Hong Biao’s roommates had forgotten to bring the drinks and container of soy-marinated eggs they promised for tonight’s potluck party.
It’s only a fifteen-minute walk away so, in an attempt to be a good roommate and kind friend, he looks through the fridge and finds a bag to put everything in.
“You should come in and stay,” the girl at the front door says. She’s a friend of the host.
“I have a few things to do at home, but thanks for the offer.”
“Come on. It’s a Friday.” She smiles and Hong Biao returns it even though he waves in farewell.
The night air is cold at the back of his neck and he tucks his hands into his pockets. Walking back home in slippers, wearing his sleeping shirt and shorts, is enough to be the final unwise decision of tonight.
He steps out on the porch, ducking under the moths flying around the fluorescent light. The driveway was right there. If he had stepped out just a minute earlier or later, he wouldn’t have heard it.
It’s barely a sob. The shaky exhale of rushed breath is so quiet it’s barely there.
Hong Biao whips his head around, one knee buckling when his slippers and feet get caught up in each other. Despite the silence that follows, he waits for a few seconds before treading down the steps of the porch, careful to keep his footsteps quiet.
It’s easier once he gets on the grass, soil still damp from the evening rain. He peers around the corner of the house and scans the area. The party inside is bright and vibrant, and the light that comes out from the windows is a beautiful warm orange-gold. It perfectly illuminates the figure sitting under the windowsill, all folded and curled into themselves.
The mere lines and curves of the mere silhouette makes Hong Biao’s heart drop and his chest seize.
A fist clamps around his throat and holds his tongue still. A cleaver slices through his skull and brain in one guttural crunch and squelch.
A million little things from years ago bubble up and overflow. In that one moment, he’s covered in blood, strangled by the red string, suffocated by flowers and ivy in his lungs.
He must have made some strange noise in his throat because the person looked up.
After all that’s happened, Hong Biao expects he’d have some seventh sense or primal instinct that would have told him to never come here. Forget the party, he should have been immediately alerted to this person’s presence anywhere within a ten-kilometre radius.
There would be some invisible radio frequency transmission that his spirit or soul would have detected so he would’ve known to stay away from—
Ruffled dark hair, the familiar slopes and cut of his cheeks and jaw, and those exact same dark eyes. There are two beauty marks he can trace on that face, coordinate for coordinate. Hong Biao could see who it was with his eyes shut, never mind right in front of him.
Hong Biao’s blood turns to ice and it travels to his brain in a painful storm of cold slush and ice shards.
Another broken sob enters his periphery—it’s coming from the very person in front of him, he realises with a startle.
Hong Biao sees the tears first. Gu Tao bites down on his lower lip, eyes shaky when he looks up and immediately back down. The strangled sound he makes almost sounds like a whimper.
Seeing this isn’t right. It will never be right.
Hong Biao walks forward before he knows what he’s doing. He’s worse than unqualified to handle any of this—he was betrayed and deceived by this person. His heart feels like it is going to explode out of his chest and shrivel into nothing.
“Gu Tao,” He’s not looking for answers or anything for that matter when he holds onto the other’s forearm and asks, “What happened? What’s wrong?”
He just wants the other boy to focus on something else.
Gu Tao’s eyes find Hong Biao’s when he finally looks up once more, letting out a shuddering exhale that hitches on a muted cry. Before he knows what’s happening, Gu Tao’s hands find his shirt and pulls him forward, forehead to chest.
And how can Hong Biao not allow him that?
His arms go slack. Gu Tao’s frame shakes and heaves, but the only way Hong Biao knows he’s crying is from the wet patch his tears mark on the front of his shirt.
When you hosted people, you offered them a seat and a drink. However, practically carrying someone over to your shared house might not exactly be the same as inviting them over.
Sure, he’d asked Gu Tao before doing it, but the other had been crying so much that Hong Biao wasn’t sure if half of what he said could be heard. Also, although that one question was important, he’d feel cruel asking it.
Whether this situation counted as hosting or not, when Gu Tao opened the door of the room and peered out, Hong Biao was ready with a plate of toast, two fried eggs and a mug of a hot chocolate malt drink.
They sit at the table opposite each other and whenever Hong Biao feels as if the tension is going to eat him alive, he occupies himself with his own cup of a hot chocolate malt drink.
Gu Tao eats well. He looks a lot better after he finishes the food. However, once he sets his fork down, Hong Biao braces himself for the onslaught of questions.
“Is that your room?” Gu Tao asks, inclining towards the door with his head.
Hong Biao should lie but he resigns himself to a truthful, “Yes.”
“It’s a single bed.”
Hong Biao holds onto his cup with both hands and rolls his sore shoulders back. “I slept on the floor.”
“Don’t you—Do you have housemates?”
“They’re probably going to wake up super late. They got back so much later than us.”
Gu Tao nods slowly and traces some imaginary shapes on the table. “Aren’t there classes you have to attend today?”
Hong Biao looks up from his cup. “It’s Saturday.”
