Actions

Work Header

i'm a little sun shy

Chapter Text

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.

i.

Despite staying away, which was impossible considering they were neighbours, Felix seemed to find him everywhere he went.

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.”

Felix groaned.

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.”

“Excuse me?”

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.

ii.

Weddings were a rare event for them to be contacted for, but whenever Felix had the chance to be part of a life-changing event, he felt wonderstruck and overwhelmed.

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.

iii.

The days passed uneventfully. After the wedding order, business was back to its regular quietness. Driven to complete boredom, even Felix found himself staring through the windows of the tattoo parlour as a form of desperate entertainment while Seungmin played a mobile game where he found cats in a forest. They also engaged in a heated battle of who can name the most orchid varieties, which resulted in an unhappy draw.

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.

iv.

He loved daisies, don’t get him wrong, but Felix stared at these particular daisies in absolute disgust because Jisung was plucking off each individual petal while reciting the God-awful crush anthem of whether he loves me or he loves me not.

“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.”

Felix grinned.

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.”

“Huh? What?”

Giving him a gummy smile, Felix walked past him to indulge in a childhood sweetness he’d long forgotten of.

v.

Felix was manning the front counter when the person he least expected to visit walked right into the shop, perching his retro sunglasses onto his happy nest of pink hair.

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?”

“I dunno.”

“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.

vi.

Over the next few days, their little lunch meetings became somewhat a regular part of their routine. Chan was quiet, but he wasn’t shy, and their conversations weren’t as awkward as they had been in the very beginning. Though they barely talked about anything worth much substance, it was nice to keep each other company, especially when Chan seemed a little less transient these days.

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.

vii.

Felix watched Jisung nervously bounce one leg and the other until he swore he saw the ceiling shake as they waited to be called for his tattoo appointment. The receptionist was kind and lended Jisung one of their tablets where he could watch their aftercare videos as a distraction after he filled out the necessary health forms, but Felix found that it made his anxiety skyrocket rather than plummet.

“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.

“Absolutely.”

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.

viii.

Felix dreamed of the beach.

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.”

“Your welcome!”

“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.

ix.

The first thing Felix did when he arrived home was splash his face with cold water. Afterwards, he fixed himself a cup of chamomile tea to try and relax and process everything,, but he was so tired that he fell asleep as soon as he hit his bed.

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.

“Hi.”

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.

“Why?”

“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?”

“Gut feeling.”

“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.

“Felix?”

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.

x.

Felix watched a cardinal skim the hard brown earth, then beat its way to the highest branch of a tree. The colours came to him and proved it lived, burning with a pulse and bringing Felix a bit more comfort in understanding himself -- understanding that people were not born to learn how to forget pain. And for a second he was unhaunted; he was the sun and not light from some dead star.

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.

Chapter Text

Weeks passed by in a blur as Felix returned back to his usual disposition. The apparition of his mother dwindled down into more of a shapeless memory in the corner of his eye that he could go back to ignoring like he usually did. Things were calm, peaceful, but unfulfilled. He wondered why.

On a day he expected the least of excitement from, Felix was proven wrong the moment he walked into the shop and Ms. Han came barreling out from the back room. She snatched him by the shoulders with such a fierce grip that he was terrified for his life and biweekly income.

“Oh -- uh. Good morning,” he greeted dubiously. She merely clicked her tongue as she inspected him from head to toe and eye to eye. Then she sighed and let go of him, crossing her arms with a sort of motherly disapproval.

“Honey, we need to put some more meat back on those bones of yours! Do you eat three meals a day? How many hours of sleep do you get on a daily basis? How much water do you drink? Did you drink the rice cake soup I made for you last week?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer as she whirled around and yelled at the back room. “Jisung-ah! Did you even give Felix my soup? You forgot, didn’t you!”

“I DIDN’T FORGET,” Jisung shouted at the top of his lungs. “I GAVE IT TO HIM AND HE DRANK IT LIKE HE WAS IN THE LAST SUPPER WITH JESUS AND FRIENDS.”

Felix stood there awkwardly. Ms. Han was a force to be reckoned with, and though she was kind and loving at most, he saw the way she grabbed Jisung’s ear in a deadly pincer grasp whenever he said something snarky. Jisung’s soul left the earthly plane every time and Felix would rather boil himself alive in a pot of his own tears than to ever be put in the same position.

He looked up when Seungmin came in with his eyes glued to his phone screen, unbeknownst to their lively addition to the team. As soon as Ms. Han locked her eyes on Seungmin, Felix quickly ran to the back to escape the imminent lecture about the young generation becoming brainwashed by modern technology.

Don’t get him wrong -- he loved Ms. Han, but if he had to listen to another tangent about their generation being the harbingers of destruction because they watched YouTube all day and splurged on useless items with only crickets in their bank accounts, then he might just lose it.

