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ships in the night

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The first time Khun Aguero Agnis meets Jue Viole Grace, he is five years old and completely oblivious.

His father, Khun Eduan, has been invited to yet another extravagant party - as the CEO of Khun Entertainment, management for singers and one of the entertainment industry’s biggest groups, and one of the top ten richest people in their country, he is a frequent attendee of these sorts of things.  Aguero has no choice but to come along - as Eduan's son, he must ‘make connections’ if he is to become the heir to his father’s company.

At five years old, Aguero is old enough to understand the sheer stupidity of the entire ordeal, but he’s still too young to call his father out on it.  He’s only five, after all.  His older sister Maria likes to laugh at his complaints: you’ll understand one day, she says with the wisdom only a seven-year-old can have.  Contrary to the whole purpose of their father’s company, Maria wants to be a dancer one day, maybe become an idol, even.  Aguero isn’t sure what happened, but his father and Jahad used to be friends, but they aren’t anymore.  Either way, Maria can dream, and Aguero will support her.

His younger sister Kiseia, on the other hand, is much too young to offer any opinions.  At the age of three months, all she can do is ‘goo’ and ‘gah’ in their mother’s arms as other famous women coo over her.

Aguero would be a liar if he says he isn’t jealous of all the attention his sisters were getting.

He excuses himself to take a breath of fresh air to no one in particular.  Maybe it’s because he’s too young, but the energy of doing business and communicating is stifling, and his child’s tie is strangling.  He wanders out into the hallway outside the hall and all but rips the tie off his neck, aimless but free.

The sound of a child crying and a man shouting piques his interest.  He’s not sure what urges him to run towards the voices as fast as his little legs can carry him - maybe it’s an image of his father that floats to the forefront of his mind, the side of him that he keeps out of the public eye.  Nobody else knows that his father is an alcoholic: he's always drunk and ruddy-faced in the safety of their home; he yells at his young children for no other reason than existing; he slaps his wife when she tries to protect them.

Aguero refuses to become a person like his father.  Like some kind of superhero, his body is moving before he knows it.

“Be quiet!” A giant of a man bellows when Aguero rounds the corner.  “Stop crying!”

The dark-haired boy cowering against the wall cries louder.  The entire situation sets off alarm bells in Aguero’s head.  Since when has he ever willingly helped anyone without an incentive? Aguero ties his hair up with a dark blue bandana marked with his family’s sigil.  He may not be a big fan of his father, but he does take advantage of his father’s influence.  “Hey,” he says as sharply as he can, “what’s going on here?”

The man-giant turns to him with a grunt of irritation, baring sharp teeth in a scowl.  Aguero recognizes him by the cartoon crocodile printed on his shirt - he’s a guitarist in a rock band on the rise, signed by the one and only Khun Entertainment.  From what Aguero remembers, he also has anger issues and a tendency to call people ‘turtles’, but that’s all part of his apparent charm.  “Baby Black Turtle won’t stop crying.  Get him to stop.”

“I- I’m not a turtle!” The boy’s big eyes are teary and fearful.  Aguero feels a sudden and inexplicable urge to protect this boy, and the feeling only intensifies tenfold when he sniffles, lip quivering.

“Hey, you big ugly gator,” Aguero says threateningly as he can, “back off.  That’s not how you treat a child.”

Rak makes a ‘tch’ noise.  “Don’t tell me what to do, Blue Turtle Junior.”

The apparent ‘Blue Turtle Junior’ stands his ground, sharpening his gaze into a glare icy enough to rival his father’s.  He’s only five, but he knows he should be better than his father at every aspect (like being a good person, for starters).  “I said back off, Gator.” He pulls a chocolate bar out of his pocket.  “Truce.”

Rak is the first to break their mini staring contest, stomping off and grumbling about annoying blue turtles and their pesky little offspring.  He shoves the whole bar into his mouth.  “I will be back!”

Aguero approaches the boy like one would a frightened animal.  “Hey,” he asks gently, “are you okay?” The boy looks at him warily.  Even behind a film of tears, his eyes are a shocking gold, warm and bright in contrast to Aguero’s harsh blue ones.  “I’m not going to hurt you.” He lowers his voice conspiratorially.  “But between you and me? The big guy just now wouldn’t hurt a flea either.  He’s all bark and no bite.”

