By the time Shinwon reached the front door, the lights upstairs were already out. He was left with a dim glow emitting from the nearest lamppost and the sound of dry leaves tumbling on the side of the main road.
It had been a long day for him, far worse than all the other days like this combined. His back hurt from the constant sitting and his shoulders ached from too much slouching, but none of it was new to him because every day he let the hours slip away without a second to spare, typing letters and signing documents at his cluttered, mahogany desk.
Shinwon was too absorbed in the current case he was working on, filled with numbers and bank accounts and falsified signatures. Financial theft cases always got him riled up somehow, perhaps due to the forensic work he had to dabble in. When he first decided that he wanted to become a lawyer, he never would’ve guessed that the best crime to solve had nothing to do with murder.
With one last glance at the quaint streets and the wafting breeze whispering unfathomable stories through the air, Shinwon unlocked the door and went inside.
In one swift movement, he placed his briefcase on the floor, put the keys in a glass bowl on a wooden cabinet by the door, and kicked off his shoes. He then managed to complete his routine quietly as he took off his socks with one hand and locked the door with the other.
Once his shoes were placed neatly on the rack, Shinwon walked through the dimly lit hallway past the living room and made his way towards the small kitchen. It was ten minutes till midnight, and he had made it a point to drink hot chamomile tea before washing up and going to bed. He wasn’t this elaborate before, drinking tea and such, but then again, that was before he found the person who’d changed his life for the better.
The thought made him wonder to himself in the kitchen, after turning on the light and finding the absence of a teapot on their small dining table.
Weird , he thought, he never misses making tea every night .
So Shinwon worked his way through the cabinets, finding the tea that was never misplaced and placing the tea bag inside one of his favorite mugs.
The mug was made of clay, donned in splashes of primary colors painted in purposely uneven strokes. Then he lifted the mug slightly to look at the name signed at the bottom in black ink: Hyunggu.
During their last year as degree students, the two of them had gone to a pottery workshop held at their university during an art convention. Hyunggu, having fallen in love with any and every form of art there was to exist around him, had insisted on attending the workshop, resulting in the birth of the mug Shinwon now held carefully in his hands. Hyunggu had wrapped it neatly with brown paper and gifted it to him, so Shinwon never went a day without drinking his tea from the same mug for the past four years.
The thought of Hyunggu’s delicate hands forming the mug and the sheer sparks in his eyes when he painted them made Shinwon smile to himself as he sipped the steaming hot tea, burning his tongue.
Wincing, Shinwon put the mug on the table and leaned his lower back onto the counter by the window. He looked outside, seeing nothing but the streetlights that aligned the concrete pavement, standing tall and guiding the wisps of autumn wind from being swallowed whole by complete and utter darkness.
“What are you thinking about?” asked a soft voice coming from the doorway to the kitchen.
The corner of Shinwon’s lips instantly tugged upwards, but the small smile didn’t quite reach his eyes when he turned around to face the one his heart was still beating for.
Hyunggu stood there, his smile bright compared to the tired look in his eyes. The pastel blue pajamas clung onto his body and his collar bones protruded from the neckline, showing off waning, pale skin that matched the color of his lips.
“Just work stuff,” came Shinwon’s reply.
The two stood on opposite sides of the room, looking at one another fondly the way they did all those years ago. Perhaps a lot of things had changed, but no amount of time and space could take away the love that Shinwon and Hyunggu had in store for one another.
“Why are you awake, sunshine?” asked Shinwon. He held out a hand for Hyunggu to take, and the latter made his way across the room towards where he stood.
Hyunggu’s hand was cold.
The feeling of his paper skin touching Shinwon’s sent ice down his veins, but Shinwon remained silent, waiting for Hyunggu to speak. He pulled the latter into his arms and pressed a kiss onto the top of his head.
“I’m just waiting for you,” answered Hyunggu. “I’ll always wait for you.”
