By evening, Jeremy had exhausted himself over the composition.
His notebook was sitting on the stand, worn and frayed after making repeated changes to the song. He was tapping at random keys with his multi-coloured glitter pen, but his brown eyes were staring at the mobile phone lying on a cushion of the couch.
"She'll be okay," he murmured to himself. "So stop worrying, Jeremy."
As his thoughts wouldn't go in another direction, he chose to go for a walk.
And then changed his mind.
He thought that he should really take a break.
But he hadn't polished the song off yet.
His brain was fried. It needed a chance to recuperate.
"Baaaaah!" He ruffled up his hair with both hands. "I really, really need to see her!"
Suddenly, his phone blasted out a song by Block B, and Jeremy dove on the couch in relief. He was a bit disappointed when he saw Shin Woo's name flashing.
"Hyung, bring me over some food. I'm starving," said Jeremy, making the most of the call.
"Something happened between Mi Nyeo and Tae Kyung."
Jeremy's eyes widened. "Tell her I'm coming now."
"She's not here. Tae Kyung came back without her and shut himself in his room."
"That dummy. What's he done now?"
"I don't know. It's none of my business."
"Have you spoken to Mi Nyeo?"
"No. That is also none of my business."
Jeremy frowned. "I don't get it. Is this a joke, Hyung?"
"You're the only one who can make Mi Nyeo smile, and as you're not too bright, I'd thought I'd give you a very strong hint to go do it."
Jeremy clenched the phone as if it was Shin Woo's neck. "Then get off my phone so that I can call her."
"If either of them ask, you didn't hear this from me. It's none of-"
"Your business. So get off my phone!"
Jeremy hung up first and put on his coat before he dialled Mi Nyeo. He'd sensed that something was wrong, and now he wished he'd acted on his hunch. There was a reason thoughts of her had been nagging him all day long.
"Yobseo?" answered a deflated Mi Nyeo. He could hear traffic noise in the background.
"Mi Nyeo-yah. Where are you? I need to talk to you," he said.
"Oh? Okay. I'll be a little while though."
"I'll come to you."
"Ah...I'm not sure where I am. I got on a bus. I thought it was your bus but it didn't go back to my stop, so I'm taking another bus."
"Please wait for me Mi Nyeo. I want to catch my bus with you. I think I really need it. So...so what is the name of your bus stop?"
There was a long pause at her end before she answered.
The city was busy that night. People were combining work parties with family Christmas celebrations and shopping. Jeremy doubted that even his bus would be completely empty. He'd caught one of the buses going to Myeongdong and kept an eye out for the Intercity bus terminal that Mi Nyeo had wound up at.
It turned out that her stop was packed with people. Jeremy wished he'd done more than worn sunglasses and a hoodie, but it was too late for that. He stepped out and hopped up and down on the spot in order to find her.
It wasn't easy to spot her amongst so many, but he'd been trained to find her in a citywide blackout. Mi Nyeo had somehow ended up being crushed against one of the advertisements lining the bus shelter. Her defeated head was leaning back against the graffiti-proof plastic with a shining circle of light illuminating her loose auburn hair.
While he was trying to get to her, she scanned the loiterers with her eyes and found him too.
Her face came to life. "Jeremy!" she shouted.
"Go Mi Nam!" he shouted back, waving a hand at her.
A strange silence fell over the onlookers as the pair tried to reach each other. Whispers of 'Jeremy', 'Go Mi Nam' and 'ANJell' made them both stiffen and realise their mistake far too late. Mi Nyeo let her long hair fall over her face while Jeremy pulled the cords of his hoodie tight.
"I'm really glad that you're here," whispered Mi Nyeo when she reached him.
Jeremy lifted his glasses to greet her. "I wanted to see you badly. Now walk very, very slowly over to the nearest bus."
Mi Nyeo peeked around at the curious crowd. Everyone was looking at her like she was a strange bird in a zoo.
"Walk slowly," reminded Jeremy. "We don't want to confirm anyone's suspicions by running, and Hyung is going to kill me if we're in the papers tomorrow."
Casually, so as not to turn their hushed audience into predators, they crept over to the nearest bus with an open door. One camera phone flashed at their backs as they climbed up the steps, but nothing more happened. Jeremy put it down to Mi Nyeo's long hair throwing them off.
"I'm so glad that you're a girl," he said, doing a little 'escapee dance' as soon as the doors closed.
Mi Nyeo blushed and led the way to an empty seat. The bus wasn't packed, but a few people were clustered at the front. No one seemed to have noticed what had been going on at the platform.
"Sorry for saying your name out loud," she said, as Jeremy sat down next to her. He freed himself from his disguise and gave her a smile.
"Yah. I did it too," he said. "It doesn't matter because we got away thanks to you. This bus isn't a bad substitute for mine either. What do you think?"
Mi Nyeo let out a long sigh. "It's good. What about you, J-" She stopped herself before saying his name out loud. "Oppa. Are you having trouble writing your song?"
"Op-pa?" Jeremy's eyes grew to the size of nectarines.
"Yes. Even though we are the same age, 'Oppa' can be your code name in public. No one will think it's strange."
Jeremy let out a long shuddering sigh. "When Tae Kyung finds out, he'll be personally writing out my death certificate...in my blood."
"Ah." At the mention of Tae Kyung, Mi Nyeo looked sad. She turned to look out of the window so that he couldn't see her face.
Jeremy reached out to hug her, and stopped himself, slipped an arm over her shoulder, and withdrew it before she could feel it. He settled on touching her hand, and sighed. Why couldn't he just hold her?
"Are you all right, Mi Nyeo?"
"Right now, I'm not okay," she confessed. "I need this bus to help me make peace with myself. What about you?"
"To be honest," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I've written a song, but I really wanted to know what you thought of it before I polished it off. Here." He held out one earphone that connected to his phone. "I recorded the music from the keyboard."
They sat in silence as they listened to it together. Mi Nyeo gave him a smile after the middle eight. "It sounds like a lullaby."
He nodded. "I don't know why. It just turned out that way. But it completely changes once I add the worst lyrics ever. Want to hear?"
Her troubles temporarily forgotten, Mi Nyeo adjusted her position on the seat so that she was facing Jeremy. They grinned at each other, and Jeremy knew that seeing her like this was what he'd written the song for.
"I wanna make you smile whenever you're sad," he sang, tugging at the phone in her ear just to tease her. "Carry you around when your arthritis is bad. All I wanna do, is grow old with you."
Dimples appeared in the corners of Mi Nyeo's already laughing mouth.
"I'll get your medicine when your tummy aches. Build you a fire if the furnace breaks. Oh it could be so nice, growing old with you."
He nudged her shoulder with his, making her blush like the girl she was.
"I'll miss you. Kiss you. Give you my coat when you are cold. Need you. Feed you. Even let you hold the remote control."
"So let me do the dishes in our kitchen sink. Put you to bed when you've had too much to drink. Oh I could be the one, who grows old with you. I wanna grow old with you."
For a while she didn't say anything. Her hands went to her open lips as he took his time removing the phone from her ear. He kept the smile glued to his face while he stopped the music from playing.
"It needs some work, doesn't it?" he said, looking down at his phone. "But I don't think the band will hate it."
Mi Nyeo sniffed. "It's for me."
"Huh?" Jeremy gaped at her.
"It feels like it's been written for me. All your fans will feel the same way."
He sighed in relief and disappointment. "It's yours. If you want it."