“Oh. Right.” Gu Tao looks at his empty plate and tugs at the hem of his shirt. He finishes his drink. And then out of nowhere, “Sorry for inconveniencing you so much.”
Before Hong Biao could think of asking, Gu Tao gets up and heads towards the door. Hong Biao rushes to grab his shoulder before he opens it.
“You can’t just leave when we have more to talk about.” The words come out in a rush that he wonders if he needs to repeat it. Right there and then, Hong Biao still finds it in himself to despise how after all these years, he’s still the one running after Gu Tao.
He drops his hand. Gu Tao slowly looks over his shoulder, eyes searching.
“Tomorrow, Hong Biao,” he says at last. “I’ll message you. I promise.”
Hong Biao thinks about it for a few seconds. “Okay.”
“Thank you.” Gu Tao walks out. Hong Biao shuts the door, left alone once more. He clears the tables and when he sets the last clean plate on the drying rack, he puts his hands on the edge of the sink and slumps forward.
His arms are the only pillars holding him up, the only thing keeping him from slumping down on the floor under the rush of memories.
It’s the third month of the first year in secondary school. Allegiances have been set in stone and the pecking order has been established and sealed by the positions and movements of several celestial bodies.
The gang of bullies corner him at lunch time by the futsal court. By now, those people are faceless and nameless blobs in his head but the mere idea of them makes pain lance through him all the same. He’d tripped over his own feet backing away from them, much to their laughter and amusement.
However, on that particular day, there was an interruption. Hong Biao hears new foreign yells and the hurried scamper of rushing feet before he opens his eyes.
There’s a boy he’s seen around but never talked to. They’re the same year but different classes if Hong Biao’s not wrong.
Gu Tao, he remembers. It’s on his nametag, his name is Gu Tao.
He freezes when Gu Tao, the stranger, looks over his shoulder and studies him. There’s a sheen of sweat across his forehead. His tie is hanging loose and his top shirt button, the one at the collar, is undone. His fists are dripping red. Droplets of sweat fall down his temple and onto the ground.
Hong Biao’s body is rooted where it is when the stranger walks towards him and crouches down, raising his arm to offer his hand. Hong Biao looks at it for a few seconds, then back at the steely gaze. His throat feels like sandpaper when he gets the words out.
“Did you… did you hit someone?”
“No.” The boy turns his hand over to show his palm and waves his fingers; there’s casual deliberation in that one small movement that makes Hong Biao’s spine tingle. “Paint. From art class. I threw my paint water at them. You’re welcome, by the way.” He lifts the chipped mug behind his back for Hong Biao to see.
Hong Biao tentatively takes Gu Tao’s forearm, and the other boy hauls him up.
“Thank you?” Hong Biao manages. He feels unsteady all of a sudden.
It’s the first time he sees Gu Tao smile.
There’s a crescent moon drawn from corner to corner of his mouth and there are stars in his eyes.
He should have known he’d spend the rest of his life chasing after that sight.
Gu Tao’s message comes at eight in the morning, so Hong Biao only sees it two hours later.
His roommate catches him before he heads out. “There’s a party to—”
“No,” Hong Biao calls, looking away while shutting the door to hide the fond smile on his face. “Please don’t.”
The fish and chips place Gu Tao suggested for lunch is only a twenty-minute bus ride into the city. Hong Biao isn’t sure what bubbles over in him when he sees Gu Tao sitting at a table inside; hands clasped together, body slightly leaning forward, waiting for him.
“Hey,” Gu Tao says, moving aside the jug of water. “Hi.”
When the waiter comes over to order their food, Hong Biao glances up. Gu Tao is wearing an oversized hoodie and shorts, maybe the best way to explain the winter season on the cusp of spring.
“So,” Hong Biao starts, noting how Gu Tao’s head immediately snaps to attention, “what are you doing here?”
“I’m visiting my uncles. You?”
Hong Biao takes a slow sip of water. “I’m a university student.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” Gu Tao winces and leans back. After a while, he says, “I was following a friend at that party.”
It takes Hong Biao a moment to remember he’s referring to Friday night, the day he had found Gu Tao—
“I’m sorry you had to see me like that.”
Hong Biao feels like ice shards have melted down his throat. “I’m actually more worried over why that happened.” Because I can’t stand seeing you like that.
Their food arrives. Gu Tao doesn’t answer even after their plates are cleared. Hong Biao is running on fumes over how to start the conversation again, but Gu Tao beats him to it.
“You must hate me after what I did to you.” His eyes are galaxies away.
Hong Biao feels the twin flame burn him alive, as if it hasn’t marked him enough from before.
“Gu Tao, you didn’t do anything.”
“Exactly.” Gu Tao meets his eyes; there’s something dark inside. “Six years of friendship and I left you all by yourself for four years. No word. No reply to any emails or messages you sent.”
Hong Biao thinks he’s drowning. “I thought you’d changed your number and email address.”
Gu Tao narrows his eyes, ruthless and relentless.
