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signs of a lifetime, you till i die

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“What color is the sky?” is the question that does it.

Sylvain doesn’t know how to answer his kindergarten teacher because he has absolutely no idea.

Looking back, this is the first time he has physically felt the weighty gaze of his peers on him, hard and suffocating like a vice. It won’t be the last time, obviously, unfortunately; but to four-year-old Sylvain, in the middle of that sunlit room decorated with childish paintings and drawings he cannot grasp the nuances of, it is absolutely unbearable.

He does not answer.

“Sylvain?” the teacher asks, voice encouraging and ever-so-slightly worried.

“What is a color?” He deflects instead - because he truly does not know the word itself.

The teacher clasps her hands. She has long, straight hair, smooth and glinting in the sunlight. Sylvain likes long hair. Her eyes are kind when she answers.  “Look at the chart here,” she says, rising and pointing to a poster that’s hung on the wall. There are patches of-- something , he figures, that must be colors, with words written beneath as though to describe them. “They’re things your eyes see because of the way the light reflects inside them,” she explains as though what exactly they are should be the most obvious thing in the world, and he feels incredibly stupid. “For example, the grass is green.” She points to the middle-left patch. Sylvain does not see the difference. “So, what color is the sky?”

Sylvain looks out the window, sunlight warm on his face. It looks like the middle-right patch, so he says the word below it.

“Yellow.”

The class erupts in laughter. The sound makes him want to scream.


===

 

Monochromacy is what the doctor says to his parents. Miklan’s mocking laughter echoes in the room and rattles in his brain.

Complete color blindness, the kind where he would be supposed to wear dark glasses both outside and inside, the kind where his parents insist for him to be home-schooled because they don’t want him to be bullied, because no one has to know , somehow. Sylvain does not see the big deal, especially since they bring him to a different doctor every two weeks, his father’s card steadily swiping through the same small device tidily resting on the different desks. 

“Why”, Miklan demands a few years later, the day Sylvain comes back with specially-made lenses over his eyes - and the headaches and pain he used to feel when he stared outside for too long is replaced by a searing throb in his wrist as Miklan steps on it again and again. His first day back to primary school has him arrive with a cast.

“I fell from the swing in my backyard,” he tells his new classmates when they ask, and soon they start drawing all over the plaster in circles and swipes and patterns that all look the same to him.

One day, he forgets something in his classroom, and walks back to the familiar sight of his kindergarten teacher’s hair. It shines in the light, a shade not quite like the usual greys he sees, darker than the light greys he now knows to be shades of light blue and yellow , whatever these mean, but lighter than the hues of black and other, more somber associated colors. His mother has taught him about white and grey and black; he makes it his own job to learn about everything in-between, perusing dictionary after dictionary for different definitions -- of silver, of gunmetal, of platinum. 

She’s talking to someone, probably to his current teacher, and her voice wavers like the air in the summer, hazy and distorted around the edges, I don’t know how else to tell you, but please stay with me, forev -

A hand comes burying itself in his former teacher’s hair, pulls her in, and her voice is breathed away like candleflames on a birthday cake. His teachers are close, incredibly close, and although he cannot see from his current vantage point, he feels like they’re really, really happy. There’s a ring on one finger, tangling itself into long hair, and for a single moment, he feels something bursting across his vision.

Color blindness, they call it - yet it does not feel as blinding as what he sees in that very moment.

It’s so sudden, and so clear, and so quickly gone, that it makes him want to cry.

“Teacher,” he says instead, and both of them turn to face him, an expression of something on their faces -- something like surprise, something like fear.

“Teacher,” he repeats again, stepping closer, and he’s addressing his current teacher now, one single question on his mind. “What color is your ring?”

His kindergarten teacher looks at him, eyes wide, and she laughs -- a windy, ethereal thing, fragile as glass and subtle as snow. “I told you,” she says, not to him, “he’s the smartest boy I know.” 

His other teacher pats his head, ever so gentle, the finger with the ring pushing aside a lock of his hair from his eyes.

“Gold.”


===

 

“My teachers are going to get married!” He tells his parents at dinner, stars in his eyes, hope in his heart. He wonders if he, too , will fall in love one day.

“Oh,” his mother says, clipped. “Which ones?”

“My current one, and the one from kindergarten.”

His father drops his fork, eyes unreadable.

“Is that right.” It’s not a question, that Miklan asks. His gaze drops to his half-finished plate.

“Sweetie,” his mother starts again, voice like maple syrup on his morning pancakes, sweet and fake. “That’s impossible. A man can’t be with another man, and a woman can’t be with another woman.”

He wonders if he imagines the way Miklan stiffens beside him. In this very moment, he, too, feels cold. They don’t finish their meals.


===

 

Through the years, Sylvain learns to pretend. He learns the probability of people’s eyes being a certain shade according to their clarity or the way candlelight reflects on their irises, learns to differentiate hair from their shape and cut and texture, learns about common traits in different types of people and makes guesses along the way. He learns faked knowledge and empty compliments and the cold, hard truth that his unusual flattery is what makes him even more popular - how he doesn’t describe people according to the colors they boast, but praises them on the way their clothes fall around their bodies or the style in which they tie their hair. Girls, especially, seem to pay attention to such things, he realizes, and although he cannot describe how their eyes look like gems or other stupidly cliché metaphors, Sylvain soon becomes aware that it doesn’t matter when you’re a little charming and moderately good-looking and filthy rich.

