Felix woke up to sunlight cutting through his curtains like moving stained glass.
The first thing he noticed was the stiffness in his back. He stretched out his legs and blinked away the sleepiness in his eyes when he began to register more of his surroundings. He recognized the deep blue of his blanket pulled over his shoulders, but then his eyes strayed to the nest of black hair peeking out from underneath the blanket beside him. An arm was slung over his waist and he felt puffs of hot air skim across the side of his jaw.
In the hazy rinse of the morning afterglow, Chan looked younger -- softer, as his chest rose and fell in peaceful breaths and his cheek was squished against the pillow. Felix scooted back a bit and watched him sleep silently; he traced Chan’s features with his eyes so he could soak in every detail and press them into his memory like candids in a scrapbook.
The more Felix looked, the more he discovered new things; there were a few, faint freckles that trailed down Chan’s cheekbone. Against his better judgment, Felix carefully lifted his arm out from underneath the blanket and, with a finger, lightly traced out a shape from connecting his freckles. It was a little funny. While Felix had a cluster of stars on his face, Chan had a constellation.
“Hey,” Felix whispered.
Chan’s nose twitched. He tightened his arm around Felix’s waist and buried himself deeper into the blanket. Felix settled on combing his fingers through Chan’s hair in a measured repetition, humming quietly to himself. Chan was infinitely warm -- a kind of warmth even the sun cannot imitate.
Chan wouldn’t let go, last night. They stayed outside on their knees for what seemed like an eternity. He wouldn’t let go even when Felix reassured him that he wasn’t going anywhere. He wouldn’t let go even when Felix took him back to his apartment. He wouldn’t let go even when they went to bed together in each other’s arms, and he still hasn’t let go even when dawn broke.
Felix didn’t mind. He hadn’t wanted to let go either. When he closed his eyes, Chan’s words echoed in the back of his mind.
Don’t talk like you know me. You never did.
Those were the words of an angry person and the truth so often elicited anger. His shoulders had curled forward in defensiveness and his mouth had been twisted into a scowl, adamant in being unknown. But the memory of Chan’s crumpled expression appeared before Felix’s eyes. Despite the words that tumbled out of Chan’s mouth with a sharp sting of pain, that was the face of a person saying: I want to be known.
To be known was to be seen and as kids, that was what they did. Maybe that was why, even when Felix didn’t remember him, he could feel how sensitive they were to each other. Chan’s existence continued to live on in his heart even when his memory abandoned him beneath the rubble.
Felix wondered how long Chan had kept himself hidden in a sea of blurry-faced strangers, trying to find a home in the crooks and nannies of new cities. He wondered how lonely it must have been to be unable to find the right place to make a home out of; how lonely it must have been, to feel undeserving of the love he had never been shown; how lonely it must have been to crave connection but lack it -- to watch everyone around him possess light while he was in the middle of losing it.
But even then, he never lost that core gentleness. Felix didn’t know how Chan did it, when he lost his own at his very first wound.
An ache bloomed in his chest, rippling through the gaps between his ribs. Felix shifted closer and blinked when he saw an eyelash stuck to Chan’s cheek. He gently brushed it off and held the eyelash between them. Chan wasn’t awake to make a wish, but perhaps Felix could wish on his behalf instead.
“Hey,” he whispered. “I wish for you to be happy and loved for a long, long time.”
Satisfied, Felix turned around to flick the eyelash away. He returned back to his place, and gathering the bravado that came from being the only one awake, he moved closer and pressed their foreheads together.
As the sun slowly swelled in the sky, Felix shut his eyes and let himself be lulled to sleep by Chan’s quiet breaths.
Felix woke up again, but this time, to a furious knock on his door.
Sitting up in his bed, he looked to the side where it was empty. It was cold, too, indicating that Chan must have left hours ago. Outside, the sky had turned dark with remnants of the sunset lingering behind the tall buildings. Felix threw the blanket over and got out of bed, hurrying to the door when the knocking turned aggressively incessant.
When he opened it, he found Jisung on the other side, bundled up to his red cheeks. He looked like he couldn’t decide between crying in relief or punching Felix in the face.
“Holy fuck, you’re alive,” Jisung gawked before he threw his arms up in frustration, though his attempts to look intimidating fell short from how small he looked drowning in his outerwear. “Do you know how worried we were when you didn’t show up for work? Or when you wouldn’t answer our calls and reply to our messages? I went to the toilet so many times today that Hyunjin thought I was about to prolapse and shit my entire intestines out like that one scene in the Chuck Palahniuk book and I don’t even know who the fuck Chuck Palahniuk is! Do you know I was this close to filing a missing person’s report to the police when you wouldn’t answer the door? What do you have to say for yourself, huh?”
Felix opened his mouth. Closed it. Rubbed the back of his neck guiltily. “I, um. I overslept.”
Jisung’s jaw dropped and he stared at Felix in disbelief. Comically, Felix could see a vein pop on his forehead and steam coming out of his ears, but he found it no longer funny when he toppled back from the ferocity of Jisung’s voice.
“HEY, DO YOU WANT TO DIE?” he shouted hysterically. “I WILL LITERALLY KILL YOU. BUT FIRST I’M GOING TO SHIT ON YOUR DOORSTEP IF YOU DON’T LET ME IN RIGHT NOW AND LET ME USE YOUR TOILET, FUCK.”
Felix’s eyes bulged in horror and he wrenched the door open wider to let Jisung come in. He watched as Jisung kept screaming curses as he scuffled through his apartment and darted to the bathroom. Jisung locked himself in there for a good, whole hour, and even then Felix could still hear him cussing from inside despite the ventilator being on.
While Jisung did his business, Felix went out into the corridor to reassure his neighbours who had come out of their units to check on him that Jisung was no threat to his or anyone else’s safety, and that he was a very hyperactive friend of his who often joked about wanting to murder the living daylights out of Felix and shit on his doorstep.
Once he successfully mitigated the concerns of his neighbours, Felix went back to his room and tidied up his bed. Looking at the wrinkled sheets, he wondered what time Chan had left, where he was right now, what he was doing -- if, when he woke up, he felt well-rested and no longer lonely. He brought the blanket up to his nose. It smelled faintly of sandalwood, like Chan’s leather jacket.
Felix didn’t bother to change since he was going to shower after Jisung would leave. He did check his phone, though, after realizing it ran out of power. He plugged in his charger and turned his phone back on with over eighty notifications waiting for him in bright, red numbers.
“Shit,” he muttered, marking all of them as read. There were a myriad of messages and missed calls from Jisung, at least ten from Hyunjin, and a few from Seungmin. Even Ms. Han tried to call him in the middle of the day.
He looked up when he heard the bathroom door open. He walked out of his bedroom and found Jisung crouching down in the hall while holding his stomach. Felix frowned and kneeled down beside him, touching the crown of his head. “Are you okay, Jisungie?”
Jisung looked a little pale. He grunted and kept his head down, admitting quietly, “I was really worried, you asshole.”
There was too much aching, these days, when he felt a pang in his chest. He forgets there are people who worry about him sometimes, and it’s always a disorientating kind of warmth whenever he is reminded that he was cared for by others. Felix gathered Jisung in his arms and hugged him tightly, rubbing his back in soothing circles.
“I’m sorry,” Felix murmured. “I didn’t mean to make you guys worry. Or miss work either. I promise I won’t do it again.”
“You better not. I don’t care if you miss work, dumbo. I’m just glad you’re okay,” Jisung grumbled. He lifted his head and narrowed his eyes at Felix. “Wait. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Felix said, sheepishly rubbing his neck. “I think so.”
Jisung blinked dumbly at him. “Oh, shit. I know that look. Spill. You owe me at least an explanation.”
So, Felix did. He helped Jisung to the living room and fixed him a cup of chamomile tea to help with his upset stomach and nerves, and recounted what happened last night in the briefest, compact way possible. Jisung listened intently, though his expression grew increasingly confused the more Felix tried to explain the depth of his and Chan’s relationship.
It was difficult to put it into words when Felix felt as though verbal expression was not deep enough to capture the bounds of his feelings.
Jisung’s complexion looked better by the time Felix finished speaking. Jisung put his cup down on the small coffee table, turned in his seat to face Felix, and clasped his hands together on his lap.
