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the life cycle of a dandelion

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BAYREUTH, GERMANY

 

"I have to go,” Eddy says, “seriously, Belle. I’ll call you back later.”

June baptises the world in sweat. Going from Australia’s mild winter to a sunny European twenty-five degrees leaves Eddy red-eyed and streamy-nosed with the pollen thick in the air. Even without looking away from his perusal of seat numbers, he is aware of the strange looks he gets from a few of the other passengers boarding the train—speaking loudly into his phone, hauling his worn suitcase behind him.  

I don’t care,” Belle complains. There is a burst of white-noise straight into his ear as she huffs. “I miss you already, stupid. You sure you can’t stay one extra day? You can catch up with Brett in Prague. I’ll take you around Leipzig myself—it’ll be faster.

Eddy’s suitcase catches against a seat and he desperately tugs on it to keep the crowd moving. The irritable man behind him hitches his backpack higher onto a shoulder and mutters something in German.

“Sorry,” Eddy says to the man, shoving his phone haphazardly into his pocket. The overhead luggage rack is a tight fit for his bulging suitcase. The two minutes it takes to properly situate his bag and take his seat are probably the longest in Eddy’s life. His t-shirt clings to his back by the time he takes his assigned seat with an apologetic bob of the head at the passengers he had been blocking. Eddy sets his backpack between his feet and sandwiches his phone between his cheek and his shoulder. “Sorry—my bag got stuck. What were you saying?”

Nothing anymore. I’ve decided to retract my offer.” 

Belle.” 

Eddy steals a look outside the window; despite it being barely nine, people scurry around the station carrying bags, all kitted out in hats and sandals to combat the summer sunshine, the commotion of it all muffled by the thick fingerprint stained glass.

It’s been so long since we’ve hung out properly, Eddy. Alone. Together. I love mum, but sometimes I just want to hang out with my little brother, you know?

“We just hung out over the lunar new year.”

I was on video call with you guys, that doesn’t count.

“It sure felt like you were right there in between all the chaos.” Eddy tears his eyes away from the glass and hunches over his bag in search of his water bottle. 

Hanging out. 

It’s a sweet little concept to consider. 

They have never been a particularly affectionate set of siblings. Even apart from their age difference, the traditional clutches of their Asian upbringing crept around the edges of their relationship as they grew up. Too many things to prove and too many competitions pitted against each other. Too many responsibilities that neither of them understood. Eddy can’t resent Belle for any of it—it’s just how it was. Some things are too big for either of them.

Recently, age seems to be getting to her. The five-year gap has never felt so close to being bridged yet so far.

You know what I mean,” Belle sighs. He can hear her puttering around the small rental she’s been staying at in Bayreuth—the one he avoided visiting yet again. He tries to imagine it: would she be in the matchbox kitchen making tea? Would she be dusting the furniture? Would she be folding laundry? He has seen the kitchen countertop and the pockmarked wall her bed is pressed against in her pixelated videos. The cartilage of his ear feels like crumpled tissue paper. “ Stop acting dumb on purpose—it won’t work on me.

“I’m not acting dumb on purpose.” Eddy pulls out his water bottle and takes a swig from it. Softening his tone, he adds, “I’m really sorry I couldn’t make more time for you. I’ve just—I’ve got a really packed schedule. I’ll make sure to come visit you—and only you—soon, okay? Promise.”

Belle has always understood the subtext very well; he thinks it must be one of the reasons their mum loves her just that tiny bit more. 

I’m not Brett; I won’t believe whatever you say,” Belle says. 

“Brett doesn’t believe everything I say either.”

Eddy.”

A huge part of him wants to play pretend. Maybe grab his phone and make static sounds at Belle until she gives up and cuts the call. Eddy pulls his phone away and settles the sweaty screen onto his other ear. The stream of tepid air from the air-conditioner feels like someone breathing down his neck.

“I’ll talk to you later, jiejie,” he pulls out all the stops, smiling at the muffled groan he gets. “My train’s about to leave.”

“You still call Belle jiejie?” A voice rings. The edges of a black hoodie rustle in his periphery.

Is that Brett?”

“Yeah. I gotta go now. Love you.”

Text me when you get there. I love you too.

Brett shoves his suitcase snugly up against Eddy’s in the overhead rack and when he looks down, Eddy is treated to a smile he hasn’t seen in a while. 

“Hey, Eddy,” Brett beams as the train crackles to life around them. “Long time, huh?”

 


 

Brett is skilled in carving out places for himself. His sprawl across from Eddy is familiar; he has never been afraid to take up space like he is owed it

If Eddy were to liken him to a plant, it would be a ficus elastica. It’s one of his admired plants recently—a lovely thing with a balanced silhouette and perfectly leaf-shaped leaves that are distanced just far apart from each other on the central stem so each leaf can be viewed individually and admired. A proud plant that stands tall and revels in its own power of creation. 

Just like Brett. 

Eddy doesn’t think that he would express himself the same way if he were a plant. Or express himself at all. Where Brett stands confident and tall, leaves spread, he thinks he would be the opposite. Perhaps a mimosa pudica—a touch shy in a way no one understands why, equating a tender touch to an earthquake.

“Want some tea?” Brett asks. He doesn’t speak loudly, but in the sleepy silence draped over the afternoon train, he sounds too bright. Steel instead of catgut. “I brought a thermos with me. Just in case, you know?”

Eddy doesn’t know. He watches Brett pull out a weathered steel bottle stamped with the words ‘Griffith University’ in scratched and faded black letters. (Six years now. Eddy can still remember the spring chill when they had moved into dorms and gotten that bottle for free. Eddy has a matching on with a blue-rimmed lid. He hasn't unpacked it since he moved.) The wobbly table bolted between them trembles under the weight of it. 

“Did you bring a cup or something?”

“I might have a couple of plastic ones, but the original plan was to just drink straight from the cap.”

Brett’s hair is dishevelled, longer than Eddy can remember him liking it. But Eddy hasn’t seen him in four years despite the fact that they both live in the same country. He hasn’t talked to him for longer than ten minutes in seven months. Brett’s last profile photo had a familiar backdrop of meticulously arranged awards and a red paisley sofa.

“Tea?” Brett asks again. “I have a few tea bags here. Let’s see—we’ve got a nice selection of earl grey, mint green tea, and blueberry.”

“Did you nick those from the hotel?” They haven’t talked to each other in what feels like forever, but the way the corners of his lips creep up has remained the same. Eddy smiles a little too. “Knew it.”

“They were complementary.”

“I know, I’m just messing with you.”

“Ass.” Brett’s eyes soften, wandering unsurely between Eddy’s. It’s strange to recognise the look when they haven’t seen each other in a while; that’s the one Brett used to save for people on the fringes of his social circle. Things really have changed somewhere along the way. “So? Want some or not?”

“It’s twenty-five degrees,” Eddy finally says.

“More for me then.” 

As Brett pours out a cloud of steam and water into the steel cap, Eddy turns his gaze towards the rippling water and lets his shoulders loosen up. Brett tears open a tea bag and dips it into his makeshift mug. The scent of mint unfurls slowly through the sleepy cabin.

“Can we switch seats?” Eddy asks.

“Oh. Motion-sickness, right? I didn’t think you still had it. Here—ah, don’t mind the bag. You can kick it under my seat.”

The seat is still warm from Brett’s body. Eddy sinks into the uncomfortable blue cushioning and shuts his eyes for a few moments.  When he opens them again, the three-hour train ride stretches ahead of him like the pull of Brett’s jeans across his thighs.

