Felix first saw him through the window.
It was an accidental glance, but the guy’s appearance had caught Felix’s attention: the mean look with sharp features like a cool warrior type with bone structure that could cut glass, and jet-black hair pushed back that revealed earrings trailing down his ears like constellations.
He looked like he fit into the cookie cutter mold of a tattoo artist, which was almost laughable, but Felix didn’t lack the self-preservation to know to keep his distance. The last time Felix associated himself with somebody of the same disposition, he got jabbed in the solar plexus and almost pepper-sprayed. Plus, the dude’s jeans were so tight Felix could see his religion.
The blare of a car horn snatched him out of his reverie. Felix looked up. The sky was riddled with wispy clouds and contrails, soft enough that Felix could reach forward and pinch it into nothingness. Or maybe he could open his mouth and taste the blue of the sky, leaving the same hue on his tongue. The weather was warm and getting dryer; he’d gotten used to rolling up his sleeves and revealing his arms.
Felix glanced at the tattoo parlour one last time before he continued the last of his steps to the flower shop, carrying the convenience store lunches in his hand.
Returning to Han’s Florist, he found Jisung intensely scrolling through the page of a tattoo artist behind the counter, body hunched forward and a pierced brow furrowed. Felix set their lunches on the table and slapped Jisung’s back, making him almost topple over.
“No! Shit, fuck -- you, fuck you!” Jisung cursed as he dropped his phone onto the table and skittered away from it. “I liked his post! I liked his post from February!”
“So? That was only four months ago.”
“Back in 2019.”
Felix let out a low whistle. He picked up Jisung’s phone and saw that it was a post of two delicately inked koi fish on a client’s back. Felix was impressed -- at the artist’s skill or Jisung’s ability to scroll through nearly a hundred posts to have reached last year, Felix didn't know, but he was definitely impressed at something. “You’re overreacting. The dude’s got over fifty-four thousand followers. I bet he gets a bunch of notifications everyday.”
“Oh,” Jisung muttered, “right.”
“Why don’t you just visit him?” Felix asked as he read the artist's bio: H. Hyunjin. @mooninkstudios. Books are open, no DM's plz. Skimming through some of his posts, it seemed as though he specialized in intricate watercolour tattoos and big, traditional pieces. “He literally works across from us. I see you staring at the bare bones of his ass all the time through the windows."
“Wh -- no, I don't. You -- shut up," Jisung sputtered. He pointedly distracted himself by grabbing his bento box from the plastic bag, and handing the last one to Felix. "And I don’t want a tattoo.”
“They do piercings too. You can get another one.”
“You think I'm gonna get another one when this one hurt like a bitch?" Jisung broke apart his chopsticks petulantly. “Besides, even if I did go in there and make a fool of myself, what makes you think he’d take any interest in me?”
“Well, I dunno. I think you’re a swell guy.”
Jisung ignored him. “Do you really think he’s gonna notice this sad shack of a flower shop? I'm taking over soon and my mom still hasn't given me artistic liberty over this place. Our aprons make us look like we’re preschool teachers.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk so lowly about your family business,” Felix said plainly, popping a kappa roll into his mouth. “You must really be in love.”
“I’m not in love. I just -- admire art, therefore I admire the originator of the art. Fuck the hell off.”
Felix grinned and shrugged.
Despite Jisung’s complaints about the shop design, he knew Jisung liked it. Felix liked it too. After all, Jisung was one of the rare filial sons who actually took adoration and commitment in the family business -- who was content in graduating with a mere business diploma and heading straight into inheriting the flower shop.
Felix liked the smallness and coziness of the shop, the clashing of pastel yellows against pinks, and their striped and frilled purple canopy. He liked waking up early in the morning to cut and process flowers. He liked making colourful arrangements and how the shop focused on creativity rather than production. He liked having purpose for his clumsy, scarred hands -- to be capable of making beautiful things.
They weren’t very popular especially in the most aesthetic locations of downtown, but they made enough to get by. Plus, Ms. Han was so full of knowledge that Felix could listen and learn from her all day whenever she made a trip down to the shop.
Situated closely across from them was Moon Ink Studios, a tattoo parlour around the same size as the flower shop and also the place where Jisung's object of interest worked. All in sleek black with sharp marquee lights, the building looked like it could partake in a pagan horror movie. From what Felix glimpsed through the large windows, the artists there could be leads in said pagan horror movie too.
And coincidentally enough, Felix was quite sure that the guy he saw moonlighted as a tattoo artist but was actually a full-time member of a motorcycle gang with side hobbies that included money-laundering and kicking kittens into potholes.
Felix finished his lunch and clasped the plastic lid back onto the empty bento box. He tucked the plastic bag underneath the counter among the other bags they reused, and checked the shop’s landline for any missed calls. There was one, and annoyed, he jabbed Jisung in the side with the phone. “And here I thought I was the incompetent one. Are you working hard or hardly working? We have a missed call.”
“I was occupied,” he said defensively.
“Toughen up your dry-spaghetti spine and just go talk to him already before you put this place up in flames,” Felix grumbled and headed to the backroom to resume their big project for a wedding coming up in two days. They were finishing the last of the colourful arrangements; the centerpieces were left for Jisung to create the day before the wedding.
Business was quiet as usual through the night. After their tasks for the day were done, Felix spent the remainder of the evening folding scrap paper into cranes. Then he opted to watch Jisung scroll through Hyunjin’s Instagram portfolio until closing. He even went as far as Googling the guy at one point, which Felix found creepy but also cute, because whenever Jisung was amused he smiled in a way that made his front teeth stick out a bit -- kind of like a rabbit. Or a squirrel. A rabbit-squirrel hybrid, at least.
“You’re acting so giddy. Are you in high school?” Felix asked.
Jisung stuck up a middle finger. Felix rolled his eyes and leaned his head against his shoulder, only to be shoved off, and Felix made sure to press like on one of Hyunjin’s 2018 posts.
His usual route of going to the convenience store included passing by food stalls and terraced buildings in the heart of downtown. It was an unlikely coincidence when Felix found him, one afternoon, on his lunch break seated outside of a ramen place eating heartily by himself. Or when Felix went to grab coffee from a local cafe, he’d find the guy standing in line literally in front of him. Or when he’d water the front coolers with the plants, Felix would see him cleaning the windows of the tattoo parlour with bare, clean arms and a red headband pushing his hair back. That went on for weeks and Felix was starting to get spooked by all the coincidental sightings.
It was a little weird, seeing him do normal things in an all too normal demeanor when he was most likely involved in illegal activity. But gang members wore leather and metal all the time and that was exactly what the guy wore on a daily basis. Felix ardently stuck by his first impression of him.
But Felix was a well-known closeted idiot.
It went like this: Felix was sweating, red all over, with his white t-shirt and hands covered in muck and dirt looking like a depraved monkey in the middle of a hooha. The shipments for their batch of new decor had arrived late and the vehicle for said shipments parked in the front instead of the back, which meant they had to heave heavy boxes back and forth amidst a busy sidewalk. The sun witnessed the entire misfortune unfold and thought it’d be nice to burn them as a shitty afterthought.
Long story short, Felix was a mess.
He was the only one at this point because Jisung went on his lunch break and Seungmin didn’t start until after two. While he carried the last of the boxes in his arms, watching his feet as he stepped onto the sidewalk, Felix made the mistake of glancing to the side because there, in the alleyway between the tattoo parlour and a neon-lit arcade, was Mr. Gang Member looking like he could die for the stray cat he was gently scratching the head of.
But the most shocking thing of all was that he was smiling. His eyes looked warm, curved into happy crescents by his toothy grin--sincere in all his laugh lines folded within the lift of his cheeks. He looked soft. Cute. Not at all like the kind to smoke weed in a jail cell and commit petty theft. What the fuck.
Felix thought the planet had reversed its rotation around its axis. He didn’t know a gang member could look so fond and smile like that. Or smile at all. Rather than an intimidation tactic, it was more so that the guy had an unfortunately serious case of resting bitch face syndrome worsened by a fondness for punk fashion, and Felix felt a bit guilty for having judged a book by its cover.
Too busy staring, Felix didn’t realize he was walking straight towards a utility pole until he slammed into it, the boxes knocking against his face as he fell quite dramatically to the ground.
Felix blinked. He curled his fingers, shook his feet, and determined he was still wholly intact. He sat up, assessing the damage. They’d have to say goodbye to a few new vases they bought for display, but at least the patch of glass terrariums were salvageable. “Shit.”
“Hey! Are you okay?” a voice yelled from across the street. Felix looked up with wide eyes, finding Mr. Resting Bitch Face waving at him. Felix was too surprised at the fact that he had an Australian accent to process the awful embarrassment of being seen falling down like a fool. He hadn’t expected that, and hearing such a familiar lilt made his chest slightly ache in homesickness. “That looked like a weird fall. Can you see straight?”
Realizing that he was merely gaping at Mr. Resting Bitch Face, embarrassment came flooding to his face in all shades of red. Felix quickly got up from the ground and straightened his disgustingly bright apron. “Yes!”
He blanched when his voice cracked terribly. Felix scrambled for the fallen boxes, lifting them all back up into his arms and scurried into the shop with the intention of disappearing beneath the earth and never resurfacing ever again.
Jisung had a cheese stick in his mouth when he watched Felix drop the haggard boxes onto the floor and went to stand near the wall to place his lowered head against it. “That was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
Near closing time, after Jisung kept the flowers in a refrigerated environment and finished the centerpieces, and Felix -- along with Seungmin -- had finished cleaning and organizing the decor that came from the shipment, Jisung made a miserable noise.
“He just posted a selfie of him and this other guy on his story,” Jisung lamented. “Do you think that was his boyfriend? I mean, I don’t even know if he’s into guys, but even if he's not, he’s probably taken. Like, of course he’d be taken. Look at him! Shit. I never even stood a chance. Why does everyone who works there have to be so hot?”
Unbothered, Felix didn’t look up from sweeping debris and leaves into a pile. “I suppose you haven’t thought of a solution for your wretched infatuation with him yet.”
