Chapter 1: PROLOGUE
A disease suffered by the victims of unrequited love, in which they cough up and disgorge petals of the flowers that bloom in their lungs. The disease can be cured by surgical means. However, the feelings disappear along with the flowers. Alternatively, the illness can be overcome if the feelings are reciprocated.
Love made flowers bloom in his lungs. But he could not breathe… Eternally.
I had seen the man I loved die, sent away by his loving wife, sons, and their own families. Eventually, they forgot him. He had become nothing but a memory. For them.
But for me, the grief, the suffocation, and the love were eternal. I had loved him from afar for many years. He detested me and my kind. I longed for his affection still. I had surrendered the silvers of my soul to him. He had looked down on them and crushed them beneath his feet. And yet, I loved him no less. He had my heart, he made flowers bloom in my lungs. I never breathed easy again. For that, my love was never returned.
His eyes never looked me with kindness. His lips never smiled. He hungered to rip my heart out. He coveted my death. He was human. But I was deemed as the monster. I, who yearned for his love, was an abominable creature.
When he died, I realized that sorrow would be my only faithful company for centuries to come. My love persisted. The flowers in my lungs persisted. Even after he was gone.
Jongin put his pen down and ran his fingertips along the dried ink. He had completed yet another story. Not that anyone would read it, though. He still felt accomplished.
He felt the flowers bloom in his lungs then, tickling their walls. His heart swelled, his stomach heaved, and he regurgitated, coughing out a bunch of purplish red petals all over the desk. His eyes stung with tears. Then sucking in a breath, he wiped the tears away and stared at the flower petals scattered on the desk. He ought to clean it up before his stepmother could walk in on him.
He gathered the petals and tossed them into the bin by the desk. He then heard a knock on the door. Excitement swirled in his belly as he jolted up to his feet and ran to the locked door. He panted, grinning from ear to ear. Even the slightest excitement and sadness bloomed more flowers in his lungs and made it difficult for him to breathe. But he did not mind it.
He brought a hand to the door before pressing a side of his face to it. He could hear his brother’s soft breathing on the other side of the door. Oh, how much he’d willingly give to have this door opened even once so that he could see his brother again.
He clenched his eyes tight and listened to Kai’s breaths. His brother must have his face pressed against the door on the other side, too. This was the closest Jongin could get to him.
He snivelled and felt his tears roll down his cheeks.
“Jongin?” he heard Kai whisper. His heart fluttered wildly. He wanted Kai to keep saying his name. But he knew he couldn’t.
He splayed his fingers over the wooden door and breathed out, “Kai.”
They were sixteen. Jongin hadn’t seen his twin brother for almost three years, ever since he started coughing up flowers. He hadn’t seen anyone but his stepmother in three years. She visited him often to remind him what an abominable freak he was. Not because he suffered from the Hanahaki disease. But because he was longing for his own twin brother’s love.
He was locked up, hidden away from the rest of the world. He wanted nothing more than for Kai to free him. To help him breathe again.
“I’m leaving,” Kai muttered.
Jongin was silent. Words failed him.
Kai came up to his room in the manor whenever their stepmother was not around. Although they said little to each other—too afraid of their monstrous stepmother finding out—they shared plenty through little notes, slid under the door. Jongin cherished every last one of Kai’s notes.
Jongin stroked the door with his fingers, wondering what Kai meant by leaving.
“I’m going to the boarding school I told you about,” Kai elaborated in a whisper. Jongin’s heart dropped to his stomach and he drew away from the door. His chest began to heave and he choked on flower petals. “I will… come back, Jongin. I promise.”
“No,” he let out shakily, eyes welling up with tears. He then coughed again, spitting out corollas of flowers. He wheezed and fought for breath. When he straightened up again, he realized Kai had left.
He sank to the floor where the petals were scattered and hugged his knees to his chest before breaking into a sob.
For years to come, Jongin would wait. But Kai never came back. He never kept his promise. Jongin still waited, hoping that one day, he would hear a knock on his door again. Until then, his room was a sea of flowers and his heart a lonely void.
Tender buds swelled into full blooms and with it, lives sprouted. Delicate petals blossomed, bringing colour and breath to the springtide. The purity that bloomed in every florescence sang with the chimes of the wind. Maytime was a time of beauty, youth, and passionate devotion.
But each blossom betokened the swift traverse of life to death. Every petal that was once full of colour withered and perished almost as fast as it bloomed.
It was late spring, 2017 when he returned home. It had been almost ten years.
Nothing had changed. And yet, everything had. This was home. And yet, it was not.
Their house and land were secluded, almost sequestered. No one frequented the area but the Kim family. Though they lived in a considerably small country house, their land was vast—orchards and ponds, bees and trees, green and brown—, everything had the touch of summery breath here. By the house, the old oak tree stood guarding for centuries.
These he remembered. But not the eerie despondency and dull silence that loomed about. The driving rain did little to break the quiet as it bore down ruthlessly on the everything. The raindrops pounded on the rented car’s roof and windshield. The whispering hum in the howling wind spoke of the grief and despair. The tyre swing’s tattered rope still hung from a branch of the oak tree, though there was no tyre. He had good memories of playing on that swing. He had good memories of climbing that old tree. He had good memories of watching the clouds glide by in the sky as he laid lazily under the shade of the tree’s mighty outstretching limbs. He had many good memories here.
And plenty of bad ones, too.
He never wanted to come back here, if he were being honest. But it was home nonetheless and he, too, had come to grief.
Ten years was a long time, some would say. It wasn’t so long for him. He had found a life he could love and live. That life was far away from this once beautiful, harmonious place. Returning to this life brought him a feeling that was kin to horror.
He pulled over and idly sat in the driver’s seat for a few long minutes, waiting for the downpour to wane. He glanced out the window and stared at the house. All of its life had been drained away when his mother died. He had been less than eight years old when it happened. When his mother took her last breath while holding her sons’ hands. In order to restore the life in the house, his father had remarried. Luna was a woman of many things. But kindness was not one of them. She had no interest in mothering the two newly motherless twins. But she ministered to them and took care of their needs as per father’s orders.
Father soon fell ill. He had given the full responsibility of childminding his children to his shiny, new bride. And not very long after, Kai had left this hellhole, seeking a better life.
He had found it. He was happy.
And every second his lungs were filled with joy and excitement, another pair was suffocating and blooming beautiful blossoms that killed him little by little, but not enough to die.
Kai killed the car’s engine and huffed a sigh, running a hand through his hair. It was a surprise that his father had lasted ten more years with the illness that had plagued both his parents. Guilt filled his chest once more. He had missed his own father’s funeral due to a delayed flight.
There was no excuse. He had stayed away from his own family for a decade and he could not even make it home for his father’s bereavement. He had to offer his condolences and his comfort to Luna, at least.
When his friends used to ask where and who his family was, Kai answered with a snort and a “it doesn’t matter.” It really did not matter to him. Perhaps family was advocated and valued by many, but not Kai. He could get by without any of them. Was it selfishness? Perhaps. He did not care. This was his life and he had every right to choose happiness instead of the conflicts that came with this overhyped thing called family.
This family had splintered the day his mother had died. Kai had wanted to get away from it ever since. From his worthless father, from his condescending stepmother, from everything that reminded him of his dead mother.
He screwed his eyes tight and leaned his head back on the headrest, exhaling heavily. He wished the rain would never stop. He had grown further and further apart with his father, too. He had not bothered to return any of the man’s calls in the more recent years and he eventually stopped receiving the calls. He should have returned the calls. He should have come home for the holidays. He should have been here when his father took his final breath.
But he hadn’t. And there was not much that he could do about it now, except move on. He exceptionally good at that. Moving on.
His eyes flung open when he heard the knock on the window. He hadn’t noticed that the rain had stopped. Blinking vacantly, he glanced at the man knocking on the rented car’s window. He arched a surprised brow at the grinning old man.
Then scowling, Kai waved his hand, making a gesture to order the man to move away from the car. The man, frowning in embarrassment, took a step back and bowed his head.
Exiting the car, Kai straightened his shirt and slammed the car’s door shut. He surveyed the old man’s wrinkled face and weathered eyes for a moment.
“Little Kai,” the man said in a small, frail voice. “My, how big you’ve grown.”
Kai glowered at him with furrowing eyebrows. “Do I know you?” he asked.
The man looked disappointed. “Do you not remember me?” he chuckled, but the laughter swiftly died when Kai scowled harder. “I am Ole.”
“Oh, yes,” Kai said when he finally recognized the man. He was the neighbour. Or at least the closest person that lived around here. He used to be mother’s gardener when there were flowers in her garden.
Ole smiled weakly. He looked as though fifty years older than the last time Kai had seen him. “I was just heading home. But I cannot believe Little Kai is back home after so long! I should probably stay over for dinner now!”
“You should head back home,” Kai muttered and dismissed the man before wending towards the front door.
Ole said nothing more. He stared at Kai for a moment and eventually hopped onto his bicycle before riding away.
Kai stood still on the doorstep, staring at his high-end sneakers. Then at length, he raised his head and rang the doorbell. He groaned when it did not work. He then opted to knock on the door instead. No one answered the door. He knocked again and again.
Losing his patience at last, he tried turning the doorknob. It was unlocked. It felt odd, letting himself into his own home. Was it still his home, though?
“Hello?” he said and heard his voice echo through the hallway. “Luna?”
He received no answer. He entered. He paused to check his reflection in the mirror in the hallway. He saw his mother’s eyes glowering back at him. He closed them and sighed.
Then finding the strength, he meandered his way towards the common area. Ten years and nothing had changed in here. Except for the cobwebs and dusts caking the furniture. He drew a forefinger along the top of the dusty sideboard. The fireplace was a mess. There were coffee stains on the couches. And how was Luna living in this darkness? Well, she must be grieving, too.
He stopped at the bottom of the staircase and gazed up the stairwell. His heart skipped a beat.
No, he could not possibly still be locked away in that room. What was Kai even considering… He shook his head and the thought away. His brother was somewhere else. He had gotten out of this dump, too. At least that was what Kai believed.
He swallowed, looking up at the stairs. His stomach knotted when he thought of all the times he sneaked up to sit on the other side of his brother’s bedroom door, so that his brother would not feel lonely. Kai had left him to the loneliness for years.
He’s not there, he told himself.
Even so, he could not stop himself as he raised a foot to the step.
“I am glad you are home.”
Kai froze for a second before he spun around to meet his stepmother’s sober gaze. She smiled at him vibrantly. There was not a sign of grief in her wide eyes. Her hair had started to grey, but there wasn’t a single wrinkle on her pale face.
“Luna,” he rasped.
Her smile widened. “I see that you still refuse to call me mother,” she sighed and closed the distance between them. Kai let her envelope her arms around him and took a minute before he embraced her. “You’re a lot taller than I imagined you’d be now.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I… I wish I could have come sooner… I’m sorry.”
“I know,” she said and retreated. She cupped a side of Kai’s face and caressed his cheekbone with her thumb. “You look so much like him.”
Kai lowered his eyes. “I… Luna, I’m—”
“He went peacefully in his sleep. Don’t beat yourself up for it. There was nothing that neither you nor I could have done.”
Kai nodded curtly. He had cried when he heard the news. He had cried. Enough. He was determined to never cry over it again. “How… was the funeral?”
“It went smoothly. Come. You must be exhausted.” She took his arm and started hauling him away from the stairs.
“And… Jongin? Has he come?”
Luna shuddered at his side and Kai’s eyebrows knotted. “I will fix you something to eat. Will you be staying the night?”
Kai came to a halt and freed his arm before glancing back at the stairs. “Actually, I was planning to stay for a while.”
“Oh,” Luna said, struggling to conceal her disappointment behind a frail grin.
Kai stared at her for a length before he turned on his heel and headed up the stairs.
“Kai,” his stepmother called after him, but he paid her no heed as he hurried upstairs, two steps at a time.
His heart hammered against his chest. Please, don’t let this happen. Please, let me be wrong, he chanted to himself.
He halted dead in his tracks when he reached the mahogany door that had the Aztec goddess, Xochiquetzal, carved to it. It was father’s handiwork and mother’s idea. His brother was named after Peach Roses, mother’s favourite, which symbolized humility, modesty, and generosity. While Kai’s bedroom door had a carving of the waves of the ocean, representing the sea, his brother’s had the carving of the Goddess of Fertility, who wore a floral wreath in her hair.
Kai dragged his fingertips along the carving and closed his eyes. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead on the door, splaying his fingers over it. The counterpart of his heart was beating on the other side of the door.
“Kai,” Luna called, raising a hand to his shoulder.
Kai opened his eyes and took a step back. “Is he in there?” he asked under his breath, unable to breathe for a moment. His stepmother did not answer immediately.
“It is for his best, trust me. And yours,” she said gently. “It is what your father wanted.”
Kai clenched his fists and gripped his jaw. His hand flew up to the doorknob and twisted it. Upon realizing it was locked, he retreated a few steps before raising a foot to the door to kick it open.
Luna stepped away as the door swung open. The darkness of the room oozed out and Kai’s heart stopped for a beat. His hands trembled as he advanced into the room. His throat felt tight.
He stilled when he stepped onto dry, brittle flower petals on the floor. He stared at the splintered petals confusedly before brought his head up to look at his brother standing by the shuttered window.
Jongin looked terrified, shivering in the corner as his wide, glistening eyes gawked at Kai. He was panting for breath, standing in a pool of purple flower petals.
“Jong… Jongin?” Kai let out in a shaky breath. His mind was a blank slate. Blood drained from his face when his desolate gaze fell on the dried, splintered petals all over the floor and bed. And amid them were freshly bloomed petals, rich in colour and joy. What are these petals…
His throat tightened when he lifted his eyes to look at his brother again, trembling in the corner, surrounded by more flower petals. Jongin’s chest was heaving, as though he were fighting for breath.
When Kai advanced a step, Jongin retreated one. “Hey,” Kai breathed out easily when Jongin gasped in a breath with difficulty. “Jongin, it’s me.”
“I-I know,” Jongin whispered and Kai froze in his tracks. A lump rose in Kai’s throat. He knows. Of course, he knows. “Kai…”
He uttered Kai’s name in a soft, struggled breath, as though even saying such a simple syllable was hurting his lungs.
Kai stopped. He saw the dread in his brother’s wide eyes. There was no trust in them. Betrayal, bitterness, anguish, and despair sheened in them. He looked at Kai like he was looking at a monster that had caused him a pain deeper than the depth of the ocean.
Kai remembered nothing of Jongin, for that he had nothing that reminded him of him. Not even his own reflection could jog his memory of his brother. Though he had not forgotten Jongin’s existence, he had indeed become a mere ghost of his past—someone Kai had not really anticipated meeting again.
Now that he had, he could not help but gape at the horror his brother had become.
He recalled the time they had celebrated their thirteenth birthday. That was the last birthday that they had celebrated together before Jongin was almost erased from Kai’s life. His father and stepmother told him that Jongin was sick. So sick that he should never step out of the comfort of his room.
His room, as Kai was looking at it right now, had nothing like comfort. It was a dark, dismal abyss that no colour dared enter. It was as lifeless as Jongin’s terrified eyes.
The birthday, yes. Though Jongin received many presents from father and Luna, he gave most of them away to Kai. He used to say that he was not interested in those toys, not as much as Kai was, at least. That birthday was no exception. Kai, having gotten everything he had asked for, leered at the fountainpen Jongin had gotten. He liked it. He wanted it, even though it was Jongin’s present.
“That is a very nice pen, Jongin,” he said, frowning.
Jongin looked down at the pen and mirrored his brother’s disappointed frown. “Do you like it, Kai?”
Kai nodded. He liked the pen. “Can I have it?” he asked.
“I will forfeit one of my presents for that,” Kai said, hoping that it would convince Jongin.
Jongin giggled. “A birthday kiss would be enough,” he said innocently. Kai used to practise the tradition of kissing Jongin on the cheek on every birthday when Jongin woke up in the morning. And in return, Jongin would kiss his cheek. But he had stopped since they were nine. It was not only embarrassing to kiss his brother on the cheek, it was also very girly. So, Kai stopped.
“All right!” Kai exclaimed in excitement, thoroughly glad that Jongin’s demand was very small and easy to comply with. And he’d get a fountainpen! A fair deal. Kai sometimes thought his brother was an utter damfool. He was very naïve, always so very self-sacrificing. Kai was the contradiction of Jongin’s existence. Even at the age of thirteen, he had been cunning and manipulative, and he was proud of it.
Jongin handed Kai the pen, all smiles and red cheeked. “Happy birthday, Kai.”
Kai pocketed the fountainpen at once and leaned in to give Jongin the kiss he promised. But instead of going for the cheek, Kai deliberately gave Jongin’s lips a playful peck. Jongin gasped and pulled back, eyes bulging out in shock. “Thank you, Jongin!” he exclaimed and hopped away.
The next thing he knew, while he was in his room putting the pen away, was father and Luna rushing Jongin to the nearest doctor’s when Jongin began to retch and suffocate, as though he were choking on something.
Shortly after they had turned thirteenth, Kai seldom saw his brother before he was completely forbidden from seeing Jongin again.
Kai had made friends with the neighbours’ kids while Jongin was locked up in his room. He spent all of the evenings with his friends, cycling around the town and swinging on the tree. He had learned to get used to Jongin’s absence. Soon, Jongin disappeared from all the family photos and festivities, and it was as though he never existed, even when he still lived in the same house. Quietly.
Now, as Kai faced his brother after a decade of familial dearth, he saw a figure that looked nothing like him. All skin and bones, Jongin was pale, ashen like the grey of the moonlight, but without the radiance. His cheeks were hollow, his hair a mussed nest. There was a hunger for death in Jongin’s lips, a prayer for death to seek him sooner on his chapped lips. He was longing to die. To someone to put him out of his misery.
