White plumes of steam poured from the spout of the electric kettle. A thick, feathery stream shot upward before dispersing into a cloud that hovered beneath the kitchen cabinets. The kettle had its own weather forecast as condensation gathered underneath the cabinet. A little rainforest of droplets dropped back down onto the top of the kettle; drip, drip, drip.
The kettle had turned off several minutes ago. Kun stared aimlessly, vision gone nearly cross eyed, as he watched the steam start to crawl back into the mouth of the pot. His arms were crossed as they hugged his chest. He could hardly feel the toes in his left foot as he leaned against the counter.
He sighed, looked down into the bottom of the white mug, yellowed by years of afternoon brews, and leaned over with a grunt for the tin canister of pyramid-shaped tea bags. In dropped two, always the minimum to start Kun’s morning ritual. He pondered reaching for the sugar for a moment before he decided it was too far to reach comfortably, and pulled the kettle off the cradle to begin his brew.
Another morning. Another tea. Another day Kun reached back into the kitchen sink for the same unwashed spoon to shove the floating tea bags to the bottom of the mug and squeeze every ounce of caffeine out of them. Another day Kun forgot to buy more milk for the fridge.
Another day of forgetting.
Kun scooped the bags out and tossed them into the bin. He cradled the mug in his hands to take it over to the couch and stopped to look at the calendar: WEDNESDAY, 8 August.
Another day to be forgotten.
The month of August was terrible.
It has always been horrible; it was the time of year when the streets were packed with tourists from every corner of the world, the bus and tube both stuffed to the gills with prams and shopping bags and children out of school causing trouble with their friends.
It was the time of year when the northern hemisphere was closest to hell. Every time Kun stepped onto the streets he felt the unbearable heat of the sun cook overhead. By the time he got off at his stop for the office and climbed the endless steps at his tube station, there was no doubt he could fry eggs on the pavement.
Worst of all, Kun hated reporting to work in August when he knew over half of his colleagues had fucked off to Spain. It’s not like he couldn’t join them, but rather, he preferred using his time off in other parts of the year, in the off-season when he didn’t have to bleed his wallet dry for a summer holiday. Even taking a train down to Brighton for the day cost an arm and a leg during the summer months. The crowds, too, would end up being a waste of a few hundred pounds and an entire bottle of paracetamol.
And on the eighth day of August, Kun always needed the distraction of turning into his office. On that particular day, he was more inclined to answer the phone lines. He busied himself to pick through the dusty files that needed to be shredded, and took a solid hour to organize the supply closet. Lunch would be at his desk with his headphones on as he listened to a podcast and played roulette with a day-old prawn sandwich.
Kun felt a tap on his right shoulder and nearly jumped out of his seat and ripped off his headphones. He craned his neck over his shoulder to see Sicheng from Accounting with an index finger hovered over Kun’s shoulder.
“Hey, Kun?” Sicheng said with his hands on his hips. His blond hair was slicked back with pomade and likely whatever else was in his usually clammy hands.
Sicheng was a bit Type A, down to his supremely starched and custom-tailored button up shirts from Vietnam, to his perfectly manicured nails that magically never had a speck of dirt under them. When Kun first met Sicheng, his brash and dry attitude alarmed Kun as he was usually good at reading people. But with Sicheng, he was a different beast he had never encountered before—he was always hounding the colleagues in Kun’s department to include the most inane details in their purchase orders. Kun never thought someone could lose their lid over failing to declare the exact model and color of a stapler, but Sicheng was insistent the more details they had on record, the easier it was to save his own ass when the auditors visited, no matter how mundane.
“Oh,” Kun said and dropped the prawn sandwich in his other hand. He felt the sauce sogg up around the area of his last bite. “I’m on lunch right now.”
“I know that.” Sicheng pulled his hands off his hips to cross his arms over this chest. It made his shoulders look even more broad, a titan peering down at Kun in his pathetic excuse for an ergonomic desk chair. “I was just passing through. Thought I’d be friendly.”
Kun pulled the corners of his mouth up into a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “That’s very kind of you, Sicheng.”
“Are you doing anything tonight?”
Kun squeezed a fist under his desk, out of sight from Sicheng. “I am, actually.”
“Shame,” he said with a shrug. “Just wanted to see if you were up for grabbing a pint after work and all that. We’re headed to that one place in Bloomsbury.”
Ah, yes—the place in Bloomsbury, with the overpriced ciders and lagers and penned everyone on the pavement outside because it was too hot to comfortably enjoy your drink inside the pub. It’d been open for about one thousand years at this point, with floorboards caked in every variety of ale and spirits, it was significantly nicer than any place near his flat. Kun actually liked the place, and he often did enjoy the company of his colleagues outside of the workplace, but tonight he had other plans.
“Shame,” Kun echoed. “It’s a nice night to be doing that, too.”
“Yeah, should be good,” Sicheng nodded and pushed the non-existent strand of hair away from his face. “Yangyang said he’d buy us all a round. Hope you can come out with us soon.”
“I will,” Kun said, a half-promise that had him flexing the fingers he had balled into a fist. Now his own palm felt clammy and he wiped it on the left thigh of his dress slacks. He picked up his sandwich again for another bite.
“You know, we really miss hanging out with you.”
Hearing the words made the stone Kun hadn’t even noticed that had settled in his stomach plunge. He was well aware he had been withdrawn lately, and he had his reasons. He didn’t need to explain to anyone why he needed more time to himself. Most of his week was spent with his coworkers—at least nine hours a day if he decided to not leave the office for lunch. They didn’t need to know all about him outside of work.