He learns of the chasm colorlessness creates inside his heart and soul, as though nature itself had voided a piece of his humanity equal in proportion to the part of his eyesight it had stolen away. He compensates for his colorblindness with the next best thing, and learns to reproduce and counterfeit the feelings that pigment others - caution, compassion, consideration. It’s easy, easier than he would have thought, like pulling on the pliant elastic rope behind a mask to put it over one’s face for a life-timed masquerade ball. He learns to train the disloyalty out of his smiles, the dishonesty out of his stances, the duplicity out of his sentences. He makes a game out of it, at first, a little hide-and-seek between he, him, and himself, wondering whether someone would ever come to pull him out of the broom closet he’s locked himself in, before he learns that no one actually ever cares to let him out as long as they can hear the sweet words he whispers from beyond the door.

He learns his own hair is supposed to be red, his own eyes are supposed to be brown. Like fire, like the ground, like fresh and dried blood. He still doesn’t know what it means.

He learns about both love and hatred the weekend he turns thirteen and his parents are away on another of countless business trips, just like any other birthday, when he comes back early from a playdate with one of his classmates and finds Miklan in the living room with someone else. 

Miklan’s hair is mussed up as he’s bending in front of someone sitting on the couch, someone whose back of the head Sylvain does not recognize, not in the sweep of hair, not in the too-light shade. His face, square and bony, disappears down, and for a short while Sylvain holds his breath. The guy sitting on the couch moans, low and rough, something akin to a growl, and a flush of heat rises to Sylvain’s cheeks and travels down his chest. He doesn’t need to see to know what his brother is doing -- he’s thirteen, and the boys in his middle school talk about it all the time, and he himself has researched the subject for a bit, fruitlessly trying to find magazines and videos. His eyes are trained on the guy’s hair - long and falling down to his shoulders, gently swaying in time with the movement, fixating on the way they tumble when he throws his head back a little on a particularly loud moan--

The guy opens his eyes, half-lidded and hazy, and he sees him. 

Sylvain waits for him to say something, anything, but he doesn’t say a word; he just stares, eyes glinting with emotions Sylvain has yet to feel, has yet to understand, before smiling at him. It’s more a smirk than a smile, all canines and incisors, proud and predatory. His lips fall open on another sound, his tongue wet with shine, and Sylvain runs up the stairs and locks himself into his room.

He’s thirteen when he learns how good touching himself feels. 

He has just finished cleaning himself up when Miklan bangs on the door of his room like he wants to kill him. Miklan had mostly left him alone, in later years, which had been a drastic improvement in Sylvain’s book - going from vindictive violence to vindicated negligence - but the look his older brother shoots him when he opens the door makes his toes curl. He looks black and white and angry, face as curdled milk, hair as black spiders. Sylvain tries to shut the door back on him, but Miklan’s fingers hold it back, strong and unyielding. For a single second, Sylvain is tempted to close the door on them, slam them in-between the wood and the frame, again and again, hard enough to draw blood and break bones and tear out nails.

Miklan pushes inside, and Sylvain wishes he had. 

“What did you see.” It’s not a question, again. Miklan never asks questions. Miklan states and exclaims and demands. He traps Sylvain against his desk, hand reaching for his throat.

“Nothing,” Sylvain says, half-truth, half-defiance, as Miklan’s fingers tighten around his windpipe. His hands are unfairly warm, but perhaps it is just the things he just did, the adrenaline in his veins, the rage that overcomes his face. Perhaps it is just the weather.

“Yeah, that’s right. You saw nothing and you’ll say nothing .”

Sylvain frowns through the lack of oxygen, wheezes some words out. His nails are biting half-moons into Miklan’s arms. “I won’t.”

“You think I’m disgusting, don’t you?” His laughter is as mirthless as the warm hand squeezing stronger and stronger. “You hate me as much as they do.”

I do , he thinks, a lone angry voice pulsing like pain through his temples. Sylvain stares through half-shut eyes, and the truth is wrung out of him along with his breath. “I don’t.”

Miklan lets him go as though Sylvain’s skin has burnt him, and Sylvain doesn’t need color to see the complicated blend of emotions in his gaze, the predominant hue of fear .

Sylvain doesn’t have the strength to break Miklan’s fingers in the door as he leaves without another word.


===

 

It doesn’t matter whether he says anything. His parents find out anyway.

He’s coming back from school one day when Miklan waits, seated on the pavement, three bagfuls worth of belongings next to him.

“You told them.”

No , he wants to say, truthful and unbidden and unfair. “Yes”, he answers anyway, because that’s what Miklan wants to hear, and Sylvain has become a master at saying what others want to hear.

He doesn’t think of the bitter betrayal and docile defeat in Miklan’s eyes as he unlocks the door to his house.


===

 

Sylvain asks for a French tutor, even though he’s the best in his class, and his parents give into his little whim as soon as they can. Puppet strings coil around his fingers.

The man has been recommended by some other families in their wealthy neighborhood -- a young man, becoming and bright, his short hair a light lustre of indecipherable color. He’s barely older, but old enough to be noticed, old enough to be worthy to teach the golden son of the Gautier family. On his first day, his parents welcome him with tea and homemade cakes, the kind his mother never even bothers making unless to keep up appearances. They tell him about the job, about Sylvain. Sylvain, seventeen and playing coy despite his height and size, all shy sweeps of long eyelashes and falsely nervous cracking of fingers. About how he wants to make sure he can be good enough to study French at college level next year. About how he wants to earn a scholarship for himself, thanks to his own efforts, instead of always relying on his parents’ pecuniary help. 

They don’t tell him about the various nanny cams they installed around the house and that Sylvain has found and unplugged numerous times when he wanted to have people over without his parents knowing. The puppet strings knot tighter around his knuckles.