He was a sight of horror. Amid the beautiful, rich-coloured petals, Jongin was a colourless corpse. He was not a reflection of Kai. He was nothing. He was not even living.
The colours Kai had been living with instantly faded. Jongin’s life was only in black and white. A monochromatic melancholia.
“Jongin,” Kai called once more in a hoarse voice as his throat tightened. When he stepped closer, Jongin’s gaze dropped to Kai’s shoes. The expensive ones, yes. Jongin, on the other hand, was barefooted. His toes were as bony as his fingers.
“Kai,” Luna whispered and Kai came to a halt again. He had almost forgotten the fact that she was in the room. “Listen to me. He would not come out.”
Kai’s eyebrows drew in a scowl as he turned to her. “What do you mean?”
Luna sighed and looked at Jongin. “He doesn’t want to. Trust me.”
Kai gripped his jaw. “How long has he been in here?”
His stepmother gave him no answer. Kai shook his head and started towards Jongin.
“You don’t have to be afraid, Jongin,” Kai reassured him in a soft tone.
Jongin stood frozen. He was gawking at Kai, lips parted and gasping for air in short, shallow breaths. “Kai,” he let out again, tears welled up in his limpid eyes.
Kai had never heard his name uttered with so much grief and disappointment. He was in pain. And Kai’s name was the expression of his pain. It spoke volumes of Jongin’s agony.
Why was he in so much pain?
Kai tried to think of the last time Jongin was sick before this sickness took him. He never had been. Kai caught cold almost all the time, due to his recklessness. He played in the cold and the rain too much. And whenever he was running a fever, Jongin was always at his side, nursing him with whatever he could with his small, shaky hands. He would press them on Kai’s hot forehead and cry a little every time he felt it burn. He would silently pray to God that the illness would befall himself and not Kai.
When Jongin had been sick, all that Kai was able to do was sit on the other side of the door once every two weeks and slide a few notes under the door to cheer him up. Even though he knew those brief moments meant the world to Jongin, Kai could never stay for too long. He had his own life to take care of. He did not want to bear the responsibility for his brother.
No one had told him what Jongin’s deadly disease was. Kai never really asked. Perhaps he never really cared.
“It’s okay,” he whispered, extending a hand to Jongin’s arm. Jongin shuddered and a tear rolled down his cheek. He still stared vacantly. His arm was skinny. Too skinny. “I’m here now,” Kai said and curled his arms around his brother’s raw-boned frame.
He held Jongin in his arms for a moment. Jongin smelled like the withered flowers he was standing on. He leaned against Kai’s chest and raised his hands to grip the sides of Kai’s shirt. Then without holding back, he broke into a sob.
He was free now. Not completely. But he was free. He was free in the imprisonment of Kai’s arms. His knees gave in and he sank to the floor.
Kai grunted and hoisted him up at once. Then gathering his brother in his arms, he turned to the door. Luna stood at the doorway, frowning.
“Kai, this is not good,” she warned him. “He is an abomination.”
Kai pinned her with a merciless scowl as he bore Jongin out of the room.
It was a slumber like no other. There was nothing but peace, quiet, and warmth. And air. Oh, abundant air. His hollow chest was filled with a sense of tranquillity and ease. This is what death must feel like, he mused in his hazed thoughts, still dangling in the limbo between sleep and wakefulness. His fingers—numb and precious—were not writing a story he’d cherish, in spite of its inevitable despairing ending, this time. His thoughts, feelings, and emotions were not for a character in his story. The subtle elation and freedom he felt were for himself. He never slept so soundly and he never woke so peacefully.
The storm had finally calmed, the rain leaving its vestiges behind on buds of flowers that were eager to bloom and in puddles by the road no one frequented anymore. It was spring. It had been spring in a while. But for Jongin, spring had just sprung.
He caught a whiff of freshly mowed grass, the crisp in the gentle cold wind gearing up for a warm summer, the whirring buzz of a bee, the soft fragrant of wild daffodils, or as mother loved to call them—Narcissus. He must really be dead, he thought. And it delighted him.
He did not care how he had died or when. He never had the courage or the means to take his life himself. So, to whomever that had caused him his death, he owed his thanks. He could be with his mother and father now. Just the way he used to when he was child. He’d snuggle and settle warmly between his parents as a child when he had nightmares and his brother was too deep in his sleep to offer Jongin any comfort.
Spring and death were like chalk and cheese, completely and undoubtedly contradictory. They were worlds apart. Spring was life. Life was in death for Jongin. It made perfect sense for him. He could paint the content he was bouncing on with words. But you could not possibly imagine the satisfaction and happiness of being relieved from an inescapable life sentence until you had experienced it yourself.
There was a garden of flowers in his lungs. These flowers did not rely on the rain or the bees to bloom. They relied on the love that swaddled Jongin’s entire existence, the love that would never be returned. A story like this could not have a “and-they-lived-happily-ever-after,” sort of ending. Not when the subject of his undying, literally unconditional love was his brother. His nearest and his dearest.
It was not just his love that was never and would never be returned by Kai. It was also the warmth, the affection, the care, the desire to always be there for one another. Kai was selfish in many ways. But in Jongin’s eyes, in his heart, in his flowery lungs, Kai was perfect, flawless, and poisonous.
Could there be a love so strong? A bond so unbreakable? Was a love like that worth dying for? Should a love like that be locked away in a tiny, dark room where no light could reach? It was abominable. It was ugly. It was unacceptable. Jongin would never argue with that. He would never accept that his love was beautiful. It was abhorrent. But he loved Kai nonetheless.
He was breathing easy. The flowers were still there, threatening to bloom and suffocate him at any time, but they were just as calm as his breathing was. Dead people did not breathe, did they?
Jongin loved puppies. Who didn’t, really… He could not have been more than seven when he saw a mommy dog shifting her four puppies to a cardboard box on a roadside on his way back home from school. He and Kai usually either biked or walked to and back from their little countryside school near the barn. They were walking that day.
Jongin stopped in his tracks to leer at the dogs with fascination. Kai halted a few steps ahead and looked back at his brother, frowning. “Come on, Jongin,” he prompted and then followed Jongin’s gaze. “She will bite us if we go near her puppies.”
Jongin glanced at his brother and blinked. “No, she won’t,” he said weakly. He fished out half of the sandwich his mother had wrapped up for him. He had saved it earlier during lunch to share it with Kai on the way home since Kai always got hungry before they even reached home.
“Don’t give them your food,” Kai chided, scowling now.
Jongin frowned sadly and stared at the sandwich before glancing up at the dogs. The mommy dog had finally settled her little puppies in the box and was now panting with her tongue out and tail wagging, staring at Jongin.
Sighing, Jongin tore half of the half sandwich and handed one part to Kai, so that he would not complain too much, and brought the other to the dog. He paused nervously and bit his lip. He did not want the dog to bite him. But he knew the puppies needed their mother to get them food. So, the mommy dog needed energy. And like father said, food equals energy. He tossed the sandwich to the ground near the dog and quickly bolted back to Kai to hide behind him, even though he was sure he would let himself get bitten than let Kai get hurt.
The dog did not charge after him. She grabbed the sandwich and climbed into the box.
“I’m telling mama that you wasted your food like this,” Kai said and shrugged Jongin’s hand off his shoulder before he walked away, munching on the other half of the half sandwich.
Jongin edged a little closer to the cardboard box to peek into it one last time. Two brown, two black puppies. He smiled at them and then at the mommy dog before he hurried after Kai.
It felt like another life.
They were twins, they were brothers. But they were like spring and death. Like chalk and cheese. Worlds apart. Kai did not like Jongin for a company, because Jongin was always so cautious and timid. Kai, on the other hand, loved risks and was mischievous. So, he gelled well with Katerina and her brother, Robin, their neighbours who lived nearby. Every evening, Kate and Rob would come over to play with Kai and sometimes, Jongin was invited to join them. Especially, when they were playing board and card games. But those were scarce. Most of the time, Jongin would sit under the oak tree and read a book or two while Kate, Rob, and Kai would climb on the tree, hang on the branches, laugh at the top of their lungs, like monkeys.
They were the Troublesome Trio, as father and Kate and Rob’s parents fancied calling them. There was no end to their mischief and poor old Ole was their regular victim as they loved to sneak into his vegetable garden and steal carrots. Jongin envied them and their carefreeness. But he could never do such a thing that would distress others. Poor Ole.
He was a few months to twelve. He had just let Luna help him shower and jump into clean clothes in the afternoon. Then grabbing a bunch of grapes that were lying about the house in abundance, he skipped outside, humming a favourite tune.
He found Kai, Kate, and Rob under the tree. Rob was on the tyre swing while Kate and Kai were settled on the ground, giggling at each other. Kate’s cheeks and ears were red and so were Kai’s. They were holding grapes in their hands and Kai had one between his teeth.
“My friends in school do it all time! It’s not a big deal!” Rob was saying. Jongin took his seat beside Kai and grinned at his brother. But Kai’s attention was on Kate.
“What are you playing?” Jongin inquired shyly.
“It’s a game. But Kate is being a big baby,” Rob answered instead, groaning. Robin Edwin Dalton was a year older than Kate, Kai and Jongin. So, he always loved to play “the adult” among them. Like his sister, Rob had deep blue eyes, silky blonde hair, and pale skin. He did not like Robin. The boy was an obnoxious know-it-all. Jongin liked to refer to him as Rotter Robin.
“I am not!” Kate yapped at her brother and grew redder. “If it is not such a big deal, why don’t you demonstrate, Robin?!”
“Yeah!” Kai spat, taking the grape out of his mouth. “You’re all mouth and no trousers!”
Jongin was lost. He had no idea what they were talking about and did not really want to be clued in. Most of their games were strange and dangerous. He plucked a grape and brought it to his mouth.
Rob jumped off the swing he was monkeying on and dropped to his fours before Jongin. He smashed his lips against Jongin’s and bit half of the grape secured between Jongin’s teeth.
A drop of the sickly-sweet liquid dribbled down Jongin’s lips as Rob drew back and grinned, chewing on the part of grape he had stolen from Jongin’s mouth.
“See,” he said, shrugging with nonchalance. “Not a big deal.”
Jongin jolted up to his feet and broke into a loud sob before he sprinted into the house, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand furiously.
“Jongin, what happened?!” Luna gasped when she found Jongin crying in a corner with his face buried in his hands.
He sobbed some more and told Luna that Rotter Robin had kissed him with his stinky mouth.
“Oh, it means nothing,” she said, laughing. She stroked Jongin’s hair and patted on his back. “If you didn’t like it, you should tell him that and demand an apology.”
Jongin snivelled and wiped his cheeks. He stared at Luna for a moment. She was right. He was no weakling. He did not like it. He would demand an apology. He sucked in a sharp breath, pulled on a menacing scowl, and shot up to his feet.
When he marched back outside, Kate and Kai were still trying to please Robin. Jongin tapped a finger on Robin’s shoulder. Robin was just thirteen but he was already so much taller than Jongin and Kai. Kate was the tallest among them, though.
Robin turned around with an arched golden brow. “What?”
Jongin cleared his throat and hoped that his eyes were not too puffy that he would look weak. “I demand an apology,” he spat.
Kai was the first to laugh. “It is just a game, Jongin. Get over it and don’t be such a baby,” Kai said and Jongin frowned at his brother.
Nevertheless, he looked up at Robin once more and glowered harder. Robin had his eyebrows furrowed, as though he were trying to read Jongin’s mind. He then shrugged and said, “Fine. Sorry.”
There were many instances like this and the time with the dogs when Kai did not take Jongin’s side. But Jongin, regardless of the situation, had always been on Kai’s team.
Everything that was Jongin’s was also Kai’s. Including his heart. But the same sentiment was not extended to Jongin. Kai had his own separate world, whereas Jongin’s own world revolved around Kai.
He never tried to leave his room. He saw no point in it. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he would never be able to breathe. The room was safe both for him and his petals. He wanted his love to be hidden away. He wanted himself to be hidden away. What was the point when Kai was not around? Besides, Jongin needed to be where Kai could find him when he returned as he promised.
And Jongin waited. For years.
Soon, he became quiet. Words the bled from his fingertips to the paper did not escape his lips anymore. Flower petals did. Each petal, a word, a silent cry.
After years of not uttering a word, he had said the name that haunted him in his sleep. “Kai.” Was it real? Or was it just one of his many dreams that would never be realized? He’d know if he opened his eyes now.
He used to be short. Very short. All children at the age of five were short, he supposed. So, when his mother was making Kai’s favourite okra stew, Jongin would grab the stool, settle it beside his mother and climb onto it. He would still be too short to be able to peek into the pot. But he could smell it and he could observe what his mother added into the pot. She threw in the chopped onions (Jongin hated them), potatoes, okra, water, salt, pepper, and some other ingredients Jongin was not familiar with. Occasionally, his mother would smile down at him and let him have a taste.
“How does that taste?” she’d ask.
Jongin would hum contently in response, grinning from ear to ear. “Kai would love it!”
“And you?” she asked, not surprised that Jongin prioritized his brother before himself.
Jongin nodded his head excitedly. “Me too, mama. Can we have garlic bread with it?”
“Anything you want, sweetheart. Go fetch your brother and father. Dinner is almost ready.”
Jongin leaped off the stool and ran to the garage where he knew his brother and father would be in the evenings. They would be working on their old Plymouth.
“Papa, papa!” Jongin exclaimed as he burst into the garage. As he predicted, Kai was eagerly watching their father working on the engine of the car.
“Here’s my little boy!” his father laughed and bent forward with his arms stretched out and open for Jongin to jump into. He lifted Jongin off the ground, grunting in exertion. “When are you going to learn about your cars, eh?”
Jongin giggled. “I don’t like them.”
Kai scoffed, keeping his eyes on the car’s old engine. “He likes dolls, papa,” he muttered.
Jongin frowned. He never told Kai that he liked dolls. He just played with Kate’s dolls once…
“There’s nothing wrong with liking dolls, my little pumpkin,” his father chimed and pressed a kiss to Jongin’s temple.
Jongin stuck his tongue out at Kai when Kai smiled arrogantly at him.
What a beautiful family, one would think. Then like a disease, misfortune began to plague this beautiful family. And it fell apart.
It was a voice he had never heard before. But he knew instantly whose it was.
He was not dead. Too bad.
There was warmth on his hand. Fingers laying above his own. A thumb rubbing a knuckle. His heart began to race. This was not a dream either. He was reluctant to open his eyes.
Then the warmth disappeared from his hand. His cheek was caressed, his hair was stroked. “Jongin?” A whisper.
His eyes fluttered open. He was recumbent on a bed that was not his own. The room was also brighter than his own room. He had come out of his sanctuary.
Kai tried not to freak out. It would do Jongin no good. He seemed to be in a trancelike state and he needed to calm down first. Nothing much changed in his old room. The single bed was still there, the desk Kai rarely used was still there, the shelves that was now room for dust and cobwebs were still there. The only thing that had changed was that it smelled like an empty wardrobe.
“Jongin,” he called again in a low voice as Jongin stared at him with bleary, heavy eyes. He tried smiling at Jongin but after over an hour of studying Jongin’s hollow cheeks and greyish complexion, he could not bring himself to smile. Jongin was the epitome of malady and sorrow. Like the colourless grave. And Kai had so many questions.
He carded his fingers through Jongin’s roughly chopped hair and wondered if Jongin had cut it himself. Jongin shivered and shied away from his touch. Frowning, Kai retrieved his hand. He stared down at his phone when it buzzed and ignored the call from his girlfriend. He sat up straighter on the edge of the bed and took Jongin’s hand.
“How are you, Jongin?” he asked.
Jongin did not reply. He stared. Only stared. In either awe or horror. Perhaps both.
Kai knew he owed him an apology. But he was not obliged to apologize for choosing his own life before the others. That was what people did, didn’t they? They needed to survive. Kai saw the chance and took it. He fled the family and deserted Jongin. But it was not as though Jongin was a little child. He was a man now, too. He could take his own decisions. So, Kai decided to not to feel guilty over something he clearly should not be blamed for.
Jongin glanced around the room, tearing his painstaking gaze from Kai. He blinked slowly and breathed heavily. Then slowly, he sat up and leaned against the headboard. He looked at Kai again.
“Say something,” Kai muttered, smiling weakly.
Jongin scanned Kai from head to toe. He scrutinized Kai’s expensive shirt first. Then he looked at Kai’s glimmering wrist watch. Then his phone. Then his shoes. Then eventually, he turned his sorrowful gaze to his own feet on the bed and stared at his bony toes for a moment.
“Jongin,” Kai said, resting a hand over Jongin’s foot. Jongin’s eyes flit up and looked at Kai in something like faint shock. “I have come home.” Kai smiled.
Jongin stared at him some more. Then he climbed out of the bed. Kai blinked at his brother as he wobbled his way out of the room. Rising to his feet, Kai followed him. Jongin returned to his own dark room and was about to close the door before Kai halted him.
“Why are you doing this?” Kai asked, scowling. “What is happening, Jongin?”
Jongin kept his gaze low at all times and head hung. He left the door open and dragged himself to the bed. Kai paused at the doorway, glancing at the flower petals scattered all over the room.
“What are all these flowers?” Kai asked but he knew he was not about to get an answer.
Jongin sat on the bed and looked up at Kai with swollen eyes.
Kai paced the kitchen restlessly, rubbing his chin, scratching his head, huffing out sighs. The clouds were sobbing again, shedding their cold tears over flower buds and damp loam that desired them. The raindrops trickled down the blurry window of the kitchen while a lightning split the sombre grey sky in half. Jongin was fast asleep in his room, amidst his flowers, in this storm.