“I miss it, too,” Kun said through his teeth.
Another prawn slipped through the soggy bits of bread against the palm of his hand. He dropped the rest of the sandwich onto the crinkly spread of plastic wrap and licked the smudge of mayonnaise. He looked up at Sicheng to see his face morphed into a performatively stoic side glance just as he wiped his mouth against the back of his hand.
“See you ‘round, mate,” Sicheng signed off with a wave.
Kun nodded and swiveled in his chair to turn back to his computer. His appetite was satiated as he crumpled up the last couple bites of the prawn sandwich into a ball of plastic wrap and chucked it into the bin under his desk. It’d start to smell before the end of the day, but Kun couldn’t be bothered having to deal with the rest of the office asking him to join them on a night out in Bloomsbury.
For now, it was half past noon on Wednesday, eighth of August. Just four and a half hours remained until Kun could firmly decline all social engagements and make his way home.
It was Ten who presented Kun with a solution.
The answer came in the form of a leather bound journal Ten found on a weekend trip to Paris, tucked away on a forgotten bookshelf in the back corner of Shakespeare and Company. It was a strange thing: the leather was stained a dark brown with decades, possibly over a century’s worth, of oily fingerprints left behind by the many hands it had been transferred between. The binding was not only still intact, but strong, while the leaves of paper wafer thin, but nearly every inch of each page was covered in heavy black ink. Kun found it peculiar that the scrawls never bled into the other side of each page.
There were diagrams, minutely detailed scenic drawings, text written mostly in English (which was likely how it ended up at Shakespeare and Company), with some of it even written backwards and only legible held up to a mirror.
On his first flip through, he noticed several pages of text written in the alphabet of a language Kun had never seen before. At first glance, he figured it was most likely bastardized Latin written by a drunk deacon, but he noted inconsistencies in the spelling of the words.
“That one doesn’t matter,” Ten tutted, waving his hand wildly after he asked what the hell it was. “It’s this one you ought to pay attention to.”
He had pried the book out of Kun’s hands and leafed through the pages to the entry he was referring to: a page written entirely in Chinese.
Kun reached for the book and Ten handed it over to him with a blank face.
“If it’s what I think it is,” Ten started, but Kun raised a hand to quiet him.
He hadn’t read Chinese outside of a restaurant menu in years, and dusted off the cobwebs of his brain to soak in the carefully painted characters on the page.
They were thin and precise, carefully drawn with a brush likely no thicker than three hairs. He traced a finger over them, imagined the careful strokes the writer made, and wondered how this ended up inside a book mostly in English.
On the bottom left corner of the right page there was a small sketch of a fox next to a raging fire that stood twice as tall. Kun held the book up closer to his face and studied the flames; they were sensuous in form, and intentional. He narrowed his eyes and could almost make out a human figure made of the licks of fire.
Kun set the book down on the table, page still open and staring back at him. He couldn’t explain the way his fingers felt heavy, now magnetized with both palms itching to pick it up again. He didn’t like the feeling.
“Are you having a laugh?” he said.
Ten folded his arms across his chest and threw up a sigh toward the ceiling. “I come back from Paris, with a gift, and all you do is act ungrateful toward me—”
“Shut up, Ten.”
Ten steepled his fingers and feigned surprise. “It’s yours to do with,” Ten said. He folded his arms across his chest and shrugged. “It sounds like it might be a wee bit dangerous, but I figured it might be of interest.”
Kun looked down at the book again. His manners returned from recess: “Cheers,” he nodded. “I really appreciate you thinking of me, Ten.”
Kun stepped out of the station, sweat lining the collar of his shirt and wool slacks clinging to his thighs. He needed to have the rest of his trousers laundered sooner than later—he couldn’t go another day dipping into his winter wardrobe after being crammed on the District Line for nearly an hour trying to get home. Walking amongst the living was hardly any better—the only consolation was the air had room to breathe, but not much else that waded through it. The wind was gone up here as well, probably too busy whipping the waves against the shoreline.
He popped into the newsagent around the corner from his flat to pick up a bottle of peach squash and a packet of cigarettes, then the chippie next door for the last piece of cod before taking the last skip to his flat.
The building was even more stifling, all of the heat of the day that baked into the pavement throughout the day rising through the floorboards, and as Kun took two steps at a time to reach the third floor, his shirt was as good as soaked. When he opened the door to his flat, the swell of summer consumed him like an oven; not even slipping off his loafers at the door was much of a reprieve.
He shuffled over to the kitchen table and pushed aside the book Ten gave him several months ago. He threw down the shop bag, fished out his purchases, and unwrapped the bundle of newspaper to lay out his cod and chips. The grease had started to soak through the first layer of paper, and Kun’s mouth watered as he quickly unbuttoned his dress shirt and tossed it onto the back of his chair. He pulled it out, paying no mind as the legs scraped across the floor.
“Fucking finally,” he mumbled as he plucked a chip off the paper and between his lips. He let out a moan as he savored the salt and grease.
He cracked open the bottle of squash and turned to look at the stack of unwashed glasses lined up next to the sink, and pondered drinking the concentrated peach straight from the bottle before getting up to grab a used one off the sink to fill halfway with water. He filled the rest of the glass with the syrup, and then swirled his finger around to mix with the water.
