Yi-jin looks at his watch, checking to see if Hee-do’s done picking out an ice cream flavour.
The eighteen-year-old is a constant fixture in his life he’s slowly come to accept. In a way, he’s charmed by her naivete, her unwavering optimism that comes from not enduring a family-shattering bankruptcy at a relatively young age. Yi-jin supposes that’s why he’s unable to push her away no matter how hard he tries.
“You know, I never tell anyone this.” Hee-do says to him when they’re sitting outside the convenience store. Yi-jin’s just ended his shift and finished consoling Hee-do about the whole My-mom-got-mad-at-me-and-tore-apart-my-copy-of-Full House fiasco. She’s cheered up significantly compared to her sniffling self five minutes ago.
Sometimes, Yi-jin really envies her ability to bounce back completely.
“Tell anyone what?” He unwraps his newly-bought ice cream, handing one over to Hee-do.
“I really hate her,” Hee-do replies.
At first, Yi-jin has no idea who she’s talking about, and his mind immediately jumps to Hee-do’s mother, but then he sees that Hee-do’s pointing at a nearby poster plastered on the side of a freezer and notices an advertisement with Yoo-rim’s face on it. He chuckles internally at the poster; he was the one who set her up with that ice cream sponsorship years ago, and remembers how much Yoo-rim had complained about her hair getting in the way of her face during the shooting.
“Her?” Yi-jin asks.
“Yoo-rim. She’s the best fencer I know. I even snuck into a club to try to get arrested so I could—”
“—Yes, I know.”
“What I’m saying,” Hee-do huffs, clearly irritated at Yi-jin’s interruption. “is that she’s actually incredibly stuck-up.”
“Yoo-rim?” Yi-jin asks again, taken aback. Yoo-rim can be many things. Childish? Sure. Easily annoyed? A little. But stuck-up is a new term altogether. “She’s anything but stuck-up.”
“Maybe to you,” Hee-do mutters. She bites off a huge chunk of her ice cream, chewing on it with exaggerated vigour. “When I first met her, she asked why she should even train with me if she didn’t even know my name. And then she told me something along the lines of— ‘If I’ve never heard of your name in this small fencing community, then you’re nothing to me’.”
“Wow. That is harsh.”
“It is,” Hee-do says, kicking at the ground. “I just don’t understand why she’s so nice to everyone else, including you, but not me. Like, what did I ever do to her?”
Yi-jin’s honestly a little unprepared for this. He’s just a high-school graduate with zero experience with the inner workings of the relationships between women, let alone two teenage girls. “Have you tried talking to her about why she hates you so much?”
Hee-do laughs, so abruptly and loudly that Yi-jin nearly loses his balance and drops his ice cream. “I’d rather apologise to my mom than have a conversation with Yoo-rim.”
“I think you highly underestimate the power of good communication.”
“What do you know about good communication?”
“I’ve talked to plenty of strangers in the book store. That’s how you get good customers, you know?”
Hee-do sniffs, nibbling at the cone of her dessert. “Yoo-rim’s different. She’s not a stranger. She’s…”
Yi-jin patiently waits for her to continue as Hee-do struggles with finding a suitable term to call her former-idol-turned-enemy. It’s amusing to watch, actually. Hee-do’s face turns a shade redder the more Yi-jin stands around to observe her. Putting a label on Yoo-rim seems to force her to exert copious amounts of mental strength.
Finally, Yi-jin finishes his frozen treat. “I think I’m done. You ready to head home?”
“I’m…” Hee-do growls in frustration, then throws her free hand— the one that’s not holding her ice cream— in the air. “Ugh. I give up. I’m just going to eat my ice cream in peace.”
Yi-jin just leaves her be, shoving his hands in his pockets as he waves goodbye to Hee-do. As he plods down the road to his house (actually, it’s more of a rented area, he reminds himself), he finds his thoughts wandering towards Yoo-rim, how she’s apparently a despicable human being to a single person in her life. It’s the kind of mystery that piques his curiosity a little, but certainly not something world-ending like Hee-do makes it out to be.
“Kids these days,” Yi-jin says to no one in particular. One of the biggest enigmas in the world.
Yi-jin peeks inside the snack bar, knocking on one of the glass windows. “Yoo-rim?”
Yoo-rim, unbothered, continues helping herself to a plate of tteokbokki.
Oh, so she’s ignoring me. Yi-jin snorts to himself. It’s definitely not a first.
