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6 ~ Easy Boy

Hongki was very sullen during that evening’s sup- not talking to her, not even looking at her. ‘Oh Hongki! I certainly have gotten you into trouble now, haven’t I?’ Shin Hye thought, gazing at her friend across the table. That’s when she noticed that the rest of the serfs, save for Adel and Cook, were giving her the cold treatment too. It got too unnerving for her to the point that she escaped to the stables to find and talk to Hongki after the meal. Hongki however turned and left when she came in. So alone she went on around the stable cleaning and, when fatigue came, she went to Virginia’s stall stacked bails of hay like she always does and thought she’d just take a nap and wait for Hongki. She was petting the foal when she fell asleep.

“Shin Hye you’re going to get me into trouble again if you sleep here!” Hongki almost shouted while shaking her shoulders.

“Huh?” Shin Hye turned her head around to orient where she was. “I wouldn’t have fallen asleep if you’d come back sooner instead of letting me do all the work, you oaf!” Shin Hye was rubbing her eyes.

“Oaf!? Oaf!? You oaf? And, so its my fault now?” Hongki blurted astonished. Shin Hye who was trying to wake herself up, sluggishly sat up, pulled down Hongki to sit beside her and hugged him.

“Oh Hongki! I thought you were never going to speak to me again!”

“Hey! Who says am speaking to you again? Am not an easy boy you know?”Hongki complained but a grin was starting to tug his lips up as he let Shin Hye hug him.

“Yes you are! I’m sorry about this morning Hongki! I was in such a hurry to make Lord George’s tonic I went out earlier than usual without telling anybody. But I’ve been doing that ever since right? Even though I was mostly in the gardens and with Virginia? I don’t understand what all the fuss is all about?” Shin Hye whined as she pulled away from Hongki, still stubborn.

“Can’t you just follow Lord Keun Suk’s  orders for once Shin Hye?” Hongki pleaded. “At least for the time being? While he’s here?”

“I didn’t really mean to disobey him Hongki but… while he’s here? You mean he’ll be leaving soon?” Shin Hye’s voice went a pitch higher, excited. Hongki suddenly clamped her mouth with his hand and good thing too for behind him Keun Suk’s voice boomed.

“HONGKI!”

“Oh! Umm… sorry my Lord!” Hongki hurriedly ran to get Tristan saddled as Keun Suk leaned on the stall’s entrance, blocking her exit, staring blankly at her.

“Just last night you were passionately kissing me and now you’re in the arms of another man. My my my aren’t you quite something?” Keun Suk scornfully said.

“Excuse me my Lord!” Shin Hye stood up, crouched and was about to squeeze through the small space left of the passage when Keun Suk moved. Not wishing to bump into him, she stepped back and ended up being pinned against the stall’s wall, Keun Suk’s face and body merely inches away.

“Is that all you have to say? Excuse me my Lord? No pleas for understanding? No declaration of innocence?  Wouldn’t you want to come away clean and ‘pure’ with me? I after all have the power to make a dent in your lot in life!” Keun Suk said with derision, anger rising again at seeing the two in an embrace.

Shin Hye, her eyes still looking down, raised her eyebrow but said nothing. Keun Suk saw this. He raised his arm, rested his hand on the wall near her head and leaned closer. She could feel the warmth of his body, heightened by the cold wood to which her back was flat against, and his breath hot on her cheek and on her lips.

“Wouldn’t you rather be my leman than be a common serf? I am after all a very reasonable master and lover. Even if I have, shall we say have had my fill, and i assure you i will, you would still be much sought after. Why even baronesses and princesses would crawl on their knees for a taste of my lips. I think last night was proof enough, don’t you think?”  Keun Suk wanted to anger her and even if he has never said such vile words to a woman in all his life, he can’t seem to help himself, the words just tumbled out of his mouth as if it had a will of its own.

Incensed with his crudeness and conceit, Shin Hye quietly whispered, “Then you shouldn’t waste them on poor maidens my Lord! Why throw diamonds at pigs? They can’t tell the difference and would be much happier rolling in the mud.” Catching him off guard yet again, Shin Hye said “if you would please…” and she slipped away once again.

She was so angry at Keun Suk she had difficulty sleeping and even with her promise to Hongki to try and obey the young Masters’ orders, Shin Hye snuck away to the cliff that night once again. Troubled as she was, her instincts warning her, she still went on to the cliff, sat cross-legged and cried. She can’t understand what she has done to deserve such contempt. Leaning on the tree trunk, looking at the far off seas, fatigue eventually overtook Shin Hye and she fell asleep, oblivious to the three pairs of eyes watching her- one, from a few meters away, the second, just a bit farther, and the third, watching all three of them.

After some time, the one nearest came and picked her up. She was too tired to open her eyes but knew from his walk and the feel of his arms around her who it was. She was hiding her eyes on his shirt’s collar. She was thinking they must be puffy now, her eyes. It was after some distance when she talked. Whispered actually, eyes still closed, she said, “Why does he hate me so Hongki? What have I done to deserve those insults? I am not a bad girl you know?”

She felt the jostle. ‘Has she been transferred to another person’s arms?’ the fleeting thought came, but she was falling into a deep sleep and all she can do was whisper once again, “I’m not a bad girl!” and sobbed. She heard a faint answering whisper, as if she were underneath a tunnel, the voice said, “I know! It’s not your fault. Sleep now!” Then she snuggled closer and slept.

“You’ve met your match have you dear boy? Ah yes! You’ve met your match indeed!” Someone from within the manor was smiling and muttering to himself, looking on at the sight he has just witnessed.

She woke up the following day the same time she always does, skies still dark blue, before the sun peeps out of the evening sky, before the cock crows.  There was no need to make any more tonic as the jug she made yesterday was enough for a week’s use. She was going out to the stables to see the foal and Virginia and yes even Tristan too. She was tiptoeing out when she saw Hongki still sleeping, mouth slightly open, sleeping so deeply that she didn’t wake him up. She’ll let him sleep some more she thought, he did carry her back to the manor. How could he have carried her all the way back, that far, when I am so heavy and the way isn’t even very clear in the waning moon light, she wondered. Sleep well my friend.

Feeling confident, listening to the solitude of the early morning, not a soul making a sound, she took out her staff from her hiding place and did the routine she has done since she was seven and wanted to impress Sir John, then she fed the horses, went to the cliffs and went back in the manor before Hongki can go out to look for her.

She had breakfast with Hongki and the rest of the serfs. Hongki’s good mood was rubbing off on everyone, and it almost felt like everybody has forgotten the previous day’s incident.

