The steady beep of a heart monitor was the only sound in the private room at the Schwabinger Hospital in Munich. Kian was queerly pale against the starched sheets for someone that tanned at the delicate caress of a single sunbeam in the middle of winter. His eyes were sunken and dark like his need for sleep had punched him in the face. Which, in a way, it had.
No one had seen it coming. No one had seen Kian’s inevitable collapse, and they should have.
Tan sat rigid in an uncomfortable plastic chair at Kian’s bedside where he had been for the past eleven hours with Kian’s hand clutched tightly in his own. At first, his mind had raced through every forgotten clue and misplaced hints from the past summer. The guilt settled on his chest like one of those stupid barbells Kian lifted at home. Now his mind had slowed to a sluggish crawl of fatigue. He needed to sleep, but for one in his life, he couldn’t.
Across the inclined bed, Chord sat grimly, hands folded in his lap. Unlike Tan, he’d been in and out several times for food, bathroom breaks, and to converse hurriedly in hushed whispers to Ayla in the hall. Which was exactly where she was at the moment.
The low murmur of voices could be heard from beyond the door. Ayla was likely discussing Kian’s current condition with one of the nurses or the doctor. A surprising number of people in the hospital spoke English. It made life all that much easier for them, but also proved how lazy North Americans were in the pursuit of language and culture.
Only one member of their band was fluent in a second language, and only because Chord was, by definition, French Canadian. Kian’s tendency to slip into Aussie-laden slang didn’t count as a second language, though it was at times impressive, and Tan barely spoke Korean. A few phrases here and there; terms of endearment and familial titles. He was more literate than articulate, which applied to all aspects of his life, not only language.
Mama K had been notified seconds after Kian collapsed on stage. Thanks to Ayla’s quick thinking, she caught the first flight out of Vancouver with a brief stopover at Heathrow. Tan dreaded the wallop his head was going to take when she walked through the door.
The show had been cancelled. Or postponed at the very least. Chord refused to outright cancel. Fans wanted to see them, and he refused to let them down, and Tan agreed because he knew Kian would kill himself with guilt if they didn’t do everything in their power to make it up to their fans. After all, without their fans, Static Shadow was nothing.
According to the battery of tests the doctors had run, Kian was severely dehydrated, malnourished, and exhausted. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise as it had. Kian had been pushing himself harder than anyone to finish by the deadline, but they had all been so caught up in their own drama that they let it slide.
Tan let out a slow breath. His grip around Kian’s hand tightened. The IV lines running from the back of his hand were alarming, but not as much as how still he was. Kian was meant to be active and lively. Not cold and still.
If this was how far Kian could fall, then what would happen to them all? In the hours Tan had spent torturing himself over the missed signs and signals, he’d reached a decision. One he’d likely regret if approached wrong. Kian hadn’t been the only one hiding his mental and physical wellbeing.
“I almost lost him,” Tan said. He was the first one to break the silence in six hours, and Chord jumped a little at the sound of his voice. “Because I was so caught up in my own…. my own misery, I failed to recognize the warning signs. This is my fault.”
Chord leaned forward as if he would climb over the bed, but instead, gripped the edge of the hard hospital mattress to restrain himself. “If it’s your fault, then it’s mine too.”
Tan swallowed. “No. It is,” he said, nodding sadly. “And that’s why I can’t remain silent anymore.” He looked up. “You’re scaring me.”
For a moment, Chord blinked at Tan while he tried to sort through the layers of Tan’s confession for his full meaning. “Huh?”
“The last few months, we’ve all been so wrapped up in our own problems that we neglected each other. We used to look out for each other. Take care of each other. But…” Tan shrugged. The only one who seemed to be taking care of anyone was Chord – the one with the most to lose. The one that had already lost so much.
Tan returned to watching Kian sleep. He looked peaceful. Horridly pale, but peaceful. Rubbing the back of Kian’s hand around the IV line with the pad of his thumb, Tan sighed softly.
“It was Shauna, wasn’t it.” Not a question; a statement because Tan had no doubt when he figuratively pinned Chord to his seat with his eyes.
Chord’s eyes were wide. “W-what are you talking about?” he stuttered, but his hand drifted to his throat where the bruises were hidden behind an out of season scarf. “I was mugged. You know I was mugged. I told you that at the airport,” he defended, shifting in his seat under the heavyweight of Tan’s knowing gaze.
As Chord protested, defending the rather suspicious bruises from his trip home, Ayla walked into the room with her jacket folded over one arm and her messy bun falling out. She stopped short. “Chord?”
“It’s nothing!” Chord shrieked.
“It’s not nothing!” Tan yelled.
Everyone in the room jumped. Tan never raised his voice. He never even lost his temper.
“She abused you, Chord,” Tan said slowly as if he were soothing a wounded animal. In a way, maybe he was. He could be wrong, but he doubted it. All evidence pointed to one conclusion. “It’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong, but she hurt you, and we need to make sure that it stops.”
Chord jumped to his feet, tensed and ready to run. His eyes darted to the door. Tan could almost see the internal debate warring in his head on whether or not he could make it past Ayla while she was this tired and stressed, but ultimately decided against it. Chord stood beside the bed, wringing his hands while his attention shifted between Ayla and Tan.
“Chord, is that true?” Ayla asked. She was visibly tense, every fibre of her being pulled taut, but exuded a shocking amount of calm as she crept around the foot of the bed.
Chord trembled and took one step back, seconds from running. “No! No, she would never,” he defended. His fists balled tightly around the loose material of the front of his hoodie. “I deserved this.”
“Oh… oh, baby,” Ayla whispered as she inched closer. “No. No, you don’t. Nobody deserves to be hurt. Nobody. Especially not you.”
