All Work and No Play (Makes Kyungsoo a Liar)
“There's fear, of course, with everybody. But now it had grown, it had grown gigantic; it filled me and it filled the whole world.”
-Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark
Kyungsoo: Adoption (I want to take you home)
For such a small shelter, they had done an impressively thorough background check on Kyungsoo. It had taken a few months, and countless personal documents Kyungsoo didn’t even know he had – who kept their vaccination records, anyway – before he had finally been allowed to come in and visit the cats.
But that was Singapore – thoroughly efficient in many ways, and faintly cold because of that. Kyungsoo had moved here on a job, becoming one of the numerous expats to dot the city.
Inside, there are rows of rooms, with hand-written signs detailing the cat’s names and a short message from the cat. (“hello, I am sin fu, come and talk to me”). Kyungsoo’s relieved, because he was expecting cages, like those radical cat groups liked to claim.
“You want a young male cat, right?” The volunteer’s a pleasant enough young woman. “One that has a sweet temperament and is old enough to take care of himself, but still likes attention?”
“Yeah.” Kyungsoo nods. “Actually, in the adoption brochure, I saw this cat named Chen...”
Kyungsoo’s someone who has his life and priorities laid out before him. Chanyeol was the last one to disrupt them; after that, Kyungsoo had dived into work.
Chen had seemed safe enough. Not pretty, like some of the other cats. But still pretty in a way that seemed easy and fuss-free. He’d be the cat that would leave Kyungsoo alone when Kyungsoo wanted to, and come when Kyungsoo wanted him there.
He’d seemed sunny, like Chanyeol, although Kyungsoo tried hard not to think about that.
“Oh.” The woman hesitates. “That’s a bit hard.”
“Oh, is he adopted already? Or does he have people looking at him?”
“No, well.” The woman pushes up her glasses, seemingly coming to a decision.
“I’ll let you have a look.”
Chen’s lying on a small dorm bed, fiddling with the sheets at the end of the bed. His tail – fur as brown and sleek as Kyungsoo imagined – thumps restlessly on the white covers.
It’s a twin room. There are other people here as well, examining the cat on the other bed. The cat’s about the same size as Chen, with shiny grey hair, the color of stormclouds in the evening. Even his pupils are the same grey, as well.
He doesn’t look happy – he’s scowling, tail whipping from side to side. The volunteer has his hands on his hips, exasperated.
If Kyungsoo was drawn to Chen, he’s caught by the man standing in front of the other cat.
People say memories drown you. Kyungsoo thinks it’s nothing as poetic as that; only your body that betrays you.
There’s a shaking that begins, almost imperceptibly, in his hands. Hunches his shoulders, tightens his breath. It pulls Kyungsoo inwards, inwards, inwards, until he can’t see anything other than Chanyeol.
“Are you okay?”
Don’t turn, Kyungsoo almost says. But Chanyeol turns around, and Kyungsoo’s struck mute and dumb. It’s like a physical blow to his face, saying wake up, you thought you were safe an ocean away, did you think you could really forget him?
Chanyeol goes very still as well, swallowing as he looks at Kyungsoo.
Kyungsoo’s the one who broke up with Chanyeol, so why does he feel this way now?
He’s still the same. Haphazardly dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, eyes sincere.
They stay in place, Kyungsoo half a room away from Chanyeol.
“I’m fine,” Kyungsoo says at last. “I, uh.” He smiles at the volunteer, as best as he can. Looks over at Chen, who’s watching him curiously. Warily.
Makes himself walk over to Chen, who sits up as he approaches.
“Hello,” he says.
He must look horrible, because Chen gives him a tentative smile and pats Kyungsoo’s stomach soothingly.
The awkward gesture loosens some of the tension in Kyungsoo. He sucks in a breath and gives Chen another smile.
It’s a better one, this time.
“Sit down?” Chen asks, patting the bed. Kyungsoo sits, and Chen stretches, before settling his chin on Kyungsoo’s thigh. Offering his head, wordlessly. He really is sweet.
Kyungsoo pats him carefully. It works. His hair is slightly rough, but still nice to the touch. The fur on his ears is slightly stiff, but furred beautifully.
Chen’s smarter than Kyungsoo gave him credit for. Kyungsoo barely even reacts as Chanyeol leaves the room.
Kyungsoo really, really likes Chen. He’s easy to talk to and funny and sweet, and best of all, he seems to know when Kyungsoo doesn’t want to talk.
But there’s a problem, which is that Chen and Baekhyun, the other cat, are very good friends. Kyungsoo’s hinted at adopting Chen before, but Chen always manages to avoid the question. Chen’s tried to introduce Baekhyun to Kyungsoo before, and Kyungsoo has played along. But Baekhyun’s too hostile for Kyungsoo.
Baekhyun would be right for Chanyeol, though. And he is. Kyungsoo can’t always avoid Chanyeol, and when Chanyeol is there, Kyungsoo’s vaguely jealous of how well he and Baekhyun get on.
Still, about two months later, Kyungsoo puts in an application to adopt Chen.
It’s the first time Kyungsoo sees Chen upset. He has his stuff strewn around him – clothes, toys and all – and he’s on Baekhyun’s bed, clutching obstinately at Baekhyun. The two of them are entangled in a heap of blankets.
“Adopt both of us,” Chen says stubbornly.
“I can’t,” Kyungsoo says plainly. “I don’t want him. Besides, he’d be happier with Chanyeol.”
Chen’s eyes redden with a speed that scares Kyungsoo.
“Don’t cry,” Kyungsoo says, reaching out for Chen. Chen just pulls away, holding Baekhyun tighter to him.
“Go away,” he says on the verge of tears. “Go away.”
Chen has always been nice and polite to Kyungsoo. Not like this.
“What if I took you back often to see Baekhyun?” Kyungsoo bargains. “Twice a week.”
“No.” Chen says, definite. “No. Go away.”
Kyungsoo understands, now, what the adoption woman was saying. It wasn’t that no one wanted to adopt either of them. It was that no one could adopt both of them. Who would want to be the outsider in this triangle?
It’s all fate. Kyungsoo’s returning to his apartment, when he notices the heap of boxes piled outside it. Someone’s finally moving into the unit next door.
It’s Chanyeol, coming out of the door. He’s shoeless and has his shirtsleeves rolled up as high as they will go, as he negotiates with the furniture men.
“Fuckk,” Chanyeol says, dropping his cigarette. He shakes his burnt finger sheepishly. He’d been staring at Kyungsoo for too long.
“Hey,” Kyungsoo says, self-consciously. He wants to do something - it’s an impulse, that’s all. “Do you have a minute?”
Chanyeol glances at the movers.
“In a while?”
“No, now.” Kyungsoo won’t have the nerve to do it, later.
“Okay.” Chanyeol shrugs, stepping towards Kyungsoo.
They stand at the lift landing. Kyungsoo leans on the metal railing, staring at the swimming pool and manicured garden below.
“Have you tried adopting Baekhyun?”
Chanyeol fingers his cigarette pack. Kyungsoo hates the smell, can already smell it – choking and lingering – in their shared apartment, last time.
“No.” Chanyeol keeps the pack, reluctantly. “There’s Chen.”
“Why don’t you adopt Baekhyun?” Kyungsoo suggests. “Then Chen could go back with me.”
Chanyeol’s staring at Kyungsoo. It’s familiar, everything’s familiar. Kyungsoo tugs restlessly at the collar of his shirt.
“It’s Chen that doesn’t want to leave Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, placing his left elbow on the railing. “Chen might not say as much as Baekhyun, but he needs Baekhyun more than Baekhyun needs him. Chen’s scared to death of losing Baekhyun, all the time.”
He’s not, Kyungsoo wants to say. He’s fine with me. He stops, however, when he realizes that he’s never really asked Chen what he wants. Has not wanted to ask, and Chen had seemed perfectly happy.
It’s too humid, this country. Like fog, but with heat that drifts into your nostrils, your throat. Stops you from talking, thinking, slows your breathing down to what’s only needed for survival.
“I want to adopt Chen,” Kyungsoo says.
“He’s a cat, but he’s stubborn, too.”
“It’s good for him,” Kyungsoo says. “I’ll be good to him.”
Chanyeol doesn’t say anything. He stands, shoving his hands in his pockets.
He’s still wearing the watch Kyungsoo picked out for him. The brown leather looks good around his wrist, against the white, circular face of the watch. It has a hairline crack running through it, though – Chanyeol should throw it away. Kyungsoo had told him that.
“You could adopt Baekhyun,” Kyungsoo says.
“I want to, but not like that,” Chanyeol says patiently.
“No, I mean that you can adopt Baekhyun and I can adopt Chen.” Kyungsoo’s vaguely horrified at what he’s saying.
“We stay next door to each other. We could let them each come over every day.”
Chanyeol’s quiet, but it’s a thoughtful silence. Kyungsoo can still read him like an open book.
“I’m doing a writing residency at the university,” Chanyeol says slowly. “I’ll be home most of the time, writing. If you don’t mind, I could have Chen over most of the time.”
“You’re still writing?”
“I make do,” Chanyeol says.
“This is a costly area,” Kyungsoo says, indicating the apartment around him. It’s one of those high-rise condominiums with swimming pools, tennis courts and function rooms. Exactly like it says on the brochure. The most unique thing about it is its name – goldleaf, which was probably chosen because it had the word gold in it.
“It’s a friend’s apartment,” Chanyeol says, smiling ruefully.
What friend? Kyungsoo wants to ask.
“How long will you be here?”
“I’m planning to stay here,” Chanyeol says. “Get an editing job after my residency. Maybe.”
“Will you have to move out?”
“Maybe,” Chanyeol admits reluctantly. “I don’t think so. But I’ll have to buy it from my friend. Eventually.”
“You can stay with me,” Kyungsoo says, and Chanyeol goes, gently, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, but thanks.”
Ears burning, Kyungsoo says waspishly – “I was just offering.”
“Yes.” That’s all Chanyeol says. For such a loud person, Chanyeol’s always sensitive to Kyungsoo’s moods.
“Should we go tomorrow? To find Baekhyun and Chen?”
“I have to work,” Kyungsoo says. It’s Monday, tomorrow. It’s going to be a long week, again. “Let’s go now.”
So Baekhyun’s happy and Chen’s happy, Chanyeol’s happy, too. They set the adoption date as next weekend.
Except when that weekend comes around, Kyungsoo’s busy. He’s wading through fields of excel documents, picking out relevant pieces of information for the new system the bank wants to set up.
The next weekend, Kyungsoo’s still busy. New consultation papers have been issued over the weekend, and there are deadlines to meet.
He’s still busy, because his colleague has gone on maternity leave. He’s busy for another two weeks.
Chanyeol’s waiting on his doorstep, when Kyungsoo gets back. He has a small red plastic bucket beside him; it holds his ashtray and all his cigarette butts.
“Don’t chain-smoke on my doorstep,” Kyungsoo says sharply.
“You know,” Chanyeol says, smoking agitatedly, “I don’t think this will work. I don’t think you can adopt Chen. You can’t even make time to bring him home, what makes you think you can care for him?”
“I can.” Kyungsoo says. “I can.”
“He’s been sitting with his things packed every weekend, waiting for you.”
Kyungsoo scrubs a hand over his face. “I’ve been busy,” he says defensively.
“No, you just don’t want to make time. You’ve never made time for people.”
“I have to work,” Kyungsoo says. “You think it’s easy? To get where I am now?”
“God,” Chanyeol says. “I wish I never dated you.”
It hurts and it’s embarrassing. Kyungsoo flings a “it’s mutual” at Chanyeol before yanking him off his doorstep and shoving him away. Kyungsoo’s hands hurt, from how hard he pushes Chanyeol.
“Hey,” Chanyeol says, raising his hands placatingly. “Hey, soo-“
Kyungsoo fumbles at the lock with his key. He’s inside in no time, slamming the door shut on Chanyeol.
Chanyeol’s knocking, loudly. Calling Kyungsoo’s name.
Kyungsoo rips his tie off, frustrated and choked. He stalks to the bathroom to bathe.
There’s knocking on the door, later. Kyungsoo drags his suitcases from the cupboard below the staircase, flinging them open on the floor. He starts searching for his in-flight earplugs in them.
He just happens to hear Chen’s voice, through his door. Calling Kyungsoo’s name.
Chen’s on his doorstep, when he opens the door. Chanyeol’s skulking in background, with Baekhyun, who looks like he wants to punch Kyungsoo.
“Chen,” he says, at a loss. He can be angry at Chanyeol – habits die hard – but this is Chen.
“Are you going to adopt me or not?” The cat says bluntly.
Kyungsoo pinches himself. It’s not a dream.
“Yes,” he says cautiously.
“Then come down to the agency and do it now.”
Kyungsoo sneaks a glance at his watch. It’s eleven at night.
“Adopt me now,” Chen says, “or I’m never going back with you.”
Is this the same, sweet Chen Kyungsoo knew?
Chen means it, Kyungsoo can tell.
“Let me get my keys,” he says.
Kyungsoo: Fishing for Dregs (I’ll change, this time)
The next day, Kyungsoo gets a call, not even apologetic, saying “hey, you need to be back here.” And he goes, leaving a simple note and cash on the table.
Inside, he’s thinking that this is good, because part of him is scared of having to share his life with someone else again. It’s Chanyeol, you see. It’s Chanyeol and everything that went wrong – Kyungsoo’s thoroughly convinced that he’s going to hurt Chen, like he hurt Chanyeol.
It’s better if he stays away from Chen, this time. Until Kyungsoo’s clearer, of what he wants.
What does he want? Chanyeol? Chen? Kyungsoo thinks of both of them and his house, his sanctuary, becomes somewhere he has to avoid. He gets cold and stupid when he thinks of them. One from the past, one for the future.
Both squeezing Kyungsoo mercilessly, leaving no space for the present that he’s in.
Chen sleeps in Kyungsoo’s unused guestroom – is asleep when Kyungsoo wakes up in the morning, comes back from Chanyeol’s house only after Kyungsoo has gone to sleep at night. Kyungsoo buries himself in their latest project, and only resurfaces weeks later.
It’s not what Kyungsoo wanted, for both of them. He’s oddly guilty.
One morning, when Kyungsoo’s going to work, he hesitates.
He knocks on Chanyeol’s door, still dressed in office clothes.
“I’m not making breakfast,” Chanyeol is saying, as he opens the door. His expression changes, becomes more awkward, as he sees Kyungsoo.
“Is Chen here?”
“He’s not,” Chanyeol says, concerned. There’s the pattering of feet on the ground. Baekhyun appears, dressed in one of Chanyeol’s old shirts. It hangs over his ass, barely covering it.
There are marks on his neck. Red marks.
“Where’s Chen?” Baekhyun asks, anxious.
Baekhyun and Chanyeol had sex. That’s what cats and humans do. Still, Kyungsoo has this feeling, that the world’s tilting out under his feet.
“He’s, uh-“ Kyungsoo tears his eyes away from Baekhyun, who lifts a hand to his neck. His ears are going red.
What was he thinking?
“Wait,” Kyungsoo says, to himself. “Chen never wakes until I’m gone. So he should still be sleeping.”
“Yes,” Chanyeol says. “He should be.” He takes a yellow sports jacket from the open wardrobe in the entryway, and drapes it over Baekhyun. It’s big enough to cover the marks on his neck.
“Go and change,” he says, dropping a kiss on Baekhyun’s forehead.
Kyungsoo never imagined that Chanyeol would find someone else. Chanyeol was always taller than Kyungsoo, so
he used to do that. To hold Kyungsoo close and sneak a kiss on Kyungsoo’s hair. Kyungsoo let him, sometimes. Other times Kyungsoo would dodge out of his hold.
Chanyeol used to leave marks on Kyungsoo, too. Kyungsoo would always fuss, because he had interviews. Internships. People would think things of kyungsoo that he didn’t want them to, if he had those marks.
It had been a relationship that would not have worked out. It was just – strange, to think that all these actions that Kyungsoo had thought were his, that Chanyeol would only do to him – that were so intimate, so alive that Kyungsoo had locked them away and never ventured into that corner of his mind again – were, in the end, not his and would not be his. No matter how important they had been to Kyungsoo.
“You’re – out of it today.” Chanyeol gestures when he talks, he always has. There are marks on his fingers, from ink.
“You’re doing poetry?”
Chanyeol writes prose in pencil, poetry in ink.
“Yeah, something came.”
“Can I see it?”
“Sure,” Chanyeol says. “Um, about Chen-“
“He should be sleeping.” For a second, Kyungsoo had really forgotten about Chen. “I’ll check, and, um. Bring him here.”
“I’ll make breakfast,” Chanyeol says.
“You said you didn’t want to.” Kyungsoo blinks. “There’s a starbucks downstairs. I can run and get something. For all of us.”
“Don’t you have work?”
“Not today,” Kyungsoo says. “I have to call in. But. Not today.”
“I’ll cook,” Chanyeol says. “Chen likes my crepes.”
It feels like nothing has changed, and Kyungsoo and Chanyeol are still sharing the same shoebox apartment they did in university.
Kyungsoo enters Chen’s room carefully.
He’d been using this room as a storage unit, before, so there are boxes stacked in a side of the room. The boxes are still there, taking up space between the bed and the cupboard.
Chen had moved some of the boxes, so one panel of the six-panel cupboard is freed up. A shirt rests on a blue plastic hangar, dangling from the door.
It’s a shirt Chen used to wear in the shelter. Kyungsoo hasn’t brought Chen shopping, now that he thinks of it. Has only given Chen a house key, and leaves a pack of dollar notes on the kitchen table at the start of each week.
Chen must have found the sheets, somewhere in the cupboards. And the pillowcases.
Chen’s lodged under the blankets (Kyungsoo doesn’t recognize them, either), only a bit of brown hair and a single ear peeking out of it. Sunlight streams into the room – the sun rises, rages, unreasonably early in the morning, in Singapore.
He’d have to buy thicker curtains, Kyungsoo finds himself thinking. And clothes. They could do that all today.
Kyungsoo had been so thoroughly convinced, back in the shelter, that Chen was the answer to all the silent nights spent alone in his apartment. But Chen’s not, he’s just a cat with needs. And Kyungsoo is a person with problems, problems that he has to solve if he ever wants to take good care of Chen.