Most of the year goes by without incident. His tutor comes in twice a week, his parents don’t come home until very late and leave very early. The house is lonely, he tells his tutor once -- and it’s a half-truth, the ones he specializes in; there’s not a lot of pretense to his sadness and anger, these two emotions he has learned from Miklan and for Miklan. Sylvain catches his tutor’s fingers between his, once, a false accident, and his hands are warm and calloused. Sylvain wants to feel them, to fill them. 

So he does.

He does more than once, in fact; he does twice a week, for a month and a half.

The last time he does, he purposely leaves the nanny cams plugged in, staring all the while, his gaze sultry and his moans sultrier, the puppet strings moving in time with the graze of his fingers against his tutor’s naked back.

He knows his parents know when he comes back and they’re at home before eleven. They’re waiting for him around the coffee table, tea and cakes and all; he thinks his mother is crying. They ask dozens of questions -- about what they did wrong, what they should do now, what measures should be taken, they, they, they. Sylvain doesn’t care. His scholarship is guaranteed, the papers for the campus room have been sent. Everything went just according to his infaillible plan. All he has to do is wait for them to throw him out, the way they did with Miklan.

“You behavior can be corrected, sweetie,” his mother says instead, and if he could see color, Sylvain would see blood red.

“What?” he bites, black and cold and black.

“We have decided that you’ll stay here with us through college,” his father states, and Sylvain knows it is definite. “We cannot lose you.”

“Everything for the fucking Gautier name, is that it?” He laughs, as mirthless as Miklan on that faraway day. “So what, you didn’t hesitate to throw Miklan out, but because I’m-- I’m your trophy , you won’t do the same to me?! What gives?”

“Don’t pronounce his name here,” his father eludes, and Sylvain almost spits in his face.

“What -- you thought I wouldn’t realize? You never, ever cared about me-- about any of us. The only thing you care about is your reputation and your money and what the fucking neighbors will say about you at their next garden party.” He rises from the seat he has not even realized he had taken. “Well, you know what? I know exactly what you can tell them next time.”

“Sylv--”

Mother , tell them how your sons -- both of them, even the one you threw out of the house for it -- tell them how your sons are fucking other men. Because that’s what I do-- I suck cock, and I fuck men, and I get fucked by men. And I love every . Second . Of it.”

He feels the searing burn of a slap across his cheek, and climbs up the stairs to his room, silent and peaceful.

You’re the smartest boy I know , he remembers his kindergarten teacher telling him, somewhere, sometime. The puppet strings of revenge cut his fingers like piano wire.

The sky is a deep slate grey when he leaves never to come back.


===

 

A week before his last year of college, Sylvain quits his job.

He had been working there for two years now, in that little organic supermarket, applying when he had realized that the scholarship barely covered the college and campus room fees and that he still had to be able to feed himself. His plan has otherwise gone almost perfectly -- he has never felt this free in years.

“You can’t just tell that to our boss,” Dorothea scolds him from her place at the checkout counter when he steps into the break room and closes the door behind him. He doesn’t expect her to follow him, but she doesn’t need to -- Ingrid is here, coffee in hand, about to throw it in his face. 

“Where’s the boss?” she asks instead, severe but understanding, somehow; she’s been the target of his verbal abuse and sexual harassment for longer than Dorothea has.

“Probably nursing the new broken teeth I gave his ugly little jaw.” He’s detached, has learned to be detached, years and years ago. His anger is cold, a shivering, glacial thing; idle indifference has been his trademark since that day with his parents, polished and patented during the months of cohabitation he had to force on himself before he could finally leave, deleting their numbers from his phone and their presence from his life.

Ingrid hums as she blows her coffee chill. “Good.”

“You could leave, you know.”

“I don’t have that luxury.” Not like you , goes unsaid, but Sylvain hears it all the same. Ingrid is assistant manager here, with a sense of duty great as Sylvain’s family name and a chip on her shoulder big as her heart.

I’m sorry , he wants to tell her, I wish I could do better, I wish I could put him in his place, I wish you’re the one who could run away. “Sucks to be you,” he says instead, because it’s what she’s expecting him to say, vain and selfish and insincere, and he removes his apron before throwing it over a random chair.

The apron is green, apparently -- forest green -- and makes a good harmony of colors with his red hair and brown eyes. He’s twenty-one, and none of this makes any sense to him still.

“I know someone,” Ingrid says as he’s about to leave. He sees the way the bleary neon lights reflect in her eyes, matches them to the shade of grey of their apron. She’s probably what people refer to as blond , too, her hair light and short around her ears, twin bows on the sides. He has rarely felt such a drive to see what everyone else sees, but in this tiny, stuffy break room, he suddenly wishes he could; perhaps he would know better what to say to her, if he could clearly decipher what the exact shade of her eyes was instead of a simple stone gray. “They own a coffee shop near campus. They’re looking for someone to help. Say Ingrid recommends you.”

He sighs a tiny smile as he opens the door. “Thank you.” It’s genuine, and Ingrid’s quirk of lips feels like gold.

The coffee shop is aptly, soberly, named The Great Coffee . Sylvain thinks the owner has either very little imagination or the best sense of humor. 

He steps into the shop, the atmosphere warm and soothing like a blanket, like a hug. The scent of ground beans fills him to the brim, replaces every molecule of oxygen in his lungs, leaves him at peace. Sylvain has always liked coffee. His parents’ lack of supervision has made it so that he started drinking the stuff when he was six years old. He walks up to the counter, and a woman with calm, cool eyes stares at him, unblinking, face unreadable. 