 

seeding

 

At sixteen, life had seemed pretty set out for Eddy: get better at violin and perform. The hours he put into it paid off—he had medals and trophies and a photo of him put up on his high-school’s wall of meritorious students. (He had taken a sneaky picture of it on his shitty two-pixel phone camera and shown it to Brett during their next tutoring class, revelling in the laughter it had induced.) When his counsellor had asked him what he wanted to do in the future, in the safe room of his office it had been easy to say ‘musician’. 

“I didn’t have the balls to tell my counsellor that,” Brett had admitted during his second year at the con. The bubble tea store they had been in was quiet—not many people cared for the drink and they often had the whole place to themselves, especially after classes. They had sat there with Brett’s old music theory notes spread out between them, Eddy’s head planted on top of the notebook in an attempt at osmosis. “I told him I’d be a trophy husband.”

“You had the balls to tell him you’d be a trophy husband but not a musician?”

“One is easier than the other.” 

“Bro…you’re messed up. Who’d even want you as a trophy husband?”

“Fuck off.” Brett had choked on a few tapioca pearls then, voice strange, and added, “You know, even if you decide not to pursue music, I think you’d be fine.”

Eddy had propped his chin on his hands, neck tilted back awkwardly to meet Brett’s steady gaze. “Are you telling me I’m not cut out for being a professional musician?”

“I didn’t say that.” Brett had hesitated, eyelids coming to a half-mast as he had looked down at his chewed up plastic straw. It was a cute habit Eddy had noticed, something that meant he was picking through his words. “Of course you’re good enough. Shut up. I just thought you looked a little drained. So I wanted to reassure you.”

“Music uni isn’t going how I thought it would,” Eddy had admitted. “And I feel like I’m lagging behind a lot. But I think I’ll survive.”

“Okay. Just…don’t push yourself too hard, got it? We both need to get out of here whole.”

“You make it sound like some horror movie, Bretty bae.”

“One day you’re going to stop calling me that and it’ll be heaven,” Brett had sighed mournfully.

“You love it when I call you that.”

Brett had laughed a short frustrated bark, and before Eddy could read into it, he’d picked up a spare notebook and swatted him over the head with it. "Get up, you brat. I didn’t skip valuable practice time to watch you sleep on my notes.”

"You’re a tutor from hell," Eddy had sighed and then forced himself to sit up and actually focus. “I’ll be quick so you can go practice.”

 

LEIPZIG, GERMANY

 

At a balmy twenty-two degrees Leipzig is a touch cooler than Bayreuth. Before they disembark the train, Brett slathers both his arms in sunscreen and shrugs on an unbuttoned navy cotton shirt to replace his hoodie. They wait for the crowd to thin out before venturing into the cramped aisles, bags bumping against heels. Brett, made round with both his violin case and his backpack, waddles ahead of him. 

Everything glows golden through the glass ceiling of the train station, feeble strips of caramel light tangling in the strands of Brett’s hair. A gust of hot air barrels down the length of the platform. 

“Lunch first?” Brett asks.

Eddy unhooks the beige cap dangling from the arm-strap on his backpack and shoves it onto his head. “Yeah. Sounds good to me.”

 


 

From: s.windham@uoq.edu.au

Subject: Not important

To: e.chen@uoq.edu.au

Hey Eddy,

Hope you’re enjoying yourself on holiday. Just wanted to say congratulations on the presentation in Seoul. I’ll keep it short—Dr. Zhu is retiring soon and we’re looking for candidates to be promoted to lecturer by the end of this year and you’re on the shortlist. Use your break to think about whether you’d be interested in this position and we can have a chat about it when you return. Attached is the application form, just in case you want to get started on the process earlier.

See you when you’re back.

Stuart Windham

Professor

Head of School of Biological Sciences

The University of Queensland, Australia

Phone number: xxx-xxx-xxx

 


 

The hostel bathroom is small and covered in neat white tiles with yellowing grout haphazardly smoothed on between them. A thumb-sized bottle of shampoo and a cube of chlorophyll-green soap sit on the cracking porcelain sink. Eddy’s bag of toiletries lies half-opened in a little puddle kicked up from when Brett shaved. The mirror—fogged with steam—has two wet palm swipes through it. If there is one thing Eddy has learned from his years of travel, it’s the comfort of things that smell like home.

And Brett Yang still smells like milk-and-honey home.

The thought bounces inside his head like a nineties screensaver, hitting everything except the corner. If he thinks about how long it has been—

Memories flood into Eddy’s mind the longer he stands there, fingers wrapped around the water-specked sink: maths tutoring classes in a room filled with the stench of prepubescent boys, early morning orchestra rehearsals, and the stolen moments after school to get bubble tea. He remembers pressed shoulders and pressed heads bent over the sole bricky Nokia phone between them as they played Space Impact and he remembers inhaling

A hair-dryer goes off in the adjacent room, blaring, and then music from their own room. Brett’s singing loses itself in the rush of shower water.

Stepping under the spray of water, Eddy uncaps his own body-wash and lets the thoughts follow the suds down the drain.

 


 

Splayed on one of the two creaky twin beds, Brett exudes exhaustion from every pore.

Most of the day had been spent outside, cramming Leipzig into their veins in the little time they have—marketplaces, plazas, buildings all blurring together in the summery haze of sweat. Brett’s new bucket hat sits crumpled up on the sole table shoved into their small room. (It’s a little too big for him and covers his eyes just enough that he has to tip his head back a touch to see properly.) Eddy's cap is velcroed back on his backpack.

It is awkward. There is a palpable hesitation when they turn to each other, but there were moments today where the flow of conversation had been like before. Eddy towels his hair dry and stares down at the glass-topped table. He can see the marks the rag left on it in smooth, shadowy streaks.

“Is your new flat nice?” Brett asks him. 

It’s the first personal question all day; everything so far has been the small-talk reserved for acquaintances. Eddy drapes his towel over the back of his chair and twists to look at Brett.   

“How do you know?”

“Know what?”

“That I have a new flat.”

“Ah.” Brett’s eyes remain fixed on the ceiling. He’s always been like that: hard to read when he so wants it. Now, Eddy can really take in Brett up close for the first time in months and memorise all the tiny things about his friend's appearance that have changed. He had noticed the longer hair, but not the new, thin scar winding up his forearm, or the way his violin hickey is a lot darker than it was years ago. A small patch of unshaved beard swathes the underside of his jaw. “I heard from Alex.”

He’s a little older now; the knee-jerk response—why didn’t you just ask me? I didn’t know you still cared enough to want to know about how i’m doing—swallows down his throat like bile. Eddy turns his gaze away from Brett. In an inane moment, he wishes that he had picked up the skinny notepad on the end table or his phone just so he has something to do with his hands.

(He and Brett used to be lauded as the ones who could make it through everything, best damn team in our friend group, you guys make a killer combo. He remembers the taste of pride in the back of his throat at that.)

“Okay,” Eddy says. He drags a finger through the streaks left on the table. “Yeah, nah, it’s good. Um, bigger than it was before.” Brett doesn’t know what the last place he was in looked like either. “I got the ground floor because it had a fenced-in garden area. I work with the Sustainable Gardening Society and we've been talking about increasing food and material sources for our pollinators.”

“I bet your girlfriend likes it,” Brett teases.

“I don’t have a girlfriend.” A short silence follows the declaration before Eddy exhales the tension out of himself. It’s nothing new, but he feels so tired . Drawing another ripple in the smudge, he pretends he can’t hear Brett holding his breath. “She left me.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” 

This wasn’t supposed to happen. 

They’re not supposed to talk about this on their first night hanging out in ages.

