Chapter 01 – When KO lost his way . . .
“Hey. Where’d you go?” The soft, brittle voice pulled him from his thoughts, bringing him back to the present . . . to this unhappy now.
“Now, what was I saying? Right. I put your winter clothes in the suitcase under my bed,” she continued, somehow finding the strength to say all of the important things she needed to before… “Take out those sweaters and wear them when it gets cold. Promise me you won’t forget.”
He nodded his head in agreement, seeing the worry on her face.
She stopped, swallowing with difficulty. “I cooked your favorite dishes. They’re in the freezer. Take them out one by one and eat it whenever you want. There should be enough to last you for a while.”
“Ma!” he protested, aghast that she had cooked for him when she should have been conserving her strength. “You know I can cook for myself!” Over the past couple of years, he’d stepped up and cooked on those days his mother had been too ill to even get out of bed.
“I know you can take care of yourself,” she murmured in an appeasing tone. “I just wanted to do this for my little man.” She laughed softly, the laughter soon turning into coughs that tore at her throat. “After all,” she managed to eke out, accompanied by ragged breaths. “You’ve been taking care of me, haven’t you?” she murmured hoarsely. Her fingers plucked restlessly at the blanket covering her body.
He looked at her silently, his fingers clenched into tight fists, his body stiff in the chair. She was disappearing right before his eyes, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. There was nothing he could do to hold on, even when he knew that he wasn’t ready to let go.
“You were my guiding star from the moment you came into my life,” she whispered to him minutes . . . . hours later. The love she was feeling wove through every word, suppressing the hints of pain that had been bleeding into her words through sheer will.
Those words were soft pebbles, dropping into the pool of silence that had fallen between the two, creating ripples. The ripples grew so much so that he feared the ensuing waves would drown him in the end.
And she would no longer be here to save him.
The two were in a hospital room, surrounded by other grieving family members, other terminally ill individuals. But for now, it was just the two of them awake at 3 o’clock at night.
She had begun to speak, desperate to tell him all of the things she considered so important. But exhaustion had won out, and she had fallen silent once more. The only sounds in the room now were the beeping of the machines. It was the nature of her sickness; the pain ebbed and flowed, pulling her away for long stretches of time.
But the child sitting at her bedside, his eyes trained on her every movement, was there every time she surfaced. He had a slight build, his skin shallow, as if he spent all of his time inside. His clothes were old, but well cared for, evidenced by the precise stitches along any tears.
His eyes never strayed from the bed. Despite the fact that the disease had eaten away at her until there was almost nothing left, she was still the brightest thing in his universe. That horrible disease had stolen away the bloom in her cheeks, it had stolen her special smiles, it had stolen her caresses. She had been a carefree soul, a woman who would rather laugh than cry no matter what happened. She barely had the energy to move from her bed now, unable to even speak most of the time.
The effort she made now weighed on his heart, but he knew that time was running out. That was why, despite the pain it clearly caused her, he had silently listened to her speak today, treasuring each word.
When she fell into an uneasy slumber once more, he sat back, closing his eyes for a moment. Shifting restlessly in his uncomfortably chair, he prayed to whatever God was up there to not take her away. Not yet. Even if all that was left behind now was a mere shadow of what had been before, he still needed her desperately. It always had been the two of them against the world. She was his anchor. What would he do without her?
She murmured suddenly, forcing her eyes open. She could barely get the words out, but he could see that she was intent on speaking.
He wanted to listen, he wanted to so much, but he couldn’t selfishly hold on any longer. “Ma,” he said softly, swallowing carefully around the lump in his throat, “Sleep now.” His face was expressionless, but the hands that reached out to hold hers were secure and loving. She would know that she had been loved till the last.
“You were my wish come true. The star that fell in my lap,” she murmured disjointedly. “I’m sorry.” She stopped talking, tears, that were never far away, beginning to fall from her eyes. She gazed at him, her eyes still speaking of the love she felt for him. The pain of leaving him, the ache for the knowledge that he would be left all alone in this world.
She tugged at his hand, pulling him up to stand next to her bed. She reached up and cupped his cheek lovingly, her little man. The one who had become the caretaker, the strong one in their family unit of two. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you all the opportunities you deserved,” she said.