“Yoo-rim,” Yi-jin can hear Yoo-rim’s mother chiding her from inside the store, “It’s rude to ignore your superiors!”
“Mom, I told you to—” Yoo-rim looks over to the side to catch Yi-jin stepping into the snack bar. “Whatever.”
“Told you to what?” Yi-jin prods cheekily, seating himself on the chair across from Yoo-rim.
“What are you doing here?” She snaps.
“I was going to get myself some tteokbokki, but it looks like you beat me to it.” Yi-jin nods at the dish in front of Yoo-rim. Yoo-rim, perhaps as a side-effect of knowing Yi-jin more than he’d prefer, senses some sort of danger and shields her plate with her hands. She moves a second too late; Yi-jin’s already picked up a pair of chopsticks for himself and snatches a rice cake out of her plate.
“Mom,” Yoo-rim whines, dropping her hands in exasperation. “I told you not to let him in!”
“Ah,” Yi-jin warns sternly, propping one hand on his hip. “Is that any way to talk to your superior?”
“I’m going to murder you.”
“Yoo-rim!” Her mother calls from the kitchen, clearly more offended than Yi-jin at her daughter’s choice of words. “Sorry about that. She lost a match at her fencing club today, so she’s in a bad mood.”
“Mom!” Yoo-rim presses a hand to her forehead, embarrassed.
“You lost? The Olympic gold medalist Go Yoo-rim lost against someone?” Yi-jin doesn’t mean for his voice to sound so charged; he’s genuinely surprised. Yoo-rim clearly misinterprets it as excitement, however, and throws a searing glare at him.
“Oh my god,” Yi-jin blinks, too distracted by this newfound information to snag any more of Yoo-rim’s rice cakes. “Who was it?”
Yoo-rim shovels more tteokbokki into her mouth aggressively.
Yoo-rim gives him a cautionary glower.
When Yoo-rim still doesn’t dignify his guesses with a response, he continues pushing. “You’re uncharacteristically mad,” Yi-jin notes, inching away from Yoo-rim before she decides to launch a violent attack on him. Then he stumbles onto another conclusion, a spontaneous one, but… “Wait. Is it…”
Yoo-rim’s look tells him everything he needs to know.
“No way,” Yi-jin gasps, cupping his mouth with his hand. “No way. Hee-do? The girl you—” He cuts himself off, mostly out of self-preservation. “—she beat you?”
“It was a practice match,”” Yoo-rim mumbles, defeated.
“Wow. Um,” Yi-jin drums his fingers on top of the table. “Guess that was a learning opportunity?”
Yoo-rim doesn’t say anything. In fact, she doesn’t say anything for the next five minutes, stewing over this whole situation. Yi-jin’s almost fascinated at how agitated she looks, how it’s such a digression from what she’s usually like, calm, collected, with a hint of firm determination that only shines during competitions. He’s never seen her in this state before.
“I’m going to beat her,” She finally says.
Yi-jin looks at Yoo-rim, looks at Mrs Go, then back at Yoo-rim again. Yoo-rim’s mother doesn’t seem to be too perturbed by her daughter’s shortcomings. It seems like whatever force that’s pressing Yoo-rim forward is a self-driving one.
“I know you will,” Yi-jin answers. It’s meant to be an obligatory word of encouragement, but somehow he thinks Yoo-rim knows he doesn’t really mean it. And seeing how Hee-do’s worked so hard to get to this point, imagining Hee-do on the other end of this loss, celebrating her victory with a triumphant yell, it’s hard not to.
The next time Yi-jin sees them compete, it’s in front of a much larger audience. He doesn’t just mean the crowd of people cheering them on from the sidelines; there’s also the millions of people tuning in to their match on their local news station.
“En garde! Prêts? Allez!”
The clanging of swords fills the air.
There’s a nervous anticipation that crawls inside Yi-jin when he watches his two friends with bated breath. Yoo-rim, with her unwavering coolness, knocks down her opponents with ease. Hee-do rises quickly and unexpectedly, her new entrance into the Olympics serving as one of her main advantages— no one can predict what move she’s going to throw next, and nobody foresees a rookie climbing towards the quarterfinals like it’s no big deal. She defies all odds, her headstrong attitude carrying her like an unstoppable wave.