Chord stopped breathing for twelve seconds. Tan counted.
Maybe this hadn’t been the best choice in location, but Tan was exhausted. He could barely think. He needed to diffuse the situation as Chord struggled to suck down deep gulps of air, and all Tan and Ayla could do was watch him from a distance with understanding and compassion.
Chord bumped into the window sill behind him. “But-”
“No,” Ayla said firmly. She rushed to close the distance between them and wrapped her little brother in a tight hug. “We’re going to help you—all of us. You don’t need to be afraid anymore. You stood up for yourself against Papa. You can do this. You’re strong.”
It started as a low whimper. But soon, Chord openly sobbed into his sister’s shoulder, staining her favourite Tinkerbell t-shirt with his snot and tears. He clung to her, whimpering pathetic apologies.
Tan slowly stood up. He should leave. Give them privacy. They didn’t need him here. He’d caused enough grief.
Two steps to the door and Ayla’s keen gaze pinned him to the spot. “Ahhhh….” He ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck.
Ayla sharply gestured to the huddle, and Tan obediently shuffled across the room. Swallowing the lump stuck in his throat, he wrapped his arms around Chord and Ayla. It was uncomfortable. He was shorter than both of them, even with Ayla in sneakers.
“She’s right,” Tan finally whispered. His hands shook. “We’re here. No matter what.”
As one amorphous blob, they turned. Kian was awake. He was groggy, eyes barely open, but he was conscious and smiling weakly.
Chord cried harder. His eyeliner from the night before was smudged, and his mascara ran down his cheeks in rivulets with his tears.
“By crikey, what is all the racket?” Kian’s mom walked through the door with a rolling suitcase at her heels. She stopped in the doorway and stood with a hand on her hip. “What’s wrong, kitten? I know he’s a bit of a drongo, but that’s not your fault. ”
From the bed, Kian stared at her with a dopey grin while Ayla ushered a still hysterically sobbing Chord out the door.
“Love ya too, mum,” Kiam mumbled like his mouth was stuffed with cotton balls.
Letting out an exasperated sigh, Tan sank down into Chord’s vacated seat and plopped his head down on the edge of the bed. It bounced twice on the mattress. Kian’s fingers found their way into his hair, and against all reason, the tension in his shoulders melted away.
“Alright. Let’s have a look at you,” Kian’s mom said. She watched with obvious concern as Ayla left with Chord, but parked her suitcase against the wall and approached the bed. She grabbed Kian by the chin and tilted his head, inspecting him from all sides. “Well, you’re a bit of a cot case, but you seem lively enough, ya damn mug.”
A bit sheepish, Kian grinned at his mom and scratched the back of his head. The IV tugged at the back of his hand, and his mom whacked him over the head.
“Tan,” Kian whined. He shook the bassist’s shoulder. “She’s beatin’ on me.”
Tan turned his head to the side enough to see Kian and his mother. “Good.”
“Well, seeing as you’re not dying, I’m gonna hunt down the quack,” Kian’s mom said. She dug through her suitcase and pulled out a giant shipping envelope packed to the point of bursting. “Can I borrow you for a minute, love?” When Tan hesitated to leave Kian’s side, she sighed. “He ain’t goin’ anywhere. This’ll only take a sec.”
Kian patted the back of Tan’s hand. “Maybe a hot German nurse will give me a sponge bath,” he said and wiggled his eyebrows. “Or you can later.”
After both Tan and Kian’s mother beat a little sense into the idiot drummer, Tan followed his foster mother into the relatively empty hall. Ayla and Chord were nowhere to be seen. Tan shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and leaned against the wall.
They stood in silence. Tan stared down at his feet rather than look at his foster mother and gnawed worriedly on his lower lip. A pair of nurses walked past whispering in rapid German. After they passed, the large envelope similar to the stack Tan had secretly mailed before they left Vancouver was thrust into Tan’s hands. It was already open.
“Congratulations, kiddo,” Kian’s mom whispered. It was a little surprising she could speak so many decibels lower than her usual boisterous volume.
With shaky hands, Tan pulled one of the letters out of the envelope. There were several, all from different senders. Each read the same. The one Tan held was a letter from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I… I got in,” Tan said. The paper shook in his hands. It was an acceptance letter welcoming him into the Physics program, graduating class of 2014.
“Harvard, Caltech, Cambridge. Hell, even Japan wants you,” Tan’s foster mother said. She crushed him to her chest in a bear hug. “Can’t say I understand why all the hush-hush, but I’m so damn proud of you.”
It took a few seconds, but Tan wrapped his arms around her and hugged her back. When he had applied, it had only been to make his parents happy, but he never told them even when doing so. In the end, what they wanted was inconsequential. Tan didn’t know what he wanted any more now than he had then, or when they began the tour, or when he faced down his parents. But now he had options. His future was his choice.
Tan pulled back and wiped the tears threatening to fall with the back of his hand. “Thanks, mama.”
For several minutes, Tan sniffled while Kian’s mom rubbed his back and patted his arm while she smiled her encouragement. It took him longer than he’d like to admit to pull himself together, but he finally stood up straight, envelope clutched to his chest and nodded.
A few nights ago, he’d stood on a bridge contemplating the path his life would take and if he had a future. He’d felt like he had no options. Every choice had been made for him, and he was along for the journey. Maybe he wouldn’t play music and travel the world for the rest of his life, but right now, that was the choice he made. He could walk away. He had options.
Right now, Tan needed to make a decision. One he had been terrified to make for so long no matter the urging. Tan needed to commit.
Shoulders squared, a bundle of letters in his arms, Tan turned to face what he hoped was his future. He hoped his future wanted him.