In the back, he found Jisung at the desk picking at his ear with his pinky finger. He sat with a leg hiked up on the seat while he glared at a bunch of invoices scattered across the table. Jisung always looked constipated when he was deep in thought or annoyed. Or both.

“You look like your brain is gonna shrivel up and shimmy all the way down to your butt like an aggravated salsa dance,” Felix commented.

Jisung groaned and planted his face onto the papers. “My mom is so loud. I know where I get it from because dude, her side of the family is so fucking whack -- but how does she even have the energy? Even at buttfuck o’clock in the morning she’s either singing like a mad opera woman or banging her pots and pans like Tanisha Thomas.”

Felix frowned. “That sounds fun, though.”

Jisung stared at him like he was a baboon in a banana tree before Seungmin barged in, disheveled and pallid.

“I just got a faceful of your mom’s awooga boogas,” Seungmin said breathlessly.

“My mom’s what?”

“No way,” Felix gasped. “Not the hadonkadonkas!”

Seungmin nodded gravely. “Oh, yes way. The dobonhonkeros.”

“Wait. How come she didn’t give me the tig ol’ biddies?”

“She probably thought you’d suffocate in her titty tity boing boings.”

“Oh my god,” Jisung nearly screamed as he shot up from his seat in realization. “Are you talking about my mom’s fucking boobs?”

“What did you just say, Jisung-ah?” Ms. Han called from the shop. “What’s that about my womanly features?”

Felix tripped over his own two feet as he ran into the bathroom with Seungmin darting behind him. They shut the door and pressed their ears against it as Jisung got an earful of his mother’s scolding, and grinning, they gave each other a high-five.

With an eventful start to their morning, Felix felt more awake and eager to get to work. Despite the lack of customers as per usual, Felix made himself busy by keeping the floors clean and taking care of the plants that needed the most attention.

At some point in the high rise of the late morning, Ms. Han shared some tidbits on how to get a lotus to bloom. She said she has some tubers to share at replanting time, early next year, so that they could plant them with the right mix of fertilizer in the soil and have the lotus flowers by the window sill. He listened to the way her voice softened as she gently cupped the soil in her hands -- to be handled so lovingly, Felix wondered what that felt like.

In that moment, he tried to imagine a world where he had a mother like Ms. Han -- if he could experience the sort of comfort from waking up to a slice of light spilling into the cove of his room when she’d open the door to check on him; if he could eat home cooked meals everyday and learn her secret recipes; if he could hear her sing all the time to replace the solitude of halls; if he could carry on some kind of family business because he truly loved her and she loved him too.

From memory, his own mother’s face was an image of melted wax. She was a dark, towering figure that stretched over him in his bedroom. Dripped with age, the skin pooling in various places: under her eyes, beneath her jawline. Tasting like blood and ash from the wine of her lipstick.

But Ms. Han was the opposite. She was a pudgy woman of short stature and kind eyes -- a symbol of strength Felix has never known when he sees the way she cares for Jisung the same way she cares for her flowers that is with love and gentleness and confidence.

Mothers were a fairytale. Felix couldn’t begin to count how many times he wished for one. It was a kind of longing untouched by time.

“Oh, right! I’ve always been curious to ask this: what made you choose to work here, Felix?”

Felix snapped out of his thoughts and glanced down at Ms. Han, caught off guard by the question. While trimming the stems of a few blue hydrangeas to prepare them for an order, he took the time to consider his answer. “To be honest, when I first came here, all I wanted was a job just so I could put a roof over my head.”

Ms. Han laughed. “Fair enough.”

“But I’ve always loved flowers. I played alone a lot when I was young, and I guess in a way, I imagined the flowers as my friends. And now, I like how I can make something beautiful with them and make people happy.“

Flowers were a source of inspiration: flimsy, delicate, easily torn -- but strong as hell for being able to withstand monstrous rain. Flowers had been the field of stars when he couldn’t bring himself to look up at the sky. They brought happiness to him in the simplest ways --- whether his mother ripped them out of their backyard or crushed them beneath her feet, they always grew back.

Felix was happier, here, in this city with this little flower shop and their (scary) neighbours across from them. He was still alive even though he never thought he’d go this far in life, and that was a milestone of healing he would have scoffed at the idea of when he was young. But he was still here -- breathing, waiting, existing, being.

His job allowed him to give back that happiness to other people in the language of flowers, and it was more than enough.

Ms. Han smiled at him so brightly that it made his heart twinge. “You’re a wonderful boy, you know that? I knew it was the right idea to hire you. It’s been different -- a good different, mind you -- since you started working here. My little Jisung never had many real friends to begin with, and now he has you and Seungmin and this mystery boy he gets all flustered about. To see you two this close -- “ She crossed her fingers and laughed. “It makes me so, so happy. I am so happy you are here.”

