Hankyung/Nicholas Tse; PG-13; AU
|Clock drift - noun. Phenomenon where a clock does not run in the exact right speed compared to another clock; in time leads to it 'drifting' apart from the other. |
Stretched out on the couch with bare feet up against the padded back and lazily zapping through television channels upside down, it had taken a couple of days for Nic to notice that the clock he had bought had stopped working. He turned the volume down before muting it completely, frowned at it, and cast the man in the kitchen fixing a quick small bowl of rice for breakfast before he had to go to work a puzzled look.
No, not a sound.
"What's up with that thing?"
Hangeng didn't comment. It was his usual strategy. Pretend not to get involved or notice and everything would work out fine. So he hummed a quiet tune while carrying his bowl to the small dining table and sat down. Leave it to him to pick out the one flatmate of the couple he had met, after having come to the conclusion that paying the rent for his apartment by himself was just impossible, that was this meddlesome. Really.
Except that he did notice. That was the single flaw in his strategy. He did notice it when the other man got up, or when he sauntered over to the clock he had bought upon realising that Hangeng himself didn't own one yet. When he stretched and his shirt crept up over slightly faded baggy jeans while picking the clock off the hook and turning it around in his hands.
Hangeng wished that he could curse the sun for casting its cheerful rays into the living room. It all appeared so comfortable, as he glanced over the edge of his black porcelain mug at the few glimpses of the other man that the wall between the living room and the kitchen would allow. But it didn't feel comfortable. It didn't.
And there it was.
"Get a new clock on the way home! This piece of shit eats batteries like you have no idea."
Hangeng wondered why it was always him. He had a job. He needed the money, and he couldn't just sacrifice the one break he had to buy a clock, of all things. He hated clocks. They ticked, they kept him awake and distracted, but worst of all, they progressed. Steadily and without mercy. And they would always leave him feeling nauseated.
His failure of a flatmate, ever entirely his opposite and whom Hangeng had just rather continued calling by his last name if the man hadn't insisted he didn't, quite obviously had time on his hands. 'Looking for a job', that's what he called it. He wasn't doing anything. He ate, slept, watched Discovery Channel the remaining hours of the day and read a couple of job advertisements every so often in the local news paper after Hangeng was done with it, more to appease the younger than that he was in all honesty interested in it.
And perhaps worst of all was the fact that he got away with it.
A hand flashed before his eyes. And once again. Hangeng turned his focus up to Nic, who had apparently seated himself across the table without his knowledge and was now resting his chin on his hands, looking oddly amused at him.
"You were zoning out again," he informed him. "New clock, got it? And bring a couple of those instant meals for me, I'm running out."
With everything dark around him, he could faintly hear it in the distance.
Another second, minute, twenty-seven minutes and fifty-three seconds. It wasn't far past eleven yet when Hangeng pressed the clammy palms of his lightly trembling hands to his face and rubbed his eyes, rolling onto his side. He breathed out heavily. Why had he bought that thing? Why on earth had he bought that hellish thing?
The strip under his door let through the barest glance of light, along with the creaking sound of the kitchen refrigerator. It told him that his flatmate was currently in the process of reaching for a bottle of beer, and Hangeng waited for the tell-tale pop that always followed it.
Work that day hadn't been eventful. It never was, but anything was good enough to escape the confinements of this place. Nic didn't seem to have any problems with it. As a matter of fact, he didn't seem to have problems with anything. He slept whenever it pleased him and he stayed inside until he got tired of television and went for a short walk.
Hangeng tuned pianos. That's what he did. It was never spectacular, no matter the kind of people he met during his work. Nor were the things he picked up when people thought that he wasn't listening worth remembering most of the time. Every now and then he'd get stuck in a couple fight, and then there were the young children who always seemed to reason that 'because he was the piano man' he needed to play them a melody. Hangeng played Für Elise every single time. He could figure out a song by hearing it, but he had never been taught and neither did he have the ability to read music.
Another creak and the disappearance of the light from under his door signalled Nic back on his way to his bedroom. Hangeng breathed out. He hadn't realised he had been holding his breath. As if on cue, the clock's ticking swelled in volume and became his audible scourge once again.