Chen startles awake when Kyungsoo shakes him. Groggy and confused, he hides in the blanket, rubbing his face along the material.
“Let’s go over to Chanyeol’s place for breakfast,” Kyungsoo says.
Chen yawns widely, then closes his eyes again.
Kyungsoo finds himself rubbing behind Chen’s ears. “Chen,” he cajoles.
Chen’s obviously confused.
“-yungsoo?” Then, “-mm what’s.” Chen disentangles a hand from the blanket to rub his eyes. “kyungsoo?”
Kyungsoo is a really bad owner. He doesn’t understand how he passed the background checks at the shelter – it should have been obvious, that Kyungsoo’s not good at taking care of people.
“Stay here,” he says, instead.
Chen lies obediently on his back. Kyungsoo’s sitting on the side of the bed which faces the windows, so he blocks the sunlight for Chen.
Carefully, Kyungsoo runs a washcloth over Chen’s face. There’s nothing to wash – Chen has good skin – but Chen lets him, anyway. Lets Kyungsoo trace his cheekbones, the bridge of his nose. The soft area below his eyes, and where his ears meet his cheek.
Chen breathes; slowly, quietly.
Kyungsoo wants to take this as slowly as he can. It always ends, he knows, but he doesn’t want this to.
Kyungsoo’s phone is ringing. Chen’s eyelashes twitch.
He’s still lying there, unmoving, as Kyungsoo pads across the floor to the living room, where his phone is.
“Hello,” he says, glancing back at Chen. Chen’s ears are twitching.
“Kyungsoo?” It’s Suho. “Where are you?”
“I’m taking a day off,” Kyungsoo says.
“What? Which hospital are you in?”
“What? I’m fine, Suho.”
“Is there anyone with you?”
“I’m just taking a day off,” Kyungsoo says petulantly.
“I have stuff to do,” Kyungsoo says. That seems to make more sense to Suho.
“You’ll tell me if you’re injured, right?”
“I will,” Kyungsoo lies. Chen’s eyes are blinking open, slowly. He has really long eyelashes.
“I’m taking the week off,” he says, and hangs up on Suho’s bewildered “Kyungsoo!”.
Chen’s still blinking. Kyungsoo goes back into the room to him, still holding his phone.
“Sorry,” Kyungsoo says, standing over Chen. The tiny, reluctant smile that Chen can’t hold back makes Kyungsoo feel like he did the right thing, at least once.
Truth is, Kyungsoo’s not interested in breakfast. His eyes keep darting to Chanyeol’s worktable, set up in the other corner of the apartment.
“Come on,” Chanyeol says, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly. Kyungsoo follows him over, eager. They leave Baekhyun and Chen at the breakfast table, squabbling over the crepes.
“It’s a group of nine poems,” Chanyeol says. He sorts through the mess on the table, pulling out a paper with strange shapes drawn on it. “I just got started on the first.”
“What are they about?” It’s been a long time since Kyungsoo touched poetry. He and Chanyeol, they used to write, back in school. Chanyeol was always the better one.
“Life,” Chanyeol says. Kyungsoo laughs. Chanyeol sounds so serious.
“It’s all about life,” he says. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Chanyeol says. But that’s a reply that’s not – Chanyeol’s thinking about something.
“It’s about moving on,” he says, looking at Kyungsoo.
Kyungsoo forces a dry laugh, and hates himself immediately.
“Not just – “ Chanyeol frowns. “Not just love. Well, it is, but everything is love, too. It’s just. Family, just. Friends. Work. The grass.”
“The grass?” Kyungsoo snorts. But it works, Kyungsoo’s thinking about what Chanyeol is doing, now. What Chanyeol can do.
“Depends on how it goes. I’m hoping being here will – stir things up, for me.”
Kyungsoo nods. There are other books on Chanyeol’s table, books he finds familiar. “Jean Rhys?”
“Oh,” Chanyeol says. He grins, boyish. “Chen’s reading that, actually.”
“He just is,” Chanyeol says, shrugging.
Voyage in the Dark is a book Chanyeol read and loved. Kyungsoo had read it once, then went to bed for the rest of the day. Had not touched it again, and didn’t want to discuss it with Chanyeol.
Chen can read whatever he wants. It’s not like Kyungsoo can stop him.
Chanyeol has a bookshelf, which takes up an entire wall of his tiny apartment. It’s worn and patched and comes with a glass case to keep out dust.
The bottom shelf is filled with fantasy and science-fiction books, the top with poems. The middle is a mix – there’s Charlotte Bronte’s Villete, another book Kyungsoo has avoided after reading once – books on philosophy, Jared Diamond (everyone has a Jared Diamond), Lolita. Some books on Singapore.
Kyungsoo and Chanyeol had studied literature together in school. But Kyungsoo had gone for a career in banking, and Chanyeol had gone on to – well, write. And continue writing.
Now that Kyungsoo thinks about it, they had started talking less, around then. Kyungsoo had bought a tailored suit, shoes, cufflinks, watch and a good haircut. Chanyeol had bought rounds at the pub for his writer friends.
Uncomfortable, Kyungsoo looks away. The apartment’s a mix of sensible furniture and the occasional blaze of colour that has to be Chanyeol’s. The huge rug on the floor, the lumpy beanbag in the corner, the – hammock? - strung in the middle of the apartment – those are Chanyeol’s.“I’m taking Chen to buy clothes,” he says.
“That’s great,” Chanyeol says.
“Do you and Baekhyun want to come along?”
Chanyeol misses a beat, but recovers. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”
Kyungsoo gets lost on the roads, because he doesn’t usually drive. It’s easier and cheaper to take a taxi to work and back, not to mention safer. Kyungsoo’s dead tired, by the time he leaves at night. He’s not a morning person either.
“Where are we?” He says, lost. Chanyeol fiddles with his phone, tapping on google maps.
“I know a big shopping mall in the east,” he says doubtfully. “Not around here, though. Just – take that road –“
Kyungsoo finally finds an expressway, and heads down it. As long as they’re going in the right direction, they should hit a shopping mall somewhere. Shopping malls are everywhere in Singapore; it makes no sense that they won’t find one, now.
Glancing in the rear view mirror, Kyungsoo sees Baekhyun cuddling with Chen. Chen has an arm looped around Baekhyun’s shoulders. He meets Kyungsoo’s eyes in the mirror.
“Turn left,” Chanyeol says sharply, “left-“
It’s too late, they’ve missed the turning.
“We’ll find something,” Kyungsoo says.
“Those who eventually find something are never lost, right?”
“I have a good sense of direction,” Kyungsoo says firmly. Chanyeol laughs, low and happy.
They end up at a small park. It’s –
“Pasir Ris Park,” Chanyeol pronounces carefully. It sounds like, “pah ser rees pak.”
The Singaporean accent is a distinct one that Kyungsoo can’t place, but knows instantly when he hears it. They like to save words; cut their sentences into carefully placed phrases, slung together in a machine-gun monotone.
“I got my students to teach me,” Chanyeol says smiling.
There’s a pond in the middle of a small park. It’s actually like a small drain, but deeper and longer, snaking round and round, with clear water and small fishes inside of it. The sides are sandy, not mossy and green.
“I want to catch fishes,” Baekhyun announces. It should sound childish, but Baekhyun says it so brightly Chanyeol’s already saying “sure” before Kyungsoo can reply.
“Can we?” Chen’s holding on to Baekhyun’s arm tightly.
Chen’s always polite, Kyungsoo notices. Sweet, but it’s a sweetness that’s poured out carefully, as though he’s scared of offending. That night, when Chen demanded that Kyungsoo take him in, was the only time Chen was forceful with Kyungsoo.
Crouched alongside the pond, Kyungsoo splashes water onto his arms. It’s – too – hot. Kyungsoo’s an indoor creature, raised on a diet of air-conditioning.
“You’re supposed to catch fishes,” Chen says, nudging him. Kyungsoo jostles him back. “I am,” he says, lazily scooping another handful of water. Chen’s eyes goes wide, and Kyungsoo looks down to see that somehow – miraculously – he’s cupping this tiny black guppy in his hand.
“I’ll get the bucket!” Chen’s gone, and Kyungsoo remains in place, holding the fish in place. Water leaks through his fingers, trickles down his wrist, draws a long rivulet down his arm.
He cups both hands together, but water keeps dripping from the gap between his fingers. The tail of the fish lashes against his skin. It thrashes, jumping, and Kyungsoo is scared that he’ll drop and lose it.
Chen’s back, breathless, pressing against Kyungsoo. “Here,” he says, holding the small pail under Kyungsoo’s hands.
“Put some water into it,” Kyungsoo says, voice strained. He’s being silly, it’s just a tiny fish. Chen dives for the gully, scooping a pail of water with a huge splash.
“You got one too,” Kyungsoo says, peering into the pail. A brown guppy wriggles inside the clear water. Kyungsoo lowers his joined hands into the water - the black one joins it. Kyungsoo’s unexpectedly relieved.
“I did?” Chen nearly shoves Kyungsoo out of the way, in his rush to see it. He laughs, clear and unforced. “I did!”
Chen’s a cat made for smiling. The sun is still hot and pounding overhead, but it lights his brown hair golden in places and – and his smile’s made to be seen like this. Framed with sunlight and Chen clutching a cheap plastic pail in wet hands.
Kyungsoo just likes his smile. There’s no other reason.
He realizes that he’s smiling, too, as Chen lifts a hand to trace his lips. His hand is wet and sticky from the pond water, but somehow Kyungsoo doesn’t mind.
They pick clothes for Chen in the mall. Kyungsoo follows him into the dressing room.
Chen lifts an eyebrow at him. “I’m changing,” he says. Kyungsoo says “I know” and leans in, kisses him. Soft and light (it’s been a while for Kyungsoo), on his lips.
Kissing’s strange. The first time Chanyeol and Kyungsoo had kissed, Kyungsoo had been wondering why there was so much saliva. He’d bought breath mints and Chanyeol had learned how to kiss better, so things worked out.
Kyungsoo’s wondering the same thing with Chen. Chen’s lips are chapped and dry, and it’s just – it’s just skin touching skin, and when eating your lips touch things of all kinds of textures, like roast duck skin, so what makes this special? – but it’s just. It’s just something that Kyungsoo wants to do again.
Maybe it’s not just the lips, Kyungsoo muses, as he leans in again. Chen’s the same height as him, so no one has to crane their necks. Maybe it’s Chen holding his breath as Kyungsoo moves in. Maybe it’s the way Chen tries to keep his eyes open, but can’t help closing them as they get too close.
It’s the way Chen moves forward, the third time. He pushes Kyungsoo back, into the door. Leans into Kyungsoo, eyes serious, closes his eyes and presses himself – beginning from the lips, then their legs, Chen’s left leg stepping gingerly between Kyungsoo’s, then hips, Chen’s pelvis pressing into Kyungsoo’s crotch – then bodies, at last. Stomach and chest and then their naked collarbones, touching.
It’s like a kiss but not really a kiss. This time, Chen just leans into Kyungsoo, putting all his body weight on Kyungsoo. It’s like Chen’s goal is not to trace Kyungsoo’s lips but rather to press theirs together as long as they can – letting this be something familiar, rather than something exciting.
Kyungsoo loops his fingers in the back of Chen’s jeans, keeping him in place.
They have to breathe, eventually. Chen drops his head to Kyungsoo’s shoulder, exhaling. His breath is warm and moist, tingling across the vee of skin exposed by Kyungsoo’s shirt.
Kyungsoo takes a loud, noisy breath, then regrets it. It resounds in the small, locked-in room.
“That wasn’t a kiss,” he says, keeping his voice low. They’re still in a dressing room, after all.
“It is,” Chen says.
There’s a full-length mirror opposite Kyungsoo and Chen. Kyungsoo sees himself, leaning his cheek into Chen’s hair. His arms looped around Chen’s waist, black strap of his watch contrasting against the white shirt and blue jeans Chen’s in today. Chen’s tail loose and relaxed, curling down across the back of his jeans.
Kyungsoo looks like he’s a happy person. It’s not something he’s used to seeing.
Chen lifts his head, sees the mirror. Instead of blushing, like Kyungsoo thought he would do, he smiles lazily at it instead. Mouths a hello to himself.
“Say something to yourself,” Kyungsoo suggests.
Chen shakes his head, slowly. Presses a kiss to the hollow of Kyungsoo’s throat, instead, like an afterthought.
Chen – Fishing for Dregs (you leave and I wait)
So Kyungsoo’s gone again, after his promise to stay the week.
I’m not surprised, and I hate that. Because it means that I was right to be scared, and I don’t want to be scared. But I am and I guess I will be.
It’s just hard to – not stay away from people. To place yourself away from them, when you know that they will hurt you in the end. Whether they meant to or not.
Chanyeol writes in the morning, after breakfast. He has this corner of his apartment that he uses. Sometimes he’s at his table, sometimes he’s sprawled on a rug, papers arranged on sheets of cardboard.
Chanyeol’s not as haphazard as he looks. The day after Kyungsoo brought me home, Chanyeol took me back to have breakfast with him and Baekhyun. While we were eating, he cleared the bedroom of some boxes, changed the sheets and put blankets.
Chanyeol and Kyungsoo used to be lovers. Chanyeol never said it, but I can tell. He talks about Kyungsoo around me, often, when Baekhyun’s not here. I can picture their apartment – small, cramped, just a single bedroom and a tiny kitchen. Chanyeol teaching Kyungsoo how to cook, Kyungsoo writing short stories for Chanyeol and leaving them around the apartment. Chanyeol changing his major from music to English literature because of Kyungsoo, and then continuing with it, while Kyungsoo got a good job in an international bank after graduation.
It comes across, in the way Chanyeol looks around his new house as he’s talking. As though he can see Kyungsoo here – at Chanyeol’s worktable, working hard at the chopping board, sitting on their shared bed, grinning. As though Chanyeol’s too used to seeing a world with Kyungsoo in it, and sometimes he gets confused which is the past and what is the present.
It’s good, that he doesn’t do this around Baekhyun.
I’m good with not expecting much from people. It’s easier to love them, this way. Baekhyun’s not.
He likes Chanyeol a lot. Dislikes Kyungsoo, because of me and Chanyeol and how we seem to pay attention to Kyungsoo even though Kyungsoo doesn’t have a lot of time for us. Knowing that Chanyeol steals bits of time to talk about Kyungsoo because Chanyeol has never given up on him – and that Chanyeol’s aware that Baekhyun will be hurt by this and still does it anyway – this will hurt Baekhyun.
But, like I said, it comes across anyway. Chanyeol’s very easy to read. Baekhyun liked that about him, because Baekhyun can’t hide what he feels, even if someone pays him to. I tried, I bribed, but no go.
It’s easy for Baekhyun to see how Chanyeol feels about Kyungsoo – as easy as it is for us to see how much Chanyeol likes Baekhyun. Life’s funny that way.
Kyungsoo said he’d take a week off work yesterday, and he’s already back in office today. Chanyeol scolded him in the morning, when Kyungsoo brought me over. Kyungsoo had explained that it was urgent and they needed him.
I wish Chanyeol wouldn’t confuse me with him. I think Kyungsoo must have done this to Chanyeol a lot, back then, because there’s something personal in Chanyeol’s tone when he says, “you can’t keep doing this”. Baekhyun knows this, because he disappears from the door and goes back into their shared room.
I don’t want to watch either, so I go back into the living room and stake out a claim on Chanyeol’s rug.
I don’t feel like reading, now. I was reading what Chanyeol said was the book Kyungsoo couldn’t let go of, but it’s dark and makes me feel sad and sleepy in places.
So I lie on the floor in the sunlight, and breathe slowly. Calmly, I pretend to sleep as Chanyeol comes in and sits beside me.
He says, “you know it’s not your fault, right?” and I’m thinking, I’m wondering, is this me he’s talking to, or himself?
Baekhyun’s inside the bedroom, sleeping under the covers. Chanyeol should be there, talking to Baekhyun. Not here, not beside me, talking – not even to me, but at me, because he thinks I’m asleep – about Kyungsoo.
“He used to do this all the time,” Chanyeol says. “It was. I’m not saying that all jobs that pay well are bad, but it just. He was so busy, and I kept thinking, was it me? Like I. I wanted him around, more, and he told me to wait. He promised it would get better. And I just didn’t wait for him. I had my own friends, my career to take care of. I couldn’t come home to an empty bed and a silent phone every night and I would bunk at my friends’ places on the weekends because I didn’t want to be in an empty house and have to think of him. And then I realized that I had become used to. When I got my first set of poems accepted for publication, I. Didn’t tell Kyungsoo, I told my friends and they took me out for dinner and I was happy, the kind of happiness that came without a – a tag. I could be happy and that was it, I didn’t have to face disappointment in the next moment. And I told him, I took my things and moved out and didn’t pick up when he called. And he came to find me and I said I needed time and he looked at me and he knew that what we had was not enough for me and he smiled. He smiled and said we should break up, this isn’t good for you. I just-“ Chanyeol sucks in a breath.
“He didn’t want to.” Chanyeol’s voice is small. “He didn’t want to but I made him do it anyway.”
It makes me wonder why Chanyeol hasn’t told anyone else about this before. He talks about it like – just - slow, grinding, like the lever of a rusty tap fighting against years of dirt and neglect. Like he’s ashamed to talk about it but he has to talk about it anyway. Like he hates himself for letting it end.
Chanyeol just sits there and I try to keep sleeping but it doesn’t work. Chanyeol makes a sound of surprise and traces my eyes – I can feel the moisture.
It’s been a while.
“Can we go to school with you, later?” I say, keeping my eyes closed. I want to say, you’re hurting Baekhyun, you’re hurting him and you and Kyungsoo both hurt and why does everything has to be this way.
But that’s not – I don’t want to talk about all these here, in this apartment. On this rug. I don’t want to talk about sad things here.
“Sorry,” Chanyeol says. I don’t know what he’s apologizing for because this isn’t about me. I can take care of myself. This is about the three of them and affection that hurts as much as hate.
“Can you go and call Baekhyun? He didn’t eat much, just now.” I hope Chanyeol gets what I’m trying to say.
He does. His fingers still on my cheeks.