He doesn’t want this.

Eddy rubs his forefinger into the glass until it squeaks, heart racing behind his ribs. “Not the first time it’s happened, hey. You’d think I’d be used to it.” 

Brett finally breathes. “Don’t be like that.”

“Be like what?” It’s so horrible, but he can’t stop. The glass beneath his finger feels like a cold palm. He can’t stop now that Brett is finally here and not just a few words in a barren chatroom. “It’s just what it is. There’s something, uh, something in there. Y’know what they say about the whole ‘once is an accident’ thing, right? Mieko left me, then you left me, then Toni left me. There’s only one common denominator to it.” 

Squeak, squeak. The room feels siberian. Now that he’s spoken, he feels stupid; why are they even talking about this? Brett doesn't need to know what Toni thought of him and his drifting attention. You don't let me in. Sometimes you weigh me up against someone I don't even know. Eddy breathes out another rough exhale and pushes himself away from the table. 

“Sorry, I’m just unhinged and a little…” He makes a vague circular gesture up at his head, back facing Brett. “We should get some rest; we’ve got an early—”

“You know I missed you, right?”

“You sure have a funny way of showing it.” It’s not the acidic barb he wants it to be, falling pathetically into the dead air between them. 

Brett’s breathing is as calm as ever. “It’s a two-way street, hey? You started fading yourself out when you quit con.”

Eddy knows that, which is the worst part. He rubs his dry eyes and tries to collect himself since they’re apparently doing this. “You know that injury was hard on me. You saw me.”

“I know.” Brett shifts in bed behind him, voice a little closer than before. Eddy wonders if he has rolled himself onto his side to look at him properly. Eddy wonders if he can tell how stubbornly Eddy has held on to their infrequent texts. “But it hasn’t exactly been easy for me either.”

“I’m sure being a world-class soloist and jet-setting around the globe is hard.” He wants it to be sincere, but it falls just a little to the left, fish-like in weight. “Sorry.”

“That’s uncalled for,” Brett says. He doesn’t sound angry, but Eddy hasn’t heard him angry in years. Perhaps the way he wears anger has changed too. “And that’s not even the part that’s hard. I just needed—Sometimes you get so caught up in yourself you don’t notice—”

“Notice what?” 

“Nothing. I don’t know. People around you.” There’s something thick sticking under the words that Eddy can’t understand. He rubs a closed fist across his tight chest, trying to get himself in check. “I shouldn’t have said it like that. It’s just—people grow apart sometimes, but it’s not because someone did anything wrong.”

“That didn’t sound like what you were implying earlier.”

“Stop putting words in my mouth.” The bed creaks again. When Brett speaks again, his voice is muffled. “And stop trying to fight me.”

“I’m not trying to—I don’t want to fight you either,” Eddy sighs. He stumbles towards his bed on shaky knees and flicks his bedside lamp off. Brett’s lamp stays on. Taking a seat, he draws his feet up and starts massaging one with concentration, not daring to look up. He has tiger balm sitting in his backpack, but it would mean going near Brett's bed and he doesn't think he can manage that. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For coming on the trip anyway. Even if we aren’t friends.”

“Who said we’re not friends?”

“Uh,” Eddy hesitates. Brett’s eyes, dark and liquid in the dimness of the room, stare back at him when he looks up, mouth covered by his elbow. He can’t look away. “I mean?”

“Friends,” Brett says firmly if muffled. He points his free thumb at Eddy and then jerks it towards himself. “You and me.”

“I thought you stopped wanting that some time ago.”

Brett lowers his arm and his teeth glimmer in the warm brown shadows. Even as Eddy watches, he reaches out to turn the lamp off and douse them both in darkness. “We just grew apart a bit—that doesn’t mean I don’t still care about you; I thought you didn’t want to be friends either, but we’re both here, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.” Eddy digs his thumbs into his ankle, ducking his gaze away again. “I guess you’re right.”

“I’m always right.”

Eddy sniffs. “I hope you know what you’re offering. I’m going to expect this to continue after this trip too, now that you said we’re friends. If you go radio silence on me in Australia…”

There’s a long enough silence that Eddy looks up again, suddenly nervous, and catches himself on the hook of Brett’s gaze. He has always felt like caught cod under his eyes. Exposed. Easy. Here he is, barely one day and one conversation after years, ready to offer himself up again.

“It was the worst without you,” Brett says, quiet as grass. “We’re not doing that again.”

“Right.”  

Eddy doesn’t know if things will actually shift things closer to right-way-up for their friendship, but for now he is willing to believe again even if it might be stupid. The out-of-time beat of his heart feels one step closer to falling in place. 

 


 

belle: did u reach

yep

[img attached]

feel sick after all the fried food we ate

belle: u suck

belle: warning btw mum’s trying to set up another m+g for u :’)

this close to blocking her num and running away to live in a forest :’D

belle: ill hold her off dw

belle: idk why shes so fixated on u

belle: did she finally give up on me

both her children are disappointments lmao

  she figured i'm bi

belle: answer ur phone rn

 

germination

 

"You're listening to Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun again ?" Tucked in the small space between Brett’s lumpy second-hand sofa and crumbling coffee table, Eddy hadn’t looked up from his anxious perusal of the score for Shostakovich’s violin concerto. “Fuck, is it the Bernstein recording? Dude, you’ve given that a thousand views all by yourself.”

“Fuck off.”

“What’re you anxious about now?” Brett had approached with a white plastic bag of take-out dangling from his wrist and looked over his shoulder, eyes narrowed behind his glasses. 

"I'm not anxious," Eddy had replied staidly, lifting his eyes to squint into the bag. “What did you buy? And why do you think I’m anxious?”

Brett had sat down next to him on the floor. He had slowly taken out fragrant boxes of stir-fry and rice followed by two styrofoam cups of bubble tea. "Because whenever you're stressed, you always listen to that damn piece.”

Eddy had glared as Brett had looked back at him, amused. Taking a dumpling from Brett’s container as revenge, Eddy shoved it into his mouth and closed his black binder, pushing it under the coffee table. Out of sight, out of mind. "I don't always watch this when I'm anxious."

"Sure, dude.” Brett had slid an arm along the back of the sofa, not touching Eddy's back, but Eddy had felt it anyway. “So? What are you worried about?”

"Tomorrow's our first rehearsal." Eddy had leaned back against Brett's arm, slouching enough that his neck had rested against the swell of Brett's bicep. A car had rumbled outside. The chatter of students coming back for lunch had rung up the stairwell that neighboured the living-room wall. It had been possibly the worst part of this dorm—people would trounce up and down and you could hear every part of it. Eddy had pulled a loose thread along the hem of the oversized t-shirt he was wearing. “I want a good impression that isn’t fucked up by my performance anxiety.”

"The only way to get over performance anxiety—”

“—is to fucking play, I know. Just nervous anyway. It’s stupid.”

“Not stupid if that’s how you feel.” Brett’s palm, sticky with summer, had burned against his shoulder. “You’re a great player. You won a whole load of prizes and got into the NYCC finals and everything. You can be more confident, Eddy.”

Leaning forwards, Eddy had collected Brett’s takeout carefully in his hands and placed it in front of him. “Since you’re being so nice to me, I might just give you half of my bubble tea.”

"No take-backs," Brett had cheered, reddened from the summer heat and his non-functional central-cooling. "Now can we please watch something else? Demon Slayer, maybe?”

" Sure we can," Eddy had said, sweetly, “Bretty bae.”

“I hate you.”