“You seem very happy Hongki. Did Cook give you an extra piece of bread may haps or did you have a very good dream? You’re back’s not killing you, is it?”

“No. No. And, thankfully, no to the last question as well. I just have some new assignments. It’s something that I’ve been looking forward to for a long, long, loong time.”

“Noooo!!! You’re serious? You’re going to be included in the training sessions now?” All she needed was to see the twinkle in her friend eyes to know the answer. She saw him as he went on his way out of the kitchen towards the bailey and there was a hop in his step. “Let’s see if you can still hop by day’s end dear friend.” She muttered to herself grinning, as she went up towards the old Lord’s room.

To Shin Hye, her activities that day seemed like a foreshadow of her new routine- clean the old Lord’s room in the morning, give him his morning dose of tonic, putting balm on his hands and feet, then Lord George would have Henry bring up Shin Hye’s food too, and thus began their mid-day meals eaten together, still eaten in comfortable silence. It is the afternoon that is killing Shin Hye, there was nothing else to do but sit, rearrange things, fold or unfold sheets anything to keep herself occupied, the times when she would hear the sounds of  and long for the activities outside of the manor. She would oft turn her head when she heard voices from the window, get startled at the knock on the old Lord’s door or longingly looked at the books on the table and mantle. All this the old Lord has noticed.

That night after the evening’s sup, Shin Hye ran to the stables where Hongki was groaning. He even skipped his supper which Shin Hye secretly brought for him. Even the heavy work he does around the manor was not enough preparation for Hongki. Her immediate concerns, however, were the blisters on her friend’s hands and the bruises he has on his body. If he was to survive tomorrow’s and the following days’ training she must help him. She looked for and gathered the medicinal plants needed to dry up and ease the pain brought on by the blisters, then pushing and pulling, she made him walk to the cold shallow spring near old Thomas’ hut and ordered him to soak in the cold water as she made the poultice for the ugliest looking bruises. She has gathered spider webs for the cuts and leaves that she will crush and bandage on once they’ve reached the manor. She thought of making him some pain numbing tonic but she knows that there is much to be learned from pain as well so she didn’t.

Shin Hye knows that Hongki, like any boy in those dark times, has always dreamed of becoming a knight, but had very little hope of even becoming a squire. Knights almost always belonged to a noble family, they start training at the age of 7 as a page then more years and training as a squire, countless battles to prove their bravery and valor and that’s still not enough for one to be conferred the honor of becoming a knight. Then there is the expense of knighthood but Hongki takes no notice of those. To be allowed to train as a soldier was already a big honor for Hongki. Young and arrogant he may sometimes be but Lord Keun Suk’s reputation for training highly-skilled and astute soldiers was almost as good as a knighthood.

If Hongki lived with his family it would have been his mother’s role to do everything in her power to look after his cuts and bruises so he wont back out or lag and be kicked out of training, but he’s been with the manor since he was very young. He was almost as good as an orphan, save for Adel, Cook and Henry who has been like his family since. They were too busy to attend to him though, so she stepped up for the role instead. She cajoled, ordered, nagged and threatened him into following everything she wanted him to do. The soak in the cold water should ease the pain and the swelling. Noticing Hongki fighting off a yawn, Shin Hye sat sideways on the rocks beside the pool, held his hair so he wont fall asleep and slip his head into the pool.

“Shin Hye I think you’re holding the only part of me that isn’t bruised, but if you don’t ease up you may pull all of it soon!” Hongki complained.

“Well I’d rather see you bald than dive in to rescue you from drowning in a thigh deep pool.” Shin Hye retorted. “Come closer!” Then dipping her hand into the cold water, cupped some water and washed the dried up blood on Hongki’s forehead, rubbing it gently then cupping some more water to tend to the cut near his brow. She was too absorbed with what she was doing she did not notice Hongki gazing at her, a wry smile on his face. Then he held her hand, placed her palm on his cheek, looked at her tenderly and said, “Thank you Shin Hye!”

“You’re welcome Hongki!” Shin Hye gave him a smile and continued, “Now one last dip and we’re done.”

Hongki went into old man Thomas’ hut to changed into dry clothes, warm up and have some of the poultice Shin Hye made bandaged on. Hongki was walking like a drunk on their walk back to the manor. Sleeping would not be a problem once they get there but for now she has to take on part of her friends weight as they walked back. Propping Hongki’s arm around her shoulders Shin Hye half dragged, half carried Hongki. Her friend still has two weeks to get used to the pain and the grueling mind-numbing fatigue. But the toughest days are the second to the sixth, ‘on those days at least let me help you my friend’, she thought.

On their way back, Shin Hye took a different way from that night when Keun Suk saved her. Lord Keun Suk found them anyway, he reached out and told them to hitch up. Shin Hye didn’t have the heart to have Tristan carry more than two passengers so she begged him to just take Hongki back. Keun Suk would not permit such a thing and convinced her to ride with them by showing her how Hongki was literally swaying on his seat. Shin Hye reluctantly agreed, and by holding on to the young Lord tethered both herself and Hongki for safe travel. She noticed how the young Lord used a different route, a route where nobody seems to be on. Was Lord Keun Suk doing this for Hongki? So Hongki can still save his pride?

‘Hongki was pretty much out of it for the duration of the ride so he wouldn’t have known that the young Lord held her hand, would he? He was only doing it to help her hang on to him, right?’ So acutely aware was she of the feel and warmth of Keun Suk’s hand on hers. She had not complained, nor had she pulled her hand away when he held her hand till they reached the stables. She could have very well loosen her grip during the ride, right? He was just trying to be practical.

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11 ~ “Whoah!”

The young guy at the bleachers has been sitting there for about half an hour, legs crossing and uncrossing. He was tinkering with an iPad in front of him and he had a notebook- the pen and paper kind as well, as if he’s doing homework.  But he would every now and then look at them and listen. He knew because Yong Hwa has been glancing at him for the past half hour. There was something about the young boy that he can’t quite put a finger on, even made him wonder, “Do I know him?”

He is a strange visitor. Maybe he’s a relative of one of the Olympic Hall’s security or of some aide FNC has hired for the concert waiting for his brother or father. He looks like any other boy, dark jeans and jacket, baseball cap, eyeglasses and that’s it. He didn’t seem that irritated or harassed by the constant tuning of their instruments, their starting and restarting, repeating one song then another. He came quite handy when they needed feedback on the volume and all those other stuff. He never shouted back just gave the more effective hand signals to answer their questions. One time while Yong Hwa was singing a ballad, ‘Y,Why’,  the boy stuck his index finger inside his open mouth and mimed puking, that made Yong Hwa laugh.