“I don’t want to hurt Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, honest, and I want to say – Kyungsoo didn’t want to hurt you either, and you didn't want to hurt him. But it seems that us wanting things never seems to result in us getting them.
I make a noise. Chanyeol wants to say something, but stops. He gets up and steps across the heap of papers scattered on the rug.
I roll over and bury my face in the soft rug. Sometimes in the future, when I am on this rug again, I will remember what happened today.
That’s what happens to places. They take on this strange sheen of memories past and it’s hard to remember if you’re in the present or stuck in the past.
Chanyeol’s a writer-in-residence for the National University of Singapore. They pay him a small sum in lieu of the housing that he’s entitled to, and he conducts writing workshops for students.
We’re on a bus to school, Chanyeol, Baekhyun and I. Baekhyun’s sleeping on my shoulder. Cars in Singapore cost almost a hundred thousand Singapore dollars, which Chanyeol will never have in his entire lifetime. He had to count his coins before we left, for our bus fare.
Chanyeol’s reading through a thick stack of paper again. He workshops his student’s poems; annotates them carefully, makes an effort to write legibly on them.
It’s nice and cool in the bus. We’re on the upper level of the double-decker SBS bus, packed in the back row. They have an advertisement for canned food plastered across the side of the bus, and from where I’m sitting, half of my window is blocked by it. Sort of, but not really. It’s like the window is pixelated. It’s fun looking at Singapore through this.
“Do you want to see some poems?”
Chanyeol’s holding out a stack to me. I’d rather watch the view, but Chanyeol’s excited and a bit hopeful.
“Sure,” I say, taking the stack.
“I had them write about something in their daily life. See beauty in the mundane, and all that.”
There are poems on jams – traffic jams, I think, before I realize that it’s a paper jam. There are poems on the push-and-pull of attraction, over a meal at McDonald’s. There is one I like, about a balloon dog.
Chanyeol’s handwriting is neat, for him. He writes like he speaks, armed with exclamation marks and ‘great’, ‘i want to hear more’, and the occasional– ‘it’s also that, this reminds me of..”. I like his comments better than some of the poems. He might not notice, but it’s what he says that turns the poems from words I sort of understand into words I like.
I can understand why both Kyungsoo and Baekhyun like him so much. Chanyeol’s very attentive, whether to words or body language. He has this way of looking at you and talking to you that makes you like yourself even more.
There’s a huge field that spills over a gentle incline to pool, waiting. It’s bordered by the sports halls, the graduate residences, and a starbucks that overlooks it. If you walk past the starbucks, Chanyeol says, there are the student residences. That’s where Chanyeol teaches.
“We’ll wait for you here,” Baekhyun says. Chanyeol leaves, but not before making sure Baekhyun has his wallet.
There are people playing Frisbee on the lawn. Baekhyun and I used to play Frisbee at the shelter. We had a yellow Frisbee that we found among the cowgrass, and we played with it until it flew into the canal and got washed away.
I know that Baekhyun’s thinking of that, too, because he says suddenly – “let’s join them.” He’s off, skidding down the slopes before I can stop him, wallet jammed in the back of his jeans.
Actually, I don’t want to stop Baekhyun. I want him to keep slipping and sliding and moving on with a bright smile and genuine words for people. He’s better at that than me, so he should keep doing it. I’ll be the careful one instead, for both us.
He’s already fist-bumping a fellow cat, by the time I’ve reached. I slip a hand into his back pocket and palm the wallet, as he’s talking. He’s still talking to the same cat, even after I’ve put it aside and come back. I need to remember to keep a watch on it.
“Chen,” he says, excited. “Kai says we can join!”
Kai’s got a good vibe to him. His sweaty hair is plastered carelessly to his face, and his smile has the same quality to it – a bit self-mocking, a bit of laughter, a bit of attitude.
“Yeah,” he says. “You don’t mind being on different teams, though? Baek can join my team and you can join Sehun’s. Hey- hun!”
Someone breaks away from the crowd gathered around the water bottles, by the side of the field. He lopes over, wiping his sweat with a pink armband.
“My new member, Baek,” Kai says, pointing – “and yours, Chen.”
“Sure,” Sehun shrugs. “Hey.”
It’s as easy as that. It’s like I have tension built up inside of me, at first. Wondering what these people will think of Baekhyun and me. But Frisbee is Frisbee and all people care about is how fast you run and how good you catch and throw. And I’m very good at catching.
I slam into Kai, once, because I’m too focused on the yellow Frisbee and its arc across the cloudless sky. We go tumbling, and I’m going – “ow, ow, ow ahahaha,” laughing even though it hurts and my elbows bang against his ribs.
“You’re good,” he says, muffled, face pressed to the grass.
“Of course,” I say, and I mean it.
Baekhyun looms large over me. I shade my eyes with a hand, smiling at up at him. “This was a good idea.”
“Wow, you’re a mess,” Sehun says, appearing beside Baekhyun. Almost everything he says sounds deadpan. He offers a hand. “I’ll buy you a drink, for knocking Kai over.”
Kai grabs Sehun’s ankle. “Sehun,” he says, and Sehun shakes him off, tsking.
Baekhyun hauls me up. I lean into him, smiling. Baekhyun smells like grass and sweat and milk. Good things.
“Chanyeol!” Baekhyun shouts, waving our joint hands. I look up to see Chanyeol perched on the grass incline, shirt rolled to his elbows, shoes off in the grass. He has a notebook open on his knees, and a blue pen in his hand. Cap in his teeth, he grins at Baekhyun.
“Idiot,” Baekhyun says fondly. Baekhyun likes Chanyeol so much.
I should let go of Baekhyun’s hand, so he can go over. Instead I tug on our joined hands, and we sprint across the grass, as fast as we can, to Chanyeol.
“Are you writing something for me?” Baekhyun asks hopefully, bending over to look at Chanyeol’s notebook.
Chanyeol nods, brushing the sweaty hair off Baekhyun’s forehead. Baekhyun brushes a kiss across Chanyeol’s fingertips, hiding a grin. I know how much Baekhyun wants Chanyeol to write something about him, not because Baekhyun likes poetry, but because Baekhyun knows how much poetry means to Chanyeol. Baekhyun wants to know that he means something to Chanyeol.
I’m still holding Baekhyun’s hand. His fingers slip through mine as I let go, without him noticing.
“I’ll write you one in the future, Chen,” Chanyeol says.
Chanyeol and Baekhyun, they are good for each other. I’m happy for them.
“Sure,” I say. This is a smile that comes more slowly than usual, stretched a bit at the corners, but it’s still real.
I stitch up my own shirts. The new threads are always shiny and glossy, holding together a shirt made soft and a little faded by repeated washings. I think of that now, as I watch Chanyeol and Baekhyun. How there can be new feelings, bright and brilliant, shining alongside the worn and patched ones.
Baekhyun’s sleeping on my shoulder again. We’re on bus 10, on the way back, and Baekhyun’s tired from the Frisbee.
Chanyeol’s just finished writing. He taps my thigh, across Baekhyun, and asks – “do you want to read this?”
The arch of your back is the curve of your smile
and the sweep of your gaze
and the loop of your fingers, around
the cut of the disc, slicing blue sky.
You are made like
grass bowing, heavy
with dew, promising relief,
soaking dry nights.
The fat weight of tears
lands on the cage of my ribcage
as I bend like you
to yoke together, us in this summer
light, us in an arc
of a blade of grass.
I think of Baekhyun leaping for the Frisbee, Baekhyun leaning into me, us brushing lips, eyes bright, when we were younger. That all stopped when we got adopted, of course. It was a line we touched but never crossed, not because we didn’t want to, but because we didn’t think about it.
It used to feel that Baekhyun and I had all the time in the world, but it feels like I missed something with Baekhyun without knowing. Like it took reading Chanyeol’s poem and seeing what he had with Baekhyun to feel that Baekhyun and I had something we didn’t even know we had.
“Vowels,” Chanyeol says, pointing to the last two lines. “So…a, e, I, o, u. It wasn’t intentional, but they have what is termed assonance here. Contouring, ourselves, an, arc, of, a, blade, of, grass. Repetition of vowel sounds, especially a. It gives an aching feeling that should tug at your heart. Do you feel it?”
“Yeah, I do,” I say. Then, “Can we go see Kyungsoo today?”
Chanyeol’s caught off-guard. Then his eyes soften. He’s thinking that I miss Kyungsoo.
I don’t know if I miss Kyungsoo, or Baekhyun. I’m glad that Chanyeol thinks it’s Kyungsoo.
Bus 10 stops in the middle of Singapore’s Central Business District. There are tall metal-and-glass buildings everywhere, neatly arranged into grid patterns. It’s the people, though – younger, in office attire, walking fast and unthinking. Like they resent the time they have to spend passing through, like their beginnings and ends are important, not this crowded stretch of road, not the people brushing by them.
It’s strange, to walk past so many people and be as alone as if there was no one else on the roads.
There are massive blue buildings that look like they are made out of glass looming before us. Rows and rows of windows segment the building, making it look like it’s built out of thousands of blue glass blocks – some lighter, some darker.
That’s where Kyungsoo works, Chanyeol says. Marina Bay Financial Centre.
We walk through the long, horseshoe-shaped driveway, with rows of people and taxicabs waiting. Inside, Chanyeol leaves Baekhyun and I to share a couch, while he approaches the concierge.
He looks apologetic, when he comes back. “He’s not answering his office phone – he might be out for a meeting?”
I look at the people coming and going. I just saw Kyungsoo yesterday, but he’s been tired and busy.
I want to buy him something.
“We can go for dinner first?”
Chanyeol scrubs the back of his hair. “Sounds good.”
It is crowded in Lau Pa Sat. It’s an almost literal translation from hokkien, Chanyeol tells us, meaning Old Market.
“How do you say that?” I ask, curious. We’ve been in Singapore for a few years, but the tones are hard to pick up.
Most people use English, but some English is molded with a Chinese accent – it’s not really like a Chinese accent, though, it’s something else – and some English is spoken by others with a Malay or Indian accent. And then there are the dialect words, peppered into conversation easily, like it’s part of the English lexicon.
“Lawl – deepen your voice on the last syllable – lawl. Pa – yes, that’s right – Sart, but keep the r under wraps. Kick your voice up at the t.”
Chanyeol’s only been here for about two months, but he’s interested in languages and local literature. He’s already much better than me or Baekhyun.
The tables are littered with packets of tissue paper, or cards, to mark that seats are taken. It’s that crowded, here.
Chanyeol buys us noodles. These noodles look like they’ve been pressed flat into long rectangular yellow strips.
They’re soft and easy to eat, though, and the soup is tasty.
My mind is on what to buy Kyungsoo. He’s got a sweet tooth, so I was thinking about a bowl of dessert. But it might melt in the heat, so small pastries that could keep would be better.
We end up buying small, rectangular pieces of rainbow-colored cake. They’re sticky and have a bit of the texture of jelly, but it’s not jelly. It’s made by piling layers of different colors, cooked from glutinous rice, onto one another. Baekhyun tears the layers off strip by strip and gives them to me, Chanyeol and himself, piece by piece.
I hold two in a transparent plastic bag for Kyungsoo, the orange plastic of the string resting comfortably around my hand.
We see Kyungsoo in the lobby. He’s in the midst of a group of black-suited individuals, who move with the confidence and the speed of a group going for a meeting.
He sees us. He sees us and then frowns. For a moment it looks like he’s going to come over, but the men are moving through the metal barriers already, holding their cards to the black scanners.
He shakes his head at us instead, makes a shooing motion with his hand. Taps his watch and shrugs helplessly.
I feel stupid, standing there in the lobby of the office building in my ratty shirt and jeans, holding a plastic bag full of snacks. Kyungsoo looks like he wants to say something, but everyone’s already going forward. He makes the shooing movement again.
“D.o Kyungsoo!” Baekhyun shouts, suddenly. Chanyeol lurches into life, grabbing for Baekhyun, but he ducks away.
“D.o Kyungsoo, you’re an asshole! An asshole!”
Everyone’s turning to look at us. The group of men pause, looking back at Kyungsoo, who’s frozen in place.
“D.o Kyungsoo!” Baekhyun shouts again. I grab Baekhyun’s arm, say “Baekhyun –“
Baekhyun looks at me, and I can see how angry he is. I don’t know why he’s so angry, suddenly. I’m sad and angry too, but this is Kyungsoo’s workplace.
Kyungsoo’s tapping out of the gates again, striding across the floor towards us. Chanyeol mutters “fuck” and bends, throwing Baekhyun over his shoulder. “Let’s go, Chen,” Chanyeol says urgently.
“Yes, let’s,” Kyungsoo says, striding past us calmly. Chanyeol slinks after him like a beaten dog, Baekhyun now quiet.
I make myself walk after them.
“What were you doing?” Kyungsoo asks, folding his arms. Chanyeol says, “that’s – you should go back. Say it was a prank.”
“I was asking him.” I’ve never heard Kyungsoo’s voice so cold. Neither has Baekhyun, who’s looking sullenly at the ground.
“You are an asshole.” Baekhyun says, defiant.
“And how? Did I know that you all were coming? Did I pretend to not see you all? Tell me, Byun Baekhyun, how was I an asshole?”
“It’s just like how you’re not an asshole because you feed Chen and give him money at the start of each week. But you are an asshole because you’re never home and you never take him out but you want him to be around when you need him. Chen’s not someone you can take out and put back whenever you want. You don’t give him enough and because you’re a stingy bastard, you never will!”
Baekhyun’s up in Kyungsoo’s face, glaring defiantly, by now.
I don’t like this. I don’t like people fighting and I don’t like people fighting because of me.
I think Kyungsoo’s going to scream at Baekhyun. Chanyeol think so, too, because he wraps an arm around Baekhyun and yanks him back, putting himself between the two of them
“You’re jealous.” Kyungsoo’s voice is full of realization. “You’re jealous because Chen chose me and you think you can do better than me. But newsflash, Baekhyun, you’re with Chanyeol now. Not Chen. How much can you give Chen? I can touch him and hold him at night. Can you? Have you ever?”
It’s the angle I’m standing at. I can see Chanyeol flinch, when Kyungsoo drops his voice low, talking about touching me and holding me at night. I can see Baekhyun’s face wrench into a scowl.
Is this about me? It’s also about Chanyeol and Kyungsoo, Chanyeol and Baekhyun, Baekhyun and Kyungsoo.
I hate that because I don’t say anything, they think I don’t know. But I know, how Chanyeol and Kyungsoo still want each other. How Chanyeol and Baekhyun care for each other. How Baekhyun and Kyungsoo dig at each other with barbs because of Chanyeol.
“I said, stop it.” My voice is low and calm.
I hate that I don’t seem to fit in there, but they like to think that I do.
“I just wanted to see you,” I say to Kyungsoo. I’m proud of how I sound. Reasonable. “I’m sorry.” Like a reflex, I hold my hands behind my back, with the snacks in them. Like I need to hide how much I care.
“Go back inside and say it was a prank,” I say. To Baekhyun and Chanyeol, I say – “I’m going home.”
I start walking away, and thank god, thank god, Baekhyun and Chanyeol follow.
I say that I need to sleep and go into Kyungsoo’s apartment.
I think I’m going to fall apart and it feels like I will. But I don’t.
The snacks are in my hands, still. I think of eating them and feel sick. I can throw them down the chute, but it feels like I need to throw them further. Outside of the apartment.
It’s a good idea, to get out of here.
The two guppies swim in a glass bowl, on the centre of the living room table. I named the black one gold and the brown one leaf, after the apartment complex.
It must not feel good, to be in a dark apartment for most of the day. I cradle the glass bowl containing Gold and Leaf in my arms and wait for the lift.
I find a dustbin, in the garden. The snacks go into it.
There’s a playground in the distance. The surface underfoot is made of poured rubber, stamped with pictures of fishes.
It would be good for Gold and Leaf to have company. Reaching on tiptoes, I place the bowl on a platform, before climbing up onto it via a tiny ladder. There’s a covered slide, sloping downwards, from here.
It’s a playground built for kids, but it also faces the entrance of the apartment complex, where the cars enter. I can see the security guard slumped over on the desk on the guardhouse, taking a nap. It also means that I’ll know, when Kyungsoo is back.
The platform has four poles, one at each corner. They point towards the sky. I feel safe, between these four poles, curled up on this platform.
“I miss Kyungsoo,” I tell Gold and Leaf. “I miss him.”
It’s like today brought out things I don’t want to think about. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo. Chanyeol and Baekhyun. Kyungsoo and Baekhyun. Baekhyun and me, last time. Kyungsoo and me, and the very real possibility that this is all Kyungsoo can give me.
It’s like history repeating itself, with Chanyeol and Kyungsoo. Except this time it’s Kyungsoo and me, and I don’t have the choice of walking away like Chanyeol did.
Chanyeol talked about arcs, in his poem. About arcs being people twining together. I think of them as part of circles, which loop people around and around. Like fish in a fishbowl, path altered by glass.
I trace the curve of the fishbowl, and ask: “should I let you two go?”
It would be easy. Water into the drain, fishes back into water, where they belong.
But I don’t want to be alone now, not tonight. So I leave Gold and Leaf there, swimming in tandem, tails fluttering in the water.
“I miss Kyungsoo,” I say, and it’s funny how when I say that, I’m resigning myself to a night of waiting for him, here in the playground. Like caring for someone never comes without something extra attached to it; like love cannot be separated from disappointment, and hurt. Like feelings fill your heart and overflow, going back up your throat to choke you and seep from the back of your eyes. Escaping from you, losing them because you felt it so strongly.
Love and loss, never one without the other. I knew that, but now I understand it, I think.
I know it, and I’m going to protect myself from it.
Kyungsoo – I promise I’ll change (are you listening? It’s good that you’re not)
“What was that?” Suho asks bluntly.
Kyungsoo rattles through the cabinets, hunting for the vodka he knows Luhan has hidden away somewhere. The meeting had, of course, not gone well.
Xiumin knocks on the pantry door. “Kyungsoo.”
“I know,” Kyungsoo says. “It’s not happening again.”
“No,” Xiumin says. “That was Chanyeol, wasn’t it?”