“All bark and no bite,” the boy tries the phrase out on his tongue.  He cocks his head innocently.  “What does that mean?”

Ah, right.  Aguero doesn’t mean to brag, but he has always been smarter than what was expected of his age.  Even Maria said so.

“It means on the outside, he’s like ‘rawr rawr rawr!’” He proceeds to show the golden-eyed boy his best impression of Godzilla.  “But on the inside he’s soft and squishy.” He squishes his cheeks together to make his point, and is delighted when that elicits a giggle from the boy.  Since when has he enjoyed making people laugh? He didn’t even know he could make people laugh! Kiseia cried every time he tried to pick her up.

The boy wipes the remains of his tears away with the back of his hand.  “You’re very funny.  What’s your name?”

“Khun Aguero Agnis,” the blue-haired boy recites smoothly.  He didn’t know people thought he was funny.  “But you can call me Aguero.”

“Nice to meet ya, Mister Aguero! Mama and Papa call me Bam, because Papa thinks I look like a chestnut, and chestnut is ‘Bam’ where he comes from.” Bam grins brightly.  “You can call me that too!”

The two young boys grin at each other with gap-toothed smiles - Bam is missing two of his front teeth, and Aguero is missing a premolar.  Their accents are so vastly different: Aguero’s father’s side of the family were immigrants from a faraway country, but even after so many years the accent they brought had stayed and stained the voices of their children.  Aguero suspects that Bam’s father had come from the edge of another country, the one with mountains and lakes and farmland, by the way his son drags his words out in a lazy drawl despite sounding so enthusiastic and earnest.

“Oh, Bam, there you are!” A woman with the same dark hair as Bam rushes over to them.  Bam is the spitting image of his mother, only male with chubbier cheeks and different eyes.  She sounds like a native.  “We were wondering where you rolled off to!”

Bam looks sheepish.  “Sorry, Mama.  I got lost on my way back from the toilet,” he says with all the honesty of a five-year-old.  “But look, Mama, I made a new friend! His name is Aguero!” He points to the blue haired boy, who waves shyly.  “Aguero, this is my Mama!” Bam’s ‘Mama’ is beautiful, and if her husband looks the same way, Bam is going to be quite a fine specimen when he grows up.  Not that he isn’t appealing already, with those massive golden eyes.  If he stared at someone with them for long enough, he could get away with anything.

He is a little plain and childish, though, compared Aguero and his frightening intellect hidden behind a five-year-old’s face.  There doesn’t seem to be anything too special about him, besides his eyes.  Aguero may be a rookie encyclopedia, but he has never seen golden eyes before.

“Oh, hello there, Aguero!” The woman pinches his cheeks, cooing over him.  Aguero doesn’t completely hate the attention - he’s grown up without much of a motherly presence, since his father was a jerk and his mother had to take care of three of them at once.  At least the seven-year-old was old enough to help with the burden and the five-year-old was independent and clever enough for his father to take notice and take him off his mother’s hands, if even for a while.  The youngest one was still toddling around, but if the Khun genes were in her too she wouldn’t be for much longer.  “You’re Eduan’s little boy, aren’t you? You look much cuter than you were as a baby.”

The young genius is lost for words.  Bam’s mother had seen him when he was a baby? His baby pictures were horrendous! He didn’t remember too much, but Maria said he always screamed until he was red in the face when people tried to take pictures of him.

“Arlene!” A handsome young man with a sunny smile and warm golden eyes jogs up to them.  Both he and Bam’s mother are around Aguero’s father’s age.  Aguero can see both their features in Bam, from the shape of his face to the arch of his nose.  Bam’s father gently reprimands him for running off, and a brief wave of jealousy washes over Aguero.  He loves Maria and Kiseia with all his heart, but why couldn’t he have been born into a family like Bam’s, a family that wasn’t falling apart at the seams? Why couldn’t they all have been born into a nicer family?

