Huan Ling balanced a toothpick between his lips, watching the person next to him and the way his muscles stretched below his skin. Tensing and relaxing, the light reflecting off a thin layer of sweat every time they arched.
Tong Min eventually put down the weights and brushed his face with one hand, giving a sigh before he turned to Huan Ling. “Have you seen enough yet? Then why don’t you go and work out yourself?”
Huan Ling took out the toothpick and threw it in the corner for the cleaning robot to pick up, shaking his head. “No, not yet. You’re finally not wearing your combat suit. This is a rare treat for my eyes. So why don’t you continue and let me watch a while longer? Anyway, there is no need to rush, is there? We can finish our workout slowly.”
Tong Min’s brows twitched. “I wasn’t talking about my workout though. I was talking about yours. You haven’t even started yet! Don’t hold me back when we’re outside later on.”
Huan Ling raised his hands in defense. “Have I ever held you back? You shouldn’t worry about something like that. I’m as dependable as always. Just continue with your own training as if I wasn’t here at all.”
Tong Min scoffed but didn’t say anything else. He got off the bench and went over to another machine, ignoring Huan Ling. Anyway, he couldn’t change that guy’s ways. He could only do what he could to make sure that he himself was still up to par when they finally got out of the Academy and could go back to the front line or at least do some missions again.
Huan Ling continued to sit on the bench for a moment before he got up and followed Tong Min over. He planted his butt on the ground next to him and leaned back, looking up with a cheeky grin, not at all ashamed when his gaze traveled over Tong Min’s exposed abs. “Did you hear about what the cadets are planning?”
Tong Min rolled his eyes. Did this guy really want him to believe that this was what he had been thinking about all the time? Then maybe he should look somewhere else while he asked. “Whatever it is, it shouldn’t have anything to do with us if it’s not going to cause problems with security. Why do you care so much about it?”
“It’s not that I care about what they do but ah, young people these days, they really have some interesting ideas. From what I’ve heard on the grapevine, it’s supposed to be a party. Nothing big and nothing we need to be worried about. So … Why don’t we join in?”
Tong Min stopped with his workout and turned to Huan Ling, looking at him incredulously. “What did you just say?”
Huan Ling spread his hands. “Let’s join in.” He could see that Tong Min was absolutely against the idea but he wasn’t about to be discouraged that easily. He leaped to his feet and inched closer until he almost stuck to his friend. His gaze drifted to his clavicle. A few drops of sweat were clinging to it stubbornly. Huan Ling’s lips rose and he looked up again. “Come on. It’s not like we’re out on the battlefield right now. We’re just instructors. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
“Anyway, on the day it’s supposed to happen we’re not even on guard duty. We might as well have some fun. Don’t you feel the least bit frustrated at being cooped up in here all the time? Don’t you want to go out and fight again? I sure as hell can’t stand it any longer.”
Tong Min who had just wanted to lash out reconsidered at those words. Huan Ling and he had stuck together since the time they themselves had been cadets. They had trained together and finally entered the same department when they finished their training. They had gone on missions when they started out, joking on the breaks and saving each other’s lives when they were out there. They had even been transferred to the front line at the same time.
Going through life and death together, entrusting their backs to each other, relying on each other regardless of time and place … Even if he sometimes felt that this guy was annoying, they were brothers-in-arms. Somebody they knew better than even their closest, blood-related family members.
From their shoe size to the type of food they liked and even the words they were supposed to bring back should one of them die, they could answer these questions even when they were only half awake.
Naturally, he understood what Huan Ling meant: They weren’t made for a position like this. Even though their superiors had meant well and wanted to let them rest after their first time at the front line, this wasn’t what they wanted at all.
This wasn’t their life. They were still young, they still had dreams and aspirations. They still wanted to go out there, serve the Federation, and bring honor to their country. Not being allowed to do so felt more like a punishment, as if they hadn’t done well enough.
Huan Ling said that it was to unwind and let off some steam but Tong Min was pretty sure that Huan Ling also wouldn’t mind if they were caught and deemed unfit as role models for the cadets at the Academy. Then, they might be sent back to somewhere where they would be more useful. That was what he wanted deep down.