“Alright, let me get this straight,” he began. “So you and Chan were the best of friends when you guys were kids. Then he moved away. Then you moved away. And then you two meet again, coincidentally enough after all these years, and just so happen to work across from each other. You didn’t remember him at first, but slowly all of it came back to you, and you two shared a very sad but sweet moment last night only for you two to end up in bed together?”
Before Felix could argue how Jisung poorly worded it, Jisung bulldozed on. “So he’s, like, the peanut butter to your jelly -- the Batman to your Robin, right? Damn, bro. This sounds like it came right out of a Makoto Shinkai film. I’d pay to watch it. Does this mean you two are a thing now? To find each other after years of being apart when you guys loved each other as kids is, like, tragically romantic. Holy shit, that means we can go on double dates now. Fucking sweet. Hold up, lemme tell Hyunjin --” Jisung took out his phone. “Dude, no wonder we couldn’t reach him either! Hyunjin tried to call Chan in case he knew where you were, but he didn’t pick up or show up at the studio too. Turns out y’all were too busy shaboinking to even --”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Felix interrupted loudly. “Can you let me talk?”
Jisung shut his mouth and mimed zipping up his lips.
“When did I ever say we were a thing? We’re not. We didn’t shaboink. It’s -- it isn’t even like that. We were able to clarify some things in our past but there’s still so much to talk about. There’s still so much we don’t know about each other. And I -- I -- ” Felix hesitated. “I don’t have those kinds of feelings for him.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” Jisung raised an eyebrow dubiously. “It looked like you’ve been sweet on him since forever.”
Felix sighed and rubbed his temples out of frustration. It had been different when they were kids. They relied on each other when they didn’t have anyone else to rely on. It was the sort of love that came with companionship and a tender reprieve from the constant loneliness. But now that they were grown, Felix couldn’t bring himself to imagine a different kind of love between them when all he knew was their youth.
He humoured the idea and tried to think of Chan in that way. He tried to think of running his hands through his hair in a fashion that was more than friendly, touching the hard lines of his body with heat beneath his fingertips, tearing him open wide enough to reveal everything, burying his hands in the sun and telling him how unafraid he was of burning.
A flush of embarrassment traveled up to his face and he held his head in his hands. “No.”
“You’re insane,” Felix muttered, mostly at himself, “You’re crazy.”
“Well, excuse me for voicing out my opinions!” Jisung exclaimed in disbelief. “I have eyes, dude. Of course I’m gonna have my own interpretations on things. See? Right now, it looks like you want to ravage him from head to toe. Maybe not toe, but like, head to leg. Head to waist? Unless you like the toe.”
Felix grabbed a pillow and threw it at him. Jisung barely caught it before it hit him right in the face. “Get your mind out of the gutter! I’m not even having those kinds of thoughts. Stop corrupting my purity, you idiot.”
“Ooooh, I hear denial.”
Felix fell back in his seat and looked at the ceiling in pain.
Most likely pitying Felix’s state of conflict, Jisung sighed and hugged the pillow close to his chest. “Fine. Let me just ask you a simple question if it’ll help lessen your emotional baggage that comes from potentially loving your childhood friend: how does he make you feel?”
He thought about Chan’s smile and his blurry silhouette in the middle of a crowd. He thought about his hand, gentle and strong, curled around his wrist underneath the ivory sky with the sun trickling down his open mouth. He thought about the way Chan touched him like the way moonlight touches sleeping flowers or how a delicate vine curls around a trellis. He thought about how everything he ate when he was with Chan always tasted delicious and fulfilling.
He made Felix feel loved like he did for the first time as a kid. Seen. Warm. But most importantly, he made Felix feel --
“Real,” he answered.
Jisung studied him for a moment. Then he smiled, as though he approved of it. “Okay. Yeah, okay.”
For some reason, something in him secretly ached as he dangled on the leash of his own longing. He didn’t know what to do or how to pick apart and understand what he felt when all these years he’s been with no one but his own company. Felix was scared. He was terrified -- of love, of Chan, and of himself.
Because really -- how do you know you’re in love when the notion of being unlovable has been so deeply ingrained in your soul since the very start? How do you know you are capable of loving and being gentle when all you’ve known was hurt? That the flowers in your chest would not wilt and be yanked out from the earth like his mother did with his heart?
What if he hurt people? What if he hurt Chan in the same way the people he couldn’t speak about hurt him? What if he turned out to be like his mother in the future, pressing cigarettes into sensitive skin when he needed to power and control? What if his mother -- his mother --
Jisung was saying something, but he didn’t hear him. It felt as though Felix was walking through water unable to remember how his voice sounded like. His head was going fuzzy.
Then there was the powerful scent of lavender filling his nostrils. Felix blinked away his wobbly vision and found himself back in his own living room, going cross-eyed at the candle shoved closely to his face. He noticed that Jisung’s hand was shaking terribly when the candle wouldn’t stay still.
“Felix?” he asked. “Breathe, man. Here, I have uh -- I have -- “
He gave the candle for Felix to hold as he rummaged through his pockets. He took out a can of breath mints and gave Felix a handful of them to eat.
Felix looked at him in question, though he placed the candle down on his lap and dumped the breath mints into his mouth. The sharp, peppermint sting pervaded his senses and his mind eventually cleared up, bringing him back to the ground after getting too high up in his thoughts.
“I took some notes the last time this happened. You know, for preventative measures,” Jisung explained. “And for Hyunjin. He has those days. But dude, you have to stop scaring me. I have a weak heart!”
Felix crunched on the breath mints. He kept his eyes down but he took Jisung’s trembling hand in his. “Sorry.”
“No, like -- I don’t know what you’re thinking, or remembering, but you should stop,” Jisung said. “You’ll be okay. Seriously. You have us. You have your hot friend who you’re having a crisis about. You have people who care about you. You’re -- you’re good, man. You’re a good person. You have to trust that you’re lovable the way you are. You deserve love. You didn’t get enough of it but you have so much love to give.“
Felix tightened his grip around Jisung’s hand. “You think I’m a good person?”
“Duh. If you weren’t, would I be here right now?”
“But -- “ Felix screwed his eyes shut. “How do you know, Jisung? What if today I’m a good person, but next year I become someone else? How do you know I won’t do the same thing to the people I love like my mother did to me? How do you know for sure?”
Jisung knocked him on the head with his knuckles. “I just know. I don’t care how many times you need to hear it but you’re one of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my entire life, and I’ve met a lot of shitty people.” He pressed his fist against the left side of Felix’s chest. “She’s ruined your past, and she’s haunting your present. Don’t let her take your future too. Okay?”
Felix opened his eyes and found Jisung looking at him with unwavering resolve. He leaned forward to rest his head on Jisung’s shoulder and kept his words close to his heart, hoping that overnight those words would seep in through his skin and become a truth in his eyes. “Yeah. Okay.”
They stayed like that for a while, until the sun fully disappeared behind the mountains and was replaced with the moon.
It was odd, in the sense that he’d been quiet on his social media as well as absent in the studio. Hyunjin had no luck contacting him and neither did any of his colleagues. It was as though Chan had disappeared off the face of the earth and trepidation twisted Felix’s stomach up into knots that he could barely keep his meals down.
Felix wondered if this was the end, then -- if Chan decided that there were too many entanglements for him to remain in a city he could no longer hide in; if he got up from bed at dawn to pack his things and leave for another place without a goodbye like he did eleven years ago, but this time, on his own accord.
He tried not to show his emotions, but Seungmin had keen eyes. One look at Felix’s weary, heavy-eyed face, and he could see through the meager facade he was trying to put on. But Felix supposed everyone knew since they were aware of what happened between him and Chan thanks to Jisung and his big mouth.
On a quiet morning, Felix was sweeping the floor where he’d spill some soil by accident as he listened to Seungmin talk to a customer by the counter, explaining to them the meaning of Peruvian lilies and why they were popular favourites for wedding bouquets. He kept his gaze down, but every so often he would look up and out the window, hoping to catch the sight of someone familiar. But there had been no sign of Chan for almost a week already, and Felix was met with disappointment every time he searched for his figure among the streets.
Maybe he should have seen it coming. Felix couldn’t have expected Chan to stay, let alone for him, when leaving was such an integral part of him.
At some point, the customer was gone. The next thing he knew, Seungmin was standing right beside him, boredly following Felix’s gaze out the window. “Are you looking for Chan?”
