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Falling Stars

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By the time Tew is 10 years old, he’s fluent in three languages. Thai, English, and Braille. The English comes from his UK born mother’s insistence, and the Braille from his father’s. 

Unlike his sister, Tew spent hours with his father as a child, reading aloud to him from the few books printed in Braille. He’s always found something exciting about reading Braille, about feeling words beneath his fingertips and the bumpy texture of the pages. Tew loves Braille, but he never tells anyone about it. Even as a child he’d known to keep this family secret.

It is, after all, terribly unlucky to come from a family with a history of star tear disease. 

~

The first time Tew learns about star tears he’s eight and watching them fall from his sister’s eyes. It’s the sound of a kalimba playing and pinpricks of golden light, so bright they hurt to look at. They bathe his sister’s face in a warm golden glow, at odds with the heart wrenching sobs escaping her. Tew doesn’t fully understand what’s wrong, but he knows something’s making Pear sad and he doesn’t like it. 

He tries to fix it, bringing Pear her favorite food and then sitting beside her with a box of tissues because he doesn’t know what else to bring her. But she keeps crying and it scares him. Tew doesn’t know how to make the sadness go away. A collection of metal has collected at Pear’s feet, sharp gold fragments that make a tinkling sound when Tew touches them. He brushes his fingers across the latest additions, still warm. He picks one up and is horrified to see it’s covered in blood. 

Panic flares through him and Tew does what he always does when he’s scared. He calls his mom. 

Later, after Pear has stopped crying and his father has come home, his father scoops him into his lap and explains that Tew and Pear are a little different.

~

Nearly everyone on his dad’s side of the family wears glasses.

A few of them because of near-sightedness, but most from star tear damage. His grandmother can no longer see colors and wears thick color correcting lenses. His uncle isn’t allowed to drive, and one of his aunts wears thick-rimmed glasses to hide her damaged eyes. The other keeps a jar of melted down metal beside her bedside table, waiting until she can fashion them into frames. Tew’s father - always a crier and soft hearted - was left nearly blind after his second girlfriend broke up with him. 

Tew knows his father worries the same will happen to him and Pear. He knows about the extra bandages and special glasses his dad keeps hidden in case Tew or his sister ever needs them. He also knows his father worries most about him. Pear hasn’t dated anyone since Tew saw her cry golden tears, too afraid of losing more of her vision. 

But Tew has always been more reckless, more carefree with his heart than his sister.

He falls in love easy, heart like a revolving door, his ma says. Tew falls in love three times before he’s 18 and each time he adores them, gives them his heart without reservation. At the end of each relationship, Tew’s father gives him a pat on the shoulder and leaves bandages on his bed. All three of them remain unused. Tew has always been a romantic, but never much of a crier. 

~

When he starts his first year at university Tew is surprised by how quickly he finds a group of friends. Their little group weathers the hazers’ orders together and Tew is so, so glad he spoke up that day when he heard the boys in front of him talking about video games. He’s not sure he’d have made it through his first year without them, but especially Maprang and Kongpob. 

Kongpob is the most similar to him, but it’s Maprang that Tew gravitates to first. He likes her, how bubbly and kind and playful she is. It reminds him of Pear. They bond over movies together - Maprang prefers horror and Tew likes romance but they both love anything with magic - and make it a habit to go see new films in theatres together. Their friends tease them about dating and Tew always laughs it off, though he can see Maprang’s hurt expression when he does. 

He doesn’t talk to her about it until a few weeks after the Freshy Games, after Oak has made another ill-timed joke about them. Maprang looks uncomfortable and Tew shoves Oak in a reprimand before quietly asking Maprang to talk when the others are distracted. They walk in silence to the drink stall, standing a few feet away so that other people can order their drinks. Tew shifts uncomfortably before steeling himself and looking at Maprang. 

“Are- Does it bother you when I say I don’t want to date you?” he asks, straightforward and blunt because he has never done subtlety well. 

Maprang hesitates before tilting her head up and nodding. 

“Do you like me?” he asks, and he hopes she says no. 

“No,” she says, and Tew has never been so grateful to hear the word no. Then he frowns, tilts his head in confusion.

“Then,” he pauses, uncertain. “Why does it bother you?” he asks and Maprang glances away.