And it never stopped unless Hangeng would go out and fix it.
It wasn't so much the ticking of the clock that troubled him. It was that it ticked onward, so relentlessly and so uncaring of anything else. Every next second was a second into the future, and he would have no control over it. Every next second was a good-bye to the last. Every last second something that could never be brought back. Like a metronome for a piano it seemed to set the pace of living, but always a few standards higher than he felt he could manage.
With sped up breathing and a heartbeat pounding irregularly against the inside of his chest, feet unsteadily tried to support the rest of the man's weight. Hangeng swayed. He envied people that lived a secure life, never plagued at night by unreasonable panic and a desire to just sleep so strong that it became impossible exactly because of that.
Eventually quiet shuffling footsteps brought him into the living room.
Breakfast was the only time during the day when they saw each other. It was like Nic was aware of that too, or had come to realise it not too long ago. Hangeng remembered how he used to sleep late and how they always missed each other by an hour at least. There had been almost a week during the first month when they hadn't seen each other at all. Sunday always broke the pattern and set the counter back to zero, but it always felt like Monday evened that out and made up for it immediately after.
These days they always met, always for at least a couple of minutes. The first time they did, Hangeng had asked his flatmate whether he had been having trouble sleeping. Nic had simply replied that he'd go back to bed after the other would go off to work with a cheeky smile etched onto his sleepy face. It had stayed that way. He never socially tried to start up a conversation, but he would offer a smile - or skipped that part when in a bad mood - and say good morning, spending the rest of the time that Hangeng was still at home either on the couch zapping through channels or in any other way busying himself. And then he'd catch up with the rest of his sleep. Often Nic just fell asleep on the couch and missed 'have a good day at work and bring me home good food!' because of that.
Hangeng pretended that he didn't see the point of waking up just for that.
Today wasn't any different. Leisurely padding to the front door to retrieve the day's newspaper, Hangeng found Nic sprawled across the couch once again upon his return, lazily tearing small pieces off a bread bun. He quietly sat down at his usual spot. Everything was as it always was.
With practiced covering up of his unease he skipped the first page. First pages gave him a date, and uneasy faces gave him an unasked for commentary from the couch. But when he turned his attention to a small article concerning a popular writer caught for tax frauds, nothing revolutionary and the only item on the page that didn't involve murder or war, the sound of the television was suddenly muted.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Hangeng twitched. He turned his face up towards the clock. Calm. Stay calm. He needed to stay calm.
But despite his thoughts his hands were shaking.
"By the way, I changed the batteries again this morning," sounded a casually informing voice from the living room. "Where do you buy that rubbish? Do they have a return policy? Whoever makes those things should be sued for screwing people over selling that junk."
Nic turned over on the couch. This was the first time Hangeng had seen him sitting up straight - apart from the interview the day they first met, months ago, when he had appeared honestly a regular guy, hardworking and social, but always in the right measure - and he was surprised enough to let his guard down.
"I..." a pause, "I'll let them know."
Hangeng didn't usually talk. He often spoke short meaningless words, good-mornings, and only rarely good-nights. They sometimes mentioned idle things like how nice the weather was or what they had done today - the answer to that never varied from 'you know, the usual' with only a small change in how it was worded - when he came back from work, Nic boasting and Hangeng quietly lending an ear but hardly being talkative himself. But they never talked about clocks. Ever. And upon noticing what direction this was heading in, he immediately returned to his newspaper and cup of coffee. Hangeng was feeling ill at ease and so, so awfully awkward.
Nic took his chance. He got up and sat down in front of him on the chair on the other side of the table backward, resting his chin lazily on the wood while he tried to read the newspaper, carelessly tipping the chair forward. What he was chewing on Hangeng couldn't tell. Nic was someone whom every assumption of natural behaviour didn't appear to apply to. He watched television during mornings and he listened to loud music on his headphones when he was about to go to bed. So chewing at a toothpick or gum or whatever it was at this time of the day wasn't that odd, really.
"Guess what," he grinned.
