1. Treat those who are good with goodness, and those who are not good with goodness, and thus goodness is attained.
According to Colin’s father, the aphorisms of the Tao were universal. Even though the Khoos weren’t Taoist any more, Timothy Khoo insisted the Way still applied to all aspects of their burgeoning conglomerate, and the long lineage of their family.
Nothing builds a business, or a family, like long-term commitment. Treat those who are good with goodness, and those who are not good with goodness, and thus goodness is attained. The heart that gives much, gathers more in return.
Treat those who are not good with goodness was how Colin came to befriend Bernard Tai, the boy who beat him up in Primary Three and stole his tuck shop money. When Bernard’s father tried to make amends by taking Colin’s class to the Tais’ private resort in Langkawi to celebrate Colin’s birthday, Timothy had insisted that Colin not only forgive Bernard but also attend. And true to the wisdom of the Tao, the birthday trip was such a success that Uncle Toh Lui vowed Bernard would organise Colin’s birthday getaway every year.
Of course Nick had insisted on attending these Bernard-organised parties. Nick Young was Colin's oldest friend, and Colin had grown up sharing everything with him: Colin’s treasured comics, his Atari Lynx entertainment console, and, eventually, the news of Bernard’s various extortion attempts. Nick had tried to protect Colin from Bernard and his cronies, in a plan straight out of the Legend of the Ten Hero Brothers, or the New Adventures of Spiderman — even though he had only managed to get off one punch before Bernard tackled him to the Anglo-Chinese School tuck shop floor.
Nick stayed at Colin’s side, through the beach volleyball and birthday go-karting of the first party, and the underaged drinking of later ones, all the while frowning as if he expected Bernard and his posse to turn back into money-extorting super-villains. In Secondary Two, when Colin had had one too many flaming Lamborghinis and nearly face-planted in the famous Hong Kong Park fountain, Nick had been there to stop him from coming to harm.
“Thanks, man,” Colin muttered, clinging to the front of Nick’s shirt.
It struck Colin, in his adolescent drunkenness, as if Nick had always treated everyone with goodness, and for the first time he felt a wave of emotion so foreign it took a moment to recognise it as jealousy.
He’d known Nick all his life, had shared everything with Nick all his life, but somehow the thought of sharing Nick and his goodness with everyone was making him now sicker to the stomach than the alcohol. It was as if the years of rescuing had bound him to Nick in a special way that was just for him and no one else. Even more mortifyingly, he found himself drunkenly telling Nick so.
“You’re so good to me, brother! I don’t wanna lose you! I don’t wanna lose you.”
To his credit, his best friend didn’t seem perturbed. Taking his hand, sounding as resolute as he’d been in Primary Three, he said, “Don’t worry, champ. You’ll always have me, I’m not going anywhere.”
Scions of business families were expected to get off to an early start, both on the business and the family fronts. When they were in Secondary Three, Colin started what would be the first of many holiday internships in the banking hall of the then Oversea-Chinese Commercial Bank, which in the next decade would merge with the Tais’ Malaya-Chinese Bank. (Bernard interned there too, though his internship seemed more about using the corporate credit card to buy after-work snacks and less about actual work.)
That same year, Mayli, his father’s P.A., cornered him with a list of the girls Colin was supposed to start to date. Colin stared at the first page in disbelief:
 Lee-Ang Min Tze, , heiress to Ang Keng Tee Holdings
 Ching-Ling Rosario, , second violinist at the Singapore Youth Orchestra, A*Star scholar
 Anjali Ashraf, , daughter of the Minister for Defence, child model for Dutch Baby Milk and New Paper Young Face Winner, 2000.
“Pick a couple. We’ll help set it up, if you need us to: dinner at Maxim’s, backstage passes to the Jacky Cheung concert, whatever.”
Colin took the file containing CVs and headshots and stamped into his father’s office in the west wing of their house. His father pushed his moon-shaped glasses onto his forehead and looked from the outstretched file to Colin’s horrified expression.
“You’re going to take over the business some day. You’ll need to continue the family line. Better start early.”
“Dad, I’m fifteen!”
“I was your age when your mother was selected for me,” Timothy remarked, and turned back to his papers. “Besides, I asked Mayli to let you choose.”
“Your father wants what’s best for you,” his grandma said, when Colin went to her next. “He’s not insisting, dui ma? He’s just giving you options. Besides, he said no to quite a few girls before he agreed to court your mother.”
Colin looked up at the painting of his mother that stood by his grandma’s bedside. She was wearing her favourite yellow kebaya and white jade earrings and a faint smile. “Why didn’t Dad ever remarry after she died?” It was a question he had thought about over the years, seeing other mothers with their children and then their step-children.
His grandmother sighed. “Your mother was the perfect wife. Her horoscope and your father’s were optimally aligned, and her family owned the majority stake in the Ipoh Tin Mining Company. After she died, your father never found anyone who was half as good.”
Colin said, “It’s just surprising, that’s all. Dad’s always saying how family is the most important thing, you’d think he’d’ve jumped at the chance to have another.”
His grandmother’s mouth thinned into a straight line. “It’s because your grandfather didn’t treat me, or any of his other wives, very well. Your father didn’t think it was fair that wives had to share when husbands didn’t. And he loved your mother so much that he never wanted her to have to share him with anyone, even after she died.”
Colin wasn’t sure he understood. He’d never felt that way about anyone else, except maybe Nick Young.
The year they both turned sixteen, Nick started dating too. The Young Corporation’s list of eligible girls was clearly superior to the Khoos’, because Nick began courting Amanda Ling, recent graduate of the Methodist Girls School on Blackmore Drive and heir to the Ling Ying Chao fortune.