Shinwon exhaled slowly, running one hand through Hyunggu’s disheveled hair before taking his face in his hands. He felt a pang in his chest when their eyes met, and his fingers shook slightly as they held Hyunggu’s face, afraid that if they held on too tightly, he would crumble.
“It’s midnight now,” Shinwon said, “you should be sleeping. Have you taken your meds?”
Hyunggu nodded, “Don’t worry about that. It’s taken care of.”
“Good. How was the trip to your parents’ house? I’m sorry I couldn’t come along, you know how it is.”
“I know,” said Hyunggu, pushing a strand of Shinwon’s brown hair behind his ear. It had grown out and fell right above his eyes, but the man had been too busy to eat lunch let alone to get a haircut.
“Well? Were they upset that I didn’t go with you?”
“No,” Hyunggu smiled, “of course not.”
He let his forefinger trace the shape of Shinwon’s nose down to his lips, leaving behind a trail of goosebumps that only he could cause. It had always been like that with them; endless innocent touches on nights where they were too tired to let their hunger for the other get the best of them, and for the past two years, it had been like that every night.
His friends and colleagues would tell Shinwon that he’s a patient man, a saint even, for putting up with Hyunggu’s condition. He found it ridiculous.
Why would caring for the one you love make you a saint?
Shinwon knew he would go to extreme lengths for Hyunggu. Sure, he had failed to do even the smallest things sometimes, like missing a chemotherapy session because he had a court case to deal with or not being able to go to Hyunggu’s parents’ house for his mom’s birthday that night. He hated himself for this type of days, where Hyunggu was left alone to do everything himself while Shinwon went on a verbal fight defending the people that gave him a job.
But Hyunggu never complained. He assured Shinwon that it was okay, that it was vital to him that Shinwon didn’t miss work just to care for him . He was more than capable of going places himself and didn’t like to depend on other people more than he should.
It was Kang Hyunggu after all. He was too strong, too stubborn for his own good sometimes, but it was one of the reasons why Shinwon had fallen for him in the first place. He could do anything he put his mind to, even when his body failed to catch up with his brain most of the time.
“Do you remember our first date?” Hyunggu suddenly asked, his voice muffled as he spoke against Shinwon’s shoulder.
“Hm,” Shinwon thought, his tea long forgotten, “is it the one at the arcade and I beat you at all the games there?”
Hyunggu laughed, slapping his shoulder lightly, “That was the other way around!”
“Okay, maybe I wasn’t born to be good at arcade games,” Shinwon smiled, running one hand up and down Hyunggu’s spine the way he liked it. “But of course I remember, you were wearing that purple hoodie you like so much.”
“I miss that hoodie,” said Hyunggu, “I haven’t worn it in a while.”
It was the truth.
Shinwon couldn’t remember when was the last time Hyunggu had worn that purple hoodie when he used to wear it so much. He could see the grin on Hyunggu’s face when Shinwon met him at the coffee shop outside the dorms, ready to embark on the journey that was their first date. It was smooth, the way Hyunggu had asked him out.
All it took was a single pencil portrait of Shinwon that Hyunggu had drawn during a freshers night dinner party, and one sentence written at the bottom in neat handwriting:
Coffee tomorrow at ten?
The look on Shinwon’s face when Hyunggu pushed the drawing on the table towards him, the laugh that escaped his lips when he saw his own face on the paper along with the four words at the bottom of the page—everything was perfect.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
So off the two went that very next day, coffee cups in their hands as they visited the national art museum. Shinwon had paid for the burgers they’d eaten from a small stall near the town hall, and they’d gone for a walk at the park opposite the single edifice, blowing bubbles that Hyunggu had bought on their way there.
The evening ended with another drawing of Shinwon sketched by Hyunggu at the park, with the sun setting right behind him whilst he stared at black birds flying into the horizon. Shinwon had kept each drawing on the notice board in his dorm, and pinned them on the walls of their home three years later.