“You don’t have to laugh when they ask,” she says at last, and guilt pools in his stomach at her hurt expression. “It’s not like I’d be terrible to date,” she says, and there’s a tremor to her words that makes the little brother part of Tew want to hug her. He reels in the urge, uncertain of how well it would be received. 

“I didn’t laugh because I thought you’d be a bad date,” he says instead, and Maprang shrugs. “I won’t laugh anymore,” he tries, and Maprang gives him a small smile and nods. Then she clears her throat and claps her hands together, nodding as some of her usual pep reappears. 

“Good,” she says. She hooks her arm with his and begins walking to the drink stall. “Let’s get something to drink, I’m dying of thirst.”

Tew smiles and follows.

~

As freshman year passes, Tew slowly adjusts to being so far away from home. His family calls on the weekends and he visits them when he can. He learns to balance the hazers’ demands with his classes and the part-time job he’d found at a tiny jewelry shop a few blocks away from the university. 

Maprang ends up coming to his dorm on the weekends so they can have a movie night and he has regular game nights with the rest of the guys. He settles into being the voice of reason among his friends when Kongpob isn’t around, and shares exasperated but fond glances with Kong when the other is.

He goes on a few dates, one with a girl Maprang set him up with and one with a guy in his intro engineering class. His friends run into him on that particular date, and even though there’s a few surprised looks, no one says anything. Despite this, Tew spends the rest of the day vibrating with anxiety, effectively ruining what had been a promising date. The next day Oak greets him with a ‘why didn’t you tell me you didn’t like girls’ promptly followed by Maprang hitting his arm and hissing an admonishment. The rest of their friends are gathered around, standing silently and staring.

Tew can feel the fear he’d been pushing back come back full force and his hands clutch tighter around the straps of his backpack. It feels like he’s back in high school, sixteen and scared of ruining everything. He swallows and then steels himself, standing the way that Pear had taught him to. 

“I’m bisexual,” he says, the words he’d only ever whispered before leaving his mouth in a rush. Silence follows and Tew tilts his head up defiantly, steeling himself. 

After a few moments M speaks. “What’s that?”

If it were any other moment, Tew might have laughed at the confusion on his face. As it is, he only feels tired. 

“I like guys and girls,” he says, and he hates that there’s a tremor to his voice. 

“You can do that?” Oak says and Tew’s eyes fall to the ground. His hands curl tighter around the straps of his backpack, tightly enough that the padded fabric hurts.

“Yes,” he says and it comes out sharp, defensive. He almost wishes he hadn’t gone on that date.

“Tew can like whoever he wants,” Prae says, frowning, and Oak holds up his hands.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” he says. His eyes are wide behind his glasses as he continues, “I just didn’t know. But I’m cool with it. Just let me know if you have a crush on me,” he says, grinning and Tew can’t quite bring himself to smile back, gaze flitting to the ground again.

“What we mean is that you’re still our friend,” Kongpob says, and his voice is warm, steady like it always is. Tew glances up to see the others nodding. M gives him an awkward thumbs up. Tew exhales, shoulders relaxing.

“Thanks,” he says, looking at Kong. He smiles back. 

Maprang breaks the moment as she walks over to him, hooking her arm through his.

“So,” she starts, “for your next date, do you want it to be a guy or girl?” she asks.

“That’s not fair,” Oak says and Tew turns to look at him. “I still have to compete against you for a girlfriend,” he whines and Tew almost laughs.

“Like you’d have chance even without Tew,” Maprang says, and Tew has never adored her more. The tension falls away and his hands loosen their grip on his backpack as they start walking to their first class.

~

Tew feels lighter once he’s come out to his friends, and he integrates a bit more fully into university. He joins the cooking club and makes a few friends outside his faculty. They drag him outside of the university and it’s with them that Tew goes on his first all night road trip, each of them taking turns driving as they explore the city like it’s new. 

Tew loves them but he still finds himself sticking mostly with his core friend group. He spends most of his time with M and Maprang, though Kongpob is a close third. They’ve always been the most level-headed of their friend group and Tew counts Kong as one of his best friends. So when the other freshman doesn’t show up to class two days in a row, he goes to visit him. Supposedly to bring him notes - the others can’t take notes for shit and M has a family emergency that took him home anyway - but mostly to check up on him because M’s been weirdly quiet about what’s going on with Kong. 