At the time, Colin had been making some headway with his father’s list. He’d taken Ching-Ling dancing at the Ministry of Sound on Clarke Quay, and, while preparing for the O-Levels, he was not-very-enthusiastically dating Anna Belle de Souza, model and Mediacorp Junior Super Star.
He’d asked Nick to come on more than a few of the dates with Anna Belle; Nick was so easy to talk to that he put even Anna Belle at ease. But things changed when Nick started dating Amanda. Suddenly Nick had no time to hang out after school, and their weekend activities — the Saturday tennis game, their Sunday morning nine holes on the Island course and then breakfast at Tyersall Park — were all put on hold.
“Amanda still needs help with her history project, and Ah Ma’s teaching her to play mahjong,” Nick said when Colin asked about their long-postponed rematch. He looked down at the ACS Barker canteen floor. “And, uh, she says Anna Belle’s friends give her a headache.”
“We don’t have to hang out with Anna Belle,” Colin said, surrendering her with a shrug. “Or at the Ministry of Sound. If Amanda likes, we can go to Zouk.”
The bouncers at this staple of the Singapore party scene always closed an eye when it came to the Youngs. Amanda wore a ribboned dress which she said was from the Chanel Cruise collection, and a bored expression. She stayed in her seat all night, sipping her Long Island iced tea, and Nick ended up dancing on the podium with Colin to the Zouk Mambo Remix of Paul Young’s “Every Time You Go Away”.
Later, Nick texted to say that Zouk had given Amanda a headache, too, and Colin realized the problem wasn’t Zouk at all.
That year Colin’s birthday trip was to Phuket, and for the first time ever, Nick was absent. He had initially RSVPed that he would come, but when his friend’s rangy figure failed to climb onboard the Tais’ Learjet 60, Colin felt his heart drop into his shoes before they’d even taken off.
“Seems Amanda told him he couldn’t go,” Bernard said as he poured the in-flight Cristal. “What a bitch, right?”
Colin stared, deflated, into the proffered flute of birthday bubbles. “I’m sure there’s a reason,” he muttered as he tried to think of one.
Nick’s cousin Eddie said, “How’s this: she wants to marry him and thinks he should start doing what she says?”
"She wants to marry him?” Being the last to know made Colin’s heart sink even more. “What does your Ah Ma think?"
Eddie shrugged. "Ah Ma's all for it. My mum gave me the low-down: seems Ah Ma wanted Amanda’s mum, Auntie Jacqueline, to marry Uncle Philip, because of the Ling family business. When Uncle Philip married Auntie Eleanor instead, Ah Ma was super pissed off.”
Colin knew he shouldn't be so surprised. It all came down to family and business in the end, as his father had said often enough, and it looked like the Youngs of Tyersall Park were no different. He definitely shouldn’t be calling Nick; there was no reason to brave the extravagant overseas IDD calling rates when there wasn’t anything to say.
"Anyway,” Eddie continued, “Amanda hates all of us. She told her MGS friends we party too much and we're a bad influence on Nick. She even hates you, Colin, and you don't even party."
Alistair, Nick’s other cousin, whacked Colin on the back."You’re a Disney prince, man, you barf rainbows and tao huey and forest animals nest in your hair. She thinks Nick likes you too much, that’s why she hates you the most. She doesn't want Nick to belong to anyone except her."
Bernard had spared no expense on this year’s trip, or hadn’t spared his father’s expense account, anyway: he’d arranged suites at the new Bulgari hotel, a seafood omakase dinner, a local rock band, and, for the first time, a brace of local girls. Colin couldn't sit through it; when the girls started to take off their silky dresses, he thought about Anna Belle, and his sister Sophie, and he had to get up and leave.
Nick would have escaped with him, but Nick wasn’t there, nor when Colin blew out the sixteen sparklers on his three-tiered cake.
Colin checked his messages when he got back to Singapore. Sophie and Anna Belle had texted him to wish him happy birthday, but there was nothing from Nick.
He begged off sick from his birthday dinner with his father and grandma and went to bed. Unlike other people, he wasn’t going to fake a headache to get out of an activity he didn’t enjoy, but his head was genuinely throbbing.
Colin woke to the sound of his phone ringing. Dimly, he reached for it in the darkness, and discovered he had five missed calls and three messages from Nick.
10:15 pm Sorry to miss your bday. Are you back in SG? We need to talk.
11:30 pm Tried to call you. Need to explain something. Can I come over?
12:15 am OTW, okay? Don’t set the dogs on me!
“No shit,” Colin said, blearily, which was when he heard the sound of their Labradors barking outside.
Colin got out of bed faster than he’d done in his life and ran out into the balcony, just in time to see Nick Young, scion to the Young empire, attempting to climb over the ivy-and-bougainvillea-covered balcony railing of Goodwood Hill as if he was starring in some terrible Romeo and Juliet parody.
Colin grabbed hold of his best friend before Nick could slip and fall into the imported rose bushes, and heaved him over the railing. They lay panting, side by side, on the balcony floor. The moonlight shone down over Nick, who was wearing yoga pants and his ACS track team t-shirt, and looking more beautiful than anyone covered from head to toe in couture.
“Are you out of your mind?” Colin inquired at last, when they both managed to catch their breath. “Also, how did you get past security?”
“Uncle Samy let me in at the gate. I thought it’d be too late to ring the front doorbell, and I was afraid your auntie might turn me away. Who knew, those rock-climbing classes really came in handy!”