“Who will draw you when I’m gone, Wonnie?” Hyunggu broke their silence, looking up into the eyes that appeared so exhausted, but never failed to soften at the sight of him.
Tiredness is obsolete in a world where there’s only Kang Hyunggu and Ko Shinwon.
Shinwon held Hyunggu by the shoulders, bending down to meet his eye level. He could only smile sadly as he caressed the latter’s cheek with one hand.
“I’ll have your drawings to last me a lifetime, Ggu. No one could compare to you.”
Just as those words left his mouth, the house phone rang.
Shinwon’s eyebrows knitted into a frown at the sudden interruption. They weren’t used to having people call them by landline, especially in the middle of the night. Besides, only their family members and a few close friends knew the number.
“I’ll go get it, okay? You can go upstairs first,” said Shinwon before kissing Hyunggu’s forehead.
He made his way across the room to exit the kitchen as the phone was in the living room, perched on a table beside the television.
“Shinwon,” Hyunggu called when he reached the doorframe.
It felt odd, hearing his full name coming from his lover’s mouth, but Shinwon stopped and turned around, waiting for him to continue.
“I love you.”
Shinwon half smiled, shaking his head at the other’s antics.
“I love you more, sunshine.” He patted the wood of the doorframe, feeling the heat that rushed to his cheeks, then looked at Hyunggu again. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
Hyunggu only smiled weakly as he watched Shinwon disappear from view. The latter then quickly made his way towards the living room and picked up the phone on the fifth ring, all while curiosity filled him up to the brim.
Light sniffles answered him instead before a woman’s voice filled his ear.
“Shinwon-ah,” a voice, distraught and sorrowful, greeted him.
It was his mother-in-law.
She called for his name again, and Shinwon felt the uneasiness creeping inside his stomach. The tears began to brim in his eyes despite being absolutely clueless as to why the woman was crying into the receiver.
“Shinwon, it’s Hyunggu…”
And those words, followed by the worst news he could ever receive in his life, forced the phone to fall from his hand and topple onto the floor.
Shinwon ran. He ran towards the kitchen where the ghost of his lover previously stood, the cold of his hands still tingling Shinwon’s skin.
The lawyer fell to his knees in the absence of the man he had just held in his arms. His sobs filled the atmosphere, echoing through the vacant house and slipping through the drawings on the wall. His tea remained on the counter, colder than the autumn air that waited outside.
It took him thirty minutes.
Thirty minutes to pick himself off the floor and out the front door. It took him another twenty to drive recklessly down the road while he drowned in his own pool of tears behind the wheel, the seatbelt forgotten.
It was all that he could muster to walk down the pavement that led to Hyunggu’s childhood home; all the strength in him to drag his feet past the endless streetlights they had danced under in the rain, on the very night of their small wedding.
Shinwon didn’t knock on the front door. He didn’t glance at the empty streets when he fell through the open door and onto the wooden floorboards of the living room. He didn’t take off his shoes, nor did he glance at the people whose hands were holding him.
There on the sofa, Hyunggu looked like he was fast asleep. With his greying skin and chapped lips, he still looked as beautiful as the day they’d first met. A blanket was draped over him, one that his mother had knitted for him when he first went to university.
He was just watching television, a music channel showing a jazz band performing his favorite song.
Hyunggu had closed his eyes, thinking about the tea he hadn’t made for Shinwon and how it was getting late. He thought of the night Shinwon had played that song, one knee on the floor with hope in his eyes.
Hyunggu had closed his own, and Shinwon was the last person that he had seen.
But Shinwon didn’t know, as he dragged himself across the carpeted floor towards the sofa, clutching the sleeve of the purple hoodie that clad Hyunggu’s thin and frail body.
Just like the darkness that came with the night, Hyunggu was his only streetlight. Where there was vast emptiness and a colorless canvas, Hyunggu had shone brightly, guiding Shinwon through the dark, above fire and water.
And he would remain Shinwon’s single ray of light, even when he finally dimmed.