“Ma!” he protested, “You gave me everything that I needed.” The words were said to comfort her. He had no words, nothing any longer to hold on to. He’d prayed and hoped that God couldn’t be so cruel as to take away the only person that he had in the world, but that hope was gone now. Not when it meant holding on to her when living would only give her more pain.
“I love you. Remember that,” she said for the umpteenth time, closing her eyes. She had been saying those words ever since the diagnosis, repeating them daily, her fear that once she left he wouldn’t hear them again.
He had never found it easy to open himself up to the world . . . to people. He was stoic, his intelligence setting him apart from all of his classmates. His interests had further isolated him, her stubborn interruptions the only reason that he ate on time or went out to play. It was her fault that she hadn’t encouraged him to be more social, but it was too late. The only thing she could do now was to remind him that she had loved him till the last.
“I’m so proud of you! You’re top of your class again. What did I do to get such a smart son?…”
He stared at her closed eyes, watching her breathe, wondering every moment if it would be her last. The anxiety grew inside him, the ache too much for his young heart to bear.
“Eat your food. Put that book to the side. I don’t slave over a hot stove so that you can ignore the food and ignore me while you eat it. Dinner time is a time to eat and talk to people. And no, you cannot go to the internet café. “
His eyes were pinned obsessively to her face, her eyes now closed in sleep. The lines that the continual pain had etched across her features had eased away.
“Come with me.”
“Look at the weather. It’s so beautiful outside.”
“Yeah. Very sunny.”
He looked to her chest as she took those small breaths.
“Let’s go out and play! Give that to me.”
“Ma! You can’t throw books like that!”
“Sorry! But we’re going out now. No more excuses. I’m not going to leave you alone.”
But his eyes were on the machines when she took her last. They were on them as the quiet beeps turned into alarms going off, but it was the silence . .. where he should have heard her breaths . . . heard the rustle of the sheets when she moved . . . that silence was the loudest. His eyes reluctantly turned back to her, not wanting to confirm what his heart already knew.
She was gone.
And he was all alone.
Chapter 02: When He Disappeared . . .
Sitting in his small, dark room, he stared at the glowing computer screen and waited. He was logged onto the game, his character standing on the Captain’s Deck as promised. A crowd had gathered in the vicinity, but there was space around him, as if no one dared to come any closer. He waited and waited. Minutes turned into an hour, but he didn’t come.
In that dark room, he sat back in the chair with a sigh. How was he supposed to feel right now? It wasn’t as if he’d been abandoned, it was just a game. A game. Playing Fantasy Planet had happened on a lark.
He’d spent the past couple of years staying away from computers, not wanting to create the kinds of problems he had with his last hacking job. His actions had caused someone’s death, which had K.O., the hacker, go from being a famous black hat hacker to someone notorious. The backlash in all of the dark forums had been severe, but he’d had his defenders, as well, those who had pointed out that the hack could not be blamed for the suicide of a company’s CEO.
None of that had mattered though, because it did nothing to alleviate the guilt he had felt, the guilt he still felt. Not wanting to continue in that same vein, seeing his soul becoming darker and darker over time, he’d stopped. In fact, he’d told himself to forget how to even use a computer.
Years had gone by, and the need to go back had become too strong to ignore. Computers were in his blood, his need to look . . . to use that tool overriding his resolve to stay away. He began working nights at the cyber cafe to alleviate some of it. He spent his shifts renting out time to customers, cleaning up stations and fixing any broken computers. Working there had been enough for a while, until it no longer was.
Hearing the nightly conversations around him, he had allowed himself the right to play a game, master it . . . and, in that way, allow a little social interaction into his life to fight against the loneliness that had begun to gnaw at him on a daily basis. A passing comment from a cyber café customer had turned him to this particular game. He’d been reluctantly fascinated by this world, and, for the first time in his life, he played pretend.
A sudden burst of noise from the speakers brought his attention back to the computer screen. He watched his figure, now standing alone on the deck. The crowd had disappeared, the captain going back to his cabin after a final commiserating comment. He was alone once more.
In the past month, he’d met the Heavenly Healer character, clearly just a little kid, but a kid who’d been irritatingly fascinated by his online name. Shou Ke Zhai Xing Chen. To the kid, the name was majestic.