When he gets to Kongpob’s door he knocks several times before the door finally opens. Kong’s head pokes out and Tew’s eyes widen. His friend looks like shit. Tew pushes the door farther open and side steps Kong’s weak attempt to keep him out. Setting the notes on the nearest available surface, Tew turns to take a second look at his friend. Kong’s eyes are red, the kind of irritated and puffy that only comes from crying for an extended period of time. His clothes are wrinkled and it looks like he’s been tugging at his hair. 

“Kong?” he asks cautiously, and his friend gives him a strained smile.

“Thanks for dropping off the notes,” he says and his voice is rough. An automatic response leaves Tew’s mouth but his attention is caught by the glimmering metal shards on Kongpob’s bed. It’s been years since he’s seen them but Tew will always remember what star tears look like. Kong follows his gaze and Tew quickly looks away. He hadn’t realized Kong was in love with anyone. Kongpob moves so that he’s standing in front of the bed. 

“I’ll be back in class tomorrow so you won’t need to bring me notes again,” Kong says, as though that’s what’s important, what Tew is worried about.

He stares at his friend again, at how unsteady he looks, and realizes Kong isn’t going to ask him for help. It would be easy, Tew knows, to simply walk away and keep Kong’s secret. But he thinks of Pear, her heart wrenching sobs. He thinks of how M isn’t here. Mostly, he thinks of how Kong is the first to be there when they need him. Kong has always seemed so sure of himself and confident, so confident that Tew forgets his friend is just as susceptible to hurt as the rest of them are. 

But looking at him now, Tew is reminded that even people like Kong need someone to depend on. So he decides to stay. 

“Do you have any bandages for your eyes?” he asks.

Kongpob blinks once, then again. “What?”

“Do you have any of those bandages that are supposed to help with the-?” Tew gestures to his eyes, and Kong shakes his head. 

“I’ll get you some,” he says, and Kong hesitates before nodding. Tew glances at him as he walks out, and the forlorn look on Kong’s face has him hurrying to and from his dorm. Once there he grabs the bandages and then, on his way out the door, grabs a pair of gloves.

When he reenters the room Kongpob is sitting at his desk and staring at the curtained window across from them. Tew sets the bandages at his elbow and then pulls on his gloves.

As Kong examines it, Tew moves to where the metal remnants of Kong's tears are still scattered across the sheets. He glances at the desk beside the bed, looking for something to put them in, and his eyes land on an empty jar. Grabbing it from the desk, he sets it at the foot of the bed. Then he starts to collect the dim gold shards, setting them in the jar. They clink as he does, a discordant set of notes. 

“Why do you have these?” Kongpob asks, and Tew turns to look at him. The other teen is squinting at the plastic wrapped cloth in his hands.

Tew hesitates, but forces himself to speak. He already knows Kong’s secret after all. 

"My dad gave them to me after my first break up," he says. 

"Oh," Kong says softly and Tew looks back down at the handful of metal in his hands. "I get it from my dad's side of the family," he says, and there's a quiet sound of acknowledgement. 

"Me too," Kongpob says, and they share a wry smile. Kong tries to open the package but his fingers keep missing the opening. Once Tew has swept all the metal into the jar, he sets it on Kong's desk before turning to look at his friend. The bandage is still wrapped in its plastic covering and he shakes his head. Striding across the room, Tew tugs it away from him and opens it before handing the fabric back.

"Have you ever used one before?" he asks, and Kong shakes his head. 

"My sister has though," he says.

Tew nods and watches silently as Kong moves to sit on his bed, leaning against the headboard. There's a lull in conversation for several moments, the ticking of the clock a quiet constant. Through it all, Tew keeps turning to look at the discarded tears on Kong's desk. 

How come he hadn't known Kong liked anyone? Let alone enough to cry star tears over them. He tries to remember if there was anyone Kong had talked about more than usual over the last few months, but all he can't recall Kong talking about anyone in particular. They'd talked more about the hazers than any girls, though they’d endlessly teased Oak about his almost date with the girl from the library.

"Kong," he says slowly, and Kong huffs out a quiet, resigned laugh.