Peaches had never been his favourite fruit—he found the velvety texture of the skin strange to bite into, even if the flesh beneath was ripe and sweet. Eventually he grew to like them at the end of his Spring Term at university.
The first time Kun ate a peach he liked was when he was tutoring a year one student, Hendery, on a lawn under an elm tree between classes. It was midday, and Kun treated them to sandwiches and cans of gin and tonics. Hendery was bright, and Kun knew he didn’t particularly need a tutor, but rather he kept Kun around as a guide to help focus on his studies. Kun didn’t mind the easy paycheck, and Hendery’s company was always a highlight of his week.
Toward the end of their session, Hendery threw his arm up to wave down someone crossing the path behind Kun. Kun didn’t crane his neck to look over; instead he looked down to pick at the last bites of his bacon sandwich.
“I want you to meet my boyfriend,” Hendery said. He jumped up from the edge of his side of the quilt and brushed his knees. “Yukhei! Get over here!”
“Hiya,” Yukhei called, voice booming through the breeze. He marched straight into Hendery’s arms and pecked a gentle kiss right in the center of his forehead. It made Kun feel embarrassed to witness such tender affection out in the open, but also he couldn’t blame Hendery. Yukhei was almost a head taller than him, with skin bronzed like a Greek god and hair as black as a raven’s feather. “You alright, darlin’? We was just passing through.”
Just a few steps shy was another person eclipsed by Yukhei’s shadow. He was small—much smaller than Hendery, almost in a boyish way—and his face handsome with sharp features, almond-shaped eyes lined with thick lashes, framed by even thicker eyebrows. Kun watched him fiddle with the heavy tortoiseshell glasses that rested on the tip of his nose, the lens harvesting a flare from the sunlight that filtered through the branches. He brushed his chestnut hair away from his forehead as he squinted at the watch on his wrist.
All Kun could do was stare.
“This is Kun,” Hendery said. “Kun, Yukhei.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Kun said with a nod.
Yukhei waved back and turned over his shoulder to call over the shy boy who stood behind him. He hiked a thumb over his shoulder and turned back toward the blanket. “This is my mate, Dejun. Known him since college.”
“Hi,” Dejun said, voice soft and smokey. He took a few steps further and gripped onto the plastic bag around his wrist a little tighter.
“You have lunch yet?” Hendery asked. “We just finished, you should sit with us if you haven’t.”
Yukhei plopped down on the blanket next to Hendery without turning to ask Dejun, who stood rooted into the earth as his bag rippled in the light breeze.
Kun cleared his throat and visibly moved over onto the corner of the quilt. He looked up at Dejun with a smile. “I’ve plenty of room over here,” he offered.
“Cheers,” Dejun said with a strained smile. He could tell he was still nervous as he tried to make himself comfortable on the cloth.
Across from them, Yukhei rested his head in Hendery’s lap and purred as Hendery raked his fingers through his hair.
Dejun pulled open his bag and plucked out the contents: a small tin of fried rice, a water bottle, and two ripe peaches.
He picked up one in his hand, small and barely covering the globe. He looked up and over at Kun and held it out for him to take. “Care for a peach?”
He didn’t even hesitate, knowing how their soft skin felt strange and velvety against his tongue, but that day it was perfect. Dejun’s peach was perfectly ripe, firm yet juicy, a bit chilled and refreshing under the midday sun.
It was strange feeling attracted to a first year—Kun felt he had grown so much in his time at uni, and as someone on his way out of the system, there was no way he could possibly relate to someone just hitting their stride in their coursework.
And yet, love was stranger: in the most minute ways, Dejun completed Kun. The summer after Kun passed his exams and completed his degree, Kun decided to extend the lease to his flat and live with Dejun. He didn’t even think twice about all the ways things could have gone wrong—they’d only met in May—but by June, he’d spent any spare moment away from his nose buried in a book to speak with Dejun, eat with Dejun, watch cringey quiz shows with Dejun, and eventually, much to Kun’s surprise, make love to Dejun.
The love happened fast and hard, but it felt right.
And it felt right for another five years.
Kun finished up the last bit of cod, relishing each morsel of beer batter coating. He sucked the salt and vinegar off his finger tips, never minding the sting around his cuticles, and wiped them on his now drying chest. He bundled up the newspaper and got up to chuck it in the bin, and swiped his soggy shirt off the back of his chair. He turned to take another glance at the calendar on the wall: WEDNESDAY, 8 August.
Outside the window, the sun was still ripe in the sky, just starting to melt into the horizon. As the minutes passed and ticked closer to night, Kun picked up the book Ten gave him off the kitchen table and leafed through it to find the page covered in Chinese script. He shuffled into his bathroom to prepare for the evening.
He showered, thoroughly, sure to scrub every inch of his body with a litre of water infused with ground licorice root, hops, and whole dates. He kept it on the windowsill in the kitchen for the last moon cycle.
As soon as he opened the lid, it fizzled from the fermentation and smelled ripe—not quite appetizing like a craft beer would have—and it had a curious viscosity to it. He breathed through his mouth in an attempt to avoid smelling it as he rubbed the substance counterclockwise into his skin. He used every drop of the concoction, scrubbed it into his scalp, between every crease and fold of skin, then stood in the middle of his shower with his eyes closed.