It was after some time when Yong Hwa noticed the boy stand up, folded his arms in front of him and just looked and listened at them. The next Yong Hwa glanced at the boy, he had his knapsack on his back and seemed to have waited for him to look at him, then the boy thumped his chest twice on the top, thumb side of his right fist, pointed two of his fingers at his own eyes and with his index finger pointed straight at Yong Hwa.

‘Whoah! That punk! Isn’t that the gang sign for “I’m watching you”?’ he was about to call out something or tell the other boys if they saw what the boy just did,  then the boy pulled down his cap, turned and left. Yong Hwa chuckled. “That boy is unusual! But he’s cool!” He reminded Yong Hwa of those opossums in the movie Ice Age 2. The boy was a welcome sight and break during that night, their final dress rehearsal, hours running up ‘Blue Storm’, their concert.

*   *   *

 “Hi guys!“ Shin Hye piped as she entered their dressing room. She was wearing a black frilly blouse, thigh-length beige coat and black skinny jeans, a wig with long wavy brown hair and fringed bangs. She looked like some doll, which if you see mixed with her thumping, shaking and slapping the guys arms and hands would make you do a double take, even if she does it so femininely it was still like seeing Barbie break dancing. He was always the last one she greeted. Depending on proximity or if they were in a huddle, it was always Jong Hyun first, Jung Shin second, Minhyuk third, and Yong Hwa last.

Sitting in front of the dressing table with his back turned towards the door, Yong Hwa watched Shin Hye from the mirror as she worked the room. He wondered if Shin Hye would ever enter a room, look and go to him first- before greeting or smiling at just about every body in it. Even if he has gotten used to her being like that he just couldn’t help but ponder. ‘She seems a little nervous. Her smile would sometimes leave her eyes.’ He observed, ‘Must be the antifans she’s worrying about.’ Good thing they’re all focused on Shin Hye or they’d have seen him stare at her as she walked towards him.

On reaching Yong Hwa, Shin Hye tapped both his shoulders hard with her hands, leaned down so her face was right beside his, both of them looking at their reflection from the mirror, bumped her right cheek with his left and whispered, “Hello handsome!” then they both laughed. Easy to shift Yong Hwa’s attention, Shin Hye thought. Then wrapping her arms around his chest and neck from behind as he continued to sit, she said, “I am still the best make up artist for you Yong Hwa-ya, right? Didn’t you look just lovely then?” Remembering the time she gave Yong Hwa the “pink overdose”- pink foundation, pink blush, pink eyeshadow, pink lipstick. “Pink is still the color for you Yong Hwa!” Twisting around and standing up, the sneakered, black shirted Yong Hwa stood just slightly taller than the high-heeled Shin Hye. They gave each other low fives, one armed hugs and taps, smiled and looked at each other, standing closely like they most often do, as though discussing a secret.

“My Chingu’s getting handsomer by the minute I see!” Shin Hye said, looking at her friend proudly.

“Not as much if you had come earlier and did my make up!“ Yong Hwa gamely answered. Shin Hye had a lot of fun doing his make up during You’re Beautiful’s Gee parody. She  said that was the “color me pink” Barbie look. She probably just invented that name but… the company was good, the view was even better, until I had the bout of the guilties, or was I being selfish in telling her to hold on to her blouse so Hongki and Hyung behind me wont see her cleavage when she leans down. He remembers how she clasped her blouse front onto her chest and with the other clamped his eyes shut.

“What were you doing going that early to the Han river?”

“What were you doing reading tweets when you should be concentrating on your concert?”

“Do you meet someone there? Who bikes with you?”

“Have you always been so nosy? Are you three ganging up on me asking me the exact same question?” Yong Hwa answered this by raising an eyebrow. Shin Hye just beamed.

“No I do not! It’s the best time to bike and you get to pray too actually!”

Yong Hwa looked intensely at her, knowing her enough to tell if she was lying or not. He did his lopsided sheepish smile when he saw that she wasn’t. Shin Hye smiled as well.

“Come here!”

“What? I am already right in front of you, Pabo!”

“I meant this!” Yong Hwa held Shin Hye’s chin, tilted her head and kissed her full on the lips. Sure he heard the three’s “Oi!” “Hyung!” “Yah!” but did he really care? He was thinking,  “Just a few seconds guys please! I really need this!” It didn’t help that Shin Hye kissed him right back, transporting them back to their rehearsal kiss.

Then he felt a knuckle tapping on his forehead. “Yah! What are you staring at me for?” Shin Hye was looking at him oddly. “It’s not the right time to daydream Yong Hwa-ya!”

Yong Hwa had a blank expression on his face. ‘Was he just dreaming that kiss?’

As if to remind Yong Hwa where he was, Shin Hye teasingly asked, “Who do you suppose those people are chanting for Yong Hwa-ya? FTIsland? Or Maroon 5?”

Yong Hwa scrunched up his face, ever the jealous Yong Hwa, and said, “Go on to your seat first. It can get pretty dark on your way to your seat when the lights are turned off.”

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea! They might not like seeing me.” Never the type who wants to draw attention to herself and ever wary of antis, Shin Hye hesitated.

“Okay! Umm.. go walk towards the aisle on the side of the stage then when the lights are turned off you can get to your seat. Oemma and Ahpah are already there. You’ll be okay with them.” Yong Hwa looked closely at her then said, “Okay?”

“Okay Ahjussi!” And, Shin Hye gave him a mocking smile then turned to go with the rest of the people filing out of the room, leaving the four members behind.

‘How can she just leave like that?’ he thought. ‘She didn’t even say good luck!’ Then , just as he turned to the other three, Shin Hye came running in, laughing and yapping how she’s gotten so forgetful and gave the three a hug and greeted each “Good Luck!” then turned to go, leaving him out. Yong Hwa out of exasperation abruptly put his hands on his hips, opened his mouth as if to say something and knitted his brows.

One, two, three steps… five steps… before she turned around with the most mischievous grin on her face ran to Yong Hwa, slamming into him as she hugged him. “Whoah!” Yong Hwa blurted, staggered back at the impact and laughed at Shin Hye’s theatrics. Then she cupped his face with her hands and said, “I don’t really need to do this, right? You’re cool, right?”

Yong Hwa laughed and replied, “Yeah am cool. Of course, I am!”

“Okay then! Fighting!” Shin Hye pinched his cheek. “Aw! Yong Hwa grabbed his cheek.