“Oh.” He’s never been told that before.

He looked down at his shaking hands. He felt time trickle on before it stretched like a warm rich cake, and then when it suddenly pulled in tight and sped up again. When he glanced up at Ms. Han, she was looking at him with so much affection that Felix wanted to hide out of the unfamiliarity of receiving such love. “Thank you.”

“What’s there to thank me for?”

Felix smiled diffidently and shrugged. He resumed trimming the stems and Ms. Han bumped their elbows together.

After processing other flowers to put together with the hydrangeas, Ms. Han left around noon to meet with a few clients who were family friends to discuss quotes and arrangements of flowers for their centrepieces and corsages.

As soon as she disappeared from sight, Felix heard Seungmin let out a long breath as he dropped the pliers onto the counter and rested his head against the wall. He expressed his emotions by groaning in different octaves and Felix patted him on the back.

Jisung, on the other hand, forgoed his sweeping duties and opted to stare out the window with a dreamy look in his eyes. At some point, he started to sweep all the dirt and dust onto himself, and that was when Felix begrudgingly stepped in to stop the sad view.

“Aren’t you guys, like, a thing now? You know, thanks to me.” Felix took the broom away from Jisung’s hands and jabbed him in the leg with it. “So why are you pining?”

Jisung sputtered, “Wh -- what? What? I’m not pining! I don’t pine, tch. I’m just -- I don’t know. Admiring the heavenliness of his beauty.” At Felix’s flat look, he immediately gave in. “Okay, fuck. I’m pining. Shut up. Let me simmer in the despair of the unknown!”

“But he knows you like him.” Felix frowned. “And I’m pretty sure he likes you too.”

“But does he like me in the same way is the question. I mean, yeah. We go out to eat and talk almost everyday and he laughs at my jokes even though they’re dumb and, like, everytime he hugs me I feel like I’m about to combust in excessive levels of gay and one time he even told me he’d have to pull a Magic School Bus and venture into my brain to browse through my rolodex of wit and I was like ‘ha! Wow, not sure my B-lymphocytes would be a fan of that, but thanks!’ and he said he didn’t even know what the fuck B-lymphocytes were but it sounded smart and he likes smart people so does that mean he called me smart and therefore likes me because I’m smart?”

Felix opened his mouth. Then closed it. Opened it again. Closed it. He narrowed his eyes before he turned around to Seungmin for help.

“He was flirting with you,” Seungmin confirmed blandly. “You two are literally dating. Please ask him out on an official date so you can give us a peace of mind.”

Jisung turned red. “He was flirting?”

Felix rubbed the bridge of his nose. “In a very Hyunjin way, yes. He was flirting with you.”

“Oh my God.”

Jisung took out his phone and hastily darted to the back room. Felix watched him go like he usually does, which was abandoning his employees to do most of the work while he sorted out his love affair behind the scenes. Not that Felix minded, since it was more amusing than anything, but he’d appreciate the attempt to pretend he was working at least.

Felix ended up handling the sweeping and cleaned up the floors. He dusted off the shelves as well and made space for new merchandise that would arrive in a few days to celebrate the oncoming fall season. Seeing that there was nothing else to do at the moment, he went back to the counter and sat down on the stool beside Seungmin, hoping to relax and endure a rumbling stomach until his lunch break.

Seungmin was back on his phone playing his cat game when he spoke without looking up, “What about you?”

Felix blinked. “What about me?”

“You and that guy who looks like he would force feed me cyanide if I accidentally plucked a single strand of hair from his head.”

“Chan? You’re talking about Chan, right?” Felix furrowed his brows. “The case is debunked, Seungmin. I solved it. He’s not part of a gang. He’s gentle. I saw him play with a little cat and it was very cute.”

Seungmin looked up from his phone to stare at Felix. “Exactly my point.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to imply.”

Seungmin sighed like it was the simplest answer on earth and put his phone down. He turned to Felix with his whole body and clasped his hands together like he was about to prepare for a presentation. “The day you freaked out -- when he saw you and realized what was happening, he immediately told us all to back off. I had to help from the sidelines since he was pretty adamant on not letting anyone touch you or be near you. But he was being so protective that I was half-convinced you two have known each other longer than we have.”

Felix stared at him with wide eyes and he clenched his jaw. The molten cauldron deep inside him boiled over like lava and he felt hot and full in his belly, like something would rise through his chest and stop him from breathing. He remembered Chan’s voice, firm yet gentle, and his warm hand around his wrist, holding Felix so tight as if he, too, was a ghost that would slip from the gaps of his fingers -- as if he was trying to engrave Felix’s name onto the palms of his hands before he disappeared.

It was a little ironic, really, that Seungmin most likely wasn’t wrong.

“It’s complicated.” Felix inhaled a deep breath and blew out slowly. “It’s weird. I don’t know. But it’s not the same. We’re -- our situation, it’s not like that.”