Felix barely held back a flinch before he lightly punched Seungmin’s arm. “Do you specialize in scaring people out of the blue?”
“Yes,” he said flatly.
Felix scrunched up his nose and resumed sweeping the floor. Seungmin, on the other hand, leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “Jisung tells me you have a hot guy crisis. Is that true?”
“It’s not a hot guy crisis,” Felix denied.
As if on cue, Jisung ambled out of the back room towards them with arms akimbo on his hips. “It’s totally a hot guy crisis. Have you seen the motherfucker’s arms? He could crush the living hell out of me. He could be John Cena’s twin but like, Korean and shorter and skinnier and cuter --“
Seungmin licked his palm before slapping it onto Jisung’s cheek to shut him up. “Maybe if you ran like your mouth did you’d be in better shape.”
“Dude, did you just put your germs on me?”
“What do you think, dumbass? Want me to do it again?”
“Are you asking to get fired right now? Because I can do it, man. I’ll do it right now.”
“Well, it’s not like I actually get to do any work here but get paid to sit through eight hours of my coworkers pining four days a week, so yeah. Do it.”
Felix watched as Jisung gasped and clutched his chest dramatically at Seungmin’s taunt, before the both of them jumped into a battle of headlocking each other. There they were, roughhousing in the middle of fragile pots and innocent plants with possible, valued customers walking in any second now, only for the sight of two little men scaring them off to another shop and spreading the rumor that Han’s Florist was but a market for neanderthals.
Felix pinched his nose bridge. He looked up at the ceiling and grabbed the broom. Wielding the feathery weapon, he started to jab at their legs, making them yelp and hop around like their asses were on fire. “Look, guys. Guys. I’m an atheist, but I’m willing to believe in God just this once if he’ll get you guys to shut the fuck up.”
Seungmin shot Jisung the stink-eye, to which Jisung reciprocated the look by sticking out his tongue before they finally resigned from their play fighting. Felix held the broom closely to his chest in case he needed to use it again for purposes other than sweeping.
“Anyway. As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted,” Seungmin cleared his throat, pointedly ignoring Jisung’s noise of complaint, “all I’m saying, Felix, is that I’ve been watching you stare out the window for nearly a whole week and either brood behind the counter during your lunch breaks, or walk through that alleyway back and forth like an idiot. Whether you deny it or not, it’s pretty obvious, and I’m just wondering what’s stopping you from -- I don’t know, reaching out to the guy?”
Felix opened his mouth instinctively to deny, but had no excuse in mind to use. He closed it and averted his gaze to the side.
“You have a whole studio of his coworkers who possibly know about his whereabouts,” Seungmin added, then he pointed at Jisung. “Even if Hyunjin doesn’t know where Chan is, that doesn’t mean everyone else doesn’t.”
“No. He’s probably gone,” Felix said, shaking his head. “He’s gone.”
Jisung frowned. He raised a hand, to which Seungmin waved for him to go on. “Hey, man. Who said he left? Maybe he’s still here but caught the flu or something. Or, like -- don’t you have those times where you just want to isolate yourself from the outside and be alone for a while? Maybe it’s like that for him right now.”
“I guess so,” Felix muttered, and at the tone of his voice, Seungmin perked up.
“What else is wrong?” Seungmin lifted a hand and ran a thumb over the space between Felix’s furrowed brows. “You look like you personally witnessed Caesar get stabbed twenty-three times back in 44 BC, or like Jisung when he looks super constipated but is actually just in deep thought.”
“I don’t look constipated.”
Felix half-heartedly rolled his eyes but he tightened his grasp around the handle of the broom. He looked out the window in contemplation, staring at the crisp, red leaves that hung from the tall thin trees; the alleyway with the lonely stray cat that waited everyday for its friend; the passersby on their phones travelling with a destination in mind. He opened his mouth and willed his voice to work. “How do you differentiate loneliness from everything else?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, how do you -- know what you’re feeling is genuine? How do you know you’re choosing someone out of love or out of loneliness?”
Seungmin tilted his head. “Well. It’s logical to be lonely and still want love. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some folks need people to learn how to love along the way. I think it’s an inherent human need -- to be around others, to be connected.”
His eyes were probing each miniscule detail of Felix’s expression, and he let out a sigh, pocketing his hands into his apron. “But I think you’re just overthinking yourself and your feelings. I’m sure you’re already used to being alone that you know the difference, don’t you?”
Felix blinked up at him. Seungmin was right. He’d been alone for so long that loneliness had become a friend. And this situation with Chan was different from all those years of being alone. It was different. A strange, warm kind of different. “I -- yeah. I guess.”
“Then there you go. Why assume things and make it more difficult than it needs to be? It takes practice to learn how to love each other in ways you need to be loved. It’s a promise, a judgment, and a commitment. You just have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open up the more uglier, awkward side of you to them. Unsaid feelings are the worst. It’ll rot inside you.” Seungmin shrugged. “And hey. You have us, but Chan doesn’t. Maybe he needs to hear this too so he can come back.”
Felix’s eyes widened; his heartbeat quickened in realization and he brought his sleeve to his mouth. His first instinct was to continue maintaining his distance because there was only so much weight his heart could handle, but Felix couldn’t help but gravitate towards Chan like a stellar collision. His feelings were massive and terrifying, yet peaceful and quiet at the same time -- a bunch of contradictions that mirrored Chan’s nature.
They weren’t children anymore. Chan was no longer that bright-eyed, optimistic kid back then, but Chan had been that fountain of light and hope for Felix when he was young. Maybe it was Felix’s turn to be his, this time -- to keep Chan from floating through the air, into the clouds and into outer space until he was stolen by another planet with a gravity strong enough to hold him.
After all, the sun was the loneliest star of them all.
Jisung was staring at Seungmin in awe, his brows raised to his widow’s peak. He asked incredulously, “Since when was a cynical bastard like you a love guru?”
“Uh. I don’t know. Since I celebrated three years with my boyfriend yesterday?”
Jisung nodded, but then he did a double take -- eyes bulging in horrific shock. “Excuse me, the fuck? Your what?”
“My boyfriend,” Seungmin repeated flatly.
Jisung gaped after Seungmin, who shrugged and walked to the back room with the quick gait of someone who wanted to avoid Jisung’s upcoming interrogation. Jisung looked at Felix, saw something in his eyes, and cleared his throat. “Hey. I’ll cover for your shift. But if you chicken out, I will kill you and deduct fifteen percent of your pay.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Not if you find your fucking friend first.” Jisung slapped him on the back. “Now git!”
Felix furled in his lips and nodded. He gave Jisung a grateful look before he went to quickly grab his work tote and coat in the back, seeing Seungmin tap away on his phone of virtual cats while he lounged in Jisung’s swivel chair.
“Thank you,” Felix said.
Seungmin smiled in response.
The first thing Felix saw when he entered Moon Ink Studios was Hyunjin balancing a pen between his nose and cupid’s bow by the front counter, seemingly annoying the receptionist who was a young man with dark, blue hair this time. He snatched the pen away when Hyunjin was momentarily distracted by Felix’s entrance.
“Felix!” Hyunjin exclaimed, waving at him with both hands. “Are you on your lunch break? You look like a single rainbow sparkle on a grey cupcake right now.”
Felix belatedly noticed that he was still wearing the shop’s garish apron. He winced and pulled his coat tighter around him to hide the colours. “Uh -- no, not really. I’m off early today. I just thought I’d come by and, um, ask everyone if they knew where Chan was. Or if there was some way I can find him?”
At the mention of Chan, Hyunjin deflated. “Ah. Well, we’re not allowed to tell you any personal information like his address even if we’re all friends. I already asked a few of the artists he often talks to too. Sana and BamBam haven't seen or heard from him at all. Have you, Jeongin?” He looked back at the receptionist who was sipping on his Starbucks drink, before he glanced around his shoulder to say to Felix, “Jeongin is one of our very talented apprentices right now. He’s a baby artist!”
“I’m literally twenty-years old,” Jeongin grumbled and Felix couldn’t help but smile. “But no, I haven’t heard from Chan either. Have you tried to ask Minho? They’re pretty close. Maybe he would know.”
“Oh, true,” Hyunjin gasped. “I forgot to ask Minho. He’s always doing something weird and I don’t want to risk seeing his ass tat again.”
“I mean, it was a nice ass tat,” Felix said thoughtfully.