 

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC 

 

The cream table covered with scratches is heavy with Brett’s thermos again. His violin case is propped carefully in the narrow gap under the table, squeezed between their legs. Eddy can feel the heat of Brett’s bare tanned calves against the outsides of his own. 

Two plastic cups—unable to handle the hot water—deform. Eddy’s tea bag reads ‘kamillentee’. Eddy can’t understand German, but he knows the flowers drawn on the little tag that hangs off the side. Matricaria chamomilla, German chamomile. A humble little plant that grows everywhere with very little it needs. Eddy’s small new garden has a scattering of them between other daisies, something to feed the pollinators and insects native to their area. 

(Toni and his mum hadn’t liked the idea of a bee-friendly garden—too many bugs and creepy-crawlies to spook them, Toni had said. She had wanted a neat little thing with neat little flower beds that sparkled. Perhaps a tree or two for a hammock for the summer. When she had left—a large suitcase in tow, one wheel broken off on the rutted driveway—Eddy had cancelled the landscaper he had booked and planted everything himself over the span of a weekend until his hands felt rooted to the ground.)

It’s too hot for hot tea.

Brett picks his cup up with relative ease, violin calluses numbing some of the heat. Eddy doesn’t have any of them left—his hands are soft now, fingertips turning red the moment he touches the rim of his plastic cup. 

“My mum says it’ll ward off your thirst if you drink it hot,” Brett answers his unasked thoughts, eyes fixed out of the window. Fences and telephone lines make a blurry painting over the cobalt sky.

“That sounds like some old wive’s tale,” Eddy says. “And it’s creepy as shit how you can tell what I’m thinking.”

“I’m an Eddy-specific telekinetic, didn’t you know?”

“You want telepathy not telekinesis.”

He takes a large swig and burns his tongue.

 


 

Prague Castle eats up a good four hours of time and energy in one fell swoop. By the time they run out of steam, the sun is high up in the air and blistering their skin. Brett has three layers of sunscreen piled up on his arms—one on top of the other—and Eddy grudgingly rubs some onto the back of his hands after Brett wiggles the bottle at him insistently.

“You should take better care of your hands,” Brett tells him absently. He flutters his t-shirt to keep himself cool, exposing the smooth, paler skin of his belly in fleeting snatches—blue, white, blue, white, blue, white. Eddy cuts his gaze away immediately and crouches down to tuck the sunscreen bottle back into Brett’s backpack. “Hands are the gateway to the soul.”

“I don’t play violin anymore, but sure.”

“You use them for other stuff too, dumbass.”

Brett still uses the same deodorant. It’s piney and fresh in a way that burns just a little at the back of his nose to make every other smell melt away into the background. Ignoring the wafts of it pushed around by Brett’s fanning, he takes the bucket hat off his head and lets his sweaty hair breathe.

Paradise Garden is secluded from the regular tourist flow this late in the afternoon. Most of the crowd has decided to take refuge in the few eateries nearby for lunch to escape the hot sun. Powered by a few broken chocolate protein bars and copious amounts of sports drinks to rehydrate, Brett and Eddy are two of the six people still wandering around. The large tree they’re taking refuge under doesn’t have any benches, but does boast a rickety telescope which oversees the palace complex and the spread of Prague beneath them.

After a few more seconds of fanning himself, Brett moves towards the telescope, spinning the cap he’s borrowed from Eddy backwards. His bangs remain sweaty and flat, pressed underneath the velcro strap as he leans forward to look through the glass.

“Do you see anything?” Eddy asks from his spot on the ground, content to watch a trail of large black ants climb up the common oak tree they’re under. 

They are carpenter ants, a fact he knows from a few required basic zoology courses he had had to take when he had changed degrees. His professor had been interesting enough that he had almost—almost—considered changing his major to zoology. 

Sometimes, Eddy really admires the work ethic of carpenter ants. They work with a single-minded determination to do what they need to do: build a nest, forage for food and necessities for the queen and her offspring, establish satellite colonies (as needed). Sometimes, they don’t eat until they accomplish it. He used to be like them a long time ago; his high-school life was spent practising violin until he gave himself tendonitis, and his first year at the con was stained with his mental health burning to the ground as he forced himself onwards until he collapsed.

A cluster of ants crosses his vision with the husk of an insect carried between them, dragged up the tree. 

“—dy? Eddy? Are you listening?”

Blinking himself back to awareness, Eddy cranes his head up to meet Brett’s gaze. “Sorry, what was that?”

“I said the telescope is scratched to fuck, but you can kind of see some of the major landmarks. They should have really put a board or something that told us what we’re seeing, though. It’s all been guesswork on my end. Did you want to take a look before we get moving?”

“Oh, sure.” Eddy lumbers to his feet and steps up beside Brett and his piney deodorant and his inquisitive look that burns into the nape of his neck. “Want to tell me what I’m supposed to be seeing?”

“Sure,” Brett says. He steps to the side to let Eddy see, map rustling in his hands.

“Do you still use the same brand of deodorant from high-school?” Eddy asks. “I thought I was hallucinating, but it’s the same, isn’t it? What—does being a soloist not pay well enough to afford something nicer?”

“Why do you even remember what I smell like?” Brett’s voice is unsteady in a way Eddy can’t quite figure out. “It’s been, like, ten years.”

“You smelled nice.”

“Oh.” Brett turns that cap back around, pulling it over his eyes. The tips of his ears are hibiscus-stamen-red from the heat. “Describe the building and I’ll tell you what it is. We need to go find some proper lunch after this.”

“Okay. I see an orange roof—”

“They’re all orange!”

 


 

@sadakosminion: eddy r u rly in czech omfg

@sadakosminion: dvoraks house?? u went??

@pidgeyking: lol yep

@pidgeyking: [img attached]

 

@sadakosminion: did u get to listen to a concert there?

@pidgeyking: nah

@pidgeyking: I forgot to book one lol

@pidgeyking: how’re your classes tho

@sadakosminion: my students give me hives

@sadakosminion: btw grats on the promotion

@sadakosminion: all ur office r belong to me

@sadakosminion: u ACTUALLY know brett yang??

@pidgeyking: i didnt apply yet but thanks

@pidgeyking: ?? yeah?? I told you

@pidgeyking: why did you decide to believe me?

@sadakosminion: mate.

@sadakosminion: check bretts insta

 


 

[A picture: Eddy eating the last of his dinner, knedliky crumbs dotting the corner of his lips, eyes shut, head thrown back, and mouth open mid-laugh against the backdrop of the Nelahozeves Castle. There is no caption. Eddy pulls the picture up and stares at it, zooming in, wondering why Brett bothered to take it at all.]

 

budding

 

It had been an ordinary practice, the day Eddy’s knees had given out. He had been practising with Brett for a duet for their repertoire, eyes focused on his violin. He hadn’t done anything different.

Just shifted his weight a little, coming down hard with his bow.

He had collapsed. 

"Fuck," he’d heard Brett swear, eyes going wide.

“Is my violin okay?” Eddy has asked. A spiking pain had crawled up his veins like fire and he had pressed his hands together to hide the trembling from his friend’s worried gaze. “My bow?”

“They’re not—that’s not what’s important right now!” Brett’s knees had hit the carpet with a dull thump. His violin had been set down a little more gently onto the floor. Eddy remembered how hard his heart had beat in the moment—he had known, somewhere deep inside, that this had been it. His last chance. Brett’s hand at the dip of his shoulder-blades had felt like gravedirt. “Does anything hurt?”

"It always hurts," Eddy had replied. "I’ve just gotten used to it."