Kyungsoo curses inwardly. Xiumin had known both of them, back in university.
His fingers hit a familiar bottle. Kyungsoo pulls it out, scattering the paper cups stacked in front of it.
“Chanyeol? That Chanyeol?” Suho frowns. “I meant the catboy that was shouting at you. Didn’t you adopt one lately? What happened?”
Kyungsoo pours himself a shot.
“You need a break,” Xiumin says, and Kyungsoo goes, “I don’t.”
“You will have one, if you don’t tell us what went on.” Suho crosses his arms. Kyungsoo’s known Suho long enough that he knows that Suho means what he says.
“Chanyeol’s living next to me,” he says, after downing a shot. It’s easier to talk when he can’t feel his throat. “That was his catboy screaming at me.”
“So it’s a three-way between you, Chanyeol and the catboy?”
“Fuck, Luhan!” Kyungsoo swears, in unison with Suho and Xiumin. Luhan picks his way between the three of them to pluck the vodka bottle out of Kyungsoo’s hand.
“This is mine,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “So, Kyungsoo?”
“It’s not,” Kyungsoo says defensively. “I wouldn’t touch Baekhyun, even if you gave me a year’s bonus.”
“So you are hooking up with Chanyeol,” Xiumin says.
“No!” Kyungsoo says. He’s thought about it, alone in the shower, a few times in the office toilets, when the stress was mounting and Kyungsoo just wanted to think about something that made him happy.
Most of the time, he thinks of Chen, though. Chen sleeping on the sofa, sometimes, shirt rucked up to expose a pale stomach. Chen in his bed, sleepily rolling over to make space for Kyungsoo.
Chen waiting, now that he thinks of it. Always waiting for him.
Kyungsoo feels sick. “I need another shot,” he says, holding out his cup.
“It’s three in the morning,” Suho says. “How are you going to drive home?”
“It’s two shots, I’m not going to get drunk.”
“We’ve all been sleeping less than four hours a day for the past two weeks,” Xiumin says. “You’re not having another shot.”
Kyungsoo clenches the paper cup in his fist, before he can stop himself. It crumples and folds in on itself.
“I agree,” Luhan says, shoving the bottle back into the cabinet.
Kyungsoo can’t deal with this. He hurt Chanyeol, so many years ago, and he’s hurting Chen, the same way again.
“I fucked up,” he confesses miserably. He’d never say it to anyone else, but he’s been with this team for over five years. They know about Chanyeol, and what happened.
“Is it the catboy?” Suho says, and Kyungsoo says, “yes, Suho, it’s the catboy.”
“You’re jealous.” Luhan leans against the counter, peering at Kyungsoo.
“Go away,” Kyungsoo says flatly, batting him away.
“I have my own catboy,” he says. “I’m jealous, yes, but I. I have my own catboy and I. Don’t want to lose him, like I lost Chanyeol. But I think it’s happening. I think I just can’t. I can’t give him the time he needs.”
“Don’t be a martyr,” Xiumin says briskly. “Take a day off. Anyone who contacts you will have their year-end bonus deducted. Got that, Suho and Luhan?”
Suho sighs. “Okay.” Luhan, surprisingly, doesn’t protest. He’s even stacking the cups back in place.
“Go home, Kyungsoo,” Xiumin says gently.
It’s that easy. Kyungsoo can’t wrap his mind around it, but he thinks of Chen. Chen and his face, when he said “I just wanted to see you.” The way he said it, it sounded like he didn’t expect an answer from Kyungsoo, or even expect Kyungsoo to understand. It sounded like he was saying, oh, I got it wrong. Doesn’t matter, goodbye.
Kyungsoo’s insides are crawling with guilt. He’s afraid to go back.
Kyungsoo’s bed is empty. He stares at the untouched bed, stomach clenching. Chen usually sleeps here, even if Kyungsoo doesn’t come home.
Chen’s door is slightly ajar. He pushes it open carefully.
It’s empty, inside, also.
Kyungsoo frowns. He scans the rest of the apartment, checking the kitchen and the bathroom. Chen’s not here.
It’s when he notices that the fishbowl isn’t there that he starts to think that something might be wrong. Chen adored those fishes.
“Kyungsoo?” Chanyeol unhitches the door chain and pulls it open. “What’s wrong?”
“Is Chen here?”
“No,” Chanyeol says.
Kyungsoo’s suddenly, instantly scared. Chanyeol must see some of it, because he asks – “isn’t he at home?” carefully. “Maybe he’s in the bathroom. Or searching for something in the storeroom.”
“He’s not,” Kyungsoo says.
“Chanyeol?” Baekhyun pokes his head out of their bedroom, sleep-tousled. “What’s-“
Chanyeol hesitates. Baekhyun sees Kyungsoo’s face and asks, “what’s wrong?” After a beat, “is it Chen?”
He pushes the door open and pads out on bare feet, Chanyeol’s shirt short on his thighs. “What happened to Chen?”
“I can’t find him,” Kyungsoo says, looking at Chanyeol.
“We’ll help,” Chanyeol says. “Baek, wait here –“
“I know him better than either of you,” Baekhyun says. “If I can’t find him, you can’t.” The last bit is directed at Kyungsoo.
Kyungsoo’s not here to fight. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Kyungsoo covers the gardens, Chanyeol the carpark, and Baekhyun the pool and the poolhouses.
“He’s not here,” Chanyeol says, when they gather back at the lift lobby. Kyungsoo’s so cold with fear. It’s four in the morning, and Chen’s not around. Where is he?
“Did he take anything? Clothes? Money?” Chanyeol asks.
“He-“ Might have run away. Kyungsoo doesn’t even dare to say it out loud. “Just the fishbowl,” he says.
“But he loved those fishes,” Baekhyun says. “Where would he go with them? Unless..” Baekhyun seems to think of something. He starts running.
Chanyeol and Kyungsoo follow. Baekhyun’s running towards the main entrance, and Kyungsoo’s praying, praying, praying for Chen not to have left him.
There’s a small playground, isolated from the rest of the complex. It lies near the entrance of the apartment.
From far away, Kyungsoo can see a figure curled up on the platform. He keeps running towards it, until he catches up with Baekhyun at the edge of the playground.
Chen’s curled up asleep, his chest rising and falling shallowly. The fishbowl sits beside his head, the two guppies chasing each other round and round inside of it. The glass magnifies Chen’s eyelashes, the furrow in his brow.
“Chen,” Baekhyun says. He’s darting up the green ladder to Chen. Kyungsoo’s suddenly envious, that he can be so open about how much Chen means to him.
“Don’t do this again,” Chanyeol says to Kyungsoo. They stand together, watching Baekhyun lean over Chen, gently shaking him awake.
“I still want you,” Chanyeol says. “I don’t think I’ve ever stopped. But every time I look at Chen, I think he deserves you more. Because he’s willing to wait, while I wasn’t. It feels like this is the past and we’re cycling through it again, but I don’t want the same ending for you. And I want another ending for myself but we can’t have that now, so I want a better one for Chen. Please, Kyungsoo, please treat him better than you treated me.”
Chanyeol has never said anything like this to Kyungsoo before. Nothing so honest. It’s like a slap, a slap that returns Kyungsoo to their past, and everything Kyungsoo should have said but never said; everything Chanyeol knew would hurt Kyungsoo if he said, and had never said, either.
“I didn’t want to hurt you,” Kyungsoo says, throat clogged. “Chanyeol.”
“We’re past that,” Chanyeol says. “Aren’t we? Kyungsoo, be good to Chen.” He starts to walk forward, past Kyungsoo to Baekhuyn.
It had been four in the morning, too, when Kyungsoo had said to Chanyeol – “this is good, this is good for both of us”, and left hastily in his car, leaving Chanyeol standing on his friend’s doorstep in his sleeping clothes. It feels like that day all over again, Kyungsoo leaving behind someone he loved without even saying goodbye.
It’s like he’s not thinking. Kyungsoo catches Chanyeol’s arm, pulling him up short. “I love you,” Kyungsoo says, quietly, over Chen’s confused “Baekhyun?” and Baekhyun’s hearfelt “Chen.”
He lets go off Chanyeol’s arm, then, moving forward towards Baekhyun and Chen.
Chanyeol swears under his breath behind him.
Kyungsoo has no idea what he’s doing.
Chen’s content with Baekhyun. He turns his face away from Kyungsoo, ignoring him.
“Go home,” Chanyeol says. He holds Kyungsoo’s hand this time. “If you meant what you said – go home. And –“ he hesitates. “Read that book again.”
This is more than Chanyeol has ever asked of Kyungsoo.
Kyungsoo grew up reading. It was like listening to people speak, people who said I am here, I hurt, I am. I hurt, and nothing you say can diminish this.
Sometimes Kyungsoo would find a book that sketched how he felt so perfectly, reading it felt like stripping off a layer of skin to expose the raw nerves beneath.
This is a book Kyungsoo’s scared to reread, because it makes him think and feel things he wants to keep hidden away.
This isn’t a book Kyungsoo thought he would be afraid of. It’s about an alcoholic woman going to London and living off men for money.
But there are entire passages Kyungsoo’s scared of reading.
of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I had got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?
It was like the book itself had a smell, like the words blurred and marched across the pages, off the pages, tearing down the facades until you saw your world for the sham it is.
it was like letting go and falling back into water and seeing yourself grinning through the water, your face like a mask, and seeing the bubbles coming up as if you were trying to speak from under the water. And how do you know what it’s like to try to speak from under water when you’re drowned?’
Kyungsoo thinks of him and work and fear and money. Of how it feels, to be good at something and feel next to nothing for it. Not hatred, not distaste. Merely an interchangeability, like he could be doing anything and it would be the same. It wouldn’t make a difference to Kyungsoo.
Most of all, the tiredness would pass. The tiredness would always pass, once the digits ticked up in the bank account.
Kyungsoo’s not being sarcastic. He’s not being impractical. He’s being very practical. He would not be happy living in a run-down house, having to fix his light switches with duct tape. He would not be happy, not having money to send back to his parents and to watch his brothers have to do part-time, night-shift work to pay their university bills. He would not be happy, to have to scavenge for cheap suits and skip meals to pay for his electricity bill.
But there were also passages like,
The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop-windows, but when they stopped to look you saw their eyes were fixed on the future. ‘If I could buy this, then of course I’d be quite different’. Keep hope alive and you can do anything, and that’s the way the world goes round, that’s the way they keep the world rolling. So much hope for each person. And damned cleverly done too.
But what happens if you don’t hope any more, if your back’s broken? What happens then?
Hope, Kyungsoo knows very well, is the greatest sham invented. It’s always hope, that if he gets better suits and good cufflinks, learns to speak with the right accent, people will see him for who he is. A good person. A capable person that can be trusted. That’s why Kyungsoo works hard. That’s why Kyungsoo works harder than anyone else.
It will all work out one day, and Kyungsoo will be happy. One day.
Inside everything, Kyungsoo knows, is fear. Fear that he’s going to let his parents and their hopes for him down. It’s fear that if Kyungsoo does something different, he’ll never be able to get back on the right career track again; a career that will let him retire comfortably and let him have the ability to travel anywhere he wants to. Freedom, at last. Kyungsoo’s just keeping himself safe for the future. So he can enjoy freedom, forty years down the road.
Kyungsoo needs to look good and work hard. This way, people won’t look at him and ask him why he’s doing what he’s doing, like Kyungsoo made a wrong choice and is lucky not to be digging through trash for food. This way, people will leave him alone, and Kyungsoo can finally be free.
He just needs to agree, now, to keep in line for now. He’ll be free one day.
Kyungsoo’s halfway through the book and he thinks, I can’t finish this. He’s choking on the smell of the words, like paper left alone for too many years. He can’t finish it because he knows that if he does, his hard-won satisfaction with all he has will be pulled to bits, and he’ll not. Just not be. He’ll have the sleepness nights and the cold gnawing at his heart again, the restlessness that keeps him writing poems even though his eyes blur and his head hurts and it’s another day at the office tomorrow, he needs to sleep early.
It’s been so many years. Kyungsoo feels like he hasn’t grown up at all.
There’s knocking on the door.
Kyungsoo knows it’s Chanyeol. He unlatches the door and walks right into –
“Hey!” Baekhyun says, clutching the fishbowl protectively. Water splashes out of the side of the bowl, drenching his hands.
“It’s you,” Kyungsoo says.
Baekhyun thrusts the fishbowl at Kyungsoo.
“Where’s Chanyeol?” Kyungsoo asks.
“He’s cooking.” Baekhyun offers the fishbowl again. “Take it!”
Kyungsoo really, really wants to see Chanyeol.
“You look like crap,” Baekhyun says. “Take it, and I’ll call him over.”
“Why would you-“ Kyungsoo shakes his head, hard. “I love him. I told him that, just now.”
The fishbowl hits the ground in a tinkle of glass, water and two flying fishes.
“Fuck,” Kyungsoo groans. He runs indoors and grabs the nearest mug he finds, filling it in the kitchen sink.
Baekhyun’s cradling the fishes in his hands, when Kyungsoo comes back.
“Put it in here,” Kyungsoo says, extending the mug. “And – stay there. I’ll get you slippers.”
“I don’t want anything,” Baekhyun says. He dumps the fishes into the mug. “Chanyeol’s mine,” He says fiercely. “You left him.”
Kyungsoo drags the doormat over, placing it on top of the broken glass. The fishes go on the floor in the entryway, coupled with a silent prayer for them to be alright. “I know,” he says. “I know. I know that.”
Baekhyun steps carefully onto Kyungsoo’s front porch, avoiding the glass.
There are cuts on his legs, from the broken glass.
“Come in,” Kyungsoo says. He’s already walking in before Baekhyun can say no.
Baekhyun stands in the entryway as Kyungsoo climbs into his hall closet, searching for the first-aid kit. He has to rummage through it and check the expiry dates on the tubes before he brings it out (it’s been how long?).
Baekhyun speaks, as Kyungsoo picks out the glass with metal forceps from his leg.
“What do you want? Chanyeol? Chen?”
There isn’t a lot of glass. Kyungsoo breathes an internal sigh of relief. “I don’t know,” he says. “What do you want? Chanyeol? Chen?”
Because Kyungsoo’s so close to Baekhyun, he can see Baekhyun’s leg twitch.
“I know it’s not fair,” Kyungsoo says. “I’m – going to take care of Chen. First. I – “ he fumbles with the tubes, checking the labels. Whichever says antiseptic.
“Chanyeol has you,” he says. “Chen doesn’t. Not really. Not now.”
“I grew up with him. I can take care of him.”
“He was alone in the playground for hours before anyone noticed. That’s not – that’s on me, I should have.” Kyungsoo makes himself say it. “I wasn’t there. But I should have been.”
“I don’t trust you,” Baekhyun says. “I don’t trust you because you don’t take care of people you care about. You just let them walk away, all the time. Chanyeol – if you had told him, any time before he adopted me, that you cared for him, he would have taken you back. If you had said to Chen – come home with me, please – he would have let you take him. Why don’t you ever fight for the people you want?”
Fear. Kyungsoo already knows the answer, himself. “Because I’m not good for them.”
“You haven’t even tried.” Baekhyun sounds genuinely puzzled.
“I don’t know, okay?” Kyungsoo squeezes out the cream onto a cotton bud and begins applying it gently. None of the cuts look deep. Just painful.
“Just bear with it,” Kyungsoo mutters.
“That’s you, not me. Ouch!” Baekhyun complains.
Kyungsoo hides a smile. Out of the four of them, Baekhyun’s the only one who has guts. Chen dares to do things for people, but not for himself. Rarely for himself. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo both are good at avoiding problems.
“Are you laughing at me?”
“No,” Kyungsoo says. “Just wishing I could be more like you.”
Baekhyun falls silent, tail swishing uncomfortably. Kyungsoo can see why Chanyeol and Chen like Baekhyun so much. You always know where you stand with him.
“We used to move in and out of foster homes.” Baekhyun says. “Chen was a bit older, looked a bit more responsible. So people would ask things of him. Would expect him to keep me in line. And he thought, people cared, so he tried. But I was always a handful, and. We kept moving. And Chen would do this thing where he’d just watch out for both of us, and not pay attention to the fosterers. He got – he’d give people one chance, then he’d stop listening to them. Cut them off. They couldn’t change his mind, and – why would people want to foster cats who are just strangers under their own roof? We got sent to the shelter, once we were old enough. If you don’t talk to Chen, I can’t help you.”
“You’re going to help me?” Kyungsoo looks curiously up at Baekhyun, who flushes. “No. But both of them won't let go of you.”
“Thank you,” Kyungsoo says quietly.
Chanyeol’s house has the same layout as Kyungsoo’s. A living room, a kitchen, a few bedrooms. It’s different, though. Messier. More eclectic. Chanyeol’s writing has overtaken a wall in the living room now; it’s plastered with papers, stuck by blu-tack on the wall. Blue and black ink and pencil and a whole wall of words, looming over everyone.
Kyungsoo should get curtains, for this side of the wall.
Kyungsoo opens the door to the guest room – Chen’s room is still the guest room, no matter which house it is.
Chen’s sleeping, so Kyungsoo falls asleep next to him as well, fully dressed.
Chen’s half-upright, propped on pillows. He’s staring at Kyungsoo, when Kyungsoo wakes up.
“Hey.” Kyungsoo fumbles for his mobile phone, on the bedstand. It’s ringing.
“Hey, Kyungsoo. How’s everything? The catboy, and Chanyeol?”
“We’ll come over tonight. Buy dinner. Give you some moral support.”
“That’s not a – fuckin’ Suho,” Kyungsoo sighs. The dial tone rings in his ear.
“I’m not leaving,” Kyungsoo says, catching sight of Chen’s expression. “They just want to meet you.”
Kyungsoo honestly can’t tell what Chen is thinking. Chen’s good at that, but Kyungsoo only just realized. Chen’s very careful about what he shows others. That doesn’t mean that he’s dishonest or he hides. He’s just wary.
“You need to tell me,” Kyungsoo says. “You need to tell me when I’m hurting you.”
Chen’s gaze skitters away.
“I’m not going to let go of you,” Kyungsoo says. “Not until you tell me to go away.”
“Don’t make promises,” Chen says. “I don’t want promises.”