Seungmin observed him for a bit longer before he shrugged and went back to his phone. “It’s none of my business. I was just telling you what I saw. But, you know, you seem happier ever since you met him, so I wanna make sure you’re not being dumb about it like Jisung.”

“I mean, let’s face it,” his voice was shaky even as he attempted to joke, “no one can outdumb Jisung other than himself.”

“That is so true.”

Felix managed to laugh and Seungmin smiled. He tapped Felix on the knee and showed him his screen which was a forest full of cats, and that was enough to pull Felix away from his nerves and into a spontaneous debate of which cat was the cutest.

i.

This time, in his dream, he saw the boy’s face clearly: Chan, younger and skinnier, with eyes still brimming with hope in the world. He wore a tacky blue t-shirt that clashed with his poorly dyed yellow shorts.

“You look like a highlighter,” his younger self said.

Chan frowned at the comment as he crouched down beside Felix to observe the flower he was drawing. This time, Felix added more squiggly details in the petals and made an effort to mimic the shape of the stem and leaves instead of tracing out lazy blobs. Under the tree, the sun leaked past the gaps of the foliage and settled on their backs like gentle feathers.

Chan asked, “If you could be a flower, which flower would you be?”

“A daisy,” Felix answered without thought. “I like daisies.”

Chan hummed. Beside Felix, he started to draw a sunflower, starting with a circle before scraping at the sand to fill the shape with the darker parts of the sand. “Daisies are kinda boring though.”

“No they’re not! They’re simple. And everywhere. They’re my friends.”

“But why do you like flowers so much? My dad doesn’t like flowers. He didn’t like the rose I drew for his birthday. He said boys shouldn’t have anything to do with them. They’re too girly for us. He got mad at me so I think I ruined his birthday.”

Felix glanced up at Chan to find him nibbling at his bottom lip with a puckered forehead. Chan wasn’t the same as Felix. His skin was clear and his arms weren’t mottled -- yet, he still looked bruised all the same.

Annoyed, Felix puffed up his chest and crossed his arms. “So what? I like flowers because they’re strong and pretty.”

“What? How are they strong? We crush them with our feet all the time, though.”

Felix looked around them to make sure no one was watching. Then, he leaned forward and cupped a hand over his mouth to whisper, “Stuupid. It’s ‘cuz they can handle the rain. Don’t you think that makes them super strong?”

“I can handle the rain too,” Chan mumbled.

Felix grinned. “That must mean you’re strong, then.” Taking a closer look at Chan, Felix tilted his head and hummed in thought. He lifted a finger and tapped Chan on the tip of his nose. “And pretty.”

Chan blinked owlishly at him as Felix snickered and went back to his daisies. When the world around them started to blur as a sign of Felix regaining his consciousness, he took one last look at Chan before the earth could crumble beneath them, and saw that Chan’s ears had turned red.

Then the next thing Felix knew, he was staring up at the ceiling with his heart in his throat.

What had once been a faded photograph was now a vivid reel of film. His memory of Chan was like a scab. Hard and black against the pale, soft flesh of Felix’s mind. But over time, those memories vanished. Became almost invisible. Impossible to recall. A scar. But in a moment of weakness, of curiosity, Felix had scratched and clawed until his memory was a wound and he had torn it wide open.

Chan was not a dream. He was real. And Felix had been friends with him back then -- friends with someone who had leaned against Felix like a warm, soft star and held his wrist like a silent hush.

There were memories of them wading through waters, splashing each other until they were soaked from head to toe but dried quickly beneath the scorching sun; running to buy ice-cream from one of the trucks along the resort with the change they’ve accumulated from the ground; and building sand castles around their sphere of flowers when their imaginations ran high.

Acceptance suddenly fell into his hands. Like a patch of rich soil that had soaked up rays of sun, Felix felt something akin to an answer settle in him.

Felix sat up from his bed and rubbed his eyes. He held his breath after a deep inhale before letting it out slowly. It was a little funny to think about how much Chan has changed, from appearance to how he carried himself -- but then again, maybe Felix had never known him well enough to know what parts of him had changed. It had been a short-lived friendship, after all.

Did Chan know, too? Had he always known? No, he couldn’t have, from the way he longingly spoke of him. And Felix didn’t know if he should even bring it up -- if he even wanted to. Perhaps the past should stay as the past.

Swinging his legs over his bed, Felix got up and stretched his limbs. As he headed to the bathroom, he stopped at the sight of Chan’s leather jacket still hanging on the back of his door. He hadn’t gotten to returning it yet. The jacket felt like a relic of proof to attest to Chan’s existence -- something he could hold onto if Chan disappeared, one day, like that lonely summer day. And Chan never seemed rooted enough to stay in one place. He kept going and going, never stopping to look back once.