“Welcome,” she says, polite but not warm. “What can I get you?”

He smiles his best smile, unconsciously ruffles his hair with his hand. “Ah, actually, I’m here on behalf of Ingrid? She said you were looking for someone.” Her eyes go a little wider, light-hued and deep-staring, and Sylvain feels scrutinized, stripped to his core. Her hair fades away from licorice to cream along the locks. It shines a dull, overdyed glow. “I’m… looking for a new job. I’ve worked in service before. You can ask Ingrid. Actually, don’t ask Ingrid, you won’t want to hire me afterwards.” The gaze makes him feel somewhat self-conscious -- not in the practiced, rehearsed way he pretends to feel when he’s in front of a crowd or on a date with someone, but in the way he feels about himself when looking at his reflection alone in the broken mirror of the common bathrooms, dissecting himself along the myriads of cracks, line after line, pore after pore.

“Sure,” the woman finally says, and Sylvain’s face warms in surprise.

“What, just like that?”

She shrugs. “I’ll give you a test week, and if everything goes well, you can stay.”

His mouth drops open, thinking about the money he has spent in reprinting his resume and recommendations. He’s happy money is now one of his concerns. “Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“You didn’t even ask to-- see my resume, or anything. You’re hiring me. Just like that.”

Her smile is conspiratory, like she’s revealing him the world’s biggest secret. “You didn’t say a single thing about the color of my hair.”


===

 

A week in, Sylvain’s natural charm and meaningless compliments bring as many customers in a day as the shop has seen in a month.

People queue up from the falling September leaves outside, late summer sun warming up the last dredges of the evening. He platitudes through a hundredth variant of the same “a pretty name for a pretty face?” line he has said all week to another reasonably cute customer, gets the cash or card, sends the takeout cup to Claude, who is trying hard to perfect his latte art and is yet still desperately failing at it, rinse and repeat. Byleth is busy cleaning the actual seating room, her ombré hair swaying in time with her movements, her gaze a tad warmer than what she usually shows.

“Welcome to the Great Coffee!” he intones again, facing the next customer. “What can I get y--”

The guy in front of him stares as though Sylvain has killed his cat with his bare hands. It’s the first thing Sylvain notices -- the contrast from the dark circles around his eyes, sharpening an already cutting gaze. His eyes are dark, but there’s a radiance in them reminiscent of the low evening sun, a steady, flaring efflorescence like a still-unbloomed firework. The man’s hair is dark too, darker than most, falling into soft, straight locks over his collarbones and chest. He’s beautiful in fractions, fragment after pretty fragment of his frame synthesizing into unorthodox charm rather than archetypal comeliness. His hair is long , is the thing that crosses his mind immediately. Sylvain thinks he hears Claude snorting, and it makes him resurface somewhat.

“What can I get you?” He asks again, and the man raises his dark, dark eyes to him again from the menu on the zinc countertop.

“A black coffee. Vienna roast. Please.” He says the last word almost as an afterthought, as an apology.

Sylvain smiles, not unkindly. “To go?”

“Please.” He looks inside his pocket for a fiver, and when Sylvain’s fingers brush his to take it, the world blazes.

It’s funny, how Sylvain finds out the true meaning of three little words everyone takes for granted in the very same instant. He first looks at the sky, clear like water out the window. The sky is blue, his teacher had said. He watches the way his hair moves and catches vibrant in the reflection the freshly-washed countertop provides. His hair is red. He glances back to the man in front of him, slowly dimming back to grayscale along the transience of their touching fingers, pale skin withering to white, his ebony hair a fade to black - and Sylvain would have found it funny, too, that the man finally sparking color to his world looked so monochrome, if it wasn’t for his eyes.

It comes to him in an illumination, strikes him like thunder and the chime of midnight. The man’s eyes are gold.

He’s reminded of his kindergarten teacher, of sun and bliss and love, of emotions he always struggled to feel, of things he never thought would ever be his. He stares at the discoloring, mellow gold, and he sees them clear as day -- signs of a lifetime, the single, overwhelming thought that they’ll one day be together, that they’ll one day fade side by side. 

One day, he and I will be lovers , is the foretold, unwarranted certainty that a feeling outside his own cognizance bestows upon him, like fate itself made themselves mortal and whispered into his ear.

“What’s your name?” He says, a little short of breath, a little thrilled, a lot scared.

The man looks at him, pensive and perhaps a little stricken as he takes back his change -- and color bleeds into Sylvain’s vision again at the simple touch.

He smiles, and it’s more of a smirk, really. “Bob.”


===

 

The man comes once, twice, thrice, and gives Sylvain a different, more ridiculous name each time. It’s for the best. Sylvain would have completely refused to have a stupid crush on a man named Bob anyway. 

“Lawrence,” the man says as he comes in for the fourth time. “No, scratch that. Chad. Chadjamin .” Claude bursts into laughter, and Sylvain swears the man himself is exactly one second away from laughing to himself as well, except he doesn’t, and it makes it even more frustrating. The black marker swatches over what Sylvain has already started to write, and he cursives it in an elegant Enguerrand . “Also, I’m drinking in today.”

That’s a surprise, Sylvain thinks as he gets the man’s change, the tingle of color in the back of his brain since the first time they met returning full force. He sees his surroundings in very faded watercolor now, like nature has left its paintbrushes to hang and dry, the washwater pooling into barely-hued stains on the world below. The man’s eyes are a distinct, watered-down sunglow. 

“Class is cancelled?”

“Sort of,” he answers as he stares to the side for a free table, which is not that hard to find at this time of day. “I need to finish an essay, and I’ll need caffeine.”