“Okay,” Kyungsoo says. “Okay.”
Chen – there’s no hope without fear (I’ll walk your darkness with you)
“What do you want to do today?” Kyungsoo asks, eventually.
I don’t really know. When you grow up with someone, like I did with Baekhyun, you share interests. Interest wasn’t just interest – it was whether we could share that interest.
Baekhyun liked running around. Finding new places, and exploring them. I liked that, too. We would scare our fosterers half to death. Sometimes we wouldn’t go home for a few days.
I don’t want that with Kyungsoo, though. I want to tell him about growing up with Baekhyun, about missing Baekhyun sometimes, like when I have to stand up and go home after a day at their apartment and leave the two of them alone. About going with Chanyeol to school and meeting Sehun and Kai. Being amazed that these cats can get into university, as well. Wondering if I can do the same.
I want to tell him these because I feel uncertain about where I am. Chanyeol’s apartment is a quiet dream that has stretched through many months, keeping me safe with him and Baekhyun. It makes up for moments that I miss Kyungsoo. But this sun-soaked place with the fans whirring in the living room and papers full of ink and pencil underfoot, no matter where you walk, is too good to be true. It’s too good to be true because I can feel the strings of attachment being strung tight, morphing into tension.
There are secrets I can’t tell Baekhyun, or Chanyeol. How I like to sit in the dark in Kyungsoo’s apartment, only the faint light from the clock lighting Gold and Leaf’s fishbowl. How I play games with myself, seeing how well I can sketch the spaces between bed and cupboard and table and lamp with tentative arms and legs and tail with the lights off. It’s so – still, so unmoving, I feel that I’m a kitten again and the world around me is something I can’t make sense of. How I like to sit in the bathroom and breathe as icy water falls, feeling the cold tiles and glass around me. This is my way of shutting away the empty apartment – in the dark, it’s now fun. Not lonely.
I can’t tell them this, because I would have to explain. And I would have to show them bits of me that I want to bury deep and suffocate by sheer force of will. I have to tell Baekhyun, I miss sharing his life with him. I feel happy that he’s happy with someone, but I feel sad, too, because there are parts of his life that I have no place in. I have to tell Chanyeol that I’m jealous that when he talks to me, it’s about Kyungsoo and Baekhyun. I don’t want to carry this pain with him but I don’t want him to pretend it doesn’t exist, either.
And I feel like I want something of my own, too. I feel like everyone’s moving on with their life, and if I look too closely at my own I can’t see anything there. I’m a cat that can walk and talk and breathe but it feels like none of these might mean anything.
It’s not the same, talking to Gold and Leaf.
I want to sketch my days with words to someone, so it feels like I lived them. So they feel more real.
“I want to swing on the hammock,” I say.
Kyungsoo raises an eyebrow. “That’s all?”
I don’t want to go out and do things and – be happy, and then leave the places and leave the happiness behind as well. I just want to be here, in Chanyeol’s apartment, eyes closed in the hammock. Feeling the rocking movement and the strings against my skin, holding me tight.
“No,” I say. “I’m hungry.”
“Okay.” Kyungsoo says. He pats my thigh. “I can do that.” He cooks for me, sometimes. I think he must have cooked together with Chanyeol, because they cook the same things.
I’m swinging in the hammock when Kyungsoo comes out with food. It’s simple food – sandwiches cut into chunks, packed with lettuce, tomato, cheese and tuna. Lightly toasted in the oven, so the cheese clings to the vegetables and the bread is warm when you bite into it. There’s soup as well, mushroom soup cooked with real mushrooms and cream and butter and just a bit of salt.
Kyungsoo’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, beside me. He’s pulled the circular, lumpy rug with a fat grey mouse over. The hammock’s slung low enough that my face is almost at the same height as Kyungsoo’s. I peer at him through the netting.
He feeds me, piece by piece. I should be embarrassed – no one has fed us, not since we were kittens – but it’s not – it doesn’t mean anything. He’s just here and focused on me and the food, alternately popping pieces in his own mouth and mine. We’re both too hungry for this to mean anything.
“Soup’s hot,” Kyungsoo warns, blowing on the spoon. He takes a sip, then pops the whole spoon in his mouth.
“Hey!” I say indignantly, propping myself up on my elbows. The hammock wobbles.
“Mm?” Kyungsoo opens his eyes wide at me. “It’s good.”
“Give it to me.”
“Tyrant,” Kyungsoo says, passing me the bowl anyway.
Kyungsoo starts to look around, as I’m drinking the soup. I want to ask him where he learnt to cook, but he gets this look on his face. A funny, tight look he has when he looks at Chanyeol, sometimes.
It’s the wall he’s staring at. The wall that Chanyeol plastered with writings - prose, poetry. Every two weeks Chanyeol will clear up the wall, removing all the writing that doesn’t appeal to him. He stores them in huge clear files, in the spare bedroom.
“We used to –“ Kyungsoo waves his hand at the wall. “Chanyeol used to have this in his room.”
He gets to his feet, pacing over to take a piece of paper off the wall. That section is the section Chanyeol uses for his ninetail poetry, I know. The series of nine poems he’s working on now.
Kyungsoo stands there, framed by Chanyeol’s handwriting and pencil and blue ink, staring at the piece of paper in his hand.
“Can I see it, too?”
Kyungsoo looks like he’s going to say no, but he crosses the room to me. “Move over,” he says. I sit up, and we’re both sitting on the hammock, the netting creaking under our combined weight. Our feet can brush the rug below, if we try.
Train ride (glass)
We take the train, today
sky clear above and
you, staring through me,
fingers balanced on mine.
I catch the lift of your lips
You smiling, saying you’re
Fine, and it lasts as long as
It takes for the call to end.
I mirror you. The hunch of shoulders,
As our foreheads meet. The quiet,
Slow, gasps as
And rushes back again, lungs squeezing
You lose the words. I have no new ones
Not here, not in this tunnel, not here narrowed
to you and I, not these arctic fireworks
that explode, everywhere
we touch, raining
that numb. I am
hit, and so are you. Not these words.
Only those I didn’t mean
And those you didn’t say.
“We fought on the train before,” Kyungsoo says. “He’s using this –“ Kyungsoo draws invisible lines on the paper.
“It’s about a person on a train that’s going into a tunnel. He receives a bad call and he’s leaning on the glass to catch his breath. So Chanyeol’s writing from the perspective of glass – which is why the person can look through it, the glass watches him and mirrors whatever he’s doing – and in the darkness, sensation is heightened. There are pinpricks of cold when you touch glass, which is why he calls it arctic fireworks. The use of the word raining further intensifies the sensation of cold and wet, contrasting nicely with the expectation of heat and sparks that usually comes with fireworks. He’s saying I treated him like he was a piece of glass, on that journey. And it was impossible to talk, for both of us.”
“So he – thought about all these as he was writing?”
“Maybe.” Kyungsoo smiles, wryly. “He asked me before. How I wrote. I told him that he needed to have something to say, and if he didn’t, no synonym.com or dictionary.com or stack of Shakespearean sonnets or Radiohead lyrics could help him. He came back a few weeks later with a poem.”
“What was it?” I scan the walls, curious.
“Him playing music.” The wry smile doesn’t leave Kyungsoo’s lips. “Starting with drums, because it was loud enough to drown out his parents fighting.”
Chanyeol hasn’t talked about his family, come to think about it.
“He didn’t get along with them.” Kyungsoo says. “But it was a good poem.”
“What was your first poem?” I ask.
“It was a bad one,” Kyungsoo says. “I wrote about pokemon. I was trying to, uhm, write lyrics for a new pokemon theme song. And I said halfway, let’s make it a poem, but it didn’t turn out well.”
Baekhyun and I used to catch Pokemon every Saturday morning, at ten, on the kid’s channel.
“I want to see it.”
“You don’t,” Kyungsoo promises.
“It’s in those boxes in my bedroom, right?”
Kyungsoo shares so many habits with Chanyeol. He should have kept all his old writing, as well. I bet it’s in clear files as well.
The last box, the one tucked away in the corner, contains Kyungsoo’s writing. I can see him putting it on the passenger seat, next to him. Lifting it from his car first, before all the other boxes, and then hiding it below everything else later on.
There are stacks and stacks and stacks of clear files inside, neatly labelled by year, or by contents. Kyungsoo wrote so much.
It’s hot in here. It’s generally hot in Singapore in the afternoon. In Chanyeol’s apartment, we would usually pile into a bedroom and switch on the air-conditioner for a few hours. Here, with only a single fan creaking in the corner, it’s boiling.
Kyungsoo’s fascinated by his writing. He’s sitting cross-legged on the bed, sorting through the stacks of paper. The heat doesn’t seem to bother him.
“Why did you stop writing?”
Kyungsoo does this laugh that is sort of a sigh as well. “I went to work.”
“You can write, after work.”
“It’s tiring.” Kyungsoo says. “It’s...tiring, to not be able to tell the people around you what you’re doing. People go on about economies and mortgages, and I’m all about line breaks and synonyms. And I have to be the one that talks in two languages, one that’s about diction and tone and rhythm, and the other about regulations and the right equations for balance sheets. Like all languages, when you move to a different country you start using one more than the other. One language becomes more and more foreign, and one day you realize you’ve forgotten certain words. That’s just it. It’s nobody’s –fault. That’s just it. I made a choice.”
Kyungsoo still doesn’t look happy about it. I flip through the poems on the bed quietly, regretting asking that question.
“Hey.” Kyungsoo taps my tail. “What would you write about?”
“I don’t write,” I say. “But... Baekhyun.”
It’s only been Baekhyun, all my life. Who else would it be?
People have places they remember. I have a person instead, because we kept moving. The places didn’t look the same but they felt the same. Less real and solid than Baekhyun, somehow.
If I wasn’t so scared of losing Baekhyun, I wouldn’t have shown up on Kyungsoo’s doorstep and demanded that he take me in.
Kyungsoo’s looking at me like he didn’t expect that. I don’t know why he’s surprised.
On the bed, Kyungsoo rests his head on mine. He lets me pick the pieces I want to read. I choose with my eyes closed, feeling for paper beneath my fingertips.
There’s notepaper, ruled paper. Blank paper. The back of printed pages, filled with small and crabbed handwriting.
Chanyeol writes about reality; Kyungsoo’s genre is fantasy. He has dark little tales that start ordinary, before reality starts tearing at the seams, bleeding mystery and slow horror. He takes places like schools, cafes, fields, homes – normal places – and upends them, turning them strange.
I like his fairytales the best. He rewrites or writes sequels to fairytales, slicing the happy ending apart and showing the rot inside.
I’m just repeating what Kyungsoo says. He rereads his stories, just as I’m reading them for the first time. He tells me when he wrote it, and why, and how to read it.
“Diction,” he says. “Choosing the right words. Imagery – images convey a story in a way words cannot – tone, authorial tone – most of the narrators sound like me – symbols. Images that have a commonly assigned meaning to them. Structure – how is this story shaped?”
It’s hard to see it, at first. But Kyungsoo’s persistent and I can tell it means a lot to him, that I try to understand what he’s saying. So I listen and ask questions, even though I just want to read a story on its own and be taken away by it.
It starts to make a bit of sense, over a few stories. It’s like my mind’s beginning to see the words in a different way.
“You have to ask yourself – how does this story make you feel? Why do you feel this way? It’s all words. The way the words are arranged, what the words mean to you – that’s how stories work. And if you can start to grasp how words work, you know how people use words on you. How society uses words on you. It’s like talking to yourself, analysing a story. I’m asking myself, why, and when I get an answer I know. I know why I’m sad. I know why I’m upset. I know why I’m all pumped up, excited. Or angry. I know and I’m no longer just a listener for the story. I’m a partner, I’m letting it work on me – or if I don’t like what the story’s saying, I’m keeping it away. I know.”
I’m borrowing Kyungsoo’s faith in words – it feels like he’s speaking the truth. It feels like I might understand what he’s saying, if I keep trying.
There are no love poems, though. Still, like a ghost, Chanyeol’s present; his wide smile in a playful schoolboy, his care for Kyungsoo in a sparrow spirit, Kyungsoo’s love for him in how well he sketches these characters. Pieces and pieces of Chanyeol, rendered in words, across so much. So many pages, so much time. So much emotion.
There’s a different story, under all of these. There’s one story, which is how much Kyungsoo loved Chanyeol.
When I think back to today, I will remember this - Kyungsoo, in a nest of papers and words, missing Chanyeol.
I don’t want that. I want memories of my own.
I touch Kyungsoo. Push him to the bed and sit on him, crotch to crotch.
This is the best way I can say, think of me. I stare down at his surprised face, and wonder why I’m bothered by all these - memories, paper, Chanyeol. Kyungsoo thinking of Chanyeol.
I bend, until we’re face to face. Press my lips to his, with purpose. Move slowly, until he starts kissing back.
His hand tightens on my thigh, pushing the material of my sleeping shorts up. Open-handed touches have a way of – seeming to touch more than they really are. This one makes me tense.
I break away, not knowing why. I had boyfriends before, and it was – I could do what I needed to do. I wasn’t bad at it.
Chanyeol, and Kyungsoo.
“It’s okay,” Kyungsoo says, lifting a hand to brush my right cheekbone. “It’s okay. This is enough.”
It’s not. I don’t know when he’ll be around again. With Kyungsoo, everything is temporary.
I hold his wrist tight. I can do this.
It’s fine, I say, except it comes out as – “I don’t want you to think about Chanyeol.”
Kyungsoo’s staring. This time, when I dip down to lick along his lips, he doesn’t stop me. He holds the back of my head and keeps me there.
He tastes like soup and bread. I like the warmth of his mouth, the roughness of his tongue, the tiny tears in the skin of his lips. I like it all.
“You’re not Chanyeol,” he says, when he lets me go for breath. “I know that.”
This room is hot, like a monsoon downpour. Like everything that happens here comes and clouds and leaves, without leaving a trace.
When we go out at last, Chanyeol and Baekhyun have the fish tank set up in our living room. Kyungsoo must have given them the key.
It’s a proper tank, this time, with a filtration system, water, colored pebbles and even a small rock with holes inside for the fish to swim in. The two guppies are floating near the surface of the water, motionless except for small twitches of their tails.
Baekhyun passes me a can of fish food.
It’s different, the way he looks at me. Like he doesn’t know what to think.
I think I recognize it. It’s the look I got, the first time I realized Chanyeol and Baekhyun were having sex.
Kyungsoo and I haven’t. But it’s none of Baekhyun’s business, what we do.
Kyungsoo – come, come lover(s)
Luhan’s useful here, at least. He introduces them - Suho, Luhan, Xiumin, and asks for everyone’s names. Kyungsoo retreats to the kitchen to take drinks and count chairs – he hardly has visitors, he doesn’t have more than two chairs in his entire apartment.
Chanyeol’s shouldering the door open, chairs in his arms, when Kyungsoo returns to the living room. Chen, Baekhyun and Suho are on the floor before the fish tank, watching Gold and Leaf swim around.
Luhan has made himself at home on Kyungsoo’s couch.
“Hey,” Xiumin says. “We brought food.”
“Thanks,” Kyungsoo says. He doesn’t have much in his fridge, anyway.
“You’re on leave,” Xiumin says. “I locked your email account down too, if you didn’t notice.”
Kyungsoo hasn’t noticed. It’s a new feeling.
“Now that you’ve adopted a cat, spend more time with him. He chose you.”
Kyungsoo knows this. Legislation regarding cats has changed in recent years. In just two decades, following the Kai Act, cats are no longer luxury items to be owned – there’s a growing push for their integration into society, both in terms of education and jobs. It’s still a legal requirement for cats to have owners, though they get to choose now.
“I will.” Kyungsoo shuffles uncomfortably from foot to foot. Kyungsoo’s still worried that he can’t, though he knows he has to try.
“I was always waiting for you to come to talk to me about the job,” Xiumin says. “I know our work can get intense, but Kyungsoo, you take it to a new level. I think it’s good that we have a talk about what you want from this job and how I can help you - be a bit happier, after you go back.”
Inwardly, Kyungsoo winces. The thought of going back is something he doesn’t want to think about now. Not here, with Chen in the same room.
“What did you buy?” He says instead.
“Local food,” Xiumin says. “I know you only buy salad, burgers, pizza... It’s appalling, honestly.”
Kyungsoo really hasn’t eaten much local food. He’s hasn’t really thought about it, to be honest.
Kyungsoo’s kitchen doesn’t have a table, so Xiumin and Kyungsoo unload the Styrofoam boxes onto his coffee table.
“You don’t even have a tv!”
“I have a laptop,” Kyungsoo says. “And Vpn, and Netflix.”
“So what’s good lately?” Xiumin asks.
“What’s all this?” Kyungsoo asks, opening the boxes.
“Liar,” Xiumin says calmly. “Ah – food? Chinese cuisine, I guess. People tend to buy a few dishes and share them.”
“It’s called zi char,” Chanyeol says, eyes gleaming. “Literally boil cook – my students took me to this awesome place behind the university – you got the salted egg cuttlefish and the sweet and sour ribs let me looove you–“
“Some vegetables, too,” Suho says. He bends over the food, searching for the right packet. “They fry it with a kind of chilli.”
“How?” Kyungsoo asks.
“You’re always buried in your work, making the rest of us look bad,” Luhan says, lazily waving Chen’s cushion around. “It’s so hard to get you to even come for lunch.”
Baekhyun and Chen are gone. Kyungsoo spins around, pulse accelerating, until he sees them through the open doorway of his apartment. Side by side, tails swishing in unison, they’re both peering over the metal railing, at the swimming pool below.
Chen says something, and Baekhyun laughs.
When Kyungsoo asked Chen what he wanted to write, he hadn’t expected Chen to say Baekhyun. He’d thought... childhood, perhaps. Food. Colors. Memories. Not a living, breathing person. But it made sense. Chen and Baekhyun had relied on each other for so long. Back in the shelter, Kyungsoo had already seen how close they were. Chen could anticipate, before Baekhyun even knew, what Baekhyun wanted. Chen would pass Baekhyun water, or biscuits, or extra blankets when it was cold at night. Baekhyun made Chen more comfortable, when he was there. Quicker to laugh. Louder, too.