"As a present. Y-you can share it with Tae Kyung...when you two aren't...or just play it when you're feeling down."
Mi Nyeo looked shell-shocked. "I can't accept that."
"Why not?" Jeremy felt sick. The smile had slipped off his face completely.
"Y-you shouldn't give your songs away so-so freely. I learned from my parents how precious a song can be."
He took in her beautiful face, the brown lashes, the traces of pink lipstick on her lips, and sucked in a lungful of air. "I'm not giving it to you freely. I'm giving it to you because it's yours, because I worried about you all day, because I really hate it when you don't smile."
He reached out to wipe off a tear that had been rolling down her cheek. "Take the song."
She shook her head. "I already have one from you that I treasure very much."
He flinched at the memory. Her past rejection of him still hurt whenever he thought of it. He had to wait for the sudden ache to pass before he could speak to her.
"I guess this is like déjà vu for you then," he said in a dull voice. "You must be sick of me doing this to you all the time."
"No. That's not-"
He pointed to a sign that flashed by the window. "Forget it. Look! Two more stops and we'll be able to walk home."
Mi Nyeo looked upset.
"Cheer up. When we get back, you'll be able to ask Shin Woo for his advice about Tae Kyung," he said, giving her hand an affectionate pat. "He's good at it...most of the time. Who knows? Things might be fixed for you by breakfast tomorrow. Ah, here's our stop."
He got to his feet, and let Mi Nyeo follow at her own pace as he climbed off the bus. He shivered in the cold night air, and hopped up and down as he waited for her to catch up. As part of the act, he slapped an arm around her neck and made her walk in zigzags down the pavement.
"Can't stop. Too cold. We'll get warmer this way."
"Jeremy, s-top!" Mi Nyeo slipped out of his grasp and stepped in front of him, bringing him to a sudden halt. She looked determined to torture him some more over the past, or maybe the song, or even his feelings.
"I want to talk," she said.
"And I don't."
"Jeremy, please let me talk."
To make his point, Jeremy stuffed his phones in his ears and arrowed down the list of songs on his mobile until he found a really loud one.
Mi Nyeo reached up, and he thought she was going to take the phones off him. There was a brief struggle before she reached up higher and wrapped her shaking hands around his neck, stopping him in his tracks. She looked into his eyes, and then against all prior understanding between them, she tilted her head and tickled his mouth with hers.
Jeremy had imagined kissing her a thousand times, but nothing could prepare him for the reality. Her lips were soft, quivering against him like butterfly wings. The kiss was innocent, but full of loving caresses. He closed his eyes against the rest of the world, and let her weave her spell on him for as long as she wanted.
When she finally pulled away, he opened his eyes to drink in her face. A dimple peeped out of the corner of his mouth when he realised that she was just as dazed as he was.
"When did this happen?" he said, berating himself for missing it. Once again, Jeremy was the last to know something.
She having trouble focusing. "It started out as a small feeling when I was away. And when I came back, it grew bigger and bigger until this morning, it finally grew too big for me to ignore."
"Why did you ignore it?" he chided her, holding onto her arms. "Do you know that since you've been back I have to keep telling myself to get a grip around you? That I'm just dreaming if I think your smiles are for me? That you're Hyung's girlfriend? Go Mi Nam, why would you ignore something so important like...ah."
He suddenly realised why she'd been keeping her feelings for him a secret. "Tae Kyung Hyung."
"Hyung-nim has a very soft heart," she said sadly. "Today, I told him that our feelings had changed and I said goodbye to him, but he found it hard to let me go. Even though he agreed that I was right, he was still hurting a lot."
Jeremy sighed. "I feel like a fool."
"I wanted to be honest, with him and you," she explained. "I wasn't going to tell you until I had finished my time in Africa, but every time I see you, I want you to know how special you are to me. I don't expect anything, I just wanted to tell you."
"I'm so glad that you didn't wait a whole year to tell me."
He took her head in his hands so that his thumbs grazed her cheeks, and made his feelings clear by returning her kiss to her. He gave it tenderly, with a hint of the craziness he'd been feeling lately. He didn't think that he could be any more in love with her, but she parted her mouth to embrace him, and he tasted just enough of her sweetness to make him fall deeper.
She'd made him so happy that once the kiss ended, he wanted to sing to the streets that she was his. Instead, he settled for a smile on his face and led her home by the hand, whispering silly things in her ear to make her laugh. Mi Nyeo hadn't said it, but he was sure that she was very worried about Tae Kyung.
"Mi Nyeo," he said, stopping her as they climbed up the driveway of the ANJell dorms. "I don't want to hurt Hyung any more than you do."
She gave him a solemn nod, and pulled her hand out of his. "You are right, Jeremy. We will be careful so that he has a good Christmas."
"You have such a good heart," he said, kissing her forehead. "It's one of the reasons why I love you."
Her eyes grew big under the glow of the street lamp.
"What?" he said, unembarrassed. "Is it really that much of a surprise that I love you? Maybe I didn't kiss you right?"
Her smile came back. "No. I've just never had one of those kisses before."
Jeremy pouted as they climbed the paved steps to the door. "The next time I have you alone, I will do much better, and not a single part of you will doubt my feelings."
She blushed at the thought as they pushed their way inside, where Tae Kyung was waiting for them.
Hwang Tae Kyung was standing in the kitchen in his pyjamas and slippers. He acknowledged the pair with his dark eyes before taking a sip of his latest bottle of water.
"Where did you disappear to?" he asked Mi Nyeo. "Shin Woo and Mi Nam have been accusing me of driving you away."
"It's my fault," volunteered Jeremy. "I wanted her to catch the bus with me."
"I see." Tae Kyung rested his arms on the bench. "Having trouble writing the song? I thought you'd be pulling an all nighter. We're all expecting a masterpiece by breakfast, you know."
"I won't survive until breakfast without something to eat," said Jeremy, going over to the fridge. "Tell me there are leftovers."
Tae Kyung said nothing. He continued to study Mi Nyeo as she walked over to the kitchen bench and sat down opposite him.
"You've never gone to bed this early, Hyung-nim," she said. "I'm glad you decided to get some rest."
"This day has worn me out," he replied. "But I wanted to wait for you to tell you something important, Pig Rabbit."
Jeremy made a point of being very loud with the spoon while heating up some soup. Tae Kyung gave him an annoyed look and led Mi Nyeo by the wrist to the lounge room.
"I want you to reconsider your decision today," Tae Kyung continued. "You're not thinking clearly. I'll accept any decision you make after you finish your time in Africa."
Mi Nyeo paled. "But Hyung-nim, I am thinking clearly. You agreed that our feelings have changed."
"No I didn't!" he argued. "I don't agree. I was just too shocked earlier to say anything. You coming back now was just really bad timing. I have to work, Mi Nyeo, just like you do."
There was a long pause. "Hyung-nim. Our talks on the phone grew cold. I could feel it. What happened when I came back just helped me to accept it. There is nothing to hold on to now. Let go so that it hurts you less."
"You're being stubborn over a bad decision."
"Are you coming to midnight mass tomorrow?"
"Manager Ma, Coordi Unnie, Oppa, Shin Woo Hyung and Jeremy are coming to midnight mass to celebrate Christmas Eve. There will be candles and carol singing, and the church will look nice with all its decorations. Will you come?"
Tae Kyung frowned. "Is this a test? You know I don't do that sort of thing, and what are you going to do about publicity?"