“It wasn’t even hard! Let me see!” Shin Hye protested. Then sensing a ploy, she said, “So did I give you an owie?” Shin Hye cooed as though to a child, taking her friend’s hand away, willingly and with a smirk gave his cheek the kiss he was playing for, then left, hearing the three mocking Yong Hwa for being shameless. Five minutes after, the show started.

*   *   *

The band was in such high spirits even before their encore. Shin Hye was already waiting at the wings with small towels and a big smile for the four, gave each to Jung Shin and Minhyuk as they exited and milled behind her waiting for the other two. Jong Hyun and Yong Hwa being the last two to come out. She wiped Jong Hyun’s forehead before she handed him the towel, saw a triumphant Yong Hwa raise his eyebrow at her, that she opened the small towel to cover his whole face and laughed. “Bwahaha! Doesn’t fit you, Yong Hwa-ya!” then she proceeded to wipe his forehead and draped the towel on his sweat-drenched neck and gave him a hug.

“I’m sweaty!”

“I don’t care! Congratulations! Daebak!” Good thing the lights on the wings was on low for the two were grinning at each other candidly. Then Shin Hye turned aside, pushed Yong Hwa to follow the exiting three, out of the curtains onto the backstage and the rest of their well wishers. Shin Hye left without saying goodbye. The guys were engulfed by their well wishers, so many fans, friends and family tapping, hugging, kissing them. Yong Hwa turned to look for Shin Hye but he couldn’t find her. She’d be crushed, he thought. Where is she? He turned around once again. Then he saw the silhouette of the young boy at the bleachers of the previous night walking towards the exit. The lights were quite dim so he still could not make out his face all that well then the boy turned to him and did his “I’m watching you” hand gesture, pulled his baseball cap down on his face,  spun around and left. Manager Jjun and Shin Hye’s stylist, a beige coat draped on her arm, hurriedly walked after the boy and flanked him.

“Whoah!”

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5 ~ Flares

Keun Suk felt her hold slacken midway on their short ride to the manor and there were times when he had to grab at her loosely clasped hands on his stomach when he thought she’d let go altogether, she must’ve fallen asleep. And he was right. Shin Hye was tottering and was about to fall forward and hug Tristan’s back when Keun Suk dismounted the stallion. He was about to grab her when he saw Hongki rush from the other side, pull Shin Hye down and carried her. Keun Suk couldn’t make sense of the sudden rise in his temper. Wasn’t Hongki supposed to take Tristan’s reins and guide the horse into his stall rather than hold her like that? He briskly led Tristan in himself and was in a rather foul mood when he stepped out.

“Shin Hye you have to wake up! I am not carrying you all the way to house you hear? It’s too dark and you’re too heavy!”

Hongki was sitting on a tree stump with Shin Hye propped on his lap, her head snuggled on his neck, his arm around her back and his other hand patting the sleeping girl’s cheek.

“Mama just a few moments please!”

“Who are you calling Mama?” Hongki grumbled. Keun Suk could not help stifle a laugh when he heard Hongki say that but he was still irritated seeing Hongki and Shin Hye positioned so.

“See to the foal Hongki it looks sick!” Keun Suk said aloud. To this Shin Hye groggily jumped up and said, “That’s crazy! Who said that? I just saw him a few hours ago and he was just fine. Skinny perhaps, but fine!” Rubbing her eyes and slapping her cheeks to wake herself up, she stumbled forward and nearly fell had Hongki not grabbed her waist to steady her.

“Hah! Surely you don’t need an excuse to cuddle to your lover by feigning sleep?”

That got Shin Hye standing stiff and livid and Hongki sensing imminent danger grabbed Shin Hye’s wrist and dragged her to the manor. The angry young Lord trailed then passed them. Shin Hye feels like giving him a good whack with her staff, though her staff and the rest of her things were all hidden at the stable’s attic.

The morning didn’t find Keun Suk any better. The household was on tiptoe by the time Shin Hye entered the kitchen. She didn’t stop to ask what all the shushing was all about. Shin Hye woke up pretty early and had sneaked out before anyone was up to get the additional plants she needed for the tonic she was going to make for the old lord, then went to the old decrepit outdoor kitchen at the back of the manor to brew the tonic. So she was holding the covered jar and small clay bowl when she sat to join the rest in the kitchen for the morn meal which she ate in a rush, unmindful of the glances the rest of the serfs were giving her. All that she noticed was how strange it is not to chat with Hongki while eating.

Shin Hye was just in time, reaching the old master’s chambers, as Henry was getting out with the Lord’s food tray. Henry was slightly startled when he saw her, scowled and went right back to the same brooding silence he had before seeing Shin Hye. She didn’t think much of it assuming that the old Lord was at his ranting again as she walked in excitedly into the room. She made her greeting, her head always bowed, entered, placed the jug and the small bowl on the table and went on to open the windows wide and inspect the room. Too absorbed was she in her thoughts and task that she didn’t notice that the old lord was no longer ranting as he did the day before and that there were not that many things to pick up from the floor anymore.

When she finished she stood at the foot of the old lord’s bed, curtsied and said, My Lord, if it is not too much of an imposition on thee, may I speak sire?” The old lord looked at her moodily, and gruffly motioned her to move closer. Her head still bowed she took a few steps closer; she continued to speak “My Lord, I would like to ask for your forgiveness for I have done something rather presumptuous!” She looked up to see the Lord’s expression and when she saw him frown some more she persisted, “oh but sire I had done it with no ill intentions at all sire and I assure you I am very knowledgeable in this area and..” the Lord raised his hand, motioning her to stop talking and said, “What did you do child?”

“Oh!… My Lord I made you a tonic without asking your permission sire.” When the Lord didn’t say anything she stood up straight and looked directly at the old lord and said, “I had noticed the swollen joints of your hands and feet sire, and though I was thinking of the tonic while I was here yesterday, it wasn’t until I was at the stables with Hongki when he mentioned that you used to ride Virginia that I finally decided to make you the tonic sire, unprompted. My mother is a healer you see and I’ve made this brew and balm so often I can almost do it with my eyes closed. It is not a cure sire but it will ease the pain immensely and reduce its swelling. We’ll try two sips first sire and go from there. I can take a sip to prove to you that it is not poison my Lord, if you wish, but I can’t take more than that as it makes me act as though I were drunk even if I can out drink any drunkard from here to… oh so sorry sire!” realizing she’s been rambling. She looked at the old Lord whose gaze was fixed at the window facing the cliff, lost in his thoughts for some time before he raised his hand for the tonic. So she took the jug and poured two sips worth of the medicine into the goblet and gave it to the old Lord. He took the goblet and slowly drank. When he finished she took the goblet and cautiously added, “Sire I also made some balm. I…”

“Later” interrupted the old Lord. She went around doing more cleaning but having done a lot the day before she was much finished even before the mid day meal had come. So she sat by the window looking longingly at the garden, the trees and meadow outside as Henry came in with the Lord’s food and her bowl of gruel. Shin Hye was surprised. “But Henry!”