Was Jongin just mourning their father’s death? Was that why he looked duller than a rock amid pearls? Perhaps he was just as mad at Kai as everyone else for having completely disappeared from the family for years. He had no right to be mad, Kai had his own life to take care of. They weren’t children anymore. So, if Jongin were holding grudges just because Kai had chosen to focus on his own life rather than the family, it was not fair and it was puerile.
But something was wrong. Horribly wrong.
His head shot up when Luna entered the kitchen. She paused in the doorway and sighed loudly, tightening her robe. “Hungry?” she asked, but did not wait for Kai’s answer as she picked up a plate and started filling it with cold baked potatoes and sour cream.
Kai crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at her as she settled the plate on the small kitchen table and looked up at him. “What is going on?” he demanded through his teeth.
His stepmother stood up straighter and cast her gaze low. Then she took her seat and patted the table. “Why don’t you come sit first?”
Kai’s eyes narrowed but he decided to sit down. He grabbed a fork and started digging into the potatoes. “What is happening to Jongin, Luna? You… called him an abomination.”
Luna flinched and shook her head lightly. “Trust me. You don’t want to know, Kai. You have come to share our grief. Have a good stay and go back to your own life.”
Kai put the fork down with more force than necessary. He scowled, jaw clenched. “I am not a boy anymore, Luna. And I’m certainly not my spineless brother, so don’t you dare use that tone with me.”
That took Luna aback. She stared at him with wide, horrified eyes. “You left. I hope you realize that. You abandoned your family. You cannot waltz back in here and claim to care about us.”
“I care about my brother,” Kai spat.
“No, you don’t,” she argued. “I know it, your father knew it, and your brother knows it, too.” Kai blinked and fell silent. “Your father had been worried sick about your brother. After us, he would have no one.”
“He doesn’t need anyone but himself,” Kai said. “I don’t understand. What is wrong with him that he is so dependent? Why doesn’t he want to leave his room? And all those… flowers.”
“If you had bothered to return our calls or letters once in a while, you would have known.”
Guilt washed over Kai momentarily. “Is he… ill?” he asked, swallowing hard. He could not even bring himself to contemplate the possibility of losing his brother as well. “Is he… dying, too?”
His stepmother exhaled heavily. She was mum for a moment. “He isn’t. But I worry that one of these days… he might muster the courage to… take his life.”
Kai stiffened. “What is going on?!” he growled. “You can’t say things like that. Is he psychological disturbed? Why haven’t you gotten him help?!”
“No, Kai,” she drawled. “It is far more complicated than that. You shouldn’t have come back.” She rose to her feet and stormed out of the kitchen.
For a few minutes, all that Kai could do was stare at the old wall clock that had been there for as long as he could remember. The rain continued to bring discord to nature. He needed Jongin to talk but his brother was reluctant. He had expected Jongin to be cold and resentful but not this cold.
He stepped out of the bathroom and checked his phone. There were a few missed calls from work and his girlfriend. He decided to ignore them all and he switched the phone off. He stopped in front of the mirror as he pulled on a white t-shirt over the shorts. Then staring at his reflection in the mirror, he ran a hand through his mussed hair and licked his lips. He glanced around the room.
He didn’t remember much about his old bedroom. He used to share it with Jongin until they turned six. He recalled their mother reading them bedtime stories. Whenever Kai had nightmares, Jongin would climb into his bed and comfort him until Kai went back to sleep.
It reminded him of that time Jongin had showed up in his room one night, crying softly because he had had a nightmare. They must have been twelve or so. Kai had been far too sleepy to calm his brother down, he had told Jongin to go bother their father. He had hated himself for it the next day and though Jongin had not been hurt by it, Kai had made sure to make it up to him in the morning by generously giving Jongin half of his juice box and a piece of advice, which went along the lines, “Nightmares only bother babies and girls. You’re a boy, Jongin. Be brave.”
Now that Kai thought about it, he realized that he had been a jerk as a kid, too. Nothing much had changed. He glanced at the closed door. He was tempted to march out there and burst into Jongin’s room and yell at him to grow up. He had returned home after so many years, this was not how Kai had expected to be treated by his own twin brother.
He flumped on the edge of the bed and planted his head in his hands.
The lifelessness in Jongin’s eyes.
He could not stop thinking about them. Groaning, Kai jolted up and stomped out of his room. He would not get any sleep until he this figured out.
He knocked on Jongin’s door but did not wait for an answer as he pushed it open. “Jongin—” he called and stopped himself when he found the room empty. He arched an eyebrow and let himself in.
He was careful with his steps, avoiding the brittle dry petals on his way to the desk. He found pens and a stack of paper. Who even wrote anymore? And so much at that.
Kai lifted a pile of paper and scanned Jongin’s graceful handwriting.
But the reality was that I realized that I detested flowers. They were deceptively beautiful one moment and a decaying, ghastly horror the next. And I had bloomed for him nonetheless. Only for him to crumple me and leave me to wilt. My skin withered like the petals at the end of summer. My bones shattered like the frangible twigs in winter. My heart thirsted for a drop kindness… He had none. I knew. Yet, I bloomed.
Kai’s head snapped up when the bathroom door clicked open and Jongin stepped out, clad in only a nightshirt that was several sizes larger than him. His eyes widened for a moment upon meeting Kai’s but they quickly digressed and turned away miserably.
Kai turned his attention back to the huge stacks of inked papers. “Did you write all these?” he asked in a whisper. “I only read a paragraph and I… I am amazed.” He was beyond amazed. He had not expected Jongin to be good at something like this, he had not expected Jongin to be good at anything.
Jongin appeared listless again. He kept his head low. His lips were quivering. His skin smelled like fresh soap and hair like gentle shampoo. He moved his feet at last and shyly made his way to Kai. He did not look up to meet Kai’s gaze as he retrieved the papers from Kai’s hands and settled them back on the desk.
As he started to turn his back to Kai, Kai’s hand sprung up to grab hold of Jongin’s wrist and an instant hiss escaped from Jongin’s lips. Immediately releasing his brother’s wrist, Kai stared into Jongin’s limpid, glassy eyes and Jongin rubbed his wrist where he had been clutched at.
“I hate this,” Kai snapped. “I know you’re mad at me. But fucking tell me what’s going on before I burn this house down!”
Jongin stared at him wordlessly. His breathing was shallow and his breaths came out with struggle. It was as though he were running a marathon.
“Jongin, please,” Kai sighed and took hold of his brother’s face in his hands. Jongin’s cheeks were incredibly warm against his cold palms.
As if his hands had scalded his skin, Jongin pulled away, eyes bulging out. Kai let his hands drop back to his sides, frowning. Served him right. Served him right for not giving a damn about his brother and family for so long. This was what Kai rightfully deserved. The scorn and fear in his brother’s eyes as though Kai were a stranger, despite being a reflection of himself. Not exactly.
“I don’t want you to forgive me, Jongin,” he said. “But I want to know that you’re all right.”
Jongin’s eyes brimmed with tears. He raised a hand to Kai’s chest and splayed his fingers over it. He breathed calmer now, eyes closed and hand feeling the beat of Kai’s heart for a long moment. Then he slowly shoved Kai back towards the door.
“Fine,” Kai spat. “I’ll leave if that’s what you want. But this time, I won’t come back, Jongin.” With that, he slammed the door shut behind him and started for his own room. The sound of Jongin’s soft coughs followed.
Kai was awakened by the brutal sunlight that was flooded his room through the window and a dissonance of voices downstairs. He sat up and rubbed his eyes on the hilt of his palms. Then he looked around the room, realizing that he was back home.
Pulling a pair sweatpants on, he headed downstairs to find out what the foreign voices were all about. He could have splashed some water on his face first but he didn’t really care for it. He wondered if Jongin was awake. He wondered if Jongin had reconsidered his decision to give Kai the silent treatment as a punishment. He wondered if Jongin was all right.
“Of course, Mrs Kim. We’re sorry we couldn’t make it to the wake,” a female voice said.
“And we’re truly sorry for your loss. Mr Kim was… a wonderful man. He was always very kind to us all, even when we were little brats,” a male voice followed.
Kai’s curiosity peaked. If they had known his father for that long, surely he must be familiarized with them. He found them in the living room with Luna. They were seated on the couch, each holding a cup of coffee in their hands. Both had sun-kissed blonde hair and icy blue eyes. The man carried a well-built body, not too lithe, not too muscular, broad-shouldered, and impeccably dressed. The woman at his side was just as striking, clad in a black pantsuit.
It registered to Kai then.
“Kate? Robin?” he said and all eyes finally turned to him.
“Kai,” Luna rasped. “You’re up.”
Kai ignored her and entered the living room. The Dalton siblings rose to their feet at once, both looking a little confused. “Kai?” Kate said and when Kai grinned at her, she smiled and let out a breathy chuckle before embracing Kai in her arms. “Oh, my god. It’s been ages!”
Kai pulled back and laughed humourlessly. “It indeed has. Wow, you’re taller than I am.”
“It’s the shoes,” she said. “Oh, god. I’m so sorry about your father.”
Kai smiled. “Thanks… Thanks for coming, too.” He looked at Kate’s brother next. Robin wore a subtle smile and he extended a hand. Kai took it and gave it a firm shake. Robin’s trimmed beard complimented his silky hair well. When they had been kids, Rob was known for his endless gloating about how handsome he was, and well, he was now over a decade older and was scrumptiously good-looking.
“How have you been?” Robin asked in a gruff voice. This felt strange. Robin had been a skinny kid when he was young. Kai had not expected him to grow so huge.
“Good,” he muttered. “You two?”
“We’re good, Kai,” Kate answered, rubbing Kai’s shoulder. “I’d say it’s nice to be home after so long, but we’ve had a tragedy.”
“He had been sick for so long, Kate,” Luna said. “It is perhaps a good thing that he is finally put to his rest.” She stood up from her seat. “You must stay for lunch.”
Once the Dalton siblings had agreed, Luna left them to themselves. Kai perched on the armrest of a sofa and stared at Kate for a moment. “You look different,” he commented. “Both of you.”
“The last time we saw each other was like ten years ago,” Robin scoffed. “And you look different, too.”
They talked for a few minutes about the current state of their lives. Kate was now working at a law firm and Robin was a young physics professor at a university up north.
“Where is your… brother?” Kate inquired.
Kai licked his lips. “In his… room. Truth be told, I haven’t been home in… ten years. I have no idea what’s up with Jongin. He’s a little… distant. I was hoping that you guys might know something.”
They both wore an identical frown. “We stopped coming here after you left,” Kate said. “And then, after high school, both of us went off to college. We don’t really know what happened to your brother.”
Kai heaved a sigh. “Looks like we all have a lot to catching up to do.”
“If you’re up for it,” Kate started to suggest. “Rob and I were planning to pay the old town a little visit tonight. You should bring Jongin along. It might be a nice change of scenery.”
“I don’t think he’d want to,” Kai murmured.
“I’d like to see him, though,” Robin said. “Jongin, I mean.” He paused, as though he were searching for the next words. “How is he?”
“I’m not sure, to be honest,” Kai said, eyebrows furrowing. “He’s upstairs, if you want to try to find an answer. I tried and I got nothing.”
Robin and Kate looked concerned then. “We heard that he… never leaves his room,” Kate said. “Like… for years.”
Kai could not reply. He still thought that was nonsense. How could someone stay in their room for a decade?
“Rob came here a couple of times to talk to him,” Kate continued, glancing at her brother, who was frowning heavily. “Jongin had refused. He didn’t wanna talk to any of us.”
Kai swallowed. Something was going on and nobody was telling him what.
Kai dared him to try new things. Jongin could never keep up with the barrage of new challenges, unexperienced adventures, strange feats and deeds, which Kai alone seemed to have mastered.
“You’re a pushover and a yellow-bellied softie,” Kai frequently said whenever Jongin disappointed him in their great, extraordinary ventures. Jongin did not like stealing from Mr Ole’s garden. He did not like ‘accidentally’ spilling a dollop of mashed bitter gourd into their friends’ meal for his own amusement. He did not enjoy kicking scrawny stray cats. He didn’t like kissing girls from his grade just to prove to his friends that he was already man at the age of twelve. These meaningless enterprises Kate, Rob and Kai took great pleasure in accomplishing. Jongin often maintained in his solitude where nothing but peace, privacy, quiet, and happiness resided.
His world had always been so small. There was his father, Luna and Kai, and before his mother died, there was his mother. His world back then seemed to have extended beyond the confining walls of his room. School, home, the oak tree, evenings with Kate and Rob, puppet shows whenever the puppeteer was in town, circuses, trips to the town in their old Plymouth, Kai’s many stories. The world was filled with nothing but laughter and happiness. Even after their mother’s death. Their father worked so hard on keeping things the way they were before their mother passed.
It was Kate’s twelfth birthday. She was already taller than Jongin, Kai and Rob. Jongin wondered if she’d grow up to be like the Giant in Jack & The Beanstalk. Kai had read the story to him the other night. Jongin had loved it. He loved everything that Kai read to him.
“My mother gave me twenty dollars,” Kate said, not in a gloating sort of way, as they sauntered into the diner. This would be the first time Jongin had come here without his father or Luna. The Dalton siblings did not depend on their parents as Jongin did. They were wild, rebellious, naughty, and rowdy in every manner. They climbed trees and school gates. Wild. Jongin only hung out with them because Kai did. But even he began to realize that he was the odd one out. Rob and Kate barely acknowledged his presence and so did Kai. Jongin wished his brother would play with him the way he used to before he befriended the Daltons. But nowadays, it became apparent that Kai preferred Kate and Rob’s company to Jongin’s.
“We can eat until we get sick,” she added, twirling her blonde ponytail around her fingers.
They found a booth Kate liked and everyone took their seat except Jongin, who was leering at the jukebox with awe. He loved the old jukebox. It always played different songs and he remembered none but he loved the music.
“Do you need help climbing into your seat?” Robin asked mockingly. “Does your father lift you to your seat every time?”
Kai looked furiously embarrassed. He scowled at Jongin. Don’t embarrass me, his glaring eyes spelled. Jongin frowned and glanced at Robin’s hand that was held out to him.
“I can help you get onto it,” Robin said and Jongin wanted nothing more than to slap that smug smile off that blonde rascal’s face. He ignored Robin’s hand and crawled into the seat beside Rob, grimacing sourly. Kai had opted to sit next to Kate and Jongin knew better than to squeeze in beside them and embarrass Kai further. He had to beg Kai to let him tag along today and he had promised Kai that he would not do anything mortifying or childish.
Kai’s expression quickly softened as he faced Kate, drawing a neatly wrapped giftbox from his pocket. “This is for you,” he said. “Luna helped me get it.”
“Oh, Kai. That is very thoughtful of you,” Kate chimed and accepted the giftbox. Jongin rose from his seat just a little to peep at what the box contained. It was a pearl brooch. Jongin sank back in his seat. “Look, Rob. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Rob seemed distracted. He gave a curt nod of his head and returned his gaze to the window. Kai blushed. “So, you like it?” he asked.
“I love it,” Kate said. They fell into a conversation of their own. Jongin could not keep up. It was about one of their friends, with whom Jongin had no ties with.
As much as Jongin did not want to be entertained by Robin Dalton, especially after that… kiss Rob had stolen from him, he decided that he had no other way to make himself seem like he was having just as much fun as Kai.
“Are you okay?” Jongin asked.
Rob did not respond immediately as he continued to glower out the window. He then turned his head and faced Jongin with a confused expression. “Yeah.”
Jongin looked away. He didn’t want to talk to Rob anymore. “Okay.”
Rob shrugged and turned away again. “Okay.”
Robin was a big boy. Not as big as Rob liked to think he was, but to Jongin, he was the odd one out. Rob was mature for his age, perhaps a little too mature. He did things boys much older than him did. Like poking fun at teachers, getting into detentions, trying out cigarettes, having girlfriends. He was a bad influence on Kai. Jongin wished he could advise Kai to stay away from a bad boy like Robin Dalton. But they had been friends for so long. Kai would never listen.
“Are you kids ready to order?” Mrs Lee appeared in her diner uniform with her notepad and pen in her hands as usual. Jongin beamed up at her. “Oh, hello, Jongin.” She ruffled her hair like she always did and Jongin grinned wider. Robin and Kate sniggered, and Kai shook his head disappointedly.
Rob ordered first, taking his role as “the adult” of the group. “I’ll have a huevos rancheros, please.”
Jongin didn’t even know what that meant. Must be a different language he did not understand. Rob and Kate were reared in a household where everything was taught to them. Kate could even play the piano and Rob knew three different languages.
Kai tried to sound just as sophisticated with his order. So, he ordered something he could barely pronounce. Kate went with a simple stack of pancakes and maple syrup. When it was Jongin’s turn, Mrs Lee winked and said, “Eggs over hard with bacon, hashbrowns, and toast?”
Jongin nodded. “And chocolate milkshake.”
“Coming right up.” Once she had disappeared with the order, Kai scowled at Jongin.
“Why didn’t you ask for sprinkles too, Jongin?” Kai asked and Jongin knew he was chiding him. Jongin lowered his eyes and head.
“I should have ordered milkshake as well,” Rob sighed.
Jongin wasn’t sure what sort of insult that was but he didn’t like it. He sat timidly, holding his hands together on his lap with his knees pressed tightly together. His shoulders were slouched forward and kept his eyes on the label on the ketchup bottle while Kai, Kate and Rob talked about many things. Jongin had some opinions too, but he dared not voice them. Kai would not like them. He acted so differently when he was around friends. He always wanted Jongin to keep quiet and not embarrass him. That was the deal Jongin had to agree to if he wanted to hang out with Kai and his friends.