"It's only a small church, Hyung-nim. I checked with President Ahn and he was okay with us going as long as we hide ourselves. I don't know what you mean by a test."
"Will you reconsider us if I agree to come?"
Once again, there was a long pause. They heard Jeremy drop his spoon in the kitchen, but Tae Kyung chose to ignore it.
"I'm only asking you to think it over. That's not ridiculous, is it?"
"My feelings have changed."
"How is it wrong to ask you to think for a little longer?" he bit out.
Mi Nyeo looked miserable. "I told Jeremy that he could sleep in his own room for the night, and I need to get my pyjamas before he goes up. Sleep well, Hyung-nim. I hope that you'll come to the mass tomorrow night for a different reason."
She scuffled out of the living room without looking back at him. It was obvious that she still cared about him, just not in the same way. He knew that they'd become distant, but he was certain that it was something that could be remedied if only she wasn't going back and forth from Africa, and he wasn't in the middle of a new album. He was sure that it could be fixed if the timing was better.
Uplifted by a small measure of hope, Tae Kyung wandered back out into the kitchen and upstairs to bed. He failed to notice Jeremy's dejected expression on the way up.
Jeremy woke up on the rug in the lounge room. Mi Nyeo was curled up on the couch next to him, unaware that he'd been there most of the night. He'd wound up there after polishing off his song at the studio. The scraps of conversation he'd heard between Tae Kyung and Mi Nyeo had unsettled him enough to make him want to see her until he couldn't keep his eyes open.
Get a hold of yourself. Her feelings won't change just because Tae Kyung asks her to rethink her decision.
With a sigh, he got up and climbed over the coffee table on his way to the kitchen. Jolie was already waiting for him at the door. He could see her tail wagging through the stained glass. The temperature had stayed above zero overnight, which meant that Jolie didn't have to huddle in her kennel to keep warm.
"Jolie," he greeted. The bowl of food was placed under her nose as always. She gave him a wet snuffle on the neck before digging in. Satisfied with his greeting, Jeremy went to feed himself.
"Well?" Tae Kyung said. "Where is it?"
"Ta da!" Jeremy lifted a tartan tea towel covering the cd and music underneath.
Tae Kyung picked them up and gave Jeremy an expectant look, as if he expected some sort of nervous speech about the song. However, Jeremy kept silent. He was sobered by a poor night's sleep, amongst other things.
"I'll go over both in the music room," said Tae Kyung. "And I'll be back to tell you what I think. Don't disturb me."
Jeremy gave his Hyung a nervous smile, and went on to make a lazy breakfast of cereal, and toast with jam. The smell of toast was too much for the others, and they soon appeared, one by one in their pyjamas, to char bread of their own.
Shin Woo offered Jeremy some tea, and for once he accepted (after adding some sugar to it). It made him feel better, and he was able to laugh when Mi Nam burnt his second round of toast along with his thumb.
"Damn stupid toaster!" complained Mi Nam, running his finger under some cold water. "Why doesn't it cook evenly?"
Shin Woo turned to Jeremy. "When am I helping out with decorations? I'm scheduled to be on KBS radio just after noon."
"So we'll get started early," said Jeremy. "You're helping with my party too Mi Nam. Don't think you're getting out of it."
"Wouldn't dream of it. It's my excuse for avoiding the family celebrations and fights at the Yoo household."
Mi Nyeo gave her twin a surprised look. "You shouldn't be so unkind about Yoo He Yi's family. It's nice of them to invite you over for Christmas."
"Sure," said Mi Nam. "If you like spending it with Lucifer and his spawn. I swear, I sometimes think that He Yi was adopted. She's too nice to come from a family like that."
Jeremy, Shin Woo and Mi Nyeo exchanged knowing looks from behind the brims of their cups of tea.
With a dramatic 'bang', Tae Kyung announced his exit from the music room to the whole house. The group watched him as he strolled into the kitchen, and he didn't seem pleased. He stood behind Jeremy, and folded his arms across his chest.
"Technically speaking. There's nothing wrong with it," said Tae Kyung. "It's easy to listen to, it's melodic, and the lyrics will appeal to a broad demographic. It doesn't fit in with the album's overall theme, but that's not a big issue."
"Does that mean he likes it?" Mi Nam said to no one in particular.
"It's nothing special," continued Tae Kyung. "But I saw in the notes that you're dedicating it to Mi Nyeo."
The group grew quiet. Jeremy pulled his teaspoon out of his mouth. Even though he didn't want to hurt his Hyung, he wasn't backing down on anything related to Mi Nyeo. "I gave it to her as a present, even though she hasn't accepted it yet."
Mi Nyeo blushed and kept her eyes firmly on her teacup.
"Out of the question," said Tae Kyung. "Even if I was okay with it, the public would wonder why you're dedicating the song to her when according to them she's supposed to be dating either Shin Woo or myself."
"Don't worry Hyung. I'll just have to have a good answer ready when they ask why I'm signing the rights over to her."
Tae Kyung's eyes widened. "The rights? You're not just dedicating it to her?"
Mi Nam moaned. "There goes part of my income. Manager Ma will be angry at me. I hope you're happy, twin. If this song does well then you won't have to worry about earning money for a while."
"But I didn't know I was getting money. I thought Jeremy was giving me a song," she protested.
"Yah! Mi Nam! Mi Nyeo worked hard to keep your career alive while you were off getting your ugly face to look uglier. Have you ever repaid her for that?" snapped Jeremy.
"Why are you yelling at me like you're her boyfriend or something? And why are you giving her a song and money like some lovesick daddy-long-legs?" Mi Nam snapped back. "Mi Nyeo, I forbid you to date him. He'd be a worse in-law than Tae Kyung."
Again, the group went quiet. Tae Kyung turned as pale as death. Jeremy failed to say anything. Mi Nam wasn't being serious with his words but he was so close to the truth that the atmosphere became tense.
"I'm going to take a long look at this song," said Shin Woo, getting to his feet. "The curiosity is now getting the better of me."
On his way into the kitchen, he tipped his cup and spilled the luke-warm dregs of his tea on Mi Nam.
The junior looked down at his wet shirt in horror. "Argh! What the?"
"It's just water. Nothing to get excited about," said Shin Woo. "Come and look at Jeremy's song with me."
"It's sunny in the music room. You'll dry off faster."
Before Mi Nam could reply, Shin Woo pushed him out of the kitchen against his will.
Tae Kyung looked like he was concentrating very hard on a patch of the wall, and neither Jeremy nor Mi Nyeo wanted to be the one to interrupt.
"I seem to have missed something very important," he said in a severe tone. "You both have been taking me for a fool."
"That's unfair. Do you really think that Mi Nyeo would do something like that?" said Jeremy.
"Hyung-nim. Jeremy doesn't think you're a fool at all. He-"
Tae Kyung signalled for silence by raising the palm of his hand.
"It all makes sense now. I don't think anything more needs to be said. Do you?" He walked over to the stairs leading up to his room.
"Hyung-nim!" she cried, jumping to her feet. Tae Kyung ignored her. She was about to chase after him, when she remembered Jeremy.
"I have to go after him," she explained. "I will tell him how it was so that he understands it had nothing to do with you."
Jeremy frowned. "I think he'll only want to hurt you."
"He will," she admitted. "But I have to talk to him anyway."
"Do you want me to come with you?"
She thought about it. "No. It's okay. I think it's better if I do this myself."
Jeremy slumped. "Okay."