The rest of the ritual was deceptively simple. Kun had his reservations at first when he parsed through the instructions. He had to perform this on the date of birth of the loved one, on either the fourth or fourteenth year after they have deceased. Ten’s timing couldn’t have been luckier; if he had waited any longer, Kun would have had to hold onto this book another decade for the chance.
He wasn’t particularly optimistic about his prospects. At first he was hesitant to give the ritual a try. He had his reservations even deciding to follow through with it—would it work?—but he had already lost the one thing that meant everything to him: a lifetime with Dejun.
It was sudden. It was unthinkable, unfathomable—and Kun ached having to bury his sorrow deeper each time he had to think about it—the blood, so much blood, everywhere. Kun teetered between a state of hysteria and rage every time he thought about it. How could this happen to him?
It was cruel, really. The last words they had ever uttered to each other were vile—awful, terrible things that Kun never thought he’d ever hurl at Dejun. There was a screaming match, which was extremely unusual for the two of them, and about what exactly mattered less in retrospect.
Dejun stormed out of the house with only his shoes and parka, and left his phone on the nightstand. When Kun woke up the next morning, he was ready to absolve whatever had gone down between them. But much to his disappointment, Dejun was not in the flat.
Kun picked up his phone and gave a ring; he was not in the borough over with Hendery at his flat. He wasn’t outside the door of their building asleep on the stoop. He wasn’t in the car park up the road. He wasn’t in the library, the coffee shop, or in the tube station, either. He didn’t report to work that day.
Dejun never called.
That evening the coroner did, and his last vision of his beloved was of someone unrecognizable. Kun was called in to identify the body, but there was very little there for him to make out. Dejun’s face had been marred, his flesh ribboned to the bone in most places. Half of his head was bashed in from the impact. The photos from the scene were far worse after he had been cleaned up for the medical examiner.
Even if the death had been swift, Dejun never deserved to die.
Kun rinsed the elixir from his skin, then toweled off to dry. He still felt sticky, even more mingled with the humidity of his windowless bathroom and the relentless summer heat. The rinse had little reprieve in the night air. Even with all the windows of the flat cracked open, Kun felt hotter than before his shower.
He stepped into his bedroom and knelt before a makeshift altar beside his bed stand. He had a framed photograph of Dejun from their holiday in Blackpool, a white votive candle next to a box of matches, a mug filled with distilled water, and a bowl filled with four ripe peaches. He’d sifted through the entire assortment at the market the weekend before, inspecting the surface for any blemishes or imperfections.
Kun picked up the box of matches, fingers trembling to pinch one out from the box. He felt his heart start to quicken deep in his chest as he swiped the match against the striker. For a moment, he could have sworn he saw the flame flicker green, to blue, then to a bright yellow. He carefully lit the candle before the portrait and dropped the match into the mug. He stirred the water with his finger fourteen times, counterclockwise, all the while imagining the words he’d tell Dejun if given the chance to deliver his message.
The flame flickered against the wall with a shadow swelling behind the edge of the frame. He could smell the peaches, ripe and full, and stared down at the flame dancing against the small wick.
“Please work,” he whispered.
In sleep come dreams, and in dreams comes desire.
The morning after the ritual, Kun had the first dreamless sleep since Dejun’s death. It was more unsettling than the visions of walls caked in blood, of snowfall turning into daggers of ice, or the worst: of seeing Dejun once again—whole, bright, warm—as if he had never left this realm. Those dreams were a balm, soothed Kun as he slept, but the moment he’d wake from his slumber, he’d feel the uncontrollable heartache all over again.
This morning, he felt more well rested than usual, likely having slept soundly for a solid eight hours, and got ready for the day with ease.
His commute to work was simple. Every step was aligned with showing up on time. He cruised into the office on the dot, enjoyed a cup of tea at his own leisure in the break room, and got to his work.
“Last night was well nice, yeah,” Sicheng said, standing at the far edge of Kun’s desk.
“Was it?” Kun said.
“We really miss seeing you, Kun,” he said, eyes pleading.
It wasn’t often Sicheng would crank out sincerity, so Kun gave himself a moment to appear he’d absorbed his words.
Kun gave a half-grimace. “Shame,” he tutted whilst shaking his head. “Another time then.”
The next night was dreamless, as well as the night after that.
The peace Kun felt on Friday and Saturday morning rattled him more than it soothed him. Had he grown too used to the sweat? The ache like an anvil to his chest? By Saturday morning he’d convinced himself he had missed seeing Dejun in his dreams.
Kun recalled a fact he once heard on a quiz show: the heart operates with its own pacemaker; it functions without waiting for impulses from the brain and does not stop from the moment the heart is formed in your mother’s womb to the very end of your life.
At one point, he felt his mourning for Dejun was a bit like that—running in its own agenda, a systemic, functional loop regardless what state Kun was in: awake, asleep, drowning under his shower head, on the phone with his mum, picking the salad from his burger, fetching a coffee from the canteen at the same time as Sicheng, stepping around the sick on the pavement right outside his tube station—no matter what he did, he went from being in a state of loving Dejun to grieving Dejun, constantly, overnight.
Now Kun worried this recent dreamlessness meant he had lost his last vessel of remembering the shape of Dejun. It was astonishing how clearly Dejun’s essence was carved out in his dreams. All the best parts of Dejun were condensed in Kun’s mind, and he feared they might be lost forever.
Grief comes in waves, but an ebb and flow drawn by the gravity of the moon, and tethered to the night sky.