He was grateful when their foods arrived. There was finally something he could distract himself with. He dug into his eggs and hashbrowns at once. When he lifted his gaze, Kai looked rather displeased with the meal he had ordered.
Jongin blinked sympathetically. “Do you not like the Kweezoodees?” Jongin asked.
“They’re called Quesadillas,” Robin corrected him.
Jongin ignored him, though he could not hide the scowl that furrowed his eyebrows. He kept his eyes on his brother.
“I do not like them,” Kai said with a heavy sigh. “How’s yours, Jongin?”
“Really good,” Jongin said.
“Can I have them? Maybe you’ll like these.”
Jongin did not hesitate for a second as he switched their plates. Not that he wanted to try this foreign cheesy food, but he wanted Kai to have a good meal. Jongin picked up a Kweezoodee and took a small bite. The spices in the meat were overpowering. Jongin frowned but he knew it would be rude to not to finish them since Kate was paying.
Kai was happy with the meal Jongin had ordered. He shared some of the eggs with Kate and they talked more about how much homework they had to do in the weekend. Kate also shared some news about her parents who were planning on taking them on a cruise for the holidays.
“Here,” Rob said, attracting Jongin’s attention to himself. “You can have some of my food if you don’t like yours.” He jerked his chin at the Kweezoodees.
Jongin glared at him. “I’m fine,” he said grimly. Rob probably spat in his food and was offering Jongin to eat it for a joke.
Shrugging, Rob said, “Suit yourself.”
Kai always dared Jongin to try new things. Today, Jongin tried Kweezoodees. He hoped it made Kai happy.
When they had finished eating, Mrs Lee offered Jongin a free lolly like she always did on his way out.
“Why don’t we get a lollipop?” Kate muttered once they had exited the diner.
“Because we are not kids,” Rob said offhandedly, as though it were the most obvious justification. They walked back to their homes.
“Throw it away,” Kai hissed to Jongin when he believed Rob and Kate were out of earshot.
Jongin frowned sadly, pulling the lolly out of his mouth. “But why?”
Kai scowled like one those murderers in the scary movies Jongin was not allowed to watch but he had seen them anyway at the Daltons while Kate and Rob’s parents were away. They usually left him with nightmares for days.
“You look like a baby,” Kai groused angrily.
“We are the same age,” Jongin muttered.
“Exactly. You make me look like a dumb baby, too.”
“But you don’t have a lolly.”
“Jongin, I swear I will never take you with me ever again!”
Jongin’s heart ached. He tossed to lollipop away on the roadside and swallowed a sob. The aftertaste of the sugary strawberry lolly remained on his tongue. He kept his head low for the rest of the way, worried that his eyes might have gotten red from the tears he was holding back. He did not want to embarrass Kai any further.
“Hey, Jongin,” Kate called, adjusting the pink ribbon around her ponytail. Jongin snivelled and looked up at her. Ahead of them, Rob and Kai were collecting pebbles to hurl them at stray dogs and birds. “We are heading to the carnival tomorrow. Do you want to come along?”
Jongin swallowed hard. “I cannot go without my father or Luna.” Neither could Kai technically, but Kai had his ways of sneaking out without the adults in the house knowing. Some of the trades he had learned from Rob.
“They don’t have to know we’re going to the carnival.”
“What are you talking about?” Rob asked.
“I was telling Jongin about the carnival,” she told her brother. Kai gasped and his face instantly paled.
“Why did you tell him that,” he grumbled. “He is going to tell papa about it now. Such a tattletale. He even complained to our stepmother that Rob kissed him!”
Rob’s cheeks burned red with embarrassment. “I did not… kiss… him,” he said sheepishly, looking down at the tarmac. “That was… not a kiss.” He sounded mortified and looked shamefaced.
“Yeah, but that’s what he told Luna!” Kai yapped.
Jongin was so close to tears now. They were ready to betray his eyes. “I am not a tattletale,” he argued weakly with a sob climbing its way up in his throat.
“You cannot tell papa about the carnival, do you understand?” Kai growled.
Jongin pushed past Kai and broke into a sprint towards his house.
That night, Jongin refused to talk to Kai even at dinner. Later in the living room, Jongin pretended to be engrossed in the encyclopaedia about Ancient Egypt while Kai listened to his Walkman.
“Jongin,” Kai called from where he sat on the sofa.
Jongin did not answer.
Kai heaved a sigh and tossed a sunflower seed at Jongin’s head. Jongin lifted it and scowled at him. “I’m sorry,” Kai muttered in a low voice.
Jongin kept mum. He wasn’t angry anymore. He wasn’t even seeking Kai’s apology.
Kai smiled at him and Jongin smiled back. “Want to listen to this song?” Kai asked, handing Jongin the headphones.
Jongin sprung up from the floor and hurried to the sofa. He perched on Kai’s lap and listened to the peppy song, bobbing his head back and forth while Kai grinned at him.
With dogged determination and blind optimism, Kai strode into Jongin’s room and found his brother sitting on the bed with a book in his hand. He looked up at Kai with bleary, limpid, empty eyes. The deathly paleness of his complexion frightened Kai. But what frightened him more were the scads of flower petals scattered across the floor, bed, and desk. Did Jongin have some sort of a weird obsession for flowers? Kai could not even recognize the flower. Were they roses? They were just petals. No stalks, no buds. Just violet petals.
“Get up,” Kai ordered.
Jongin did not move.
“Don’t make me drag you out of here, Jongin. Because I will.”
Jongin stared at him like a bird had flown out of Kai’s mouth. He looked like he was in something like disbelief. He then slowly surveyed Kai’s clothes. The crisp black shirt, the new blue jeans, the expensive pair of boots, the luxurious watch he sported on his left wrist. Pain and grievance shot through Jongin’s expression then.
“Open your mouth and speak, for fuck’s sake,” Kai spat, yanking the covers off the bed. Dried petals flitted into the air. Jongin shuddered and climbed out of the bed. “If you think for one second that I will just turn a blind eye to whatever jacked up shit that’s been going on with you, you’re wrong.”
Jongin’s eyes widened, as though he had found a silver of hope at long last. He opened his mouth but closed it again, hanging his head.
Kai groaned exasperatedly and pulled the wardrobe doors open. Fishing out an oversized sweater and a pair of black pants, he hurled them on the bed. “Get changed.”
Jongin was frozen where he stood. Was he even listening?
“Did you lose your fucking voice?” Kai snapped at him. “I don’t think so. I heard you say my name. Do you have a peach down your throat, then? I’m not going anywhere until you say something.”
Jongin’s chest was heaving like it always did. Like he was out of breath or something. Had he become asthmatic recently? Kai had so many questions. He never knew why Luna and his father had locked Jongin away in his room. He supposed he never actually cared enough to find out. But now he believed there might be something far more serious than he had been told to believe.
“You’re not… dying, are you?” Kai asked in a softer tone.
Jongin lifted his gaze and looked at Kai sombrely. Instead of answering, he gracefully moved to pick up the clothes from the bed and he hugged them to his chest. He stared at Kai for a minute before he turned to the bathroom.
Kai plumped unceremoniously on the bed and planted his head in his hands. He had disappeared from Jongin’s life for so long that he did not even know anything about Jongin anymore. Did he know anything about Jongin before he left? He was a good enough brother, he was convinced. He looked out for Jongin whenever he wanted to. Jongin wasn’t an annoying brother either. They had grown apart over the years. But they had been close when they were younger.
Jongin used to follow him around like a puppy. Kai didn’t like puppies.
He brought his head up when he heard Jongin exit the bathroom. Kai rose to his feet and rubbernecked at Jongin for a moment. The sweater was too big for Jongin’s bony body. Tufts of hair fell over Jongin’s eyes and he pushed them back.
“Put on some shoes,” Kai said.
Jongin looked a little curious but very nervous. He moved with slow steps, as if even walking was a laborious chore for him. He pulled a pair of sneakers from under the bed and put them on. As he tied the shoelaces, Kai noticed that he was sloppy, and he did not make the effort to tie them neatly or tightly.
He was actually doing it. Kai was very sure that Jongin would refuse and throw him out of his room. But when had Jongin ever said ‘no’ to Kai?
Luna appeared at the door. “Oh, my… What are you doing?” she gasped, looking at Jongin.
“We’re going out,” Kai said.
Luna pinned him with a horrified look. “No, he can’t.”
Kai scowled at her. “Why not?”
Luna bit her lip. She then turned to Jongin. “You cannot go,” she said.
Jongin’s eyebrows furrowed into a miserable frown.
“I am sick and tired of your games,” Kai spat and walked over to Jongin before grabbing his wrist. Jongin blenched and rasped in surprise, as though Kai’s touch had stung him. Kai tightened his hand around Jongin’s wrist and hauled him towards the door.
“You know you can’t go,” Luna told Jongin, eyes filled with horror.
Jongin said nothing and he did nothing. He simply let himself be dragged out of the room by Kai.
Kai would get his answers today.
Jongin could not move. The air, the night, the wind, the sky, the grass. It was as though he had stepped into a new world.
He wanted nothing more than to run back to the old. The loudness deafened him and yet, he knew the spring night could not be quieter. Kai’s hand secured around his wrist kept him from fleeing. Jongin sucked in as much air as his gardened lungs could take. The cold wind slapped against his hollow cheeks as they crossed the threshold and he blenched before freezing in place.
Kai stopped and looked back at Jongin with a frown. “When was the last time you stepped outside?” he asked.
Jongin couldn’t remember. Even if he did, he knew he would not answer. He glanced down at Kai’s hand around his wrist. The mere contact of their skin was burning Jongin. He did not have the strength to break free from the grip.
He lifted his gaze to Kai’s face and studied it for a length. Kai looked good. Unlike Jongin, who was rotting on the outside while blooming on the inside. Kai had such nice skin, he wore such nice clothes. He smelled wonderful, like those high-end colognes Mr Dalton used to smell like. Jongin realized he was a poor travesty of a corpse compared to Kai. They probably did not resemble one another as much anymore.
Jongin never wanted anything. Well, he had wanted some things. He had wanted his mother to come home from the hospital alive. But apart from that, he never asked for anything over the top. Even now, he wasn’t desiring Kai. He simply wanted the misery to end.
He wanted to breathe again. Breathing distinguished the living from the dead. Jongin was in a constant abeyance state, which offered him little life and little death for every heartbeat of his that contributed to the blooming of a petal in his lungs.
“Jongin,” Kai called, averting Jongin’s attention. “Come on.”
Jongin did not move. He gazed out at the yard of green, crisp grass and bulbs of tulips. Up above, the night sky was freckled with a million winking stars. Jongin had written plenty about the sky, the stars, the grass, the trees. The more appealing they seemed on paper and ink, the more unnerving they appeared in reality. Reality was always frightening. The truth, even more.
What would Kai do when… if he found out the truth? If he knew what was wrong with Jongin…
There’d be disgust. He’d be disgusted.
Jongin began to take a step back. Kai’s grip on his wrist loosened. But then Jongin halted in his tracks when he heard a pair of voices, chirping against the breezy night air. A woman’s laughter was followed by a man’s gruff chuckle. Neither of which Jongin recognized.
“Oh, they’re here,” Kai commented.
Who, Jongin almost asked. But he kept his lips tightly shut, as though it would keep the petals barred.
“Come with me, Jongin,” Kai implored, withdrawing his hand.
It sounded like the sweetest nectar harvested from a dead, thorny plant. Jongin felt his heart clench. For years, he had longed for nothing but to see Kai again. And now that Kai was in front of him, he knew that a lot had changed. They were no more than strangers tied by blood now. It hurt his chest in ways he never thought it could.
Jongin lowered his gaze and agreed with the slightest nod of his head. Years and a great distance it had been, and he had yet to learn to say no to his brother. But perhaps there was hope for the renewal of their bond, their friendship, their brotherhood. Jongin would ask for nothing more. Being near Kai, having Kai close was more than enough.
As he stepped out into the driveway, Jongin realized he had been clinging onto the memories of Kai from their childhood. He knew that Kai. He wasn’t sure what sort of a man the past ten years had fashioned Kai into. Who was Kai now?
A man who rode in fancy cars, Jongin thought as he glanced at the shiny car parked in the driveway. No one in this small town owned such cars. Back in those days, Mr and Mrs Dalton owned a luxurious convertible that had put Jongin’s father’s rusty Plymouth to shame. The Plymouth still sat in the garage, safely locked away, forever cherishing the memories of the wonderful trips his father used to bring him on in it.
Kai liked sticking his hand out the window. He liked the thrill and peril such reckless acts posed. Jongin would sit in the backseat, secured in his seatbelts, singing along with his father to whatever tune the buzzy radio played.
Jongin was curious. Who else was Kai now?
“I can’t believe you can still do it!” Jongin heard the woman’s voice again. His heartbeat quickened, and he was tempted to spin on his heel and bolt back for the house. But Kai’s steady hand around his wrist disallowed it.
“Years of gymnastics do that to you,” a man’s voice replied.
Jongin’s eyes adjusted to the dark of the evening and he looked ahead at the great oak tree, which still stood proud and tall and alive. Jongin’s family that lived near it was a grim contrast to the strength it constituted.
“I see that you still love to show off,” Kai said as he released Jongin’s wrist. Jongin immediately missed the heat of his hand.
By the oak tree, a woman stood, leaning against the tree with a kind smile etched over her pink lips. Her fair yellow hair flowed with the course of the wind. She was dressed in black trousers and a maroon blouse. Beside her, on the overhanging branch, a man was perched, clad in a simple deep blue shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, and a pair of blue jeans and brown boots. Like the woman, he also had a striking blonde hair that was illuminated by the moonlight.
It did not take Jongin much to recognize them. Most of the memories he constantly replayed every day in order to not to forget them included the Daltons.
The smile of Katerina’s lips died almost instantly as her eyes flitted to Jongin, who kept his pace steady behind Kai.
“Oh, my god,” she let out, pulling away from the tree. Robin jumped off the branch and landed on the ground. Jongin’s fingers trembled. Something like dread and anxiety twisted his guts. It felt as though he were facing the doer of his death.
Katerina’s face was scrunched up in horror and disbelief. She mustered Jongin from head to toe, gawping at him like he had holes punched through him.
“I…” she began, eyes wide and surprised. Jongin could not surmise what she was about to say, but he knew he did not want to hear it. But then she rushed forward and threw her arms around Jongin’s frail, skinny body. “Jesus, I can’t believe it’s actually you.”
Jongin froze. He hadn’t had another body touching him so intimately close in what felt to him like forever. His body did not know how to react and neither did his head. Katerina’s heat washed over him as he smelled her faint, pleasant perfume that smelled of honey and flowers. His arms were limp at his sides. They wanted to curl around Katerina’s waist and hold her, like it was the most natural thing to do. But he couldn’t find the will to move them.
Katerina withdrew with tears in her eyes. “How… How have you been?” she asked in a low, shaky voice, placing her hands on Jongin’s bony shoulders. “What… happened to you?”
“I’m trying to figure that out myself,” Kai said, frowning.
Katerina looked at Kai questioningly. “What do you mean?”
Jongin’s head was spinning so fast. He wondered if he could go on another minute without reeling and passing out. They could probably hear his heartbeat.
“Jongin,” Katerina called, staring into his eyes. “Have you been… here all this time? I didn’t believe it when others said that you still lived here and you never… leave. Part of me wondered if you were…” she trailed, looking a little ashamed as if she were about to say something offensive.
Kai was starting to look a little bored. “The night’s not getting any younger,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere.”
Katerina paid no attention to his request and stared at Jongin. “Look at us,” she said with a sad smile. “All four of us together again. Like when we were kids…” She paused. “I’m sorry about your father, Jongin.”
Jongin bowed his heavy head. He tried to focus on his breathing.
“He doesn’t speak,” Kai said, and Katerina arched an eyebrow.
Kai shrugged, sliding his hands into the pockets of his pants. “He refuses to talk to me. Maybe you think giving me the silent treatment is a punishment for not calling or visiting in the past ten years, but I have a life, Jongin.” He sounded annoyed, as though Jongin had branded him unjustly as the bad guy. “Can we just go? I’m starving.”
Jongin felt cold air slither into his sweater and he shivered.
“Boyle’s Diner?” Katerina suggested excitedly. “It’ll be like old times.”
“Great,” Kai said and turned around, walking towards the road. Katerina smiled at Jongin and gave his hand a little squeeze.
“I’m so happy to see you again, Jongin,” she said before she went after Kai.
Jongin did not follow. He glanced back at the house half-heartedly. He found Luna standing by the window on the second floor, frowning down at him worriedly. Kai dared him to try and do new things. If Jongin agreed to do this, he would be risking everything his father and Luna had tried so hard to keep away from Kai and the rest of the world. If Jongin turned back and returned to the safety of his house, he would never escape the darkness. He would rot alone and die eventually. Why did that seem like a preferable alternative to having Kai discover Jongin’s secrets? He glanced at Kai and Katerina as they trod along the roadside that would lead them to the diner, engaged in a conversation, probably about Jongin.
You can never belong in the world out there. You are an abomination. You must understand. People will never accept this. You will be safer away from them.
He started to turn towards the house.
“Jongin,” he heard the unfamiliar voice. Jongin had forgotten about Robin’s presence. He turned to the man and blinked at him tiredly.
Robin seemed tongue-tied. He had his hands balled into fists and jaw locked with tension. Robin had indeed grown to be the man he always believed he was. Tall, broad-shouldered, tough. His shirt was tight around his athletic, sinewy body. Good for Rotter Robin, Jongin thought unenthusiastically. He was just very tired. This had been a mentally exhausting week and Jongin hadn’t had an eventful day as this one in a very long time. It was both taxing and fearsome.