It’s been a while since they’ve met for lunch. Felix wondered about him. Wondered why he left and kept leaving. Wondered if Chan knew that the boy he grieved for was always near him.

ii.

The flower shop was closed on Saturdays, so Jisung invited him and Seungmin for lunch at a small but comfy Japanese cafe, notable for their delicious omelette rice. Seungmin couldn’t come because of personal commitments, so it was just him and Felix -- which is suspicious enough, since Jisung wasn’t a frequent diner and was more of a takeout enthusiast.

Seated in a tight corner, Felix was the last to relay his order to the polite waitress, and as soon as she left their vicinity, Felix noticed that Jisung was aggressively bouncing his leg that he almost knocked over the condiments on their table.

“This is weird,” Felix said. “Are you okay? You seem a little --” when the waitress came with their drinks, Jisung had yelled out ‘thank you’ without minding his volume, “fishy.”

“I’m fine. Spiffy. Can’t I treat my precious friend to lunch to show how much I appreciate him as a human being?” Jisung nearly knocked over his cup of coffee when he tried to grab the handle. “This is to reward your efforts in being the employee of the month! Hurray!”

Felix could only focus on the foam bunnies sitting atop his latte. He cooed, “This is so cute.”

“Okay, I can’t do this,” Jisung groaned and banged his head against the table, startling Felix. “I can’t do this when you’re sitting there infatuated with the latte art of fucking bunnies. Curse my weakness! Felix, I’m just going to come out and say it. I’m just -- I’m gonna say it.”

“Uh. Okay.”

“I’m gonna say it! I’m going to say it, right now, as I’m gathering my thoughts! I have it in my head.”

“Mhm.”

“I’m about to say it. Yep. Gonna say it right now.”

Felix stared at him, unamused.

Jisung opened his mouth with a spiel about to tumble out of his mouth, but stopped when his eyes locked on something behind Felix. He had the look of fear and utmost adoration mixed together in his expression and when Felix turned around to find the source of such an expression, he accidentally inhaled all of the bunnies from his latte into the wrong pipe when he saw Hyunjin.

“Felix!” Hyunjin beamed as he reached over to pat Felix on the shoulder. He looked like he was attending a funeral as a fancy Victorian undertaker today, minus the sideburns and overgrown facial hair. The beret made him look more Parisian. “Hi.”

“Hey,” Felix managed through his wheezing. “Why are you -- am I missing something here?”

That was when Jisung perked up and stood up from his seat. He fumbled for Hyunjin’s hand and held their intertwined hands up high in the air -- as much as he could on his tippy toes anyway, since Hyunjin was taller -- before announcing, “Lo and behold, Felix, as I introduce you to this gentleman who is now officially my boyfriend! Yup, that’s right, folks. It happened after centuries of wistful pining and tear-stained love letters! Me and Hyunjin. Dating. Going out. Two schlong dongadoodles totally in love.”

“Wait. Why are we schlong dongadoodles?”

Dumb and Dumber. Felix couldn’t believe it.

“Oh my God.” He held his face in complete relief. “I’m -- seriously? Dude, I’m so happy for you guys! And for myself because this means that I don’t need to hear Jisung go on and on about you, Hyunjin, and how he wants to compare your purple-helmeted warriors of love and --”

“Aaaand we’re done.” Jisung sat back down and tugged Hyunjin to follow. “I figured I’d let you know since you’ve been an on-call responder to all my love problems. I wanted to tell Seungmin too but ya know, he was busy.”

Hyunjin steepled his daintily inked fingers. “I feel like I’m part of the family now. Does that mean I get to have discounts?”

Felix laughed until his cheeks hurt. It was a little jarring to see Hyunjin act his usual self when Felix recalled the vulnerability he had shown to Felix weeks prior, but he remembered there was no benefit from basing assumptions off of appearances. Behind each veneer was a person containing multitudes -- more than what could ever be picked apart on the surface.

And seeing Hyunjin and Jisung look at each other so fondly made Felix’s heart fill with warmth for the both of them. He supposed it was worth it after all, for all those times of listening to Jisung gripe about his romantic struggles.

With a new addition to their table, Hyunjin relayed his order to the waitress and waited for all of their food to arrive before they began to dig into their meals. At first, Felix found amusement in seeing the both of them go from flirting to arguing in the span of five seconds, but the more Jisung kept talking, the more the conversation went down a degenerate direction.

“So,” Jisung said loudly with his cheeks full, “Morgan Freeman’s baby maker.”

Felix stopped in the middle of stuffing his face. Hyunjin let water dribble down his chin in shock. “His what?”

“His flesh flute. Lap rocket. Mayo shooting hotdog gun. Custard launcher. Wing wang doodle. Single barreled pump action bullock. Heat-seeking moisture missile. The spawn hammer. You get it? Now, I’m not saying he’s got a green anaconda in his pants or anything remotely impressive, but it’s all in the execution, isn’t it? The dick is only as big as its wielder, blah blah blah -- it’s how you use it.”