Hangeng looked up. He waited patiently - left thumb pressed to his tongue while he had been in the process of wetting the surface for a better grip on the pages, a habit he repeated every other page - but the answer didn't come. Nic also looked like he was waiting for something. His eyes twinkled, and Hangeng had to admit that the guy deserved some credit for being like an open book sometimes in what he wanted. Apart from the fact that he had gotten rather fond of that smile. Eventually he gave in with a sigh and the ghost of a blossoming curiosity.
"Got a job." Nic was, if possible for someone that complained more than that he accepted, positively beaming.
It was about time, Hangeng could only think, yet he offered the man a reserved smile. At least there wouldn't be the times when he'd come home to find him asleep on the couch, or the floor if he had slid off during his slumber - with an empty soup bowl in front of him on the wooden table of the living room and without having prepared food for him too. Not anymore. He had come to like those moments.
"That's good," he replied.
Hangeng noticed things. He wasn't blind. Quiet, perhaps, and that was something he intended to keep that way, but not blind. While he could pretend towards others, he could never do the same to himself. And this had been going on for a while now.
Perhaps it was the way in which Nic occasionally sought approval for the things he did and didn't do. Or how he could feel his eyes no longer on the television during mornings, instead glancing toward him, always fleetingly when he thought that the younger of the two wasn't watching. Hangeng knew. He just didn't know what to do with that.
Or maybe he was afraid.
Hangeng felt pretty hollow inside when he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, brushing his teeth distantly. He breathed out. People had always told him that good times passed quickly and bad ones dragged on forever. His life then didn't belong to either category. He was always counting the seconds, and they went by so quickly. But at the same time he was waiting, always holding back. That included everything. Work, life, and the man absent from the bedroom next to his. Always holding back only to continue counting the seconds.
They didn't see each other that much anymore. Nic didn't make full days, but he was away at least three mornings in a week, and often more than that if they called him and told him to get to work within ten minutes. Hangeng thought that it was better that way. If they didn't see each other much, they could ignore things. He could ignore how lately he felt more at ease with a smile given freely, and how Nic would instead awkwardly turn away in the same situation. It was easier.
A knock on the front door made him turn his head.
Stupid grin on his face and hands in the pockets of his soaked jacket, arms stretched, it looked like Nic didn't care much about the rain that was falling behind and around him and that made the streetlights look like they were leaking watery orange colours onto the pavement. Hangeng wouldn't put it past him either. It had been that kind of weather all day, so why he hadn't at least brought an umbrella or a rain suit was probably one of those things typically logical only to him.
"I, eh, forgot my key this morning."
Without words Hangeng looked up at him, still standing in the doorway and toothbrush still sticking out of his mouth.
Nic smiled tentatively. Already soaked to the bone, he had stopped paying attention to the rain, but occasionally rubbed his nose before small drops would gather and trickle down.
"So," he started before he raised an eyebrow with amusement, "Mind if I come in, or are you going to have me standing here all night?"
Right. Right. Hangeng stepped aside. He followed him inside with his eyes and then closed the door, softly smiling. They had told him at work a few days back that he never took the initiative to say anything. Maybe, Hangeng thought, that wasn't so far from the truth. Just because he wanted to though, he made an effort this time.
When he turned around Nic wasn't there. Instead a trail of water drops already lead him away from the hallway, right through the living room - it would have been nice, Hangeng thought, if he had tried not to leave wet prints everywhere - and into the bathroom. Or, more specifically, to the door of the bathroom, which appeared very much locked. With his toothbrush still in his hand, Hangeng stood still at the spot for a moment.
"What?" Nic called from the bathroom, unaware that he was right in front of the door. And then the sound of the shower overruled any possible answer. Hangeng sighed. Well never mind, then.
Hangeng looked up into the mirror. "What?" he asked. It was almost a reversed scenario of previous events, except that Hangeng was in the bathroom once again and Nic had finished his shower twenty minutes ago. What he was doing here, not watching the show he always tried to catch Thursday nights, and trying to strike up a conversation with him, didn't quite occupy a spot in Hangeng's mind under the label of 'is to be understood with effort'.
It came close to 'obvious', though.
"Coffee. You offered coffee, right?"