Hyunjin gagged. Jeongin darted his eyes between the both of them and shuddered. “Why is everyone here so freakin’ weird? But anyway -- I took a look at Minho’s schedule and he doesn’t have an appointment until half an hour. I think he’s upstairs at his station if you wanna talk to him right now.”
“Thanks,” Felix laughed, patting Hyunjin on the shoulder as he went up the stairs.
He tried not to be disruptive as he walked past other tattoo artists with their clients. When he saw Chan’s station, Felix noticed that there was a skull with a fake baby’s breath stuck in its eye socket that hadn’t been there the last time Felix stepped foot into the studio.
As his eyes wandered, Felix finally spotted Minho eating a tangerine while he sat at his station watching something on his tablet with earphones, his brows furrowed in concentration. Approaching Minho, Felix noticed that his sleeves were folded up, revealing quaint tattoos that decorated his arms at random spots like a tiny cherry at his wrist and a cat draped over a moon near his elbow.
“Hey. Minho, right?”
Minho looked up from his tablet. He was chewing on a piece of tangerine as he squinted at Felix. “You’re a little too early for our appointment, Mark. I thought I told you I’d prefer you to be five minutes late than five minutes early.”
Puzzled, Felix blinked and hurriedly waved his hands. “I’m not -- no, I’m not a client. I’m Felix, a friend of Chan’s. You know, one of the people you showed your butt tattoo to during the time my friend came in for a consultation with Hyunjin?”
“Huh?” He stared at Felix for a moment before realization struck his bright eyes. Minho snapped his fingers at Felix. “Ah, right! I remember you now. Sorry, I’m bad with faces. And names. But I know you. Chan talks about you sometimes. Mm, well more like I pry it out of him, but same thing.”
Felix was surprised to hear he was the subject of their conversations at times. “About Chan -- have you heard from him lately? Or seen him?”
“Not really. He replied to me maybe three days ago saying that he wanted to sit at his favourite spot and think for a while. He said he was okay though, just feeling a little -- “ Minho looked up in thought. “Nostalgic?”
Minho studied Felix’s expression, tilting his head from side to side to inspect every angle. As if he understood something impalpable, he bent down underneath his chair and picked up a few tangerines from a netted bag full of them. He offered the tangerines to Felix, to which he hesitantly accepted. “Here, take some. You know where he is, don’t you?”
“Maybe,” Felix said quietly, looking at the tangerines. “Thank you.”
Minho gave him a lazy salute before he returned to his tablet.
He put the tangerines carefully in his tote so they wouldn’t get squashed by his movement. Felix said his goodbyes to Jeongin and Hyunjin when he went down the stairs and kept his eyes down in thought as he left the studio. In the distance, the sun burned in exhaustion and seemed to swallow up the earth.
Chan’s favourite spot could be anywhere, any place. Felix walked around the vicinity, peeking through the windows of the cafe and bakery Chan often frequented to. He looked around the small ramen shop as well before he hurriedly left when one of the waitresses came out to gather the customers waiting in line outside.
The only other place he could think of was the abandoned bus stop they often ate lunch at together, but there was no one there as well -- just rundown, vandalized buildings and the sky and clouds. Subtle colours. Shifting angles of light. Physics and refractions.
Felix heaved out a sigh. He closed his eyes and listened to faraway traffic and the birds above him beat their wings before he continued his way down the street in discouragement. But up ahead, he noticed there were a cluster of daisies that had sprouted from the cracks of the concrete. He stopped before them and crouched down, gently rubbing a thumb over the small petals that seemed white-gold beneath the glow of the warm cloudlight.
Felix smiled at the unexpected surprise, but the more he stared at the yellow disc of the daisies, the more he picked at a scab in his memory.
“That looks kind of ugly.”
Chan glanced up to shoot Felix a frown before he returned to the heart-shaped petals he had drawn around a yellowing bruise. The tip of the Sharpie was sleek and cold to his skin, and the smell was unpleasant, but Chan didn’t seem to mind from how invested he was in drawing flowers over Felix's arms.
They were hiding in the shade of a tree when it had been too hot to stay out in the sun. Even the soft drinks they bought from the vending machine weren’t enough to cool them down, and Felix was quite sure he’d sweat the ink off even if the marker guaranteed permanency.
“Can I draw around this one?” Chan pointed at one of the cherry burns that was in the middle of healing. It was blistering, bright red and yellow, and itchy.
Felix frowned. “It still hurts.” He switched arms and pointed at one of burns that had healed and scarred over. “You can draw around this one, though. This one is super old so it won’t hurt.”
“Okay,” Chan beamed. Felix watched as he enthusiastically got to work; Chan started to outline thin, star-shaped petals around the center, before he added more around the rays to make the flower look more fluffy. Then, he drew a long stem down his arm and included a few, tiny leaves, and began to add bees and butterflies around the wonky daisy. Once he was done, he put his arms on his hips and watched Felix inspect his finished work.
“You suck,” Felix simply said.
“What? You suck,” Chan retorted with a pout. “I think it looks good. See! I even added butterflies. And there’s a little ladybug here.” He pointed at a black dot with a pair of wings. “It’s cute, right? I dunno what you’re talking about when this doesn’t suck at all. I clearly could be the reincarnation of Picasso, or Van Gogh, or Mona Lisa --”
“Mona Lisa is the painting, not the painter, stupid.”
“What? I totally knew that.”
Felix snickered and held his arms up underneath the canopy of leaves. He grinned, his chest being consumed by the warmth of the sun. “Okay, genius. Maybe you’re right. My arms look prettier now. But I’m gonna be sad when I have to shower. It’s gonna all be gone.”
“Hey, then come find me when we’re older!” Chan bumped their shoulders together. Felix looked up at him questioningly. “I’m gonna get crazy awesome at drawing and make sure you’ll have the prettiest garden on your arms for a long, long time.”
“But how am I supposed to find you?”
“Here,” said Chan. “Always come find me here, yeah?”
Felix hummed, looking at his arms. Like springtime, hope bloomed little flowers in his chest. “Really? You’ll do that for me?”
Chan grinned. For a moment, a faint disc of sunlight beamed above him, lingering like a halo. “Of course! Anything for you.”
The image of that younger Chan smiling with utmost conviction was singed into Felix’s memory, and his body burned with longing. There was this quietness that wormed into his head and he could barely feel the thud of his heart as though he was wrapped in cotton. But then the honking of a car jolted him from the almost-trance he’d fallen into and he stood up, electrified.
Always come find me here.
Of course. How obvious.
Felix ran back into the bustling streets and towards the one-way bus stop that’d take him all the way to the beach without any route changes. When his bus arrived, he hiked up the steps and sat in the back, restlessly wringing his sleeves. Every stop and turn fueled his impatience and he shut his eyes, willing himself to calm down amidst the crowd.
Since it was rush hour, it took longer than usual to get to the beach, but once they finally arrived, Felix thanked the bus driver and leaped off the vehicle. The bus trailed off along the washboard path behind Felix as he gazed at the waters that wavered beneath the sunlight. The shore was a graceful arc of sand, a place for the placid ocean to lap.
For a moment, he was back in Sydney, collecting seashells from the shore to add to his makeshift garden of sand flowers.
Felix walked down the gravelly path along the resort, eyes skirting past the families and couples that took residency over the volleyball nets and the large umbrellas that shielded them from the sun. It was windy and cold but there were people who still waded through the ocean, splashing water at each other and laughing like the birds that soared through salty updrafts.
The east side of the beach was less crowded. It was quieter too. When the logs came into view, Felix felt his heart stop and start at the same time. There was a figure of black sitting at Felix’s usual spot like the last time he’d been at the beach.
Felix tightened his grip around the strap of his bag and began approaching him. The sand sunk beneath his shoes and the briny wind blew strands of pale hair into his eyes. His heart ricocheted in his ears but he walked with quiet resolve, keeping every single word his friends have told him close to his chest and fresh in his mind.
There was an odd sense of deja vu.
“Hi,” he said.
There was a moment of stillness before Chan finally slid his eyes from the ocean to look up at Felix in quiet surprise. The shadows beneath his eyes had elongated -- almost bruised.
“Hey,” Chan said.
Felix smiled a bit and sat down beside him, leaning his back against the log and stretching his legs out across the sand. The clouds covered the sun and muted its light.