“Handy? You could have gotten killed,” said Colin, though now he thought about it, the bougainvillea trellises on the walls would have been an invitation to any determined teenager. “What was so urgent that couldn’t wait till tomorrow? Especially since you’ve been making me wait for months,” he found himself adding, because it was mostly true.
Nick put an arm over his face. “I know. I’m an idiot. I needed to tell you that Amanda and I broke up today.”
This stopped Colin in his tracks. He sat up so he could look into Nick’s miserable, handsome face, trying to think of a way to say he was sorry to hear the news when he wasn’t at all sorry. He eventually settled for, “What happened?”
Nick pulled himself into a sitting position, leaning his broad shoulder against Colin’s. His body felt very warm. “Our families wanted me and Amanda to get together. And I thought it was what I wanted, too. But it turns out Amanda didn’t really want me, she just wanted the idea of me? We argued all the time. I shouldn’t have let her stop me from coming to Phuket.”
Colin wasn’t sure what to say. He reached for Nick’s hand, their fingers fitting together as easily as they’d done since they were children. “We missed you out there,” he said, and added, truthfully, “At least I did. I missed you a lot.”
Nick squeezed back. “I wanted to celebrate your birthday with you like always.” He frowned. “It made Amanda really angry.”
“Yeah, like Zouk and Paul Young made her angry,” Colin said, and Nick laughed. “And me, apparently. Your cousin thinks she hates me the most.”
Colin was mostly kidding, but Nick looked suddenly stricken, and more than a little guilty. “Yeah, Amanda didn’t want me to want anything else, or anyone else.”
Colin looked curiously at Nick. “I mean, of course you’ll always want me, we grew up together,” he said slowly. “But it’s not the same as getting together with some girl that’s going to be your wife someday.”
As soon as he’d said it, the words tasted like ash in his mouth, as well as the prospect of marrying someone like Anna Belle, whom he didn’t love.
“Maybe it is the same, though,” Nick murmured. “My mother keeps talking about duty and family, but you’re my family too. And maybe I want to be with you, not with some girl that I’m going to have to marry someday.”
He raised his face into the moonlight. His eyes were so transparent Colin could almost see straight into his heart; his soft, wide mouth was right there.
Colin had kissed Ching-Ling behind the Clarke Quay bin centre, and Anna Belle had let him trace the outline of her bra with his fingers, but kissing Nick Young was completely different. It was like kissing the Number Four Brother, like kissing Spiderman, like kissing someone whom he’d loved all his life. He wrapped his arms around Nick like he’d done so many times before, and kissed Nick for the first time.
Eventually they had to pull apart. Colin was panting as if he’d just finished 2.4 kilometres around the school track; he was gratified to note Nick seemed equally affected. They’d always shared everything in their lives, and now they shared this.
“You know what, you might be right,” he gasped. “You’re the best person I know, Nicky-Nick. I’ve always been yours, maybe we should be together for real.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” his oldest friend assured him, and leaned in to kiss him again.
2. That which is well planted will not be easily uprooted.
Nick had said he wasn’t going anywhere, but of course it wasn’t up to him. His parents had wanted to enrol him in the Gordonstoun 13+ year, and had been persuaded to wait till the Sixth Form, but after their O-Levels Nick couldn’t hold off the Young legacy any longer. Three generations of British royalty had attended Gordonstoun, as had Nick’s father and grandfather; Sir James Young had endowed a library and a house which Nick was now expected to join.
“Come with me,” Nick said. They lay in a lazy tangle across Nick’s bed. “It won’t be half as grim if you were there.”
Colin stared fondly at his friend’s bright eyes and let himself imagine it: the craggy cliffs, the cold nights spent in front of the fire in the common room, the wooden dormitory beds so narrow they’d need to lie in each other’s arms.
Then: “My father would never go for it,” Colin sighed. According to Timothy Khoo, the practice of Singaporeans scions attending British boarding schools was an outmoded colonial throwback to the 1940s, and one which Khoo Teck Fong had insisted his grandchildren eschew. “Keep them close to home!” Colin’s grandfather had roared on one of his rare visits from Ipoh where he still lived with Wife Number Three. Besides, it did sound cold and deadly boring. Apparently Prince Charles had also hated his time there.
Nick sighed too. “I’ll miss you terribly, you know.”
Colin traced idle circles against Nick’s arm. “Come on, some polo-playing British royal will give you the eye and you’ll forget about me in no time.”
“One of these Princess Diana types? I always thought girls in jodhpurs were pretty hot.”
“Wouldn’t bother me. As long as it’s not a polo-playing prince.” Colin didn’t stop to think why it made a difference. They’d been too wrapped up in each other these past months to think about anyone else, but long-distance dating was a different thing altogether.
“Never,” Nick said quietly, and wrapped his arms more tightly around Colin’s shoulders. “There’s no prince half as right for me as you.”
After Nick left for Britain, they texted every day, ringing up extravagant mobile phone charges, and at night Colin jerked off to the image of Nick Young in various states of undress.
10:15 pm How were mocks? Ours were terrible. Mrs Daniel’s making everyone come back for remedial class.
8:30 am I’m cold all the time. Left my boots outside overnight and they froze to the floor. Need to get Mum to send me new ones.
5:31 pm Call me instead! I’ll keep you warm.
Colin tried to keep up a brave front, but realised he wasn’t fooling anyone when his father sought him out.
“For this year’s family holiday, shall we go to Scotland? The consultant says your sister should see the Edinburgh medical school campus. We could play golf at Saint Andrews. And you could visit your friend Nick.”
