such a pleasing sight to witness.
I returned my gaze to my keyboard, tapping random keys to warm my fingers up before proceeding to play various musical pieces; each contributing to putting my mind at ease.
The relaxing sound of every note that I would hit would seep through my ears, dispelling every unwanted thought that was plaguing my brain.
The ivory keys that were normally cool against my fingertips were warm for some reason; submerging me in an illusion of being seated in front of our house’s fireplace in the middle of a cold winter, a mug of hot choco pressed in between my hands.
Behind my eyelids was a palette of natural, earthly colors that looked so visually pleasing, calming every nerve, enveloping my ochre flesh with the breeze of spring.
In times like this when melodious music was invading my senses was when I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what it’d be like to play music together with Winter. How beautiful the sound we would be producing together with our respective instruments; how her violin would compliment my piano really well.
Yep, I certainly feel better.
“Cupcake.” I stopped; opening my eyes before looking up to see Yeji staring down at me. “What’s up?”
If she was a different person, I would definitely give them the stinky eye for interrupting me in my element.
“Hey, Yeji,” I said, smiling. “I’m fine. How have you been?”
“I have been fine too.” She dragged a chair close to where I was before sitting on it. “Though, school has been very stressful these days.”
“Eh, I’m sure you are doing well.”
Yeji might be chill all the time, but she was one of the top students of Seoul High. The one who had been snatching the first place for the English Quiz Bee.
She shrugged. “Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“I’ve been busy, you see.”
“You’re always busy, cupcake,” she observed. “You still competing with the president?”
If there was something that we were competing for, it was definitely not about academics.
“How are you and her, by the way?”
I almost choked on my own saliva.
Since when was she this straightforward?
“We’re fine.” Not true.
“Oh.” She nodded her head. “Good for you.”
“How are you and her?” I narrowed my eyes in suspicion. “I feel like something happened between you two.”
“Well, it’s not important.”
“Not important my ,” I mocked. “You seem to have a deep grudge against her.”
She let out a chuckle.
“You think so?”
“I can’t be sure though.”
“You are right,” she said. “I hate her.”
I knew it.
“Are you going to tell me why?”
It took a few moments before she spoke.
“Do you know Lia Choi?”
I feel like I already heard that name before.
The girl back in the training camp!
“I am familiar with her, yes.”
“She’s my best friend and was one of Minjeong Kim’s flings.”
“She’s your best friend?”
I thought she only had Minju and Yuna as her friends.
Yeji really was a private person.
There were a lot of things that I do not know about her.
“Yeah,” she muttered. “She genuinely likes her. But Minjeong Kim being the womanizer that she is rejected her in the worst way possible.”
Can’t say I was surprised.
She did say her flings don’t mean anything to her.
However, it was still disappointing how she treats them as if they were objects she could dispose of any time she wanted.
“I saw how it devastated her.” She gritted her teeth. “And that is unforgivable.”
So, that was why.
Her hatred against Winter was understandable.
I never imagined I had a friend who had a close relation with Winter’s flings.
The world was really small.
Now that I heard firsthand the result of her unjust behavior, I suddenly had gotten the urge to slap her across the face for being such an .
“Um, I’m sorry on her behalf.”
She looked at me as if I said something funny. “You don’t need to say sorry, cupcake. It’s not your fault.”
“I want her to apologize to my best friend herself,” she said. “Though, I doubt she is capable of doing that.”
Winter doesn’t care about anyone.
It was beyond her to apologize.
“Woops, it seems like I am needed in our classroom,” she announced as she stood up. “See you around, cupcake.”
Ryujin insisted to drive me home.
Initially, I refused because I found it awkward to be with her alone after her revelation earlier this day.
The feelings that I tried so hard to keep all these years reached her without my knowledge.
I never thought it would turn out this way.
She was even casual about it as if it was nothing.
But Ryujin was Winter’s sister, alright.
Both of them were so persistent.
In the end, I just agreed.
I wanted to be with her, anyway.
The person I like.
The sudden shift in her behavior, however, was beginning to bother me.
Driving me to school.
Messaging me to remind me not to skip meals.
Giving me a bottle of barley tea.
And now this.
It was as if she was filling in for her sister.
Or maybe I was just overthinking things.
“Can’t get her off your mind?”
I flinched at the sudden interference in my thoughts.
That was the first time she spoke after we left the school premises.
“Oh, not really.” I nibbled on my lower lip. “I’m just worried. I haven’t heard from her since yesterday night.”
She hummed, nodding her head in understanding.
“There are days when Mj likes to be alone,” she shared, not averting her eyes from the road. “It is a habit of hers that she had developed ever since our older sister’s passing.”
I didn’t know that.
“It’s still frustrating.” I huffed exasperatedly. “She could’ve just told me so that I wouldn’t be here worrying sick about what happened to her.”
Ryujin laughed breathily, earning herself a puzzled look from me.
Did I say something funny?
“You are so transparent, Jimin.”
“Do you still remember what we’ve talked about back in our home?”
I furrowed my brows at the random question.
What’s that got to do with this?
“I told you that my sister is fond of you, remember?” she said to which I answered with a brief nod. “And you told me you don’t feel the same way because you are into someone else.”
“But I think that is not the case anymore.”
I heaved a sigh.
She was really just like Winter.
They both love keeping me on edge.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She gently shook her head, a mischievous smile dangling on her lips.