His eyes followed Mi Nyeo as she hurried up the stairs after Tae Kyung. As he laid his head on the bench, he wondered if letting her go to Tae Kyung was the dumbest thing he'd ever done. What if she came to her senses and realised that she didn't like Jeremy after all?
"I'm doomed," he mumbled to himself. "If she doesn't have real feelings for me, I don't think a bus ride will be enough to numb the pain. I'll have to get hit by one instead."
Mi Nyeo came back in a depressed mood after trying to talk to Tae Kyung. When Jeremy asked her if she was all right, she just shook her head as if nothing had happened. She was subdued while helping the others put up the decorations for the Christmas party, and she didn't eat much when Mi Nam pulled out snacks.
It was Jolie that got the first laugh out of her with her antics. The golden retriever had sensed the excitement in the air straight away, and she wanted to join in too.
Jolie couldn't decide which of the humans to hang out with first. Shin Woo was carrying around boxes of bright shiny things that he put around the walls. Mi Nam was also hanging up strands of glass that seemed to light up when he pressed something on the wall. Mi Nyeo was blowing up a life-size reindeer to go with Jeremy's life-size Santa.
Jolie grew more and more interested in the reindeer as Mi Nyeo made it grow bigger and bigger. Being a naughty dog, Jolie decided to play tug-of-war with Mi Nyeo to see if the little human would let her have the reindeer. She sank her canines into the reindeer's leg and began to pull.
"Ah!" Mi Nyeo grabbed another leg just as Jolie predicted. The two wrestled for the toy, and Jolie thought it was great fun because the little human was not very strong.
"Jolie, noooooo!" cried Jeremy. "Why do you always do this to my party decorations?"
"Mong!" replied Jolie, letting go of the reindeer and sending Mi Nyeo tumbling backwards. All three of the band members ran to catch her at the same time, and they all wound up falling on each other like dominoes. Mi Nyeo fell on Shin Woo, Shin Woo collided with Jeremy, and Jeremy fell on Mi Nam, who ended up taking the brunt of the fall.
"Argh!" groaned Mi Nam. "I think I landed on a decoration or something. Get off me!"
"Are you talking to me?" asked Jeremy.
"I'm talking to everyone. Everyone, get off me right this instant!"
As everyone climbed to their feet, Mi Nyeo spotted Jolie observing them from a safe distance.
"Why Jolie?" Mi Nyeo said with a laugh. "Maybe Hyung-nim is right about you being troublesome."
"Be more understanding, Mi Nyeo," said Shin Woo with a smile. "Jolie is like me, she gets bored and needs something interesting to happen every now and then."
"You have become good friends with Jolie over the past year, haven't you?"
"I'd ask her to be my girl, but according to Jeremy she already has a boyfriend," he teased. "Just between us, I think Jolie likes me better."
"Hello? Can someone help me up here? I think I might be paralysed," whimpered Mi Nam.
Shin Woo and Jeremy sniggered, but the three of them got Mi Nam to his feet and dusted him off. Apart from a couple of bruises, he was unharmed.
"What am I going to do about a reindeer?" Jeremy grumbled.
"Mi Nyeo always played Rudolph in the Christmas plays at the convent," suggested Mi Nam.
"Hmm." Jeremy inspected her pretty face and grinned. "Okay." He walked over to the box of decorations Shin Woo had been putting out, and found an old pair of reindeer antlers. He stretched out the band so that it wouldn't dig in her head and popped them on her.
"Cuuuute," he murmured, wanting to give her a big hug. "What did you do for a nose?"
Mi Nyeo thought about it. "I used to wear a clown nose, but it smelled funny and my nose went numb by the end of the show."
"I have a better idea," he said, grabbing her wrist. They went back inside to the kitchen where it was warm. He found the jam they'd been using on their toast that morning and then pulled a spoon out of the drawers.
"Hold still," he warned, putting a small dollop of strawberry conserve on the tip of her nose.
Mi Nyeo's face crinkled up in a smile. "It smells so good. Can I-"
"Ah!" Jeremy caught her hand before she wiped the jam off. "If you want to be a reindeer then you can't lick it off."
"Just a small taste."
Mi Nyeo giggled as she tried to reach the sugar on her nose.
"You are worse than Jolie!" He forced her wrists down and pinned them to her sides. "There! What are you going to do now?"
"I will get the spoon instead." She tried to lift up the hand holding it, and the two went back to arm wrestling each other. Jeremy tickled her sides and she jumped forward with a little shriek – straight into his chest.
Jeremy winced and laughed, knowing that his favourite jumper was now covered in jam. Mi Nyeo pulled away and gave him a horrified look.
"I'm sorry!" She wiped the sugar off with her fingers. "I'm so sorry. I will clean it for you."
"Worry about your nose. Your nose is gone. I have no reindeer."
"He would never forgive me if I did this to him."
Jeremy's face fell at the subtle mention of Tae Kyung. He gently pulled her sticky fingers from his chest and clasped them together. "Mi Nyeo, it's okay."
She looked uncertain. "It is?"
His eyes scrunched up as he smiled. "Mm." He nodded.
The conflicted look was still on her face. "Jeremy, I-"
"Hey! Stop slacking off you two! I'm not doing the rest of these decorations by myself!" Mi Nam shouted from the porch like an old man.
"Ah. Coming!" Mi Nyeo shouted. She grabbed Jeremy by the sleeve and led him back outside. Shin Woo was about to make a comment about the jam on them, but Jeremy's glum face made him decide against it.
"It's better if I let them work it out for themselves," he told himself.
Beside him, Jolie made a grumbling noise.
Coordinator Wang arrived with her secret lover, Manager Ma, not long before midnight. The group had decided to take the same car to church, and the two elders had brought enough disguises to camouflage an entire fan club.
"Blond hair!" Mi Nam ripped out a wig and took it over to the microwave to see how it looked. "I bet I'd look better in blond hair than Jeremy!"
"Nobody does blond better than me," said Jeremy. "Here, you'll look better in the ghost costume."
"But it's just a sheet with two eye holes." His brows drew together. "You suck."
"Don't worry," said Shin Woo. "We'll find something to help hide the double lids as well."
Coordinator Wang covered a smile with her bejewelled hand.
Mi Nam grimaced. "You all suck...except Tae Kyung, because he's not here."
"That's right. Where is Tae Kyung?" asked Manager Ma. "Is he coming with us tonight or not?"
Jeremy and Shin Woo gave awkward shrugs.
"Mi Nyeo. Is your boyfriend coming?" asked Coordinator Wang.
The older woman's bangles clinked in the unexpected silence that followed her question. Mi Nyeo dropped her unhappy gaze to the floor.
"He's working hard on the new album," said Shin Woo. "I'll text him the address so that he can meet us there."
The older couple nodded, and nothing more was said on the subject. They questioned Jeremy about the strange white tree with green decorations, teased Mi Nam about avoiding Yoo He Yi's family, complained about the cold weather when they drove to mass, and loudly praised the church's Christmas decorations including the nativity scene near the front entrance.
"We'd better get some seats at the back to be careful," suggested Manager Ma. "Come on Mi Nyeo."
She shook her head. "I'd like to stay here and wait for Hyung-nim."
Jeremy didn't like it. "But you'll freeze out here. Mi Nyeo please come inside. We can save him a seat."
Again, she shook her head. "He won't want to come in by himself."
"Okay. We'll see you inside then," said Mi Nam.