“I don’t know what you did child but you’ve angered the young master mighty right and now he’s barking at anybody who so much as come within two arms width near him. And, where did you run off to early this morning again. Since Hongki could not find you, he told Hongki to stay out of his sight. Even after I’ve told him I saw you come in and go about your duties to the old Lord this morning, he’s still seething. What ever did you do child?” Henry didn’t wait for her reply but brusquely handed her her bowl and mug and hurriedly went out of the chamber.

“Wha…?” Shin Hye’s face was a smooth kaleidoscope of emotions from surprise to a scowl to a frown to knitted brows and stiff jaws of stubbornness to blazing-eyed anger complete with shoulder raising breathing. Just as smooth was the slow tugging up of the old Lord’s lips from an amused smile to a laugh to a loud guffaw. It did not help that Shin Hye’s expression went right back to a surprised one again upon seeing him laugh and then back to the scowl and frown once again. Thankfully it didn’t go back to the red faced angry one as before but she was certainly brooding over something now. The old Lord was trying to choke back his laughter which only made him laugh all the more and had to slap his knee a few times to calm down. As his laughter was dying down and he was uttering, “I’m sorry child. I was not really laughing at you. I was…” when boom opened the door and in came Keun Suk.

“And what seems to be the source of such merriment, this blasted day has brought you, father?” Though he sought to look at his father, the old Lord saw, even through his laughter-induced tear-blurred eyes, that Keun Suk looked around the room for the girl before looking at the source of his “concern”- his father.

“Well my boy it’s called fresh air!” And as the old man’s laughter died down to a snicker, he couldn’t help but frown that there surely is more to it than fresh air but his father looks like he was not inclined to say more. He turned to look at Shin Hye, he saw, even as she averted her eyes, that she was angry and was not likely to talk too. “Well fine I don’t care anyway. It’s much better that way” he thought.

“Of course!” Keun Suk said in answer to his father’s quip and turning back to Shin Hye, “Come. I want to have a word with you.”

“Oh no! Not yet my boy. I will send her down to you in a moment. You may go now.” The old Lord said matter-of-factly, his tone strong, carrying the authority it has always wielded. Keun Suk seems taken aback at the change in his father, not having anything else to say, he retorted, “I will wait then.” He went out closing the door strongly behind him, strong enough to show anger but not enough to show defiance. This brought on a smile to the old Lord’s face.

“Child you said you have a balm?” Shin Hye silently got the shallow bowl and with eyes cast down proceeded to gently rub the balm on to the old man’s hands and feet. The Lord sensing the turmoil in the girl did something he’s only done one other time in all his lifetime, he engaged in small talk. Shin Hye had no inclination to ask but if she had then she would have known that the old Lord never engaged in “small” talk. Actually he does not like talking much at all.

“How come it does not smell bad?”

“Sire? Oh the balm. I used some pine needles to mask the strong scent of the herbs my Lord and the oil kind of dulls that too. Then Shin Hye carried on and talked about the tonic and the balm and how she made it on her mother’s instructions.

“Yes it is presumptuous of you and I forgive you for that. But I am thankful too that you took the time to observe and to minister to… sick people.”

“Oh sire! To be honest, I am better with animals am afraid! Did you know that Virginia’s given us a foal sire?” And, off went Shin Hye talking about the horse and the foal.

“I can see you love the outdoors. So what has brought on your being imprisoned in here?” the old Lord interjected. Shin Hye’s stubborn anger came right back in a flash with that question, and she looked down and paused before answering, “It’s because I disobeyed the young master’s orders sire.”

“Go get your food and eat right there,” the old man said, pointing to the stool near his bed. “Eating cold food is not nice but eating alone is worse.” Shin Hye thought how lonely the old Lord must be cooped up in his room and though they ate in silence it was a peaceful silence and the anger in Shin Hye defused. As she gathered their bowls the old man said, “I think we’ve made your young Lord wait long enough. Take the bowls down with you and see him.”

Shin Hye was startled at this and looked at the old Lord. But he just waved her out. Henry met her at the foot of the stairway even before she could turn to take a step towards the kitchen. So she made her way to the great hall. She has never stepped beyond the kitchen for the two weeks she’s been at the manor, hiding away, wishing to know as little of the place and the people as possible but seems she has no such luck there. Just as she has no such luck forgetting what has happened the previous night. Making the tonic and thinking of how the old Lord would react to her making it had helped occupy her thoughts when she woke up. But now as she unconsciously touched her lips she remembered the kiss she had the night before, her first. But who would ever believe it was her first? She probably responded like some wanton woman would. She kissed him with an abandon she has never had outside of her passion for taming and healing animals, for mastering her staff and sword and reading. She can remember the feel of his lips as it tugged and kissed and learned every crease and line of her lips, his breath warm on her cheeks, the scent of pine around them and their breaths mingling. Worse is the memory of her doing the exact same thing on his lips, she remembers how she couldn’t seem to press herself close enough to him, how she clung on to his neck to support her slowly buckling knees. Maybe there wasn’t much to be embarrassed about she knows he feels the same way too- she felt it in how his hand pressed on her back, felt the urgency and desire in his kiss and she felt how hard it was for him to stop the kiss and as he hugged her after.

‘Why? Oh why did I have to remember all of it right now?’ she thought. She felt like she was transported back even while walking, head down unmindful where she was going, forgetting that the manor wasn’t very big, that she has to stop by the entrance and wait to be announced or called in before entering, heedless that she bypassed the stunned squire on guard, or maybe it was just from some force of habit- something that she has never done in their manor unless there were important guests or has she, well once or twice maybe she has. Immersed in thoughts so surprised was she to see shoes in front of her that when she looked up, the memories of last night’s kiss were still in her mind and hadn’t registered that the face that went with the shoes was looming above hers.

He was angry to have been kept waiting. He has been fuming since the morning when he ordered Hongki to have her come and Hongki could not find her. What is wrong with her? And, now his father is waylaying her too. Then he sees her enter as though she owns the manor. He could have just shouted at her insolence or had one of his knights accost her but he jumped before any of them could move and met her halfway into the great hall. Whether he moved too fast or she walked too slow he does not know but he was already standing with his arms on his hips when she noticed someone blocking her path. Good thing she was walking slowly too or she would have walked right smack at him. She didn’t. She hurriedly reached out to what she thought was a wall to brace herself and turned hooded and glazed eyes at ‘the wall’. The same eyes that has haunted him in his restless sleep.