“I’m so proud of you! You’re at the top of your class again. What did I do to get such a smart son? Oh yeah, I just plucked him from the stars.” The Hand that Plucked the Stars. Her hand. She’d loved him, and to her, he had been a guiding star.
She would say those kinds of things to him all the time, but he would only grunt in reply. She’d been the reason he was even halfway normal. All of this, doing something else besides hacking, it was for her, as well. She had worried. He’d known that she had worried, but he’d been too focused on his goals to truly care. Growing up, he’d wanted to learn all he could, intent on earning enough money to make his mother’s life easier. He had refused to waste his time on trivial matters.
She was gone, and he no longer had to work so hard. So, when he used that name in this game, he was striving to relive a moment of closeness to the only goodness in his life. When he’d lost her, he’d lost his direction. He hadn’t allowed anyone close, not since his mother’s death, and the need for human contact had been slowly driving him insane.
For the first six years after her death, he’d perfected his hacking skills, becoming one of China’s famous black hat hackers. It was the only thing he had left, but having achieved infamy hadn’t been enough to satisfy him. Nothing would have stopped him, nothing had, not until the death that still weighed on his conscience. He’d shut down for two years, but had eventually come back to computers.
His eyes flickered to the screen, seeing the jeers and general mockery of the crowd that still appeared on the message board; the comments had been fast and furious on his screen as the minutes had ticked by.
He’d been abandoned and everyone knew it in the community, hurting the reputation he had built over the past few months. None of that mattered to him. Who cared about strangers? It was the abandonment of the one he had begun to consider a friend that mattered most of all.
“We’re going to be friends.”
“Yes we are.”
. . . . . .
He hadn’t thought about it, but the kid had become a friend. Someone who confided in him about his troubles, about wanting to learn computers and how his parents wanted something else. A kid who listened to him when he urged him to do what made him happy. To be courageous.
“Let’s go on a quest together. You’ll need my help at the asteroid belt.”
“I’ll have your back.”
. . . . . .
A friend who was there whenever he logged on, ready to play and back him up.
“Let’s get married. Come on. Everyone’s doing it!”
. . . . . .
“Promise to meet me on the Captain’s Deck. I’ve put in a request for a wedding to be held by the Captain at 1400 Hours. You’re going to be sorry if you’re not there.”
“And how are you going to make me sorry?”
. . . . . .
A friend who wanted to forge this bond. He’d been surprised, but had ended up saying yes.
“Hey, so someone said something to me, and I wanted to check with you . . .”
“Are you a guy?”
. . . . . .
He stared at his hands, as they sat poised over the keyboard, but he had nothing to type, nothing to say and no one to talk to. He forced his fingers to slowly relax, resting them on the keyboard. He’d kept his promise, but that boy hadn’t. That little kid had become important without him realizing. And now he was gone.
His fingers flexed involuntarily on the keyboard, but he controlled himself. He knew the kid’s server. Under the Moon of Chang’an. After doing a little bit of research, he even knew the Province where he lived. If he wanted to, he could find out everything. He could track him down, but then what?
He abruptly went into motion, shutting down the computer and turning off the screen. He pulled out the wires, and wrapped them around the equipment. There was no point in doing anything. The person on the other end had chosen to end their friendship. He would accept that.
There was no point in holding on. Not to him. Not to the game. Not to the job. And no point holding on to computers.
. . . . . .
He hadn’t touched a computer since.
Chapter 03 Why KO Begins Working During the Day . . .
(After KO began working at Zhi Yi Technology.)
KO sat at the computer, his eyes staring ahead. The characters on the brightly lit screen attracted all of his attention, his brain quickly working through and jumping ahead of what he needed to do next.
Feeling a soft weight land on his shoulder, he turned his head, his eyes falling on Hao Mei. The other man seemed to have fallen asleep, his head landing on KO’s shoulder as it did every morning. Like clockwork, Hao Mei fell asleep right before dawn when his will to stay awake wore away under the lure of sleep.
Shaking his head, KO turned back to the screen, letting Hao Mei continue his slumber. His fingers danced away on the keyboard, the tap of the keys nearly the only sound in the silent office. Hao Mei’s gentle snores were a fitting accompaniment to the tap of keys.