Yi-jin realises that he can’t cheer for both athletes anymore when Hee-do cuts down the last competitor standing in her way before the finals. Given her performance in the last Olympics, Yoo-rim’s practically guaranteed to show up as a fierce competitor for the gold medal. A weight in his stomach plummets when he sees both Yoo-rim and Hee-do touching their sabres together to mark the start of their arduous battle. Somehow, seeing this match right in front of him seems to solidify the reality of it, not just as an off-hand tale told from Yoo-rim’s perspective, but as something very real and very tangible.
Yi-jin doesn’t know who to root for. He knows one of them will be devastated either way.
When it comes down to the last match and both Yoo-rim and Hee-do move towards each other in a flurry of motion, silence quickly descends upon the court.
Then Hee-do wins, and Yi-jin understands: out of the two of them, Yoo-rim‘s the devastated one.
“Yoo-rim!” Yi-jin calls out, attempting to keep up with Yoo-rim’s pace. “Yoo-rim!”
The hallway that connects the court and the restrooms is empty, giving them some semblance of privacy. No one wants to see the nation’s pride like this, broken and sobbing with a silver medal clutched in her fist. It’s obvious that Yoo-rim doesn’t want that either.
“Hey, are you ignoring me again?” Yi-jin says, and Yoo-rim whips her head around.
“Please,” Her voice quivers, “Please don’t joke around right now.”
“I’m not,” Yi-jin promises.
“I don’t—” Yoo-rim takes a long, shuddering breath, wiping the sweat and tears off her face with the heel of her hand. “I won, right? You saw me. I hit her first.”
“Yoo-rim,” Yi-jin replies, both out of honesty and reluctance at denying Hee-do’s victory. “I honestly don’t know.”
Yoo-rim lets out an aggravated, strangled sound, hands tangled in her hair as she tries to make sense of what Yi-jin’s sure will be the birth of a new controversy. “I can’t— I can’t accept this. There’s no way she won. There’s just… there’s no way.” She takes another deep breath, pacing back and forth. “I touched her. My light went off first. The referee wasn’t looking at me, he was— he was looking at Hee-do—”
“Yoo-rim,” Yi-jin suggests gently, “stop talking and breathe for a moment, okay?”
“Okay,” Yoo-rim shuts her eyes, and for a moment, she looks like she’s about to cry. “Okay.”
Yoo-rim stands there for a few minutes, her posture ramrod straight as if all the tension acquired during the bout had refused to leave her body. Yi-jin doesn’t tell her this, but he also feels like he’s going to go out of his mind with anxiety, how he has no idea what this tournament means for them but there’s a steeping sense of foreboding that envelops him, telling him that this will just be the beginning of something terrible.
“Is this really about Hee-do?” Yi-jin ventures after Yoo-rim shakily opens her eyes.
“What do you mean?” Yoo-rim asks, clearly unable to wrap her head around Yi-jin’s question. “Of course it’s about Hee-do. It’s always about Hee-do.”
There’s truth to that statement, Yi-jin will give her that. Even so, there’s also an undercurrent of instability running beneath her words, threatening to burst out at any second. Yi-jin recalls Yoo-rim pulling out her torn fencing gloves, the same one she’d used three years ago, because she’d refused to let her family buy her a new pair. How Yoo-rim’s smile had tightened in forced optimism whenever her mother had introduced her as Korea’s star fencer. He thinks about his words carefully the next time he speaks.
“The fate of your family doesn’t have to rest on your shoulders.”
Yoo-rim slowly looks up at him, the hope that flashes in her eyes extinguishing just as quickly. She doesn’t express shock at how Yi-jin hits the mark so squarely. Instead, she just shakes her head.
“How?” She starts, and Yi-jin knows from the way her voice trembles that she’s about to cry. “How can it not?”
Yi-jin doesn’t say anything; he steps forward and pulls Yoo-rim into a crushing hug.
“How can it not?” She sobs into his shoulder. “Tell me, how can it not?”
Yi-jin wants to tell her this: In the middle of your family’s love and support and your inexplicable loathing for Hee-do, you’ve set a bar so high up for yourself that attempting to reach it will tear you apart. You’re still a nineteen year-old girl who should be worrying about grades and failed first dates, not how the entire country views you. Your parents will accept you no matter what. You don’t have to be the nation’s best fencer. You don’t have to be the top of the class. You can just be Go Yoo-rim, and that’s enough.