And the wall had angry eyes that laughed became guarded before becoming angry again.

“Don’t they teach you manners where you come from?” Keun Suk said.

“What? Oh!” She turned around to see where she was at and belatedly realized her mistake. “I… I’m sorry I was thinking about something and I didn’t know where I was going.” She looked back at him. His gaze wavered for a bit.

‘Heavens bless me but all I want to do is either strangle this woman or kiss her and throw her into my bed, so what if its still early afternoon.’ That thought got him all the angrier at her.

“What were you doing in the forest last night? Where were you this morning?”

“I was just here sire.” Shin Hye placed at a defensive stance can only answer the last question.

“If you were just here then why couldn’t Hongki find you?

“But I don’t know where Hongki went to look for me sire.”

“Hongki said you were up and out very early, before anyone was up.”

“That’s true sire.”

“And…?”

“And what sire?” Shin Hye was aggravated enough not to satisfy him with the easy answer. She thought, ‘what does it matter where I go or what I do? I am just a serf here so why bother?’

“Do you really want to play dumb with me? Or would you, in any way, think that I am dumb?”

Shin Hye sensing the threat looming backed down thinking why fight over so petty a thing.

“I was at the old abandoned kitchen early this morning sire making some tonic for the old Lord, Lord George, that is also why I was at the forest last night. I went to old man Thomas’ hut to ask for some wolfbane since I could not find it anywhere near here.” That silenced him. He wanted to say, ‘You did not go there to meet another man? Aren’t you satisfied with Hongki?’ Anything to anger her. Aah, that is stupid! What is wrong with him?

“If that is all young master I would like to go back to my duties now sire.” Taking advantage of Keun Suk’s momentary confusion and before he could utter another word, Shin hye escaped back to the old master’s room. The old man was reading a book. Since she has nothing much to do, she just sat by the window, looked out at the meadow and field outside or looked around the room and at the books. A short moment later they heard someone bellowing orders below. Seems the tantrum hasn’t really died down. The old man smiled behind his book.

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10 ~ Buddies

“Ya! Shin Hye-ya my flight’s been postponed. Are you at the awards ceremony right now?”

“Nae! You’re supposed to be in Japan by now, aren’t you? I thought you’ve left? What’s all that noise? Where are you?”

“We’re on our way out of Incheon airport. Seems there is a problem with our visa. So we’re rescheduling our trip.”

“Ya! You haven’t even left and you already miss me?”

“Bo?” Yong Hwa snapped, disconcerted and taken aback, still registering what Shin Hye just said.

“Kekeke! It’s okay Yong Hwa-ssi I do know I am quite lovable so I really understand why you miss me so much!” Shin Hye could not help tease her chingu, as she guffawed at the speechless Yong Hwa.

“BO?” Yong Hwa raised his voice and acted indignant but a smile was spreading on his face that he had to look down to hide his amusement. “Ya! If I know, it’s you who is missing my elbow to hold on to, my wonderful company and, of course, my handsome, dashing looks.”

Shin Hye just keeps on laughing at the other end of the line.

“How many times have I escorted you Shin Hye-ya?”

“Too many times! I’m almost ready to file a protest. Surely there are other guys out there who would want to escort me! Where are they?” Shin Hye was still smiling as she whined. Yong Hwa just chuckled.

“Shin Hye-ya consider yourself lucky you had me! Next time you’ll need to get a number for your turn. Okay I got to go. Chalga!”

“Chalga rocker dude!” Shin Hye whispered teasingly then laughed as she put down the phone, while Yong Hwa was having a hard time controlling his grin till he thought ‘aish! what the heck! just let it go’, so he grinned, even as the rest of entourage were elbowing each other, till Minhyuk could not help but ask, “Hyung! I thought you said you were not feeling well, so how come you look as happy as a mouse who has inherited a cheese factory!” But Yong Hwa just shrugged and continued smiling.

“Are you done yet?” Yong Hwa asked, calling his friend again after more than an hour.

“In 15min yes! Wae/Why?”

“Wait for me. We’re picking you up! We’re almost there. If you’ll take longer, no worries, we’ll be at the carpark. Message me when you’re on your way out. We’ll pick you up up front!”

Sure enough there they were. She didn’t have a hard time convincing manager Jjun to let her go with Yong Hwa but he wanted more details other than that “they” were picking her up and that she does not even know who the “they” are so she told him she’ll text him the details as soon as she knows. “They” turned out to be just Hongki and Yong Hwa. Both boys were sitting at the front- Yong Hwa’s driving while Hongki’s riding shotgun. So Shin Hye had the back seat to herself which she did not appreciate at all.

“So where are we going? I was planning on going biking you know?” Shin Hye asked as she leaned forward to kiss Hoongki’s cheek.

“It’s a secret!” Hongki replied, kissing her back and giving her shoulder a pat.

“And where did you get this car?” Shin Hye asked and turned to kiss Yong Hwa and do their hand signal/giving five.

“That’s a secret too! After you learn secret #1 then you may know secret #2!” Yong Hwa answered, smoothly maneuvering the vehicle even as he hurriedly turned his head to kiss Shin Hye, who was absentmindedly turning her head around the same time, admiring the spacious SUV with its new car smell and accidentally grazing the side of Yong Hwa’s lips with her constant turning.

“Oh mianhae!” Shin Hye hurriedly wiped off her lipstick from Yong Hwa’s cheek and lips with her hanky and saw Yong Hwa’s impish smile, who countered with, “You miss me that much huh?”

“Ya! Pabo-ya!” Shin Hye laughed as she hit Yong Hwa’s arm.

“Are you sure you guys didn’t carjack this Sorrento? I trust you guys but Manager Jjun will be grumbling for a good while if I don’t text him soon.”

“Then just tell him you’re with Yong Hwa and me and that we promise to bring you home after midnight!” Hongki said. As if that were that and that it would be okay. Oh well, Shin Hye thought, it wouldn’t hurt to try so she did as Hongki said and sure enough Manager Jjun answered, ‘Ok!’ Makes her wonder if Manager Jjun trusts Hongki more than he trusts Yong Hwa? But she brushed it off her thoughts and just leaned back on the seat and let the boys have their fun.

“Am hungry! Are we going some place to eat or are we taking out food?”