KO had been at the company for some time now, working at nights to get his duties done before leaving to go work at his both the cafeteria and restaurant.
Xiao Nai had deposited KO’s salary in Hao Mei’s account for every single pay period, refusing to hold KO to his initial promise of working without pay. Xiao Nai knew KO’s reason for coming to the company. Maybe even suspected that KO had semi-voluntarily lost their bet to make this one year deal, but he wouldn’t let KO work for free. Xiao Nai’s obstinacy and Hao Mei’s puppy dog eyes had forced KO into accepting every payment.
KO’s shoulders slumped for a moment, causing Hao Mei’s head to shift, almost sliding off. KO reached up, his hand cradling Hao Mei’s cheek, nudging him back into place. And if his hand lingered on the warmth of that cheek for a moment, his heart’s rhythm quickening at the feel of Hao Mei’s breath, no one was there to notice.
The other man still didn’t know the kind of power he had over KO.
When he had first seen Hao Mei in the cafeteria, his mischievous smile had caught KO’s attention. He couldn’t help the small smile that had appeared on his own face watching Hao Mei walk away. Seeing him subsequently at the restaurant, when Hao Mei had asked for his number, had only strengthened the feelings of interest. KO had conceded, going against his instinctive desire to keep Hao Mei at arm’s length. Maybe he’d suspected even at that point that Hao Mei would begin to mean much more if KO let him.
Surprisingly, Hao Mei had actually called him. More than once. He’d brought his friends to the restaurant, so proud at himself for bringing business his way. After their conversation, where KO had awkwardly told Hao Mei his coming alone was enough, Hao Mei had begun to come to the restaurant on a nightly basis. KO had thought nothing of it, not really noticing Hao Mei’s exhaustion until the night he had gotten drunk and slept for hours in KO’s bed. Hao Mei’s blanket, which KO had taken for his own use, had carried Hao Mei scent once more that night.
KO felt the other man move his head slightly, murmuring softly before settling back into deeper sleep.
This man was affecting him more and more, causing him to act in ways that he had never done before, but even that didn’t scare KO now. Despite the changes that were being wrought in his life, KO wasn’t ready to leave.
KO had simple tastes. He didn’t even need money to rent an apartment since he had the cot at the restaurant. Over the years, he’d learned to make do, never letting the lack of belongings faze him. He now had the salary from this job, and from the other jobs he did. That much money in his bank account made him uncomfortable. And so, he’d gone back to simple. KO had quit the other jobs a week ago, the lure of working with computers too much for him to resist. Rather than working at those day jobs, KO had begun working more from home, doing work for Zhi Yi Technology during the day, as well.
When Xiao Nai had asked him to come in, KO had resisted, preferring to continue working nights in solitude. It was hard being around people, and it was doubly hard to change the habits of a lifetime. Xiao Nai hadn’t insisted, and KO continued to work the same hours officially.
What he hadn’t counted on was Hao Mei coming in early to give him company. The other man had shown up unexpectedly at the beginning, their shifts overlapping by a couple of hours. They had worked in silence, fingers tapping away until KO was done for the night, packing up and leaving with a silent nod to Hao Mei.
But Hao Mei had continued to come in, appearing earlier and earlier. The silence began to be broken by desultory talk, and then consistent chatter.
Hao Mei had reached a point that he was coming in close to the beginning of KO’s shift. And no matter how much KO told him to stay at home and sleep, Hao Mei stubbornly stated, ‘I don’t want you to be alone here.’
KO realized that he wasn’t relieving Hao Mei’s burden, only increasing it. He knew that Hao Mei couldn’t continue like this. The bags under Hao Mei’s eyes were growing darker, his appearance more haggard. His falling asleep on KO’s shoulder had become yet another habit.
As much as KO enjoyed this solitary time with Hao Mei, the two working on their own projects at their own stations, as much as he liked talking to him, as much as he enjoyed having the other man use him as a pillow, this wasn’t why he’d come here. He feared the long hours were affecting Hao Mei’s health.
Enough was enough. Coming to a decision, KO deliberately shrugged his shoulder, causing Hao Mei’s head to slide off and almost hit the desk on its way down.
Hao Mei caught himself, his heading jerking back up before he made contact with the desk’s hard surface. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he turned to look at KO. “What’s going on?” he asked in a husky voice. “Is it time for you to leave?”