“That sounds great,” Colin said, somewhat taken aback. He wondered if his father harboured suspicions about the nature of his and Nick’s friendship. He didn’t think so: after all, the old man kept updating that list of eligible girls. Then again, now he thought about it, his father would probably be even more anxious about Colin’s marriage prospects if he believed his only son was into men as well as women.
His father said, holding out his hand in a rare show of affection, “I thought you might appreciate the trip. Family is important, but that doesn’t mean friends aren’t important too. You’ve been in low spirits for a while, I know you miss Nick. But don’t worry, son. That which is well planted will not be easily uprooted.”
After the Khoo family trip, Nick received an exeat to attend Colin’s eighteenth birthday celebrations in Rome. This year, Colin said no to the Eastern European strippers, avoided falling into the Trevi Fountain, and, when Bernard and Eddie weren’t looking, kissed his best friend in a corner of the Piazza di Pietra beside the ancient ruins of Hadrian’s Temple.
“Hey, Dr. History, how come you never told me Emperor Hadrian had a male favourite?” Colin murmured. “Lonely Planet says they rescued a village from a marauding lion. If we lived in 100AD, we could totally do that.”
“Do what, kill a lion, or have a male favourite? Everyone had favourites in 100AD. Marriages were for political convenience — Hadrian married the old emperor’s grand-niece, and they were miserable together,” Nick pointed out. “Like Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty, who was married to Empress Xiaoai, but who really loved a man; we read about them in Chinese classics class, remember?”
Neither of them needed to say it: there were miserable marriages of convenience in the 21st century, too.
“We’d never do that,” Colin said, at last. “I might not be able to marry you myself, but I’m not going to make some girl miserable just to make my old man happy.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be up to you,” Nick said, softly, and because Colin didn’t know what to say to this, he pressed his friend against the crumbling wall and tried to honour the memory of Hadrian’s favourite.
After their A-Levels, Nick went to read History at Oxford. In those days it was easier to get a deferment from the Armed Forces, especially with entrance papers as spectacular as Nick’s. Colin’s results weren’t nearly as good, and anyway he was prepared to serve; the Khoo name might have secured him a cushy job in Mindef HQ but he chose to slog it out through basic military training to Officer Cadet School instead.
Nick’s prelims schedule meant he had to miss Colin’s passing out parade, but Colin flew out to Oxford in time for the ball season, which included the white tie commemoration ball thrown by Nick’s college. Attendees were expected to bring a date.
Colin could just imagine the gossip amongst the government scholars and students of the Singapore Oxford Society. Is Nick Young going to the Christ Church ball? Who will he be bringing? Is he back together with Amanda, or is he dating some angmo charbor?
There were actual sighs of frustration when Nick stepped out onto the rose-strewn carpet laid across Christ Church’s famous English civil war dining hall, resplendent in his custom Savile Row tailcoat, with Colin on his arm.
“Aiyoh, such a waste,” someone said in a distinctly Singaporean accent; “He’s only brought that Colin Khoo.”
“I’m sorry to be a disappointment to Radio Singapore,” Colin said, much later, from the depths of Nick’s bed. He wasn’t feeling particularly sorry. He was still dizzy from one too many rides on the Peckwater Quad ferris wheel, he’d drunk more champagne in one night than he’d had during his months of serving his nation, and his body was aching from more sex than he’d had all year. They’d danced, and played all the party games, and then they’d stolen away from the 5 am survivors’ photo to finally greet each other properly in the privacy of Nick’s room.
Nick had somehow wrangled accommodations along the hotly-coveted male freshers’ corridor on the best quad in the college, across which morning was now breaking. Nick leaned against the window in his boxer shorts, and the dawn light provided a suitable frame for Singapore’s golden boy.
“I’m not disappointed,” Nick murmured. “The aunties can gossip about my love life all they want. I got to take the hottest debutante in Singapore to commencement ball, how lucky am I, right?”
“Dude, if only they knew.” Colin lifted a hopeful eyebrow, and Nick took the hint to come back to bed.
They were too wrapped up in their second round of reunion sex to notice someone shoving an invitation card under their door. Colin discovered it when hunger finally compelled them to get up in search of a late brunch.
“What’s the Piers Gaveston Society?”
Nick squinted at the card in Colin’s outstretched hand. The card was embossed with what Colin belatedly realised were gold-leaf Art-Deco-style dicks.
“It runs an alternative ball. Super exclusive, a ball to end all balls. It’s in a secret location, we get 24 hours’ notice to attend, stuff like that.” Sheepishly: “I was asked to join the Society this year — apparently it’s a big deal, seems Tony Blair was a member — but I thought it might distract me from prelims so I said no… Anyway, we totally don’t have to go if you’re not up for it.”
In 48 hours, Colin was scheduled to be on a plane back to Singapore, headed back to family and duty and the Officer Cadet School initiation hazing rituals. “Let’s go,” he said, decisively. “Someone needs to rescue you from this ball to end all balls.”
Given the invitation card décor, Colin was not surprised to learn that Piers Gaveston had been the male favourite of Edward II. The Society’s motto, Fane non memini ne audisse unum alterum ita dilixisse, or, "Truly, none remember hearing of a man enjoying another so much", was supposedly a direct quote from one of the English king’s courtiers who had witnessed their love, and the historical record described how Edward’s queen and favourite had loathed being compelled to share the king’s attentions as well as the running of the kingdom itself.
Colin had only packed one set of white tie and tails, and Nick had just ruined it quite thoroughly in the aftermath of the Christ Church ball, but this wasn’t as much of a concern as he’d thought it would be. It seemed the Piers Gaveston ball had a very different dress code altogether.