The both of them were silent for a while. In the corner of his eye, Felix studied Chan’s profile -- his half-lidded eyes and the stiffness in his posture, but absentmindedly, he traced the sharp line of Chan’s jaw and the slope of his neck to his broad shoulders. He looked softer without his earrings and with his hair tousled. No matter how haggard or jaded he looked, Chan was always beautiful to Felix.
Much to his dismay, when Felix dragged his eyes back up to his face, he belatedly realized that Chan had been watching him watch him. That was when Chan finally spoke up: “Why do you do that?”
Felix blinked. “Do what?”
“Look at me like that.”
“Like -- “ Chan helplessly gestured at the air between them, “that.”
“How else am I supposed to look at you?” Felix asked, confused, but Chan shook his head.
“And then you do those -- things, like wishing happiness and love for me as if I deserve them, and I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Chan as he touched his own forehead in reminiscence. Felix could feel his face turn beet red; he hadn’t realized Chan was awake the whole entire time, and he felt like his cocoon of comfort had been cracked open, leaving him exposed to this delicate vulnerability dangling between them.
Felix’s mouth felt dry. He licked his lips and looked down at the sand. “Why do you think you don’t deserve them?”
“You know why.”
“What makes you think I do? I don’t,” Felix retorted, feeling his patience snap in half at the wishy-washiness of his answers, “because you’ve never let me know anything -- not now, and not even when we were kids either.”
Chan clenched his jaw, and forced out a whisper, “Because you wouldn’t understand.”
“Then let me.” Felix sat on his knees and leaned forward to tug at the strings of Chan’s hoodie. “Like you said, Chan, we’re not the same anymore. And you’re right -- I never knew you as a kid, and you never knew me. But how could we, when we didn’t know anything about each other except for the fact that I looked like I’ve been put through a meat grinder everyday and you and parents moved around like a bunch of runaways?”
Chan opened his mouth, but Felix cut him off as he tugged at Chan’s hoodie strings a bit more aggressively. “Maybe you think it’s just lingering attachment because it’s easy to think like that, but I know what I want.” His heartbeat almost drowned out the sound of his own voice. “You were all I had as a kid. You gave me hope and love. And now I have people who care about me, who love me. Yet, I still want you.”
A pause. Felix swallowed loudly. “So please. Let me get to know you again. Properly, this time, as Felix -- not as the random kid with freckles and bruises you met eleven years ago.”
Chan’s gaze wavered until he could no longer meet Felix’s eyes. He looked down at his hands instead and gritted his teeth, before he closed the gap between them and buried his face into Felix’s neck. Felix instinctively wrapped his arms around Chan, faintly surprised by the sudden contact. He was cold like the icy starlight.
“And if I say no?” Chan murmured.
“Oh, well. I might cry,” he joked. Chan let out a wobbly chuckle into his ear and it sent a shudder down his spine. Felix cleared his throat and patted the back of Chan’s head, watching the clouds above them drift apart to reveal the sun once again. “I don’t want to say it would be okay, because it wouldn’t be for me. But it’s not just me. It’s you too. It’s your life after all, Chan. Your choice. If that’s what you want, then I’ll learn to be okay with it.”
Chan was quiet for a moment. Then, as he tightened his arms around Felix, he said, “I’ll tell you something.”
And there, Chan lets himself be known for once.
Picture this: a relatively average nuclear family with a deadbeat father, a silent mother, and their only son they expected to be very, very obedient.
He had his whole entire life planned out ahead of him: excel in school and get into a top university; land a job in a field that would pay well before settling down and marrying a sweet girl and have children with her -- preferably one boy, one girl. He’d buy a house in the middle of an affluent neighbour and take care of his parents who sacrificed everything for him until they were too old to remember him.
That is, if they could even stay in one place long enough for Chan to carry out a single thing from their plans.
They moved around a lot. Chan never knew specifically why other than the fact his father changed jobs often and grew angrier over time. Because of that, Chan never had the opportunity to make friends. He’d be gone the next week without a goodbye, like they were untethered ghosts searching for a place to lay their wicked souls at rest.
All he wanted in life was just a friend. Someone to talk to, to ask how his day was, because his parents never did anything like that in the slightest. His father would call him names that dug a sharp-edged blade into his chest, and his mother stopped looking at him for a reason Chan didn’t know why.
They’d move time and time again that Chan eventually gave up in hoping for a friend -- for a permanent home to stay in. He was only thirteen, disillusioned, and had never been lonelier in his life.
But then, Felix.
His mother had freckles. She’d call them angel kisses in her soft, wispy voice when she had read to him at nights his father was knocked out from all the booze before she suddenly stopped loving Chan. It stuck in his head, because they were pretty on his mother, and they were also pretty on the boy with colours and cherries on his body and an odd affinity for daisies.
“Hi,” Chan said.
“Hi,” said the boy.
Chan decided that he was the nicest boy he’d ever met.
But he knew not to get too close, to not get too attached -- to not show too much of himself when he watched his father call him a pansy and tear apart his birthday present of a rose drawing in front of his eyes, leaving Chan to gather up the paper pieces of his heart. But for the first in a long, long time -- the boy with the angel kisses made him feel very, very loved.
When he left, it wasn’t the same heavy feeling like the other times. When Felix promised he’d never forget him, that he’d always think of him whenever he’d think of his favourite flowers, Chan was happy. There was somebody in the world who’d keep the memory of him alive even when no one else will. Chan was important to someone. Chan was -- loved.
But then he grew up. He changed. The world around him changed. His parents didn’t.
Chan gave up on a lot of things. He gave up on his parents’ demanding dreams for him, on trying to like women no matter what he or his father did to convince himself that led to years of self-loathing, on the hope he hung onto that he’d ever reunite with his friend from long ago on that warm, sunny beach, with their sand-drawn flowers and pure white daisies.
When his father hit him for the first time when he was eighteen, and his mother merely watched them from the sidelines, that was when Chan finally understood why his mother stopped loving him. She saw what he was turning into. She saw the outcome. She saw that she wouldn’t be able to stop it, and thought the best she could do was turn a blind eye on everything his father did and said to him behind closed doors.
His parents never loved him. They loved the idea of him, of how malleable he was as a kid so they could easily mold him into the shape they wanted him to be, but they never loved him.
He just wanted to be loved. So badly.
Chan left home and never looked back. Like a family heirloom, Chan took his childhood with him and moved around without purpose, unable to find a home to settle in when he never understood the concept of a home in the first place. And though he left home, Chan still felt like a ghost. Never belonging, always longing, not quite concrete enough to touch others despite the burning need in his gut and the unlearning of the shame from being himself.
And if sometimes his eyes would absently search for a familiar face in a sea of flowers even though his memories of Felix have aged and blurred away, like someone had gone to a painting and rinsed parts of the wet paint away, he’d pretend he was searching for someone else even when he knew no one else in the world.
He was alone. He’d always been alone, but he made certain he’d live a good life alone, too.
The sun was a perfect disc cut in half by the edge of the world. The waters had turned blood red and the sea foam looked like threads of skin and muscle that had been pulled apart, dissolving among the shore. It had cast Chan’s features golden and for a moment, he seemed to burn.
Felix’s heart was like a rabbit snared by uncertainty. He didn’t know what to say; maybe he shouldn’t say anything at all. But he took Chan’s unsteady hand in his anyway, blowing warm air onto his cold, tremulous fingers. He had the eyes of someone who was layers deep in his ghosts, who couldn’t scrub clean of something he couldn’t see but only felt. Felix knew that feeling all too well.
“We’ll never be them,” Felix said, and watched as Chan closed his eyes. It was odd to say it out loud himself, but he tried to remember the earnestness in Jisung’s voice that eased the twinge in his chest. “Chan, you grew up well without them.”
“Maybe a couple years ago I would have wished for them to think the same way. But now, I’ve learned to accept the fact that there was no use in hanging onto the hope that they would ever come around when they never will.” He laughed and brought his other hand up to cover his face. “They never loved me and I hated them so much for it. But I think I still love them anyway. Why do we still love the people who’ve hurt us so much?”
Felix thought about his mother for a moment, with her soft voice and kind eyes when she tucked him to bed and pressed her lips to his cheek.
Felix looked up at Chan, who kept his eyes straight ahead at the sea of red. Chan remained quiet in thought but Felix, on the other hand, chewed on his bottom lip, scrambling for platitudes. But he supposed that comfort wasn’t exactly something the either of them were used to or familiar with. Maybe listening was enough, sometimes; just sitting there and holding hands to warm each other up on a windy day at the sunny, lukewarm beach.