KO silently shook his head.
“Then what?” Hao Mei asked disgruntledly. He didn’t wonder for a moment why he was irritated at KO for disturbing his sleep, as if it was his right to sleep on that shoulder.
“I’m done,” KO stated.
“How can you be done?” Hao Mei murmured in confusion. He turned his head to the closest window. “It’s still dark outside.”
“I’m done working nights,” KO clarified, realizing that he hadn’t used enough words.
Hao Mei shot up, glaring down at KO with a hint of anxiety in his eyes. “You’re quitting Zhi Yi? How can you just quit? Did you get a better offer? Should I talk to Xiao Nai about increasing your pay?”
“Wait, what? No,” KO said after a short pause. “I’m going to stay,” he explained.
“Just what are you trying to say?” the other man asked in confusion.
“I’m going to stay during the day,” KO said, as if that explained everything.
“Do you need tomorrow night off? Is that why you’re working going to work today?” Hao Mei asked, slumping back down. “Well, let me tell you some tricks to staying awake. You’ll have to drin–”
KO turned Hao Mei to face him, his hands gripping the other man’s shoulders.
Hao Mei’s stopped mid-word, unsure of what to say next.
“I’m going to stop working during the night,” he said with a squeeze of his fingers. “I’ll be working a normal schedule like other employees. I’ll be coming in when you do, and leaving when you do,” KO said slowly and clearly, realizing they could be sitting here for hours as he tried to explain and Hao Mei misunderstood. “Do you understand?” And then, after a pause, “Nod yes if you do.”
Hao Mei nodded obediently, his mood brightened at that revelation.
“You won’t have to come in so early any longer. You can sleep in,” KO continued. “I promise to come in only during the day.”
Hao Mei stood up and grabbed his bag.
KO quietly took in the other man’s sudden flurry of activity.
“Let’s go!” he said impatiently on seeing KO remain seated.
KO raised a silent brow in query.
“Since you’re coming in during the day, we don’t have to work right now,” Hao Mei asserted. “In fact, I’ve caught up a bit for now with all the extra time I’ve been putting in. We can take the time to eat. I know a restaurant that has some great food down the street. They’re open all night.”
Nodding, KO got up and grabbed his bag. The two went out the door, work forgotten for the moment. Hao Mei chatted excitedly about what he planned to have, his happiness apparent in the lightness of his steps.
KO listened quietly, his eyes glancing off the other man’s face before staring straight ahead. He had a whole lifetime to put into work. This moment was for getting to know the man beside him a little better.
Chapter 4 Marrying Hao Mei
The two sat in the restaurant, silence having fallen between them as soon as their friends had made their escape. Hao Mei sat across from him, quietly eating, his eyes trained on the food on his plate. He hadn’t looked up once.
KO knew that Hao Mei could have gotten up and left, and the fact that he didn’t made him wonder what was going on in Hao Mei’s mind. Was the other man feeling guilty for the way he had reacted back then? Or was he furiously thinking of the excuses he could provide?
A small smile played across KO’s lips, so freely given because he knew that it would go unnoticed. What were the chances? They’d known each other years ago. If he’d pushed, if he’d hacked into the gaming servers to find out his gaming partner’s identity, would things have been different now?
The fact that he’d met this man in the present, felt emotions for him now that he hadn’t felt for anyone else, added a further series of thoughts of what could have been to a scenario that was already fraught enough.
Hao Mei gulped down some orange juice. He then cleared his throat nervously, finally lifting his eyes.
KO gazed at him expectantly, waiting for Hao Mei to speak.
“I’m, uh, going to pay for the food,” Hao Mei said, clearing his throat once more before getting up and going to the cashier.
KO quietly looked at his retreating back. Waiting for a moment, he got up and followed Hao Mei to the counter. He stood there silently, his arms crossed across his chest while waiting for the payment to go through before following Hao Mei out the double doors.
Before the two could go towards the building’s exit, KO grabbed Hao Mei by the wrist and pulled him to a small alcove beneath the stairs. The corner was shadowy, not as noisy as the restaurant itself; no one bothered the two of them as they stood there.