“Are you sure this’ll pass muster?” The this in question was the Singapore Army’s No. 4 camouflage pants and dog tags, and the plank-sculpted abdominal muscles he’d worked extremely hard for. Colin hoped this outfit didn’t count as defiling the uniform, which he remembered might be grounds for court martial.
Nick grinned lasciviously. “Edward II always appreciated a military man. I’m gonna have to chase away admirers with a stick.”
The other partygoers were less likely to be court-martialled, at any rate: the women in nipple tassels and spandex, the men in high heels. Everyone surrendered their mobile phones and cameras, signed a badly-worded non-disclosure form, and got onto a chartered coach with blacked-out windows. They set off down tiny winding lanes, passing sheep and rolling fields and landscapes that looked like they hadn’t changed since Edward II’s reign as king, until, an hour or so later, they arrived at an open field strung with lights.
Colin had been expecting something out of Eyes Wide Shut, and he was right — a sprawling faux-Renaissance faire beside a lake, ringed with decadent tents, marquees, and a raised stage on which eight masked men dressed like tavern wenches were simulating an orgy.
When Colin got off the coach, he realised it wasn’t a simulation. The guys onstage were in fact kissing each other, with tongues and genuine enthusiasm, while slowly jerking each other off, except for the one in a red velvet dress who was on his knees giving head. Standing to the side of the stage was a tall woman in full Louis XIV court dress calling out encouragement.
A couple of coaches had gotten there before them, and there were guys and girls in leather gyrating on the grass to a mix of thumping dance music and the second movement of György Ligeti's piano cycle Musica ricercata. Thanks to Bernard’s parties, Colin knew what weed smelled like, and the atmosphere was thick with it.
“Let me get you a drink,” Nick said. They elbowed their way to the champagne fountain, where servers in cherub costumes were handing out flutes and caviar blinis and what looked like innocuous jelly shots and hand-rolled cigarettes and candy.
“Oh man,” Colin said. He could just see the headlines in Stomp!, or one of the other bastions of Singaporean citizen journalism:
KHOO HEIR IN BRIT COUNTRYSIDE CROSS-DRESSING SEX-AND-DRUGS SCANDAL!
OFFICER-CADET-WANNABE COLIN SAID, “I THOUGHT THEY WERE CIGARS, I SWEAR!”
Nick looked guilt-stricken. “I didn’t know this would be like, you know, a Bernard Tai party on speed! We should go.”
“You’d think I’d be so used to Bernard Tai parties that the angmo version wouldn’t be that bad,” Colin said, grinning despite himself. “Anyway, we’re stuck here till the coaches come back. If we get caught, I’m gonna tell my father it was your idea.”
“You wouldn’t even be lying. It was totally my idea,” Nick said, and slid his arms around Colin’s neck.
Colin tensed automatically, looking around, then realised nobody was paying them any attention. All around them, young people were dancing, and kissing, and laughing; in the distance voices were moaning and crying out in pleasure.
It was a different world. For the first time in his life, he was in a place where nobody cared who he was dating, or if he was going to get married, or even who he was.
Colin let it all wash over him: the giggling crowd, the sounds of sex, the atmosphere of libertine recklessness. The Khoo business empire was very far away. It was evening, but the sun still brightened the hazy blue sky, as if the British summer would never end.
Nick was wearing a fantastic brocade robe in gold and yellow silk, which Colin rather hoped hadn’t been borrowed from the Tyersall estate, and tennis shorts. Broad-shouldered and bare-chested in the endless sunlight, he looked like the last emperor of China — who would have had his pick of concubines, but who had somehow chosen Colin as his favourite instead.
“I’m not letting you take the fall all by yourself,” he told Nick. “We’re in this together, you and me.”
Nick quietened; he knew Colin wasn’t just talking about this ridiculous party. A shadow crossed his handsome face — a long one, cast by his Ah Ma and the Young family empire, by expectations of political marriage, by the prospect of a life filled with too much duty and too little freedom.
“You’ll always have me,” he said at last. “Whatever happens, whatever they do to us, I’ll always be here. I’ll always be yours.”
Colin closed his eyes and kissed him, and hoped it would always be true.
3. Being loved by someone gives you great strength, and loving someone deeply gives you great courage.
But summers of love didn’t last forever. Deep down, Colin had always known that.
After his army stint, Colin’s father sent him to UCLA to set himself up for his MBA. When it was clear that Nick would be staying at Oxford for his postgraduate degree, they decided to do the mature thing.
Or rather, since Nick wasn’t going to do it, even though their time together was getting shorter and they were becoming more and more miserable, Colin made the executive decision to fly out to Oxford to break up with Nick. They sat on a stile at the edge of the Christ Church meadow and watched the sun go down.
It was unfair how handsome Nick looked with his eyes red from crying. Colin knew his own face must be hideously puffy, but he was so tired and wretched he didn’t care.
Finally: “Your dad will be the death of you, you know?”
It was the first cruel thing Nick had ever said to him, and Colin told him so. “Besides, I’m not the one hiding in this ulu countryside, pretending my family and Singapore don’t exist!”
“Great, lovely, that’s what my mum says too.” Nick turned his head away, stubborn and sad. Colin knew his good-hearted friend would always continue to believe in heroics and happy endings, even in the face of stark reality.
As expected, Nick stayed put in his little overseas retreat from Singapore; he would return for a discreet national service stint and the occasional visit to Tyersall Park, but otherwise he managed to stay mostly off the radar.
Singapore society kept tabs on him as best it could — from time to time, Sophie would keep him posted on the latest Nick Young sightings in London and Nottingham, and, when Nick headed to the States to take up a teaching post at NYU, in Chelsea and the Lower East Side.