“Oh, fuck you.” Jisung threw his pen down onto his paperwork about taxes. That was the thirty-seventh time Jisung had cursed him -- Felix was counting. “I can’t just go in there.”
Seungmin peeked out from the backroom, holding a bunch of leftover branches in his arms. His hair was an uncombed mess and his eyes were ridden with dark circles. Felix had once thought he was a delinquent, but he was -- in fact -- a sweetheart who often stayed up late just to video call his parents. “Break a pipe in their building and pretend to be a plumber. Like, ‘hey babe, I’m here to snake your drain’, eat his ass, then get married. Bada-bing, bada-boom.”
Felix was incredibly certain Seungmin was attending clown school, though.
“What would lead up to ass-eating?” asked Felix.
Seungmin shrugged. “I dunno. Don’t people thirst over plumbers?”
“I don’t think Jisung has the body of a plumber for that plan to work, sadly."
Jisung sent him a murderous glare. Felix grinned. Seungmin snickered and hid in the back.
Jisung rolled his eyes and plopped down onto his chair again, looking defeated. “I hate all of you. Say -- fine, I do go in there. What am I supposed to do? Even if I do get a tattoo, what am I supposed to get?”
“I dunno. A flower. Flowers are nice and pretty, they’re symbolic, and you work in a flower shop. The options are endless, Jisung. Use your cute little head, will you?”
“Call me cute again and I’ll fire you.”
Felix shrugged theatrically, though he did check out Hyunjin’s Instagram again when Jisung wouldn’t shut up about it. He clicked on his story and the first thing that popped up was a photo of a geometric snake freshly tattooed around his ankle, and when Felix tapped the screen, the selfie came up next. Felix stilled in surprise. He read the text: Finally got a tat done by my pablo picassBro @bang.tattoos !!!!
He glanced up at Jisung who was still brooding. Judging by the looks of it, Jisung didn’t seem to catch the context of Hyunjin’s post nor the blatant pun dripping with complete bro-ness. “You’re so dumb.”
He shook his head and replayed the selfie. Hyunjin had long pink hair, silver hoop earrings and round thin frames perched crookedly on his nose. He was cute. Then Felix’s eyes landed on the young man next to Hyunjin and embarrassment came back in full force; Felix chastised his brain for still remembering what happened earlier in the day so clearly.
Mr. Not A Gang Member was grinning, his nose scrunched and eyes curved. Despite all first impressions, Felix could see how he had a face made for smiling. Happy was a good look on him.
He tapped on the link to his Instagram page before the timer on the story ended, and discovered in his bio that his name was Chan: a gourmand in the making with an inclination for illustrative blackwork. He seemed pretty quiet on social media, posting sporadically and never his face, but was rather interactive with his followers. A nice guy, Felix thought. Not a kitten kicker or a money launderer.
“Pretty, isn’t he,” Jisung sighed dreamily.
“Yeah,” Felix said without thinking, “he is.”
Forgetting that Jisung still thought he was looking at Hyunjin’s story, Felix didn’t notice Jisung staring at him weirdly with raised brows. Felix rolled his eyes and added, “He’s cute. The guy with him is cute too. But no, I don’t like him. Don’t worry about me trying to snatch your man.”
“He’s not my man -- “
“He could be if you tell him you want to get your mom’s name tattooed on your ass.”
Felix ducked when Jisung snatched his pen off the desk and chucked it at his head.
Surrounded by clients whose delight and happiness were so viscerally shapeable through the air, Felix believed it was an honour to be able to partake in an emotional milestone, even if he was mostly relied on to deal with high-strung clients while Seungmin did most of the physical labour to avoid hypersensitive brides and grooms getting cold feet.
But when he saw the way Jisung took leadership in their decor plans and how he carried himself confidently and passionately, Felix understood why he fell in love with this business too.
After piling the flowers into the delivery vehicles, they set off to the venue at eight in the morning. Felix and Seungmin went to deliver bouquets, flower girl flowers, and boutonnieres to the bride’s and groom’s hotel rooms while Jisung decorated the ballroom.
In the afternoon, they decorated the ceremony area, attaching arrangements to the arches and pillars and sprinkling rose petals down the aisle. By the time it was three, they moved most of the decor into the reception area to reuse. Half an hour later, they returned to the delivery vehicles and left the venue.
They arrived back at the shop and Felix went to grab their usual lunches at the convenience store, throwing in a few triangular kimbaps for a more filling meal. As they ate at the shop, Felix found himself looking at the windows of the tattoo parlour more often now, always trying to find black leather and bare arms.
At six, they returned to the wedding venue and broke down the centerpieces along with other floral decor after the wedding was completed. It was almost eight when they finally finished cleaning up. Heading back to the shop felt a bit surreal, being surrounded by leftover arrangements hovering behind them underneath a blueberry sky, the sun sinking beyond the lilac mountains. With the absence of heightened emotions, Felix was left with the gravity of exhaustion.
They closed up the shop as soon as possible. While Felix folded up their sign to bring back inside, he spotted Hyunjin and Chan sitting at the steps of the tattoo parlour talking animatedly to each other. There was a cigarette hanging from Hyunjin’s mouth, a thin tendril of smoke swirling into the air and disappearing.
Hyunjin was saying something, and then Chan burst into laughter - broad, bold, bright. Warm.
Felix stared at him. Then they were turning their heads towards him and Felix quickly went back into the shop.
“I hope smoking isn’t a dealbreaker for you,” Felix said as he passed by Jisung, patting him on the shoulder.
Jisung, clueless at first, frowned at him before he glanced out the window. Then, “Fuck.”
“Was that a good fuck or a bad fuck?” Seungmin asked as he put on his jacket.
Felix wiggled his eyebrows. “Depends if he can even get a fuck at all.”
They shrieked and ran to the back door when Jisung menacingly wielded his broom and chased after them.
It was only eleven in the morning.
Jisung had his days off on Wednesdays, which meant Felix couldn’t pass time by teasing him. Unlike Jisung, Seungmin was immune to Felix’s deliberate touchiness, which meant it’d take a lot longer to drive Seungmin crazy and Felix didn’t like the amount of effort that entailed. But Seungmin was quiet in a relaxing way and never attempted small talk. For that reason, Felix was eternally grateful.
“Would you let someone drool in your mouth if you were dying of thirst?” Felix mused as he tidied up their displays.
Seungmin didn’t look up from his phone. “Totally not answering that.”
“But what if. Dehydration kills, Seungmin.”
“Somebody’s saliva isn’t going to save me.”
“It could. It would. It should.”
Seungmin had on an expression that could curdle milk. “If you try to drool in my mouth when I’m sleeping, you’re gonna need a military discount for all the hands you’re about to catch. “
The door jingled, and Felix turned around with a perfunctory greeting sitting at the tip of his tongue, only for it to disappear at the sight of Jisung looking like he was going to pass out if he was in the sun any longer. “Oh. It’s just you.”
“Shut up, I need one of you to come with me,” Jisung said breathlessly as he hurried over and slammed a hand against the counter. “Now.”
“Isn’t it your day off today?”
He looked a little pink. “I -- er. May have made a consultation with, um, Hyunjin in about five minutes. For a tattoo. And I need support. Like, a lot.”
“You want us to cockblock you?” Seungmin was astounded. Felix was more surprised by the fact that Jisung was getting inked. “Sorry dude but I’ve got cats to adopt, stems to cut, and a job to keep.”
Before Felix could argue that he had a job to keep too, Jisung grabbed Felix by the wrist and tugged him forward. “Great, great. You can keep your job if you come with me. Now let’s go, go, go!"
With his protests to slow down being pointedly ignored, Felix couldn’t even take his apron off as he was being dragged out of the shop like a corpse. They even illegally crossed the street, and Felix couldn’t believe the irony of committing a crime himself.
And that’s how Felix found himself in the middle of a studio with crisp, black walls and strange decor he’d find if he was involved in witchcraft, being passed by heavily inked and intimidating individuals, while Felix was wearing a pastel green and pink apron with their logo written in bubble letters on top of a smiling sunflower. His light yellow sweater made him look even more like he belonged in a daycare centre, and the juxtaposition was funny if not somewhat sad.
Felix looked entirely out of place. At least Jisung was wearing something that made him blend in, what with his ripped jeans and white tee, but Felix stuck out like a swollen sore thumb. He was a technicolor yawn amidst a bunch of monochromes.
At the reception desk was a young woman with long, coral hair and an eye-catching amount of facial piercings who greeted them brightly and asked them to take a seat.
“I’m sweating,” Jisung whispered frantically. “Maybe this was a bad idea. Oh, God. This was a bad idea.”
“I like that.” Felix pointed at a framed photo of a clown tattooed onto somebody’s butt cheek. “You should do that.”
There was laughter ricocheting against the walls. Felix watched as Jisung grew red in the face when Hyunjin appeared at the end of the stairs, donning a tank top that revealed his sleeves of tattoos with a grey plaid shirt tied around his waist. He walked by the counter, flicking the receptionist on the head as a greeting, and called out, “Where’s my guy at eleven fifteen? Jisung?”
Felix leaned close to whisper, “He just used the possessive noun.”
Jisung swatted him away and stood up from his seat, waving at Hyunjin to catch his attention. A glint of recognition flashed in Hyunjin’s eyes, and he perked up with his entire body.
“Oh! You guys are my geographically horizontal neighbours. You’re Jisung right? I recognize your head. It’s very -- “ Hyunjin drew out an oblong shape with his hands. “Eggy. Like, in a cute way.”
Felix covered his mouth to stop himself from laughing.
Jisung looked like he was going to combust. He hurriedly wiped his sweaty palms onto his jeans before sticking a hand out for a handshake. “Yes that’s me, us, my head -- thank you. Hello. Hi. Yes. I’m -- nice to meet you. I love your work -- I mean, I saw your studio’s Instagram page and thought that this place was convenient for me so, you see, I’m a big fan. Me, yes.”
It was amusing to watch Jisung, who was at most easygoing and happy-go-lucky, stumble over his words in the presence of a good-looking human being. Felix didn’t think he’d seen him so red before as they shook hands.