Moving closer, deliberately encroaching on Hao Mei’s personal space, KO placed a hand over Hao Mei’s head, trapping him between his out flung arm and the wall on the other side. The stairs were behind, and KO in front of him. Hao Mei had no way to escape.
“You disappeared back then without a goodbye,” KO noted, gazing deeply into Hao Mei’s eyes, “without an explanation.”
“I did,” Hao Mei finally squeaked out, pressing his head against the stairs behind him, flinching when he felt KO’s warm breath against his lips. He turned his head away slightly, so he wouldn’t have to look into the eyes so close to him.
“Why?” KO pressed, his warm breath falling on Hao Mei’s cheek.
“I was a little kid,” Hao Mei protested. “And understandably freaked out when I found out you were a male! I’d been flirting with you!” His tone was plaintive at the end.
His words stopped when KO moved in closer, his body so close that Hao Mei could now feel KO’s warmth against the length of his entire body. “I didn’t think.” Hao Mei placed both hands on KO’s chest, trying to create some distance between the two.
KO stood unmoving, barely noticing the pressure against his chest, before stating, “Make it up to me.”
“How?” Hao Mei asked, his voice strained as he continued to push against KO’s chest.
Hao Mei’s eyes bugged out at that pronouncement. “But!” he began before realization set in that KO actually meant marriage in the game. “Oh, in the game,” he said in a softer tone. While his hands had stopped pushing, he’d left them resting against KO’s chest, forgetting that he was even touching the other man in such an intimate manner. “None of the players that we knew are even there anymore. What does it matter?”
“It matters,” KO responded succinctly.
“To who?” Hao Mei demanded.
“To me.” KO gazed at him quietly, a stubborn lift to his mouth. He inhaled deeply, Hao Mei’s scent strong in the tight space between them. He wanted to stay here forever, with him, with the knowledge that he had the right. To be with him, to stand close to him, to hold him in his arms and inhale that unique scent.
The more he had seen Hao Mei, the more he’d wanted to know him. The more he’d known Hao Mei, the more he wanted…him. And this marriage, albeit in a game, would be yet another connection that tied them together. He was surprised by how desperately he wanted that connection.
Hao Mei reached up and grabbed KO’s face, his hands cradling the other man’s cheeks. “I’m not marrying you,” he asserted, shaking his head in emphasis. Pushing KO away, who had been caught unawares at that first touch, Hao Mei escaped.
Leaving the restaurant, Hao Mei quickly turned towards home in his bid for a clean break. He would go home since it was near the end of the work day anyways. Even as his feet took him towards home, he heard the quiet beep of his phone. Yanking it out, he gazed at the message.
“Fulfill your promise.”
It was KO, still harping on the same subject.
Groaning loudly at his stubbornness, Hao Mei shot back a response. “That would be too weird.”
An hour of peace. A beep.
“There’s no point.”
Minutes of peace. And then insistent beeping.
“Then I’ll be breaking that promise.”
A minute went by. And the flashing LED light warning of another text waiting to be read.
“Be my husband.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“If you marry me, I promise that you won’t regret it.”
The two texted each other all evening, the back and forth about the same subject. Hao Mei grew increasingly frustrated, wondering at this side of KO. He didn’t know this man. Why did it matter so much to him that the two get married?
After hearing yet another beep, Hao Mei shot up in bed and glared at his phone. Turning it on with the flick of a button, he stared at the time. It was 1 AM in the morning, and he needed to go into work tomorrow. Growling deeply, he called the offender.
As soon as he heard the click on the other end signaling the call had been picked up, he began speaking, “Why does it matter? Everyone is gone from that game. Why do you care so much?”
“I care.” KO’s answer was succinct and on point, no explanations provided.
Hao Mei fell back into bed with a huff, morosely staring up at the ceiling. He thought frantically for a moment, but then gave up with a sigh; there was no point in arguing any further. “Alright, we’ll talk to Laosan tomorrow,” he offered. “If he says yes, we’ll do it. We’ll get married. If he doesn’t agree with you, you back off. Agreed?”
Chapter 5 Appeasing Him…
The staff of Zhi Yi Technologies had come to the villa for a well-deserved break. Everyone planned on eating well and playing to their heart’s content before returning to the drudgery of everyday work life.