Bam’s father ruffles the young Khun boy’s hair.  “We gotta go now, but tell Eduan we said hi, yeah? It’s been a long time since we last met up.  Maybe we could arrange a play-date for the two of you.”

Aguero fusses with his pale blue hair, trying to fix his little ponytail.  “Okay.” His heart thumps in his chest at the thought of a play date.  Bam considers him a friend! He has never had a friend before.  Maria doesn’t count.  She’s family.

“Bye Aguero!” Bam shouts as his parents pull him away.  “See you!”

Aguero waves back with shy enthusiasm.  Did he accidentally eat a butterfly? If not, what’s that strange fluttering feeling in his gut? “Bye Bam!”

The blue-haired boy finds his way back to his father’s side, an obedient trophy prince once again.  He smells like champagne, and Aguero has a feeling he won’t be coming home tonight.  “Where did you go?”

“I made a f-” Make allies and not friends, his father’s voice says in his head, friends are not to be trusted.  “An acquaintance! His name is Bam!”

Both his father and the man he is talking to go rigid before the other man turns to Aguero with a smile hiding bitterness behind the sweet.  Aguero vaguely remembers seeing him around - a close ally of his father, perhaps? “Big words for a little kid,” says the curry-haired man.

His father smiles, equally as plastic.  “What can I say? I raised him well.”

The Khun family have always been experts at speaking lies.  Aguero and his father are no different.

Aguero is delighted when Bam’s mother manages to nag Aguero’s father into allowing the young boy to come over to their house every now and then.  Aguero’s mother is grateful to have at least one child off her hands, if only for a few hours almost every day.

One time, Bam sneaks his parents’ high school yearbook off the shelf and the two boys riffle through, spotting a few familiar faces.  Aguero is surprised to find out a few things: that Bam’s mother Arlene is in fact soprano opera darling Arlene Grace, and his father Jue Victor, better known as V, is the main vocalist and guitarist of The Outside, a pop-rock band collaboration between Khun Entertainment and Jahad Talent.  What’s even more shocking is the fact that Arlene and Aguero’s father had been in the same homeroom class, alongside the rest of the top ten richest people and that curry-haired man - then boy - who had been class president.  Victor was in the class next door, standing next to a boy with braces who Bam had called his ‘Uncle Mirchea’.

Aguero feels a little stupid - no, a lot stupid - when he finds out that Bam’s real name is not ‘Bam’ as he’d originally thought but Jue Viole Grace.  Viole, like byeol ! Mama says I’m their little star! Bam insists Aguero call him by his nickname anyway

Even Rak makes an appearance every now and then - when Arlene and Victor are too busy with their own work lives, the gator comes along to babysit.  He claims he hates it, but Aguero knows he really doesn’t - he’s much better now that Bam knows the big man is harmless.  He calls both the ‘Blue Turtle Junior’ and the ‘Baby Black Turtle’ his ‘prey’, treating himself as a sort of mentor figure to them both despite ‘Blue Turtle Senior’ being his boss and ‘Big Black Turtle’ being his senior.

A few years later, Bam proudly shows off a guitar that his parents had gotten him for his birthday.  The dark-haired boy tries to teach his friend to play, but Aguero’s fingers aren’t quite made for strings - he plays piano far better.  Kiseia meets Bam the first time Aguero has been entrusted with babysitting her, and she absolutely adores him.  (She adores his plushies, rather.) She takes up the violin, constantly nagging her older brother to accompany her on his keys.  

Sometimes, Bam sings.  Bam has a nice voice - it’s soulful and comforting, and when Aguero isn’t too embarrassed to ask he calls his friend and requests to be sung to sleep while his parents fight in the living room.  Maria approves of her baby brother’s choice in friendship - Jahad Talent has started an idol girl group called Girls!, and she seeks to follow in their cousin Maschenny’s footsteps and become a dancer there.  However, being an idol means that she has to know how to sing too, and Bam is all too willing to teach her.