“Both” Hongki answered and raised a layered lacquer box. Then the two went on talking nonstop about work related stuff of idols and music and schedules as they drove a little bit farther from the main streets to an exclusive residential area and further up to a low rise three- story building perched on a gentle mountain slope, come to think of it, it almost has the same feel of that house that they had for You’re Beautiful. Shin Hye was enjoying herself, looking around. All its neighboring residences are big and luxurious with intricately designed fences. They drove through the building’s automatic, remote-controlled gate and driveway door and parked alongside a Jeep Wrangler. The area was dimly lit and the tints on the car didn’t help for her to see more clearly the other two cars parked in the garage. As she opened her door Hongki stood in front of her and said, “Shin Hye-ya for this to be a real surprise we were told to keep your eyes covered so how about we use your hanky for that and I’ll lead you?”

“Do we have to do that?”

“That’s one of the conditions so yeah we have to.”

Shin Hye complied through three flights of stairs up, a couple of doors and hallways, with Hongki and Yong Hwa alternately holding her hand to guide her. She could sense that the two were new to the place too from the way they moved. They stopped and she could hear the boys move to open what sounds like a sliding door.  Then they must have walked out to an open area judging from the breeze that was whipping her hair and Yong Hwa removed her blindfold.

The three of them were dumbstruck by the view before them. The city lights were twinkling right in front. Unobstructed. Bright.

“Wow!” the three  said almost in unison. One said ‘sheesh’, another ‘shit’, and another ‘oh mannn!’ They were looking around them- to their back was the open-spaced living, den, dining room, and above it, behind the building they could make out tall trees clustered all around the back down to the sides just where the city view starts, as though ensconcing them, hiding them from the neighbors’ line of sight  and there were lounge chairs clumped here and there in front of them. In the middle, as though its centerpiece, was a traditional Korean table/platform about five or six feet square, a smaller table perched at the center on top of which were lamps of varying sizes and a picnic basket at the side. They each walked further out of the deck past the lighted platform, each inspecting the view and admiring the simple elegance of the minimalist decor.

The oohs and aahs did come to an end and soon they came to sit on the platform. The guys moved some of the lamps around the platform away from dangers way as Shin Hye opened the basket, inspected the food and a bottle of wine inside and took the lacquer box from Hongki.

“Are you still not going to tell me anything?” Shin Hye asked. Yong Hwa just looked at Hongki and Hongki shrugged at Shin Hye.

“How about you wash your hands first then, while I take all these food out,” Shin Hye shooed.

Just then her phone rang.

Lee Byung Hun calling.

“Ahjussi!!!”

“Bo?”

“Bwahahaha!!! Byung Hun Oppa!!! I am angry with you! You left without saying goodbye! We were supposed to go biking before you left. You promised!!!” Shin Hye laughed then whined as she pouted.

“I know! I’m sorry Shin Hye-ya! I thought I still had time but things got moved ahead of schedule…”

“No a promise is a promise! And you broke your promise!” Shin Hye sounded serious but she was smiling and the smile reached Byung Hun.

“Whining like a spoiled brat sounds cute on you, do you know that?” Byung Hun laughed. “So what are you doing now? Where are you? Manager Jjun with you?”

“Oh my goodness! Oppa you would not believe where we are right now! This place is just to die for. It’s sooo beautiful here! I don’t have enough words to describe it. You should come here to believe this place. Oh ummm… manager Jjun’s not here. I don’t know how these guys managed to get this place but there’s even food here and my favorites too. It’s just me and Hongki and Yong Hwa. Oh you haven’t met Yong Hwa right? But I’ve talked to you about him remember? He was my costar in Heartstrings.”

“Manager Jjun’s not there? Yong Hwa? Isn’t he the guy who likes you or the guy you liked during…?” Byung Hun prolonged his pause, teasing Shin Hye.

“Ya! Oppa! I never said anything like that! He’s just a good friend like Hongki is a good friend!”

Byung Hun laughed at how so much like a kid Shin Hye still is.

The boys were on their way back out after washing their hands and Shin Hye got up to go in and wash, talking to her Oppa all the way to the sink, even putting him on speaker as she washed her hand.

“If only the boys turned on a little more light outside and and maybe one more inside so it wouldn’t be hard to walk. Am scared I might trip on my gown and break something.  They probably couldn’t find where the light switches are.”

“Why? Where are you right now?”

“Am at the kitchen sink. I hope the owner wont mind, I saw a bottle of Dove liquid soap and I got some and washed my face here. But that’s our secret okay?”

“Oh am sure the owner wont mind. So are you done washing up?”

“Yes I am Oppa! Why?”

“If you’re in the kitchen then there must be a dining table, right?”

“Right? What about it?”

“Go to the end of the table, whichever end. Are you there now?”

“Yes! And?”

“Feel underneath the table there is a panel with switches and knobs- feel for the round knobs on the sides and slowly turn it clockwise.”

“How do you know there’s a a control panel here and which…” It suddenly dawned on Shin Hye to whom the place and the cars belonged to. “… knobs to… OPPA!!! This is your house???”

Byung Hun was smiling at his innocent, funny dongsaeng. ‘Ah Shin Hye if only you were older’ he was thinking to himself, ‘I would have taken you to my home myself.’

“Yes Shin Hye-ya that is my home! When I get home we will have your friends over and have dinner there. For now this is my humble bribe so you will forgive me for not saying goodbye.”

“Ya! You’re making another promise when you’ve just broken one? Until you come home and really do that, I will not forgive you Oppa!” Shin Hye said but Byung Hun knows that she has never and will never bear a grudge on her Oppa, not for long anyway, specially after he made sure the basket had the blueberry cheesecake that she loves and relying on the knowledge that she has a kind and ever forgiving heart.

“Hahaha! Okay Shin Hye-ya! And don’t let whoever is driving drink too much and don’t stay out too late!”

“You mean we can’t sleep here?” Shin Hye gasped.

“SHIN HYE-YA!!!”

“Bwahaha! Oppa I am only joking! Too bad you deck is facing the sunrise too!”

“Shin Hye! You’re going to be the death of me!”

“Oh Oppa! What will happen to Storm Shadow if you die?” Shin Hye said referring to Lee Byung Hun’s much coveted role in G.I. Joe as the suave but ruthless villain.

“Enjoy Shin Hye! Bye!”

“Chalga Oppa!… Oppa fighting!”

“Fighting Shin Hye!” And Byung Hun put down the phone.

Shin Hye has just finished wiping her face and was about to walk towards the door when she remembered about the lights. She looked for the knobs as Byung Hun instructed, turned the track lights on but on dim, so it was now a bit brighter but low and muted  and started to walked out to the deck. Weather was just right and the coat was too bulky so she decided to remove it.