The heart beats for what it wants:
When Sunday morning arrived, Kun’s sleep from the night before was not dreamless. It was vibrant, bursting with color of every shade imaginable. It was the best sleep Kun had in years.
He woke in his bed with the sun warm against his white cotton sheets. He hadn’t bothered to sleep in a shirt, heeding to the possibility of waking up in a puddle of his own sweat or yet another nightmare. But his skin was pleasantly warm, tingly even, as he pulled the sheet away from his skin.
He slipped out of bed to patter into the kitchen, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and turned on the kettle to make a fresh cuppa. He managed to do all the dishes in the sink the evening before to curb his boredom rather than necessity. He liked the look of an empty sink and pulled a mug from the cabinet.
Dejun had come to him in his dreams again—and the thought didn’t fill Kun with dread this time, but more like a calm, crackling fire in the hearth in the dead of winter.
They were on the lawn they first met, under the same elm tree. Dejun had his head in Kun’s lap, and he looked up at him while Kun twisted his fingers through his inky black hair. The strands looked almost blue under the dream-lit sun, and the grass beneath them felt soft. It smelt green until his senses were flooded by the sweet, bubbly smell of a white peach Dejun held in the palm of his hand. He held it up to Kun’s mouth, the soft fuzz brushing against his lips as he urged Kun to take a bite. Kun obliged and took the flesh between his teeth. It was divinity between his lips—fresh, bursting with flavour that dripped down his chin.
Dejun laughed—how much Kun had missed hearing his laughs. They were deep, rooted into his belly, and fell out of him like a song. Kun stared lovingly at his lapful of Dejun as he laughed through his bite, and took another as Dejun guided the fruit to his lips.
“More,” Dejun had said. “Eat more.”
The kettle turned off with a sharp click, and Kun made the rest of his tea before shuffling back to his bedroom.
His heart froze as soon as he stepped through the door frame, and his mug slipped through his hands when he noticed a human-shaped lump nestled under his duvet. Kun felt his hands shake as the ceramic shattered at his feet, hot tea and milk spilling onto the floor.
He took a moment to rub his eyes, never minding the river of tea that started to slip between his toes. The figure rested in a peaceful slumber with a head of white hair on the pillow, and let out a small groan at the sound of the mug shattering on the floor. Kun felt his blood turn cold when they opened their eyes: a deep, amber flecked with gold. They were familiar in the shape of them, their warmth in the glow more than the way they looked.
Kun trembled as he tried to tell his legs to move forward, but they were rooted into the floor, like trunks melded to the earth, and instead he tipped against the door frame as he felt a tightness in his chest squeeze around his lungs.
“D—Dejun?” he said, testing the name on his tongue for the first time in years. A name that felt less familiar each day, but never fully lost. He felt dizzy—it couldn’t be him. The Dejun he knew had dark hair, and even darker eyes—but he watched the figure’s pink mouth stretch into that charming smile, the one with the corners upturned just so, and Kun had missed it so much. He remembered how that smile felt against his cheek.
The figure let out a small sigh. “Good morning, love,” it said, voice smokey, just as Kun recalled from his memory.
Kun felt his heart race faster, in disbelief at how much it sounded just like him—just like the voice messages he had kept on his phone and would listen to from time to time, but this time Dejun’s voice was there, as clear as crystal.
Tears welled in his eyes as he felt his body slump against the door frame and fall into the cooling puddle of tea. He didn’t care that his joggers were now soaked, that a shard of ceramic threatened to dig in his knee. The ritual might have worked—or it worked enough to bring the illusion of Dejun back to him.
Kun let out a sob as his eyes pinched closed through the tears. He was given his chance to make things right again with Dejun, but now he was rendered speechless.
He felt a cool nudge under his chin, and opened his eyes to feel the figure pinch at it with his thumb and forefinger. It knelt before him, eyebrows furrowed and cheeks flushed with life. Its eyes—oh, its eyes were beautiful, and looked more grey than gold up close. It was wrapped in a white, silk robe cinched around its waist, the fabric so thin it was almost translucent. Kun brought a hand up to wrap around its wrist, white silk slipping down to his elbow, just to feel the light pulse beneath it, the warmth of it pressed against the palm of his hand.
“It’s me,” it said as it swiped a tear from Kun’s cheek. “Don’t cry, love. It’s really me.”
“Dejun,” Kun whispered. “H—how—”
“You asked for me.”
He said it so simply, as plainly as there is water running through the Thames or fish in the sea. Kun scanned his eyes across the face he had committed to memory through photographs and videos.
Kun noticed the perfect freckle in the middle of his forehead, hidden behind the white strands of hair. And then there was the small scar on the side of his nose from where the piercing healed. They both were such minute detains to recall for a replicant, or perhaps Kun was dreaming his most vivid encounter to date.
“I did,” Kun choked. “I—I missed you so much. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m sorry—”
Dejun hushed him with a finger to his lips. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m here now."
“How?” he asked again, shaking in his disbelief. He sniffled away more tears. “How are you here?”
“Because you wanted me to be.”
“It’s too good to be true. Too good—”
“Shhh,” Dejun hushed him once more. “It’s alright, love. You did everything right.”
“God,” Kun let out a watery laugh. “Ten gave me that book and I was so angry. I—I was upset for a while because I thought it was having a laugh, you know? Also, it scared the hell out of me.” Kun bit his lip recalling the goosebumps he felt that day, staring at the fox next to the fire. Ten had warned him there was a chance of this posing a risk. But that gnawing feeling that scratched away at him as he prepared the elixir and altar had all gone out the window; the ritual had been set, and the intentions had been reaped.