“Thanks, man. It’s nice to finally meet you guys in person. And loosen up a little! This is just a consultation.” Hyunjin laughed, and turned his attention to Felix. He extended a hand towards him too. “And you?”
“Felix.” Felix smiled innocently. He might as well have fun. “We’re friends, or coworkers from eight to five, but it’s a little different behind closed doors.”
Hyunjin blinked. Jisung had a crazed look in his eye as he probably concocted over ten thousand ways to butcher and hide Felix’s body. Hyunjin darted his eyes between the two and let out an awkward laugh, placing a hand on Jisung’s back to nudge him forward. “Alrighty, how about we go upstairs for our meeting?”
Felix followed after them up the stairs. The first floor of the studio was small and homey, but the second floor was more spacious and wide. There were a few other tattoo artists busy with their clients, and Hyunjin directed them to the benches with a tablet and stylus in hand.
As the both of them immersed themselves into a deep discussion about Jisung’s tattoo, Felix’s eyes wandered around the studio quite listlessly, scaling the wooden floors and trying to make out the mumbled words of Patrick Stump in the background. He took out a notepad from the pocket of his apron at one point, folding a slip of paper into a crane. Realizing his sleeves were still rolled up, Felix quickly pulled them down.
Tuning back into the conversation beside him, Felix caught Hyunjin saying, “Alright, alright. This is super cool. We’ve got peonies and roses surrounding your mom’s name -- very sentimental, very classy. I like it, dude. Another important question would be the placement. Where do you want the tattoo to be?”
Jisung looked up in thought, cradling his chin in his hand. Felix raised an eyebrow at his obviously fake expression of deep contemplation, so Felix piped up, “Weren’t you talking about getting it on your ass? You know, to give me something to look at --”
“Wow!” Jisung laughed, turning so red and hot that somebody could cook a three-course meal on his face. Hyunjin looked like he was torn between laughing and wanting to clean his ears with holy water. “I -- uh. I don’t -- we’re not -- oh my God, please don’t tattoo my mom’s name on my ass. Anywhere but my ass.”
Felix turned to the side to stifle a laugh. But then one of the artists who listened in on their conversation walked by with a devilish look in his eye.
“Did I hear something about getting a tattoo on the ass? ‘Cause I have a tattoo on the ass.”
“Minho, please,” Hyunjin shrieked.
“You wanna see? Here, it’s really nice, I’ll--”
Felix barely processed what was happening until he saw Minho unbuckle his belt and turned around to pull down his jeans. Hyunjin was dramatically yelling for Jesus, someone else in the shop was screaming, and Jisung looked like he was about to faint in Hyunjin’s arms. Felix, on the other hand, gawked as Minho pulled down his underwear to reveal a tattoo of ‘MADE IN KOREA’ inked on his right buttcheek.
Then a figure of black blocked his view. Chan was painfully laughing as he hurriedly pulled up Minho’s underwear and pants altogether. “For the love of all that is sweet and holy, what did I say about flashing people with your butt tattoo?”
“You said not to do it randomly, but they were talking about butt tattoos, and I just had to!”
“On the behalf of everyone in this studio, you are now forever banned from showing any tattoos below the waist. Now shoo, you disastrous human being.”
As Minho shrugged and ambled downstairs, Chan heaved a sigh and turned around. Then he bowed at Felix and Jisung. “I am so sorry.”
“No, it’s okay,” Felix quickly said, surprised by the gesture. “You don’t have to apologize.”
“Why am I here,” Hyunjin mumbled, “why am I alive.”
“That was kinda lit,” Jisung admitted. “Made in Korea? That’s creative as fuck.”
Felix frowned. “Having a tattoo of your manufacturers is creative?”
Jisung ignored Felix as he turned to Hyunjin and boldly took his hands into his. His eyes were shining like a bonfire. “Okay, I changed my mind. Maybe I should get my mom’s name tattooed on my ass. Whaddya think?”
Jisung spoke with a lot more confidence now, leaving Hyunjin to be the one flustered and gravely confused, so Felix took that as a sign to leave and return to his haven of flowers and fully-clothed people before he could run into Minho or someone else who wanted to show off their tattoos in questionable places. As he tucked the paper crane into his pocket and stood up from the bench, he noticed that Chan was the same height as him.
And was a lot more handsome up close.
Chan gave him a sheepish smile. “I’ll walk you out. You know, just in case.”
As they made their way downstairs, Felix busied himself by scanning the framed photos of proud works by the studio’s tattoo artists. Being discreet as possible, he threw a quick glance at Chan and studied the bare skin of his arms. It was funny for a tattoo artist to not have any tattoos.
“So,” Chan began, startling Felix from his thoughts, “which part of Australia are you from?”
Felix smiled. He tucked his hands into his pockets. “Sydney.”
“Huh, me too.”
Reaching downstairs, Chan gave a little wave to the receptionist and held the door open for Felix. He had dimples when he smiled. “See you around.”
As soon as Felix stepped outside and the door closed behind him, he looked up. The sky was the underbelly of a fish. He wondered if Sydney’s sky looked like this too.
“You’re killing our friends,” Felix deadpanned. “Our inventory.”
“Let him sulk, bro,” Seungmin said. “You gotta let the bad vibes out before you let the good vibes in. You know what I’m saying?”
They both stared when Jisung jumped up from his seat, holding a single petal in between his forefinger and thumb.
“He loves me!” He exclaimed. “I think he loves me. I mean, I don’t think I’m really ready for love yet, but I think he at least likes me. Like is still a strong word. Do you think this is a sign? That’s good, right?”
Felix and Seungmin exchanged a non-verbal glance. Seungmin said to Jisung, “Someone needs to hold you gently like a double cheese hamburger.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Touch starvation could distort your perception of people.” Felix shrugged. “For all we know, Jisungie, Hyunjin could be a flat earther. Your intense infatuation born from feelings of loneliness could be blinding you."
"I'm not --"
Seungmin winced. “Ooooh. Flat earthers. It’s kinda like how I said I saw God dance beneath a disco ball drinking cute little martinis the time I got shit plastered.”
“There you go. Or how there’s seemingly sane doctors out there in the world but you might come across one that would put their erect member in a pile of discarded entrails, post-experiment, but you wouldn’t know because he could be nice and sweet and have big, warm hands he uses to massage the tight muscles out of your back.”
Seungmin shook his head and clutched his chest. “The horrors of touch starvation.”
“It can be easily cured if you let me hug you from time to time,” Felix said brightly.
Jisung sighed with the patience of someone who had a bullshit tolerance meter two inches tall. “Jesus fuck, you guys are such first-rate festering dicksores.”
Felix was unsympathetic to his woes of unrequited love. After another hour of tomfoolery, they went their separate ways of duties.
At his lunch break, Felix made his usual way to the convenience store to grab their lunches, but when he came back, he spotted Chan sitting on the steps outside of the tattoo studio, rubbing his belly and scrolling on his phone. It was a strange sight considering they usually had their lunch breaks around the same time and Felix always saw him at some nearby cafe or restaurant chowing down on a fulfilling meal.
He debated whether or not to approach him. They weren’t friends, but they weren’t total strangers either. But it was the curiosity dwelling inside of him that nudged him forward this time, to reach out and see what he could come out with on the other side.
Felix crossed the street and walked to the studio; Chan didn’t look up until Felix stood directly in front of him.
“Hi,” he said.
Chan raised his brows. “Hey.”
“You look hungry,” Felix said bluntly.
Chan blinked, taken aback, before he laughed. “Was I that obvious? Here, don’t just stand there, sit down.”
He scooted more to the railing and patted the empty space beside him. Felix nodded and sat down, hugging the bag of lunches around his arms in his lap. “We have our breaks at the same time, you know. I see you around. But today you’re just sitting here with a slight look of agony on your face.”
Chan sighed. He pillowed his chin with a palm as he leaned on his leg. “Forgot my wallet.”
“None of your coworkers can lend a hand?”
His smile changed shape. He looked happy but there was something wrong in the way he moved. “Ah, it’s fine! I don’t want to ask them. It’s not a big deal anyway.”
Felix knew that kind of smile. He’d seen it all the time: on Jisung’s face, on his mother’s face, and on his own face too. It was no stranger to Felix when he’d worn it all the time. But he was twenty-one now and he’d come to understand a little bit more about himself -- enough to see it in other people.
He chewed on his bottom lip before he came to a decision. He rummaged through the plastic bag and took out his bento box with a pair of chopsticks, and handed it over to Chan. “Here.”
His smile faded into genuine surprise. Felix liked that honest look more. “No -- hey, it’s okay! I can’t.”
“Yes you can.” Felix aggressively dropped the bento box onto Chan’s lap. “Food fixes everything. Plus, what if you faint from hunger in the middle of a session? Your client might sue you. Or take you to the hospital. Or both.”
“I won’t faint from hunger.”
“Just take it. I’ll even eat with you. Jisung can go buy his own lunch.”
“It’s really fine -- “
“Can’t hear you,” Felix said loudly as he took off the lid of Jisung’s bento’s box and broke apart his chopsticks. “I’m busy preparing myself to gorge on this delicious, six-dollar meal.”
Chan laughed and shook his head before he finally resigned. He split his chopsticks in half and pointed at Felix. “Little bugger.”
They ate in comfortable silence. Felix stared at the peeling paint of the flower shop, framed by tall linden trees aligned across the sidewalk, and how he could see everything happening in there through their window. He was currently witnessing Jisung prancing around and singing into a broom as though it was a microphone. Felix made a mental note to invest in curtains.
But downtown was lovely, if not expensive, with all the vintage architecture and eclectic heritage buildings. Felix liked the way the sky looked from downtown too, with the sun being at its highest and brightest and always escaping the mere outline of his fingers.
As Felix finished up the rice, he glanced at Chan who was nearly done as well. Content, he asked, “Was it good?”
“Delectable.” Chan looked up with a grin. “Reminded me of this rice bowl I always got from a Japanese convenience store I frequented back in Toronto. I went there every weekend with all the scraps of change I could find.”
“You’ve been to Toronto?”
“I lived in Toronto.” Chan put the lid back onto the box after he finished. “Moved around a lot, really.”