At fourteen, Aguero decides that if he is to take over Khun Entertainment one way or another and Bam decides to become a professional singer, Bam will be the first one he signs - not just for the company’s reputation, but to support Bam and see those big golden eyes aglow with happiness.  He’ll do anything to protect that precious smile.  They sing and dance to bubblegum pop songs on the radio even though neither of them can dance (Maria is sixteen now and a trainee for Jahad Talent, and she tried to teach them both (key word: tried)), and only Bam can sing (which is apparently false, because Bam claims that Aguero could very well be a singer if he wanted to.  He’s probably just trying to make Aguero feel better.)

For now, they are young, happy and shameless.

Something changes when Aguero turns fifteen - he wakes one morning, takes a look at his best friend, and thinks oh no, uh oh.  He isn’t even sure how long that has been happening - Maria and Kiseia like to nag Aguero and ask him if he has a crush, and every time he shakes his head a mental image of Bam pops up.  They’re both developing, both in body and in mind, and Bam hits the gym more than Aguero’s suddenly hormonal mind can take.  Of course, he won’t be left behind, trying to ditch his baby fat for leaner muscles.  It does work, but Bam is still the one he sees at the forefront of his mind when he closes his eyes, the one his brain conjures up when he lies awake in bed at night.  He refuses to let it become anything more.  Rejection always hurts, he knows that enough from his father.

Aguero is sixteen when he realizes that Bam is the only one he would fight the whole world for, would lay down his life for.  However, Bam isn’t the only one his body is interested in - when Maria ogles a ‘cute boy’ as surreptitiously as she can, Aguero finds his eyes lingering for a little longer than is normal.  It’s the last straw for Khun Eduan: Maria had cut ties with him three years ago, after the temper tantrum he threw for her sixteenth birthday and the announcement of being part of the lineup for Princess, the newest sub-unit of Girls!.  Combining that with his only son and future heir’s coming out makes him shake.  He disowns the boy who would’ve become his legacy, three children down to just one.  His mother tries to make Eduan see sense and Kiseia begs Aguero to stay here, don’t leave me alone with the monster, but Eduan gifts Aguero a credit card with white-knuckled fists and tells him he no longer bears the tag of “Khun Eduan’s son”, will no longer receive any support whatsoever from Eduan.  However, he must still allow Aguero to stay in their family mansion until he is eighteen and officially of age to be discarded, thanks to Aguero’s mother’s insistent begging.

(When that happens, Aguero swears to steal Eduan’s motorcycle.  He quite likes the Manbarondenna - it’s blue, like his eyes.  Bam likes it a lot, and so does Victor.)

Aguero becomes a stranger in his own home as Kiseia and their mother slowly drift away, fearful of their father’s drunken wrath.  The boy had given Maria his blessing to audition for Jahad Talent years ago and he knew what that would entail, but it still comes as a betrayal when his older sister throws herself into practicing, the distance between them increasing and increasing while Maria sings and dances and trains to be a star until she debuts in two years.

He hates it all - he hates his family, he hates his life, he hates himself.  The only thing he doesn’t hate about this pathetic reality of his is Bam, who is too pure and good to be corrupted by anything at all.

Aguero doesn’t know where he’d be without Bam, doesn’t know who he’d be - ever since he met the boy, his life had been Bam, Bam, Bam .  The Graces are all too willing to raise him like he’s their own son, with Victor being more of a dad than Eduan had ever even tried to be, but that’s mainly because he’s Bam’s friend, less because he’s Khun Eduan’s (no longer) son.  Rak volunteers to let Aguero freeload in his fancy new apartment, but that’s only because Bam had brought the two of them together by crying the first time they met.

A few weeks before Aguero’s seventeenth birthday, the world he knows screeches to a halt and explodes in a ball of flame.  He had been helping Bam with his math homework over text when the brunet abruptly stopped texting back, leaving the blue-haired boy confused and suspicious.  He’d assumed Bam was at home - where else would he text about homework? Arlene and Victor are always more than happy for Bam to hog the phone when it comes to Aguero, loving the fact that their boys are best friends.

Ice floods through his veins when he learns that Arlene Grace and V had been found dead in a car accident.  His blood freezes and his heart stops beating in his chest when he finds out that nobody knows what has happened to their teenage son Jue Viole Grace, who has seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet.