"You want to know who I'm in love with," he says, a confirmation rather than a question.

Tew nods before remembering he won't see it. "I didn't even know you liked anyone," he says and Kong's answering smile is without its usual cheer. 

"I didn't realize it for a while," he says and Tew desperately wants to know who he's talking about. 

"Can you tell me who it is?" he asks, and there's a long silence after his question.

“M asked me that too,” Kong says quietly. “I didn’t tell him.”

Tew glances at the floor, chastened. Despite this, he’s still curious. Is it someone they know? Is that why Kong doesn’t want to tell them? Or does he not trust them? The thought makes Tew’s stomach sink - he’d always thought they were close. 

“I didn’t think M would get it,” Kongpob continues and Tew looks back up at him. Kong is still leaning against his headboard but the lines of his body are tense. “He’s still scared of P’Arthit,” he says, and Tew stares at him.

He’s still scared of P’Arthit.  

Tew turns the words over in his head as he looks at his friend. Kongpob’s jaw is clenched and his hands are still where they’re resting on his lap. P’Arthit, head hazer. The guy who was responsible for all their punishments. Abruptly, he remembers his friend’s bold declaration that first freshman gathering and he wonders if Kong had liked him even then, when Tew thought he was simply trying to annoy their senior.

“P’Arthit?” he asks, confirming, and Kong nods. 

Tew digests this, wondering how he hadn’t seen it before. He glances at Kong, who’s still tense on his bed and decides he can parse that out later. 

“I guess that explains why you talk back to him so much,” he says, and Kong relaxes. 

Tew moves so that he’s sitting at the end of Kong’s bed where he usually does when they have a game night. 

“What happened?” he asks quietly. 

There’s another stretch of silence and then Kong begins to speak. Tew listens quietly as his friend talks about haircuts and switched meals, a broken water pipe and midnight confession culminating in an abruptly ended phone call. By the time Kong reaches the end of his story, his voice is thick and blood has begun leaking from beneath the bandage firmly pressed to his eyes. Shit. Without thinking Tew yanks the bandage from Kong’s eyes. A smattering of golden metals falls to the bed, drops of blood scattered among them. Kong ducks his head and Tew tentatively reaches out and puts his hand on Kongpob’s shoulder. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, acutely aware of how useless the two words are. Kong doesn’t reply but his shoulder is shaking beneath Tew’s hand and Tew desperately wishes he knew what to do. At a loss, he pulls Kong closer until he can fully wrap his arms around him, the way he does when Pear cries. For a few seconds Kong seems frozen but then Tew feels his body collapse, all his weight leaning against Tew. 

“He’s avoiding me,” Kong chokes out and Tew is abruptly, furiously angry at their senior. He pushes the anger down though, wraps his arms tighter around Kong. Tew doesn’t understand what Kong sees in their senior, but it doesn’t really matter, he guesses. His friend is hurting, and all Tew can do is hold Kong as his friend cries. 

“I’m here,” he says quietly, and he knows he’s not the person Kong wants right now but Tew can’t even imagine leaving his friend alone right now. “I’m here.”

Later, when Kong’s tears have subsided, Tew pulls away, the right side of his shirt wet with blood and covered in tiny specks of golden crystals.

“I’m sorry,” Kong says, as if there’s anything to apologize for.

“Don’t apologize,” he replies. “We’re friends.”

Kong‘s features slowly pull into a smile, weak and still tinged with sadness, but there. Tew smiles back.

After Tew leaves Kong’s later that night, he calls his sister on the walk to his dorm. They talk fairly often, but seeing Kong cry shakes Tew a little, and there’s a part of him that needs to make sure Pear is okay. Once he’s back in his dorm, Tew goes online and orders a small pack of bandages. He thinks Kong might need them later. 

The next morning, Kong shows up to class again. His eyes are a little puffy but no one else seems to notice, and Tew just gives him a slight nod. They don’t talk about it, but Tew is closer to Kong after that. They hang out a bit more, and sometimes Kong comes to him with quiet questions that Tew tries his best to answer. And if Kong notices Tew is a little bit more attentive when P’Arthit is around, his friend never says anything to him. Even after Kong and P’Arthit announce their relationship, Tew still keeps the bandages in his dresser drawer. Just in case.