"Eddy," Brett had trembled, his hand balling up a handful of Eddy’s sweat-soaked t-shirt in the front, his knuckles digging into Eddy’s chest as the shirt pulled taut against his back. "You should have told me.”

Eddy had risked one look at his best friend’s face— at the set of his jaw and the fearful anger in his eyes, and he had focused his gaze on the vulgar graffiti behind Brett’s shoulder. "I needed to practice. Not everyone gets performance opportunities with a professional symphony orchestra." 

He’d curled his hands into fists and cut moons into his palms as the smell of deodorant had filled his nose.

 

VIENNA, AUSTRIA

 

The overnight train is silent apart from the rhythmic clunk and sway of the compartments. University had been like this too—there used to be a similar pulse to his dorms around exam season, an energy that rippled outwards from the centre of it all and made everyone unsteady. On the bunk above him, a stranger sleeps. 

Neither he nor Brett packed a blanket with them. While it isn’t completely cold, the chill of the air-conditioner around dawn becomes damp and raises gooseflesh down his exposed skin. Eddy regrets giving up his sweatshirt to Brett, who has been more prone to feeling cold. The thin extra shirt Eddy had yanked out of his bag slides off his legs when he turns onto his side to look at his friend. Brett is a blue glacier in the dark—fitting with the Sibelius he keeps plucking onto his muted violin. 

Eddy’s not supposed to see this; Brett has been diligent in making sure he doesn’t hear him practise.

He knows Brett hasn't mentioned music because it's something they never really talked about after Eddy quit the conservatory. Eddy secretly thinks maybe that had been the final break between them; he’d told Brett to keep playing even as he blocked that part of his life off with thick bricks higher than both their heads, too heavy for either of them to knock down. It might have been any other moment too, realistically, but it is the one that makes the most sense to him. The one that is the most impactful.

It’s still too heavy to face now, despite all the years he has spent away from music and all the artifacts he has collected on the way. Eddy isn’t like grass: capable of weathering through being trodden on and springing back to how he was. But he is stubborn and as he watches Brett work on the third movement of the Sibelius violin concerto, he imagines himself as a dandelion, capable of going through mortar and eventually blooming out on the other side of it.

Everyone goes on their journey at their own pace. 

Brett glances towards him to see if he woke him up—eyes free of his glasses and not registering him at all—and Eddy thinks that perhaps turgor pressure doesn’t only affect plant growth after all.

 


 

From: bellechen34@gmail.com

Subject: concert tickets orangery

To: edward.chen@gmail.com

I’m proud of you Eddy don’t you forget that. 

(And I will fucking end you!! IF YOU’D TOLD ME BEFORE WE COULD’VE ATTENDED A BETTER CONCERT TOGETHER!!1!)

Tell me how it goes and send me loads of pictures <3333 

Love you lots x

 


 

Schönbrunn Palace Orangery is packed . Squeezing between a bickering couple and a limp-looking group of tourists worn down by the heat, Eddy shuffles towards the corner the usher had directed him to, picking a seat at the very edge. It’s not the best seat—despite all his attempts to ignore it, prior experience tells him he should’ve booked in advance—but it is close enough to the door that…

He doesn’t want to think about that just yet.

The woman seated next to him smells like an overabundance of jasmines, hair coiffed perfectly and phone in hand to take pictures of her program brochure against the stage. Eddy watches her for a few seconds before taking his own phone out and sending a picture of the empty stage to his sister. After a moment of hesitation, he taps out a message to Brett as well: hope you got to the musikverein without getting lost see you at dinner . Then he turns his phone onto do-not-disturb and waits.

As the musicians come onto the stage—all kitted out in neat black outfits and coattails, bringing back memories of playing in the uni orchestra alongside Brett and being choked by his own bow-tie—Eddy suddenly recalls why he had avoided this for so long. 

It had never completely been about the music, really. It had been about seven years of being on the same path, him and Brett with hopes and dreams they had built together, and then having to face a future where they were pulled apart. And that —perhaps more than music slipping away through Eddy’s fingers like sand, more than having to figure out what he would do with the rest of his life—had scared Eddy so much he hadn’t wanted to think about it at all.

“Do you want a cough drop?” His neighbour asks him in thickly accented English, eyes glimmering in the dim light. She holds out a ginger flavoured cough drop—Brett’s favourite—and smiles. 

“Thank you,” he says.

Eddy clicks the candy behind his teeth and runs his tongue over it as the musicians start tuning.

 


 

How was it ?”

“No ‘good morning’?” Eddy asks. He prods at his phone screen with a pinky, swiping to check the time in Bayreuth only to realise that he and his sister are in the same time-zone for once. 

If you’re in the mood for teasing, I’m going to assume it went well.

The one-star hotel he and Brett have booked only provides stale croissants and grassy coffee for breakfast. It’s not a place fit for either of them, but least of all for a world-class soloist who has been getting recognised everywhere they’ve gone so far. Clearly there is a larger population of classical musicians here than either of them had expected. It’s usually fine—Eddy loves Brett’s natural joy at getting people to talk to and the shyness when he’s complimented—but Brett had decided to go out to get them a more substantial breakfast around twenty minutes ago and it’s been almost thirty and Eddy is starving . The rocky croissants are starting to look more appetising the longer he waits.

Eddy,” Belle says, lip pushed out into a pout she would never show around their mother. “Answer me seriously. Did you have fun? I know you were afraid you wouldn’t.”

"It was… better than I expected." He takes a seat on the crappy bed he has claimed as his, running his palm over the soft pillow as he collects his thoughts. There have been too many of those since yesterday. His chest still thrums with the final chords of Schubert’s Death and Maiden. Eddy sighs. "I don’t know. It’s odd. I built something up in my head, and in the end, it’s just turned out to be…a tiny thing I shouldn’t have been so worried about.”

Belle doesn’t say a word. Eddy looks down at his phone screen to trace his eyes over her familiar features smoothened by the low resolution. He hadn’t realised that she had started wearing her hair short—in his head, she's still wearing her school uniform and her hair is tied into a neat ponytail as she plays the piano. He hadn’t realised how much older she is too: a spry near-forty to his early thirties. When the silence drags on, he continues.

“Back then I didn’t really…like, I never took the time to properly process it—it was just one punch after the other: injury, wheelchair, bed-rest, pain, quitting music, quitting university, trying to find something else to apply myself to. You all told me I could do whatever I wanted, and I guess I really want to prove that too, so I just kept going.”

I’m sorry I didn’t support you better during that time,” Belle says quietly.

Eddy pulls up a small smile and sets the phone against the window so he doesn’t have to hold it. Reaching across the bed, he grabs his pillow and clutches it to his chest. 

“I was being stupid and not letting anyone know what I was going through. It’s okay. You did loads.” Belle doesn’t look comforted, but she doesn’t say anything, lip pushing out further. “It was just that music had been everything to me at that point and when that dream started getting farther and farther away from becoming real—farther and farther away from me —the pull of it hurt all that much more. By then I’d attached too many dreams to the one thing I enjoyed, so when I couldn’t do any of it, I just crumbled.”

The video quality is bad, but Eddy can make out the familiar scrunch to Belle’s nose that precedes her tears. He presses his pillow closer to his chest and suddenly wishes—heart throbbing—that he had visited her in Bayreuth after all. There are many hurts between them, some his own doing when she continued her music education and he couldn’t, but he misses his older sister right now. He wants her trimmed nails in his hair. He wants to squeeze her ribs tight. He can’t remember the last time he hugged her as an adult. 