Robin did not look like he had anything significant to say. He never did. Even as a young boy, he said nothing meaningful or useful and often dragged Kai into trouble. He was full of himself and claptrap. How much could he have changed in the past decade? He was clearly no longer the scrawny fair head, but Jongin was sure he was still the snobbish know-it-all he had been.
Raising his hand to the back of his neck, Robin massaged it nervously. “You… coming?” he then asked, as if to make conversation or just say something. They hadn’t seen each other in over… Jongin couldn’t even remember. When had been the last time he had seen Robin? He remembered gazing at the boy out the window that one time when Robin had come to visit him but Jongin had refused to see him. It had made Jongin curious, though. Robin never came looking for him. He never had any reason to.
Jongin looked at Kai, who had halted in his tracks and was now looking back at him from the road. He was waiting. With one last glimpse of the house, Jongin started towards Kai and Katerina. Behind him, Robin followed quietly, maintaining a wide distance between them.
“Not much changed,” Kai remarked as they strolled past the cornfield. Jongin was grateful for the night and the darkness. There weren’t many people out of their homes at this time. But he knew the diner would be crowded and the thought of meeting familiar faces terrified him. The thought of meeting unfamiliar faces terrified him even more. What would they do to him if they found out? Tie him to a pole and burn him alive? Send him away for experiments? Beat him up and bury him? Luna was certain this was what happened to men who desired other men and siblings who desired each other. Jongin was repulsed of himself. No one could be more repulsed of himself than himself. The disgust and self-loathing had almost driven him to death once. But then he figured there was no better punishment for being an execrable creature than having to live with such a shame and pain.
A lot had changed. Kai was wrong. The road they walked on was new. The cornfield was wider. There were new trees on either side of the road.
A colony of bats wheeled across the sky and Jongin gazed upwards.
“So, how is it, being a lawyer?” Kai asked, trudging alongside Katerina. Jongin’s footsteps were slow and shaky. He was already falling behind Kai and Katerina.
“Stressful,” Katerina answered and glanced at Kai with a friendly grin. “But I’m sure I don’t pull out my hair half as much as Rob does.” She looked away. They were walking close enough for their arms to touch. “And you? How are things for you?”
“Couldn’t be better,” Kai said. “I know it’s a dumb thing to say, considering that my dad just died but… he was suffering for too long. It finally brought him peace and… it feels like I don’t have any more responsibilities left here.”
Jongin tried not to get hurt by it. He was definitely not one of Kai’s responsibilities. There was no reason for him to take offence from what Kai had just said. But it still hurt him nonetheless.
“Is it true that,” Katerina began. “you never visited?”
Kai nodded his head. “I sound like a jerk, don’t I?”
Katerina shrugged. “I was just wondering… why?”
“I didn’t want to,” Kai answered blatantly. “This small town… This backwater. It’s just not… me. I’m guessing it’s not you or Rob either. We don’t belong in places like this. So, every time I thought of coming here, it just made me feel… forced and miserable. I didn’t want to do anything that made me feel like that. I would be reminded of my mother… And I couldn’t even… talk to my brother anymore. What was the point of coming back? I didn’t want to rekindle all the bad memories I had here.”
Jongin’s heart skipped a beat at the possibility that Kai hadn’t thought of returning home because he saw no point in it since Jongin couldn’t be with him.
Katerina reached a hand out to Kai’s and interlaced their fingers. Kai glanced down at their locked hands. “I’m sure there were some good ones,” Katerina said, smiling.
Kai smiled back, his hand momentarily tightening around hers. But then he retrieved his hand and cleared his throat. “So… Are you seeing anyone?” Kai asked.
“No,” Katerina answered. “Not anymore, at least. I was with this guy for over a year and… things didn’t work out.”
Katerina sighed. “We were too different.” She met Kai’s gaze again. “What about you?”
Kai looked embarrassed. “I am… seeing someone. We just started.”
That concluded their conversation.
Jongin thought he was going to be sick. He could not afford to lose control here. He stopped to catch his breath and recompose himself. Crouching by the roadside, he sucked in large gulps of air and rubbed his burning chest before clutching at his shirt.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and blenched so hard. Robin withdrew his hand at once as Jongin looked up at him. Frowning, Robin asked, “Are you all right, Jongin?”
Jongin clenched his eyes briefly and drew in another breath before he rose to his feet. He slowly nodded, meeting Robin’s icy blue eyes. The man was at least five inches taller. Then Robin dropped to one of his knees on the road and took hold of Jongin’s undone shoelaces. Jongin’s heart stopped for a second as Robin tied the shoelaces before rising to his full height again.
“Are you all right?” he asked again. This time, Jongin understood that he wasn’t asking about how Jongin felt right this moment, but rather how he had been all these years.
Jongin did not answer. He started walking again. Robin followed at his side. Jongin could feel his heartbeat in his throat. He gazed ahead at Kai. He and Katerina were no longer talking. Kai was rubbernecking at the nature that surrounded him. Was he thinking about Jongin, trying to figure out what was wrong with his brother? With Kai, Jongin could not tell for sure that he would be all that concerned about him. After all, Kai did not once attempt to contact Jongin in all those years he had been away.
Jongin’s train of thoughts came to a halt when he felt warm knuckles brush against his bony fingers. He turned his head, looking to Robin. Robin clearly was not aware of his hand brushing Jongin’s as he kept his eyes ahead on the road.
“I tried, you know,” Robin muttered without meeting Jongin’s gaze. “I came to see you many times. Each time, your father and stepmom told me that you weren’t around or that you didn’t want to see me or you’re asleep…”
Jongin wanted to ask why he had come, but at the end of the day, Robin and Katerina were insignificant to Jongin’s life. They didn’t care enough, they weren’t family, they weren’t even his friends. They were Kai’s friends.
Robin went on when Jongin did not reply. “Then I… graduated from high school, went off to college… I came to see you the day I left, too. Luna said that you weren’t home.”
Jongin was certain that he had been home. He, however, had not known that Robin had come to see him then.
Jongin pulled his hand away from the heat of Robin’s. The diner was now in view. The parking lot had never been so empty. Not in Jongin’s memory, at least. Through the windows, Jongin could see that it was empty on the inside as well.
Did Mrs Lee still work there, he wondered.
Kai pushed the diner’s door open and held it for Jongin. “You okay?” he asked and Jongin stared at him. Kai was here. Everything would be all right. Jongin calmed his heart and nodded.
Kai pressed a hand on Jongin’s back and ushered him towards a booth.
“Why do you look so glum?” Jongin heard Katerina ask her brother behind him. No answer came from Robin.
“Just tell me when it all gets too much,” Kai muttered to Jongin. “and we’ll leave, okay?”
Jongin almost leaned into Kai. He didn’t realize how much he had been craving for Kai’s warmth and scent until now.
The diner was too bright for him. A splash of red and a barrage of purple stung his eyes. He glanced at the old jukebox. It wasn’t there. It was replaced by a magazine stand.
“This place looks desolate,” Kai said as he took his seat in the booth. “Sit down, Jongin.” He patted the upholstered bench at his side and Jongin slid into it. Across them, Katerina and her brother took their seats.
“They’re running out of business with the new peppy cafés in the town up and running these days,” Robin said. “Kind of sad seeing this place being closed down.”
“Kind of,” Kai echoed and sighed. “Probably for the better, though.”
“I will miss their fries,” Katerina said.
“They cannot be better than the ones in the city,” Kai scoffed.
“Remember what Mrs Lee told us when we asked her what’s her secret?” Robin asked Katerina, smirking mischievously.
Katerina laughed. “She said the salt is from—”
“The tears of a million virgin boys,” came a voice Jongin still remembered all too well. He turned and stared at Mrs Lee approaching them with her usual smile. She certainly had less grey hairs and wrinkles in Jongin’s memory.
“Rob was terrified,” Katerina said.
Robin grimaced at her. “No, I was not. I had no reason to be.”
“Uh-huh.” She rose from her seat to give Mrs Lee a hug. “How have you been, Mrs Lee?”
“It’s been more than two years since you last visited,” Mrs Lee said before she turned to Kai and Jongin. She blinked for a moment before her eyes almost popped out of their sockets. “Well, I’ll be damned… I thought you two had died.”
“Mrs Lee,” Robin grumbled.
Kai smiled at Mrs Lee. “Good to see you, too.”
“Which one of you is the nice one?” Mrs Lee asked. “The only thing I remember about you twins is that one was nice and the other was a brat that stole my sugar lumps.”
“Mrs Lee,” Robin said again, rolling his eyes. If Kai had stolen any sugar lumps, Robin must have been the one that inspired him.
Mrs Lee looked at Jongin. “Oh, look at you poor thing. What have they been feeding you?” She grabbed Jongin’s chin and examined his face. She clicked her tongue disappointedly. “There’s no better medicine in this world than good food, son.”
“Can we get some already, then?” Robin asked, groaning.
“Sure,” Mrs Lee flipped her notebook. “What’ll you have?”
“Jumbo burger with fries,” Katerina ordered first. “And strawberry sundae for dessert.”
“I’ll have grilled steak with sweet potato fries,” Kai said.
“Drinks?” Mrs Lee asked.
“A beer would do.”
“Yeah, I’d like a beer, too,” Robin said next. He then paused to look at Jongin. He licked his lips and turned to Mrs Lee once more. “I’d like the meatloaf plate.”
“What about you, sweet cakes?” Mrs Lee asked, turning to Jongin. “What do you want?”
Jongin wanted to dash out the door and disappear into the darkness. He parted his lips, keeping his head low.
“Toast, eggs over hard, hashbrowns, and…” Robin ordered instead. Jongin stared at him. “chocolate milkshake.”
Mrs Lee grinned. “You’re Jongin, then,” she said, jotting down the order with a pencil. “I’ll be back with your dinner, kids.”
None of them were kids but it felt so good to hear. If only they could all just be kids again…
“Rob was a virgin? When was this?” Kai asked, taking a sip of the water he had poured into a glass from the jug.
Robin scowled at Katerina. “When we were very young,” he said.
Katerina snorted. “Last year of high school.”
Kai coughed and almost spat the water. “Bullshit.”
“Exactly. Bullshit,” Robin said.
“You had slept with more girls than Shane Sheepface,” Kai gasped. “Remember Sahira, whom we both dated? She told me that you and she did it.”
“All the girls wanted to say that they slept with Rob, for god’s sake,” Katerina said. “He just played along.”
Kai looked astounded and Robin looked disinterested by the whole conversation. “This is insane. But you were like my sex guru! You taught me everything.”
“I’m starting to doubt the nature of your friendship,” Katerina joked.
“No, I mean,” Kai said. “I never would have known how to do it with my first girlfriend if he hadn’t told me what I should do.”
“You don’t have to be experienced to know.”
“I feel cheated, Rob,” Kai groused.
A song finally played but it came from the speakers in the corners.
Katerina gasped. “Baby Love,” she said, jumping in her seat. “Come on, Rob. Dance with me.”
Robin shook his head. “Not after you embarrassing me like that,” he said with a subtle smirk.
Katerina pouted and turned to Kai, holding a hand out to him. “I’ll be honoured,” Kai said and took her hand, leading her to the narrow aisle between the booths.
Kai placed a hand on her waist and took her hand with the other. They moved gracefully across the red and white tiles of the diner’s floor. Their gazes were locked.
“Here’s your beer and milkshake.” Mrs Lee showed up with the drinks. “Always knew these two would end up together,” she commented, glancing to Katerina and Kai.
Robin took a sip of his beer, watching his sister dance in the empty diner and he scowled a little when Kai’s hand lowered to Katerina’s hip.
Jongin, on the other hand, was suffocating.
The petals were beginning to throng every inch of his lungs. Tears welled up in his eyes and he tried to blink them away before they could fall. He could not take his eyes off Kai, but he wanted to look away. A foreign emotion overwhelmed his senses. It wasn’t jealousy. Jealousy wasn’t foreign to him. It had always resided within him ever since he realized that he could never have Kai that way. But this emotion was different.
Anger shot through him, stained with sorrow and bitterness.
It wasn’t fair.
He rose from the bench and dragged himself out of the diner with whatever strength he had. His ears rang, his stomach churned, and his chest heaved. Wobbling his way to the dark back of the diner that was dirtied with trashcans and stray animals, Jongin slumped against a wall that had ‘Fuck You’ spray-painted on it.
He bent forward and grabbed his knees, almost retching. It felt like someone was holding his head down underwater. And the only way to come up for air was to just let go and drown. He needed to get to the brink of death each and every time to breathe again. He’d leave a trail of beautiful flowers behind to mark his struggle.
“Jongin,” Robin called in a low voice that disrupted the quietness of the night.
Jongin straightened up and panted as Robin approached him with a worried frown plastered to his forehead. “Please, leave me alone,” Jongin whispered with struggle, eyes burning with tears.
Robin froze in his track and gawked at Jongin in surprise. But he was already too close. He could probably hear Jongin’s ragged breathing and racing heartbeat.
But it wasn’t his own ragged breathing and racing heartbeat that Jongin was hearing.
Robin lifted one hand and curled it around the back of Jongin’s neck while the other closed around Jongin’s trembling hand. Jongin stared into Robin’s bloodshot blue eyes with incredulity and shock. What was happening?
That was when Robin retched and coughed, bowing his head to Jongin’s chest and removing his hand from the nape of Jongin’s neck to the wall behind Jongin. Then a gust of blood-red flower petals gushed out of his mouth and spilled onto Jongin’s neck and chest.
Jongin would have embraced Robin to hold him up if he hadn’t been so horrified. He took a step away from Robin and gaped at him breathlessly while Robin caught his breath and regained his composure. Jongin then glanced at the pool of red petals collected between them.
“What the hell are you guys doing here?” Kai asked when he found them.
Jongin stepped away from Robin at once as Robin straightened up and pinned him with a sorrowful, longing look. He did not say anything to stop Jongin, but the situation clearly hadn’t taken Robin aback or by surprise.
“Jongin, are you all right?” Kai asked, draping an arm around Jongin’s shoulders.
“Take… me home,” Jongin mewled pathetically. Kai blinked, astonished at the fact that Jongin had finally spoken.
“Uh…” Kai glanced over Jongin’s shoulder and frowned at Robin. “Okay.”
Kai felt like a teenager again, sneaking into the house at night, praying that his parents would not find out that he had been out. He found Luna asleep on the armchair when he walked past the living room, keeping a steady arm around Jongin’s shivering body.
He cursed every time the bloody stairs creaked under their feet as they ascended them.
Upon reaching Jongin’s room, Kai helped him into his bed and pulled the shoes off Jongin’s feet. “Do you want some water?”
Jongin shook his head, shaking like a leaf under the blanket. “Just leave,” he breathed out, pressing a side of his face into the pillow.
Kai glanced at the dry petals all over the room again. “No,” he said, perching on Jongin’s bed. Jongin frowned but he looked far too tired to argue. “You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on, Jongin. I’m not going anywhere until you do.”
The room was dark, but Jongin could make out Kai’s figure. He wanted to hold Kai’s hand. He wanted Kai to lie down and share the bed with him. He wanted to just listen to Kai’s breathing as he fell asleep.
Kai’s phone rang then. Frowning at the screen, Kai sighed. “Tomorrow,” Kai told Jongin and stood up. “Good night, Jongin.”
He exited the room, closing the door behind him.
Jongin finally let go and drowned before he broke into a silent sob among a fresh group of petals.
He loved like an all-consuming murderer. He killed. He killed every day. Little by little without knowing it. His touches cut, his fingers knifed. He breathed soft, delicate blossoms in the hue of blood and rage.
Jongin put the pen down and stared at the purple petal that flitted over and glided across the inked paper. He then looked up at the door that swung open. Kai stepped in with a pair of drowsy eyes and mussed hair. He was still clad in his pyjamas.
“Good morning,” he said in a gruff voice and lounged on Jongin’s bed. Picking up a dry petal, Kai gave it a cursory once-over before tossing it away. He glanced at Jongin with an arched brow. “You talked last night.”
Jongin turned his gaze to his papers.
Kai sat upright and sighed. “What happened last night, Jongin? Did… Robin say something? Or… did he try to do something to you?”
Jongin froze. He looked at his brother apprehensively. He shook his head.
“Didn’t think so,” Kai said with a sigh of relief. “He seemed like a decent man.”
Jongin lowered his head. How could Kai make easy conversation with him as though nothing had ever happened? As if they were still the same after all those years?
“Look,” Kai then said. “I get that you don’t want to talk to me. If I were you, I wouldn’t talk to me either.”
Jongin wanted to talk to him. But he just didn’t know what to say.
“At least let’s get breakfast together,” Kai said, rising from the bed. He stared at the flower petals scattered all over the room for a moment. “You love flowers, huh…”
Quite the contrary. Jongin hated them. They were his most fearsome nightmare.
“Breakfast,” Kai repeated. “Please. We’ll try to keep things low-key this time, okay?”
After a moment of hesitation, Jongin nodded his head shakily. Kai smiled and licked his lips before he walked over to the desk. Jongin stilled in his chair.
His body shuddered, and his heart began to race wildly when Kai placed a hand on his shoulder. Blood rose to his cheeks and flowers filled his lungs.
“I care about you, Jongin,” Kai said in a low voice, his fingers lightly brushing the nape of Jongin’s neck. The moment was painfully brief for that Kai quickly retrieved his hand and started towards the door. “I’ll be ready in ten.”
When he was gone, shutting the door behind him, Jongin lay his head on the desk and tried to calm his breathing.
He raised his head when his stepmother entered the room with an unnerved grimace etched on her face. “Jongin,” she said, locking the door.
Jongin rose from his seat and clenched his fists at his sides.
“He’s going to find out,” she said, frowning. “I am trying to protect you. But he will find out sooner or later. When he does, what do you think he’ll do?”