Maybe he had been kidnapped - that’s better than being dead, right? Aguero has spent enough time with Eduan to know that money tends to solve a lot of problems, and the bigger ones can be easily solved with even more money.  After a week without any news about Jue Viole Grace’s possible whereabouts, the police woefully announce the entire Jue-Grace family as officially deceased.

Deceased.  It’s a cruel word, isn’t it? Aguero wishes Bam was here to look at him with golden eyes and smile at him again, innocent and guileless and everything he wanted; wishes Arlene was here to wrap him in a warm, motherly hug, pat his hair while comforting him; wishes Victor was here to offer words of wisdom, tell him it’s okay, buddy, everything’s going to be just fine.

Nothing is fine.  The nightmare he’s living in is real life.  The funeral is full of friends and family, acquaintances and colleagues, the occasional fan.  They all mourn in their own way, some weeping and sobbing, others silent and hoping they’ll wake up and see that it was just a dream.

Grace Mirchea Luslec - Bam’s beloved ‘Uncle Mirchea’, Arlene’s younger twin and V’s fellow band-mate and guitarist - wails to the sky, begging and screaming for a god that doesn’t exist to bring his family back.  Aguero has never believed in any god - what kind of merciful, all-loving god would give him and his sisters a father in the form of Khun Eduan? What kind of god would take away the person he cherished the most and the best found family he ever had? What kind of god would take away the people you loved the most and call it fate? What kind of god would be so cruel and dispassionate?

From what Aguero knows about Mirchea, he tends to spoil Bam, much to Victor’s delight and Arlene’s teasing irritation; and he idolizes his older brother-in-law, treating him as a friend, a family, a mentor.  Victor has - had, now - always had a big heart, one that he’d raised his son with.  The words on his epitaph reflect that: a father, a husband, a mentor, a friend.  Loved many and was loved by many.  Arlene’s epitaph is simpler but no less painful to read.  It’s a line from one of her songs: love can touch us one time, and last a lifetime, and never let go ‘til we’re gone.  Aguero can’t even begin to describe how true that is.  He misses Bam with every fiber of his being, and his empty chest feels even emptier with every pang of longing.

Near the back, Eduan sheds tears for his former classmate and her husband.  Next to him, Jahad looks much like Aguero does, clearly distraught but strangely tear-less.  He wonders what relationship Jahad used to have with Arlene and Victor.  Were they friends? Is he like Aguero, stuck in the first stage of grief?

Aguero stands aside, his face stoic and his eyes blank.  No matter how hard he tries, the tears refuse to fall, just like his mind refuses to accept the fact that the boy and his family who had brightened up Aguero’s life were all gone.  Rak bellows, roaring “I’m supposed to hunt you, Baby Black Turtle! Come back!” 

Aguero stays a little longer at the reception, kneeling in front of his best friend’s empty grave.  I would love you with everything I have, but I’m too late for that, aren’t I? He lays down the bouquet in his hands - red roses and tea roses for love and eternal remembrance; dark crimson for mourning; pink carnations for longing; red carnations for heartache.  He lays down matching bell-flower bouquets for Arlene and Victor.  Flowers and words cannot express the gratitude he has for living his best life with them.

He tries to move on, insisting on being called Khun instead.  It hurts too much for people to call him Aguero, not when all he can hear is the ghost of Bam in his head, smiling and calling his name.  He is a frozen lake stained blue with hurt and lost opportunities, waiting for a spring that may never arrive and longing for the warm golden sun that would come with it.

Rak calls him “Stupid Blue Turtle,” calls him to “stop being so mopey, the Black Turtle family would want you to be happy,” but Khun can’t find it in him to listen.  How can he be happy when the only source of his happiness is gone? Everything he had accepted as part of his life is connected to Bam, and without Bam he’s lost.

A year later, Khun is so drastically different that even Rak is mildly terrified of what he has become.  The lost boy he had taken care of a year ago is gone, replaced by a young man with a mind reinforced with steel and a wall of ice erected to protect his heart.  In Aguero’s place is Khun, a young man determined to find his best friend now that the reality of Bam’s body never being found has sunken in.

Khun will find his Bam again, no matter how much it takes.