He ran his thumb over Chan’s knuckles, noticing the faint scars of where the skin had once split from impact. “Were you planning to leave and move somewhere else, after?”
Chan stayed motionless for a moment, before he shook his head. “No, I wasn’t. I just wanted to be alone -- to think. To figure things out. ”
“Like how I felt -- about you, about everything.” He smiled a bit self-deprecatingly. “Do you know how pathetic I felt to still feel so much for someone I thought I’d given up on a decade ago? But -- you know, Felix. I think I was always meant to be this way since the very moment I met you on that beach back in Sydney eleven years ago.” Chan quietly laughed at himself. “Because if I couldn’t be yours, then I could never be another’s.”
When Chan turned to smile wistfully at Felix, he could feel that this was it. It looked like Chan had eaten the sun -- like he drank so much sunlight he was drowning in it, and Felix could feel the tiny stars in his rib cage waiting to erupt. So, without thinking, Felix cupped Chan’s face in his hands and leaned forward to kiss the tip of his nose.
Chan was staring at him with wide, fluttering eyes, his ears turning the same colour as the blood-red ocean that spread across his cheeks like wildfire when Felix pulled away slightly.
“You’re not alone anymore,” Felix said. “So please stay.”
“Stay here, with me, in this city. This can be your new home and I’ll make sure of it so you don’t need to feel the urge to move anymore.” He rested his forehead against Chan’s. “We weren’t born wrong or bad that made us unworthy of love. We deserve love. We deserve so much of it, and we’ll always deserve more than what we got as kids no matter what our ghosts say. Do you know why?” Felix let out a little laugh at his next words. “Because fuck your parents and fuck mine too.”
There was a tug to Chan’s lips. Then, they were laughing together -- softly at first, before Felix accidentally snorted and made Chan laugh even more. It wasn’t the kind of laughter like that night, where it had been hysterical and full of disbelief, but the kind of laughter that sounded like the fiery heart of the world.
“You’ve grown up to be an interesting guy,” Chan murmured against Felix’s hand, closing his eyes.
Felix grinned. “Haven’t I?”
“What do we do to make this place home?”
“Hm. Well. We’ll learn more about each other: our boundaries, our quirks, our everything. We’ll practice how to love each other in the ways we need to be loved. And, um. We’ll make sandwiches in the morning to eat because I can cook anything but pancakes, and we’ll forgive each other for telling the same stories over and over again, we’ll do the dishes together where one of us washes and the other one dries.”
“And when you can’t look on the bright side,” Chan said as he opened his eyes and smiled at Felix. “I’ll be sitting next to you in the dark.”
Felix blinked at him. The butterflies in his stomach and the magpies in his chest unfurled and fluttered throughout his body, radiating warmth. “I like that. We’ll do that.”
“We can decorate the walls with photos, maybe.” Chan suggested contentedly. “Photos of our friends.”
“What colour are the walls?”
Chan snorted. “Floral.”
“Hey, maybe we can grow our own garden.”
That was when Chan leaned back from Felix’s touch, and Felix dropped his hands to his lap. Chan watched the movement. When his eyes flickered up to meet Felix’s curious gaze, he said, “Your arms.”
“Let me see them.”
“Oh,” said Felix.
“I’ve been a little behind in reaching out, but I’ve seen yours already.” Chan smiled, lifting his hand up between them. “Can I see them?”
Felix chewed at the inside of his cheek before he took off his coat, hanging it over the log while trying to ignore the fact that his apron stood out way too much. Then, with a grimace, he rolled up the sleeves of his sweater and stuck his arms out for Chan to look at beneath the sky’s passing blush.
“Can I touch?”
He nodded. Chan didn’t react the way Felix expected him to. He merely inspected his arms with quiet contemplation, turning them around to look at specific scars in detail. His fingers gently skirted across the bumps and ridges on the inside of his wrist, and lingered a bit too long on the puckered skin of his old cigarette burns. Some healed well, some healed wrong. Some were jaggedly deep and white, some were shallow and brown.
“You have them on your arms too.” Chan looked up and smiled until his dimples appeared. “Angel kisses.”
Felix blinked. His cheeks felt sunburnt. “I see.”
“Self-harm scars are usually easy to cover up. I’ve tattooed a few folks with them and it was easy to conceal and blend them into the design. Same with burns,” Chan said. “But regarding the pain level, it’ll hurt a lot more than usual since we’re tattooing over the scar tissue. Scars in general will always be a sensitive area. They also get extremely aggravated during the tattooing process but it’s normal for that to happen. The skin will calm down after a few hours.”
“Can I consider this my free consultation?”
Chan laughed softly. “Sure. But we’ll talk more about it later. I need to know what you have in mind so I can sketch the design out.”
“I’m sure you know what I want. I found you here like you’ve told me to do eleven years ago, after all.”
They sat there with their backs against the logs as they stared at the sun sinking below the cardinal ocean. There was peace in knowing that Chan looked a little less like a wandering ghost and more like a solid person in which Felix could touch -- someone who firmly planted their feet into the sands with a hint of resolve like tree roots growing through the holes of concrete.
And Felix could feel it -- the word almost. Almost happy, almost at home, almost healed. Almost. Not yet, not quite, but soon. Maybe. And there will always be hurt because it never really goes away, but they’ll be okay. Felix will make sure of it.
When the moon started to appear in the sky and the sun could barely be seen except for its warm afterglow, Felix decided that it was time to leave before it could grow darker and colder. He stood up from the sand, dusting off his pants and shaking out the bits in his shoes. Then he turned to Chan, offering a hand for him to take.
“Hey,” he said. “Ready to go home?”
Chan looked up at him, blinking against the glassy moonlight that reflected off the surface of the waters. His gaze slid down to Felix’s offered hand, and with a tiny smile, he reached for it and let himself be pulled up.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Let’s go home.”
On the quiet bus ride home, Felix remembered about the tangerines Minho had given to him earlier that were still lounging in his bag. When he reached for them, he was relieved to find that the both of them were still intact.
Felix thought about his mother, who used to slice peaches for him to eat when she was still capable of being gentle. That had been one of the few, kind things she’d ever done for him: to peel and slice fruits for him to eat. It was a kind of love language he still recognized years later.
He glanced at Chan, who was leaning against the window and watching their surroundings outside pass by in a blur.
Felix started to peel one of the tangerines and tucked away the skin into his lunch bag so he could throw them away later. He split the tangerine and gently elbowed Chan in the side to grab his attention before he placed the other half of the tangerine on his palm.
“Here,” said Felix. “I bet you haven’t eaten at all, today.”
Chan looked down at the tangerine in his hand, as if he was unfamiliar with such a small gesture. “Thank you.”
Felix smiled. In comfortable silence, they sat there together, eating their halved tangerines amidst the flickering seams of moonlight.
Felix watched from across the street in slight agony as a man angrily whined in a high-pitched voice at an older woman wobbling on her cane, who had barely grazed the man’s shoulder but surreptitiously caused him to drop his bouquet of flowers when he was in the process of leaving the shop. Jisung had run out at the sound of the ruckus, but looked like he was milliseconds away from ripping out a new asshole for the man.
The old lady retorted back in the same fierce anger, “They’re marigolds, you blind fuck!”
“Uh. I’m sorry, sir,” Jisung said, discreetly giving the old lady an impressive look at her swearing, “but she’s right. They’re marigolds.”
“I may not know my flowers, but I know a bitch -- “ he points at the old lady, “when I see one!”
Jisung’s eyes bulged in horror. Felix quickly turned away and ran into the studio before he could be dragged into mediating an argument between two boomers. It was his day off, after all.
Hyunjin noticed him immediately since he was lounging behind the receptionist counter with a piece of red licorice hanging out of his mouth. His outfit for today was toned down to a turtleneck tucked into striped sweatpants, but he still made them look expensive in comparison to Felix’s bland look consisting of a plain black t-shirt and joggers. But at least he fit into the aesthetic of the studio this time and wasn’t wearing the shop’s embarrassingly gaudy apron.
“Oh, Felix,” Hyunjin greeted in surprise as he sat up in his chair. “You have an appointment?”
He scratched his cheek. “Yeah, with Chan.”