It wasn’t a question Jongin wanted answered. He had just gotten Kai back into his life. He was not ready to lose him again so soon.
He hung his head miserably.
Luna pinned him with a sad look. “He needs to leave. Only you can make him do that.” With that, she turned on her heel and left.
“Guys, I don’t like this idea,” Jongin said in a hushed voice, hiding behind the fence with Kate, Rob, and Kai.
“Shh, Jongin!” Kate hissed at him.
“Yeah, Jongin. Shh!” Kai shot at him.
“You just have to be on the lookout and give us the signal if you see someone coming,” Rob told Jongin before he peeped over the fence and mustered Ole’s vegetable garden.
Jongin pouted. “If we get caught—”
“We won’t if you do what you’re told,” Rob cut him off. He then turned to his sister and Kai. “I’ll get the carrots. Kate, you get the cabbage. Kai gets the turnips.”
“We are not wild animals to be stealing from someone else’s garden,” Jongin grumbled. “Poor Ole. He must have worked hard to grow those.”
“You are no fun,” Kate said. “Quit whining, Jongin.”
“You can go home if you don’t want to do this,” Rob added.
“No,” Kai said. “He’ll tattle.”
“I won’t!” Jongin rasped at his brother.
“Yes, you will, you little rat. You’re a tattletale!”
“Okay, stop,” Robin interrupted them, playing the adult he just loved to play. “Let’s just go before Ole comes.” He climbed over the fence and Kate followed.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Kai ordered Jongin before he hurried after Rob and Kate.
Jongin angrily crossed his arms over his chest and crouched on the damp soil, pouting disapprovingly. He anxiously looked around him, praying that nobody would catch them encroaching on Ole’s garden. He made sure his shorts and polo T-shirt hadn’t gotten dirty. Luna would be disappointed if Jongin dirtied his clothes. He then looked down at his shoes and socks. His shoes were slightly dirty from the wet soil. He’d better clean them before they could raise any suspicion.
Rob struggled to yank the carrots out of the ground while Kai struggled with the turnips. Kate found the largest cabbage and picked it up. As she cradled it her arms, Rob and Kai gathered their vegetables before they hurried over to the fence.
“Here,” Kai whispered as he handed Jongin the turnips over the fence before he climbed over it. Kate also dropped the cabbage into Jongin’s arms to climb up the fence. Rob too handed Jongin the carrots before he passed the fence.
“Wait here,” Kate said as she skipped away to the well, holding her soiled hands up.
“We should wash our hands,” Kai said and went after her. Rob followed, leaving Jongin alone, barely bearing all the vegetables in his little arms. He was careful not to let them touch and dirty his clothes.
He started towards the well, taking light and cautious steps.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”
Jongin froze. His eyes bulged out. His heart started racing.
Slowly, he turned around and looked up at Ole, who was towering before him with his hands on his hips and an angry frown playing on his bushy eyebrows.
“Mr… Mr Ole,” Jongin let out and swallowed hard. He then gasped and shrieked in pain when Ole caught his ear and gave it a twist.
“Let’s take you to your father and see what he has to say about having a thief for a son, shall we?”
Jongin’s eyes watered. “No, no, please, sir,” he cried. “I didn’t do it!” His gaze then darted to Kate, Kai, and Rob, who were hiding behind the well. Kate had her hand clasped over her mouth and Kai frowned worriedly.
“I thought it was rodents! Turns out I wasn’t too far off, was I,” Ole growled as he dragged Jongin away by the ear.
“Ow,” Jongin squirmed. “I promise, I didn’t steal them. Here, take them.”
“He’s telling the truth,” Rob said as he approached Ole.
Ole turned to Rob and scowled. “What?”
“I did it,” Rob confessed with a moue. “He didn’t. It was my idea.”
Ole released Jongin’s ear and started towards Robin. “Well, Mr Dalton,” Ole said, folding his arms disappointedly. Rob stood with his chest out, proud, and unashamed. Like a grownup. “I’ll have to report to your father about this.”
Ole, like everyone else in this town, held the Daltons in high regards. Some even feared the status and riches the Daltons had. Ole would never twist the ear of a Dalton.
“If that’s what you need to do,” Rob said with a shrug.
Ole turned to Jongin again and retrieved his stolen vegetables. “Stay away from my garden!”
When Ole was gone, Rob’s shoulders slumped, and he finally frowned sadly. “Sorry,” he said to Jongin.
Jongin wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes and scowled at Robin. “I told you this was a bad idea!”
“I can’t believe you got caught,” Kai said when he joined them.
Jongin blinked at his brother. “Wh-What?”
“Next time, we’ll do it without you.”
Jongin looked away with sadness heavying his heart. He had let Kai down. Again.
“Come on,” Kate said. “Let’s just go home.”
They walked along the roadside that was almost never used. A bicycle rode past them and Kai gasped all of a sudden.
“My father said I’ll be getting a bike for my birthday next year,” he said excitedly.
Jongin faltered a few steps behind the others, dragging his weight tiredly. He was worried that Ole might complain to his father after all. He looked at Robin. Wasn’t Robin afraid of what his father might to do him when he found out about his act of mischief?
“Are you not scared?” he asked Robin, joining his side.
Rob looked at him and smiled. “I’ll be grounded for a few days,” he said, shrugging his shoulders smugly.
“You won’t be able to come out and play?”
Rob’s smile disappeared, and he looked away embarrassedly. “Why? Do you want to play with me?”
Jongin grimaced. “No!” He turned his head away too, scowling.
“I’ll sneak out,” Rob then said. “My parents won’t be around to notice, anyway.”
Jongin hated being so little when he was at Rob’s side. Robin, though only a year older, was a lot taller and bigger than Jongin.
“I’ve got a candy,” Robin said and fished a wrapped hard toffee out of his shorts’ pocket. “Do you want it?”
Jongin eyed him sceptically. “Does it have your spit on it?”
Robin looked appalled. But he laughed and shook his head.
“Do you have a problem with Rob’s spit?!” Kate guffawed. “But you already kissed!”
Jongin’s cheeks burned and he wanted the earth to swallow him up right there and then. He had been hoping they would never bring it up ever again.
“I don’t want your candy,” Jongin muttered furiously, keeping his eyes on the road. He stuffed his small hands into the small pockets of his shorts and kicked a stone on the road.
“But… I…” Rob stammered and trailed off, sighing.
“If you don’t want it,” Kai said and snatched the candy from Rob’s hand. “I’ll have it!”
Kai almost unwrapped the toffee before Rob wrenched it out of his hand. “No!” he growled, glaring at Kai murderously. “I didn’t get it for you,” he spat, and Kai fell silent.
Rob, with a mortified look, pocketed the toffee. “I’ll head home first,” he said quickly and broke into a jog.
“He’s being weird,” Kai commented once Robin was out of earshot.
Jongin fixed Kai with a downcast look when they reached the Dalton’s farmhouse. The house itself was huge and lavish. It wasn’t the only house the Daltons owned in the town. Two shiny, expensive-looking cars were parked outside. Kai was grinning with exhilaration as he rang the doorbell.
“Kate invited us to breakfast with her,” Kai said.
Jongin frowned. He had been hoping foolishly that Kai wanted to have a quiet, private breakfast with Jongin, so that they could spend some time together. Kai had been excited to see Katerina…
“Kai,” Katerina chimed when she got the door with a wide smile on her red lips. “You made it.”
“I said I would,” Kai chuckled and gave her a quick hug. Their gazes lingered for a moment too long and Jongin, feeling like an outsider, looked away.
“Jongin. I’m glad you came too,” Katerina said and smiled at him. “Come on in. Rob’s just finished grinding his sausage, so he’s outside gathering some wood for the fire.”
“Is that some sort of a metaphor for jerking off?” Kai asked, and Katerina turned around to face, laughing uncontrollably.
“Sadly, no. He’s actually grinding sausages.”
“So, he cooks.”
“Better than us all.”
Jongin glanced around the living room Katerina ushered him into. As Kai plumped on the couch, Katerina deliberately sat next to him. Jongin nervously walked around the living room, pretending to be distracted by the photo frames on the walls.
“So, what happened last night?” Katerina asked.
“I don’t really know. Didn’t Rob say something?” Kai replied.
“I tried drilling him for something but all that he gave me was ‘nothing happened’.”
Jongin could feel Kai’s gaze on his back.
“Jongin?” Katerina then called. Jongin turned to her. With a smile, she asked, “Still not gonna talk to us?”
Kai leaned into her ear. “I told you. He’s not going to budge.”
Jongin swallowed and dropped his gaze to the carpet he stood on.
“It’s okay, Jongin,” Katerina said. “We’re friends and we know you’ve been grieving. And sometimes, people just withdraw with such grief. You can talk when you feel like it.”
“So, your parents are not here?” Kai asked when Jongin didn’t reply.
“No,” she answered. “Rob and I have the farmhouse all to ourselves.”
“It’s pretty neat here.”
“Where do you live now?”
“In a huge city. It’s nice there.”
Jongin quietly slipped away and neither of them noticed. It hurt a lot more than Jongin could ever express. He wanted to drown himself. He started towards the front door and let himself out without much fuss. He’d just walk back home.
Luna was right. Kai needed to leave.
He stopped dead in his tracks when he heard Robin’s voice. Then gulping, he turned around and met Robin’s wide blue eyes.
Robin licked his lips, bearing a pile of firewood in his hands. He was clad in a white shirt, tucked into his blue jeans that were paired with a pair of brown boots. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to his elbows and the unfastened buttons revealed a silver chain around his neck.
“Are you… leaving?” Robin asked, frowning.
Jongin turned around without a response and started to walk away. He then heard the firewood hitting the ground before he felt a strong hand gripping his arm, halting him.
He glared at Robin weakly and tried to yank his arm free. Robin released it immediately.
“Wait. Please, don’t go,” Robin pleaded quietly with his eyebrows furrowed.
It baffled Jongin. Everything about Robin left him flummoxed and enervated. He had spent the entire night trying to make sense of what was happening around him. It could not be. Someone like Robin could not be suffering from a disease that was killing Jongin, rotting him into a corpse.
“Come inside,” Robin urged him. “Please.”
Jongin did not move. He glowered at the taller man. Robin’s golden hair glimmered under the sun.
“I’ll explain,” Robin said at length, letting out a heavy breath. “I know I must have freaked you out last night but… you wouldn’t understand…”
Jongin wouldn’t understand? He almost snorted.
“It’s freaky,” Robin said. “And you’d probably think that I’m crazy. But give me a chance to explain myself.”
Jongin reluctantly stood there for a moment, staring into Robin’s eyes. He recalled the heat of Robin’s breath that stroked his lips last night.
Robin held a hand out with hesitancy and let his fingers lightly brush Jongin’s. When Jongin blenched and harshly yanked his hand away, Robin withdrew his shamefacedly, as though he had been scorched.
“Sorry,” he let out. “Come with me.” He started past Jongin.
Jongin stalled a few seconds before he followed Robin.
“It looks fantastic!” Kai exclaimed, gawking at Rob’s brand-new camera. Jongin eagerly jostled Kate and Kai to get a better look at the camera. His eyes widened with awe and wonder. He had only seen cameras when his photographs were taken for the school or a family portrait. They didn’t own their own camera. Rob had gotten his as a gift from his mother who had just recently returned from a business trip in Japan.
“It’s a polaroid 600 Sun 660 autofocus,” Rob said smugly. Jongin understood none of it. But Kai was right. The camera did look fantastic. Jongin, grinning from ear to ear, took a step closer, surveying the fancy camera.
“Can it take pictures?” Kai inquired.
Rob sneered, rolling his eyes. “Of course. That’s the purpose of it.” He lifted the polaroid and clicked a button. A blinding flash bleached Jongin’s vision momentarily but he was instantly distracted by the film the camera started to churn out. Rob yanked it out of the camera and started to wave it in the air. “Now, we wait for the photo to develop.”
“This is so cool!” Jongin chimed with a giggle when the blank white film painted itself into a picture of him. He looked funny in it, but he didn’t mind.
Kate looked disinterested as she retreated to the oak tree and picked up her French novella again. Rob eventually handed Kai the camera to take a few shots. Jongin excitedly followed behind Kai, watching his brother snap pictures of a dandelion, the sky, the house, the driveway.
“Here,” Kai said as he handed Jongin a polaroid picture. Accepting it enthusiastically, Jongin grinned at the picture of gravel.
“You are so lucky, Robin!” Jongin cooed as he skipped after Kai. He soon got bored of it and he joined Kate’s side under the tree. “What is it about?”
“Nothing,” Kate said, looking incredibly immersed in her book. Jongin left her be and averted his attention to the twigs and loam he sat on. Grabbing a stick, he aimlessly drew a smiling face on the soft dirt.
Rob and Kai continued to fool around with the camera until the films ran out. Then they walked over to the oak tree, looking exhausted. Rob climbed onto a branch with a pile of photographs secured in his hand. Kai settled beside Kate and leaned against the tree, clenching his eyes.
Jongin leaped up to his feet and walked over to the branch Rob was sitting on. Lifting his arms up, Jongin grabbed onto the branch between Rob’s long legs and beamed brightly at Rob. Rob was deliberately refusing to look at him as he kept fidgeting with the camera.
“Can I see the photographs?” Jongin asked shyly.
Rob’s gaze lifted to meet his. He then expressionlessly said, “No.”
Jongin’s smile faltered as his eyebrows furrowed into a disappointed frown. “Why not?” he asked softly. “You let Kai see them.”
Rob shrugged and returned his attention to his camera.
Jongin scowled furiously then. “Rotter Robin. Stingy Robin,” he muttered under his breath and released the branch. Robin Dalton was a boy who loved to brag. And he never treated Jongin like a friend. He, like everyone else, singled out Jongin.
“Watch your step,” Robin said as he started climbing up the robe ladder leading up to the treehouse. Jongin paused and gazed up at the treehouse. He licked his lips and clenched his trembling hands. Did he want to even listen to what Robin had to say? Did he care? There wasn’t a lot of things that Jongin cared about in this world anymore. Including himself. But he might have just met someone like him. Well, Robin was nothing like him. He didn’t look like he was dying. He didn’t look like he was suffocating every single second of his life.
Jongin looked up at Robin. His breathing quickened slightly as he grabbed onto the ladder and raised a foot to a rung. He carefully climbed his way up the ladder with his heart thundering in his chest. He had not anticipated this development. He almost resented Kai for bringing him here and then abandoned him for Katerina’s attention.
When he reached the top of the ladder, he was met with Robin’s hand that was held out to him. Jongin stared at it for a moment before he reached out for the railing of the treehouse and pulled himself up.
Robin withdrew his hand and brought it to the back of his neck to rub it. “Thank you. For… giving me a chance to explain,” he said.
Jongin caught his breath quietly, staring vacantly at the tall blonde man. Robin exhaled a heavy sigh and ran a hand through his hair. He then nodded his head towards the treehouse’s door.
“Come inside,” he said and pushed the door open. “I remember building this with my father,” he scoffed, turning on a battery-powered lamp. “He was never around. It took us ages to finish it. But it’s neat, isn’t it? Nobody is allowed up here, though.”
He came to a halt in the middle of the treehouse with his hands on the sides of his waist and smiled at Jongin. Robin’s head was almost brushing the ceiling of the treehouse.
Jongin glanced at the makeshift bed, the desk, the aquarium that held nothing but dry pebbles, the maps on the walls, the sketches, the photographs pinned to the wood with thumbnails. Jongin blinked at them as he slowly started towards them.
“Uh, Jongin, wait…” Robin began but trailed off.
Jongin stopped before the desk and examined the scattered mess on it. He picked up a tattered paper and then another. His eyelids fell heavy as he surveyed the rough sketches that had to have been made by a kid. They were drawings of him when he was a kid.
His gaze then quickly flitted to the wastebasket on the side of the desk. His lips parted to pant for some air when he found heaps of dried and wilted red petals in the wastebasket. Placing the sketches back on the desk, he looked up at the photographs on the wall before him.
He almost smiled at the memories they came with. There was one with Katerina covered in mud. It was the day she had fallen into a puddle of mud while she was being chased by a pigeon. Jongin looked another photograph, which displayed that one time when they played hopscotch outside the Dalton’s residence. There were pictures of Robin and Katerina’s parents. Pictures of birthdays. Pictures of Kai. No pictures of Jongin.
Jongin jumped with a start when Robin extended a hand from behind and pulled a drawer open. “You’re wondering why your pictures aren’t here.”
That was probably because Robin never took any of Jongin’s pictures. He had no reason to, Jongin supposed.
Robin extracted a box from the drawer and placed it on the desk before he took a step away from Jongin.
After a moment of hesitation, Jongin opened the box. He found a thick stack of polaroid photographs in it alongside a handmade birthday card. Jongin recognized it immediately. He picked it up and smiled at the card.
Happy Birthday, Kate!
He had drawn a birthday cake with seven different colours of crayons. It was mostly pink, though, because that was what Jongin used to believe Katerina’s favourite colour was. Why was Robin keeping a card Jongin had made for his sister?
He turned around and met Robin’s blue, sober eyes. Robin smiled sheepishly. “I stole it,” he admitted. “Don’t tell her.”
Jongin looked at him confusedly.
“Well, you never made me a card,” Robin sighed defensively.
Jongin turned his back to Robin again and examined the rest of the box’s content. He picked up the stack of photographs.
His heart skipped a painful beat before it started to pound murderously. His blood pulsed in his temples as he looked through the photographs. They were all pictures of him.
He was laughing in them.
He had a blob of chocolate on a corner of his lips.
He was sitting on a rock with his chin planted in his hands. He was pouting at the road.
He was swinging on the tyre swing with a wide smile.
He was tying his shoelaces.