Belle sniffs first, eyes flying up to look at the ceiling as she pretends she isn’t crying. Eddy traces a thumb down the side of his phone. He misses her so much . On his next ragged inhale he becomes aware of the door creaking open and Brett quietly padding inside. There isn’t enough space for privacy here, but Brett tries anyway, keeping to the cabinet near the mini-fridge as he takes things out of rustling plastic bags. The sweet smell of apple-y bread fills the room.

“Yesterday, I realised that I’d actually moved on a long time ago. I guess I’d just not been confident enough to test it, hey,” Eddy says. Brett’s gaze rests heavy on the back of his head. “Are you crying now?”

No . By the way, you now have to attend one of my concerts. I’ll get you the best seats and everything. You have to attend, ” Belle replies. Her voice crackles through his phone loudly, startling Brett, and Eddy does smile this time. “Is that Brett back there playing with some plastic bags?

“Yeah. Want to talk to him while I go brush my teeth?”

Yeah. Brett Yang, come here and let me see what being a prodigious soloist does to your skin!

The tiles are warm and sticky beneath his feet. Eddy squeezes past Brett only to flinch as a warm hand claps on the back of his neck. Brett, eyes sombre, trails his eyes honey-slow across his face. 

“What?” Eddy whispers.

“I’m happy for you,” Brett whispers back. “See? I told you you could do whatever you wanted. I was right.”

“Thanks, asshole.” The pads of Brett’s fingers brush Eddy’s earlobe as he slides his hand away. “Save me an apple danish.”

“You got it.” 

The touch of Brett’s palm on his neck lingers, tingling down his spine as he steps into the bathroom where the exhaust fan rattles on full blast like an aeroplane engine. Eddy double-checks the door is locked before looking at himself in the mirror. 

“I‘m almost glad he didn’t come to one of my concerts first,” Brett laughs loudly outside, voice muffled. “I’d have forgotten the whole thing and ruined the experience for him.”

Eddy thinks of a memory-slip-riddled Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and missed-notes-stuffed Pachelbel’s Canon, and chamber music requirements in uni where Brett couldn’t get back on the Fanny Mendelssohn 6th String Quartet after forgetting the melody. He thinks of years ago—Brett, pale-faced, stumbling through the Brahms’ violin concerto the day after Eddy got into a wheelchair—and thinks of how he had only had eyes for his blazing ardour despite the rock in his throat. No amount of memory slips could have reduced his pride.

Etiolation: leaning towards the light, yearning. Eddy comes out of the bathroom, hair damp, and watches the bright shine of Brett’s laugh catch on his teeth.

 


 

Eddy hadn’t actively thought about the spaces in his life he’d left open for Brett until Brett started to fill them again, expanding back into his life without Eddy really having to rearrange much.

It’s only been eight days. Nine if he counts today. A little more than a week. 

Inosculation in a pair of trees takes upwards of years. There are a number of things that need to happen right: the trees have to be growing next to each other, the branches need to grow separately in proximity to each other until they touch, and the touching surfaces need to abrade to softness. They need to grow together, cambium touching, and reach up.

Inosculation between them seems to happen overnight.

Eddy’s days fill up with the familiarity of them—of Brett’s presence at his side, of a warm hand behind his back when he needs it, of that familiar, sweet cackling laugh. They sit opposite each other in trains and in restaurants. Here, so far away from home, Eddy imagines that this might have been what their lives might have been like if he hadn’t quit music uni: travelling together, aimless and bright and filled with music. There are three new zits on his chin from the musty hotel pillow, but he can’t bring himself to care like he ever did around Toni; Brett has already seen him at his absolute lowest.  

By the end of the week, Eddy can almost forget that there was a yawning chasm of years where there hadn’t been this constant connection; that he’d ever really spent that much time without this deep, gratifying relationship in his life. Without Brett in his life. He thinks of inosculation and the way two trees are joined at one point and the way they don’t always entwine completely, but still grow together.  The sum of the years they’ve spent together is so much greater than the sum of those they spent drifting out of each other’s lives, barely held together by the thin thread of all their mutual friends and Eddy’s anxious stubbornness. 

Eddy watches Brett make them both morning tea to have on the balcony—a ritual he claims is the best way to start the day—and wonders if Brett had spent these years with that thread wrapped around his fingers, too, not wanting to let Eddy go either.

 


 

Brett’s bucket hat goes flying the moment they step out of the rental car that they drive down to Lake Attersee. Dropping his backpack at Brett’s feet, Eddy scampers after the hat first, catching it before it decides to get caught under some cars. 

Steimbach is a picturesque little village that doesn’t seem to have very many visitors at this time of the year. It’s not entirely surprising; cicadas drown out the murmurs of the few tourists lingering in the area and the summer sun pummels into them as heavy as a fist. The Salzburg Festival is set to happen a few weeks from now. By the time Eddy captures Brett’s hat and returns with it, there is sweat sticking his t-shirt to his back.

“It doesn’t look how I thought it would,” Brett tells him. 

They’re there to see Mahler’s hut, one of their favourite orchestral composers. It’s been years since Eddy last listened to him, but as he pushes the brim of his cap back, he can hear the faint strains of the third symphony ringing through his mind.

It looks nothing like the black-and-white photos of Mahler’s composition hut Brett had shown him before they had set off. There are no meadows with wildflowers pouring out of them. There are too many beach-chairs. Eddy recalls reading that the site had been converted into a campground at some point, and the few mobile homes that park themselves at the periphery definitely add to that. 

The heady smells of water and drying grass hang in a persistent cloud over them.

“It looks modern,” Eddy ventures. He dusts the few fragments of dried grass sticking on the bucket hat off onto his pants and pulls the hat down over Brett’s head. “Let’s go see if we can go inside?”

“Sure.”

They can go inside. 

The hut is a simple one-room structure, walls covered with an exhibition about Mahler and his life. A replica of his piano takes up most of the floor-space and a thick guest book sits where sheet music would usually sit. Eddy spies a few signatures and someone’s immature doodle of a penis scribbled onto the thick off-white pages. As he slowly steps into the room, passing behind Brett’s warm body to read the words on the wall, he realises just how little space there is. 

And just how well Brett fits in the gap between him and the piano.

The room feels stifling. 

Eddy shuffles away from the timeline of Mahler’s works and towards the windows instead. These days, two of the hut’s windows look out onto the campground and the few white chairs people have laid out. Eddy can spot a couple of women tanning, skin flushed red like they’re being cooked; he has never particularly understood the appeal of willingly lying in the sun to burn. After a few more seconds of staring, he shifts towards the final window, the one that looks out onto the Attersee.

“Looks like Gustav Klimt’s paintings, right?” Brett’s breath breaks hotly across the back of his neck.

“Brett!” Eddy yelps. Shoulders raised to his ears, he shrinks away from his friend’s smug grin and pulls his eyebrows down in a frown. “Ticklish.”

“Sorry.” Brett raises his phone as an olive branch, smiling when Eddy cautiously peers into the screen. Rich blues and greens smooth across the screen in tender little strokes. The Attersee that Klimt saw looks far more exciting than the one they can see—cut into little squares by the window—but Eddy can see the inspiration behind it. He carefully reaches a hand out to zoom in on the colours, startling when Brett steps closer again. “You’re so jumpy.”

“You keep making sudden movements, dude. My heart is weak.”

“I wanted to see what you were looking at too.”

Brett’s hair is coarse and thick where it brushes across his chin. It never looks that way though—like many other parts of him, Brett’s hair has an air of softness to it. Eddy is fairly certain he still uses damned 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner too. That’s just how Brett is sometimes. 

“Were you looking at brushstrokes?” Brett asks. Everything smells like fresh deodorant and summer. “Is this style impressionism? I don’t actually know any art terms, hey.”

