Kao has many regrets in life.
Like that time when he let Pete persuade him to bathe in the river. It was a hot summer day and Kao really shouldn’t; not when his lungs were a mess, and his body weak from his most recent illness, and a random breeze can send him bedridden — again.
Or that time when they were but 15 seasons old, not even fully grown into their bodies, and Pete dared him to chug a bottle of rum they smuggled from Pete’s father’s hidden stash.
Or even that time when they were barely men but were as curios and they were both really close and they almost got beaten to death when he allowed Pete to steal one kiss too public.
Most regrets in Kao’s life were only regrets because his body remembered the pain it came with it. Like bombs contained in a matchbox, the pain in his chest were intense when his coughs got too strong for his small body. Like that burn in his stomach after their first drunken escapade; and it was a bit of a wonder how Kao did not vomit lava out when he was sure the rum brought fire in his insides.
That gripping fear that claimed his being when he saw one man beaten black and blue, and bleeding on the streets for bedding the wrong person. The wrong sex. As others spit out names that felt like a whipping on Kao’s mind. The torture of thoughts that maybe he was the same. That maybe what he felt for Pete was wrong and maybe one day, one day it will be him black and blue on the side street. Or worst, it could be Pete.
But it’s hard to keep a regret when on the other side of choices was Pete.
A Pete who’s fearless and brave, and whose laugh brightens the most painful of days, and will always be who Kao wanted. In this life, or the next.
It was easy to stay blind on logic when he’s powerless against Pete’s dares and pleas, and the tiniest spark on his eyes gave Kao the strength he needed to cross whatever needed crossing. He let go of his reasoning like how he stripped his clothes that day by the riverbank; when he decided to jump into the water despite weak lungs and weaker limbs.
Moments with Pete were regrets happily made.
But this, when his muscles scream in pain for forcing a run he shouldn’t do, Kao wondered if this would be his first true regret when it came on Pete.
They have been fighting.
Pete wanted something. Kao did not want to gamble. Pete swore that it would be the answer to everything. Kao would rather suffer.
Pete would go so Kao could buy the medicines that were honestly getting too expensive for someone like him. Kao had fears and knew that those fears were valid when the people who go rarely come back in one piece and often return in a death box.
Pete wanted war. Kao wanted him.
Kao wanted him near and safe. Kao wanted him grumpy and grimacing. Kao wanted him teary and marked with laughter-lines. Kao wanted him alive and Pete wanted something that fully contradicted that.
“I just want the same for you, Kao.” He said after they have both run out of steam and Kao’s red for breathing too fast. “I want a simple hut with you. A kitchen you can cook in. A dog we can chase down the river. I want you with laughter lines and grey hair, and an attempt to this life that’s just too fucking unfair.” But Kao was too deaf in his hurt.
“War will pay for what I want.”
And so the fights burn. The fights lasted.
Until the day came when Pete was due to board for war.
Kao’s limbs have always been too weak, his lungs just not strong enough to receive the burden and his heart working double time to get his blood flowing. But Kao did his best.
He ran, and ran, and ran.
Willing his muscles to please just one more block, just a few more minutes — please be strong enough.
Tomorrow won’t matter. Tomorrow will never matter because that day, Kao’s love will leave for a war that’s too selfish to have started for a foreign freedom people like them never really cared about. Pete will leave with Kao’s heart secretly packed in his baggage and the least Kao could do was to let him know.
Pete should leave knowing that his letters would be welcome. He should board knowing that he’s not alone in his dreams for a hut and a kitchen and a mutt Kao won’t be able to chase. Pete should brave the war knowing that Kao will be at home praying for him, and will try to build their hut to welcome him home when the time comes.
Pete should leave knowing that Kao loves him and will love only him.
The gods were merciful that day.
Kao managed to catch him a few minutes before boarding.
Pete was a sad sight in that mess of cadets, and officials, and the royal military colours. He was a lone determined face in the middle of scared new recruits and hardened returning soldiers. And Pete… Pete’s the only one without family.
He didn’t give him any warning, just gripped his wrist with a strength he didn’t have and tried to pull Pete into the most private space he could find.
Kao was trembling when he hugged Pete that day. Everything was hurting and burning and so terribly tired, but all of that fade when the center of his chest was a gaping hole. An empty space from that traitorous heart Pete now had in his luggage.
And Pete… His Pete finally showed how scared he actually was. Scared of the life that awaited him and the war that will surely scar.
The pleas were whispered that day. To the gods — to keep his love safe and sound. To Pete — for his sacrifice and his safety and his return. To his heart — to remain steady and strong and never about faithfulness. There has never been a question on faith between them.
They held each other close a few more seconds ’til boarding; their foreheads kissing in ways their lips couldn’t. Whispering confessions and assurances and wishes and even quieter i-love-yous.
And in the middle of leaving soldiers and crying family members, Pete stole another kiss. One that’s firm and brave and gave a lifetime promise that’s just a repeat of their mutual dreams.
Pete left that day and Kao’s heart was never returned.
Kao’s not sure how he lasted. How he survived the time when his heart was so far away from him.
But the proof is present on the aged hands, wrinkly and spotted and haunted by a tremor that never leaves, as he slowly brush off dirt from the stone.
It has been a lifetime too slow since Pete left for a war he never returned from.
Kao has long accepted his passing.
He had been angry for far too long. His pain turning into something horrific and hungry, but maintaining anger has never been Kao’s strongest point. Never with Pete anyway. But anger was easier to deal with than pain so it still took him time. He spent a few years like a wandering soul. His body weaker, his mind the same; and his soul so unsure of its place that he almost found himself in death’s door.
But since Pete’s no longer there to fight for their dreams, and Kao’s too stubborn to let them go, he had to pick himself up from the grave he had been so willing to stay in and finally chose to walk on. He had to because someone had to step up to make their dreams come true. Keep Pete alive in ways he couldn’t anymore.
Kao lives a life he wished he could live with Pete. He has a hut signed under both their names now; a kitchen he developed a love for baking in, and a mutt that truly never leaves him alone to play in the river Pete and Kao enjoyed their childhood in.
His love, oh how he misses him so. Misses him every single day.
Kao has long accepted his passing, but he will be mourning ’til his last breath on this earth.
The surface is rough underneath his palms. The stone is no longer smooth from its years but it does’t have to be pretty. Pete has never truly cared about outer beauty so it doesn’t matter if it’s not as smooth.
His fingers were delicate as he trace the lines that make up the name of Kao’s love and the years of his life. When the name is clean again, Kao sighs and wonders again how his heart could still hold a torch for Pete when it has been long out of Kao’s chest.
“Ai’Pete,” his voice rough from age but still as fond as it has been when they were but 15 seasons in. “How long has it been?”