For a second, Felix was concerned Hyunjin might burst into tears again at the mention of Chan. When Chan had returned to work with less of a cloud over his head, Hyunjin was the first one to barrel him into a hug and blubber all over his shoulder about how worried he was. Despite his intimidating, flashy appearance, Hyunjin was surprisingly soft-hearted.
(Jisung, on the other hand, looked proud when Felix told him what happened. “So you finally batter-dipped the corn dog, huh?”
Jisung made an obscene gesture with his hands and earned himself a sharp punch to the arm. He screamed mercy and that he was joking, and when Felix finally stopped unleashing his furious embarrassment through punches and smacks, Jisung had hugged him and expressed how proud he was for him.)
Thankfully, Hyunjin’s face only lit up, and he snapped his fingers. “Gotcha. Here, fill out this form first.”
The form was mostly asking him about medical conditions and if he’s eaten yet, so he ticked off all the boxes and wrote down what he ate in the morning. It took him only a minute, and by the time he was done, Hyunjin had plucked the clipboard out from his hands and was eagerly looking at him like a puppy. “What kinda flowers are those? They’re pretty.”
Felix looked down at the small bouquet of flowers he’d put together in the morning. It was mostly on a whim, but he supposed since he was getting a tattoo for free, the least he could do was give Chan something as a show of gratitude.
“These are baby breaths,” he said as he pointed at the tiny, white flowers tucked between others. “And these are daisies and forget-me-nots. These are white gardenias.”
Hyunjin leaned forward until he had his nose almost shoved right into them. “Do they mean something?”
Hyunjin looked up at Felix with a teasing smile. “Oooooh. Tell me, tell me! Do they mean love? Adoration? Eternal loyalty or some sappy shit like that? How come Jisung hasn’t given me flowers?”
“It’s nothing like that,” Felix said helplessly, refraining from using his bouquet as a weapon to smack Hyunjin with. “And Jisung doesn’t have a single romantic bone in his body. All he does is talk about taking fat shits and believing in God because of how cooperative his bowels have been.”
Hyunjin deflated. “Why did I agree to date him?”
“In my personal opinion, I think you two are fated to be together. After all, you did almost tattoo his ass.”
“Dude, it’d be so weird if I did. Imagine he gets his mom’s name tattooed on his ass only for him to blow chunks on the toilet every -- “
Felix darted up the stairs to avoid hearing the rest of Hyunjin’s sentence because he didn’t need the unprecedented image in his mind right now. He could hear Hyunjin laughing from down the stairs and Felix couldn’t help but smile.
Once he reached the top, the sunlight pooled into the studio’s large windows and he could hear faint alternative music playing in the background. At Chan’s station, Felix spotted him immediately, who was playing with the fake baby breath sticking out of the skull’s eye socket on his counter.
Felix approached him quietly, unnoticed, before he was close enough to poke Chan on the shoulder with the bouquet. “Hi.”
Chan jolted a bit, turning around to find Felix smiling brightly at him. His shoulders seemed lighter now, as though the weight of the whole world had been lifted off of him after he shared half of the burden for Felix to carry.
“Hey,” he said as he returned the smile. His eyes fell to the bouquet. “What are those for?”
“You.” Felix inelegantly shoved the bouquet at Chan’s chest. “Thanks for the free cover up.”
Puzzled, Chan took the bouquet, albeit gently. There was a childlike curiosity to his eyes -- a look Felix hadn’t seen for a long time. His ears had turned pink too. “You didn’t have to.”
“I wanted to.”
“What do they mean?”
Felix rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “Google it.”
“You don’t have to be shy,” Chan snickered as he brought the bouquet up to his nose. His dimpled smile softened. “They smell nice. Thank you.”
He put the bouquet down on the counter and clapped his hands. “Well, let’s get started.”
Felix took off his coat and folded it neatly into one of the wheeled trays Chan had pointed at. As he sat down on the inkbed, Felix looked at all the designs and thank-you cards Chan had hung on the walls of his station. He was a popular artist and Felix could see why. His works were breathtaking.
Chan was rummaging through one of his drawers before he took out a bag of disposable razors. “I’m just gonna shave around your scars first before I grab the stencils.”
When Felix rested his arm on the arm bar Chan had adjusted for him, Chan blinked down at his scars for a still moment. It looked as though he was deciding whether or not to do something from the way his brows twitched. But then out of spontaneity, Chan brought Felix’s wrist up and kissed the inside of it -- the warmth of his lips lingering on the thick, jagged bump of his skin. Felix stared at him in surprise, though it didn’t last long when he heard a sharp gasp behind him.
He followed the sound around his shoulder and spotted three tufts of colourful hair peeking out from the corner of the wall. Hyunjin and Jeongin immediately dipped, but Minho smiled and waved despite getting caught for spying.
Felix turned back around. Chan looked red in the face and was busying himself by assembling the razor. “Hey, I might kiss you later for that.”
Chan sucked in a deep breath and closed his eyes, before he brought his hands up to cover his entire face. “Please don’t say things like that when I’m about to use a sharp object on you.”
“I was joking.”
When Chan peeked through the gaps between his fingers, Felix impishly grinned. “Nah. I wasn’t joking.”
Felix thought about the flowers on his arms that Chan had drawn as a child.
The lines were clumsy and the drawings looked cartoonish at best, but his heart was there. He said he’d improve so that he could make the prettiest garden on his arms, and that the daisies would no longer be wonky and the butterflies would look less like flaps of random triangles trailing along his speckled skin.
But when Felix looked down at his arms after four, grueling hours, he realized just how serious the younger Chan had been when he proclaimed he’d be the greatest artist in the world just for Felix.
Both his arms had similar designs; red peonies and white daisies were wrapped around his left arm, and their petals bloomed from the round scars of his burns and blended in with the ragged lines of his old cuts. Detailed swallowtail butterflies fluttered around the neat cluster of flowers, and a trail of peony petals flowed daintily down to the inner side of his elbow.
On his right arm, it was the same, delicate floral pattern, though there were red chrysanthemums and white gladiolus flowers, and the butterflies were replaced with tiny ladybugs that stood on the leaves of the gladiolus.
The scars were unpleasantly aggravated, as Chan had warned him prior to the session. But still -- it was strange to see things he didn’t quite like be decorated with the things he loved the most in the world.
“What do you think?”
Felix turned around from the mirror and looked at Chan, who was cleaning up his area. He seemed nervous, almost, as if he was waiting for the same, playful criticism he received eleven years ago. Felix laughed a bit, admiring his arms in wonder. “I think you’re amazing.”
Chan’s eyes curved into soft crescents, and Felix wanted to kiss him. Just a bit.
“Here.” He pointed at the empty space near the wall, where the sea of sunlight was the clearest. “Let’s take a picture before I wrap you up in saniderm and go over aftercare.”
Felix stood in front of the wall awkwardly, unsure of how to stand for the photo. Meanwhile, Chan was looking around the studio with a thoughtful look, before he grabbed the bouquet and dragged a stool after him.
“Are we having a photoshoot?” Felix asked incredulously.
“No, it’s for my portfolio,” Chan said absentmindedly as he directed Felix to sit on the stool, and handed the bouquet for him to hold. With his phone, he walked from side to side to find the perfect angle. His brows were furrowed and his tongue peeked out in concentration. “Okay, here. Perfect. Smile!”
Felix laughed instead when he saw the way Chan comically bent down to take the picture. Beaming, Chan quite literally hopped towards Felix to show him the result. It was a full body photo with Felix sitting there with his arms somewhat covered by the bouquet of flowers, but he was looking into the camera with a bright-eyed smile that made his laugh lines and whiskers appear. The sunlight made him look softer and a little more happier.
He glanced up at Chan, wondering why he took a full body photo when he usually didn’t, but stopped short at the sight of him examining the photo with such affection in his eyes that it made Felix’s chest rumble with warmth, like a supernova had imploded within itself and didn’t know what to do with the remnants leftover.
“Can I kiss you?” Felix blurted.
Chan startled and took a step back. “You mean right now?”
“No, in approximately .998474 seconds -- yes, of course right now.”
The top floor of the studio was quiet and empty, save for the both of them. Chan tucked his phone into the back pocket of his jeans and averted his eyes, the tips of ears blooming red like the chrysanthemums on Felix’s arms, before Chan met his eyes again and said, “Okay.”