Xiao Nai had rented out the entire villa for the weekend, wanting to treat his workers for their hard work during the last gaming bid.
Hao Mei spent the entire ride up to the villa talking to KO about what he planned on doing, most of the conversation centering around KO’s cooking and how much Hao Mei intended to eat. While the other man had only grunted in reply, Hao Mei had noticed the small smile playing across his features. And since any exhibition of emotion was rare, Hao Mei had counted that as a win for him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“You didn’t believe in him.”
Hours later, Hao Mei wondered where everything had gone wrong. Scratching his head, he admitted that it was his damned competitive nature. If he hadn’t been so bent on winning against Wei Wei, he wouldn’t have accidentally insulted KO by betting against him. And now that he’d angered KO, Hao Mei was unsure of whether he would get any food at all.
These thoughts frantically raced through his head as he watched KO swim away, his wide eyes taking in the other man’s graceful exit from the pool as he wondered how he could make this right.
“Hurry and go butter him up. What if he doesn’t barbecue for us? Hurry up!” Wei Wei’s voice was ringing in his ears as he raced down the length of the swimming pool and through the double doors into the locker room.
“KO!” he called out, wincing as the doors slammed against the walls. It was just the two of them, alone, in the locker room. His voice was extra loud in the silence of the big room, echoing and ringing in his ears.
The other man glanced at him before turning towards his locker.
“KO,” Hao Mei said insistently, striding over towards the other man. “You shouldn’t be ma-,” the words were cut off, turning into a yelp as he felt himself slipping on a wet patch. He began to fall, uselessly clutching at the air to break his fall.
Before he could land on the hard, unforgiving floor, he felt strong arms wrap around his T-shirt-clad torso, pulling him so that he slammed against a hard, wet body.
Hao Mei blinked, his breath catching in his throat. He’d been falling, and he no longer was. Those muscled arms wrapped closely around him, causing a discomfort inside of him that he had not expected.
Hao Mei’s heart began thudding madly against the strength of his. Hao Mei stared up, his eyes clashing with KO’s, their lips inches apart. They shared a breath, as a drop of water slid down KO’s cheek and fell on Hao Mei’s lips. Without a second thought, not knowing why he did it, Hao Mei’s tongue slipped out and tasted that little droplet, tasting the saltiness of KO’s skin, strong enough to drown out the chlorine scent of the water.
Hao Mei blinked rapidly, hazily wondering why his heart was acting up. Swallowing with difficulty, he hurriedly pushed KO away, loosening the other man’s hold. Hao Mei straightened and put a few steps’ distance between the two.
Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to relax, and awkwardly cleared his throat. “You’re not really mad, are you?” he asked, his voice partially squeaking at the end. Clearing his throat once more, he stated, “I was just playing.”
After staring at him quietly, KO turned away to open his locker.
“You’ll cook for us, right?” Hao Mei asked insistently at his back. Moving closer, he stood behind the other man as KO rummaged through the locker, putting his swimming goggles away and pulling out a towel. “You’ll cook for me, ri–?” His voice died away when he saw KO’s hands go to his shorts. Whirling around, he heard the soft rustles behind him and then the drop of wet clothing on the cement floor.
“KO?” Hao Mei squeaked out when there was no answer. Turning his head, half fearful, he saw that KO had walked away. Seconds later, he heard the shower turn on at the other end of the room. Shaking his head, wondering why he didn’t want to go towards the showers, Hao Mei stepped back. Rather than pushing this any further, Hao Mei walked out of the locker room instead.
This would do for now. KO wouldn’t be so petty as to punish him for betting on Lao San. Right?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
KO had been that petty, Hao Mei thought morosely, staring at the ceiling in his room. Tired out after a day of playing together, everyone had retreated to their rooms for the night. Hao Mei had spent the last hour lying in bed, pouting over how the day had gone.
The former chef had cooked for everyone, delicious fish and chicken skewers, and other savory dishes.
Hao Mei hadn’t gotten any of it.
KO had ensured that Hao Mei had barely gotten any, moving him aside with his body as the others had swarmed towards the food. Even under his most careful gaze, with him putting up with Yu Gong’s teasing about how closely he was watching KO, he’d lost the chance to taste most of the food.