But he doesn’t say that. Because the moment Yi-jin uttered the words, The fate of your family doesn’t have to rest on your shoulders, both of them know he’s a hypocrite. He’s been shouldering the burden of his family’s fall from grace from day one.
The bus runs over a speed bump just as he finishes off the last syllable, somehow embellishing an added layer of incredulousness to his question.
“Don’t make that face!” Yoo-rim protests as Yi-jin tries to fix his features into something more socially acceptable. It’s ridiculous, really. If Yi-jin could give his own two cents on this whole situation, he’d say this was a very well-written comedy.
But the distraught expression on Yoo-rim’s face is very real, so he shuts up.
“I do know—”
“That you’ve been completely horrible to her all this time—”
“I said I don’t need you to tell me—”
“And it turns out that you’ve been confiding in her for three years, your dreams and problems and everything?”
“Yi-jin,” Yoo-rim practically crumples into her seat, her eyebrows crinkling in pain. Or humiliation. It could be both, frankly. “How am I going to face her after this?”
“With an open heart?” Yi-jin offers. “With love and acceptance and a very well-thought-out apology letter?”
“I think I’m going to call in sick tomorrow.”
“Hey! Don’t skip out on education. You know I pay taxes for that, right?”
“And— oh my god, I’m the one she’s been talking about this whole time— and I even told her to go to my world—” Yoo-rim sits up, flailing, momentarily being possessed by some otherworldly spirit before slumping in her seat again. She groans. “I hate my life.”
“I think you and I need to have a talk on exchanging personal information on the internet,” Yi-jin says, handing Yoo-rim the yellow rose she’d pushed onto him in a brief moment of panic. She doesn’t take it, so he forcefully pries open her fingers and inserts the stem of the flower into her hands. Yoo-rim yelps and nearly drops the rose like it’s covered in poison.
“Take it back!” She cries.
“Nope,” Yi-jin says, popping the ‘p’. Despite Yoo-rim’s distressed outburst, Yi-jin finds himself delighted at the prospect of being able to tease her again about something much less serious this time, something that doesn’t involve intrusive paparazzi or a bad rep on the morning paper. The kind of things kids should be worried about, he reminds himself, and then marvels with a strange sadness that Yoo-rim’s nearly a full-grown adult now.
Damn. He kind of sounds like her mom.
“I wish I’d deleted my account,” Yoo-rim complains, and Yi-jin fights the urge to sigh.
“So…” Yi-jin begins.
“So?” Hee-do echoes.
“You two are close now,” Yi-jin says, eyes focused on the road in front of him.
“I guess we are,” Hee-do says with a hint of lightness that Yi-jin’s never heard her use around Yoo-rim before. “Why?”
“Nothing,” Yi-jin smiles, hands tapping on the steering wheel. “I just find it really interesting that you knew who I was talking about.”
Hee-do leans forward and sticks her tongue out, then yelps in pain at the unintentional pressure she’s put on her ankle. “I know you’re going to say some really sappy things like how we were butting heads and all that, but Yoo-rim and I are officially over it.”
They haven’t had a chance to talk about the apparent turn Hee-do and Yoo-rim’s relationship has taken, how Hee-do has gone from talking about Yoo-rim like she’s tasted something gone bad to looking at her like she’s the center of her world. Yi-jin has to suppress his chuckle, remembering Yoo-rim leaving school with a perpetual scowl etched into her face after losing against Hee-do and the stark contrast of that with how the two fencing athletes were tripping over each other to ensure the other had enough seaweed for lunch.
“Sweetie Pie,” Yi-jin hums, letting the nickname drag out so Hee-do knows how silly this whole thing is— because it is, really. “Cutie Pie.”
“What the heck are you doing?”
Yi-jin smiles at Hee-do. “That’s totally what you and Yoo-rim were acting like yesterday.”
“We’re not that ridiculous,” Hee-do says, crossing her arms.
“So you admit—”
“—I’m not admitting that me and my ex-boyfriend were that ridiculous, I’m talking about the way you said it!”
Yi-jin laughs. “All right.”
Hee-do pouts at the window, relaxing into her seat. Yi-jin doesn’t mention the slight grin that starts to make its way onto her face as well.
“So how did it go?”
“How did what go?”
“You and Injeolmi. Did she send you an apology letter?”
“What?” Hee-do wrinkles her nose. “No!”
“Ah.” So Yoo-rim didn’t take his advice. What a shame.