Without asking or being asked, Jeremy followed Mi Nyeo down the steps to wait for Tae Kyung. When she stopped, he stood beside her and admired the warmth of the nativity set. The faces were painted porcelain, and the clothes were real – probably made by a dedicated church-group. Fur trees, Christmas lights and pine cones formed the background of the display, giving the miniature barn a cosy look.
"You don't have to wait out here, Jeremy. It's cold out here."
"I don't mind. Besides, you're right about Tae Kyung. He might need a nudge to get him through the doors."
They waited in silence for a long time. Jeremy could hear people getting to their feet inside the church. The mass had begun. The first song was being sung.
Mi Nyeo wiped her face, and he saw that she was crying again. It made him feel ill.
"Don't cry." He put an arm around her.
"I'm sorry. I can't help it."
"Want me to call him?"
"Please stop crying." He tucked her long hair behind one ear. "You've been sad too much since you've been back. Please be happy. There are so many things to be happy about."
"I'm sorry." Her apology was muffled when she suddenly hugged him, burying her face in his coat.
He felt something tickle his cheek, and quickly brushed it away before she could see it. "I don't care what makes you happy, okay? You just...you just tell me what would make you smile so that I can make it happen."
She leaned back and lifted his fingers to her lips. Her wet lashes hung low over her eyes. "Let's go inside."
Without letting go of his hand, she took him through a side door in order not to disturb the mass. They found the back-row seats that the others had saved for them and they sat down together. It was a shock for some of the group to see her discreetly holding hands with Jeremy, but Mi Nyeo failed to notice their reaction. She leaned her head on his shoulder and listened to the sermon about family.
It was a sweet and sour moment for Jeremy. Having Mi Nyeo wanting to be close to him was so amazing that he couldn't concentrate on what the man in the robes was saying. He could smell strawberry jam on her, and he wondered if she'd forgotten to clean her nose. However, she was still so sad that he could be nothing but sad too.
He was going to kill Tae Kyung – stick him with his foil so many times that the skinny elder looked like a slice of Swiss cheese.
Towards the end of the mass, someone's phone played a popular ANJell ringtone. People looked around to see who had been stupid enough to leave their phone on.
"Hyung-nim," Mi Nyeo whispered. "He's here."
Tae Kyung was standing in the shadows at the back of the church. He switched off his phone and gave the curious onlookers an embarrassed grimace, which was his idea of an apologetic expression. Mi Nyeo lifted her head from Jeremy's shoulder and beamed at her Hyung-nim. Tae Kyung gave her a stiff nod in return.
Jeremy was quiet on the drive back to the dorms. While the others celebrated the first hours of Christmas in the lounge, he went to hide in the kitchen. He pulled out the white Christmas cake and stabbed it with some sparklers. When he was able to paste a smile on his face, he carried it into the living room and placed it on the coffee table for lighting.
"Where's Mi Nyeo?" he asked.
"She went upstairs with Tae Kyung," replied Mi Nam. "Which reminds me, what was going on tonight? Why were you holding Mi Nyeo's hand? Are you and Tae Kyung fighting over my sister or something?"
Shin Woo lit a match near Mi Nam's face, making him flinch. "Since our guests still have to drive home, I suggest we light this now."
"That's a lot of sparklers, Jeremy," commented Coordinator Wang. Shin Woo lit them all, and the group clapped and cheered until the coloured flames burned out.
Generous pieces of the treat were passed around. Manager Ma ignored his partner's pleas for a small piece and fed her a large mouthful of cake. Mi Nam had to pat her on the back when she choked on the crumbs. The burnt metallic smell still hung in the air while they had second helpings and even thirds.
Under the pretence of washing his sugary fingers, Jeremy snuck out and went upstairs not to check on Mi Nyeo and Tae Kyung. He stared for a long time at Tae Kyung's closed door, imagined what they were doing, and then wished he hadn't. Feeling like he was falling down a black hole, he ignored his unusually clean bedroom and the girl's pyjamas folded on the chair opposite the bed to get to his ensuite.
The star necklace glittered under the small lights that dotted the ceiling of Tae Kyung's room.
"You took good care of it," he remarked, holding the chain up to eye level. "Or is that you didn't even wear it?"
Mi Nyeo shifted her balance on her feet. She was standing to one side of his desk, making sure to keep her hands clasped behind her back so that she didn't break anything.
"It was too precious to wear," she said.
Not wanting to sit down, Tae Kyung chose instead to hover over his office chair. "Should I interpret that to mean that you were too uncomfortable to wear it, and now you're too uncomfortable to keep it?"
Mi Nyeo tilted her head to one side in thought. "Yes...It is too uncomfortable for me to wear...I think that it is meant for someone else."
"And why would I want to give this to someone else when it was meant for you?"
"I have realised that it is too difficult for me to call you Oppa or Oppa-nim because you have always been my Hyung-nim. I think I would really like to be your Dongsaeng, if you'll let me."
Tae Kyung frowned. "What does this have to do with the necklace? You can still keep it."
"It will be our family heirloom. One that you can give to someone important."
"You're important to me," he said in a low voice. "Tonight I went to worship a God I don't even believe in when I could have been sitting in a comfortable warm studio playing music and making music history."
"I hope that you will come to Christmas mass every year so that we can have a family tradition as well as a family heirloom. Aren't I a good dongsaeng?"
"I've heard that siblings are supposed to be irritating, so I guess you are doing a good job," he relented.
"Does that mean that you accept me as family?"
"Very well. You will be my family from now on. You will love me as much as you love Mi Nam, if not more. Your first duty as dongsaeng will be to go down and bring me back some cake. We will eat it up here to celebrate the end of one relationship and the beginning of a new one."
"You have been very understanding, but I can't have cake alone with you."
"Why? Are you saying that good siblings don't have cake with each other?"
"They do," she agreed. "It is Christmas, and we should be spending all of our time with loved ones, but there is someone I want to share cake with more. I want to be wherever he is."
"Ah." Tae Kyung finally sat down. "So even though I am family, I take second place to him?"
Mi Nyeo was quiet for a while before she spoke. "Will you come and have cake downstairs?" she asked. "If he is there, then I can eat cake with you both."
"What if he's somewhere else?"
"Then I hope you will come down anyway. As your sister, I am telling you that you have an extended family to eat cake with. You will never be alone around them."
"I don't like being second."
Mi Nyeo nodded. "I know how you feel."
Jeremy was sitting on the edge of his bed, still in his jeans and shirt that he'd worn to church, when he heard Mi Nyeo's soft knock on his door.
With a blank look around his clean room, he got to his feet and let Mi Nyeo in. He'd been waiting for her for what felt like ages, and though he didn't want to hear what she had to say, he didn't want to put it off either. He had plans for some serious moping under the bed covers with cake and rum.
A smile appeared on her face when he let her in. She stepped through the small gap and shifted up and down on the balls of her feet as he closed the door. She looked nervous and excited. Her cheeks were flushed with it.
"I wanted to bring you some cake," she said. She lifted her hands and presented him with several slices in a napkin. "I wasn't sure if you had already had some."
"Ah. Thanks." Jeremy took the food just for something to do. He loosened a corner of one of the slices, but failed to lift it to his mouth.
"Why are you in here?" she asked. "Why aren't you downstairs with the others?"
He shuffled away from her and put the cake on a side table. "Mi Nyeo, would it be okay if I had the room tonight?"