Felix hummed. He put their finished lunches back into the plastic bag, and gave it to Chan when he offered to recycle them. “Must have been lonely.”
Chan smiled but didn’t answer. He stood up and dusted off his jeans. “Hey, wait here.”
He went into the studio with their lunches and Felix waited out on the steps, watching as young people rode their bicycles down the streets and cars rushed down the roads without minding the speed limit. When Chan came back out, the bag with their lunches was gone and replaced with an orange bag of chocolate. There was a shy smile on his face.
“This is the best I can do for now, but I’ll pay you back tomorrow. Thank you for lunch and the company.”
Felix blinked. Company. It was then he realized from all the times Felix had noticed Chan during his lunch breaks, Chan was always alone. Felix wondered why that was. Storing that piece of info away into the southern hemisphere of his brain, he took the offered chocolate and couldn’t help but smile. “Jaffas?”
“The one and only. Stole a bunch when I came back from visiting Melbourne for a client.”
“That’s sick. I used to eat so much of these when I was a kid,” he laughed. “Thank you.”
Chan smiled and shrugged. “Least I can do. I’ll see you around, yeah?”
When Felix walked into the flower shop with his bag of Jaffas in hand, Jisung looked up from his silent serenade to his broom and narrowed his eyes at his lack of lunch in Felix’s hand. “What took you so long? Where’s my food?”
Felix ripped opened the bag of Jaffas and plopped one into his mouth. Then he held another one up in front of Jisung, and squinted. “Hm. You really are egg-shaped from over there.”
Giving him a gummy smile, Felix walked past him to indulge in a childhood sweetness he’d long forgotten of.
With arms akimbo on his hips, Hyunjin announced his presence in an almost princely, unruly way. He was wearing a pink floral bowling shirt tucked into comfortable jeans, making him look expensive and model-like.
“Felix, right? Hello, hello,” he greeted animatedly as he walked around and surveyed the shop. “Wow, it’s so cool in here. What’s that?” He pointed at a pot of silky, pink flowers.
“They’re ivy geraniums,” Felix responded, throwing a quick glance around his shoulder to the back room where Jisung was currently crunching numbers on Microsoft Excel. When he looked back to the front, Hyunjin was still staring at each and every flower and plant that was on display. He seemed to be genuinely fascinated from the way his brows furrowed at an unfamiliar plant, or how his eyes shined at one that piqued his interest.
“There’s so many different kinds of flowers in this world that I get so overwhelmed! I just want to know everything. They’re all so pretty, but my favourite flowers have to be spider lilies.” Hyunjin walked up to the counter and showed off a tattoo of a finely black-inked dragon curled around his forearm with red-inked spider lilies surrounding it.
“That’s gorgeous,” Felix said, impressed. “We don’t, uh, have spider lilies on sale if that’s what you were looking for.”
“Oh, um.” Hyunjin stood up a little straighter. “Well, not really?”
Felix tilted his head in question.
“I was just -- uh. Jisung isn’t here, right?”
“He’s in the back room. I can get him, if you want.”
“No, it’s fine!” Hyunjin waved his hands. “I wanted to ask you something.”
Felix blinked and pointed at himself. “Me?”
Hyunjin looked around nervously before he leaned forward and brought his voice down to a whisper. “It’s about his upcoming tattoo appointment. Like, I’m not supposed to intrude in my client’s personal life, but he seems really set on having his mom’s name be tattooed on his ass when days ago he looked seconds away from running away before my coworker dropped his pants. Do you know if he’s really serious? I mean, not that I’m complaining because it’s my job, you know? But tattoos are permanent and I don’t want to do something that he’s going to regret as soon as I press the needle in.”
Felix chanced another glance at the back room before he mirrored Hyunjin’s volume. “Honestly, I’m not really surprised. He’s very impulsive.”
“That doesn’t mean he should get his first tattoo on the ass!”
“He’ll chicken out. Don’t worry.”
Hyunjin didn’t look comforted by the assurance, but then a nice, pink flush spread from his cheeks to his ears when Jisung came out from the back room oblivious to their guest.
“Felix, do you remember the date we got that shipment where you broke those vases?” Jisung yawned as he stretched an arm over his head. “I think I -- “ He stopped as soon as he noticed Hyunjin standing there with an innocent smile and little wave. Felix felt sympathetic as soon as Jisung’s face heated up; his brown hair was messy from lack of styling and there were remnants of fresh coffee stains on his grey t-shirt from earlier today.
When Jisung woke up late, his entire day was thrown off loop. And a sudden visit from his very pretty crush didn’t help.
“Ughuahg,” Jisung made an incomprehensible noise as he gaped at Hyunjin.
“He says hello,” Felix translated.
Hyunjin frowned. “What language is that?”
Before Felix could answer, Jisung dragged Felix away from the counter by the sleeve and replaced his spot. He beamed at Hyunjin as he hurriedly wiped his sweaty palms on his cargo pants. “Hyunjin! Hey, hi! I -- what brings you here today? Do you have a request? What are you looking for? We -- we have some fresh rosalias and, uh, some new seeds just came in, and you know -- or are you looking to make a bouquet? For someone? We do that too. We also do wedding orders as well, and -- oh. Are you getting married? Oh my god, are you getting married?”
Hyunjin seemed like he was about to combust from the overload of words being spoken to him. “What? You’re speaking too fast!”
“Marriage! You’re getting married!”
“Where did you get that from? I’m only twenty-one,” Hyunjin wailed. “Do you think I look old enough to put a ring on someone? I don’t even know how to do taxes.”
“You’re a very young tattoo artist,” said Felix.
“I’m not that young. Our youngest is twenty, but he’s an apprentice right now.”
Felix nodded and threw an arm around Jisung’s shoulder. “Well, don’t worry about what this one is going on about. He’s a little wrung out from waking up late for work.”
Hyunjin narrowed his eyes a bit at Felix’s arm. Felix raised a brow and slowly took his arm away.
“Do you -- uh, do you wanna look at our new collection of the season?” Jisung wrung his wrists as he fidgeted around. “I promise no marriage talk.”
Hyunjin was a simple guy. He brightened at the idea and nodded.
That woke Jisung up from his sleepy stupor as his entire face lit up like a meteor shower. He quickly led the way out of the shop to the front where they kept their newest flowers in the outside display for the public. Knowing Jisung, he was probably a speaking almanac now that he had something he could talk about instead of fumbling around for small talk.
Felix watched them in amusement until actual customers walked in. He made sure to put on his brightest, customer service smile since they weren’t doing so well lately, and managed to secure an order from them for the customer and his wife’s wedding anniversary next week. Priding in himself, Felix jotted down a few notes of what the customer wanted before he checked their store inventory.
At some point, Jisung and Hyunjin disappeared from the front, and Felix was somewhat worried until he received a message from Jisung that read: HE STOLE ME FOR LUNCH. AND LIKE MAYBE DINNER . IM CRYING PLZ DO ME FAVOUR AND LOCK UP SHOP FOR TODAY
Felix hummed. He texted back: it’s fine. be safe and use protection!
He promptly muted his phone to ignore the flustered messages Jisung barraged him with, and glanced up at the ringing bell of the door only to find that it was Chan. He stood there by the door, a stark figure of black clothes and pale skin, looking cloddish in a world of vibrant flowers like a stained glass window in a church. The sunlight pooled through the windows against his figure and turned his eyes the warmest brown.
“Hi.” Chan rubbed the back of his neck. “Is there something on my face?”
Felix blinked. He shook his head and laughed it off. “No, sorry. I was just daydreaming. What’s up?”
He walked up to the counter and rummaged through his pockets. He handed Felix a few bills. “This is for yesterday.”
“I’ll be honest. I was satisfied with just the Jaffas.” Felix pushed Chan’s hand away. “It’s fine.”
“I’m not big on owing people, you know.”
“You don’t owe me.” Felix frowned. “Consider the lunch a thank-you for saving me from seeing more than Minho’s ass tattoo.”
That earned him a laugh from Chan. He shook his head as he shoved the money back into the pockets of his leather jacket. “You’re a funny guy.”
“I am a licensed comedian.”
Chan smiled. He took one last glance around the shop before he said, “Well, I’ll be going then. Thanks again, Felix.”
Felix looked at Chan’s back as the latter began to make his way to the door. He didn’t remember giving his name out to him. Maybe he overheard the time Felix introduced himself to Hyunjin, or maybe Hyunjin told Chan since they seemed like close friends. But it made his chest warm anyway, to hear Chan say his name so fondly when there was nothing to be fond about.
Felix thought about the times he’s seen Chan eat alone, how he walked around the neighborhood like that stray cat he’d handled so carefully. He thought about the way Chan looked at people from the sidelines as though he wanted to reach for them but stopped himself from doing so like that was all he knew how to do. He thought about how he struggled to ask for help when everyone at the studio seemed like a family.
Chan was bright yet fleeting -- his feet were rooted to the ground but he always carried himself in a way that seemed as though he wanted to run and never return. Today, he looked more like a shadow that would crumble beneath a meager touch of a finger.
“Chan,” Felix called, stopping Chan in his tracks. The name tasted familiar. “Um. Have you gone to lunch already?”
“Mm, not yet. I wanted to come here first.”
He checked the time. It was a quarter past twelve. “Wanna eat with me then?”
Chan blinked in surprise. The edges of his lips curved upwards until his dimples appeared. “Sure. Okay.”
Fridays were Seungmin’s days off, so he quickly wrote up a sign for the shop saying that he’d be back in half an hour. Felix expected Chan to suggest one of his frequented cafes for a quick bite, but instead suggested to merely get convenience store lunches. Felix didn’t mind. He remembered to pick up two canned coffees on the way to the checkout.
Rather than sitting outside on the steps, Chan led him to an abandoned bus stop where there were benches and a graffitied glass canopy. Felix looked at him in uncertainty; maybe Chan was part of a gang.
“What? It’s fine. The busses stopped using this route so they don’t come here anymore.” Chan reassured him as he took a seat and eagerly rummaged for his rice bowl. “C’mon. It’s not that dirty.”
“No, but it’s shady.” Felix shot the vicinity a quick glance over to make sure there were no beady eyes tailing their every move. “No offense, but are you part of a crime syndicate?”