“Some girls are obsessed with the chase,” she said cryptically. “I hope you aren’t one of them.”
I cursed under my breath when her remained fixed ahead as she continued walking as if she didn’t see nor hear me.
With a creased forehead, I could only watch as she entered the student council office without looking back to acknowledge my presence.
It had been exactly three days now since Winter had become indifferent and distant to me; avoiding me like the plague despite my several futile attempts to approach her.
When she finally showed up in school Tuesday morning, I immediately went and tried to talk to her in hopes of finally putting an end to the endless questions in my mind.
“Winter.” I walked alongside her while she was busy skimming some papers in her hands. “What has been going on with you? I feel like you’re ignoring me.”
She briefly glanced over at me, a cold expression plastered on her face.
“I’m sorry, but I am a little occupied at the moment.”
Instead of pressing her further, I decided it was best to postpone my agenda and dejectedly my heels to leave and go back to my classroom.
That was the first time I reached out to a person that wasn’t Aeri, and having been rejected coldly affected me more than I had wanted to admit.
It was so embarrassing that I had wanted nothing more than the ground to open up and swallow me right there and then.
It was obvious Winter had built a wall between us for some reason; the kind that was higher and sturdier than the wall I gave up trying to overcome long ago.
With the way she was behaving, I’d say she had no plans on letting it down any time soon.
She was like a different person.
Far from the one who used to bother me any chance she gets.
She also went back to her habit: Having different girls clinging to her arm every day.
It was way worse than before because she was now being very blatant about it.
There was even this one time when I saw her allowing a girl inside her car which she claimed she never did before.
She was freaking cheating on me right in front of my face.
And here I thought she had already changed for the better.
This had to stop.
I don’t remember doing anything wrong to be deserving of this kind of treatment.
This was unacceptable.
The moment our professor dismissed us this Friday afternoon, I opted to ambush her in front of their classroom. This way, she would have no choice but to confront me.
Once I saw her stepping out of the room, I unceremoniously marched toward her and grabbed her wrist as tight as I could to prevent her from releasing herself, dragging her along the crowded hallway.
I could feel the curious stares directed to us by some students who couldn’t mind their own businesses along with a voice that sounded suspiciously like Aeri calling out my name.
I had no time to be worried about them.
This was way more important.
“What the hell?” Winter blurted out, shock evident in her tone.
I paid her no mind.
I had to talk to her today or I would seriously go insane.
I came to a halt when I spotted an empty classroom at the end of the hallway.
I pushed the door open and pulled Winter who was surprisingly being cooperative this time with me inside.
Silence reigned the tense atmosphere.
Winter was just blankly staring at me.
I had been rambling about talking to her for the past few days but now that I was finally given the chanceㅡor rather, the chance I created myself, I was failing to come up with anything to say.
I don’t know where to start.
“What do you want, Jimin?”
After avoiding me for days, that was the first thing she’d say to me?
I almost snorted but I maintained my composure.
“You know exactly what I want, Winter.” I wanted to applaud myself for sounding so calm in spite of the emotions building within me. “You know you’ve been avoiding me. I tried numerous times to talk to you but if you weren’t ignoring me, you would do everything just so we wouldn’t have the chance to talk. Where are you coming from?”
“I’m not avoiding you,” came her dull reply as if whatever I’m saying doesn’t matter to her at all. “You are overthinking it.”
I eyed her in disbelief.
“You and I both know that you are avoiding me!”
“I am holding up my end of the deal,” she corrected in her monotone voice. “Learn the difference.”
“Holding up your end of the deal?” I scoffed. “We still have a week left when you began to pretend I don’t exist!”
She threw me a sharp stare; one that sent chills down my spine.
“Why are you mad?”
“Of course, I am mad!”
I was in no way shape or form, prepared for her rebuttal.
“Isn’t this what you have always wished for?” She raised her brow, her tone mocking. “For me to finally be out of your life?”
That silenced me immediately.
That was what I used to tell her.
I knew she was just telling the truth.
However, it was unnecessary of her to feel the need to rub it in my face.
I am well aware of my own stupidity.
“B-But that’s no longer what I want...”
“Tell me then,” she challenged. “What is it that you want now?”
“I want us to be f-friends.”
She scoffed. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“I’m serious, Winter.”
“Then you are being ridiculous,” she remarked coldly that I almost shivered. “How could I be friends with someone I am in love with?”
“Do you think such absurdity is possible?”
“Because no, I don’t think so.”
I lowered my head, not having the words to say anything in response to her assertion.
Because maybe she was right.
Maybe I really was asking for too much.
Maybe I really was being selfish.
But what could I do?
I don’t want to lose her.
None of us spoke for a while.
There was stillness in the air.
For a second, it felt serene—the kind that reminded me of the calm before the storm.
“If I ask you to date me for real, would you say yes?”
I inhaled a lungful of air.
That was the same question she had asked me before.
The one I wasn’t able to give an answer to because of Ryujin’s unexpected arrival.
The desire to say yes was immense, however, every time I open my mouth, pride takes over.
The sound of her dull chuckle rooted me back to reality, causing me to look up and meet her steely gaze.
“I’m throwing in the towel.”
The statement knocked the wind out of my lungs.
My heart was palpitating loudly against my chest.
“W-What do you mean?”
She didn’t mean that, right?
Winter gave me a smile.
A smile that looked a little bit sad.
...and a bit of at a loss.
“It’s your win, Jimin.”