Nic looked at him from his position, leaning against the doorpost. He looked careless as usual, wearing a sweatshirt and baggy trousers and ignoring that his hair was still creating damp patches at the gray of his shoulders. So maybe Hangeng didn't have to worry this time. He was tired enough for it.
"It's late," he replied, "I'll make you coffee in the morning."
"I lost my job."
For a moment Hangeng almost wanted the clock that he single-handedly had kept from functioning properly all this time, sneaking out at nights to switch batteries with empty ones that he hadn't thrown away for those occasions specifically, to start ticking again. The quietude that suddenly enveloped him felt a hundred times more constricting than any indication of time might ever have done. But Nic didn't notice.
"Called my boss a whale. He wasn't happy about that, I tell you."
Hangeng smiled. He dried his face and then moved to pass the other man. Where he had thought Nic to step aside though, nothing happened. Instead they almost collided. Only at the last moment was Hangeng able to stop himself from walking straight into him. He looked up.
Nic wasn't smiling anymore. He looked like he was about to say something, but he never did. Hangeng was still busy trying to comprehend the situation when he felt lips pressed shortly against the corner of his own. His mind didn't know what to make of it, how to make him respond and, confused as he couldn't patch one incoherent thought to the other and make them understandable, Hangeng faltered.
He withdrew, just slightly, more out of a natural reaction than of practiced ease. The mechanism in his head was still failing him. But he didn't get a good chance at recovering, when he found Nic leaning in again, following the first with a second more fully on his lips. It remained but a ghost of a kiss however, because Hangeng grasped the situation and pulled away quicker this time.
He was still confused and trying to survive on a full on denial of service from the part of his brains that dealt with active thoughts when Nic kissed him a third time, but this time his mind betrayed him. Hadn't he been thinking of this, exactly this, for some time now already, after all? Hadn't he, moments before the realisation would dawn that everything came to an end eventually and would leave everything ruined, known that this moment would come, inevitably and carrying consequences?
For a while there were no seconds. Short-circuiting of his thoughts had at least that small advantage over grasping the bigger picture that would inevitably happen within the next two minutes. And for the time that Hangeng had left without that knowledge he allowed himself to open up and accept the only friend he had as something more.
They didn't move from their position more than one step, but they didn't need to either. Nor did Nic waste any time leaning in, hands wandering up until they were cupping Hangeng's face, almost desperate to hold him there, thumb smoothing over the skin there. For that moment Hangeng kissed him back with equal desire.
And then the cogs of the mechanism started ticking again.
It went unspoken when he tried to pull away, first half-heartedly and then stronger until he stood three feet away from Nic and breathing hard, but it didn't take more than that to tell both of them that that would be it.
Hangeng didn't offer any apologies or pacifying gestures. He left without words, passing the other man awkwardly with his eyes facing the ground. They both counted the footsteps that it took for him to walk away, but he didn't look up once.
Things were as they were again. Nic didn't have work and so he passed his morning upside down on the couch, clumsily trying to browse through channels to look for something interesting enough, while Hangeng busied himself with the newspaper. Despite the volume of the television things were eerily quiet.
When Hangeng took a careful sip of too hot coffee and looked up, he realised why.
The clock was ticking. Visibly ticking, visibly back on batteries. But soundless. It didn't stop at every second, it simply turned around the centre axis slowly. Nic had bought a new clock then.
Hangeng smiled. He didn't comment on it or let his eyes linger too long to give the message unwittingly anyway and turned back to his newspaper. But he felt content, and things felt oddly comfortable, and it was all just that bit unreal that could tell him that something probably wasn't right but did feel like it.
The sound of the television died quicker than the screen did. Practically rolling off the couch because it was easiest from how he had been lying lazily on it, Nic got to his feet and stretched. He rubbed an eye and then yawned, before padding into the kitchen and past Hangeng. The cup of coffee there for him was left forgotten.
"I'm getting back to bed," he informed in a groggy voice that carried just a hint of unease. "Have a good day at work, okay?"
Hangeng looked up at him and smiled. It almost was as if things were forgotten and over with when Nic reached the door of his bedroom and added to that:
"Let me know when you stop being afraid of the future."
And Hangeng thought that even when there was no sound, the clock in the living room had never ticked this loud and this tangibly.