And a hundred more.
At the bottom of the box, Jongin found an old candy wrapper.
“I bought that for you. You had refused to take it,” Robin said at his back. “Remember?”
Jongin swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a moment. “What is… wrong with you?” he finally let out in a hoarse whisper.
Robin had gone completely silent. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Jongin tried to focus on his breathing. This didn’t make sense. This could not happen.
He then heard Robin move closer. He felt Robin’s warm hand curl around his arm from behind before he felt Robin’s breath graze the nape of his neck. Jongin clenched his eyes tighter.
“What is wrong with me?” Robin echoed in a low voice.
Jongin pulled away from him as though he had been scorched by fire. He turned and looked at Robin with bloodshot eyes. “You…” was all that he could get out of his dry mouth.
Robin frowned miserably. “It’s a medical condition,” he said, glancing to the wastebasket of dry flowers. “Or maybe a blessing. I haven’t decided.”
It’s a disease, Jongin almost cried. A curse. How could it ever be a blessing?!
“Jongin,” Robin breathed out with glassy eyes. He then shook his head and plumped on the floor, leaning against the bedframe. Planting his head in his hands, he clutched at his hair. “Please,” he croaked out almost inaudibly. Then he looked up at Jongin, his eyes brimming with tears. “Love me back, Jongin.”
Jongin turned on his heel and hurried out of the treehouse. This could not be happening. Robin hadn’t changed one bit. He might have grown into a large, tall man. He was still a jerk who took Jongin for a joke.
He stopped with a foot on the rung of the ladder when he heard Robin retch before he coughed loudly. Jongin wiped a tear that trickled down his cheek with a shaky hand and glanced back at Robin who was now sitting amidst a pool of ruby red blooms. He had his head hung, arms loosely wrapped around his knees. He eventually raised his head and met Jongin’s sorrowful eyes with his own. They held each other’s gazes for a moment before Robin averted his.
Jongin climbed down the ladder and broke into the fastest sprint his weak legs could manage towards the house.
“Jongin!” Kai cried as he shoved the door open and frowned when he found Jongin wrapped up in his blankets on the bed. “You just took off. What happened?”
Jongin sat up and leaned his back against the headboard, taking in a few deep breaths.
Kai pulled up a chair to the side of the bed and took hold of Jongin’s hand. Jongin dropped his stare to their hands and interlacing fingers. His heart leaped. They stayed that way for a length before Kai exhaled loudly.
“Jongin,” Kai said in softly as he leaned closer. “I cannot help you unless you tell me what’s wrong with you.” There was sincere concern in his eyes. He raised a hand to cup Jongin’s bony cheek. Jongin froze. “I don’t want to lose you too, Jongin.”
Jongin brought a trembling hand to Kai’s chest and lightly curled it around his shirt. Kai held his gaze.
“Let me help you,” Kai pleaded. “I want my brother back. I want you to be happy. If you insist on being like this, then I will… leave. I’m not going to come back, Jongin.”
Jongin’s hand tightened around Kai’s shirt. “Don’t,” he whispered, and Kai’s eyes bulged out. “Don’t go, Kai.”
Kai smiled as he pressed their foreheads together, holding onto a side of Jongin’s head. “I won’t.”
For the first time in forever, Jongin thought that he could breathe. And he knew another man was suffocating because of him.
In the beginning, there was nothing purity in the longing and the affection. A child-like desire to be his brother’s counterpart, his partner, another half of him. They would be inseparable, he thought. From birth to death, they’d be brothers.
When did the innocence turn into a vile disease of want and… love? How could something as pure as love be so abominable? Was the love so damnable that it caused nothing but revulsion? Yes. The answer was yes and Jongin knew it. And if he knew it, Kai did, too.
The warmth of the morning that surged into the bedroom through the window that Jongin did not recall opening roused him. Cracking an eye open, he took a breath. It was the easiest breath he had taken in a very long while. It was not just the morning’s heat he felt caressing his skin.
His heart skipped a beat as he craned his head up and found Kai sound asleep in his bed, curled up at his side.
Dreams were made of this. Every morning, he’d wake up to his brother’s sight and warm embrace. Every morning, he’d feel Kai’s gentle warmth before the sun’s. Dreams.
He lifted his shaky fingers to a corner of Kai’s neck where it met his jaw. Watching the way Kai’s eyelashes flutter softly, Jongin drew his fingertips along Kai’s jaw. He stopped at the rough skin beneath Kai’s lower lip. His thumb followed the curve of the lip, his heart thundering in his throat.
In spite of it, he realized that he could breathe. The ease with which the breaths came was strange and almost unfamiliar.
He withdrew his hand to stare at Kai in silence without risking waking him.
It reminded him of Christmas mornings, when they’d usually wake up in the same bed after an entire night of waiting on Santa.
Until Kai stopped believing in Santa Claus and Christmas miracles.
His toes were cold in his socks. He curled his feet around another pair of warmer feet he found under his blanket. Jongin’s eyes flashed open then. His brother was still sleeping, drool dribbling down a corner of his gaping mouth.
Jongin gasped, glancing at the window and the flitters of white that fell outside. “Kai!” he squealed, shaking his brother awake.
Kai groaned and shoved Jongin’s hand away. “Ugh, cut it out, Jongin,” he mumbled annoyedly.
Jongin pushed the blanket aside and climbed out of the bed, hurrying to the window. Marvelling at the falling snow, he stood on the tip of his toes and grinned from ear to ear. “Wake up, Kai! It’s Christmas morning! We gotta open our presents!”
That awakened Kai at last. He sat up and yawned, stretching his arms over his head. “Merry Christmas,” he muttered, finally smiling at Jongin sleepily.
Hopping over to the bedside with an excitement he could never contain during Christmas, he pounced on his brother and hugged him tightly. “Merry Christmas, Kai!”
There was a knock on the door before their mother opened the door with a wide smile. “Ah, my boys are awake,” she said.
“Mama!” he chimed and crawled over the bed before running into his mother’s arms. Picking him up, she pressed a firm kiss to his cheek. “Merry Christmas, mama.”
“Merry Christmas, my darling,” she said and held a hand out to Kai, who hurried to it at once. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” She kissed the top of Kai’s head before he squeezed past her and raced downstairs.
“Presents!” Jongin exclaimed, giggling as his mother bore him down to the living room where the tree stood with a safe distance from the fireplace.
“Is it the toy car I wanted?!” Kai asked eagerly as he dropped to his knees and grabbed a wrapped box from under the tree. Reading the card, he tossed it away. “This one’s for you, Jongin.”
When his mother lowered him down to the floor, Jongin ran to his father and kissed his cheek. “Merry Christmas, papa!”
Drawing Jongin up to sit on his leg, his father ruffled his hair. “Merry Christmas, Jongin.” He then grabbed the discarded gift from the floor and handed it to Jongin. “You have more.”
Kai was already tearing through the wrappers and boxes, wearing a wild grin on his face.
Though Jongin was too excited open his present, he struggled with the tapes for a long moment before his father helped him with them.
“It’s a series of storybooks,” his mother said.
Jongin panted in exhilaration and hugged his father’s neck. “Thank you, papa, mama!” He then climbed off his father’s lap and joined Kai on the floor near the tree to open the rest of his presents.
“Yes!” Kai rasped when he found the toy car he had put his Christmas wish list this year. He thought it was incredibly dumb of Jongin to write “a hapee famile” on his own wish list but that was really all that Jongin wanted. That and a lot of his mother’s kisses along with her chicken meatloaf!
“Now, Kai,” his mother called. “You also have presents to give your friends, Kate and Rob, don’t you?”
Kai sprung up to his feet excitedly. “Yes, mama,” he cooed. “Can I go to their house? Mr and Mrs Dalton invited us for breakfast.”
“I know,” she said, smiling. She then picked up a couple of presents from under the tree and handed them to Kai. “Wash up, brush your teeth and you two can go over there.”
“What did you get?” Kai asked when they were finally alone in Kate’s room. Jongin took a decent seat on the edge of her pink bed and silently looked around her room. There were so much more Christmas decoration in her room than Jongin’s entire house. The Daltons even had the biggest Christmas tree Jongin had ever seen.
Rob whipped out a sparkly leather watch from his pocket and smirked at Kai. “Dad gave me this. And mom this.” He stuck out a foot, putting his new shiny shoe on display.
“Wow,” Kai let out. “And you?” He turned to Kate.
“Tickets to a play,” Kate said excitedly. “In the city. Swan Lake!”
“A play?” Kai muttered, grimacing confusedly. “You like plays?”
“Well, we have presents for you,” Jongin said and looked at Kai, who immediately held out the gifts to the Dalton siblings.
“We have something for you, too,” Kate said and grabbed a box from her dresser. Rob suddenly seemed disinterested as he perched on the windowsill.
“You do?” Jongin gasped. “Thank… you.”
Once they had exchanged the presents, Jongin impatiently watched Kai unbox theirs. It was a photo frame. A really nice one. And it had a picture of the four of them. Jongin could not recall when it was taken but he presumed it must have been taken by Kate and Rob’s father since it was taken in their backyard.
“This is really nice,” Kai commented.
“Rob, this is yours,” Kate said, tossing her brother one of the two presents.
Rob put it aside and offhandedly said, “I’ll open it later.” He jumped off the windowsill. “I’m going to get myself some eggnog. Anyone wants some?”
“Yeah, me,” Kai said and hurried after him.
“Rob looks angry,” Jongin murmured when he was left alone with Kate.
Kate shrugged, pulling out the pendant from the box, grinning happily. “It’s so pretty.” She turned to Jongin. “Thank you, Jongin.”
Jongin hugged her. “Kai chose it for you. I picked for Rob.”
“Oh. What did you get him?”
Jongin kept mum for a second. He already knew Rob would hate his present. In a low voice, he said, “Seeds…”
Kate’s eyes widened. “Seeds?”
Jongin felt blood rushing to his cheeks. He looked away, embarrassed. “Seeds of an apple tree.”
“Oh,” Kate breathed out and licked her lips. “He might… like them.”
Jongin sighed. “No, he won’t. I should have just let Kai pick Rob’s present, too. I did not even know what I wanted for myself.”
“Don’t feel sad, Jongin,” Kate said, throwing an arm around his small shoulders. “I’m sure Rob would not throw your present away.”
Jongin smiled up at her. “Thanks, Kate.”
Kai stirred and heaved a deep breath, pulling away from Jongin as he wakened. Jongin shot upright at once and stared at his brother, who squinted at the brightness and then at Jongin.
“Shit,” he grumbled out hoarsely and sat up. “Did I fall asleep here?”
Jongin swallowed hard and rose from the bed, hanging his head. Kai looked up at him.
“Did you… sleep well, Jongin?” he asked softly.
Jongin rubbed his arm and nodded slowly. Then licking his lips, Kai glanced over at the dried petals on the floor. He let out a sigh and scrubbed his face with his hands before rising to his feet.
“You… want to go out?” Kai asked him.
Jongin blinked and then nodded his head again. “Y-yes…”
Kai smiled. “Good.” He cleared his throat. “We can hit the town and maybe get breakfast?”
After a moment of hesitation, Jongin bowed his head curtly.
“So,” Kai began when they stepped out of the house. “Why did you disappear yesterday?”
Jongin kept his gaze on the cobblestones he trudged on.
“Jongin,” Kai called when Jongin did not answer. “If you’re not going to talk, let’s just go back.”
“No,” Jongin huffed, grabbing hold of Kai’s arm when Kai started to turn.
Halting, Kai stared at him. “Then talk to me.”
They started towards the town, just like old times, walking along the derelict roadside that overlooked cornfields. “So?” Kai asked once more.
A moment later, Jongin muttered, “Ro… Robin.”
Kai looked bewildered. “What did Robin do? Did you take off because of him?”
Jongin shook his head first and then nodded. “I… I can’t… be around… him.” He hoped Kai could hear his whispery voice.
“What?” Kai scoffed. “You don’t like hanging around people or… just him?”
Around people in general, but especially Robin. Jongin did not answer.
Then sighing, Kai said, “I always thought you got along well with Rob. Yeah, it’s been years but… we’re all still friends, aren’t we?”
Jongin looked at him, frowning. Were they? Friends? And when had Jongin ever gotten along well with Robin? Went to show how inattentive Kai had been to Jongin.
“Besides,” Kai snorted. “I had the notion that Rob had a crush on you as a kid since he was like ten or something.”
Jongin came to a stop and gawked at Kai. “Wh-what?”
Kai shrugged. “It’s crazy,” he snickered. “I never said anything to him about it, though. I sort of idolized him, didn’t I? I remember him telling me one time that he found you really pretty and me shoddy, even though we’re twins.”
Jongin’s breathing shallowed. “He… said that?”
Kai pinned him with a sidelong glance. “Yeah. Now, that I think about it, it sounds ridiculous. We were kids.”
Robin had a crush on him when they were little? It sounded too pure to be malevolent.
If it were true, for how long had Robin harboured feelings for Jongin? Were they real feelings?
“Jongin,” Kai called, curling a hand around Jongin’s wrist. “Thank you,” he said. “for not pushing me away… for talking to me again.”
Jongin tried to smile and surprisingly, it came easy to him now.
Jongin wondered if Kai would stay for good now. Or would he leave when the time came? The thought of returning to the lonely darkness of his room felled his spirits almost instantly. As safe as the walls of his room were, they separated him from Kai, and Jongin wanted this separation no longer. When he was with Kai, he could breathe, quite literally.
He wanted to let Kai know that he was happy with Kai’s return, even though his actions ever since Kai arrived spelled otherwise. He also wondered if Kai was glad to be back with him, in spite of the unfortunate turn of events that instigated his return.
“Not much has changed around here,” Kai commented with a sigh. Jongin tore his gaze from his brother and fixed it on the road ahead. “If I’m being honest, it seems a more… depressing.”
Jongin lowered his head before he looked up at Kai again. He needed to talk. He wanted to talk to Kai. Perhaps even for days to make up for all the years they had missed. But he did not know what to say. He could ask Kai about his life away from everything that apparently depressed him. He could ask about what his future plans were. Jongin, however, lightly dreaded what the answers might be.
“Have you,” Kai then asked, as they walked along the side of the road that led to the small town they once loved going to with their father as children. Jongin could not surmise how much would have changed there. He hadn’t been to the town in… what felt like forever. “never wanted to leave this place?”
He was not asking if Jongin wanted to leave. He was asking why Jongin hadn’t.
Jongin licked his lips and slowly shook his head. He watched Kai’s eyes balloon.
“Never?” he echoed in disbelief.
Jongin shook his head once more.
“Wow,” Kai let out. “How could you… never want to leave this place?”
Because I can’t and I know that one day, I had to be here for when you return to me…
Besides, how would he survive out in the world? He’d be a freak. A freak who breathed petals and was forlornly in love with his own twin brother. He’d rather stay. He wasn’t exactly sure he meant it, though. His stepmother was certain that if he went out into the world, there was no chance that he’d be accepted. They would cut him open and experiment on him. Or worse, they’d kill him with just words. Either way, he’d bring shame to his family and everyone who knew him.
Fear alone dictated his life.
“Jongin,” Kai called, awaiting an answer. Jongin knew he had to give one this time. Silence would only drive Kai further away, and he did not want that.
Clearing his throat, he looked up at the cloudless morning sky upon which the sun was climbing.
“Y-yes,” Jongin let out. He shuddered lightly when he felt Kai curl a hand around his elbow.
“Everything all right?” he inquired.
Everything was all right this very instant. He noticed Kai’s hand gently slipping lower down his arm and it made his heart race.
“Yes,” he whispered.
Kai flashed a smile that could have killed Jongin. “Then smile,” he said.
Jongin managed a small, faint smile before he hung his head.
“You should get out of here, Jongin,” Kai then said with a heavy breath. “Life is just… so much better out there. I want you to see the world. New adventures. New people. You won’t truly live until you get out of your safe bubble and just… go out there. Everything changes. For the better, trust me.”
Jongin’s breathing quickened as his heart. Not because he was suffocating and running out of breath, but because he had never seen Kai talk to him with such sincerity and passion. He meant every word he uttered, as though he wanted Jongin to believe it.
“Are you,” Jongin began in a soft voice, unsure of whether Kai even heard it. He must have because he glanced over to Jongin with an astonished look. “happy? With… your life… away from… here?”
Kai gawked at him like Jongin had said something incredibly absurd. “Uh,” he murmured, letting out a breathy chuckle. “Well, yes. I mean… of course. I mean, not all is paradise and rainbows but… it’s definitely better than rotting here.” He smiled, a little more widely now. “You should talk more often. You sound… nice.”
Jongin had no idea what sort of a compliment it was but it greatly warmed his heart. Kai liked the way he spoke. When they were younger, Kai used to say Jongin spoke too softly, like a girl. He was too shy, like a girl. He was too weak, like a girl. Perhaps now as they were older, Kai did not find those traits as faults anymore.
“There’s the diner,” Kai pointed out, jerking his head toward the diner on their way.
Jongin did not even spare it a look. But Kai came to an abrupt halt, as if something had caught his attention. “Town,” Jongin muttered shyly with his head hung low.
Kai was beaming bright. “It’s Kate and Rob,” he announced, looking in the direction of the diner. “Come on, Jongin. Let’s say hi.”
Jongin lifted his head and glanced over to the diner. He spotted Robin and Katerina through the window, seated in their usual booth, making what seemed like a light and joyful conversation.
He did not want to say hi to them. Especially not to Robin. When he did not move from where he stood, Kai turned to him again with a frown.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Then he looked back at the diner and sighed. “Robin? I don’t understand, Jongin. What’s up with you and Rob? Come on.” He grabbed hold of Jongin’s scrawny arm and tugged him forward.