“We, um.” Hee-do begins, looking down at the folded hands on her lap. “I could kind of tell she was acting off today. But then something happened and I got into this fight in the girls’ restroom—”
“You got into a fight?”
“Uh, yeah. Don’t worry, I’ve got experience. And I was defending Yoo-rim, because these girls were just talking shit behind her back and about her financial situation, and Yoo-rim heard us and we fought them off.”
“I’m sorry,” Yi-jin stops, looking over at Hee-do. “Did you two get into a fistfight or something?”
“No, we just pulled on their hair and like, threw them on the floor, I think.”
“Wow.” Yi-jin lets out a low whistle.
“So anyways, Yoo-rim started crying. And I was like, why are you crying? And she was like, do you know how difficult things have been for me because of you? And I was like, uh, no, because I had no idea what she was talking about.”
“Then she told you?”
“She told me,” Hee-do finishes proudly.
“Huh,” Yi-jin says as he makes a left turn. “This sounds like a typical high school confession.”
Yi-jin really should’ve moved away when he said that, because the slap Hee-do inflicts on his shoulder stings, bad.
“I’m the one driving you to the hospital.”
“And I told you not to make any more ridiculous comments!” Hee-do counters, rubbing her own hand from the force of her assault.
Yi-jin feels his own smile widen. “Anyway, I’m glad that you two are getting along.” There’s always been this unspoken rift between Yoo-rim and Hee-do, one that involves one-word exchanges and a very tense atmosphere. He supposes that's the process of growing up— knowing why some people did what they did and learning to forgive them for that.
“Well,” Hee-do says, leaning her head against the window. “I’m glad too.”
This year’s New Year’s celebration is a muted one, though Yi-jin speculates that could be attributed to the blanket of contentment that settles over all of them.
The snow that drifts outside sticks to the window of his home, and Hee-do gives each snowflake names and spins little backstories behind every one. Yoo-rim listens with intense concentration, like she’s committing every anecdote to memory.
Yi-jin doesn’t overlook the way their hands seem to be joined the entire time. It seems like something that he shouldn’t bring up, a moment that subsists within the bubble these two have created, the kind where only Yoo-rim and Hee-do exists and no one else.
“Can you stop talking?” Ji-woong grumbles from the floor, where he’s fiddling with a bracelet he’s bought just recently. Must be one of those fashion trends teens are into these days. “I’m trying to know if we’re all going to die when the clock reaches midnight.”
Indeed, Hee-do’s voice muffles the sound of the TV in the middle of the room, where all of them have circled around. Yi-jin thinks if the world ends now, this wouldn’t be too bad of a place to go out in.
God, what is he saying? He’s content with dying surrounded by four bickering kids.
“Let them do their thing. It’s better than panicking and buying falling stocks like all the other adults are doing.” Seung-wan says.
Ji-woong flops down onto his back, having chosen to lie down on the floor for the tail end of the millennium.
“We’re going to be adults soon anyway.”
“So shut up and enjoy your limited youth, dumbass.”
Yi-jin’s sitting against the wall comfortably when the New Year’s countdown starts to blink on the screen, starting from 60 seconds and descending inevitably. Hee-do begins chanting the digits as soon as it shows up, even though Ji-woong insists that it’s tiresome to count down from such a big number. Yoo-rim says nothing, just leans her head on Hee-do’s shoulder, and mouths each number as Hee-do shouts them into the air.
“Ji-woong, why are you counting, like, two seconds behind?”
“I’m trying to keep up, but the stupid TV goes down the numbers too fast!”
“It’s a second, Ji-woong. It’s not the news station’s fault, it’s literally a universal unit of measurement they use to count down.”
“Figures are lame,” Ji-woong rolls over and stops counting. “Tell me when it’s the New Year.”
“Ten, nine, eight, seven…”
Yi-jin slides a hand over his mouth, trying and failing to mask his smile. The screen in front of them starts showering confetti in anticipation of the five-second mark, and with Seung-wan’s smug remarks, Yoo-rim’s fulfilled silence and Hee-do and Ji-woong’s spontaneous competition of trying to see who can drown each other out by shouting as loud as possible, Yi-jin considers himself fortunate for once.
When the countdown reaches zero and Yoo-rim leans over to plant a nearly imperceptible kiss to Hee-do’s cheek, Yi-jin decides that maybe this New Year’s thing isn’t so bad after all.