Chan almost choked on his egg roll. It took a moment for him to compose himself, and while he did so, Felix finally took a seat beside him and gingerly uncovered his bento box.
“What makes you think that?”
Felix stared at him blankly.
“Oh.” Chan caught on quick. “But I like how I dress. Is this how criminals dress up these days?”
“Well, I guarantee you that I am crime syndicate-free.” Chan laughed lightly. “I stumbled upon this place by accident when I was exploring. It’s nice to sit here and just think. Now, we can call it our little lunch spot.”
Felix hummed as he took a bite from his pork cutlet. “Okay, but if I wake up to a gun pointed at my head, I’m haunting you as a ghost.”
“Huh.” Chan gave that a thought. “At least I won’t be lonely.”
“No, but like -- I’ll be a super vengeful and vindictive and nasty ghost. I’ll be all bloody and red-eyed with wild hair and dirty clothes.”
“If I was a ghost, I’d want to be a tall ghost. Like. Past six feet.”
Felix squinted an eye. “Good idea.”
They shared a laugh and continued to eat. Their conversation gradually dwindled, but they’d make remarks about the food from time to time just to maintain the open atmosphere.
The sun swelled in the sky; he lets the soft topaz glow of the sun pour through his fingers and onto his upturned face. It reminded him of warm, sunny beach days as a kid, wading through the sand with a hand curled around his wrist from a blurry face not that taller than him.
Felix blinked. He’d forgotten about warm, sunny beach days.
He popped open his canned coffee and took a sip. As soon as they finished their lunches, Felix checked the time and found that his break was almost ending. Chan saw that as an indication to leave, so they packed up their things and threw their garbage in its respective bins.
The walk back was peaceful. The waft of coffee and freshly baked bread filled his nose as they passed by a popular bakery, and every minute or so, Felix would study Chan from the corner of his eye -- the way he placed his steps more firmly onto the ground and held his head high. He looked less like a shadow now. The arch of his neck and the stretch of his shoulders seemed solid to touch.
If Chan noticed Felix’s staring turn shamelessly blatant, he didn’t say a single word about it.
Once they neared the crosswalk where they would part ways, Felix cleared his throat and turned to face Chan with a goodbye sitting on his tongue, only for the words to die out. Amidst the blurry, passing crowd, Felix felt as though he was pushed into a backdrop of stock-still white when he saw the way Chan tilted his head and smiled so gently at him.
“I appreciate today, Felix. Let’s do this again tomorrow.”
With a little wave, Chan crossed the street and never looked back -- not even as he waited for the next crosswalk to light up with the pedestrian signal. Felix watched him go, his heart beating against his ribs in a near-steady staccato.
He thought of sunny, beach days and a warm hand he couldn’t remember the owner of.
But it was most comforting, really, to talk to someone who sounded like home.
Felix’s change in routine didn’t go unnoticed. When he returned to the flower shop after his lunch break had ended, he was immediately cornered by Jisung and Seungmin and their probing eyes.
“That’s the guy you’ve been ditching me for?” Jisung exclaimed. “You’ve been ditching me with Hyunjin’s side bro?”
Felix looked between them. “Yes?”
Jisung scoffed and threw his hands up in the air. “I cannot believe this! I’ve been betrayed, bamboozled, utterly destroyed by someone whom I trusted dearly with my fragile, sensitive heart! But no -- those tiny hands were made to squeeze and squeeze until my heart turned into nothing but a sad, bruised apple!”
“What the fuck.” Felix looked at his hands in complete distrust. “They’re not tiny.”
“Yes, they are! Tiny as your conscience and your little olive branch -- “
“Hold on a second,” Seungmin interrupted them with a raised hand.
Jisung immediately shut his mouth but opted to turn around to dramatically cry into his arm. Meanwhile, Seungmin leaned forward to study Felix’s face, moving from feature to feature to closely inspect. What he was inspecting -- Felix didn’t know, but what he did know was that this entire ordeal was making him uncomfortable.
Realization flashed in Seungmin’s eyes and he gasped. Jisung abruptly stopped and whirled around, grabbing Seungmin’s arm. “What? What? What is it?”
“You look different,” Seungmin said to Felix. “You look -- happier.”
Felix stared at him. Jisung, on the other hand, sobered up and studied Felix’s face concern. “You weren’t happy?”
“I’m always plenty of happy,” Felix replied instinctively. He swallowed and averted his eyes away from Seungmin’s watchful gaze. “So, uh. I don’t know what you guys are talking about, really. I mean, I made a new friend I guess, so maybe that’s why I look happier?”
Seungmin didn’t seem persuaded, but Jisung nodded in understanding. “Makes sense. But you should at least remember to eat lunch with me too! I may not have sexy arm muscles but I have personality.”
“Noted.” Felix patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll buy you extra kimbap next time.”
“That better be a promise.”
As Jisung walked away to the back room, Felix looked up at Seungmin and nudged his arm with an elbow. “I’m fine.”
“No, I know you are,” Seungmin sighed. “But you wear your heart out on your sleeve sometimes, you know? Makes you easy to read.”
“I mean, if you think about it -- who’s really happy these days at all?”
Seungmin hummed in thought. “You got me there.”
Time, inexorably, passed.
And even then, Felix couldn’t stop thinking about Seungmin’s words. You look happier. It was true that when he first arrived in the city he was neither suffering nor happy -- merely nailed in an emotional stalemate. But had he genuinely grown happier since then?
On a sleepless night, Felix stood in front of his bathroom mirror, the light above him flickering in an eerie drone. He studied the eclipses of dark circles beneath his eyes, the fine wrinkles around his mouth, the perpetual furrow of a brow he never had the chance of correcting. He pulled his lips into a taut smile and didn’t like the look. Was he happier?
He glanced down at his freckled arms -- his thin wrists that were mottled with paint flaking against aged scars that never quite completely healed. But he didn’t think any scars healed at all -- they were always there, leaving a giant stain on the skin you wished you could peel away so you could grow a thicker one, invisible to the universe but to the beating fist in your chest.
He shut the lights and walked back to his bed. It was raining. The sky drowned the earth in an orchestra that drenched the city in thunderclaps and a bar of faint light peeked through his window curtains from the sallow street lamps. Felix closed his eyes and thought of sunny beach days, his fingers sifting through sand, the warm hand wrapped around his wrist and the glow of the horizon sinking in his mouth.
He supposed he was happier, in a way, that he no longer felt the need to hurt.
“Are you sure you really want to get that tattoo on your ass?” asked Felix. “Won’t your mom beat it off you instead?”
“Uh-huh. Yup. It’s fine! I want it. Yes, I want it. Of course! Duh. Why wouldn’t I?” Jisung sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than anyone else. Then he clutched his throat with wide eyes. “I think I might puke.”
Felix eyed his expression in preparation to dodge any bile landing in his hair, but then he noticed Hyunjin approaching them from the stairs. He deliberately placed a hand on Jisung’s knee and leaned forward to peck his hair. “You’ll be fine, man. Just hold my hand if it’ll make you feel better.”
“Dude,” Jisung choked, tears welling up in his eyes. “You’re the nicest human being I’ve ever met on this entire planet.”
Hyunjin cleared his throat in front of them. Felix grinned and took his hand away from Jisung’s knee, waving at Hyunjin. “Hello.”
Jisung shot up from his seat looking absolutely green. “Hey -- hey man. I’m ready! Take me away, dude. I’m pumped. Stoked. So fucking excited I could throw up!”
“Uh, hey. I don’t think you should do that,” Hyunjin said worriedly as he patted Jisung on the back and led him upstairs. Felix sighed and followed them, wondering what chaos would ensure from the imminent butt tattoo.
Hyunjin took them to his station and pulled a chair for Felix to sit on for the session. As he and Jisung discussed the specific placement of the tattoo, Felix looked around and spotted Chan situated across from them in his own station, working on a large piece on a client’s back. His designs were taped to the walls but his station itself lacked a personal flair like the others, but it was mesmerizing to say the least to witness Chan in his own element.
“I’m just going to grab the different sizes of stencils and we’ll see which one you fancy the most. Now, are you really, really sure you want it on your butt?” Hyunjin asked dubiously.
Hyunjin nodded, unconvinced, before he walked down the hallway and disappeared around the corner of their staff-only area. As soon as he left the vicinity, Jisung whipped his head around to grab Felix by the shoulders. “I’m fucking peeing my fucking pants. We need to leave. I need to leave. I can’t do this! I can’t have this tattoo! I don’t even want a tattoo!”
Felix definitely saw this coming.
“You can’t just leave,” Felix whispered exasperatedly. He nailed Jisung down on the chair with both hands on his knees before he could slip away. “You have to tell him, dumbass. That’s decent human etiquette.”
“I can’t! Dude, I’m about to let out the gnarliest fart out ever and if you don’t let me go right now I am going to shart my pants in front of everyone.”
As Jisung started to writhe around, Felix pinned him down on the chair by lying over his legs. His feet were knocking against the wheeled tray with ink equipment and their harsh, quiet arguing were attracting attention from their neighbours. Felix used every inch of strength he could muster from his body to keep Jisung from ditching Hyunjin, but Jisung was a whirlwind of nerves and spontaneity that was bound to explode from being held back.
Jisung managed to knee Felix in the stomach and it knocked him off the chair. Too stunned to react quickly, Felix collided with the wheeled tray in a loud crash. And the next thing he knew, he was on the floor surrounded by scattered supplies, a distant headache, and a loosely capped bottle of black ink spilling all over his very light grey sweatshirt.
Felix stared up at the ceiling. Jisung peeked over from the chair with a look of a horror. Then there was Hyunjin, looking down at Felix with his mouth hanging open.
“I am,” Jisung croaked, “so sorry.”
Hyunjin seemed like he was on the verge of tears. “My ink!”
And then Chan was there, lifting Felix up from the ground with strong hands under his arms. “Are you alright?”
Felix blinked at him. Chan looks blurry. It reminded him of someone.
He turned his head to Hyunjin lamenting over his wasted ink. Without thinking, he pointed at Jisung and said, “He likes you.”