Radio1London: OMG. You’ll never believe who I saw. NICK YOUNG. In Hammersmith!
Girl: OMG, Hammersmith is the new Fitzrovia. WHO IS HE WITH.
Radio1London: [picture of skinny blonde in polo gear] Is this Jemima Khan’s daughter?
Girl: Going native, huh. Does Amanda know?
NYCAirwaves: Hey, Nick Young sighting! Stateside!
Twin 1: omfg finally! there’s been no news for seven and a half months! we thought he fell
Twin 2: off the map!!!
NYCAirwaves: Well, this is why. He’s in Washington Square, wearing a NYU tank top. Sans date, avec beard, and check out those biceps!
By the time Nick finally headed across the Atlantic, Colin had returned to Singapore himself. He’d learned everything UCLA business school had to offer, and he’d nursed his broken heart by dating Jewish-American princesses and Korean-American princesses and an Iranian-American girl from Connecticut whom he’d loved too much to condemn to a life of dull duty.
Besides, the year he turned twenty-six, a Malaysian rubber tycoon mounted a hostile takeover of the Khoo Corporation, and fighting it off had given Timothy Khoo a heart attack.
“For God’s sake, stop crying,” Sophie said when Colin rushed into the high-dependency VIP ward at the Singapore General Hospital. His sister had just started her residency in paediatric surgery; unlike Colin, her presence at their father’s beside was actually helpful.
Still, when his father opened his eyes and said, “Son, thank God you’re home”, Colin knew he was back for good.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Dad, I’m going to deal with Datuk Razak. I’ve already called our lawyers, and we’re meeting the Security Industries Council this afternoon.”
“My girlfriend’s a securities lawyer,” Sophie told Colin as the siblings left the ward together. As Colin did a double-take, she continued, cheerfully, “Good thing you’re back, bro. One of us has to take this family lineage thing seriously.”
The thing was, Colin did take it seriously. It took the better part of a year to get to trial with Razak Holdings Sdn Bhd, and reporters from the Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao and Berita Harian took to camping out in front of the High Court every day for a month.
Of course, Stomp! would probably have a field day:
SINGAPORE’S MOST ELIGIBLE BACHELOR FIGHTS FOR FAMILY COMPANY!
KHOO HEIR TAKES MALAYSIAN TYCOON TO COURT FOR CONTROL OVER BELOVED NATIONAL ICON!
On the family front, Mayli was still curating The List. In order to keep his father happy, Colin made an attempt to tick the boxes, squiring a Newnham lawyer to the Prestige Ball, and the Singapore Dance Theatre’s prima ballerina to the Generation T gala, and various other society daughters to various interchangeable society events.
But the List didn’t do justice to Araminta Lee, Alexander McQueen model and heiress to the Lee Billionaire Hotel fortune, and the most beautiful woman in Singapore. Mayli added her to the List when Araminta turned twenty-one, and, because Colin was working his way down in reverse chronological order, he only reached her portfolio when he was twenty-eight, and working 12 hour days in his Raffles Place office, and going out of his mind with loneliness.
Araminta was leggy and gorgeous and completely unafraid to speak her mind, and the first person in Colin’s extensive dating career to ask, “So, what’s your deal with Nick Young?”
“Oh my God, this,” and Araminta pulled her phone out of her vintage Birkin and showed him a subreddit entitled /fyeahnickyoungandcolinkhoo.
Colin stared as she helpfully scrolled down: the posts containing grainy images of their ACS graduation class photo and badly photoshopped headshots of Nick and him staring intently at each other, and declarations of Because they’ve been best friends since primary school! and Because instead of bringing some girl to the Christ Church commencement ball, Nick took Colin as his date!!, accompanied by a plethora of heart emojis.
“There’s a couple of blogs and a tumblr account. It’s, like, a tenth of the material on you and Jayanthi —the Internet really likes her!— or even you and Anna Belle, but you two have a small but devoted fanbase.”
Colin couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to Nick — maybe it had been on his birthday, or Nick’s? — and he found he couldn’t remember the sound of his best friend’s voice. He breathed deeply around the knot in his chest. “Well now, this is seriously impressive pre-date due diligence.”
“Oh please, I am a social media maven and influencer, this shit is literally my job.” She paused and looked more closely at him. “Hey, are you okay? I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”
Colin knew it wasn’t a good idea. Mayli would probably have wanted him to get an NDA before breathing a word about this to Araminta. But he was so tired of keeping up a brave front for his father and the business and for Singapore, and he told her everything: about the tuck shop fight, about Amanda and Anna Belle, about Phuket and their balcony scene, about Rome and Oxford and the Piers Gaveston ball.
They talked till the discreet white-suited waiters at Les Amis showed them the door, and as they walked down Orchard Road towards Newton Hawker Centre, she put her hand through Colin’s arm.
“Holy shit, such a romantic tragedy, torn apart by your families and everything! After all that, now I kind of ship you guys.”
“It wasn’t our families. Anyway, we’re still friends, but it’s over.”
She elbowed him. Under the streetlights, her smile was conspiratorial. “It’s a shame, though. He’s nearly as hot as you.”
Colin laughed out loud at the unexpected compliment from this very unexpected girl. “He is actually pretty hot! Almost as hot as you.”
She grabbed his hand as she made a beeline for the sugar cane juice stall. Her hand was petal-soft, but underneath the softness he could feel how strong she was.