When the clouds covered the sun for a moment and eclipsed them in a faint shadow, it was as though the backdrop of time and place had been eliminated, forgotten and faded, so that it was just the two of them standing against a blankness. Felix cupped Chan’s face in his hands, trying to calm the fervent staccato of his heartbeat, when he slowly leaned forward and pressed his mouth against his.
There was a moment in that kiss where it felt like Felix had been thrown overboard from a ship and into the ocean -- like he was in a dream, and that his dream self watched the him who’d been thrown overboard falling down through the dark ocean; unconscious, floating, eyes closed, drifting down and further down to the bottomless depths of nothing.
But at some point, his drowning self had opened his eyes and saw the sunlight cutting through the surface of the waters, and he began to swim towards it. That was when Felix pulled away from the kiss, and he and Chan stared at each other in a daze.
He might as well throw himself overboard a second time. “Cool. I might do that again -- “
Felix barely got to finish his sentence when Chan kissed him again. It was a little less gentle this time, a little more desperate, when he wrapped his arms around Felix’s waist and zealously leaned forward that had Felix stumbling backwards. He felt a little dizzy when Chan pressed his tongue at the seam of his lips and Felix let out a soft sound; Felix hardly had time to think other than to react and open his mouth for him. It was sloppy but it felt good and it lit his brain on fire.
But then somebody coughed, and the both of them immediately sprung apart -- Felix nearly tripping over his own two feet, and Chan literally flinging himself onto the wall while covering his mouth.
“Yo,” Jeongin greeted, waving awkwardly. “I just -- uh. You know. Wanted to grab more paper towels since we’re out downstairs. You -- I’ll just, yeah. Okay.”
Jeongin dashed into one of the rooms with aggressive intent and banged the cupboards in a hurry, before running out with an armful of paper towels. “Alright, feel free to go ahead and, um, resume. But you guys do know we have cameras up here, right?”
Chan turned so red he looked like an Among Us character. “Since when the fuck did we have cameras?”
“Since Minho tattooed someone’s dick and balls, man.”
“Damn,” Felix said. “Is this what you call accidental voyeurism?”
It was Jeongin’s turn to blush this time. “I wasn’t watching you like those two idiots, okay! I was busy tattooing on a fucking orange! Go make out somewhere else instead of the studio in broad daylight, you stupid horny men!” Then he turned on his heel and stormed down the stairs.
Felix and Chan looked at each other in silence before they burst into giddy laughter. Then Chan covered his face as he slowly slid into a crouch, and let out a laugh that was both equally embarrassed and horrified before he banged his head lightly against the wall. Amused, Felix went to crouch beside him, patting the top of his head.
“I mean, we didn’t get naked,” Felix tried. “So I’m sure it’s not actual voyeurism.”
Chan groaned. “Not that.” He peeked behind his fingers, though the purpose of it was gone the moment he was too shy to meet Felix’s eyes. “I got carried away.”
“It’s not like I was complaining. I liked it when you got carried away.”
Chan turned even redder that Felix was starting to think such a feat was beyond human capability. “Stop saying those kinds of things.”
“Okay. Well, we can continue where we finished off later. Like, you know, at my place.”
“You’re still saying those things.”
Felix cheekily grinned and held out his arms. “Can we get this wrapped up, now?”
Winter arrived with bare trees poised like ballet dancers and icy paths that crunched like sugar underfoot. The windows were foggy and fractals had formed on the glass, but Felix still caught a glimpse of him anyway: all-black attire and the flickering gleam of his earrings, the mean look and the firm posture.
He glanced up at the sky. The gelid sun was at its peak, and he squinted against the harsh light.
Winter had once been like a ghost that passed through him and left behind a melancholic afterglow. But Felix thought it might be a bearable season this year, when he thought about Jisung’s avalanche of warmth and support and Ms. Han’s freshly made rice cake soup; Seungmin’s quiet, proud smiles whenever they met eyes (and the promise he made to them that he’ll let them meet his dorky tattoo artist of a boyfriend who worked in another studio by the name of Changbin); Hyunjin’s loud, unabashed affection; Minho’s quirky ways of showing he cared; Jeongin’s witty, youthful humour --
To say things were going smoothly between them would be a lie. Felix thought about the sleepless nights where all he could see was his mother standing over him, and the times Chan couldn’t help but find comfort in his old habits of disappearing and distancing himself until Felix felt like the world had gone reverse.
But then he thought about the times where they took baby steps in their progress, like how Felix would willingly stand around Hyunjin as he smoked and think about how nice Hyunjin’s laugh was instead of his mother’s hands around his neck. He’d wake up in the morning and find his healed tattoos looking back at him in the mirror, and his mind would be quiet and his heart would be calm even when he ran a finger over the scars he couldn’t see but feel.
Chan, too, would bring back a trinket now and then to remind himself that this was his home. He smiled more genuinely these days and learned to rely on the people around him -- to find some permanence in the places he’s come to make memories in. He stood with his feet firmly planted to the ground with hands stretched towards the sun, the dim flame in his heart rekindling to a bigger, brighter fire.
Most of all, they’d talk about things they’ve never talked about before, such as untold stories left in the hollows of their pasts and truths for a truth. Felix realized how warm the cold could be when Chan slept next to him.
It was nice. Fulfilling. Complete. Still an almost-there. But they were healing, they were growing, and they would be okay one day.
“Dude, I had a dream I took the fattest shit, and when I woke up I literally had to go take a shit and guess what? It was a huge dookie!” Jisung recounted excitedly, and Felix looked away from the window to fix him a disgusted look. “I’m legit about to start believing in God if that can get me to take fat shits everyday.”
Seungmin immediately took out his phone. “One second. I’m texting Hyunjin right now what you just said so he can finally break up with you and find another person to spend the rest of his life with who won’t constantly talk about taking fat shits.”
“Don’t you dare!”
Seungmin showed Jisung his screen. “Too late.”
“You fucking piss weasel.” He lunged for Seungmin’s phone only for Seungmin to gracefully step back out of Jisung’s reach.
“Weasels are cute,” Felix helpfully supplied.
“I’ll talk about taking fat shits if I want to! You guys don’t know the pain of irregular bowel movements from stress, anxiety, and overall bad bowels!”
Felix walked over to kiss Jisung on the head as a way to comfort his pride about his bowels. “You can try enemas.”
“You want me to shove a fucking tube up my butt when I literally have my boyfriend --”
“And I’m going on my break now,” Felix interrupted him loudly as he went to grab his coat from the back room. When he came back out, Seungmin looked like he was light years away from being present in the conversation that Jisung was carrying -- something about fibre intake and vegetables.
Felix zipped up his jacket to his neck and stepped out of the shop, nearly dodging a patch of ice on the sidewalk. When he looked up, Chan was leaving the studio too, in nothing but his rightfully returned leather jacket and the grey checkered scarf Felix had gotten for him for his birthday.
Chan noticed him from across the street and broke out into a grin. Felix could feel the warm glow of his happiness even from far away. There was always something about the way Chan smiled that made the sun topple down from the sky and make a home right in Felix’s heart.
Looking at both sides of the road, Chan crossed the street and pressed a feathery kiss onto Felix’s forehead. “Hey.”
“Are they okay?” Chan nodded at Jisung and Seungmin battling it out from inside the shop. They really needed to invest in curtains.
“Yeah. Probably talking about shit,” Felix said. “What’re we eating today?”
Chan shrugged. “Ramen?”
“Lead the way, good sir.”
Chan laughed. His hand circled around Felix’s wrist, and as he let himself be tugged, he looked down and realized it all began with this hand.
This hand, tiny at thirteen years old, with a toothy smile and sweaty palms that wrapped itself around Felix’s skinny wrist and pulled him forward into a sunspot of hope on a sunny, warm beach day, when they were nothing but children looking up at the stars from the gutters; this hand Felix couldn’t quite reach at that time when Chan left behind nothing but a grave of memories in his wake.
And this hand, at twenty-five years old, with a bright-eyed smile and strong, warm hands that wrapped itself around Felix’s wrist and pulled him forward, always forward, like the daisies that bloomed through the dirt against adversity in the backyard of his childhood home. He was finally able to reach for the hand he had let go and had forgotten, once.
Felix smiled quietly to himself. He slipped his wrist out of Chan’s grasp, and intertwined their hands together instead.
The warmest light was this hand in his, and Felix was never letting it go.