Tong Min finally sighed and gave in. “Fine. But just this once.” Anyway, they would only be here for two years at most. If they were lucky, they would even be sent somewhere else after the first one was over. Until then, it was only another three months. Considering that, it was better to wait until then and maybe apply for a change in position than to risk something like this.
After all, even though it was the Academy, it was still overseen by the military. Doing something like this and getting caught would also mean an entry in their files. He didn’t want to risk that. After all, they couldn’t estimate the consequences that would bring down the line. In the worst case, they would get a real punishment this time.
Huan Ling laughed and pulled him into his arms, messing up his hair in that typical infuriating way of his that Tong Min couldn’t bring himself to reject.
He held onto him for a moment and even closed his eyes. “We’ve managed to come back alive from war when it looked impossible. Are you really going to be brought to your knees by a year or two of boredom?”
Huan Ling’s hand brushed across his back in an all-too-familiar manner. “Not if there’s something else occupying my mind.”
Tong Min shuddered and finally pushed him off. He clicked his tongue in an attempt to cover up the awkwardness. “Alright, alright. Cut it out already. We should get back to training. If we get out of here soon, we need to be in top form. Otherwise, do you believe they will put us somewhere to push around documents? Do you want that?”
Huan Ling shook his head with a small smile. He hadn’t expected any other reaction but it still stung a bit. They had gone through so much and he was sure that he wasn’t the only one who noticed this closeness between them that was unlike anything he had ever felt. But if Tong Min didn’t want to admit it, then there was nothing he could do.
He went back to the bench and finally picked up the weights. “Hell, no! I’d rather shoot myself with a beam gun than to suffer through that.”
Tong Min glanced at him, a bit of uneasiness creeping up on him. He already wanted to scold him for saying something unlucky but finally just shook his head and went back to training.
Neither of them brought the matter up again whether it was about that party or about the feelings between them as if this conversation had never happened.
A day went by until Huan Ling knocked on Tong Min’s door. When Tong Min opened, he was pushed back inside and against the wall. He gave a surprised yelp, his heart beating furiously. This time, he didn’t have the thought to push him off. He was too stunned to react but maybe he was of half a mind not to protest this time and just let it happen to see where it would lead them.
To his chagrin, that was not what this visit was about. Huan Ling pushed a flask of wine into his arms and then leaned out of the door, glancing up and down the corridor before he closed the door behind him and leaned against the opposite wall.
He gave his usual cheeky grin as if he had done something great and motioned at the box with several other flasks in his arms. “And? Did I promise too much?”
Tong Min’s brows twitched. No, this was precisely what Huan Ling had promised yesterday. He was the idiot himself for expecting something else when he was suddenly slammed against the wall. He looked at the flask in his arms to hide his ugly expression and gave a dark chuckle. “I guess it’s quite impressive if we consider that we’re not allowed to bring alcohol in. How did you do it?”
He put the flask down on the table with an audible thump, taking a deep breath while he was at it. Feeling somewhat better, he sat down and looked up at Huan Ling again. Anyway, he had pushed him off yesterday when Huan Ling had tried his luck. Huan Ling would be an idiot if he tried again this soon. So if he wanted things to move ahead, it’d be on him to make the next attempt. Unfortunately, he also couldn’t bring himself to do that.
Huan Ling didn’t seem to notice that something was up. He sat down opposite him, putting the box on the table as well. He pulled out one of the flasks and took off the lid. “Ah, it was nothing much. Just using some connections and bribing some people. You know how it goes.”
Tong Min didn’t say anything. His thoughts were still at the moment just now when his heart had involuntarily jumped. Maybe … he had always pushed Huan Ling off not because he didn’t really want to but because his head told him that he should.
They had always been brothers-in-arms. They trusted each other blindly and that was worth more than words could say. If they changed anything about that relationship … Who knew how it would turn out?
Tong Min opened his own flask and took a big gulp, absentmindedly nodding to what Huan Ling had said before.
Huan Ling glanced at him, drinking silently as well. “So …” He cleared his throat. “What’s up? You’ve been strange since I came in.”