Then he proceeded to pass the fuck out.
The first thing Felix noticed when he came to was the silence.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a crisp white ceiling and felt a dull ache on the back of his head. The soft blanket covering him fell from his shoulders as he slowly sat up; he’d been lying down on a black, leather sofa in a commodious room he didn’t recognize, but he did recognize the familiar face who walked right in when Felix swung his legs onto the floor.
“Oh,” said Chan. He was carrying a t-shirt in his hands. “You’re awake. How’s your head?”
“Well, I don’t see stars anymore. I think I’m fine.” Felix rubbed the bridge of his nose, squinting. “What happened?”
“You’re in our staff lounge. You, uh, passed out for like an hour. I assume you hit your head pretty hard when you fell.”
Felix groaned as he recalled the prior events, and covered his face with his hands. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. Jisung and Hyunjin are having a -- squabble, you know, to work things out. You’re fine.” Chan laughed a bit awkwardly as he went to sit beside Felix. He took the blanket from Felix’s lap and folded it neatly to put aside, before he handed the t-shirt to him. “Here.”
Felix looked down at himself and stared at the damp, giant ink stain. It was one of his comfiest sweatshirts and he ought to cry. “You bring t-shirts to work?”
“Well, not really. The studio sells clothes too. We have our own line.” Chan smiled as he unfolded the tee. It was a simple black t-shirt but with an intricately designed snake wrapping around the collar; the snake was all different, complimenting shades of blue, filled with crane and peony patterns. It was a pretty thing. “I figured you wouldn’t want to walk around in that.”
Felix smiled sheepishly. When he shifted his hand to take the t-shirt, he stopped. He brought his hand back, feeling his face burn. “Thank you, really, but I -- do you have a long-sleeved one?”
“Long-sleeved?” Chan frowned in thought. “Sorry, man. I think we’re out of stock. T-shirts are the most popular so the studio doesn’t really upkeep long-sleeved ones. Is that okay?”
Felix gnawed at his bottom lip. Not wanting to trouble Chan further, he accepted the t-shirt anyway with a grateful smile. “It’s fine. Just preferences. Where can I change?”
Chan showed him the nearest washroom and left him to change. Felix stared at the t-shirt for a good minute before he finally took off his poor sweatshirt and threw on the replacement, trying to calm himself down by distracting himself with palindromes: level, eye, mom, racecar, civic, noon.
He wasn’t at that part of his life to show them so openly. He’d gotten used to rolling up his sleeves but only in the presence of close, trusted friends. Seungmin never asked even though Felix knew he’d seen them. Jisung fumbled over his inquiry when he saw his arms until Felix outright told him that they were old, and that he didn’t need to worry, and Jisung never brought the subject up again.
And for that, Felix was grateful. He didn’t want to see the pity, the probing and curiosity, the inevitable stares that etched into the grooves of raised skin. He didn’t want that to be the only thing people saw.
He sucked in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Working up the nerve, he tucked his hand as deep as he could into the pocket of his sweatpants and opened the door. Once he stepped outside, however, he saw a figure in the corner of his eye and almost flinched at the sight of Chan leaning against the wall right beside the door.
“Sorry,” Chan apologized meekly. He tossed a leather jacket towards Felix, which he fumbled to catch. “Here, wear this.”
“Uh,” Felix said unintelligently.
“Don’t worry, it’s clean. I washed it yesterday and barely wore it today.” Chan began to walk back out into the studio. “Wear it. You’re cold, right?”
Felix blinked. He was left alone again. He looked down at the leather jacket in his hands that smelled of rosemary detergent and a faint hint of sandalwood. His chest felt warm, but his face was even warmer.
Felix wondered if Chan noticed. Felix wondered about a lot of things when it came to Chan.
He put on the leather jacket, which was slightly large on him considering their different builds, and walked out of the staff lounge. The first thing he saw was Jisung checking himself out in the full-body mirror with his shirt pulled up, which was odd, and Hyunjin standing beside him with a proud grin on his face. The mess at his station was cleaned up as though there hadn’t been a mess in the first place.
Curious, Felix approached them. Once he came into view, he finally understood why Jisung was looking at himself in the mirror. There was a cute little quokka cartoon tattooed on his ribcage, freshly red under a strip of saniderm.
“Felix, you’re awake!” Jisung cried and brought him into a bone-crushing hug. “I am so fucking sorry. When I get the nervous shits I lose all sense of intellectual capability. Please forgive me.”
Felix wheezed. “You got a tattoo.”
“He said he’d let me tattoo anything on him as compensation for wasting my ink and time and effort,” Hyunjin piped in. “And tadah! My finest work, I must say. Isn’t it adorable?”
“Why a quokka?”
Hyunjin leaned his chin on Jisung’s shoulder with a simper and poked Jisung in the cheek. “‘Cause he looks like one.”
Jisung pinched his lips as his face blushed copper. Felix could almost see the steam coming out of his red ears.
“Uh, so, uh -- “ Felix pointed between the two of them, the memory of him exposing Jisung’s feelings for Hyunjin ringing clear in his mind. “You two? Are you two good?”
“Yes!” Hyunjin exclaimed at the same time as Jisung yelling, “No!”
While they went on to bicker with Hyunjin following Jisung around like a puppy, Chan came up to Felix with the same, tired look. “Yeah. That happened within an hour of you passing out.”
“Maybe I should pass out more, then.”
Chan laughed. “So. Are you ever going to get a tattoo?”
Felix blinked up at him before he glanced down at his sleeves. He thought of the imprint the warm hand had left behind on his wrist in a forgotten time, of blushing sea shells and burning sundogs, and shrugged. “Maybe. By you?”
“Mm. I don’t know.” Chan’s smile looked strange like a dream. “If I’m still here.”
Felix didn’t know what he meant by that, and barely had time to figure his words out when his breath hitched at the warm touch of Chan’s fingers lightly caressing the back of his head. But then he walked away, leaving Felix to stare at his receding back built to be lonely -- to love the absent.
The sand was the most gentle hue of gold, almost earthen and muted. Everything was baked by the sun, and the sunlight was everywhere: in the dust, in the ocean’s disarray of blue, and in the reflection of opalescent shells. There were no more bilious skyscrapers peeking through the smog and no more angry traffic. The trees faraway sung in tremors and travelled all the way up to the wispy clouds.
He was young. He was sitting down with bruised arms and knees as he drew a flower in the sand. The sun was melting into the ocean when a blurry-faced kid stepped in front of him and blocked the light. Felix looked up.
“Hi,” the boy said. He was wearing a ratty turtleneck in the middle of a heat wave.
“Hi,” said Felix.
“Where’s your parents?”
“I came here alone.” Felix looked down and added more petals to his flower. “What about you?”
“I’m here alone too. Can I sit beside you?”
Felix nodded. The boy sat beside him and hugged his knees. “You have stuff on your face.”
Gasping, Felix immediately brought his hands up to cover his face. “That’s not nice to say! I don’t want you to sit beside me anymore.”
“No, it’s not a bad thing!” The boy exclaimed, waving his hands. “I mean you have -- little sunny dots. My mom calls them angel kisses. They’re very pretty.”
“Oh.” Felix peeked over his hands. Though the boy’s face was blurry, Felix could tell he was smiling. “Okay. Thank you.”
“I’m drawing a flower,” said Felix. “Do you wanna draw one too?”
The boy bobbed his head.
They spend the rest of their time at the beach drawing figures until the sky turns orange and bleary, smearing the sky like brassy oils. The boy suggested to sit in the shade since it was too hot, but Felix wouldn’t budge, so the boy took his wrist and dragged him away from their sand illustrations. The boy’s hand was warm and sweaty and shaking. A question struck Felix’s head and he stopped, pulling the boy to a stop as well.
“Will you be here tomorrow so we can finish our drawings?” asked Felix.
The boy turned around, mouth open with no answer. He let go of his wrist and Felix woke up with a start.
Dawn peeked over the mountains and pooled a thread of light through the curtains. He sat up and rubbed the sleepy out of his eyes, feeling his heart hammer in his ears.
He’d forgotten about that memory. That warm, balmy hand circled around his wrist had been a scarf of light against the shadows for his younger self. Why did he forget? What made him forget?
No, he knew the answer to that.
He ran away at that time, so to speak. Not officially, since he had nowhere to go, but the beach had been his safe haven. He went there everyday as long as he could before he was forced to go home since the streets weren’t safe for lonely children. But now, Felix understood what it meant when people described nostalgia -- that no matter if you were thinking of something good or bad, it always left you a little emptier afterward.
Felix didn’t feel like he was here. He was detached and slipping away into a nothingness that made him scared to think that he didn't exist at all. And then it brought back the thoughts of home; how he always felt sad for the boy that he was, because it never occurred to him that his mother might have comforted him. She had never told Felix she loved him, and he never assumed she did.
Felix still remembered her voice: rough like sandpaper from years of chain smoking but tender like the hands she used to slice peaches for him to eat when she was in a good mood. But all that tenderness vanished so quickly, like figments of a dream, and something struck in his chest -- heavy like a spade that digs into clay.
It was hard to not want to live someone else’s life.
With a bad start to his day, Felix couldn’t quite seem to turn it round. He heard whispers of collapsed lungs in his ears, lingering touches from foreign hands, the acrid smell of smoke that burned his throat. He scrubbed his body until he was red in the shower as though he could feel less like barbed wire and more human if he scraped away his old skin, but when he looked at the mirror, he saw his arms. He saw bumps and ridges and cigarette burns and a sense of ugliness pooled into his gut.
He focused on his breathing. He focused on anything tactile. He lit up a lavender candle and hummed a pop song he didn’t know the name of but had recalled the tune from the radio a few days ago. His heart was soothed, but there was still an ache that was nauseating -- a discomfort, a contortion. But he was fine. He always got through days like these. He could survive another one.
Felix swallowed down the bad day, the bad feelings, and kept his trembling fingers at bay as he got ready for work.
The sun was a little different today. The city took on a dirty, rusted sheen, and behind the haze the sun could only be approximately located like the source of a headache.