“I received them.” He says it slowly, like it doesn’t mean anything. “I saw them all.”
“Then why—” A sudden thought strikes Hong Biao. “Does this have to do with your father?”
For a second, the silence makes Hong Biao think he’s hit the hammer on the nail.
Then, Gu Tao huffs as if he’s talking to a small child.
Under that small exhale, the pillars and stilts Hong Biao had constructed his heart and soul on break and collapse inwards.
“Hong Biao.” Gu Tao says, voice detached and flat. “If you think you know anything about me, you’re being foolish again.”
It’s an arrow that sinks into the bullseye. It’s a knife slash across the jugular. It’s midnight on the doomsday clock.
Hong Biao walks back home alone and no one tries to pursue or call him back. No one ever has.
It has to be his father, Hong Biao thinks. He’s been waiting for sleep to drag him under but his shoulders hurt too much.
“Why are you so worried?” They’re fifteen and the school’s midterm exams are coming up.
Gu Tao looks up from his textbook with a smile. “My father.”
“Your father?” It’s the first time Hong Biao heard him mention his parents.
“It’s always the fathers, isn’t it?” Gu Tao hums.
Before their final year, Hong Biao asks Gu Tao if he’s, “Going anywhere for the holidays?”
“My father says it’s a distraction.”
“Doing some self-reflection before getting a headstart on next year’s syllabus.” Gu Tao grins, as if daring Hong Biao to laugh.
In the present, Hong Biao turns over and thinks back on the chasm of missed phone calls, emails and text messages. In the dark, he’s allowed to pretend that it doesn’t matter.
Spring has come into full bloom. This is not how Hong Biao expects to see Gu Tao again. It has been months.
His roommates forgot their wallets and purses. Hong Biao, who was going to leave the house later and join them anyway, put them in a plastic bag and walked over.
Once he sees Gu Tao, his plans of attending this party immediately disintegrate. He turns towards the door, ready to walk away and all the way back home when a hand pulls on his shirt sleeve. His heart stumbles.
“I’m trying this time.”
Hong Biao turns around fast enough, maybe too fast. Gu Tao flinches and lets go immediately.
The season has changed. Gu Tao looks like he hasn’t. Hong Biao really shouldn’t care as much as he does.
In order to be discreet, Hong Biao grabs a drink before sitting on the bench outside. He waits under the dim lights for the conversation to start. Next to him, Gu Tao slumps against the wall.
Hong Biao keeps his gaze firmly fixed forward. He thinks he should demand for the apology to be more specific but instead, he says, “Stop apologising so much.”
Gu Tao opens his mouth and closes it. “I was really terrible to you,” he finally says.
“It’s okay. I knew that wasn’t really you speaking.”
Hong Biao can sense the surface tension ripple. He stays still and waits. It’s the one thing he knows best, something he’s done his entire life.
“On the night you saw me,” Gu Tao finally whispers, “I was crying because my father called.”
“What did he say you did?” Hong Biao asks softly.
“He told me he was going to die from the humiliation I caused him.” Gu Tao’s hand closes into a weak crumpled fist.
“That doesn’t excuse the way I treated you last time. I shouldn’t have let my anger at myself drive me to leave you all those years ago. And I understand if you hate me after that.”
“I don’t hate you.” Hong Biao laces his hands together. “I might have. But I don’t anymore.”
They turn to face each other fully. Gu Tao’s arms twitch.
Hong Biao barely has to open up his arms before Gu Tao surges forward into the embrace, hugging Hong Biao equally close.
“I’m sorry,” Gu Tao says, voice catching on a sob.
“Shh. I know, I know.” Hong Biao hooks his chin over Gu Tao’s shoulder. “We already promised not to apologise so much.”
Gu Tao looks up, still holding onto Hong Biao’s shoulders like he might disappear. His eyes are dark, warm and cold.
“You need to know, on that night, I thought I was dreaming,” Gu Tao says, words breathless and thin. “I was so grateful to see you.”
Hong Biao thinks he might float away if it weren’t for how tight Gu Tao hugs him; it feels like being anchored to the world.
“I hated myself for it but I cried because I was so happy to see you.” Gu Tao buries his head in Hong Biao’s shirt. “I missed you so much.”
Hong Biao brushes Gu Tao’s tears away with his thumb and tucks the stray strands of hair behind his ear.
“You don’t have to miss me anymore,” Hong Biao says. “I’m right here.”
Summer arrives at the end of the year, bringing searing days and surprisingly cold nights.
There’s a party at someone’s house tonight. The air is dry and arid against Hong Biao’s skin and the chill breeze is freezing against his face. A familiar person is waiting outside.
Chasing after him. Chasing after each other. Like day after night.
Always, Hong Biao thinks. There was always someone pursuing him.
Gu Tao turns, vibrant and bright.
Maybe he always knew they’d come back to each other.
Hong Biao reaches out and Gu Tao meets him right where he is.
Written by: Zhen Yi