“I don’t know,” Eddy says around a dry tongue. (If he leans forward, he can nestle his chin straight against the round of Brett’s skull.) “Looks like normal painting to me.”

“Yeah? Maybe you’re right. Do you want to take a walk outside for a bit? Explore the area?”

“Sounds great. This room is pretty suffocating; I don’t know how Mahler did it.”

Push and pull: the lake and Eddy's heart. The beating sun flushes Brett strawberry red. They shake out crumpled up hoodies to spread on the tough grass and the prickle of it bites little teeth through Eddy's shorts. It's not the perfect retreat they had imagined it to be—the thick smell of barbecued meat drifts on the sweet breeze in a decidedly un-Mahler way—but Brett's thumbs are waffled with peanut shell imprints. A peanut has never been as sweet as it is passed from Brett's fingers to his palm.

Eddy swigs the bottle of cool water and pours the rest on his head.

"I don't know how Tchaikovsky did it either," he tells Brett.

"Probably not the way you did it." Brett's eyes drift down his forehead and towards the soaked collar of his white t-shirt. "What are you even talking about."

"Nothing."

Eddy throws himself backwards onto the grass and wriggles his sweat-soaked t-shirt and shoulders into the prickliness.

It'll probably have stains later—green and sweet—and he thinks he'd rather like them. A little moment in time captured in a way only he can understand.

 

flowering

 

"Aren’t we too old for sharing a bed?" Brett had asked on their sole sleepover, voice morning-scratchy. "You’re so fucking tall, too. There’s barely enough space.”

"Your bed is warmer than the floor," Eddy had replied. "And I don’t want to die because of cockroaches.”

“My room doesn’t have any.”

“I would love to trust you on that, but I’ve seen the state of your gym bag.”

"When I wake up later, I’m going to go to the garden to find a grasshopper to throw on you."

"No you aren’t," Eddy had shot back. Sleep had felt so easy to come in milk-and-honey scented sheets. The back of his wrist had nudged up against the soft flesh of Brett’s stomach, feeling the rise and fall, and he had felt his whole body tingle. “Admit it. You like sleeping with me.”

Brett hadn’t opened his eyes, but he had visibly swallowed, and then he had turned over onto his side, craggy shoulders silhouetted against the white walls. "It’s not the worst," he’d admitted, and Eddy had had to turn over to hide his burning face in the spare pillow.

 

MILAN, ITALY

 

Painted across a stiff canvas that is around twice as tall as Eddy, Brett’s face stares down the entrance of the Teatro Alla Scala in full HD glory. 

“I look so fucking awkward,” Brett groans. “I need some professional modelling classes or something; I swear to god they always use the weirdest photos for these things.”

You posed for those,” Eddy points out.  

“Yeah, badly.” They both study the image for a few more seconds before Eddy stands next to it wordlessly and pulls his fingers up in a ‘v’. Brett takes a photo for him. And then, expression softening in the middle like clay, he takes another. “It’s really nice seeing you here. I thought I might never see you at a concert ever again after you decided to forget about it.”

"I didn't want to forget about music, exactly," Eddy says. He wanders back next to Brett and takes his phone back, flipping through the images. It’s easy to see that he’s not as happy as he could be, but there’s a looser line to his shoulders that hadn’t been there before. It’s progress, if nothing else: his seed coat shed after way too long. "I was just nervous about the fact that things were going to change in a permanent sort of way. And that we’d be separated. We had so many dreams, you know.”

"That's part of growing up, isn't it?" Brett says. Their shoes whisper on the soft marble floor and Eddy looks around to absorb the high ceilings. They’re far too early to the concert—Brett doesn’t need to be here for another hour—but Milan is rather boring. Eddy doesn’t even have tickets to the show. "Not that I feel grown up, even though we're in our thirties."

"It wasn't scary to grow up if I had you," Eddy says. After a pause, he looks over to meet Brett’s warm eyes, hitching a smile onto his lips. “You’re the pathfinder between us and all that. But I guess I’d underestimated myself. And my ability to love things.”

"I never expected you to choose academia," Brett admits. "You never really enjoyed your theoretical classes in high school. Or at the con."

"High school classes were boring. Read, memorise, regurgitate for the test. University—not con—was different. I mean, there was still a lot of boring stuff, but it was still more interesting than the boring stuff in high-school.”

"You found yourself in university, though.”

“Yeah.” Eddy turns himself sideways, walking backwards in front of Brett. “You did too. I know you were worried about it way back then, but you’ve fit right in.”

Golden light creeps fingers along Brett’s silhouette, turning his body into something tender and sweet. Eddy has never dared to think about them like this. Never dared to think about Brett like this. His heart feels like it will shatter through his ribs.

Brett grabs the front of his t-shirt, knuckles pressing points of heat into Eddy's chest. "Be careful.”

"I’ve got you," Eddy replies. “I read a paper that tested whether plants remember if they’ve been in a drought. Because it’s insane, right? The idea of them having memory. Well it turns out, plants have this molecule that they use to remember how dry it is in a day. The drier it is, the more molecules they store, and then the next day they use that to determine how much they should open their pores the next day to limit water loss. And they survive droughts for longer like that—by remembering. Even after harvests and re-sprouting. Isn’t that amazing?”

“Yeah.” Brett’s eyes are dark behind his glasses. Eddy can’t see his expression clearly, but the cottony softness to his tone is something that makes his heart leap. “Amazing.”

“People are like that too.” They have slowed to a stop, but Brett doesn’t let go of his t-shirt. Eddy can feel sweat pooling under Brett’s knuckles. “You know, they grow and change, but they remember stuff they learned too. Despite remaking themselves completely.” Brett looks at him. "I remade myself into a professor. From a musician to an academic, but I still remember everything we did together. I was a pretty good violinist.”

It’s already six. Golden slats of setting sun spear through the corridor they had just walked down in long stretches, swathing the marble in treacle. Brett burns gold. The ends of his hair curl in the humid evening, standing up, making him look like a dandelion seed head. 

"You probably still are," Brett murmurs. 

Eddy opens his mouth to ask Brett if they’ve reached where they need to yet, but the words get stolen right out of his mouth when he feels Brett’s fist unclench and his fingers drag down his chest. There’s a thin strand of light that flows down his hair and settles into the furrow of his eyebrows. Brett’s fingers come to a stop on his belt buckle.

It’s burning hot, and Eddy wonders if, perhaps, today is finally the day he melts.

“I’m not good at metaphors like you,” Brett says. He taps a nervous four-by-four onto the metal buckle and all the air sucks out of Eddy’s chest, filling him instead with an intense urge to burst into blooms. There is change hovering thick in the air like ozone. “But I’m worried your attention—I’m pretty old and boring now.”

Eddy notices the sharp, straight angle of Brett’s eyelashes, and the line of his jaw. He's grown into the slope of his nose and the breadth of his forehead, and on an adult man, the chin that had made him look awkward in adolescence is handsome. His mouth feels so dry. The back of Brett’s hand feels like a thousand rose thorns.

"You know," Eddy says, "I’ve been paying attention to you for almost ten years." He thinks of all the magazine articles he’s saved even if he didn't read them, and all the memories he’s kept tucked away in the spaces closest to his heart. "Surely that counts for something?"

“I like you,” Brett says. A door opens somewhere behind Eddy and, after a second, Brett draws his hand away. Eddy blinks stupidly at him. “I think that’s the management.” Brett smiles, reaching out to pat Eddy’s sweaty stomach. “I’ll go talk to him.”