“Ah, there you are!” 

The voice drifts, loud and unbidden, along with the chime of the bell above the door, and the man who steps in is ten shades of light at once. His haircut is awful, but his hair is cream and soft-looking, framing a single, sky-light eye. He smiles as loud as he speaks, his steps almost cautious in contrast, as though afraid of scaring away a wild animal. Claude, who has been busy staring at Sylvain with that knowing, amused gaze of his, immediately stands to attention, splotches of pale coral spilling over his asinine face.

“Sylvain, move.” It’s almost a threat, and he doesn’t even wait for Sylvain to move before he firmly grips his shoulders and shoves him to the coffee-making side of the counter. The newcomer cannot even address Sylvain’s customer before Claude interjects with a What do you even drink to be so pretty and effortlessly smiles at his flushed-up face.

“And they say I’m the flirt,” Sylvain says to no one in particular, rolling his eyes as he starts on his own order.

“You did flirt with everyone in line the first time I saw you.”

It’s his own customer who answers, looking at him with a touch of amusement in the light over his eyes.

“These little sentences?” The sound of the coffee machine is almost drowning his voice. “That’s not flirting. That’s just common courtesy.” He throws a half-hearted wink his way, and the man rolls his eyes in turn.

“How very kind of you, Sylvain .” He turns around, and takes a seat to a table not far from the counter, pushing the other chair in front of him with a nudge of his foot, an unspoken invitation for his friend (his friend?) to take a seat once Claude is done trying to impress him with song lyrics spoken like cheap love poetry. The man holds his name above his head like an advantage, as though he suddenly has the upper hand in their little playfight, as though he knows his only weakness. Sylvain feels himself shivering with electricity.

He doesn’t know what overcomes him when he speaks again, steaming cup in hand, as he goes to give the man his order. He schools his gaze dark, the way he taught himself,  innocence and insolence intertwined. “Why?” he says, settling the carton cup on the table and his fingers as support inches away from the man’s own. “Do you want me to flirt with you?”

The man looks almost startled, and even their current proximity is enough to make the hues around him stronger, his presence a soothing monochrome in the middle of the colorful flux. Sylvain lets his mind run wild -- how nice it would be to take him out, to walk the streets with him, to get to know his likes and dislikes and indifferences. To go somewhere no one knows them and dance against the music and kiss against each other and every other way around. 

He thinks back about that little bit of prescience, from that day. It’s not because he brought along the color that I have to fall in love with him.

Is it?

He rises back up, the man’s stare on him. “Also, I already added the dash of cinnamon,” he mentions. I win . He turns around and back to his task.


===

 

They have a class together.

He discovers it when five minutes before his Gender, Sexuality, and Society class begins, the man steps into the classroom.

They stare at each other for what seems like an eternity, like an instant.

One day, he and I will be lovers , the voice comes back, more certain than ever.

The man steps, decidedly, inside, eyes tearing away from Sylvain’s. The classroom is two-thirds empty.

Sylvain’s chest splinters against the force of his laughter when the man sits right next to him.


===

 

“Do you only ever take black coffee, vienna roast?”

Sylvain looks at him over the rim of his round glasses -- he has forgotten his lenses at home, today, and had to get his emergency pair out of his bag in a rush in the middle of the day, when the watercolors became more vivid, more hurtful. He can see the edge of pale rose gold shining under the café lights.

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t,” comes the reply, edged with annoyance and sharpened with a sulk.

“It’s boring,” Sylvain argues, fruitlessly, he knows. “We have seasonal drinks! It’s October. You should try our--”

“No, I will not try your Halloween special. I don’t need my coffee to actually be syrup, thank you very much.” His frown is softened by the fading evening light.

“Why are you even getting black coffee at seven in the evening? Planning an all-nighter?”

“Aren’t you gonna ask for my name?” He deflects, blush rising to his cheeks.

Sylvain smiles wickedly. “I don’t know. Last time, I kind of liked Hugo. It was the least stupid name you’ve ever given me.”

“Felix.”

Sylvain stares straight at him. “You should keep that instead of your real name. I like it a lot.”

“Oh my god.” His palm slaps against his forehead, disrupting the midnight black bangs there, the only locks not uptied into a bun. “It is my real name, you idiot.” His hand -- Felix ’s hand -- hangs in the air between them. “I’m Felix Fraldarius.”

He’s breathless when he shakes his hand, the hues bleeding up into full-blown shades around him the longer he keeps it in his own.

“I’d say nice to meet you, but it’s not exactly the first time we meet.”

“And neither was it very nice.”

Sylvain dramatically puts his other hand over his heart. “What? How couldst thou hurteth me so--”

“And I’m leaving.” Felix tears his hand away. This time, the colors stay for some time, enough for Sylvain to count the seconds in his head until they revert back to his now-usual pastels.

“Without your order?” Sylvain realizes he has never smiled as much, has never laughed as genuinely, as he has done after meeting Felix. The marker in his hand slides against the cup.

He slides a cardboard sleeve around it before he hands it to Felix. “Careful, it’s hot.”

“Who the hell do you take me for,” Felix answers. Sylvain will probably never tire of thinking his name, of the way it would roll off his tongue and into small clouds of vapor in the pre-winter air, of the way it would sound against the walls of a secluded bedroom.

“I get off in one hour,” Sylvain calls as Felix slides down the cardboard sleeve and throws it in the nearby trashcan.