“Oh, so a few days into our relationship and you already feel like it’s appropriate to start talking about someone else’s dick, huh?” Hyunjin scowled. “I see how it is. I think I might break up with you.”

“No, baby, it was just a thought!”

“No, Jisungie,” Felix deadpanned. “You’re just a thot.”

While Hyunjin laughed until he almost fell off his chair from leaning back too much, Felix found pride in seeing Jisung’s jaw hanging so low it might have been dislocated by the verbal battery. Felix grinned and happily shovelled the rest of his omelette rice into his mouth.

At the end of their lunch, they piled out of the cafe and stood beneath the canopy. Outside, shafts of sunlight beamed through soft-spun clouds and kissed outstretched wings that fluttered by. The sky was the same shade of blue as his mother’s duvet, the one she used to wrap around his shoulders when it rained. Felix couldn’t forget it.

They walked by a cart selling ginger chai. Jisung offered to buy and went off to wait in line as Hyunjin and Felix waited at the side. Felix looked up at the streaks of contrails and wispy clouds and smiled a bit in hopes he would see the Autumn sky soon.

“Um. So,” Hyunjin began meekly, scuffing the heel of his shoe against the gravel. “How long have you and Jisung been friends?”

“Since I started working at the shop, so like. Maybe two years, now?”

Hyunjin scratched the back of his pink head. “Ah. The both of you seem super close, and he never shuts up about you, so I thought you guys were dating at first.”

A devilish smile grew on Felix’s face. “Oh, I knew you thought that. It was fun to see you jealous.” He ducked when Hyunjin tried to swat at him and laughed. “Dude, but rest assured, I’ll never be into Jisung the same way you’re into him. He’s just a really good friend. And my boss, essentially.”

“So, are you like the token straight friend? Nowhere near the rainbow spectrum? Kept tight inside the heterosexual stratosphere?”

“Um. I think I like everyone,” Felix lifted a shoulder. “I never dated, though, so I guess I wouldn’t really know for sure.”

“What?” Hyunjin’s eyes were blown wide open. “Seriously? But you’re so -- nice!”

Felix scratched his cheek. Dating hadn’t been a priority when Felix was too busy surviving on his own since the age of sixteen. “I’m flattered.”

Hyunjin took some time to process that fact, continuously shaking his head as if to shake off the daze of unbelievable news. But he recovered quickly enough to say, “You’re like Chan, then. He never dated too.”

Felix didn’t know what to do with that new piece of information. “Never?”

“Nope. Well, at least, not that I know of. He said he’s had flings but never an actual relationship.” Hyunjin tapped his chin. “I don’t know. He doesn’t really like talking about it. Chan doesn’t really talk about a lot of things, especially about himself. He cares a lot for others, but he just doesn’t -- I don’t know. Let other people care for him? He’s a weirdo.”

Felix thought about his dream, his memory, of Chan at the beach and the mention of his father where he had looked so defeated and sad. Felix wondered if being cared for made him feel like a burden and that was why he didn’t allow such a thing for himself.

Maybe that was it. Like everyone else, maybe Chan just wanted to be loved. But it was hard to let love happen when you’ve grown up all your life feeling like you’ll never deserve it. They were the same in that regard. Felix thought about the times Chan reached out to touch someone only to pull away at the last minute as if he remembered he couldn’t.

And like every other unloved thing, he needed to be touched in order to feel real.

Then he remembered the way Chan had brushed his fingers gently across his cheek -- the tenderness of granting a wish from a fallen eyelash, and how Chan didn’t shy away from the touch when that was his instinct to do so. Chan didn’t make sense, and Felix didn’t know if Chan was something he should be running away from instead of walking towards.

Chan was a blood-trail of scabbed over wounds, but maybe Felix was willing to scratch them all open again to find that pause of light that once existed in a forgotten time.

iii.

Autumn was creeping around the corner.

Out of all the seasons, Autumn was his favourite. Autumn was when everything fell and revealed a barren carapace. Autumn was when soft green foliage turned to fiery oranges and reds, and was stripped from the trees by the wind, getting caught in windshield wipers and gliding through the air like paratroopers. Autumn was when begonias and chrysanthemums began to bloom, along with the revival of other perennials and shrubs.

When Felix met Chan at the abandoned bus stop for lunch after a few weeks without seeing each other, it seemed as though Chan wrestled through a blunder of sleepless nights from the way his dark circles shone brighter than the gleam in his eyes. He acted the same, though, with his childlike excitement that was endearing if not wistful.

“You look like you just sobered up from an acid trip,” Felix said. “Like you just flopped into the gravy boat of life as a couch potato.”

Chan blinked at Felix with an egg roll half way to his mouth.