Up ahead as Felix crossed the street, he noticed Jisung and Hyunjin laughing outside of the flower shop. They must have been on their lunch breaks already and his eyes unconsciously swept around the vicinity to see if he could find Chan, but maybe he thought Felix wasn’t in today since Felix barely had any late shifts. Besides, it wasn’t as though Felix had any means to contact Chan. Asking for his phone number seemed like such a distant, impossible idea.
But perhaps it was a good thing he wasn’t here. Felix was certain Chan would see straight through his facade.
“Aye, Felix,” Jisung called, giving him an enthusiastic wave. Hyunjin smiled in greeting, though he seemed a bit annoyed that Jisung had switched persons to give attention to, and if Felix wasn’t on edge, he would have found that delightfully amusing.
“Hey,” Felix said as he approached them, “you guys going to lunch?”
“Yup. We’re gonna go eat ramen,” Jisung said in a sing-song voice.
“Thank you for treating, Jisungie!”
“What? Why am I treating?”
Hyunjin rummaged through the inside pockets of his jacket and grinned. “Obviously it’s ‘cause I said so, duh.”
Jisung squawked, ready to throw fists. Felix managed a chuckle and started to fan Jisung as if it could calm him down, but then Felix heard the click of a lighter and he looked over to Hyunjin -- already igniting the cigarette that hung from his upturned mouth.
The acrid smell of smoke filled his lungs and the world turned a skull-frying white.
Felix wasn’t sure what happened; all he knew that it felt as though he was a stranger in his own, trembling body, with bile rising up to the back of his throat and cacophony ringing in his ears. It felt as though he was dragged down underwater with an anchor tied around his ankle, looking helplessly up at the surface as everything slowed down and became warbled.
Then he saw a flash of long, black hair and painted red lips; sharp, slender fingers holding a cigarette that glowed dimly in the dark, before the glow grew bigger like a meteor hurtling towards earth and carved a pothole in his wrist. The cigarette burned in his lungs and in the air and on his skin, and Felix felt like he might become undone.
The next thing he knew, he was on his knees dry heaving on the sidewalk.
Feliix sucked in as much air as he could but he needed more and more to stop. He felt the panic begin like a cluster of spark plugs in his abdomen and his ribs heave as if bound by ropes, straining to inflate his lungs. He was entirely seized up and he couldn’t think in a flurry of accelerating thoughts.
He could feel his mother lingering behind him with her hand caressing the back of his head before yanking at his hair until his scalp bruised; or how she tenderly wiped a chocolate stain from the corner of his mouth before she left an imprint on his cheek; or how she tucked him to bed and lulled him to sleep only for him to wake up to her hands around his throat; or --
A strong smell of jasmine suddenly infiltrated his senses -- a fragrance that his mother never wore. Felix opened his eyes to a bundle of white petals inches away from touching his nose that blocked his view of the world.
“Felix? Felix. Hey, Felix, you’re okay.” It was a familiar voice. “You’re safe. It’s the twenty-second of June in the year of 2020. You’re outside of Han’s Florist at 339 Crescent Road, right across from Moon Ink Studio, and you work in this flower shop with Jisung and Seungmin, and you’re happy working here. What you’re smelling right now is poet’s jasmine. Your friend says they bloom from summer to fall. You know, I had a client today who wanted me to freestyle flowers all over her back, so I did roses, sunflowers, and magnolias. It was a large piece but my followers seem to like the ones where I do floral work since I don’t do them often, and it turned out rather nicely.” There was a little, distant chuckle, and Felix realized it was Chan. “I can pay my rent now.”
Felix squeezed his eyes shut and slowly, his breathing started to regulate. With Chan’s soft voice lulling in his ear, the city’s busy streets crackled back to life and he was finally able to suck in a deep breath that relieved the sharp ache in his chest. He focused on the strong smell of jasmine and Chan’s rhythmic voice that nailed him in the present as his breathing returned to normal.
The smell lingered even as Chan withdrew and returned the flowers to someone behind Felix. Then, he let his hand deliberately hover above Felix’s, and asked, “Are you okay to touch?”
“Just not the head,” he mumbled.
Instead of his hand, Chan took his wrist. His fingers were warm and calloused. Felix opened his eyes wide at him.
Of course I’ll be back tomorrow, the boy from his dream whispered, if I don’t, who else is gonna fix your ugly flowers?
His head hurt.
“Here, let’s stand up,” Chan murmured.
His limbs felt like his muscles had been taken out and replaced with over-stretched elastic bands. He slowly followed to stand and looked over at Seungmin who was holding the flowers. There was a jacket hanging over his arm, and Felix faintly realized he had been shielding Felix from the public eye as he made sense of a sudden shadow eclipsing over him at one point. Seungmin looked at Felix in concern, but had always been a smart observer; he did nothing more than smile and flick him on the shoulder.
Felix managed to tilt his head back. The sky looked darker than before. He couldn’t remember the time when he first arrived. Then he heard Jisung from behind. “Go home, Felix. Take the day off. Okay, maybe tomorrow too.”
Felix turned around. Jisung rarely sounded or looked solemn, but he spoke to Felix in such a grave manner that it stunned him for a moment. To the side, Felix found Hyunjin standing a few feet away from them with eyes averted in guilt. Shame bubbled in his stomach. He didn’t want any of them to have seen Felix like that.
But then Jisung gave him a tiny smile -- a reassuring, affectionate gesture that comforted Felix at the moment. “Rest up, man. You’re looking a little bit like death right now.”
“Okay,” was what Felix wanted to say, but it came out as a croak. He winced and nodded.
He watched as Jisung approached Hyunjin who curled his shoulders in an attempt to make himself smaller. Chan’s hand was still around his wrist, firm and tight as though he was holding onto the wispy string of a balloon.
“I can come with you, if you want,” said Chan, though with uncertainty, as if he was doubting whether or not he should have said that. He had the awkward tenderness of someone who’s never been loved and was forced to improvise. “The busses are crowded during this time of the day, and can be too overstimulating. Maybe take a taxi.”
Felix blinked. He wasn’t sure what to do with such insight and kindness, and he felt too embarrassed to stay there any longer. Discomfort still coursed through his body and he was scared he’d forget how to breathe again. His throat closed up when he opened his mouth to speak, so he shook his head instead.
Chan smiled and gently squeezed his wrist before letting go. The burns on his skin itched.
Bad days were inevitable, even more so with the resurgence of a strange childhood memory that threatened to unravel his whole being. Pain has never left him but Felix learned to live with them; he’d learn to forgo the shame he felt when it came to his arms, even if there were days he hated to look at them. He’d feel like walking away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past, but since he was still here to see the cinder-red earth everyday -- that amounted to something, didn’t it? That he had taken back a life he never got to live as a child, because childhood was not supposed to be about loss.
And despite being an adult, he still felt like a child -- always looking out the window at the night sky thinking one day he could touch the world with bare hands even if it burned, and longing to know why loving his mother was like trying to hold water in his hands while it formed puddles at his feet.
Felix tried not to dwell on it too much. He’d never get an answer, anyway.
For the next few days, Felix stayed home. He tried to practice breathing exercises and wrote down in his journal on what happened, step by step, so he knew how to handle things better the next time he wakes up to a bad day. There were days he felt like floating away and needed to manually go through every detail to stay grounded, and it helped. He felt in control.
Though he felt better enough to go back to work, Jisung had demanded him to take another day off. And then another day. And another. Felix felt his brain rot for playing video games and eating instant ramen instead of doing something more useful with his hands. He didn’t like the restlessness of being free.
But the day before he could return to work, he decided to go to the beach.
He wore Chan’s leather jacket. He didn't get the chance to return it yet, but he liked the coziness and warmth that it brought him. It was cloudy and the sunlight was cold and watery on his skin, but Felix didn’t mind as he got on the bus. The city’s beach was nothing like Sydney’s and its primrose sand that ran like cold-lava through his starfish fingers, but it gave him a sense of comfort and familiarity anyway on the days he missed the one place he had good memories of home. It reminded him to stay put, in a way -- to keep burning the pain he had as fuel for light and warmth.
He watched the tall trees recede into a steep hill after an hour ride. Once Felix arrived at the resort, he thanked the bus driver and inhaled a whiff of the briny air before he began to walk towards the beach blazing with parasols and volleyball nets, his sneakers sinking into the pale sand.
The sun peeked through the clouds, and the ocean began to look less grey; above the tide-line the grey rocks were splashed gorse-yellow with growing lichen. Felix walked until he found one of the logs he frequently sat on, only to find someone else already taking residence there.
But it wasn’t just someone -- it was Chan, sitting with knees pulled to his chest and dragging a branch through the sand.
An odd sense of deja vu came over him.
Rubbing the back of his head, Felix looked around the near-empty beach before he approached him.
Chan jerked his head up, startled. His eyes were wide and distant, as though he was seeing someone else. “Hi.”
“What a coincidence,” said Felix. He took a seat beside Chan and pulled his knees to his chest as well. It was unexpectedly cold. “I seem to find you everywhere. Maybe it’s fate?”
That made Chan break into an amused smile. “I’ve heard that line many times. Can’t say it’s my favourite.”
Felix blinked, confused at first, before realization settled in. He flushed in embarrassment. “No, I didn’t mean -- dude, it was a genuine question, not a pick-up line.”
“I’m joking,” Chan laughed, covering his laugh with an arm. His laugh was rough and high-pitched but endearing. “It’s nice to see you. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay, now. Better.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“I -- sorry you had to see me like that. It was mortifying.”
“Nothing to be sorry or embarrassed about.” When he saw the doubtful look on Felix’s face, he added, “Okay?”
After a few moments of hesitation, Felix said, “Okay.”
Chan smiled and resumed drawing random shapes on the sand with the branch in his hand. “You’re still wearing my jacket.”
Felix glanced down at himself and cleared his throat. “Yeah, I -- uh. It’s really comfy. I swear I’ll return it to you the next time I see you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Chan laughed -- giggled. “It looks good on you.”
His face grew hot. Felix wished he could share with him the lightness he felt in his chest, and the warmth that flooded him, whenever he saw Chan smile.