“Like—how? How could I ever see you again?” Kun shook his head and drew his index finger over the shell of Dejun’s ear. His eyes traced over the small creases that formed at the corner of his eyes. “But you’re here. You’re really fucking here. I can’t believe it actually worked—”
Kun slapped a hand over his chest to feel his heart racing against his palm. He could feel the blood thumping in his ears, and he felt winded like he had run a mile.
“Feel—” he grabbed for Dejun’s wrist to throw it over his heart. “You feel that?”
For a second, Kun could have sworn he saw Dejun’s eyes glow orange like a burning ember. Dejun’s hand pressed harder against his skin, branding him with his touch.
Kun let go of Dejun’s wrist and felt his hand slip away from his torso. “I can’t tell if I’m scared or excited.”
“What if it’s both?” Dejun asked, head cocked to the side. Dejun smiled, like all the light in the world poured out of him. His lips parted to show his teeth, white and perfect. He always reminded Kun of a handsome, playful fox.
“I suppose,” Kun laughed again. He felt a bit nauseated as well from the adrenaline spike that coursed through his veins. “Are—are you alive?”
“I’m real,” Dejun said as he tucked a strand of hair behind Kun’s ear. His smile faltered, wavered as he bit his bottom lip between his teeth as the glowing aura waned. “But I don’t have much time.”
Kun felt his heart plummet through his stomach. “You what?”
Dejun let out a long sigh. “I can’t be here forever.”
Kun swallowed down the lump that started to form in his throat again. He wanted to carry out his will to cry.
“It isn’t fair,” he mumbled. His lip started to tremble when he looked up. “It’s not fair that I didn’t get to spend the rest of my life with you, to start a family and move out of the city and grow old with you.”
“I know, sweetheart,” Dejun said. “I wanted that for us, too.”
Kun started to feel the tea that had soaked through his joggers turn tepid as it sogged against his legs.
“How much time do I have left?”
Dejun’s eyes flickered down to Kun’s lips. The gesture made Kun’s heart flutter—he’d wanted to kiss him for far too long.
“I—I can’t say,” Dejun replied, “but I can feel it isn’t for much longer.”
Kun brought his sticky hand to almost cup the side of Dejun’s face. He stopped, just shy of the porcelain skin where the apples of his full, sharp cheeks were flushed like ripened peaches. He could feel his warmth radiate from his body.
Dejun kept his eyes open, his gaze starting to shift from disappointment to longing, and closed the gap between them. His cheek nestled perfectly in the palm of Kun’s sticky hand as he fell into the touch.
“I’ve missed you,” Kun hummed as he stroked his thumb just under Dejun’s eye. He leaned forward and brought their foreheads together. This close, Kun felt his own heart rattle in his chest harder.
For four years he had spent trying to remember and rebuild this sensation of closeness. No other person was invited into his bed, let alone his arms, after Dejun died.
He pinched his eyes closed as he felt hot tears stream down his face and slipped his hand from Dejun’s cheek to the back of his neck. He wished he could breathe Dejun in and the sweet scent that curled from his mouth.
Kun slipped the tip of his tongue out to wet his lips and barely grazed Dejun’s. He gave a firm squeeze against the back of his neck and closed the gap between them for a quiet kiss. He had long fantasized about kissing Dejun again in many ways, usually embarrassingly passionate from the start, like a desperate plea for forgiveness.
But now that he had Dejun in front of him again, he wanted to take his time to see how well his memory kept—if his mind and body could remember all the ways Dejun liked to kiss on instinct.
He pulled away, mouth soft and eyes distracted by the wet shine glossed over Dejun’s lips. He could see Dejun’s chest rise and fall.
“I don’t want to forget the way you feel,” Kun said, voice feeling raw. “And the way you make me feel whole.”
Dejun shifted forward on his knees and brought his hands down to Kun’s shoulders. His gaze burned brighter as a grin formed at the corner of his mouth. He leaned forward to peck a kiss against Kun’s cheek as he got up from the floor and guided him around the puddle of tea to the edge of the bed.
They stood there in silence for another moment, drinking in each other’s presence. Kun memorized the way the morning sun and shadows made every inch of Dejun look sharper, as if his essence carved through the light rather than blocked it. He was a marvel, even with the hair as white as snow atop his head, and looked like an ethereal, celestial creature more than the love of his life.
Kun’s eyes traveled down and saw Dejun slip his thumbs to untie the ribbon cinched around his waist. He let the silk fall open, revealing his slender torso.
It was a miracle—Kun had to bury his memory of Dejun’s mutilated body laid out on a table—but now his flesh was as pale as the moon, whole and unmarred like the last time Kun saw it. Kun placed one trembling hand against his flank and rubbed the other against his ribs.
The white silk pooled around his ankles. The sun illuminated the faint, light hairs on Dejun’s chest, and further down a beam revealed the darker trail that led between his legs. It was the only hair on his body that remained just as Kun remembered it. Kun almost wanted to kick himself for thinking how badly he’d missed even that: to bury his face between Dejun’s legs and smell him at his most raw, to ravish him completely, revel in his sex and swallow his release. He loved Dejun any which way, down to each and every last hair on his form.