“Kyungsoo!” Chen waves at him. “Baekhyun and I are going to swim downstairs!”
“Let’s all go,” Luhan says, appearing creepily at Kyungsoo’s shoulder and scaring the heck out of Kyungsoo.
“I brought a beach ball!” Suho calls, from indoors. Kyungsoo doesn’t know any of these people. Who brings a beach ball to an apartment complex?
Chen dunks Luhan underwater, managing to hold him down for a few seconds before Luhan slips loose.
“You little-“ His rant is cut off as he falls face-first, arms flailing.
Baekhyun surfaces, giggling. Chen and him exchange fist-bumps.
Suho has his phone out, recording them.
“Poor man,” Chanyeol says. Kyungsoo and him are by the side of the pool, legs in the water. Kyungsoo’s kicking the water lazily to warm himself up.
“He deserves it,” Kyungsoo reassures him.
“Xiumin!” Luhan yells, bobbing to the surface again. His carefully styled hair is plastered to his scalp, water pouring off the ends. “Xiumin!”
“I’m coming,” Xiumin says, jumping in. Kyungsoo has no idea how. The water’s freezing, even under the scorching Singaporean sun.
“Stay out of this,” Chen warns, pointing a finger at Xiumin. “Or face the wrath of the sea twins – “
“Are you Ursula, or Ariel?” Baekhyun asks. With both hands, he gropes Chen’s hair, pulling it into spikes. “Ursula, for sho, sister.”
“Byun Baekhyun,” Chen sings, turning on him. He grabs Baekhyun by the waist and sends both of them toppling into the water. There’s frothing, the water churning, before they break the surface again. Chen’s sucking in huge gasps of air, Baekhyun clinging like a limpet to him.
“Baeeekhyun,” Chen whines, as they sink back in again.
Kyungsoo’s considering going in – it’s not healthy, spending so much time underwater – but Xiumin’s already there.
He holds Chen and Baekhyun apart, hand under their arms.
“They’re just playing!” Chanyeol yells. “No need to be too hard on them!”
“No, I think...” Kyungsoo trails off, as Xiumin winks at him. Xiumin had said, if Kyungsoo had read his lips correctly –
“Twin terrors,” Luhan mutters, dog-paddling slowly towards them. “Good job, Xiumin.”
Xiumin smiles, tousling Luhan’s hair the moment he’s within reach.
“Hey, stop that,” Luhan says, batting at his hand. Chen and Baekhyun are drifting closer, one on each side of Luhan.
“Sorry,” Xiumin says sunnily, before he pushes Luhan’s head down. The cats each grab one of Luhan’s shoulders, pushing him downwards.
“Sneaky,” Chanyeol says in awe. Kyungsoo had seen right. Xiumin had said, “let’s pants Luhan.”
Sure enough, the three of them duck underwater. There’s a lot of kicking, Luhan surfacing desperately to yell at Suho - @#$%^ $$$$ - but a thin scrap of material, black with hot pink stripes, bobs to the surface of the pool, floating slowly away from the commotion.
“There are kids around here!” Kyungsoo hollers. He likes this complex, he doesn’t want to get kicked out.
Chanyeol’s laughing so hard he slips and falls into the pool (with a bit of a push from an irritated Kyungsoo).
“Go and get it!” Kyungsoo says, pointing. Chanyeol advances closer, instead.
“No. No. It’s cold-“ Kyungsoo yanks his legs out of the water, but Chanyeol catches hold of them and drags him in. He’s – he still moves closer, though, puts a hand on the back of Kyungsoo’s head and lets him fall against his chest, so Kyungsoo doesn’t hit the back of his head on the edge of the pool.
Kyungsoo’s gasping. From the fall, from the water. From the feeling of Chanyeol’s bare skin against his and the hot sun and the freezing water. Instinctively, he presses closer to Chanyeol, tangling their legs together. It’s cold.
Chanyeol’s laughter dies away, soon enough.
Kyungsoo – hears Chanyeol, feels him speak, as well.
There is nothing more that Kyungsoo has regretted letting go, other than Chanyeol. Not even writing.
Everything’s still fresh in Kyungsoo’s mind, as he disentangles himself from Chanyeol. Reading all those stories again brought the years with Chanyeol back to him. Having him and Chanyeol touch, now, dissolves the present into the past.
“I love you,” Kyungsoo says, looking up at Chanyeol. Looking him in the eye. “I’m sorry I let you go.”
He swims away from Chanyeol, towards the rest of the people. Everyone’s staring at them, frozen in a tableau. Suho’s holding Luhan’s pants and the camera, Luhan has his legs wrapped around Xiumin’s waist – Chen and Baekhyun watch, but they aren’t onlookers. Not really, anymore.
Baekhyun breaks away from the knot of people, paddling towards Chanyeol.
Kyungsoo can read Chen’s expression, now – he’s confused. Scared. Wondering. Hurt.
He lets Kyungsoo hug him, fists resting on the small of Kyungsoo’s back. From the corner of his eye, Kyungsoo can see Baekhyun raising a hand to Chanyeol’s face, wiping at his eyes.
Kyungsoo might never be able to let Chanyeol go, but he should try. For both of them, and also, for Chen and Baekhyun.
Chen – come, come, lover (s)
The lights go off, when Baekhyun and I are bathing after the swim.
I’m not worried. I’ve done this so many times before – turned off the lights and made my way through Kyungsoo’s apartment in the dark. Bathed, ate, slept without even brushing a switch. It’s like I don’t even notice, when the lights are out, because everything’s the same and will always be the same.
You can do everything in the dark, if you’re used to it.
That’s not true for Baekhyun. He gropes around, fingers landing on the slippery skin of my hip.
“Be careful,” I say, catching his fingers in mine. They’re wet and foamy from his shampoo. It smells like milk, in here. It’s good that neither of us is scared of the dark.
“It’s cold,” Baekhyun says.
“Mm.” I pass his fingers to my left hand, then grope for the lever with my right.
The water’s hot and sudden, punctuated by a hissing noise as it hits the shower floor. Hastily, I turn the lever – it’s too hot -
Baekhyun sighs. His elbow hits my hip, then he’s pressed against me, sharing the spray.
It’s not – Baekhyun and I grew up with each other. But it’s different, here, when I can’t see him. When I can feel his wet legs against mine, pressed closely together from feet to legs to thigh to hip.
Baekhyun leans past me to adjust the lever. His head bumps against my chest, wet hair rough.
“Hey!” Any hotter and my skin’s going to peel off. I can feel it pinking already, from the heat.
“It’s cold,” Baekhyun whines.
I tug him closer, hand slipping around his bare waist. “It’s not, you’re just not under the water-“
“ouch,” Baekhyun agrees, voice suddenly next to my ear. “turn it down-“
We both breathe in relief as the temperature slips back to something more comfortable.
Baekhyun turns, and I’m conscious of him – cock, balls and all - against my hip. Baekhyun, too, because he mumbles a sorry.
“You and Kyungsoo had sex?”
I want to lie to him, but I don’t, in the end. He takes silence as an answer, though.
“Ow – yah, yah, yah – Byun Baekhyun” – it takes me stamping on his feet before he stops biting my shoulder.
“What was that?” I can actually trace teethmarks on my left shoulder.
Baekhyun’s grip on my hand is so tight it’s painful.
“Chenn,” he whines.
“What is it?” I ask, grudgingly. I should ignore him, the brat.
“What if Chanyeol moves away, one day?”
I should have – I should have expected this.
“Where are you going?”
“I said if. The writing residency isn’t permanent, and this house isn’t Chanyeol’s.”
“Oh.” The water feels good on my face, drowning words before they crawl out of my mouth.
“Will you come with us?” Baekhyun presses.
I didn’t think of it. I don’t want to think about it, because it makes me feel awful and small and more than a bit scared. I want to say no, but there’s Kyungsoo. I want to say yes, but there’s Chanyeol and Baekhyun.
“Don’t know,” I say. It comes out muffled and unhappy.
Baekhyun touches my shoulder, then there are lips on my cheek, fingers turning my head to face his. There’s a kiss, tentative, before Byun Baekhyun fucking bites my lips.
I bite back, hard. All the anger stitched in and held back, under the seams of my skin, rises in a hot tide. Things were never supposed to change, we never wanted to make choices that would take the two of us apart. It was never supposed to be this hard, to grow up and get our own lives.
It’s like we don’t fit – noses bumping, chins knocking against one another. Bruising. But Baekhyun and I have always been stubborn. Soon enough I’m catching the fat swell of his lips, the roughness of his teeth. Then inside, to the soft-rough sensation of his tongue, the veined roof of his mouth.
Moving in tandem, in unison. Sharing the same breath of air.
Water’s drenching my eyelids, crowding my mouth as Baekhyun and I. It’s slippery and wet and clean, clean, clean.
Washed clean, replaced only with Baekhyun.
Baekhyun’s coughing, from the water. The lever’s shockingly cold in my hand as I push it shut.
It’s too cold, with the water turned off. I turn to the heat of Baekhyun’s skin instinctively, tucking myself as close to him as I can. Left arm sliding under his right, body to body. Face rubbing along his collarbone, like the cats we are.
Baekhyun’s squeezing me tight, as hard as he can.
I don’t even dare to think about a place without Baekhyun. I don’t – I am placeless, without Baekhyun.
“We can go back to the shelter,” Baekhyun jokes weakly. It might be a joke, it might not. I don’t know.
“Chanyeol still likes Kyungsoo. So much.”
I know about how Kyungsoo feels towards Chanyeol, of course. I think of agreeing, but I remember how Kyungsoo swam away from Chanyeol, towards me. How Baekhyun could sense that something was wrong with Chanyeol.
It’s not as easy to leave, this time.
“I didn’t know you minded,” I say.
Dry laugh, from Baekhyun. I guess I deserved that. I mind, too, as much as Kyungsoo seems to be turning towards me.
Baekhyun’s hand is stroking down my hip. I step back, away from him. Find a towel and push it into his hand instead.
Here, shuttling between Kyungsoo’s and Chanyeol’s apartment, I’m happy and sad at the same time. All the time, it seems.
We’d stick to each other when we were young, piecing together a safe, separate world for ourselves.
We grew up, made friends, had different interests. Became different people.
We’re sticking together like when we were young, tonight. Baekhyun and I squeeze onto Chanyeol’s beanbag (Chanyeol brought all his chairs over) together, legs tangled, sharing the same plate of food and two forks.
“This is good,” Baekhyun says, dangling a mysterious green vegetable that looks like it was cooked in a witch’s cauldron in front of me. There’s chilli and red sauce dripping from it.
“Kang Kong,” Chanyeol supplies. He’s sitting with Suho and Xiumin at the coffee table, but he’s been listening in to us.
It’s salty, spicy and a bit crunchy at the same time. Baekhyun wipes the oil off with his thumb, while I try not to choke on the leaf.
“Have you tried this?” Kyungsoo kneels on the floor in front of us, offering a plate filled with what looks like onion rings.
“Squid cooked in salted egg yolk,” Baekhyun says. He pops one into his mouth, closing his eyes as the taste hits. I take one for myself.
It’s good. Hot on the tongue, salty and sweet in a way that lingers. Even the smell makes me hungry.
“Here,” Baekhyun says. He takes one piece and holds it out for Kyungsoo.
Kyungsoo looks like Baekhyun’s trying to hit him. But he still takes it anyway, biting delicately into the ring.
“I’ll expect this back in the office, Kyungsoo,” Luhan says, as he passes us. “You on your knees, serving us...”
“You’d know, seeing how much time you spend on yours,” Kyungsoo says. “Xiumin’s blinds get a good workout everyday.”
Xiumin coughs into his beer, hiding a smile. Luhan flops on the couch, ignoring Kyungsoo. He jabs Xiumin’s back with his feet.
Chanyeol lifts a plate of meat – I think it’s meat – from the table.
“Try the butter chicken,” he says, with his mouth full.
I feel thoroughly spoilt, but I don’t want to move from Baekhyun – from the smell and feel of him, curled around me. So no one moves. Chanyeol sighs and comes over, ladling the buttery meat onto our plates with his plastic fork.
Baekhyun makes happy noises, as he bites in. Chanyeol puts more onto our plate.
“Can you cook this?” Baekhyun asks, between bites.
“Maybe,” Chanyeol says doubtfully, as he sits, cross-legged, beside Kyungsoo.
“It’s deep-fried,” Kyungsoo says, poking at the meat with his own fork. “In butter, and...I can’t tell. I could try, tomorrow.”
“It’s Tuesday,” Chanyeol says. “I’m clearing my leave,” Kyungsoo replies. “Just for a day. Come over for lunch tomorrow?”
Kyungsoo didn’t tell me that. I swallow, pushing down my hopes. A day. Kyungsoo keeps doing this, keeps giving me bits and bits and bits every time I think I'm going to stop.
Baekhyun’s ears are ticklish against my collarbone. He taps my thigh with fingers, reassuring.
I feed him another squid ring, just as Chanyeol says, “okay.”
I want to have both Kyungsoo and Baekhyun around. Chanyeol, too.
We spend the rest of dinner like that, Baekhyun, Chanyeol, Kyungsoo and I. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo talking, swapping stories about writing and work, while Baekhyun and I share food and wordlessness.
Baekhyun and I share a hand of what Chanyeol calls da di – Tite, a card game. Luhan frowns fiercely at his hand, Xiumin’s tapping the floor impatiently with his next card, while Suho’s laying out his royal flush on the top of the pile.
“Game,” he says, satisfied.
“Game,” Xiumin echoes, dropping his last card (a three) on the pile.
Luhan puts a pair of tens, suspiciously eyeing Baekhyun.
“Next,” Baekhyun sighs. I pull out a pair of queens out, saying “ignore him.”
Luhan says something in Chinese. It sounds like a protest.
“Game,” Baekhyun says, laying our last card (another three) out.
“What did he say?”
“A gentleman doesn’t turn back after raising his hand,” Suho translates.
“You speak Chinese?” Luhan asks, surprised. “That was a bad translation, by the way.”
“I play with a lot of cheats,” Suho says breezily. “Who always try to convince me to waive the bet... pay up, Luhan.”
There’s clattering from the kitchen - Chanyeol yelps. He comes out of it, shirt drenched with eggs and milk.
“I have big shirts in the spare bedroom,” Kyungsoo shouts after him. “In one of the boxes.”
I put a four of hearts down absently, before I realize what’s in the spare bedroom.
Chanyeol’s already turning the knob, as Kyungsoo appears at the door of the kitchen, face white. I’m skittering across the floor as I can, cards falling from my hand.
“Whoa.” Chanyeol stares, taking in the room. “What’s all this?”
He’s already reading something, by the time I reach. Kyungsoo’s a step behind me.
“This looks familiar?” Chanyeol says.
“My old writing,” Kyungsoo says shortly, pushing past both of us. He starts to open the boxes, ripping the masking tape on them. “Go out. I’ll pass the shirt to you.”
Chanyeol’s still reading, eyes softer.
“I said, go out!” It’s loud enough to break through Chanyeol’s reverie. He hesitates, then puts the piece of paper down again. Looks around the room, like he’s trying to take as much of it in as possible.
I’ve never heard Kyungsoo shout before. I don’t like it. I don’t like people shouting, in general.
I’m gripping his arm, hard enough he tries to pull away.
“Can you-“ I swallow. “Stop it.”
“He saw you write most, if not all of this,” I point out. “Can you talk to him. Please. Can you-“ I take a breath, remembering the warmth of Baekhyun’s fingers in mine. I can’t give up Baekhyun. It’s not fair to ask Kyungsoo to let go of Chanyeol. “Please,” I say. “Please talk to him, he- talks to me about you. All the time. And you talk to me about him, and I don’t. Chanyeol meant so much to you, him and writing. That whole period of time, I can’t. I wasn’t there then and he was, and you love stories and he does, as well. And I think you want to go back there, that period with Chanyeol and – books and writing. You need to-“ not make a choice. I don’t understand any of this.
“You need to talk to him,” I say lamely.
Kyungsoo’s completely, thoroughly scared. I can see it, in his eyes.
“You want me to – get back with Chanyeol?”
“No.” I don’t want that. “I want it to be like just now. All four of us.”
“Is this some cat thing that I don’t know about?”
Kyungsoo’s scared, angry and lashing out. I know that, but it still stings. I’m not a political cat person by any means, but even I know how long it took to get past all the misinformation surrounding cats and our habits. There was the belief that we were fundamentally different, cats and humans, and couldn’t be reasoned with or understood. Most of this had been overturned by the time Baekhyun and I were born, but remnants always linger. Like how people think cats don't care about anything except sex; the more partners, the better.
“I didn’t mean that.” Kyungsoo scrubs his face with his hands.
“What we have now,” I say, “is not – isn’t going to hold. Chanyeol and Baek, you and me, you and Chanyeol, Baek and I. It’s all tense and pulled tight. Maybe we’re all selfish. Maybe I am. But I want to try this.”
I want to hug Kyungsoo and say things will be fine, but there are decisions he needs to make on his own.
“Chen?” Baekhyun’s standing at the door of the room. Chanyeol left, when we weren’t looking.
“Talk to him, please,” I say. I don’t touch Kyungsoo – instead I leave.
“I told him, to try. With Chanyeol.”
Baekhyun’s face is so frozen it hurts. His throat works.
“Chanyeol and Kyungsoo, you and me, you and Chanyeol, Kyungsoo and I. Maybe we can have all these at once.”
“You’re-“ Baekhyun stops. Thinks about it, really thinks about it. “D’you think so?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
Suho, Luhan and Xiumin take us downstairs for supper. Even Chanyeol’s raising his voice to shout at Kyungsoo, by the time we find our shoes and they get their wallets and the lift comes.
There’s a huge hawker centre just across the road. It’s two-storeys high, and packed to the brim with stalls.
It’s what I like best about Singapore. That there are places like this, where you can go in in t-shirts and shorts and sit around small tables, being absorbed into this crowd of people all out to eat and talk with no barriers. That there are people who don’t care whether you’re a cat or a human, or whether you wear silk or singlets and slippers.
It’s funny, but that’s the way of Singapore. It’s fast-paced, but you can also come to a complete stop, if you know where to look.