Yong Hwa and Hongki noticing the lights grow a bit brighter turned towards the door. They saw Shin Hye’s silhouette before she stepped out of the door as she threw her coat on the chair nearby, and they saw her flooded with lights as she stepped out and rubbed her hands together and then in her softly flowing magenta chiffon gown, her hair pinned in such a way that she looked almost like a little girl on her first day of classes, Shin Hye walked casually towards her two best friends, two boys, totally unaware of her effect on them.

Jointly both boys are proud and pleased with how their chingu looked like. Individually they had different reactions.

“Hey Shin Hye-ya you look good in your gown! And you look very young with your hair like that! Are you sure you’ve graduated from high school?” Hongki commented. He was sitting on top of the platform, his arms propped up straight behind him supporting his torso as he leaned back, both legs bent and comfortably spread apart, knees raised and wiggling but stopped when he saw Shin Hye, feet flat on the platform, relaxed and totally at ease. ‘Ah my chingu is looking prettier and prettier indeed!’ Hongki thought.

Yong Hwa was positioned more forward than Hongki, sitting near the edge of the platform, his legs lazily stretched out in front of him, spread apart, knees slightly bent, feet on the ground, his elbows propped on his thighs, fingers interlaced, his body slouching, leaning forward and had his head turned towards Hongki when he noticed the lights coming on so he turned and saw Shin Hye. He tilted his head to the side as Shin Hye walked closer and he gave her one of his Lee Shin admiring, loving stares and smiled. ‘Ah Shin Hye-ya! You’re breaking my heart!’ he was thinking then said, “You may look beautiful in your outfit Shin Hye-ya but you’re sorely lacking one very important thing!”

Shin Hye was particularly satisfied with her get up and was quite happy to hear what Hongki said and to see the look on Yong Hwa’s face even if she knows he’s just teasing her but on hearing what Yong Hwa said, she stopped walking, stood straight with arms akimbo and with a smirk got ready for a sparring with Yong Hwa, she countered, “And what, pray tell, am I lacking?”

Yong Hwa got up, still in his supposedly press conference all black get up of jeans, dress shirt, and leather jacket, walked towards Shin Hye, stopped two feet in front of her so Shin Hye had to defiantly look up to maintain her fighter posture, with all three of them having left their shoes as they entered Shin Hye lost the advantage of her high heels to put her close to Yong Hwa’s eye level for better leverage, and with his thumbs hooked on to his jean pockets Yong Hwa leaned close to Shin Hye’s face till his nose was about an inch from hers, all the time looking closely at her eyes then smiling teasingly at Shin Hye the way he sometimes does ever since their YB days, he said, “Me!”

“Is that so?” Shin Hye blurted. She couldn’t move back or it would be like conceding defeat nor could she move closer or their noses will surely bump, so to show that she was not backing down she tilted her head, which, though it did not make any part of their faces bump, inadvertently brought her lips closer to Yong Hwa’s. Yong Hwa ceasing his advantage raised his eyebrows and ever so slowly looked at Shin Hye’s eyes then at her lips then back at her eyes again then mischievously smiled as if saying ‘do you really want me to kiss you that badly?’ Shin Hye sensing her impending defeat but not wanting to give in called Yong Hwa’s bluff and froze. ‘Ah Shin Hye-ya! If Hongki were not here I would sorely be tempted.’ Not one to readily accept defeat either Yong Hwa did the only win-win solution he can think of- he kissed Shin Hye’s nose and said, “Yes that is so! Now stop looking for a fight and let’s eat.”

“Ya!” Shin Hye and Hongki exclaimed as Hongki sat up and Shin Hye wiped her nose. The two protested but Yong Hwa was smiling quite pleased with himself as he took Shin Hye’s hand, linked it around his elbow and escorted the grumbling but acquiescent Shin Hye to the platform. He held her hand as she sat and helped her gather the skirt of her gown up to her knees, lifted her partly up to turn her around and move her closer to the center table. All this while the two were scolding him for not being fair and such but mercifully, saved by the delicious hot food right in front of them, the topic eventually changed. Yong Hwa, from constant practice during their times in Heartstrings, like Lee Shin, handed Shin Hye her chopsticks and spoon which she unconsciously accepted.

“Ya! Yong Hwa-ya! You’re not Lee Shin anymore you know, so you cannot just kiss and be all sweet with Shin Hye like that!”

“I know! Just force of habit am afraid. It’ll pass soon enough am sure. Now can we eat? Which do you think should we start on first?”

Shin Hye was quite at home to the boys arguing and was piling food on to Hongki’s bowl then Yong Hwa’s.

“Look you complain on my taking care of Shin Hye but you don’t complain when she’s babying you and you’re not Jeremy!”

“Ya!” Shin Hye said to catch Yong Hwa’s attention.

“Bo?” Yong Hwa answered as he turned to her. Shin Hye blowing on to a piece of meat held between her chopsticks, offered and held the meat to him and he quieted down and ate it.

“Shin Hye-ya! You’re only supposed to do that to your boyfriend!” Hongki reprimanded her.

“Who said that?” She asked back.

“It’s just so!”

“Well you two are my boy friends so there! Now here, open your mouth and eat! Aah! …” As she gave Hongki a nice plump pink steamed shrimp which Hongki ate with relish and with no complaints whatsoever and the three buddies just laughed.

It was a beautiful evening for the three, after clearing their food they sat all scrunched up on the otherwise spacious loveseat for twowhich they dragged towards the edge, propped their feet up the ledge as they looked at the city view in front of them, talking, laughing, teasing… just buddies hanging out. They stayed on that loveseat even as Shin Hye got a big slice of cheesecake for them to share, Hongki got the bottle of pink champagne Byung Hun Sunbaenim has instructed for them to pair with the cheesecake, and Yong Hwa got the guitar from the den. They hanged out till at past one Byung Hun’s driver called up Shin Hye and told her he’s been instructed to drive the three of them back to their places. Shin Hye asked for a thirty minute extension as they sang some more and wound down. The three were slouched on the loveseat-cum-daybed quietly staring at the lights in front of them. Shin Hye’s head was leaning on Yong Hwa’s shoulder as he leaned back on top of Shin Hye’s head, his arm draped on her shoulder and his hand on Hongki’s hair whose head was leaning on Shin Hye’s shoulder and neck as Shin Hye’s arm hung over Hongki shoulder to his chest like a hook, Hongki hugging and sharing the huge pillow with Shin Hye. They didn’t even jump and move when they heard the driver cough by the doorway. It was almost the exact same position they had as the driver drove them back to their places, odd maybe, but still… buddies.

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