Dejun dropped his delicate hands down Kun’s waist and tugged at the elastic at his hips. Kun stepped forward, savouring the feel of Dejun’s gentle, smooth hands sliding against the sides of his thighs as he pushed the joggers over the swell of his ass and dragged his fingertips back up to his waist. Gravity took care of the rest, and Kun stepped out of the pile of jersey cotton to kick it aside.
Now completely bare, Kun’s raw, animalistic desire took over—the want he had craved for so long finally bubbled out when he cradled Dejun’s face back into his hands, and kissed him with such fervor he felt his knees begin to quake.
Dejun kissed him back with just as much heat and intensity. His hands roamed around Kun’s skin, his nails scratched gently at his back and scalp. They fell in sync quickly, as if time had not pulled and stretched thin to bring them together, as if years and divinity hadn’t separated them.
Kun pushed Dejun onto the bed and ripped the duvet from beneath him. He sunk a knee into the mattress as Dejun propped himself up on his elbows and brought his knees up toward his chest.
“It’s been a while,” Dejun said coyly, keeping his knees squeezed together.
“Likewise,” Kun laughed and felt a flush of embarrassment. He had tried—a couple times—to go on dates he’d met online, friends of his colleagues, friends of his friends, friends of his parents’ friends, even tried to chat up a few at a pub near Hendery’s, but they’d never get very far. The ones he did manage to get faded enough to think about taking to bed still left him dry. Even masturbating had lost its appeal.
But now, he felt the weight of his desire between his legs.
“I’m going to be honest,” Kun started, “I haven’t once dreamt of fucking you since you died.”
It felt strange wrapping his head around the concept of fucking his dead lover—but what was he now? A ghost? A demon? A fever dream?
He shrugged off his thoughts, brought his other knee onto the bed, and leaned forward to pry Dejun’s knees open. He admired the way his cock, small and slender, started to fill out over the nest of dark hair.
“It’s fine,” Dejun said, spreading his legs wider. Kun looked up to see him lick at the corner of his mouth and wipe at it with the back of his hand.
Kun felt the urgency rush back into him as he planted his hands on either side of Dejun’s head and lowered himself just enough to kiss him again, slow and tender this time.
The weight of his hips came down against Dejun’s and he slowly started to grind down. The friction of their cocks rubbing against each other was delicious, a simmering fever starting to swell in his lower gut each time he heard himself moan. Dejun nipped away at his jaw, ear, neck, anywhere he could get when Kun pulled away to cant his hips down with calculated precision.
“I’ve missed you,” Kun said again, lips brushed up against the shell of Dejun’s ear. This time his voice sounded small, tinny as his heart continued to pound away, throbbing in his skull. Dejun raked his nails against Kun’s back as he panted against Kun’s temple. “Every fucking day, Dejun.”
Kun made his way downward as Dejun unlatched his mouth from the hollow of his throat with a whine. His tongue traced against the soft, brown peak of Dejun’s nipple, hard as he swirled the tip of his tongue around it. His toes curled as he thought about the way Dejun had done the same to him in their past life together.
In that moment it felt like their chemistry hadn’t waned, hadn’t been separated by years, but had passed in the blink of an eye. The sounds that left Dejun’s mouth wove their own song of pleasure, a score Kun never wanted to forget. As Kun dragged his lips across the plane of his chest, he suckled onto the other nipple, careful to commit the sounds of his shamelessness to memory.
The harder Dejun tugged on the hair at the nape of his neck, the more Kun felt the weight of his arousal sink deeper into his gut. His mind wanted more, wanted to feel Dejun in his mouth, so he made a move to slink further down Dejun until he felt his knees squeeze around his ribs.
Dejun propped himself up onto one arm and took a handful of Kun’s hair with the other to yank him back upward. “No,” Dejun begged as Kun hissed at the sting from his scalp. Kun looked up with a smirk to see Dejun’s eyes narrowed, “Get closer.”
“My my, “ Kun tutted playfully, “so pushy—just like I remember!”
“Cheeky fuck,” Dejun giggled and let go of his hair to lightly pat his cheek. “Get up here!”
Kun moved his way pack up to face Dejun and dropped a quick peck against his lips. He adjusted his weight onto one elbow and brought his other hand to slip under the backside of Dejun’s thigh to hook it under his knee. “Better?”
“Mmm, yes,” Dejun mumbled against his cheek. “Much better.”
A thought crossed Kun’s mind, remembering that he still kept his bottle of lube in one of the drawers beside his bed despite not having a need for it in ages. He mustered up every ounce of willpower to pull away from Dejun’s insistent lips, from the teeth raking across Kun’s jugular like he wanted to devour him.
“Hold on, hold on,” Kun said, reluctantly pulling away to reach over the seemingly vast expanse between the bed and the nightstand, Dejun all the while torquing his hips up against Kun’s.
“Hurry,” Dejun gasped as Kun brought his thigh up to grind into Dejun’s hardness while he fumbled the drawer open. “Need you.”
Kun’s hand closed around the nearly-full bottle, and pulled back to settle himself better between Dejun’s splayed legs, pressing down on the cap while balancing himself on either side of Dejun’s head with his elbows. Logically, none of this made sense—that his dead lover was here in his bed whole and complete and writhing under him—but it didn’t matter, because he’d missed Dejun for so long, and even if this proved to be a fever dream, Kun wasn’t about to squander the opportunity. Not when Dejun was here, hooking his leg over Kun’s hip and bringing Kun’s hand between them in order for Kun to circle his entrance.