Looking at the sand drawings, nostalgia washed over Felix like the soft push and pull of the waves, and Felix used his finger to draw a daisy in the sand. He noticed the way Chan’s hand twitched and how he held onto the branch tighter until his knuckles turned white, but they continued in silence -- save for the faraway voices of beach inhabitants and seagulls flapping their wings above their heads.
At some point, Felix looked up ahead at the oceans holding up the grey-gold sky filled with sea-floss clouds. There were children playing near the shoreline, with buckets in small hands and buoyant laughter in their chests. It loosened the pressure in his bones, relieving the stiffness in his back that had been strung tight like a bowstring.
Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t notice that he was being watched. Felix froze and held in his breath when Chan leaned forward and gently swiped a thumb over his cheekbone. They were close enough that Felix could count each and every pore and wrinkle. Chan lingered close to him a bit too long as he held up the fallen lash between them and whispered, “You can make a wish.”
The only wish Felix could think of at that moment was for his heart to beat slower.
Chan broke into a playful smile and flicked the eyelash way. He leaned back and stretched his legs out, seemingly content with his reaction. “You remind me of someone.”
Felix cleared his throat and pointedly looked away. “Who?”
“Mm. Someone I met when we were young. He had freckles like you,” he said. “My mother always called them angel kisses.”
Felix’s eyes widened; his heart cracked like a pomegranate, spilling its seeds, and he was being consumed by an insatiable light that hung in the air between them. He looked at Chan, and with his eyes, he traced the outline of Chan’s profile against the world that seemed to burn red, russet, vermilion, and gold when the sun muscled through the clouds.
For a second, Felix found himself back home, finding a sense of companionship in a strange yet cheerful boy who was eager to build a whole new universe on the Sydney sands, and the same strange, cheerful boy who left Felix without a word one day.
Felix blinked. That couldn’t be possible. It couldn’t be Chan, who was sitting right beside him reminiscing the same memory without a single clue. This was not fate, but merely an obscure suffering. A headache nudged at the back of his skull.
“Where is he now?” It wasn’t Chan.
“I don’t know.” It wasn’t Chan.
The question was out before Felix could have second thoughts. “Have you tried looking for him?”
“No.” It wasn’t Chan.
“It’s a big world, man.” Chan laughed wistfully as he touched the back of his neck. “We moved all the time, me and my parents. We never stayed in one place long enough for me to make friends. I don’t think I’ll ever meet him again. Kinda sad, right? Grieving the loss of a person who’s still alive.” He laughed again and exaggeratedly shrugged. “Ah, I don’t know! I think it’s better if he forgot about me since then.”
Chan looked a bit like a ghost then -- not in a physical, otherworldly sense, but in the way he spoke about it, about himself, as though he did not exist if he was not touched. Felix bit the inside of his cheek before he ended up landing a punch on Chan’s shoulder, unable to express all the emotions burbling inside of him in a different way. Chan let out a yelp and grabbed his shoulder in disbelief.
“If he was someone you considered a friend, no matter how long ago, of course it’d be awesome to reunite.” Felix’s hands trembled. “I’m sure he’d be happy to see you if you two were to ever meet again.”
Chan blinked at him in surprise. A meek smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “How would you know that?”
“Hm. You’re an earnest guy, y’know?”
Before Felix could answer, Chan abruptly stood up from the sand and stretched his limbs. He let out a happy sigh and said, “It’s getting late and I’m getting hungry. Wanna get dinner?”
It wasn’t Chan. It couldn’t be. But maybe it was, when the wind carried his mussed bangs away from his eyes and Felix saw the little boy’s face clearly for the first time. And then, Felix realized the similarities -- the same smile, the same strong nose, the same dimples when he smiled hard enough, and the same outstretched hand that was always offered for Felix to take. It was the same vagueness of his words and actions that he never understood as a kid, and he still didn’t.
But he called Felix’s freckles angel kisses. And Chan had been the only person in the world to call them that.
He closed his eyes and compartmentalized everything for now. “Yeah, okay. I could go for dinner.”
Grinning, Chan pulled Felix up by the arm and walked ahead first. Felix watched his back as he went, and wondered if his shoulders felt heavy from how they seemed to be built for carrying the weight of the whole world.
It will be a good day, today.
Jisung didn’t bring up what happened last time when Felix returned to the flower shop. He was his usual, comical self, though he did make sure Felix was okay and reassured him that he was always there to listen to any worries. More so, his thoughtfulness was shown through the thermos of warm, rice cake soup he had brought for Felix to eat.
“My mom made it for you, actually. Figured you could have something homecooked,” he said with a grin.
Warmth fluttered in his heart. “She didn’t have to.”
“You’re right, but she wanted to, so dig in whenever. It’s been pretty quiet anyway.”
Felix smiled gratefully and nodded, feeling his stomach rumble at the thought of eating the rice cake soup. But then Jisung, who was feeling some questionable need to exert dominance, brought Felix’s head to his chest and cooed, “Oh, my little sweet-apple! My mushy, gushy, bubblegum muffin! How I’ve missed you dearly over the last three days. You are water and I am merely the soil you give life to and my throat you sufficiently lubricate for optimal yodeling techniques.”
“Does that mean I get a raise?”
Jisung immediately let him go. “Hell no, babe. Get to work. Capitalism awaits!”
Felix rolled his eyes. He fell back into his routine quickly; he caught up with the orders that were placed when he wasn’t working, and as he went through the maintenance of nurturing and caring for the flowers, Felix felt at peace. The sun was an endless chime of light, like Felix was submerged underwater where everything sounded softer and the lights were all tinged blue and the world felt silky and surreal and hopeful.
Before his lunch break, Felix handled a few of the plants that had wilted from a lack of focused care, and wondered if they could be salvaged. But then Felix thought about death -- how those flowers flourished only to sink below the soil once more, before waiting for the cycle of life to rouse them from their roots again. Decay was gentle with most. Life, then, could be gentle too.
At the ring of the door, Felix looked up from wiping the dirty counters to find Hyunjin waving at them in greeting while carrying a carton of drinks. He awkwardly waddled towards the counter and placed the drinks down. Simultaneously, Jisung ran out from the back and skipped towards him.
“You got us coffee?” he asked excitedly.
“Uh, ya, but this one’s yours,” Hyunjin said as he gave Jisung one of the drinks. Jisung squinted at the sticker on the cup and squawked.
“Decaf? You got me decaf coffee? But decaf coffee is a fetish for the old and joyless!”
Hyunjin swatted him away with a scrunched nose. “That’s why I chose it for you, stupid. Caffeine makes your jitters worse.” He gave an iced strawberry drink to Felix. “Um. Jisungie said you like strawberry things, so I got you that.”
“Wow, thanks,” Felix said in awe, beaming at the free drink. “That’s very kind of you.”
Hyunjin darted his eyes between Felix and Jisung, and visibly swallowed. Jisung seemed to have picked up on some sign because he said in a loud, unnatural voice, “Oh my god! My memory has failed me once again. I totally forgot to -- uh, throw the garbage. Wait.” With a sly smile, he snapped his fingers at Hyunjin, “Hey, are you trash? ‘Cause I wanna take you out.”
Felix forced his mouth to stay shut as Hyunjin looked at Jisung in disgust.
“Nevermind,” Jisung grumbled and trudged to the back, leaving just the two of them alone.
“You guys are getting along,” Felix remarked as he took a sip of the drink. Sweet and tart. He glanced up at Hyunjin who didn’t seem to have heard him. He was gnawing at his lip so roughly that Felix was scared he’d start bleeding; Hyunjin looked stuck in his own world with his puckered forehead and fingers drumming incessantly against the counter. This was a side of him Felix was unfamiliar with, considering all he knew on the surface was his dramatic exterior who found amusement in every little thing.
Concerned, Felix waved a hand in front of him. “Hyunjin?”
“I’m sorry,” Hyunjin blurted out loud, startling Felix. Hyunjin blinked owlishly before he averted his eyes. “For that day. I’m sorry I smoked near you. I didn’t mean to cause it.”
His face softened in understanding. “It’s fine. You didn’t know. No one did, really.” He sighed and rubbed his nose bridge. “I just hope it didn’t make people see me differently.”
“What? No one thinks of you differently. You couldn’t control it and -- and it happens. I get it. You know, I -- one time,” Hyunjin lowered his voice thoughtfully, “I thought I saw someone I used to know and I had a massive panic attack in the middle of the street. There was traffic and a crowd and I -- yeah. I think I almost died. I didn’t leave the house for weeks.”
Felix blinked in surprise. “Are you doing better, now?”
“Oh, yes. Chan -- he understands. He took care of me when it happened. So it’s -- there’s nothing to be ashamed of. If we could control what hurt us, I think we would all be happier, but we can’t. So we just have to help each other.” Hyunjin smiled a bit; the tightness in his shoulders seemed to have loosen from talking. “You -- if you ever need to talk to someone who understands, you can always talk to me.”
For the longest time, Felix had wondered why his skin felt like dirt when all humans were supposedly made of stardust. The things in his past still left lumps in his throat like pin bones of a fish, but that was what carrying wounds was about. It transformed you, and you learn to live with it. In this city of clementine peels and barbed laughter, Felix thought for the first time in his life -- perhaps this is the place where I will speak of her.
“You’re kind,” said Felix, “Thank you.”
Hyunjin’s eyes looked pure when he smiled. Felix was grateful to have been trusted enough to be shown such vulnerability. He wondered if he could ever purposely do the same.
After their talk, Felix gave Hyunjin permission to go to the back so he could bother Jisung for the remainder of his break. When it was just him alone at the counter, Felix sat down on the chair and replayed Hyunjin’s words that settled closely in his heart. But there was something else Hyunjin had said that stood out to him, and it was: Chan understands.
What did he understand? Felix wondered about that. But he wondered too much. He was growing more and more curious about Chan everyday and he didn’t know if it was a bad thing -- if he should stop before such curiosity grew into an obstruction. Falling was dangerous, and Felix did not need to be cracked open again.
Shaking away such thoughts, Felix grabbed the thermos he had hid under the counter earlier and opened it, pouring a bit into the cup to sip. The warmth of the rice cake soup lingered in his chest, and he treasured the alien taste of a mother’s love.