“I was joking. Um.” Felix cleared his throat and sat down beside him. “It’s nice to see you again.”

He watched as Chan’s mouth stretched into a smile that made his nose scrunch and dimples appear. “It’s nice to see you too, Felix.”

“Busy lately?”

Chan swallowed the food in his mouth. “Man, absolutely. I opened up my bookings and had to go through over a thousand applications. I’m not even done yet but I’m pretty sure half of them consist of asking me to tattoo them on the most heinous of places. And then I had to book a few over my lunch hours -- you know, just to keep the peace since they’re frequent clients of mine.”

He piled more rice into his mouth and chewed quickly to continue, laughing throughout the process. “I heard about the lovebirds, though. I think everyone saw it coming. We had, like, a betting pool and I came out as the winner. Minho had to give me a hundred bucks ‘cause I predicted they’d get together within this month and ha, I was right! Now we all don’t have to sit there in the same studio and listen to Hyunjin complain about how inept he is around Jisung. Gosh, the other day, I was about to lose my mind and --”

Felix hummed as he stared down at his food. He wasn’t really hungry. He just wanted to talk to Chan, to know about him more, to learn who he is as a person -- something Felix never got the proper chance to do when they were kids. Though Chan was rambling at this point and it was mostly likely due to the sleep deprivation, Felix didn’t mind. Chan’s voice was raspy, unlike his younger self’s smoother timbre, but was still gentle.

He was still gentle, after all these years. No one would know the violence it took to become this gentle.

“Sorry, I’m talking too much, aren’t I? It’s the coffee. And the Redbull. Does the Monster drink count too?”

Concerned for his bloodstream, Felix opted to change the topic while making a mental note to phone whoever was in the tattoo shop to get Chan to drink water and sleep. “Hey, what made you choose to be a tattoo artist?”

Chan blinked in surprise at the unexpected question. He slowed down from eating, taking the time to consider his answer. “I think I’m a pretty meticulous person, and tattoos itself require a lot of detail, and I like that. I like the emotional process of conveying what my clients exactly want to be put on their skin permanently."

"And you don't have any yourself," he stated as an observation. When Chan smiled and shook his head, he pushed more. "Can I ask why?"

"Well, tattoos either mean something or they don't. What if I say it's because I just don't want to?"

"Then you just don't want to," Felix said. "Simple."

Chan seemed a bit startled at how he easily accepted that answer. "Simple, huh? No, I -- it’s silly. I put permanent images on people’s skin for a living but I don’t have any because they’re too permanent. For me, at least. What if I change my mind later? What if I don’t like what I put on my skin anymore? You can get it removed, but it won’t be the same. There’s still going to be a mark of what was once put on your skin -- a scar.” He let out an airy laugh. “I don’t know how to handle permanence well.”

There was a reason why they never shared their names as kids. Felix remembered now.

“No!” Chan had slapped a sweaty hand over Felix’s mouth. “Don’t tell me your name! I can’t tell you mine either.”

Felix swatted his hand away and wiped his mouth in disgust. “Why? We’re not friends if we don’t know each other’s names!”

“Because I’m gonna leave one day and I won’t come back,” He admitted with downcast eyes. “I don’t know when, but I know I probably won’t be able to say goodbye to you because my parents don’t like goodbyes. You’ll forget me one day and I don’t want to be the only one who remembers us.”

“But you’re my first and only friend. How could I forget my only friend in the world?”

Chan blinked with wide eyes. “Really?”

“Really.” Felix hugged his knees close to his chest. The scabs on his arms were itchy. “I wish you didn’t have to leave at all. I wish I could follow you.”

“Me too.”

“But! I promise I won’t forget you. Whenever I see a daisy, I’ll always think of you.”

Chan looked at Felix with such warmth that it could have rivaled against the sun. When he smiled from ear to ear, it was fig sweet, and the warmth of his chest when he hugged Felix felt like a distant dream.

His heart was beating a little bit too fast.

Chan. Suddenly, his name filled Felix with a kind of melancholy he hadn’t felt since childhood. The kind of sadness that arrived at summer’s end --- when the fireflies and cicadas were gone, the ponds had dried up, and the plants were wilted.

Felix was no longer the boy from the beach. He grew up. He threw all memories associated with home into the gutter and tried to move forward. He absorbed loss and was carved into an unruly shape from trying to fit in. He was cynical and lonely and clumsy with kindness. That was not the boy Chan knew back then who made that promise. Felix couldn’t bear the potential disappointment, the rejection, the lack of recognition and the inevitable abandonment.

And maybe that was what Chan felt too. Maybe that was why he didn’t know how to live in permanence because there was no such thing as permanence when he had been a child. Perhaps that was why Chan felt like a ghost haunting a graveyard of burnt out stars when he had the glow of the brightest one.