The tightness as Kun pressed one slick finger into Dejun made Kun’s chest ache from the memory of the first time they’d done this, to how tight Dejun had been, how Kun had had to spend what felt like hours just to open him up before Kun could push into him.
Kun took his time as he peppered kisses across Dejun’s face, memorized the slope of his nose against his cheek as he slipped another finger inside. Dejun moaned beneath him as he relaxed around his touch.
“You don’t need to be gentle with me,” Dejun purred into Kun’s ear. He wrapped his legs around Kun’s waist and locked his ankles. “Not like we haven’t done this before.”
“You’re barely—” Kun felt off balance, his hand trapped between them as he frigged his fingers in and out of Dejun.
“Kun, please,” Dejun said, his eyes bright and burning as he looked up at Kun. “It’s been too long. I can’t wait another second.”
Kun, helpless, had no recourse but to comply, slicking his cock up, wondering how he was supposed to fit into Dejun. They’d never done it like this before, but then again, the rules from before didn’t seem to apply to the Dejun beneath Kun now.
The press of the head of Kun’s cock into Dejun’s heat was maddening, the grip so intense Kun knew it was impossible that Dejun could feel no pain from this, but Dejun kept moving, bringing his hands up to cup Kun’s jaw and bring Kun’s lips down to crash against his own, the wicked slide of his tongue against Kun’s teeth spurring him further to press in. Dejun was so tight that Kun had to take a breath, and then another, hands gripping Dejun’s hair and making Dejun’s head tip back.
Kun buried his face into Dejun’s neck, moaning high and long as he fucked into him deeper. It felt amazing—it felt new.
Dejun clawed against his skin and wrapped his legs around the small of his, urging him to go faster, harder.
“Oh fuck,” Kun whined.
What he didn’t expect was for Dejun to squeeze his knees as tightly as possible, like a vise grip just when Kun was at his most vulnerable, and turned them over onto the other side of the bed.
Kun laid splayed out, astonished Dejun had the strength in him to turn them over, let alone keep his cock buried inside him. It was a heavenly sight to see Dejun drenched in the morning sun, his eyes half open as he started to resume where they left off.
“Kun,” Dejun said, panting hard as he started to pick up the pace again. “How much do you love me?”
Their skin was covered in a thin, sticky layer of sweat that started to soak into the sheets beneath him.
“More than anything, sweetheart.”
Dejun planted his palms against his chest and slowed his movements to a grind in a tight circle. It made Kun’s eyes roll to the back of his head. “Would you love me to the ends of the universe?”
“Of course,” Kun groaned and nodded his head.
“Would you love me forever?”
“Yes,” he hissed as soon as Dejun clenched down on him. “Yes—however long that is, babe.”
Dejun leaned forward with Kun’s chin pinched again between his thumb and forefinger. He traced the tip of his nose against Kun’s own, lightly as he felt Dejun’s tongue dart out to lick up the side of his face. He lapped at his cheek between wet kisses, and against his hairline.
Kun felt his heart beating in his ears again, thudding hard and steady with each rock of Dejun’s hips in his lap.
Dejun buried his nose in the hair at his temples, and then the side of his head, down to his neck where he suckled a fresh buise.
“Oh fuck,” he moaned, “you smell amazing.”
He never let up his pace, and Kun felt drunk on his bliss as his toes started to feel numb with pleasure. The slap of wet skin and the way Dejun’s hardened nipples brushed against him started to drive him into sweet delirium.
Dejun’s lips traveled to the shell of his ear and he whispered: “Would you give me your heart?”
He’d give Dejun everything—he’d drain his life savings, his humility, his pride, anything and everything to have him again.
He nodded furiously as his chest heaved in time with Dejun’s hips. He kept his hands anchored to his hips. Dejun brought his hips down harder, choking on a moan as Kun felt himself edge closer into oblivion.
“You need to say it,” Dejun growled. “Tell me, Kun.”
“Yes,” Kun moaned, “yes, yes, yes—yes, you have my heart. Forever—it’s yours.”
He babbled mindlessly just as he felt the crest of his wave begin to break. Kun tried to hold back. It was selfish of him; he didn’t want this moment to come to an end—but each moan that spilled from his lips had him closer to spilling inside his lover.
“Cumming,” Kun warned, but Dejun didn’t stop, didn’t waver, drove down harder, faster, more desperate as Kun brought up his hips to meet with him. Kun let out a pathetic whimper as he felt his release veil over his brain.
The euphoria hit hard and fast as he spilled into Dejun’s tight heat, and Dejun onto his belly, but it was gone as quickly as it came. With hardly a moment to catch his breath, Kun lay stunned as he felt Dejun’s hand plunge into his chest cavity.
It hurt—but then, in the split second after it happened, it didn’t. It was surreal to see his live, beating heart, plucked from his chest like a daisy, throbbing in Dejun’s fist.
There was blood everywhere, in his white hair, around his mouth, dribbling down his chin, his neck, his chest. He was painted all over with it, like a masterpiece. His hand was stained with Kun’s blood, dripping down his pale skin as he brought the stuttering heart to his lips.
Kun felt the world around him start to go black around the edges, but he held on, delirious to see what Dejun would do with his very own heart left in his hands.
His eyes looked wild, burning like a raging fire as he opened his mouth and dug his sharp teeth in for a bite. He quickly licked at the side of his wrist and let out a quiet moan.
“Together.” Dejun said around a mouthful of muscle. “Forever.”