Tong Min glanced over, lowering the flask. He wasn’t surprised. Regardless of how he tried to hide it, Huan Ling would always know that he wasn’t his usual self. He couldn’t lie to him. “I’m just thinking.”
“Thinking about what?” Huan Ling raised the flask again, taking another gulp. “I could be your second brain, you know.”
Tong Min laughed against better knowledge. He didn’t know what to do. If he brought it up, they’d need to speak about it. But then … what should he do? He just didn’t know what to do.
Huan Ling put down the flask in his hand and propped up one elbow on the table, holding his chin. “Is there anything you can’t share with me? I won’t ask again if it’s that.”
Tong Min shook his head. “Not that. I just don’t know how to say it.” He stared at the flask of wine in his hand and rubbed the smooth surface with his thumb. “Has there ever been something that you felt like you wanted but you were afraid of actually getting it and being disappointed?”
Huan Ling gave a wry smile. “Why? You think my performance in bed wouldn’t be up to par?”
Tong Min gaped at him in return. “I … I said nothing about that!” He shook his head and put the flask back down, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “It’s not about you. It’s just that … We’ve always been like this.
“We like each other. But who can say if it’s enough to be lovers? Who can say if we would be able to pull that off? I want you as my lover. But I don’t want to lose you as my brother-in-arms. And I’m not sure if it’s worth it to get one just to lose the other. In war, the latter might be more important.”
Huan Ling nodded. “That’s true. Maybe even outside of war a … friend might be more important. But you can’t deny that you want to give it a try. I sure as hell want to.”
“And then what? What if it doesn’t work out? Have you never thought about that? Would you really be alright with that?”
Huan Ling got up and walked over to the other side of the table, putting his hands on the back of Tong Min’s chair. “Would you be alright with never giving it a try?” He leaned down, looking right into his eyes. “Think about it: In three months at the earliest or in a bit over a year at the very latest, we will return to the front line. We will be in life-and-death situations once again. We won’t have time then. Each day will be a fight. We might die.
“Do you want to look back one day when only one of us might be left and wonder what could have been? Tong Min, we only have that much time. Let us use it, shall we?”
Tong Min bit his lower lip, still not sure what he should do. He understood what Huan Ling meant. In fact, he had had the same thoughts from the moment he had felt these feelings for the first time.
But that didn’t mean that he wasn’t afraid. There was so much that could go wrong. Not only that they could lose the relationship they had right now, but what if things worked indeed out and then they went back to the front, one of them finally losing his life? What then?
He wouldn’t want to be the one who was left behind, pining for Huan Ling every day without a chance to ever see him again. And leaving Huan Ling behind also didn’t sound good. It was bad enough if they were just brothers-in-arms but as lovers … He didn’t even want to imagine that.
Huan Ling reached up and cupped his cheek. “Let’s just give it a try. Just to see where this leads us. We both want it. Why should we let our fear keep us from doing it? If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll deal with it by then.”
Tong Min wanted to retort but he didn’t know what to say. Anyway, they shared the same thoughts on this. It was just that Huan Ling was more daring than him, wanting to attempt what he had always shied away from.
By the time Tong Min found his voice again, Huan Ling had already leaned down and was about to kiss him, his lips hovering not even an inch away from his skin. His breath like a promise of the gentle touch that could follow.
Tong Min sighed and finally pushed the thought away. Whatever. Huan Ling was right. How bad could it be? Somehow, they would muddle their way through it if things didn’t work out. And somehow, the one left behind would survive if it did but they were still torn apart.
They couldn’t know what the future might bring. They couldn’t know if they wouldn’t be able to deal with it. There was only one thing for sure: If they only ever hesitated, it would be too late one day. By then, he would be left with regrets. Maybe it would just be in his last moments or maybe it would be for the rest of his life. Anyway, he didn’t want to be in that situation.
Tong Min closed his eyes and craned his neck, meeting Huan Ling’s lips halfway. Tasting the sweet sensation of finally giving in to what he had craved for so long, he reached up, hugging Huan Ling’s waist.
Yes, let’s try this out. Anyway, just from trying alone there was nothing to lose.