She looked puzzled. "I don't mind. Are you feeling unwell?"
"Yes. I think I'm unwell," he said, avoiding her gaze. "How is Tae Kyung?"
She closed the distance between them in seconds, and touched his forehead with her small hand. "Hyung-nim is well. He's coming down to have some cake, I think, which is where I thought you were. Jeremy, are you really unwell? You have such a long face."
"It doesn't matter," he said, removing her hand. He tried to smile but failed. "Just tell me that you're happy."
Mi Nyeo shook her head. Her mouth was set in a stubborn line. "How can I be happy when you're like this? What's wrong? Tell me what has happened? You always eat cake."
"Just give me some time and I'll be back to normal. Just give me some time."
Her eyes widened in fear. She held one of his hands so that he couldn't walk away from her. Her grip was so tight that it hurt him. He looked down at her miserable face, and relented. There was no point in hiding anything from her if it just made her like this.
"I..." He looked guilty. "I heard Tae Kyung talking to you about a second chance. You were so sad tonight when he didn't come, and so glad when he did. I'm not smart like my Hyungs, but I know enough to understand that things with you and Tae Kyung are all fixed."
"Yes. We are on our way to being fixed," she said with a faint smile.
He blinked. "Oh." He sank to his knees. "Oh."
"Jeremy!" She tried to catch him by slipping her arms under his shoulders, but she was so small that she sank to the floor with him. "Are you all right? Should I get help?"
"No. It's okay Mi Nyeo," he said, staring at his bent knees and wondering how to explain it away. "S-so you and Tae Kyung are dating again? So that's just so...so..." So terrible that lying under a moving bus sounds pretty good right about now.
She leaned back to search his face. Her eyes seemed to dilate in ever-growing horror the longer he sat there.
"What? Do I have something in my teeth? Am I covered in cake? Am I bleeding?" he asked, touching his face. He wanted to scramble over to the bathroom to clean up, but he didn't trust his knees at that moment.
To his surprise, her teacup eyes began to glitter. Two fat tears rolled down her cheeks before she hugged him.
"Hyung-nim and I aren't dating," she said into his shoulder.
When he didn't say anything, she said it to his face: "Hyung-nim and I aren't dating again. I think you've misunderstood."
Jeremy felt confused. "Oh."
"I was worried about Hyung-nim because I thought he'd turn back into the old Hwang Tae Kyung-ssi. He was so lonely when I first met him. I didn't want to see him turn into that again. That was why I was sad when he didn't come tonight, and happy when he did. Hyung-nim and I have decided to be family to each other. We don't have much family, so it will be a good thing, and I think he wants to try it."
More tears fell down her face. "Jeremy. Over the past year I have weighed my feelings carefully. I didn't kiss you thoughtlessly that night. I kissed you because I know my feelings, and they are so..." She gulped back more tears. "So strong. I know for sure that it is you I want to be with. It is you I want to laugh with and cry with and worry about Hyung-nim and the others with. I love you with all my heart. So please stop crying."
He blinked. "I'm crying?"
Mi Nyeo wiped his cheeks with gentle strokes of her thumbs, and showed him her hands before drying them on her oversized jumper and leggings.
"Ah." Jeremy wiped his face with his sleeve. "S-sorry. I wanted it to be okay. After all, you were smiling again, but I thought I'd lost you."
She sniffled, nodded and firmly kissed him on the mouth. Her lips were damp from tears.
"Better?" she asked, stroking pieces of his blonde hair behind his ears until he nodded.
He circled her small waist with his arms and held her tight against him so that she couldn't budge an inch.
"Just let me keep you until my knees recover, and then I'll go downstairs with you," he said, stroking her back.
Mi Nyeo rested her head on his shoulder. After a long silence, she spoke up. "Jeremy. Would you be angry with me if I asked to stay with you in here tonight?"
His first answer came out in the form of an asthmatic-sounding wheeze.
Still in his arms, Mi Nyeo waited in silence. In time he managed to utter a better answer to her: "You are trying to get me in trouble with Tae Kyung or Mi Nam, aren't you? You want me to get on their bad side."
She hugged him tighter. "I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't trust you to take care of me. I just want to be with you like this."
He turned his head to breathe her warmth in. He badly wanted to be with her too.
"Did you bring enough cake for us to stay here all night?" he asked, looking over at her offering on the side table.
"I think so. Did you get your appetite back? That's good. Wait here. I will go down and get more for you."
She stood up and had taken her first steps away from him when he sprang on her, flinging his arms around her waist.
"Don't go Mi Nyeo." He turned her around to look at him. She blushed when he lifted his hands to cradle her cheeks. "There is something that I need to do. I've wanted to do it since I first met you."
She waited in anticipation.
He leaned closer. "You are so..."
Her eyes bulged as he pinched her cheeks hard. Her jerked her face from side to side at will.
"Aya! Jeremy that hurts!"
He let go of her face and chuckled. "I'm sorry. I couldn't help it. I'm just so touched that you wanted to get me cake. No, stop! Don't tickle me. That's not fair. Noooo!"
Jeremy wasn't the type to remain sad if he had no reason to be, so it was no surprise to him that most of his heartache had healed up overnight. He smiled before he even remembered what he was smiling about, and when he opened his eyes, the sight of Mi Nyeo in his bed had him more excited than he remembered being on his first rollercoaster ride.
He rolled onto his side so that he could take a closer look at her, taking care not to wake her up by moving his arm, which had gone numb from pillowing her head for most of the night. She was leaning towards him with a mellow expression on her face. Her body was curled up in a tiny ball, reminding him of a kitten.
For a while he watched the rise and fall of her chest as she slept, and then his attention went almost naturally to her mouth. It was shaped like a carefully tied pink bow; smooth and perfect. It twitched when she whispered soundless things in her dreams. Her lips parted sometimes as if she wanted him to kiss her, which he did, very badly, to the point of need.
"If it was just a 'good morning' kiss," he whispered to her closed eyes and her button nose. "Would you mind if I gave you one without you knowing? I really really need one right now."
He touched her chin with his fingers and feathered her lips with his mouth, closing his eyes in pleasure. Kissing her was so easy and so satisfying. He didn't stop until her body stirred just enough to alarm him, and he pulled back, half-hoping that she'd wake up so that he could kiss her properly. Mi Nyeo rolled onto her back and then stilled. Her jumper bunched up around her waist, exposing her hips.
He looked around for the covers to keep her warm, and saw that they'd kicked it on the floor sometime during the night. He blamed it on the cake they'd eaten. They'd been hyper until their sugar crash in the early hours of the morning. He remembered falling asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
"No more cake," she mumbled as if she'd read his mind.
The dimple in the corner of Jeremy's mouth appeared. He leaned closer to look at Mi Nyeo's doll face. "Mi Nyeo. Are you awake?"
Her eyelashes fluttered. "No cake."
"It's all right," he whispered. His lips curled into a lopsided smile. "No one's going to make you eat any more cake."
She inhaled gallons of air in response. She lifted her arms above her head, arched her back and stretched out from head to toe. Her lashes lifted, and her brown eyes appeared. She gazed at his arm supporting her head, his face, and broke into a smile that was so infectious that his cheeks hurt from mirroring it.
"Jeremy," she said happily.
He leaned into her. "Did you sleep well?"
With a blush, she leaned closer to him. "No. I was so happy all night that I didn't want to close my eyes. I feel like that time when we were dancing, and my heart was about to burst. I don't think it's healthy to be this happy."