===

 

you’re an idiot. is the text he receives later, lack of capitalization and full stop and all.

do you wanna go out? Sylvain starts typing. He adds some kissing emojis, for good measure, adds an im bored before them as though that will lower the impact of his offer, as though that will lessen his desire to write ive been thinking about your eyes for a month and a half and i dont know where that leaves me , as though that will smooth over the apprehension creeping in his chest, that this isn’t meant for him, that this isn’t meant to be, the catch-22 of his entire existence -- whether he was as blind to love as he was to colors. He thinks back of his parents, of Miklan, of the unwavering, unforgiving gaze of others, and he suffocates under the lightness in his heart.

never said i wasnt , he types instead, and he wonders if Felix expects him to answer that. He deletes the kisses at the end.


===

 

It’s dangerous, how touchy he gets with Felix.

The bursts of colors are exhilarating, driving his most minute mannerisms; he tries to brush their fingers when he gives him his orders, he accidentally lingers too long with his arm around his shoulder when he crosses his path on campus, he lets his head lean and rest in the crook of his neck during their most boring classes. The hues become more and more vivid, as though just a little more, only just a little more was required for him to finally see the full extent of this world of theirs, to finally experience the blazing glory of Felix’s true eye color.

More often than not, Felix shoves him away, startling at sudden proximity, bristling at prolonged contact. Which is why Sylvain notices when Felix pushes him less and less, when he lets himself endure Sylvain’s secure hold of him. This, too, is dangerous. It makes Sylvain bolder. It makes Sylvain fearless.

Once, he slides an arm around Felix’s middle to whisper something in his ear, and almost everyone turns to stop and stare. 

There’s a lot he sees, in these weighty stares, not a lot of them good. He releases Felix almost immediately, and rushes outside.

Felix finds him alone under a random tree, almost an hour later, his hair swaying behind him in a long ponytail. He’s the most beautiful thing Sylvain has ever seen, and it hurts to merely think about it.

“For someone so nonchalant, you certainly care a lot about what others think of you.”

It’s not unkind, and it’s even quite empathetic, by Felix’s standards. Sylvain sighs. “I know you think it’s stupid.”

“I don’t think it’s stupid.” Sylvain, who has spent his whole life shaping himself into wearing the falsehoods he spun and sewed for the visual comfort and pleasure of others, likes to think himself quite good at detecting the lies of lesser quality people showed the world, their colors like makeup and ornaments over ugly faces. Felix is monochrome, and unadorned, and truthful to his core. He smiles, and it’s more blinding than every shade Sylvain has seen since. “But I still think you’re applying impossible standards to yourself.”

“Says the one who takes fencing so seriously that he forgets to sleep at night.”

Felix’s face colors, but he does not deny it. “Anyway, why would you care about being what people want you to be? You’re you, and that’s plenty. That’s enough.”

Is it enough for you? Sylvain wonders, and deletes the words from his mouth.


===

 

Rain is pouring in curtains of grey when he comes in for his afternoon shift and sees Miklan.

He’s a little smaller, or maybe it’s just the weight of the years and the guilt and the weather, he wonders. His eyes are the brownish grey of mud, his hair a duller duplicate of Sylvain’s own. He doesn’t notice Sylvain right away.

“What are you doing here.” It’s a demand, and he knows that Miklan knows, because his older brother startles, wide eyes turning in disbelief. 

“Syl,” he says, and it hurts , because he has not called him that since Sylvain was three.

Sylvain does not even realize Felix is here as well until the man steps beside him and makes the world more luminous, almost in the way he makes forever less terrifying. Miklan’s eyes dart to Felix, then to his, and it’s as though his face goes through a dozen states of grief, along expressions that Sylvain only barely counts -- astonishment, fear, jealousy, anger, understanding, resignation.

Sylvain’s face attritions to a single one. Pity.

He knows Miklan will not dare say anything, so he speaks first. “I can see colors now. Somewhat.”

Miklan snorts mirthlessly. “Is that so. What, mom and dad finally paid millions into some stupid surgery?”

“I haven’t seen them in years, actually. I’m pretty sure I’m as dead to them as you.” His voice is back to that detached lilt, his face hidden again beneath the elegant Venitian mask of indifference.

Out of all the emotions he keeps a careful list of, he does not expect Miklan’s face to twist into recognition. “Oh. So, you too, huh.”

Sylvain’s mask shatters to the ground, the pieces scratching lines of bewilderment and wrath across his face. “What do you mean, you too? So you had it too?!”

Miklan does not answer. He does not need to -- the way his gaze avoids Sylvain’s tells him everything he needs to know.

“How come you never said anything …?”

“How come mom and dad never told you?”

It’s Sylvain’s turn to be speechless, but once again, he knows the answer. He’s the smartest boy his teacher’s ever known.

“I didn’t matter. I never mattered. Not to our parents, not to anyone, not even to you.”

No, you didn’t , Sylvain thinks, and it’s the best lie Sylvain’s ever crafted, the one he keeps on trying to make himself believe, so fragile and transparent as he releases it that he wants to cry. He feels Felix shift beside him, stepping closer, the colors vivid against his eyelashes. “No. You didn’t. That’s why I told them.” 

Miklan’s laugh is short, a mere gasp of air, full of spite and acrimony. “As if you ever did.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” He asks, half a shout, and people are turning around but Sylvain cannot bring himself to care. Let them stare , he thinks, let them stare all they want, until their awful little hearts are filled to the brim with dread and disgust and disappointment. “We could have helped each other-- we could have been here for each other!”

“You never needed help, Sylvain.”

No , he thinks. I needed kind hands and heartfelt acknowledgement and love.

“No,” he laughs, frenzied. “I needed a brother .” 

Sylvain’s skin is peach around his knuckles when Miklan stands up, facing him for what Sylvain knows is the last time.