“You can’t just—”

“Brett Yang!”

“Tomas!”

 


 

Eddy spends the entirety of Brett’s concert walking around Milan. Roaming through stinking throngs of tourists and taking pictures on autopilot of things he thinks his sister and mother will like, he scrapes through every memory he has shared with Brett and examines it closely. When he stops at a cafe to confirm his results—peer reviewing is essential, after all—he gets a slice of rich, dark chocolate cake packed for Brett.

The hotel they are staying at for the final day of their trip is a bright, four-star hotel that Eddy splurged on. The lobby gleams with muted lighting by the time Eddy finally makes his way back, exhausted, and the bell-boy that joins him in the elevator offers him a weary smile. 

For once on this damned trip, they have different rooms. And as if that isn’t enough—they’re on different floors entirely.

When he exits on Brett's floor, Eddy takes the last few steps down the corridor in time with his heartbeat. There is nothing soothing about the liminality that he usually enjoys. Brett's door—like all the other doors—is a smooth mahogany brown with gold-plate declaring its number. 040. Eddy stares at the zeroes that seem to stare into his soul and, after a short hesitation, lifts his hand and presses on the bell three times in quick succession.

Brett answers the door in a thin white t-shirt that slips off his collarbones and a pair of loose shorts that he’s had since high-school—marked with his name in permanent black marker up the side. (From experience, Eddy knows that Brett's brother has the exact same pair only marked with his own name.) He looks downy. Soft. His hair stands up in damp tufts and he smells like that dumb Palmolive milk-and-honey body-wash and summer and childhood and happiness.

"You didn’t answer my calls.” Brett cocks his hip against the doorway and resumes drying his hair, glasses hanging from his t-shirt. "I thought you’d gone again.”

"I brought you cake," Eddy replies, licking his lips. "Dark chocolate. To celebrate your concert.”

"You're lucky I'm open to bribery.” Brett moves aside to let him in.

Eddy enters, leaving his shoes tucked on the tiled foyer, and pads barefoot into Brett's room. Everything is in its place: a tiny museum of Brett, arranged carefully onto hotel-room-surfaces. There are three tubes of sunscreen, Brett's shoes, a watch, and a phone on charge. The violin case holds a position on importance on the chest of drawers. Socks rolled down into bracelets peek out from between sofa cushsions. Eddy beelines towards the glass table near the sofa—Brett has a far more luxurious room than he does—and sets the brown paper bag down. “Were you going to bed?”

“It’s almost ten thirty.” Brett takes a seat on the arm of the grey sofa and yawns. “Some of us are old. We need our rest.”

Eddy doesn't sit. Brett patiently stares Eddy down for a while and flings his towel towards the ergonomic leather chair. He narrowly misses the chair and leaves it crumpled up on the floor. Neither of them make a move to get it. 

“So?” Brett finally asks. “What are you doing here, then? Have you come with an answer?”

“You never asked a question,” Eddy blurts out. He turns to the table to fiddle with the cake, removing it from the bag and carefully extracting it from the cardboard box it’s in. The bakery had been kind enough to give him two pink sporks to eat with, each emblazoned with their cupcake logo. “But, um.”

“Take your time.” 

Eddy cuts his eyes away from the cake and towards him. Seeing a man as solid and sure as Brett looking so uncertain despite his words has Eddy wanting to touch him and reassure him the way he himself has been so many times reassured, but Eddy finds himself rooted to the spot, hands fisted around tiny plastic implements.

“I like you too.” Eddy runs his tongue over his lower lip and looks back at the innocent dessert, poking a finger at the frosting crusting the bottom of the cardboard box it had been in. “It’s kind of weird to be saying it to you like this. I thought it'd be...more romantic.”

“I don’t need to be romanced,” Brett hums. He reaches out to snatch up Eddy’s hand, bringing it to his lips and kissing his fingers. A pink spork drops to the carpet as Eddy loosens his hand. “I was never great at it anyway, hey? I’m fine with this. Knowing you thought of it at all is something.”

Eddy’s chest hurts with the force of his heartbeat. “You’re being really….”

Brett’s tongue darts out to lick his fingertips and the instinctual urge to cringe curbs itself when Eddy looks down to meet that sly gaze. Brett grins. 

“I can be a lot of things,” Brett tells him, and then he stands up from his perch on the arm of the sofa, reaches out to cup Eddy's face with both hands, and kisses him.

Eddy grabs on to Brett's forearms to anchor himself and opens for him, letting Brett press in as close as he wants and letting him take. The world fades out. There is little Eddy is aware of in the room; all his attention is dragged to the points where they touch—Brett's hand in his hair, drawing down his nape, digging into his pulse point. Brett's still shower-cool. His white t-shirt bunches against Eddy's chest and Eddy reaches out to brush his thumb across the freckle punctuating the end of his throat. Brett, a little more impatient, takes Eddy's spare hand and shoves it up his shirt.

It's hot.

The air-conditioner whirs on.

Eddy tucks his second hand with the first, running his hands along muscle and dry, soft skin as he tries to pull Brett in closer, as close as he can get, as close as they are in every other way that counts.

“By the way." It's a struggle to pull away from Brett's hungry mouth. Eddy is breathless and red-mouthed when he finally manages it, trembling as he feels lips skate down his neck. Brett's lips close around his adam's apple and suck.Mmgh, I had a totally great idea to woo you, but I couldn’t get it done. Do you want to hear about it?”

“Not now.” Brett tugs at the short hair on his nape and, even without looking, Eddy knows he's frowning. Teeth dig into his trachea none-too-gently. “Tell me later.”

Darlington californica,” Eddy says anyway because he's a little shit like that. Because he knows Brett will listen anyway. Because he can. Brett pulls away from him to slide a hand down Eddy's back and then up Eddy's shirt, pressing warm and callused to the curve at the end of his spine. “Because you’re my darli—mh, hahaha! Stop that it tickles!”

“Stop talking shit and just make out with me,” Brett murmurs again, swallowing Eddy's protests with another searing kiss. His tongue slips past Eddy's teeth. Eddy whimpers, his own fingers catching on the expanse of Brett's chest before dragging down his soft belly, palm crossing the thin line of hair that leads down to the waist of Brett's shorts.

Every centimetre of Brett is familiar and—at the same time—under Eddy's hands and lips and tongue, he's also new. This time, Eddy doesn't pull back. He doesn't let fear and guilt rise up between them like another goddamn wall. He relearns the feel of Brett's hands lingering on his hip-bones, and the way his hand feels in his hair. He savours how Brett finds each and every place Eddy likes to be touched and avoids the ticklish spots without errors as he relearns Eddy too.

"You’re so unromantic," Eddy says, when Brett lightens his kisses to nips at Eddy's lower lip and soft licks to the corners of his mouth. They have ended up back on the sofa, Brett straddling him and with a firm hand tucked behind Eddy's head that he uses to direct Eddy to his kissing wishes. For now, the fingers lie dormant against his skull. Eddy peppers kisses onto Brett's chin and cheeks and the dip between his upper lip and his nose, before tucking his face into the curve of Brett's neck.

"Yeah?" Brett asks, and that voice is new, husky and rich with want, and Eddy wonders if he'll ever run out of things about Brett to like. “You like it.”

"Yeah," Eddy says, letting himself recline backwards as Brett leans down to rest heavily on him. “I guess I’m pretty old and boring too.”

"Shut up, Eddy," Brett says, laughter edging in around the desire

As Eddy watches the freckle next to his mouth fall into a dimple, hidden by his smile, Eddy thinks:

Like this I can conquer the world.