They tell us about Kyungsoo, then. Baekhyun’s very curious and keeps asking. I can’t hold back my questions either but most of them are already asked by Baekhyun.
Kyungsoo works the hardest, Suho says. Luhan disagrees, because Suho’s the boss and Suho’s nuts and needs a life, too. Maybe even more than Kyungsoo. Xiumin says that Luhan works from home – heck, Luhan works on holiday.
None of them actually know much about Kyungsoo, I realize.
Kyungsoo – I’m sorry I hurt you, but not sorry enough to leave
Kyungsoo has this theory about people. The longer you know them, the harder it is to stay with them. Year after year, the attachment builds up. So does the annoyance as well; the irritation that rubs raw, slowly working the hurt wide and deep over time.
It’s like that with Chanyeol. Having Chanyeol around kept Kyungsoo sane and happy, but the fights also hurt bad. Chanyeol calling Kyungsoo a corporate slave, demanding time that Kyungsoo didn’t have. It got easier, to be a bit louder and louder each time, until they were both yelling at each other in the confines of their tiny apartment.
It’s like that now. Chanyeol tries to talk to Kyungsoo, Kyungsoo resists and says that he didn’t mean to keep these, he should have thrown it away. Wants to gather it all up and bin it (he really means it). Chanyeol loses his temper and says that Kyungsoo hasn’t changed and likes to hate himself. Kyungsoo says he’s doing the best he can and Chanyeol has no right to talk to him, since he wasn’t around.
“You didn’t even – you didn’t even say, let’s work it out! You got into your car and left right away!”
“Did you contact me after that?” Kyungsoo asks, folding his arms.
“I messaged,” Chanyeol says. “Twice! You didn’t reply!”
Kyungsoo winces, remembering those days. It had been easy, to focus on work and lose the rest of the days.
“You texted hi!”
“I had stuff written, that I wanted to send you.” Chanyeol says. “If you replied.”
“What was it?”
“It’s on my wall, actually.” Chanyeol says. “It’s, uh... Nine poems, remember? I have four, from back then. Five, that I wrote recently.”
“Okay,” Kyungsoo says. “Let’s see it.”
“Go ahead,” Chanyeol says, gesturing. “I want to read your stuff.”
It’s a challenge.
“Ok,” Kyungsoo says. “Keys.”
When the rest of them come back, Chanyeol and Kyungsoo are sitting on their own doorsteps, papers spread around them. They both have their hallway lights turned on, spilling pools of light into the dark corridor.
“This could be tighter,” Kyungsoo says. “In the gaps / Between yesterday and today – what kind of rhythm is that?”
“Hey – I wrote that poem for you! You’re supposed to be touched, not touchy!”
“Hi,” Suho says, beaming. “We bought groceries. And food.”
“Give me that,” Chanyeol says, holding out his arms.
Kyungsoo’s looking at Chen, who’s holding hands tightly with Baekhyun. Holding back, from Kyungsoo.
Chen’s right. Kyungsoo’s happier than he has been in recent years. Not tumbling, free happiness, but rather a reaching back into a past that Kyungsoo hasn’t looked at for very long, without guilt or anxiety.
“Hey, come read this,” Kyungsoo says to Chen. “Baekhyun, as well.”
Baekhyun’s the one that pulls Chen forward.
“Here,” Kyungsoo says. Chen crouches to read it, and Kyungsoo drops a kiss on his cheek (Kyungsoo can be sneaky).
“Thank you,” he whispers.
Chen’s ears don’t stop twitching for a while, after that.
Kyungsoo – i want to write your sympathy for me
Kyungsoo starts leaving notes for Chen, coupled with pictures of pokemon, in his kitchen. It’s a good way of saying what he wants to say but can’t say.
Celebi (Kyungsoo, Sept 1st, 3am)
Wings like gossamer, a birdlike face, childlike hands clasped together. It perches on my desk, listening to the rattle-tat of words under lamplight. It sits there and watches me, curiously, not understanding.
I watch it fly, scattering dust, flying between the words people lobby at each other, compressed upset lodging and taking root in us all. It’s real only at this hour, the witching hour, the hour where I know I’m burning myself up to feed my own insecurities, my own belief that I need this to be happy. Where I can feel exhaustion eating at muscles, meat, at myself underneath.
The day I stop seeing this, is the day I stop feeling human
Celebi (Chen, Sept 2nd, 3am)
I think about this when I’m waiting for you and the clock ticks past two. It pokes at the fish and makes faces in the fishbowl
Kakuna (Kyungsoo, Sept 3rd, 1am)
I see this in the mirror. I see the scales down my arms, shifting against the legs of my pants. Rough rows of scales, over and over, growing densely, sprouting in place of hairs. They grow and interlock, hunching my shoulders inwards, locking my legs together, turning my mouth into a grinning jaw ready to bite.
Only my neck is free, and I have to tuck my head to my chest to protect it
Growlithe (Chen, Sept 4th, 10am)
It sits at my feet and barks. I like the color of its coat, red, brown and white
It doesn’t like to, but it waits anyway.
Today I brought him to the beach with Chanyeol and Baekhyun. He ran across the sand, into the water, and made friends with strangers
Growlithe (Kyungsoo, Sept 4th, 11pm)
You’re the farthest thing from a Growlithe. Maybe you used to be one but not anymore
I don’t like dogs. They wait and you have to be responsible for how they feel even if you don’t feel the same way
Ninetails (Kyungsoo, Sept 5th, 12am)
I like this one because it doesn’t care what people think. It sleeps on my desk, fur the color of full-cream, sleek and shiny in full-bodied waves from its long snout to the curve of its ears to the length of its back to nine tails that loll off the desk and lie like trains of gowns along the white tiled floor
The red gleam that floats on the surface of its pupils, barely visible, the crimson dotting the inside of its ear, the blaze that marks the end of its tails. Slumbering, waiting to wake and leap
It would prowl along the floors of the apartment and carry balls of fire like the train of a gown, so you’re never in the dark
Ninetails (Chen, Sept 5th, 8am)
I like the dark. Chanyeol’s series is also called ninetails
Ninetails (Kyungsoo, Sept 6th, 8am)
You’re sleeping and I’m leaving.
I spoke to Chanyeol today, caught him as he was watering the plants. He’s almost done with the nine poems and I told him I want to pay for his first print run
We’d have to do marketing for it and all but I want him to have the guarantee that it will be published so he doesn’t need to worry about commercial viability and all that
Ninetails (Chen, Sept 6th, 4pm)
I used to imagine I had a creature beside me and I would imagine it pushing me to where I need to go
It’s strange I think of that when I see ninetails
And I read Chanyeol’s poetry and you should
I got home once because of it, it sat beside me and licked my face and curled its tails around me
It was cold at the bus stop, it got up and made me get up and get on the last bus home
Ninetails (Kyungsoo, Sept 6th, 10pm)
I don’t know if I want to
I’m home early today and you’re still awake, so I’m going to sit on the balcony with you and the soy beancurd I bought
Ninetails (Kyungsoo, Sept 7th, 7am)
What happened at the bus stop, last time?
Ninetails (Kyungsoo, Sept 7th, 10pm)
Ninetails (Kyungsoo, Sept 8th, 8am)
Ninetails (Kyungsoo, Sept 8th, 10pm)
Kyungsoo doesn’t leave his desk for a single moment that day, until work ends. He finally can make it home on time.
Chen’s writing, slowly, on the floor of their apartment. At least he has the lights on, this time.
“Kyungsoo?” He says, confused. He covers the paper with his arms.
Kyungsoo just stands there and looks at him. He’s been home so late recently it’s hard to remember what Chen looks like in the sunlight.
Is he a bit thinner? Kyungsoo can’t tell.
Kyungsoo can’t even say he’s sorry. He always is, but things hardly change.
“Are you okay?” He asks. “You didn’t reply.”
“I need some time,” Chen says, puzzled. “I can’t write that fast.”
“Let’s go out for dinner,” Kyungsoo says.
“Not tonight,” Chen says.
He lies there, waiting for Kyungsoo to go in, to bathe and change and move away.
“Bathe with me?”
Kyungsoo knows he’s not supposed to push, but he can ask.
Chen looks like he’s going to refuse.
“It’s okay,” Kyungsoo says. He walks past Chen, into the rest of the apartment.
There’s the clattering of the doorknob. Chen comes in, hair tousled.
He opens the shower door and steps right in, next to Kyungsoo, who’s about to start bathing.
“Your clo-“ Kyungsoo’s cut off by Chen, who lunges at him.
“Hey,” Kyungsoo says, holding him, smoothing down the back of his shirt. “What’s wrong?”
Chen doesn’t say anything, just clutches at Kyungsoo.
Chen has these moments, moments where he just holds Kyungsoo and shakes.
Kyungsoo understands, even if he doesn’t understand right now. He knows better than to ask, simply holds Chen quietly.
Chen’s not the only one scared. Kyungsoo recognizes fear when he sees it, he’s been living with it for so long. Chen and him are the same – the closer they get to something important, the more they freeze in front of it.
“I want to,” Chen says. “Can we.”
“Anything,” Kyungsoo says. He waits.
Chen breaks away. He goes back out of the shower room. Kyungsoo’s a bit disappointed, but he doesn’t want to push. Not with Chen.
The lights go out.
“Whoa,” Kyungsoo says.
Chen’s feet patter across the shower room. Kyungsoo hears fabric dropping on the floor.
Chen’s fingers touch Kyungsoo hesitantly.
“I, Baekhyun and I kissed,” he says, in the dark.
Kyungsoo’s…not surprised. He’s more surprised by the feel of Chen’s lips on his chin, up his cheeks, finding its way to Kyungsoo’s mouth.
“Here,” Kyungsoo says. He finds Chen’s chin and angles his head, leaning in.
They don’t stop, this time. Kyungsoo touches Chen and kisses him, kisses him again and again and again. Finds his way to Chen’s cock, this time, and Chen lets him touch him, breath spluttering, hips jerking.
He comes with a small, bitten-off cry.
Kyungsoo’s more surprised when Chen drops to his knees, hands sliding down Kyungsoo’s sides.
Breath soft on Kyungsoo’s cock, before Chen licks it.
Kyungsoo’s not an idiot.
“Hey,” he says, tangling his hands in Chen’s hair. “What’s wrong?”
Chen’s fingers tense on his hips, before he takes the tip of Kyungsoo’s cock in his mouth, suckling on it.
“Chen,” Kyungsoo says. He’s thought about it before, but not like this.
He’s not really getting hard, as good as it feels.
“It’s okay,” Kyungsoo says. He levers Chen’s head backwards, before dropping to his knees himself.
He finds Chen’s face, pats it. Is not surprised to find that the corners of his eyes are wet.
“What’s wrong?” He asks again, and Chen goes, “I don’t know.” Says it so plainly it’s worse than any hopelessness he could have put in his voice.
“I’m going to sleep,” Chen says. Kyungsoo doesn’t let him go, this time.
“Chen,” he says again.
Chen touches him, says clearly, “can we fuck?”
“No,” Kyungsoo says. “I mean, now?”
“Yes,” Chen says.
“No,” Kyungsoo says, and Chen says, “why not? You want to.”
“Chen,” Kyungsoo says, and Chen goes, “you want to hear me beg?”. Then, “I didn’t. Mean that.”
Kyungsoo hooks an arm under his arm, pulling them up together. Chen follows.
Kyungsoo hugs him. Stands there, Chen in his arms, and holds him in the dark. Holds him until Chen starts, very quietly, to shake. Holds him until Chen starts to cry, like an adult, sobs held in so tight he’s choking with each breath.
Chen doesn’t say a single word, the whole time. Kyungsoo’s noticing that, now. Chen has words always, but when it comes to himself, it’s a silence so complete you don’t even realize it’s there.
Kyungsoo has Chen in bed, with him. Chen’s hugging Kyungsoo, as fiercely as he can.
“I can read this?” Kyungsoo checks, hand on Chen’s hair. Chen nods.
It’s a story that starts at the bus stop. It starts with Chen crouching at the bus stop, hugging himself, suddenly too tired to even think of how to get home. Buses came and left and people were staring but Chen couldn’t get to his feet. Couldn’t remember (mind a blank) how to get home.
Chen had sex with his boyfriend, he says. Writes it clearly and neatly down. How he’d waited and then waited, before telling himself that it was enough – that his boyfriend had given him enough time, and even if he left now, it was fine, but Chen had gotten enough from him. Had had company, these few months (it got hard when Baekhyun wasn’t around, when he was dating too). It was enough, Chen writes. He’s not the kind of cat who needs a master. He just needs a bit of time.
He’s sorry, Chen writes. He’s sorry that what Kyungsoo gives him still isn’t enough, that Kyungsoo or Baekhyun coming near him makes him tense and stupid. Because sex makes people stay but it also means there’s nothing else Chen can give, and there’s always a limit. There’s always a deadline, after sex. There’s always a countdown, for Chen.
Give him some time, Chen writes. Give him some time, please, because Chen’s tried and honestly tried and he can’t do it, he can’t. He can and he’ll stay but he’s still sorry he can’t right now.
Kyungsoo puts the paper down. Chen’s grip takes on extra weight, extra meaning now.
Chen should have chosen Kyungsoo for the same reason Kyungsoo chose Chen – that they looked like they would be easy to please.
Chen’s still with Kyungsoo for the same reason Kyungsoo’s with Chen – that they both see in each other fear. Fear that makes them the most wordless around people they care about, fear that turns them into fishes, tracing the arc of the bowl over and over again. Fear that makes them feel that they won’t be judged by each other, for having the same fear.
A distant, slow realization, floating peacefully to the surface of Kyungsoo’s mind –that you can be so afraid of how relationships will turn out that moving from person to person, home to home, becomes a good thing.
This is the difference between Chen and Chanyeol. Chanyeol might have understood Kyungsoo, but Chen would have done the same.
Kyungsoo holds Chen and pats him, pats him until Chen’s breathing starts to even out and his grip loosens.
Kyungsoo makes a call, then.
“Let me guess. A holiday?”
“No,” Kyungsoo says. “No-pay leave. For a month, at least. And then I want to transfer out, Suho. I don’t know. I might.”
Suho’s a bit tense. “Kyungsoo.”
“I know if I had any other boss, if I was anywhere else, I wouldn’t be saying this,” Kyungsoo says. “But you are and I’ve never asked you for anything these few years, Suho.”
“Will you come back?”
“Find a replacement,” Kyungsoo says, looking down at Chen. He’s never been so scared, in his entire life. But he has to do this, before he gets to his calculator and his bank account statement.
“I’ll lessen your workload,” Suho cajoles. “We can hire one more person.”
“I’ll come in to discuss it,” Kyungsoo says. “But not tomorrow. I’m sorry. I can still work from home tomorrow, tie up loose ends, hand over.”
“You know how lucky you are?”
“I do,” Kyungsoo says honestly. Anywhere else, he’d be fired by now. But he’s good at his job, he might as well use what little pull he has.
Kyungsoo works steadily through the morning, Chen tucked into his side. Chen’s awake but he doesn’t move, breathing slow and even.
This is familiar, to Kyungsoo. He was the one scared, and Chanyeol was the one comforting him. Kyungsoo knows how it feels, to want to be in silence but not be alone.
This is anxiety that webs and beats in tandem with the pulse of your heart, until being alone means thoughts scuttling like spiders in you.
It’s enough to have someone beside you, but once that person is gone and you’re alone in the room, things creep out from the corners again.
If he thinks about it this way, Chen’s preference for darkness makes sense. It takes his senses and tugs them outwards – eyes straining, fingers reaching, skin tingling in heightened anticipation. It takes him out of himself and keeps him company.
For Kyungsoo, it’s work. For Chen, it’s darkness.
“I want to work,” Chen says.
“Mm?” Kyungsoo peers at him over his glasses.
Chen rolls onto his back. “I want to work,” he repeats patiently.
“If I work,” Chen says, “I can pay for myself. Food, clothes. Water, electricity.”
“But I don’t need you to,” Kyungsoo says, bemused.
“You can work less,” Chen says. “If I work. You can work less.”
Kyungsoo really wants to laugh. “Chen. I earn more in an hour than you could earn in a day.”
“But you could get an hour,” Chen pursues. “Work an hour less.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Kyungsoo says. He traces the frown lines on Chen’s face.
“I’m going to work less,” he promises. “Find a job that lets me come home earlier. I promise.”
Chen clearly doesn’t believe him, and Kyungsoo doesn’t blame him. Chanyeol didn’t believe him, either, with good reason.
But Chanyeol had a life of his own, friends of his own, to go back to. Chen doesn’t.
“Maybe you should,” Kyungsoo says.
The one thing Chanyeol had given Kyungsoo was certainty; certainty built over years and years of lives shared together. Kyungsoo had always known that Chanyeol would take Kyungsoo back, if he asked. Even after they broke up and Kyungsoo moved away.
Kyungsoo never had to worry about that. Chanyeol, on the other hand, had, with good reason, worried.
The more Kyungsoo had become distant, the more Chanyeol had worried. Kyungsoo knew that, but giving more time to Chanyeol was a luxury Kyungsoo couldn’t afford. Chanyeol was asking for more than Kyungsoo could have given – Chanyeol wouldn’t settle for scraps. Not like Chen.
It was about time, and it wasn’t - it was how much of himself Kyungsoo was willing to share. If Kyungsoo kept people chasing after him, like dogs for a bone, it was never fair for them. It kept them in this arc of constant motion, without a resting point.
“I’m scared,” Kyungsoo says simply. “I want to share more with you, but it’s hard. I know you want whatever I can give, which is why I’m already telling you this – but I need you to tell me, when I’m hurting you. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Kyungsoo drops a kiss on his forehead. “You need to punch me,” he jokes. “If I do it again.”
Like an octopus, Chen snakes arms around Kyungsoo’s neck. He pulls him down so forcefully Kyungsoo hits the mattress and Chen with an “oof.”
“They eat so much,” Kyungsoo says, peering into the tank. Chen shakes the fish food can again, scattering red-and-orange pieces into the water. The guppies ascend into a mess of swirling tails and darting bodies.
Kyungsoo’s following Chen around. Chen’s doing what he does everyday – make the beds, feed the fishes, eat breakfast.