"Then why don't you go back to sleep? I'll go down and feed Jolie so that you can have some peace."
Mi Nyeo shook her head, denying him permission. She crossed the two inches between them and gave him a shy peck on the lips. Jeremy's eyebrows went up in surprise.
"Y-yah. That was too fast. D-do it again so that I know you mean it?"
She pecked him again, more boldly this time, and she chortled at the grin that dawned on his face.
"Jolie won't mind if I lie in for a bit," he reasoned, briskly pulling her against him so that he was touching every part of her.
"Jolie will understand." Mi Nyeo wrapped an arm around him and closed her eyes.
"Mong!" Jolie jumped on the bed and walked in circles over the sleeping couple until they groaned.
"Jolie!" Jeremy greeted the retriever with a hug and then sat up, trying to adjust to the late morning light. "Who let you in?"
"Jolie is the only one in this house who isn't shy about waking you two up," said Shin Woo. He was hiding behind the ajar door in an unnecessary attempt to give them privacy. "Come downstairs. Mi Nam wants to open his presents."
"Wait!" Mi Nyeo scrambled out of the bed. She straightened her hair before running over to talk to Shin Woo. He gave her crinkled clothes an amused look and then smothered it quickly before she realised that he was laughing at her.
"Shin Woo Hyung, how is, ah, everyone feeling?" she asked.
Shin Woo pretended to think hard. "Feeling? Hmmm. Good question." He bent down to peer at her face, and she leaned away from him. "Well, for starters, you look very happy. My guess is that Jeremy is too."
She stared at the floor in embarrassment.
"Mi Nam is fine, but that's just because he hasn't worked out that you're really dating Jeremy. Tae Kyung is..."
She sighed in relief, and beamed at him. "That's good. Thank you for telling me."
Shin Woo lowered his voice to a whisper. "This is none of my business, but you two might want to look less like you're in love when you go downstairs. Tae Kyung knows you were both in here all night."
"...Ah. I will try."
Jolie bounded into the lounge ahead of Mi Nyeo and Jeremy. She did a circuit of the room around everyone and nearly knocked the tree over with her tail by the time the other two caught up.
"Meerrry Christmaaaas everyone!" Jeremy bounced around the coffee table with a smile so big that Mi Nam was revolted by it. "Isn't it a great day? Mi Nyeo, which one of these presents are from you. I want to open yours first."
Shin Woo face palmed in despair. Tae Kyung looked like he'd just eaten a particularly sour lime.
"You should feed Jolie first," said Mi Nam. "None of us have bothered yet."
"So that's why she's so excited," said Jeremy. He clicked his fingers. "Come on Jolie! Breakfast!"
The coffee table got knocked into Tae Kyung's shins while Jolie made her quick exit. He bared his teeth at Jeremy's turned back, but quickly composed himself when Mi Nyeo looked his way.
"Are you all right, Hyung-nim?" she asked.
"Never better," he replied. "I've heard it said that what doesn't kill you is supposed to make you stronger...apparently."
Shin Woo kneeled under the white tree with green decorations and held a present out for Mi Nyeo to take. "Please open my present first."
Her eyes brightened. "Shin Woo Hyung. Thank you. I have presents for you all too. Here. Merry Christmas Oppa...and this one is for Shin Woo Hyung...this one is for Jeremy...and these are all for Hyung-nim."
"Hey. Why does Tae Kyung Hyung get more presents than everyone else?"
"Ah. Because he's the new member of our family?"
"What!" Mi Nam exploded, knocking a couple of cushions off the couch. "He's what?"
"He's going to be our Hyung-nim for real."
"Don't you mean that he's going to be my brother-in-law?"
"No." Mi Nyeo shook her head. "Oppa, we're sort of...adopting him."
Tae Kyung focused harder on unwrapping his presents.
"So he's not going to be my brother-in-law?" asked Mi Nam.
"No." Mi Nyeo shook her head.
"But he's going to be like a brother to us?"
"But that's exactly what he is now...unless..."
Mi Nyeo said nothing.
"Confess twin! If Tae Kyung isn't going to be my brother-in-law, then who is?"
"Juice anyone?" Jeremy walked in with a pitcher of his breakfast mix and a few glasses. He sat down on the floor next to Mi Nyeo and started pouring. When he finished filling the cups, he noticed that all eyes were trained on him.
Mi Nam looked horrified. "Him? Seriously?"
"Jeremy!" Mi Nyeo placed a present in front of him. "Open this one first."
He ripped the wrapping off so that it flew around the air like confetti. Warm colours of orange, yellow, red and brown met his eyes. He stretched the item out on the coffee table and the entire band scrunched up their noses as they tried to make out what it was.
"Giraffes and rhinos," said Mi Nam.
"In knitted form," observed Shin Woo.
"My eyes are hurting from the choice of colours," murmured Tae Kyung.
"It's a jumper from Africa," Mi Nyeo prompted with a dejected pout on her face. "You don't like it, Jeremy?"
With admirable effort, Jeremy swallowed his pride and presented Mi Nyeo with what he hoped was a delighted smile. "Of course I like it. I'm going to put it on right now."
The three others reached for their glasses of juice and sniggered behind the safety of the rims. Jeremy lifted the knitted eyesore and gulped. He knew he'd have to wear it for the rest of the day to make her happy, and that his band mates would make jokes about it for the rest of his life.
He twisted the jumper around so that it would go on the right way, when something slapped into his lap.
"What was that?" asked Mi Nam.
Jeremy peered down and picked up an envelope of printed photos.
"Oh?" Mi Nyeo peered at the envelope's packaging. "I've been looking for those. I thought I lost them."
Jeremy already had them out of the pack. "Are these of a band, Mi Nyeo?"
"Can I have a look?" said Shin Woo.
"Please don't look at them..." She blushed. "I took them more for myself. There's nothing special in them."
"Hoh! Liar. Look at the colours in these ones. You really like the sunsets, don't you?" Jeremy said, flipping through the images.
Mi Nyeo watched Jeremy nervously. "They're sunrises."
"They bring out the yellows and oranges in the ground."
Tae Kyung gave Mi Nyeo a sharp glance. "Why not sunsets?"
"They have more pinks and blues," she answered, shrinking under the coffee table.
"And the drums," said Jeremy. "There are so many pictures of traditional drums in here."
"I like them."
Tae Kyung's eyes narrowed. "Do you? And when did you first start liking drums?"
Like a flower, Mi Nyeo withered under Tae Kyung's gaze.
"Mi Nyeo, I can teach you how to play these sort of drums if you want," offered Jeremy.
"Ah!" Shin Woo pulled out an oddly shaped present from under the tree. "That explains what this is. It's for you, Jeremy."
"You got me a traditional drum!" Jeremy turned his excited gaze on Mi Nyeo. "Really?" He reached down for a hug.
The three others jumped to the front of their seats, ready to intervene.
Shin Woo was the first to relax. "Sorry about that," he said. "Habits are hard to break."
"I'm not breaking my habit," said Mi Nam. "Don't do any of that touchy stuff with my sister!"
Jeremy pouted. "You didn't care what she did while you were having your eyelids done."
"How many times are you going to throw that in my face?"
"As many as it takes for you to feel guilty. Anyway, don't think I'll listen to you."
"If you're not listening to me, then how come you didn't just hug Mi Nyeo?"
"I-" Jeremy hesitated. He looked at Mi Nyeo and then Tae Kyung. "No reason."
