Shu reaches over and yanks his shirt collar, harshly pulling the older man forward. Firm nails dig strong enough to scratch at skin even through the cotton fabric. His eyes are made of frozen glass, his pupils covered with crystal ice, and his glare is piercing with tension.
He speaks slowly, voice laced with imminent danger. “Did he send you?”
Glenn allows the contact. Even with his shirt crumpled and hair slightly disheveled, clouding a portion of dim-lit eyes, he remains composed as if the reaction were expected – calculated, even, and it sends hostility down to Shu’s spine.
“No.” Glenn replies firmly but it doesn’t appease. “Our meeting was coincidental.”
“When did you know?”
“I confirmed it when you weren’t infected.”
“Confirmed it?” His eyes narrow. “You’ve had suspicions before that.”
“And why is it that I wasn’t infected?”
Glenn’s gaze doesn’t lower, but there’s a flash of complication in his eyes – a subtle tremor of his lashes – hardly perceptible but Shu sees through it regardless. “It’s best if you hear it from him instead.”
Shu sighs and he, too, looks complicated. A million thoughts intertwine into one and even that one is in utter disarray, a mix of anger and doubt, morphed into complexity and more. It’s a hard spiral to the past he had left behind.
When he blinks back into alacrity, he’s still tugging onto Glenn’s black shirt collar, dragging it up by the seams. The material is stretched beyond propriety and in this proximity, he sees the faint, old scar on the other’s nape along with the just-formed scratches from his nails. The skin around them breaks white and he sees a sliver of red blood forming in their center.
He loosens his grip and pulls away, clenching on his hands that are still trembling in excess. Glenn lingers on his form too closely, too knowingly for comfort.
“Are you angry?” the man whispers.
“I’m…” Shu repositions himself on the couch and stares elsewhere, focusing on a mundane pile of books on the floor. “I’m not angry at you.”
Then Glenn is smiling softly at him – the same amber eyes just as tender in the sunlight as it is in the dark, surrounded by dusty cobwebs and muted copper. There’s not a sound, save the light murmur of his voice. “Good. I don’t want you to be angry at me.”
The icy tension in the room dissolves into miniscule particles, breaking away like falling snowflakes and Shu’s breath falters in response.
There’s a soft crackle in the room – hands against paper – and Shu looks up to see Gilbert meticulously smoothing out the wrinkles of his tourist attraction guide. He’s taking care to not make much noise and with him sitting on the far corner of the room, his level of presence is reduced to near zero.
“So?” Shu directs his question to the considerate man. “Why were you looking for me?”
Gilbert is startled by the sudden attention. “I can talk now?”
He raises an eyebrow.
“My bad, I just thought the atmosphere was a little…” he waves his hand dismissively. “It was surprising? This comrade Glenn always acts polite, but he’s never been that close with anybody. He’s always been fake, sadistic, controlling—"
“Gilbert,” a gentle voice chimes in pleasantly – too pleasantly that it oozes terror from a city away. “Perhaps I should strap you on a rollercoaster in Dinnesaur Park. I happen to hear the passengers are Corrupted and you’re not very picky with your dates, are you?”
“Shit that’s not too bad. Far from ideal, but not too bad—”
“Excuse me, Mister,” another voice calls out.
Meng Yun, who has been standing by the entrance with his sister for a very long time without making a single decibel of noise (which is staggeringly rare, almost impossible even), suddenly makes his presence at an opportune moment.
“I heard about Dinnesaur Park and I couldn’t help but be interested,” the bespectacled youth continues. “If the passengers are all Corrupted, does that mean it’s kind of like…”
He lowers his voice conspiratorially and Gilbert also locks eyes with him. The two of them, in ungodly tacit understanding unbeknownst to anyone else in the room, suddenly nod in synch.
They speak at the same time, “A haunted house date.”
The air turns still. Meng Yun slowly makes his way to the stranger in the corner and the latter traces his every movement. Meng Yun’s footsteps are loud against brick red tiles – each step calculated, radiating baffling intensity.
It’s unclear who had made the first move, but in a split millisecond, the two bump enthusiastic fists. The greeting then turns into a secret handshake, again in complete synchronization as if they’d been reunited since birth.
“Bro,” Meng Yun says solemnly, clasping onto his hand.
Gilbert nods and acknowledges him just as gravely. “Bro.”
As the two bask in their newfound camaraderie – brotherhood – Meng Qing moves to the center of the attic space, immune to the turn of events. She settles down on the chair by the desk and directs her attention to the two men on the couch.
Shu folds his arms and relaxes against the couch. He sits on it as he would a throne, completely poised and naturally lax. His aura is elegant but there’s a mischievous glint in his light-brown eyes – barely concealed though he’s not trying anyway.
Glenn leans over to whisper, “What are you thinking?”
“I was thinking that his words hold a lot of truth.” Shu smirks lazily and recalls, “Fake, sadistic, controlling, unpleasant, irritating, shameless—”
Glenn chuckles. “I don’t remember the last three being added.”
“They were included in conjuncture. Very suiting.”
“I can show you more of my traits,” the man replies teasingly. “That is, if you’re interested.”
Shu gives him an unamused look. “Not in particular.”
“Next time then,” Glenn tells him charmingly and switches the topic instantly – the transition is too smooth that Shu could not get a chance to retort that there will not be a next time. “Meng Qing, what have you heard?”
“The bulk of it,” the female replies. “The both of you left for a long time. Yun and I followed down when we heard a loud noise, but we hid just in case you were engaged in something.”