“Humph.” If it hadn’t been for his own gaming skills, Hao Mei wouldn’t have had a chance to eat anything at all. “And what was going on your head that you had to offer one of those precious skewers to KO?” he muttered to himself. Frowning heavily, he sighed as his stomach growled once more. Turning his head, he gazed at the mini-fridge, wondering if he should raid its overpriced contents.
His increasingly angry thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on the door.
Turning his head, he glared at the door before going back to stare at the fridge. He knew who it was on the other side of that door, and he didn’t want to deal with the other man right now. He was afraid that he would explode.
There was a beeping sound, and then the door clicked open.
Hao Mei shot up in bed, his eyes widening in surprised irritation. “Where did you get the key?” he demanded, pouting furiously.
“We’re sharing a room,” KO reminded him gravely, a tray in his hands. Looking around the spacious room, his eyes taking in the king-sized bed, the mini-fridge and television, before moving on towards the couch and the coffee table. He walked to the table with his burden.
“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” Hao Mei, turning his head away. He heard the soft clatter behind him, the soft clink of silverware and plates being moved around. A heavenly aroma began to spread throughout the room.
“I brought food.”
Hao Mei jumped up from the bed, his eyes landing on the food. After that first uncontrolled reaction, Hao Mei crossed his arms across his chest. “You think you can make it up to me now?”
KO raised an eyebrow.
“You made sure that I couldn’t eat anything! All that food, and you pushed me aside so that everyone else could grab at it!” Hao Mei was really letting loose the anger in his heart. “Why would you do that?” And to think all of the plans he’d made on the drive up here.
“What did I do that was so bad?” Hao Mei burst out, racing over to stand in front of KO. He glared angrily at the other man, his face inches away from KO’s. “What did I do that was so bad? The food you cooked for everyone, but wouldn’t let me eat? Even though everyone else got to eat it.” Hao Mei realized that behind the anger, there was hurt. Ever since KO had come to Zhi Yi, he had only ever cooked for Hao Mei. But today . . . not only had KO cooked for everyone else, but he hadn’t let him, Hao Mei, eat any of it. And that had felt like a rejection from a man he had come to consider a good friend. It made him feel horrible. “And stupid me,” Hao Mei continued mournfully. “That I saw that you hadn’t eaten anything either, and so, when I won the skewers, I still shared one with you.”
“You didn’t believe in me,” KO finally said, seeing the unhappiness on his face, knowing that he had to explain.
“But Wei Wei bet against Lao San too!” Hao Mei protested, not realizing the deeper symbolism of those words.
“You took someone else’s side,” KO stated stubbornly.
“But that was . . . Lao San,” Hao Mei said weakly, wondering why it was so important to KO. And why, why did he feel so guilty for betting against KO, when it had been all fun and games before?
KO remained silent, the only sign of emotion the clenching of his hands into fists at his sides.
The two men remained standing, the silence in the room growing fraught as they struggled with the surprising emotions that were welling up over such a small thing.
Hao Mei opened his mouth and then closed it, swallowing with difficulty. He stared at KO, his eyes noting the clenched fists before turning to the table and carefully asking, “Then. What’s this?”
“Food,” KO stated.
“I can see that,” Hao Mei said in exasperation. “But why?”
“You didn’t get enough to eat,” KO answered tersely.
“And whose fault was that?” Hao Mei demanded, taking two steps and plopping down on the couch, his hands reaching out to grab hold of the food. Grabbing a chicken leg, he held it out to KO.
The other man’s eyes widened, gazing at the food in Hao Mei’s hand before looking at him quizzically.
“You ate as much as I did.” Hao Mei’s hand still held out the chicken, shaking it impatiently when KO didn’t take it quickly enough.
When the other man finally leaned forward to take it, Hao Mei pulled it back and indicated the space next to him with a nod of his head. His eyes silently urged KO to comply.
KO moved around the coffee table and sat down beside Hao Mei.
Hao Mei held the chicken leg in front of KO until he finally grabbed it. Nodding in satisfaction, Hao Mei gleefully attacked the rest of the food. He’d spent the entire afternoon and early evening hours being angry at KO, hurt by the other man’s actions. But now, now KO had cooked for him and only him. He had the food in front of him and the other man beside him.
And that was all that mattered for now.