It’s funny, how something so everyday can be so new, for Kyungsoo.
“I wanted to have pets,” Chen says. “I know it’s funny, a cat wanting to have pets, but I wanted to. Some of the fosterers had pets, and that was nice.”
Chen keeps dropping sentences like this. Offhand sentences, about his past.
Kyungsoo listens and remembers and ask questions. Chen’s testing the water. Seeing how Kyungsoo will respond.
He seems happier, around the fishes. They’re feeding them again later, at lunchtime, when Chen finally says, “I think I got used to moving.”
Kyungsoo slips an arm around Chen’s waist and leans his head against Chen’s bent back. His tail jostles against Kyungsoo’s leg.
“We moved, at least every year. To new homes. New people. It kept us busy. It’s strange, staying in the same place. I don’t know what to do.” Chen says. “Baekhyun’s happy, and I. I don’t know why it’s not easy. I have everything I need.”
“You’ll find it,” Kyungsoo says. “I hate those self-help columns. Being happy isn’t the only way to lead life, and you don’t need to be unhappy about being unhappy. All this restlessness is just a way of telling yourself that there’s something that you need to think about, or pay attention to. It’s good, because without it you’ll never know when something’s wrong. This is you talking to yourself.”
“What are you sad about?” Chen throws the question back at him. Kyungsoo rubs his cheek against the material of Chen’s white shirt.
“That I’m not happy,” Kyungsoo says. “I’m sad that I’m sad. So don’t make the same mistake as me.”
Chen snorts. “That’s not an answer. It’s just going in circles.”
“Exactly,” Kyungsoo says, purposely misunderstanding him to make a point. “We’re just going in circles.”
“But you know you are, and you’re still doing it.”
“I’m trying not to. I know it but I don’t really know it. I’m getting there.”
“I’m confused,” Chen says.
“You’ll get it,” Kyungsoo says. He lifts himself off Chen, words coming, startling and unexpected, from himself. “But you won’t get it by turning it over and over again in your mind. You need to - go out. Meet people. Let it make sense to you.”
“You’re not doing that,” Chen says.
“I am.” Kyungsoo touches Chen, makes him turn around. “With you.”
“What is up with you today?” Chen says bluntly. He can’t look Kyungsoo in the eye, though he meets Kyungsoo’s lips, when Kyungsoo leans in.
Kyungsoo would die of mortification if Chanyeol hears any of what Kyungsoo said to Chen.
Chanyeol’s the one that teaches Chen to draw. Baekhyun and him come over regularly, now that Kyungsoo’s at home.
Chen draws the fishbowl. He sketches and erases and sketches again the arcs, until he gets it right. It’s the first time Kyungsoo sees him completely absorbed in something non-living.
Chen’s stubborn, Baekhyun says. Kyungsoo agrees.
It’s a good thing, here. Chen spends more than a week drawing the fishes, over and over again. He’s searches google images for pictures of guppies and stones, and spoils his eyesight because he stares at it for so long.
“Really,” Kyungsoo scolds, rubbing between Chen’s eyes. The bottom of his eyes are swollen. “You have to rest your eyes.”
“Fussy,” Chen says.
“Let’s go to the zoo,” Kyungsoo suggests.
So they go, the four of them. Kyungsoo makes Chanyeol carry a backpack with water and food inside.
It’s a good zoo. They have habitats, instead of cages. Kyungsoo keeps imagining that the animals crossing the gullies and climbing the walls, eventually running loose among the tourists.
Chen’s fascinated with the white tigers. He borrows Kyungsoo’s handphone and takes careful pictures of them.
“Hey,” Kyungsoo says, gesturing to Chanyeol. He opens the backpack to pull out a small sketchpad, along with pencils. “Use this instead.”
Chen stares at it.
“Here,” Kyungsoo says. He takes Chen’s hand and brings him to a nearby bench.
He sits both of them down and slides the pad into Chen’s hands.
“I don’t – I only drew a bowl,” Chen says. “I’m not. An artist.”
“And this is mine,” Kyungsoo says. Chanyeol sighs and digs into the backpack, passing Kyungsoo a small leather-bound brown notebook, with a pen.
“And I’m not a poet,” Kyungsoo says. “So we’ll just sit here and rest for a while.”
“Be good to him,” Baekhyun says quietly, fiercely to Kyungsoo.
“We’ll be back in a while,” Chanyeol adds. He pats Chen on his shoulder.
Kyungsoo leans back into the bench, opening up his notebook. It’s hot out today.
After a while, Chen quietly rests his head on Kyungsoo’s right shoulder. Kyungsoo loops his left arm around Chen’s waist.
“I just drew a bowl,” he says.
“I know,” Kyungsoo says. Chen’s usually a loud cat, but when it comes to personal feelings, he speaks more with body language.
He traces the edges of the sketchpad. Feels the bindings. Rubs his finger along the edges of the pencil, lead smearing.
Opens it, at last.
His weight lifts off Kyungsoo’s shoulder. Chen’s not leaning on Kyungsoo anymore. Instead, he’s hunched over his sketchpad, drawing. Learning the lines of the white tiger.
Kyungsoo’s notebook is still blank. He’s still smiling, anyway.
They spend the rest of the days like this – going to places. Kusu island, where tourists come in hordes to release store-bought turtles into the water. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo write poems – angry poems, each doing a stanza each – about overcrowding and good intentions that go nowhere - while Chen sketches Baekhyun waist-deep in water, chasing seagulls away from the baby turtles. Haw Par Villa, which is an amusement park detailing the eighteen levels of hell, the Chinese way. They take photos with all the angry gods, and at night, when Kyungsoo walks in to find his laptop plastered with pictures of souls suffering in hell (Chen sketching carefully), he almost screams. Henderson waves, the most normal of the lot – a treetop walk suspended metres off the ground, amongst the top of trees. The four of them have fun chasing each other along the wooden suspension bridges (with no one else on it, of course).
Chen sits on the edge of the bridge, legs dangling through the metal chain links, drawing a nest he spotted. Baekhyun’s lying on his belly beside Chen, gazing through the slots in the wooden bridge at the forest below.
“You’re going back to work soon,” Chanyeol says. They’re both standing at the far end of the bridge, looking at the drop below.
“I’m going to take a reduced portfolio.” Kyungsoo scrubs his face. “Suho’s not happy, but he’ll do it.”
“Will you keep doing it?”
“I don’t know,” Kyungsoo says. He glances at Chanyeol. “I don’t want to,” he admits. “I’m mid-career, though. I need to plan carefully.”
“I might get Chen classes,” Chanyeol says. “If he keeps improving at the pace he is... He should take classes.”
“Thank you,” Kyungsoo says. Thank you for not pushing. Thank you for taking care of Chen.
“I want to save up,” Kyungsoo says. “Get into the publishing industry, maybe. I don’t know.”
“You’re trying, for Chen.” Chanyeol says. “I didn’t...expect that.”
Kyungsoo didn’t expect that, either. He didn’t try for Chanyeol.
“It’s not...if I met Chen many years ago, things would have been different,” Kyungsoo says frankly. “I thought that was what I wanted, that time. I guess I had to try it to know. I’m just lucky,” he says, looking at Chanyeol. “Lucky that I have a good boss now, who’s willing to give me some latitude with my job. Lucky that I’ve done decently in my career, whether I liked it or not.”
“I guess,” Chanyeol says. “I’m still living off writing residences.”
“Xiumin might know someone,” Kyungsoo says. “It’s editorial, though. Not creative writing.”
“Heck, I wouldn’t mind,” Chanyeol says.
“I’ll check,” Kyungsoo says. “You could... you two could move in with us.”
“I’m jealous,” Chanyeol says. “That it would be Chen, who got you to slow down.”
“You know,” Kyungsoo says. “I thought about you. I thought about how much I hurt you and the years we lost. I didn’t want that to happen again.”
“You are an asshole,” Chanyeol says. He sort of means it.
“I know,” Kyungsoo says.
Chanyeol holds out his hand. Lets it lie there, palm up, between the both of them, on the links.
Kyungsoo takes it, without a word. There are no sparks, only a familiarity that resurges, in the warmth of Chanyeol’s grip. An unfamiliarity, as well, faintly aching and tender, in the new roughness of his palm.
If they were still the same, they wouldn’t have this, now. In a way, Kyungsoo’s grateful, for the years, for the loss he had to have tasted, before he could understand the strength in Chanyeol’s grip.
“Read my poems,” Chanyeol says. Kyungsoo nods.
A week before Kyungsoo’s vacation is up, Kyungsoo sits Chen down.
“This is what I’m planning for,” he says. He has a schedule drawn up, detailing how much work he has and how often he should have to stay in office.
“And this is what Chanyeol proposes,” he says. He has brochures, and write-ups that Chanyeol has done in Microsoft Word for classes that Chen can take at School of the Arts.
“Baekhyun talked to me about it,” Chen says. “Chanyeol has a friend teaching him guitar.”
“We’re a mixed bag,” Kyungsoo agrees. It sounds pretentious, them being an artsy family – but none of them are claiming to be experts. It’s just people reaching out to find things they like, in life. Balancing what they have to do with what they want to do, even if they don’t do it well.
“I still want to write,” Kyungsoo adds. “It’s just something to do. I don’t know where it’s going, it might be too late for my age to go anywhere. But I just want to.”
“I’ll go with you,” Chen says. “If you want me to.” He thinks about it, then says, “I want to.”
“I didn’t mean going literally,” Kyungsoo says.
“Can I draw you?” Chen asks abruptly.
Kyungsoo nods, bemused.
Chen sits Kyungsoo down in front of the fish tank.
Kyungsoo has the time to watch Chen, now. To think about all that they’ve talked about, in the past few weeks.
Chen’s no expert at drawing, but he has something he’s growing to like.
Kyungsoo began writing before Chanyeol, but he stopped, when he left Chanyeol. He’s picking it up back now,
Chen and Chanyeol and even Baekhyun woven into his stories. Without people he cared about, he stopped; back with people he likes, he starts again. Kyungsoo doesn’t have things to write about, if he doesn’t have people who make him feel things around him. That is still the scariest part of human existence for him, this need that is quiet but vast and aching, the need for connection. To unload part of yourself onto someone else’s back, and to take that part of that person’s load from him. To share this burden of life together; to swim in tandem, sharing the waves and eddies made by each other.
It’s not the same for Chen. Chen always had Baekhyun, but he didn’t have himself. He looked at Baekhyun and didn’t look at himself because he was afraid of what he would see; afraid, like Kyungsoo, of an emptiness that always demanded to be filled. That might stay empty, one day, when Baekhyun moved on.
He’s taking himself in small doses. Understanding, slowly, how he sees the world, shade by shade. Keeping lines and curves for himself, pencilling in a world that is his and his alone.
Kyungsoo sits and watches Chen. He doesn’t regret anything, and is stupidly, hopelessly grateful that they have what they have.
It takes a few hours, but Kyungsoo’s happy to sit there in the quiet, and so is Chen.
It’s not the best drawing in the world – it’s not even a good one, if Kyungsoo wants to be technical about it – but it catches the faint smile on Kyungsoo’s face and the look in his eyes. Sort of, if you tilt your head and squint.
The fish tank is done well (Chen had spent weeks drawing that, after all).
Kyungsoo likes the curve of Chen’s knee, and the attempt to sketch his own hand. It’s fitting that this drawing of Kyungsoo also contains Chen.
“I’ll keep working on it,” Chen promises. Kyungsoo stifles a yawn. “Sorry. Yes. Anytime.”
Chen drops the sketchpad and crawls across the ground on hands and knees, tail waving.
“You need to help me get over this,” Chen says, climbing into Kyungsoo’s lap. “You need to show me that you’re not gonna leave.”
“Okay,” Kyungsoo says, willing but puzzled.
“Fuck me,” Chen says, patiently.
“Okay,” Kyungsoo says. “I mean, sure. So does that mean, after you draw me each time, we’re going to fuck? Because I wasn’t thinking about that when Chanyeol taught you to draw, but I should thank him.”
“Idiot.” Chen says. He glances at the drawing, glances back at Kyungsoo. “I have you,” he says.
“Is this drawing-kink?” Kyungsoo asks, fascinated.
“You sound like Chanyeol,” Chen says, sourly.
“Sorry,” Kyungsoo says, hands going up the back of Chen’s shirt. He presses a kiss to Chen’s collarbone.
His hands are starting to shake. This is embarrassing.
Kyungsoo doesn’t want to – make a promise to Chen, and break it.
“It’s my choice,” Chen says. “Let me make it. And then I can find Baekhyun and Chanyeol, when you’re gone-“
Kyungsoo squeaks. Or, well, he tried to growl, but it failed.
He thought about it. Dreamt about it, of course. The four of them together.
“Before you go back to work,” Chen promises. He noses Kyungsoo’s ear. “If you’re good enough, that is.”
“Hey,” Kyungsoo says, injured. He’s rusty, but he’s not bad. At least, Chanyeol never said.
Chen leans down and their mouths touch. This is familiar, like Chanyeol’s hand twined with Kyungsoo’s. This, Kyungsoo can do.
They take it slow and easy, getting used to skin on skin. Chen laughs, when Kyungsoo skates a hand across his ribs.
“It’s ticklish,” he says.
They share handjobs, Chen twitching as Kyungsoo touches him. But then he slits his eyes open, smiling, and works Kyungsoo’s cock like he’s been doing it for years. Kyungsoo squeezes Chen’s cock too hard by accident, and Chen bites him.
It’s Chen, this close and comfortable. Kyungsoo likes that.
Kyungsoo works Chen open slowly, finger by finger. Chen’s obviously uncomfortable – or he grows uncomfortable – and Kyungsoo grabs his hands, smears lube across his fingers as well. Guides his fingers to Kyungsoo’s ass.
“What are you doing?” Chen mumbles. He’s usually clear.
“Try it,” Kyungsoo says. Chen looks at Kyungsoo – dazed, at first, before he focuses. Rubs a finger tentatively across Kyungsoo’s hole, watching him closely.
Kyungsoo lets his legs fall open, tries to relax. “Okay,” he says.
It’s a probing, burning feeling Kyungsoo can never get used to.
“I’m okay,” Kyungsoo reassures. He tries to keep his hips from tilting away.
“We’re so bad at this,” Chen sighs.
Kyungsoo thought it would be – romantic, not that he would admit it – like this. It’s just awkward.
He inches closer. Flings a leg over Chen’s, and licks at his collarbone. Up the side of his face, to his ears.
He touches Chen’s tail, with his other hand. Strokes it.
Chen’s legs fall open. Kyungsoo’s fingers slide inside by an entire knuckle.
“Do that again,” Chen says. He abandons Kyungsoo’s ass, gripping at his arms instead.
Kyungsoo feels his way to the base of Chen’s tail, caressing the base of it, where fur melts into smooth skin.
Chen makes a strangled noise. Kyungsoo rotates his fingers, scissoring them as best as he can. It’s hot and
hopelessly tight, so tight it has to be hurting Chen.
It takes a while, and a lot of licking, but Kyungsoo’s fingers slide in fully, at last. They hit something, and Chen gurgles. Coughs, eyes not focusing.
Tilts his hips, against Kyungsoo’s fingers again.
It gets easier, when Kyungsoo knows where to go. He works Chen open, massaging that small bump as best as he can.
Chen’s hard again, by the time Kyungsoo slides three fingers in.
Kyungsoo’s hot for Chen, but he’s also relieved. Chen should feel the same way – he mutters finally, as Kyungsoo takes his fingers out, positioning his cock carefully.
“Sex is a lot of work,” Chen says. “Uhn. Uhn. Ahhh. Ah. Ah wait.”
Kyungsoo’s not even a third of the way in.
“Ahh,” Chen says, as Kyungsoo moves again, jostling Chen. “Ah!”
“Sorry,” Kyungsoo says, through gritted teeth.
“Just go ahead,” Chen says, and Kyungsoo slides home and Chen goes “fuck,” eyes rolling. Teeth clenching.
“Feels strange,” Chen says, voice tensed. “Let me. Uhn. Kyungsoo.”
Kyungsoo rotates his hips, again.
“To the left,” Chen says, pitch kicking up. “Kyungsoo.”
It’s with a great sense of relief that the sex picks up, after that. Kyungsoo just has to find that spot, and he finds it almost half the time, which is – he’ll do better next time. Chen hitches his legs around Kyungsoo’s waist, arching his back like a natural.
He comes before Kyungsoo, which is a relief.
Kyungsoo coughs and splutters as his hips stutter to a stop in Chen, at last.
Chen pats Kyungsoo on his head.
“We’ll have to practice,” he says. Kyungsoo snorts. “I’m tired,” he says.
They do practice, for the rest of the week. They get a lot better at it.
That’s what Kyungsoo learns from Chen – that you can work on relationships. That you have to pick up the fear and mistakes before you can be honest.
Kyungsoo goes back to work, and Chen and Baekhyun to classes. Xiumin gets Chanyeol a job in Epigram books, editing fiction.
Life goes on, and it’s easier to breathe.
There’s someone waiting outside Chanyeol’s house, one day, when they all come back from dinner.
“Tao,” Chanyeol says, surprised. “Hey,” the man says. “I know it’s sudden, but I got a job offer-“
“You!” Kyungsoo knows him. Suho interviewed him, via Skype, a few months ago. He’s the new staff hired for their team.
“Oh. Hey. Anyway, Chanyeol, I’m moving back, and I need this place – I don’t mind sharing –“
“You can move in,” Kyungsoo says, to Chanyeol. “You, too,” he adds, to Baekhyun.
Kyungsoo offered, before, months ago. Chanyeol rejected him, saying that it wasn’t a good idea.
This time, Chanyeol simply says, “ok.” Baekhyun drops his head on Chen’s shoulder, hand in Chanyeol’s, yawn directed at Kyungsoo.
Chen’s smile lights his whole face up. This is how Chen is meant to be seen; framed in sunlight, smile wide.
I think I was looking for a way to write about this, all the time. About this present that closes in around us, that both holds us tight and chokes us with inescapability. About everything that leads up to this present, everything – everything sad and everything good. Everything I cannot face, that I have to face.
I’m grateful I got to write this, because what I write is ours. Everything is ours, even the fear.
- D.O Kyungsoo.