As they dug into their poh piah, Colin saw a girl at the next table taking a discreet photo with her phone. Maybe tomorrow there would be a new /fyeahcolinkhooandaramintalee subreddit.
Araminta brought it up again, after their third date, which was also the first time they had sex. Unwinding her legs from his and unfurling her lithe body like a fan, she mused, “What if you could’ve made it work with him?”
Colin tried to collect himself; after that last mind-numbing orgasm he was surprised he could still form words. Eventually, he said, unsteadily, “With Nick? It would never have worked.”
Araminta pulled herself up on her elbows, a perfectly composed Ang Lee erotic nude, and stared meaningfully at him until he continued: “My father wants me to get married, to run the business, to have a family. And I want that, too.”
He felt his throat tighten; he’d never admitted it before to anyone. “I’ll always love Nick, but I could never have that with him.”
Araminta kissed him gently. Then she abruptly changed the subject.
“What was it you were telling me about this Piers Gaveston dude? The whole thing about royal favourites? We have that in our family too. My mom and her half-brothers lived in the same house, the whole jing-gang together — playing, dinnertime, holidays, they shared everything. I think Grandma didn’t mind too much, not like Queen Isabella; I mean, it was one way to save on childcare.”
She said it matter-of-factly. Colin curved his hand tenderly around her face. “I wouldn’t do that. I would never make you share a thing.”
“Hey, you wouldn’t have to make me do anything,” Araminta said. “As long as I knew you loved me, I’d be cool with you doing you. Old-money people don’t have the exclusive on alternative families, you know.”
When Colin realised that she hadn’t changed the subject after all, it took his breath away even more completely than the sex had.
She saw how her words affected him, and climbed on top of him. Her long hair fell around them both in a curtain that shut out the world.
Then she added, slyly, “But if you get to have a favourite, babe, I want one too. Fair is fair, and I am very picky.”
Araminta was indeed extremely picky, which was why Colin was so astounded and grateful when she chose him. Colin’s family was equally thrilled — Sophie had been a long-time fan of Araminta’s from Instagram — and even Mayli congratulated them, though she was probably just glad she didn’t have to curate the List any more.
It had been Araminta’s idea to fly out to New York on a weekend to break the news in person to Nick.
His best friend picked them up from JFK, looking as if he was walking into a parole hearing whose outcome was touch-and-go, but Colin knew that the verdict wasn’t going to be in any doubt. Araminta rode shotgun in Nick’s terrible old jalopy, sang along to his Mariah Carey playlist entirely unselfconsciously and almost entirely off-key, and told him the most ridiculous stories about her childhood in Harbin. By the time they got to Nick’s apartment in Queens they were snickering at each other’s jokes and finishing each other’s sentences.
“I like her a lot, and I know you love her, and I can see she loves you too,” Nick murmured at the end of their evening, after Araminta had gone to the ladies’ room. He looked fond, and a little wistful; he said he’d just started dating a co-worker, albeit not seriously enough to bring to their dinner at Tom’s.
“I do love her, and I’m going to marry her,” Colin said, softly.
“I figured as much. I’m really happy for you guys. Especially for you, champ — I know this is what you’ve always wanted.”
Nick said it warmly and entirely without rancour, but it hurt, anyway. Colin said, swallowing, “I want you to be my best man, and so does Araminta.”
“Anything you want. I’ll always have your back, remember?”
Colin did remember. He found himself reaching blindly across the table for Nick’s hand. Found himself saying, “Come back to us, Nicky. Forget about your family, come back to me. We’ll figure it out. Araminta loves you already, and I still do, I always have.”
Nick’s smile was regretful. “At the risk of more accusations about running away from Singapore, I still have things to sort out here. And you and Araminta will be busy enough keeping your family happy.”
They’d been so engrossed in their conversation they didn’t hear Araminta return to the table. She slid into Colin’s lap, and put her hands over Nick’s and Colin’s.
“Don’t worry about him, his family’s not the problem,” she said, winking. “Take your time, Handsome. When you’re ready, you know where to find us. We’re not going anywhere.”
4. The heart that gives much, gathers more in return.
The co-worker’s name was Rachel; she was a tenure-track associate professor of economics, and her grades had been even better than Nick’s. Born in Xiamen, she’d been raised in America by her immigrant single mother. Things had gotten serious enough that Nick was planning to bring her back to Singapore for Colin’s and Araminta’s wedding.
“Think he’s prepared her for all of this?” Araminta asked when she heard the news.
“Doubt it. Our Nick’s an eternal optimist, he thinks if you ignore things for long enough, everything else will just fall into place.” Which was the elephant in the room: Nick had apparently promised his mother to return to Singapore last year, the year they both turned thirty, to take over the reins of the Young family empire, but thus far he’d been blithely ignoring this deadline.
Araminta considered this. “You think this means he’s planning on coming home to us at last?” she asked.
That was the 32 billion dollar question that Colin was planning on asking his best friend after they’d escaped from yet another Bernard Tai party.
Fleeing by helicopter from strippers and bazookas and shouts of kuku jiao!, they ended up on Rawa Island, sitting on lounge chairs and drinking bottles of cold beer and watching the waves crash and the sun set over the deserted expanse of beach.
“You look happy,” Colin said, and Nick did. For the first time in years — really, for the first time since the Piers Gaveston party — Nick looked lighter, carefree, as if a weight had lifted off his shoulders.
“I am. Rachel’s so different from the other girls you and I grew up with. I love who I am around her.” Nick took a breath. “I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
“Wow,” Colin said in surprise. He liked Rachel — smart, gorgeous, clearly very much in love with Nick — but: “I thought you told your family you were finally moving back home? And, Rachel loves her job in New York. Unless… no. Are you thinking of walking out for good? Leaving the company to bloody Alistair and Eddie? Leaving Araminta and me?”