Tae Kyung folded his arms and glared at the wall. "Shin Woo is right. Don't hold back on my account. Mi Nyeo is no longer my girlfriend. Why would I care what you do with her?"
Shin Woo sighed in exasperation.
Mi Nam rounded on Tae Kyung. "You don't care what he does with her?"
"Correct. If she wants to be indecent with her new boyfriend, who am I to stop her?"
Jeremy gritted his teeth. "I can't begin to tell what is wrong with that you big-"
"Jeremy!" Mi Nyeo tugged on his sleeve and gave him a pleading look. He seethed, but kept his words to himself.
"Let me get this straight," said Mi Nam. "My twin adores you, calls you her 'Hyung-nim' and adopts you as some sort of brother, and you don't care?"
"That's right." Tae Kyung got to his feet and strolled out of the room. "I don't care."
"Where are you going? Apologise for calling my sister indecent first!" Mi Nam shouted, but Tae Kyung was already gone.
"Oppa!" scolded Mi Nyeo. "Why did you have to start a fight with him?"
"It was never going to work, twin. He's your ex, and he's the type to carry a grudge. Take my advice, disown him as family and drop him off in a box outside an orphanage."
"That's not funny," said Mi Nyeo.
"You know he didn't mean it." Jeremy leaned closer to her, wanting to touch her. "And Tae Kyung didn't mean what he said either. You know that, right?"
She nodded, but the downcast look on her face wouldn't go away.
"Ah!" Jeremy pulled the jumper off the coffee table with exaggerated enthusiasm. "I haven't tried this on yet. I hope it'll fit. Whaaa. Look at how thick it is. It'll be so warm."
Shin Woo played along. "It is one of a kind. Isn't it?"
"It fits. How does it look?" asked Jeremy, posing for the group from where he was sitting.
"Like it belongs around your neck," muttered Mi Nam.
Jeremy ignored him. "You know what else jumpers are good for?" He reached over and tickled Mi Nyeo's nose with the fluff of his sleeve. She sneezed.
Her eyes widened. "It is good."
"Want another one?"
"Mm!" She nodded and he tickled her nose again.
"Choo!" Mi Nyeo rubbed her nose and chuckled.
"Better?" he asked.
"Much better," she answered. Without thinking, she leaned her head on his shoulder. Jeremy reached up to stroke her hair and she relaxed against him, closing her eyes before she could witness Mi Nam's face turning sour.
Her twin huffed at Jeremy. "I suppose once in a while isn't so bad, but don't push your luck."
ANJell rounded up their Christmas day celebrations with Jeremy's late-night outdoors party. The guests didn't have to huddle in their coats because of the outdoor heaters, Santa and the decorations shone in all their glory against the night sky, and the hot food disappeared fast. Mi Nyeo was wearing her reindeer headband as planned. Her nose and lips were a plum red from the lipstick Coordinator Wang had given her as a present.
Jeremy wore his jumper of giraffes and rhinos. People sniggered at it when they first arrived, and then it was forgotten. If anyone could wear an ugly jumper and get away with it, it was Jeremy. He passed around jokes like they were drinks, and he took as many pictures as there were songs playing.
He and Mi Nyeo stuck to each other like glue. She got tired more than he did, and being the life of the party, he could bring the life over to the table so that she could sit down and eat something. However, whenever she'd wanted to dance with him, friends would want to join them too, and they'd had to bounce up and down in groups with other people. It had only been late in the night, when almost all the guests had left or fallen asleep in the living room, and when an outdated kpop song was playing that he put her hand on his shoulder, bringing a shine to her eyes.
Mi Nyeo lit up the moment Jeremy put her hand on his shoulder. Her face lifted and her lips curled upwards as they went through the dance steps he'd first taught her. She was comfortable with him, and his efforts to tease her with changes in direction and new steps just made her laugh. They danced and chortled in their own world, putting the mess around them to the back of their minds.
"Did you enjoy the party?" asked Jeremy.
"I enjoyed it very much, but I like this part the best."
"That is a good answer," he teased, holding her a little tighter.
"But can I take off the reindeer ears now?"
She looked guilty. "I didn't want to tell you, but the headband is really hurting me."
"Ah." Jeremy tutted and reached up to her head to gently pull it off and toss it to one side. Mi Nyeo winced at the release of pressure even though he had removed them with slow care. Seeing her in pain, he pressed the palms of his hands on the two points behind her ears, and then massaged light circles on her temple, making sure his fingers didn't tangle in her hair.
"Why didn't you take them off when they started to hurt?" he asked.
Her lashes lowered. "I know it is silly, but you kept telling me how...cute I looked. So I kept telling myself that I would wear it just a little longer."
Jeremy thought of his jumper and a lopsided smile appeared on his face. "How does your head feel? Better?"
"Mm. Much better."
He was about to lower his hands when she suddenly reached up and held them in place.
"Ah! But could we stay like this for a bit longer?" she asked, looking thoroughly embarrassed.
Jeremy's lopsided smile got more pronounced. He started tracing circles on her hair again, but the touch had softened into caresses. He let his fingers tangle in her soft hair and brush against her earlobes and the top of her nape.
Without quite knowing how it happened, he was close enough to kiss her, and he didn't know who kissed first, but once he sensed the first hint of her lips on his mouth, he embraced her fully. He tried to be slow and gentle with her so that she wouldn't be frightened, but her thin arms wound up holding him closer in frustration, and in the end he gave in and kissed her the way he'd wanted to kiss her, leaving her in no doubt of his feelings.
Shin Woo observed the couple and then sat down next to Tae Kyung with a cup of hangover tea. They had remained upstairs so that their guests could sleep soundly downstairs, but had moved inside to avoid the damp cold that was setting in now that it was early morning.
"It was a good party," Shin Woo reflected. "I didn't see you much though. Where were you hiding?"
Tae Kyung shrugged. "I wasn't hiding. I showed my face enough."
"Did you get a chance to apologise to Mi Nyeo yet?"
Tae Kyung sighed, looked over the back of his chair at the couple outside and fell back in shock. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
"I didn't mean now. You decided that on your own."
"You're so meddlesome since we met her. Go back to not caring...or are you just bored?"
"Just apologise to her."
"So you are meddling."
Shin Woo's attention turned to something Tae Kyung had in his hand. "A Saint Christopher. From Mi Nyeo?"
Tae Kyung hesitated, and frowned. "She must think I need help."
"Maybe she thinks you won't ask for it." Shin Woo took another sip of his tea and peered out at Jeremy and Mi Nyeo laughing. They had stopped kissing for the time being, but were still holding on to each other as if they weren't ready to let go just yet.
"They look happy," he observed.
Tae Kyung huffed in annoyance. "If you're going to keep talking about them, I'm going to bed."
"Jeremy asked me how I got over my feelings for her."
Tae Kyung paused, suddenly interested in the chance of topic. "Did he? That must have been embarrassing."
"I didn't have an answer for him, because I haven't...quite...gotten over her. You know that. That's why you asked Jeremy to look after her when she came back."
Something like a smirk appeared on Tae Kyung's face. "Why is it that I feel another piece of meddlesome advice coming my way? I'm going to bed."
"Tae Kyung, seeing her happy is the next best thing, and you should see how happy he makes her."
Tae Kyung cautiously peered over the back of his chair and saw that Jeremy was teasing Mi Nyeo by touching her red nose. "Fine. I'll admit...that's a good consolation."