“It’s not colorblindness, Syl. It’s never been that.” His voice is bitter as the coffee Felix likes so much. “Just… know how to cherish them as long as you can. The colors. Because if you thought the condition was bad, wait until you find them and they fade away again.” Miklan glances to Felix, and Sylvain stands protectively between them, as though Miklan would taint him with his gaze and words and existence. “Wait until you lose him.”


===

 

Felix drags him by the wrist through streets and streets, the pouring rain soaking them to the bone. It’s funny, he thinks, that he now sees nuances in greys, now that they don’t vanish back -- how he sees the hint of blue in slate, the touch of pink in quartz, the dash of yellow in chiffon. The world is all grey and dull around them, yet all he can see is color, marbled and kaleidoscopic. The city lights shine a vibrant splendor over the damp pavement. 

“Where are you taking me?” Sylvain asks, and realizes he doesn’t care about the answer as long as he can feel Felix’s fingers against his skin. They’re blessedly cold.

Felix glances back at him for a second, lost in thought. “To a friend.”

Fifteen minutes lates, they push a tiny glass door open, and the fragrant smell of spices and butter and herbs drifts to his nose and into his chest, warm and therapeutic. When Sylvain looks at the man behind the counter, he thinks his colorblindness has reverted back to its usual pastels -- but no, the man truly has silver hair, offset by bright chartreuse eyes. There’s a wash of freckles over his nose that disappear in the lines of it when he smiles, bright, at them.

“Welcome!”

“It’s just me,” Felix says with a roll of eyes. His hand is still over Sylvain’s wrist as he walks them to the counter, up until he releases it to pull up a stool for himself to seat. Sylvain sits next to him, so close yet so far. The man in front of them regards him with innocent curiosity.

“Ah, I’m Sylvain,” he says, extending his palm, and the chartreuse eyes go a tiny bit wider as a hand comes to shake it. 

“Oh, you’re Sylvain,” the man says, then yelps as Felix’s face whips so hard in their overall direction Sylvain fears he’s hurt himself. “I’m Ashe.”

“My ex-boyfriend,” Felix says.

“Also his normal friend, thank you very much.”

Sylvain ignores the irrational anguish dropping down his stomach and curling around his spleen.

Another man comes forward, tall and broad, dark skin contrasting platinum white hair and undercut. There’s a gold ring slipped onto a thin chain around his neck, matching the one on Ashe’s finger still holding onto Sylvain’s hand. The weight eases, just a little. Sylvain chooses not to think about it.

“Hi, Felix.” The voice is deep and even, like the cold, calm depths of the ocean. The man looks at him, and nods once. “Sylvain.”

“Am I that popular?” Sylvain jokes, and Felix slaps his arm.

“I simply heard Ashe say your name,” he answers, gaze pointed to Felix in something close to amusement. “My name is Dedue.”

“We all met in high school,” Ashe says, beaming like the moon, “with Dimitri, too.”

“Dimitri?”

“Felix’s roommate,” Dedue says.

“Felix’s best friend,” Ashe says at the same time.

“The boar,” Felix says just right after.

Sylvain laughs as he asks for a bottle of beer.

They leave Ashe and Dedue’s restaurant four hours and some five bottles of beer later, Sylvain swaying in the warmth alcohol tracks inside his blood. He has learned more about Felix in that time than during a month and a half, but it’s as though Sylvain had always known, all these tiny facts about him -- his hatred of sweets, his surprisingly messy side, his endearing stubbornness, his family issues. His fallout with Dimitri, all these years ago, how he couldn’t forgive him but could even less forgive himself. Sylvain and Felix were day and night, Ashe had said, a little drunk, a little soft -- yet Sylvain cannot help but think that Felix is the person who’s most similar to himself he has ever met. He wonders if this is what people mean when they talk about soulmates, this feeling of kinship, this understanding that goes beyond words and souls and time. Felix’s hand brushes his, a true accident, and Sylvain wants to take it in his, to free it from the weight of all the things it has carried alone throughout his almost nineteen years of survival. He leaves it where it is, simply relishing in the proximity, this almost-intimacy, this not-quite-bond they have cultivated since they met, growing alongside the colors flooding his chest and essence.

They don’t talk until they reach a bridge, the water below flowing dark and sparkly, black on white on gold. 

“You know, until recently, I couldn’t see colors.”

Felix doesn’t answer, merely looks at him, and the autumn wind traces nervous shivers over his shape. 

“Monochromacy, is what they told my parents. I saw in shades of grey. I thought I wouldn’t ever see them-- the colors everyone takes for granted.”

“But you can see them now.” Felix turns his gaze to the river below, too. Sylvain thinks he will ask why, but he doesn’t, and it’s not that much of a surprise. Felix understands.

“Yeah.” Thanks to you , he almost says, and I don’t know why, and I don’t care to know why , and he tries to convey the words the best way he knows how. He steps a little closer, a minute paradigm shift.

“... I should go home,” Felix says, and his gaze looks so, so torn. “I’ve got a test at eight tomorrow.” It only strikes Sylvain now -- that maybe it’s not a rejection, that maybe Felix is just incredibly scared , too.

“Will Dimitri be there?” He says, without thinking. “You know what-- don’t answer. I don’t know why I even care.”

“Yeah,” Felix answers, gaze straightforward as he suddenly steps into Sylvain’s space, his hand on the bridge a millimeter away from Sylvain’s. His voice tries to be the detached airiness that Sylvain has trained all his life, but it wavers at the edges like a breeze, too real and pure. “Why would you?”

“What?”

“Is there a reason why you’d care?”