Glenn says with a smile, “This is classified information. We can’t have it leaked to civilians.”
Meng Qing nods. “Rest assured, we have no intentions to. I’d more or less already made a conjecture and Yun, too, though these kinds of things don’t pique his curiosity.”
It’s true. Meng Yun is on the floor, perusing through a map – another tourist map that is not the adventure travel guide, procured from an anonymous source – and speaking animatedly with his trusted new best friend. He’s most definitely not curious in immortality nor in the entire mess they had been thrown into headfirst, without warning, but he’s curious in many other things, most of them trivial, such as…
“Shit bro,” Gilbert points a finger excitedly at an orange landmark. “This restaurant has the best pufferfish.”
“I heard Powerpuff Fish closed down recently,” Meng Yun tells him. “Apparently a customer nearly died from Fugu poisoning.”
“You win some, you lose some,” Gilbert gives him solid life advice. “Plus, it’s like really good. Would you rather give up good food or give up your life?”
“Give up my life,” Meng Yun says without an ounce of hesitation.
The two culinary experts are then immersed in a fascinating conversation of sea creatures, rating them from an unorthodox scale based on their taste and looks. Gilbert diverges into a lore about sea cucumbers while Meng Yun actively takes notes with his slim metallic pen.
“Marine organisms are often exploited for nutraceutical use,” the curly-haired man says. “Traditional remedies and folk medicine aside, they have a vast array of bioactive components such as anti-inflammatory and anticancer agents. In particular – sea cucumbers – these marine invertebrates have been linked to saponins, peptides, sterols, all sorts of fatty acids—”
It seems Gilbert had written a comprehensive graduate thesis on sea cucumbers and while it is indeed quite fascinating to hear about Holothuroidea biodiversity, nobody is sure whether he’s studying them for their alleged health benefits or for their funny looks.
“Did you know that there’s one called a chocolate chip sea cucumber?” Meng Yun is completely entranced. “It’s said to be a trypophobic nightmare.”
Gilbert widens his eyes, but his brain seems to be thinking in a different direction. “Does it also taste like chocolate chips?”
“—It doesn’t,” Meng Qing interrupts them. “They don’t taste like chocolate chips nor cucumbers. They’re bland but the dish is popular not only for their medicinal properties, but for their attribution to male reproductive health. Folk religion considers them aphrodisiacs because these invertebrates squirts at their aggressors, resembling a—"
“A phallus,” Gilbert completes with no sense of tact. “Sister, you’re very knowledgeable on sea cucumber mythology.”
Meng Qing nods. “I’ve written scientific journals on their properties and pharmaceutical use.”
“Scientific journals? I’ve read all of them but there are only so few…” Gilbert suddenly stands up, knocking down a pile of books in the process. He approaches the wooden desk with stars in his eyes. “Don’t tell me… y-you are the esteemed Dr. Meng Qing, the one who has published numerous acclaimed works linking marine biology with pharmacology, the one who has won distinctions for her extensive biomedical research, the one who—”
“That is my part-time hobby. I’m a full-time medical student and social media manager, not a doctor yet,” Meng Qing explains. “I also know of you, Mr. Gilbert Rhodes, the genius scientist who has been invited to countless award shows for his unconventional studies on wildlife. You are also the only environmentalist to have never shown up in any of the ceremonies.”
“That is also my part-time hobby,” Gilbert tells her and there’s deep respect laid in his tone. “I am but a wanderer of nature, stuck in a job that hardly pays my travel fees.”
The two of them shake hands.
In a much quieter corner of the room, two men sit in witness of the events. Shu takes a long moment to digest the new information. He nudges Glenn on the chest.
“What is going on.”
Glenn, who is in deep thought about something beyond the scope of the current conversation, leans over to murmur, “Have you tried sea cucumbers?”
“…No.” Shu looks at him with confusion. “Why are you asking?”
“I’m curious about the origins of that myth…” Glenn trails off with full implication. “Aphrodisiacs. I’m wondering—”
“I have not tried,” Shu enunciates coldly.
“Hm.” Glenn smiles at him before deflecting the topic. “Gilbert, answer his question.”
The question – so-long drifted that even Shu has a hard time remembering – has Gilbert momentarily dazed. He turns around to look at two of them and rubs a hand on his chin, slowly going over his jaw. Gilbert squints his eyes and with every tilt of his head, every crease on his eyebrows, Shu knows the man has no recollection at all.
He reminds him. “Why were you looking for me?”
“Ah!” Gilbert snaps his fingers in realization. “Don’t worry, I didn’t forget… uh—"
He hastily shoves his hand in his jean pockets and pulls out a very wrinkled piece of paper, crumpled in every corner and much larger than the last one he’d held. He unfurls it haphazardly and it rips a bit on the bottom, but Gilbert dismisses the small accident.
“I have a note from the boss addressed to…” Gilbert clears his throat and recites with a much deeper voice in imitation of the sender – Shu is certain that his brother doesn’t sound like that. “’Dear our family’s estranged young master—‘”
“Who?” Shu looks murderous. “You have the wrong person.”
Gilbert looks confused. “Glenn, do we have the wrong person?”
“No.” Glenn is studying his angry expression. “It’s correct.”
The other man clears his throat and starts again, “’Dear our family’s estranged young master, if you are done with your rebellious phase, your big brother wants you back home. It’s very lonely without you here—‘”
“You have the wrong person.”
Shu’s eyes are ice cold and his words stab through like daggers. He continues and his voice is not loud – it’s devoid of emotion, ghastly against the silence but penetrating regardless. “If not, then he has some nerve.”