Jongin did not fight him. They’d say a quick hi and leave. The last thing he wanted right now was for Kai to fawn over Katerina and for Jongin to meet Robin after that debacle in the treehouse.
“Hiya, stranger,” Katerina hailed them over when the bell chimed as they walked into the diner.
Jongin truly felt like a stranger. He quietly trotted behind his brother, feeling eyes follow him every inch he advanced. He wasn’t sure if people stared because they had never seen twins or because they recognized Jongin and Kai.
When Robin turned his head around to look at the people his sister was grinning at invitingly. His face instantly died when his eyes met Jongin’s. They averted their gazes away from each other almost instantly.
“Fancy seeing a couple of familiar faces everywhere I go,” Kai commented, sliding into the booth beside Kate. Jongin hesitated for a moment, but in order to not to attract any more attention to himself, he clenched his teeth and slid into the seat beside Robin when the man scooted away to make some room.
“It’s a small town,” Katerina said, shrugging. “Hey, Jongin.”
Jongin looked up at her and pursed his lips, bowing his head lightly.
“We were going to the town to grab breakfast,” Kai said. “The diner’s gotten a bit boring, hasn’t it?”
“It’s nostalgic,” Robin replied calmly and took a sip from the beer bottle in his hand.
“And Rob’s all about nostalgia and memory lanes,” Katerina remarked with a scoff.
“He always was the type,” Kai chuckled and helped himself to the bacon bits on Katerina’s plate. “Is the only theatre still there?”
“Oh, yes,” Katerina gasped. “Rob and I went to see a movie there recently. It was insane. Well, there is some progress, I guess.”
Robin scoffed. “They fired Mr Big Butt.”
“No!” Kai screeched. “They can’t fire Mr Big Butt.”
Jongin had no idea what they were talking about. He was aware of the fact that Kai, Kate, and Rob used to sneak into the theatre in the town to watch a movie. But Jongin was never invited. He was too much of a scaredy cat, they said, and too much of a goody two-shoes to sneak into places. And he would either slow them down or get them caught. They were right. Jongin would have.
“Let’s go watch a movie there some time,” Kai suggested.
“They only play the old ones,” Katerina huffed. “Like the old western movies.”
“Those are the best movies!” he argued. “Stagecoach! Raiders of Old California. They’re absolutely brilliant.”
“If by brilliant you mean banal.”
“Oh, come on, Kate!”
Jongin swallowed hard, keeping his eyes low at all times. He was acutely aware of Robin’s lingering heat against his arm and then he recalled how close they had been in the treehouse.
“I’m sorry,” he heard Robin whisper very quietly. His head whipped up to meet Robin’s warm, blue eyes. “I didn’t mean to… freak you out… again.”
Jongin bit the inside of his cheek.
“Are you in?” Kai interrupted them.
“What?” Robin asked, as though he were dazed.
“Movies. Tomorrow night.”
“Uh…” He leaned back in his seat and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah… Sure.”
Kai then turned to Jongin. “Okay… I promised Jongin we’d get breakfast in the town. So… we better get going.” That was nice of him, Jongin thought. He had not completely forgotten about Jongin this time. That was… new.
They said their trenchant goodbyes and headed out of the diner.
“Kai,” Jongin called once they were back on the road.
Kai stopped in his strides to face Jongin. “Yes?”
“You can… go back to… them if you… want,” Jongin muttered embarrassedly. “We don’t… have to…”
“Nonsense,” Kai laughed and threw an arm around Jongin’s shoulders. “I want to spend the day with you. My brother. Okay?”
Jongin thought he might just faint. This was too close. He could feel Kai’s minty breath on his face. But then Kai retrieved his arm and beckoned Jongin to walk.
When they reached the town—which like Kai had said, had hardly any changes from their memories—Kai whistled a low tune in awe and laughed.
“There used to be a hotdog stand there, though,” he said, pointing at a corner. He was right. There used to be a hotdog stand and a very nice man who sold them. “And a bookstore there.”
The bookstore, which Jongin used to love, was now replaced by a bicycle shop. It made him a little sad.
The sun did not burn them when it rose up high in the sky. Instead, it played well with the gentle breeze and made way for a calming weather. “Now, where shall we eat? Any suggestions?”
Jongin was suddenly panicking. “I… don’t know,” he mumbled.
Kai cocked his eyebrows in surprise or disbelief. Maybe both. “Don’t you know any decent place to eat?”
Jongin shook his head. “I haven’t… been out to the town… in a while.”
Kai blinked. “What?”
At least the town was not crowded. It never was, not even in Jongin’s memories of it. It was indeed very small, smaller than it used to be. The theatre was indeed still there, old and derelict, unfrequented.
Kai scratched the back of his head. “Okay, um… Let’s see if we can find a café or something.”
Jongin caught Kai’s hand then, unsure of where the courage had surfaced from. But he quickly withdrew his hand. “Ice-cream,” he squeaked out, pointing to the ice-cream stand near an unoccupied bench, which did not use to be there.
“Ice-cream? For breakfast?”
Jongin nodded his head bashfully. He had not asked anyone for anything in a very long time. He was not someone who asked for things he wanted. But he wanted ice-cream today.
“All right,” Kai sighed and started for the ice-cream vendor. “What would you like?”
“Chocolate,” Jongin whispered, careful not to let the vendor hear him. He did not want anybody to hear him apart from Kai.
“One chocolate and one strawberry, please,” he ordered and paid for the ice-cream cones.
“Have a good day,” the vendor bade them as he handed Kai the cones. Accepting them, Kai bowed his head once and turned around.
As Jongin expected, Kai ushered him to the bench. Perching on it, he handed Jongin his ice-cream cone before he almost immediately dipped his tongue into his.
“Okay, ice-cream was a good idea,” Kai said, letting out an appreciative moan.
Jongin smiled to himself as he drew the tip of his tongue along the creamy goodness. “Thank you,” he breathed out, also only for Kai to hear.
Kai returned his smile and raised a hand to ruffle Jongin’s hair. Jongin’s first reaction was to blench from it. Kai quickly pulled his hand back and shrugged. “You’re welcome.”
When they arrived back home, Kai disallowed Jongin from going back into the sanctuary of his home. Instead, he grabbed hold of Jongin’s delicate wrist and hauled him toward the oak tree.
Settling down under it, Jongin, for the first time in a very long time, felt a weight lift off his chest. He realized that he had not been happy as he was this very instant at Kai’s side in an eternity. He wished he had the guts to tell Kai how he was feeling right now.
Kai harrumphed and stretched his arms above his head, popping a few joints. “That was… quite the walk,” he said. “I don’t remember when the last time was when I had walked so much.”
Probably when we were kids, Jongin thought to say but didn’t. When they did not own fancy cars or a full wallet. He glanced at Kai’s car that was parked a few spaces away.
“Is that… yours?” Jongin asked.
Kai, once again, looked surprised. It was as though he could was thrown into a trance every time Jongin spoke. “Uh, no,” he said. “It’s rental.”
“Oh.” Jongin curled his lower lip between his teeth and looked away. He liked everything the way it was this moment. They were simply sitting beneath their favourite tree, which used to be their mother’s favourite tree, and talking about nothing. He wanted this to last, just like he had wanted this morning to last when he found Kai in his bed.
“God,” Kai groaned. “It’s so… peaceful. I don’t remember… things being this peaceful.”
Jongin couldn’t agree more.
“How was he,” Kai then asked, straightening up, with his face paling a little. “when he… died?”
Jongin bit his lip harder. He gently carded his fingers through the grass and thought of his ailing father, sick and tired in his deathbed, waiting for his other son to make an appearance.
“He was… very sick,” Jongin said curtly.
Jongin nodded. “Worse.”
Kai exhaled heavily. “I wish… I had been here, you know? I know I wasn’t, but I wish I had. Even if you don’t… believe me.”
Jongin brought his head up to meet his brother’s sombre eyes. They were boring back into his own earnestly. If Jongin told Kai everything, if he let Kai know of his “condition”, would he ever accept Jongin even as a brother? It was one thing to not to return the sort of love Jongin felt for Kai, but to erase every last silver of affection he had for Jongin would crush him.
Even so, he could not stop himself as he studied every inch of Kai’s face. His eyes eventually ventured to the perfect bow of his brother’s lip. His throat turned dry and his lungs contracted with pain. Oh, how many lonely days he had spent wondering how soft those lips were… He wondered that if they touched his, would he be freed of his torturous disease?
Kai did not break their gazes. He was searching for answers through Jongin’s eyes. Answers that he might not get otherwise.
Jongin felt his heart skip a beat when his hand rose to stroke Kai’s cheek. It was smooth and soft beneath Jongin’s crimped, bony fingers. Kai did not shudder or flinch away from his touch. With his heart thundering in his throat, Jongin leaned forward, a sob threatening to break out of his throat.
And it did when Kai pulled back with a jerk, as though he had been burned. “Jongin,” he rasped confusedly, realizing what could have almost unfurled if he hadn’t broken the spell.
Jongin dropped his hand, blood curdling with the most horrifying fear. Not only was he mortified by what he had almost done, but he was completely and utterly devastated. Oh, God. What have I done…
With tears brimming in his eyes and throat tightening in horror, he jolted up to his feet and turned on his heel.
“Jongin,” Kai objected as he began to run, tears streaking down his cheeks.
I should die. I should die! Jongin cried to himself as he ran and ran as fast as his weak legs could take him to absolutely nowhere and hopefully somewhere he could die in nothing but agonizing suffering. He felt flower petals choking his windpipe then.
Even as night fell, Jongin did not return home. He sat on the ground behind the old well in Mr Ole’s garden, hugging his knees to his chest as he continued to shake like a leaf in the cold spring night. At least he was well-snuck away from the world in the dark, he thought. And well away from Kai.
Tears streaked his cheeks, a thick sob choking his throat. He found it hard to breathe as his lungs exhausted the last of his air supply and he retched before heaving up another spray of flower petals in the gradient of purplish crimson.
With his throat sore and eyes bleary, he pressed his face to his palms and sobbed harder. What had he done…
He sat amidst the pool petals in silence once he had run out of tears. The chilly breeze carded through his hair and stroked his cheeks, drying the remnants of moistness on them. Taking a shaky breath, he rested his head back against the bricks of the well.
He wanted to vaporize into thin air. Or for the earth to swallow him up and never let him go. He wished that he would just disappear. As if he weren’t already in enough misery. This was just what he needed. He was an idiot, a complete fool, who had let himself be taken away by the moment. He did not know what he was doing in that instant. He had wanted to get closer, he had wanted more than he should ask for. Everything was going so well and he had ruined it all. Worse, he might have had ruined everything between him and Kai.
Tears stung his eyes again. He closed them. His last hope felt extinguished, snuffed out for good. It was what a freak like him deserved. What was he hoping for, anyway, when he leaned in to… kiss his brother? For Kai to hold him and kiss him back?
“No, no, no,” he wept into his arms that were wrapped around his knees. What have I done…
Lifting his head, he gazed up at the starlit sky and let his cold hands fall to the petals that surrounded him, blanketing the grass.
“Please,” he begged the dark skies, voice soft with sorrow. “Just kill me already.”
What if Kai had not suspected anything? Impossible. Jongin recalled Kai’s horrified reaction when he had pulled away from him. It clearly spelled disgust and abhor.
He froze, all of a sudden, when he heard the grass crunching beneath heavy footsteps. Although he wanted to spring up to his feet and run away again, he could not find the strength to do so. So, he sat still, his body lightly shivering and teeth almost chattering. He did not want Kai to find him here in this state. In fact, he did not want to see Kai ever again. He wasn’t sure how much of that he believed. He had waited for so long for Kai to return to him and keep his promise. But now, Jongin himself had driven him away.
“You know, if that old crank, Ole, finds you here,” he heard the gruff voice before he looked up at the tall, blonde man. “he will not give you a good time.”
Jongin blinked through his tears, staring up at Robin, who smiled sadly down at him. Jongin quickly hung his head, as though he could hide his puffy eyes from meet Robin’s surprisingly warm blue ones.
“Was not expecting to find you here,” he commented as he lowered to take a seat on the grass, dangerously close to Jongin. For a moment, Jongin wondered if the man had not noted the petals strewn around him.
But Robin had, as he leaned against the well, and pressed a hand to the petals. He just did not react. Did it not surprise or disgust him? Was it because he was used to it, sharing Jongin’s disease.
“How… did you…” Jongin inquired in a whispery breath that barely sounded audible.
Robin let out a sigh, rising his knees to rest his arms on them as he looked up at the sky. “Kai called. He’s worried…”
Oh, no, Jongin thought in a panic. Had Kai told Robin and Katerina about what had happened? About what Jongin had done? No…
“He said you just… hurried off. And didn’t come back for hours.” He pulled his phone then and typed a quick message, which Jongin presumed was to Kai. Then putting his phone away, Robin turned to face Jongin. “What… happened?”
Jongin swallowed a lump in his throat, praying for Robin to just go away or for his strength to recharge so that he could run away again. But then Robin dropped his hand to the petals on the ground to rifle his fingers through the blossoms. What is he doing, Jongin asked alarmedly with his heart roaring in his chest.
“I was… worried, too,” Robin then muttered, keeping his eyes and fingers on the petals. “when he called and said that you ran away. Are you… okay, Jongin?”
How worried could he have been? Jongin lifted his gaze to Robin’s face and studied it hesitantly. He quickly looked away again when Robin’s eyes found his.
They sat in silence for a long time, shoulder to shoulder, watching the night flit by them. Robin eventually pulled away from the well for a brief second to tear off his jacket. Jongin shuddered when he draped the jacket over his shaking shoulders.
“You’re cold,” he said. “We should go indoors.”
Jongin did not refuse the jacket. But he shook his head, refusing to leave. Robin did not try to persuade him, but he did not leave either. Instead, he remained beside Jongin, taking steady but loud breaths.
“I wish we knew each other better,” Robin said at length with a hint of smile on a corner of his lips. Jongin took note of the faint stubble that lined the man’s jaw. Their eyes met. “Are you all right?”
Jongin averted his gaze, exhaling heavily. He wanted Robin to leave. He wanted to be alone. But at the same time, he was so tired of being alone. Loneliness was both his salvage and his curse.
“It’s okay,” Robin said. “You talk when you want to talk… If you want to talk.”
“Why do you think if I wanted to talk, I’ll talk to you?” Jongin said it before he thought about it. He immediately paralyzed in horror, unable to believe that he had let the words roll off his tongue before he had given them any thoughts.
Robin’s jaw fell slack as his eyes widened a little. He looked both shocked and hurt. And for some odd reason, it clenched Jongin’s chest. Why did he even say that?
“You’re right,” Robin muttered after what seemed like a very long moment. “I’m… no one to you, am I?”
Jongin buried his face in his hands, slouching in Robin’s jacket he was covered in. “Please… go away,” he begged miserably.
“No,” Robin stated and Jongin’s head whipped up when he felt Robin’s hand curl around his wrist. Gently pulling Jongin’s hand away from his face, Robin wrapped his fingers around Jongin’s and said, “Let me nobody to you. But you are… somebody to me, Jongin. You’ve always been. And I know that… you’ve been suffering in silence and alone. You don’t have to.”
Jongin’s breath hitched. “You… knew?”
Robin’s fingers tightened around his. He licked his lips. “I did,” he whispered. “I mean, I suspected it. Kai told Kate that there’s all these dry petals in your room and… I’ve heard other hearsays.”
Jongin did not pull his hand away from Robin’s. It had been so long since he had ever felt something so warm, so firm yet gentle. “Please,” he exhaled. “Don’t… tell him.”
“I won’t,” Robin promised. “It’s not… my secret.” He shifted a little in his seat so that he was facing Jongin. “I want to be at least a friend to help you through this, Jongin. You don’t have to live like this. It’s not easy, but you, too, can live. Every day will be another hopeless day and it’d feel like you’re suffocating every single second of your life. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Jongin did not know what to say. He had never spoken about this to anyone, let alone to someone who would understand his plight completely. And of all people, it had to be Robin?
“You don’t even like me,” Jongin said, pulling his hand away from Robin’s gentle grip. “Why would you… want to help?” He dropped his head.
Robin cupped a side of his face in a hand and lifted it so that he could see Jongin’s eyes. “I don’t like you?” He smiled. “Jongin, I literally can’t breathe because of you. And you say that I don’t like you?”
Jongin felt stupid for having said that but it truly made no sense. Why would Robin… suffer from this illness because of him? At the treehouse, he had almost pleaded Jongin to love him back.
“I’m sorry I sprung it up all on you like that,” said Robin, drawing his thumb along Jongin’s bottom lip. Then frowning, he retrieved his hand and shook his head. “I can see that you love another. If I can’t find mine, I want you to find yours. So… let me help you. As a friend.”
“A friend?” Jongin echoed in a raspy whisper.
Robin smiled at him again. “Yes. You don’t have to live like this, Jongin. It… pains me to see you like this. So… miserable.”
“If you don’t want that… I’ll… try to stay away.”
Jongin’s head was a muddle. He could not think straight. He wasn’t even sure if he could believe anything that Robin was saying. But he nodded his head.
“I don’t want to… go home tonight,” he murmured. He did not want to go home and confront Kai at all. “Please.”
“That’s okay,” Robin said comfortingly and rose to his feet before holding a hand down to Jongin. “I’m sure I can find you a corner back at my place, if you will.”
Jongin surveyed the hand handed out to him for a moment before he carefully slid his hand into it. He watched Robin’s strong fingers grip them before he helped Jongin up to his feet.
“Th-Thanks,” he mumbled, hugging Robin’s jacket around his body.
Robin bowed his head once and lightly brought a hand to the small of Jongin’s back, guiding him away from the well.