His eyes are blazing like a bleeding sunrise, and it’s so blinding that Sylvain’s gaze falls to his lips. Because I don’t want you to go , he thinks, because I don’t want you to be with anyone else, because we’re meant to be, because I’m desperately in love with you.

“Not really,” he answers instead, because his thoughts are probably exactly what Felix expects to hear, and none of them are ready for this yet.

They’re waiting at a bus stop, comfortable silence hovering in the air between them, and Sylvain sees the lights of the night bus shining their way up the concrete afterain.

“It’s mine,” Felix says.

“See you later?” Sylvain half-asks, half-demands, because he cannot imagine not seeing Felix ever again.

“Yeah.”

Sylvain starts to walk away as the bus doors open, and the voice inside him says it’s wrong, incredibly wrong , he needs to say something--

“Felix, wait--” he calls, whipping around, and the bus doors close, Felix lazily waving at him through the window.


===

 

Dorothea decides to celebrate both her birthday and her new job at the same time, which is why she chooses the day before Halloween. It’s my Libra sun , she says with a wink when Sylvain asks, ever the dramatic . Sylvain’s a Gemini, and she’s already cut apart and anatomized his stars enough in the two years they’ve known each other to know that she’s probably right.

“A friend of mine is having a party this friday,” Sylvain mentions to Felix as he hands him his coffee, dash of cinnamon striping the top in marroon. “Come with me?”

Felix glances at Mercedes, probably to gauge from her face if this is a good idea, before being apparently comforted by whatever expression he sees in her indigo eyes; the traits on his face relax a tiny bit. Sylvain will never, ever stop thinking of her as his best coworker. “Who is she?”

“Her name’s Dorothea, we used to work together.”

“I know her,” Felix says, half-surprised. “Well, from afar. Annette studies music with her.”

Sylvain smiles, sly and teasing. “See? One less reason to refuse.”

Felix merely sighs at that. 

“What, aren’t you going to say something like you’re one good enough reason to refuse or some shit?”

“No, I won’t,” Felix whispers through the ghost of a smile, waving to Mercedes as he leaves the shop.

“Isn’t he perfect?” Sylvain sighs as the door closes, and Mercedes has the gracefulness not to laugh.

“You’re like a teenage boy with his first crush,” she answers, gentle and sweet as chai latte.

“And I do intend for him to be my last.” He doesn’t even believe the words have slipped out of his mouth so easily, but now that they hang in the atmosphere, certain as the light of the sun and the smell of coffee and the gold in Felix’s eyes, he does not wish them whisked away.

Mercedes levels him with a thoughtful gaze, all-seeing, never judgemental. She’s one of the only people to have ever made him feel safe, made him feel understood. He wonders if he would have fallen for her, had Felix not showed up in his life before she did. He wonders if she would have felt the same way, had she not been more into girls. They’ve bonded for hours, both of them, analogous past and similar present, helplessly fallen to their knees at the shrine of their respective patient loves.

“I’m glad you’re happy,” she says, finally, soft strength in her gaze piercing through him like an arrow. “You deserve it.”

Sylvain does not lie when he answers, “Yes, I do.”


===

 

They’re half-drunk and sparkling-full, the night wearing away and discarding its clothes, and Sylvain is busy sending Claude pictures of a still-drunk Dimitri being barely held together by Ingrid when the music starts blasting again. Felix has removed his too-warm sweater for the sheer number of people in Dorothea’s small living room, the couches pushed against the walls to leave room for dancing, the coffee table put on top of one of them due to the lack of space elsewhere. The top he wears below is positively illegal; a simple, black crop top probably too large for him, his thin ribs showing under the sleeves. Sylvain wants to push his fingers and all of himself into the gaps. 

He slides behind him, careful, and trails his hands along his arms in the barest of shiver, giving Felix plenty of time and room to push him away -- but Felix throws his head back between his shoulder and his neck, eyes closed, face blissed-out. He takes Sylvain’s hands and slides them against him, guides his fingertips against the toned planes of his stomach, trails the knuckles along his skin and bones, music pulsing through their chests. Sylvain grinds against him, his face buried in the spot where neck becomes shoulder, grazes almost-kisses there, breathes in the scent of him. One of Felix’s hands comes embedding itself into his hair, pulling on the roots, and Sylvain’s eyes are closed but the colors prisming beneath his eyelids are so incredibly real. He feels Felix turn his head, up to the orbit of his lips, and there are way too many people here to witness the beginning of Sylvain’s happy ending, so he takes Felix’s hand as he opens his eyes, pulls him in, whisks him away.

The sun almost rises when they step out of the house, and Felix gently pushes his shoulders against the wall as he drags Sylvain down and kisses him. The bun in his hair is half-undone, and that’s where Sylvain chooses to hold for purchase, silk against his skin as he undoes the hair tie. Felix’s kisses are all shades of red, warm as fire and steady as bloodflood, softening to pinks and peaches as Sylvain cups his face and draws him ever closer. Their lips brush against each other like aquarelle on a canvas, and Sylvain lets a hand drop to his waist as he pulls Felix against him, kisses him open and confident and true. He feels Felix’s teeth against his lower lip, and how could Sylvain not give him exactly what he wants, he thinks as Felix’s tongue draws shapes and hues alongside his, as Sylvain commits to memory every sound he whispers and every breath he takes. 

“You’ll be the death of me,” Felix says as they pull apart for air, and Sylvain knows it’s the nearest sentence to a promise of forever, and as he closes the distance between them again he swears to himself to kiss the air out of his lungs and the life out of him.

When he opens his eyes again, the sky is painted gold.