“Here you go again,” Nick said, steadily. “I'm not walking out on anything. I met a girl, I fell in love, and I want to marry her. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my family, or you, or Araminta.”
“Did you ask Rachel what she wants?”
“Yeah, we're gonna figure that out.”
Colin wanted to tear his hair out. “You're going to figure it out. Nicky-Nick, for God’s sake, you have to talk to her. Your family is going to go nuts. And, you're the shining heir, you're untouchable, but Rachel's not. And if she becomes Mrs. Nicholas Young, every day for her is going to be a struggle.”
“I said, we’ll figure it out,” Nick repeated, his jaw set. Colin recognised that brave, stubborn, stupid look, and a bright light went off inside his head.
“I’m an idiot,” he said, putting his beer on the sand, and getting onto his knees. “I should have asked you to marry me long ago. I should have asked you to marry me in New York. Don’t worry about your family. If you love Rachel, we’ll figure out how to make it work. We can protect her if we all work together.”
Nick looked at Colin on his knees on the beach, and he burst out laughing. “This is some timing, champ. You’re about to marry Araminta; you can’t just ask me to marry you too, like that’s going to solve everything.”
“It might, though. I’m yours, that won’t change. And Araminta loves you so much she could just be willing to share me with you.”
“Get up, for God’s sake,” Nick muttered, and then, when Colin refused to budge, he got down into the sand as well, and put his arms around Colin’s neck. “I’m yours too, you idiot. That hasn’t changed and it never will, remember?”
Colin had never forgotten, and it had never felt more right than on this deserted beach, with no one else around to watch — this best friend, this ex-boyfriend, this man who still held his heart. He kissed Nick, and it was like the balcony in Goodwood Hill again, like Rome, like Oxford, when they had both known they would always belong to each other.
They lay in the damp sand and made out as the sun set and the moon rose, full and golden and intimate as it always looked off Singapore’s waters, and as the years fell away one by one. Nick’s wet, dirty body was as warm and welcoming in Colin’s arms as it had always been, as familiar as his own urgent heartbeat. And yet —
“— We can’t,” Colin panted, finally pulling away. “You need to talk to Rachel about this first, like you need to talk to her about everything. Plus, Araminta will be really pissed off if we had sex and didn’t take photos for her.”
Nick snorted out a laugh, and then pulled himself to a sitting position, brushing off his arms and sand-covered hair. “See, this is why people don’t have actual sex on a beach!” Then he looked stricken. “Do you think Rachel will want photos, too?”
“Dude, now that is really a question for you guys.” Though the more Colin thought about it, the more he suspected Nick’s feisty, beautiful game theory professor might actually be up for anything. “But, you know, Araminta will only agree to share me if everyone shares.”
A small grin crept over Nick’s face. “That sounds too good to be true.”
“You might think that, but she’s all true. And Rachel might be, too. I mean it — we can protect her if all of us work together.”
It turned out that Rachel didn't need anyone’s protection. She’d figured out, without any help from Nick or anyone else, that the way to win over Eleanor and Nick’s family was to show them she loved Nick more than she loved herself, enough to let him go.
Now Colin thought about it, maybe he knew a little about how that felt.
Nick and Rachel eventually showed up at the Lee-Khoo post-honeymoon party at Marina Bay Sands, tousled and deliriously happy, with Eleanor’s emerald gleaming on Rachel’s finger. Araminta’s shriek could be heard all the way to the Marina Barrage: she picked Rachel up and twirled her around and would have pitched them into the infinity pool in her excitement if Rachel hadn’t stopped them both from falling. The fantastical lights of the Singapore skyline turned their skin to neon and chrome, and Araminta’s long hair to silver, and made them look like empresses who would take their own consorts and who needed no man’s help to find their way to love.
Nick murmured in Colin’s ear: “Think they’ll share the photos with us?”
“I sincerely hope so,” Colin said, grinning.
Araminta and Rachel were engrossed in conversation for a long time, their heads very close together; every so often, they would glance back over at Colin and Nick, and nudge each other and giggle. Colin put his head on Nick’s shoulder, and together they enjoyed the view.
Eventually the ladies strode over. Araminta jumped into Nick’s arms, wrapping her long legs around his waist, and Rachel took Colin by the hand.
The band struck up Colin and Araminta’s wedding song — “Can’t Help Falling in Love” — and Colin found himself slow dancing with his best friend‘s new fiancée. Enfolded in her arms, he stared into her heart-shaped face, still in awe of what she’d done, how strong she was, and how different from the other girls he and Nick had grown up with.
“You’re incredible,” he told her. “Nobody else could have done what you did with Nick’s family. No other woman could, and definitely not me.”
“He told me about you two,” Rachel said softly. "He also said you told him to tell me everything. Thanks for knocking some sense into him! And, you know, for sharing him with me. It can’t have been an easy thing to do."
Colin couldn’t speak for a moment; Rachel’s American directness struck him deeply, as well as her compassion.
Three paces away, the two people he loved most in the world were clinging to each other tightly; when they saw Colin looking, Nick winked at him, and Araminta stuck her tongue blatantly in Nick’s ear.
His father had always said: the heart that gives much, gathers more in return. Now, finally, Colin might believe that hoary old aphorism was true after all.
"Sharing with you isn’t hard,” he told Rachel, his own heart full to its brim. He couldn’t wait to get to know her, and now he had a lifetime in which to do just that. “Thank you for bringing him back to us at last."