“Nothing is permanent,” Felix said. “Nothing and no one.”

The image of Chan hugging his younger self appeared before his eyes. He looked at Chan, who was staring at Felix with eyes as dark as the earth’s soil, and thought of daisies. Without thinking, Felix reached forward and let his thumb trace over the shell of Chan’s ear. “But even then, I’m happy you’re still here.”

Chan grew still. His ears had turned the deepest shade of red underneath his fingertips. Something akin to fondness swelled up his ribcage. It was ironic how he felt the most alive when his heart skipped a beat.

“Sorry.” Felix took his hand away. “I did something odd.”

“No, no, it’s fine. It’s -- I was just caught off guard. I’m just -- “ Chan laughed and clumsily clasped the lid back onto the box of his lunch. He shoved everything into the plastic bag that it had come in. “I don’t know. You’re an interesting fella, I suppose. You’re so --- I have to go. I have a client soon, so I have to -- oh, not because of what you did! No, it was nice. Nice? Yeah. But yeah. I’ll just -- I’ll go ahead first. Thanks for today.”

Felix waved goodbye and watched in amusement as Chan stumbled away from the bus stop. Felix didn’t think what he did would fluster him so much, but he knew affection was a strange concept to blurry people like them. After all, Felix hadn’t known that being touched could feel good until he left his mother.

That brought him back to the thought of home. He licked the teriyaki sauce off his chopsticks and found it laughably ironic how sometimes he would feel homesick for the place he ran away from in the first place.

He looked down at his fingers, remembering the warmth of Chan’s skin, and wondered what was the right thing to do.

.
.
.
.
.

That same night, Felix was restless. He couldn’t fall asleep even though he felt so tired. Time moved forward in a thick and slow stream like molasses, and early August moonshadows leaked through the thin fabric of his curtains and poured over his head like a watery halo.

He wondered if he could mentally tire himself out, so he decided to associate people with flowers. The first person that came to mind was Jisung, and Felix determined he’d be a bright red laceleaf or a blanket flower. Ms. Han reminded him of Lily of the valleys, and Seungmin would be snapdragons. Hyunjin could be a honeysuckle or a wishbone flower.

When his mind turned to Chan, Felix remembered about the flowers they drew in the sand. Maybe he would be a sunflower, but Felix felt more like a sunflower instead -- always turned towards Chan like he was the sun. Or maybe Chan was a yellow dandelion, where one would kiss for warm wishes.

Or maybe, forget-me-nots.

Felix shut his eyes. There was the feeling of wondering if he couldn’t turn around now; if he couldn’t press the stop button and slide back down; if he could at least stay in this spot for a little while longer. He felt like if he didn’t do anything soon to close the gap between him and Chan, then Chan would leave again, one day, without a goodbye.

Felix always lived in his own bubble, never stepping out of the tight boundary he’d drawn for himself. What was there left for him to do?

Letting out a frustrated sigh, he sat up in his bed and grabbed his phone. Seeing that he was more awake than ever, he decided to venture onto Chan’s Instagram out of curiosity.

His posts essentially consisted of his portfolio, showcasing the flexibility of his skill through variations of tattoo art. Felix went through his compilations of old story posts that Chan kept organized in accordance to the topic. In one of his stories that consisted of healed works, there was a photo of a girl with finely inked flowers tattooed on her back, and Felix faintly recalled the day of Chan’s warm hand around his wrist.

Pressing on his more recent story posts, Felix mindlessly clicked through them before one of the posts caught his attention. He went back to properly read what was typed onto a white canvas.

Hi everyone, I’ve decided to open up three spots this month for scar cover up tattoos. Just like in January, it’ll be free of cost as a token of gratitude for all of you guys supporting my work. Please submit your form through the link below and I’ll contact those whose pieces I want to do via e-mail. It usually takes ~7 days for me to reply, so keep an eye out! I’ll be closing submissions in two days.

Please provide a photo of your scar and how old it is in the booking. Scars must be at least one year old. Once contacted, we can book a consultation and I can assess your scar in terms of severity, age, color, placement, and what your goal is with your tattoo.

Thank you everyone! I look forward to seeing your ideas.

He was distracted by the next few posts that were examples of scar cover ups he’s done in the past. What were supposedly scars were no longer recognized as scars, from an intricate phoenix on a young person’s chest to a band of distressed roses on someone’s arm to a large geometric design of a moonlit forest on someone’s thigh.

They were beautiful. To be able to reclaim such a vulnerable part of their bodies -- it seemed empowering. It must have felt empowering too.

Felix put his phone down and looked at his own arms. He rolled up his sleeves and gently ran a finger over the raised crosshatch of lines and the pale, puckered skin. He never gave tattoos a serious thought before, mostly because they were too expensive for him to ever consider getting. But he imagined how it would be like, to wake up every morning and look at himself in the mirror to see that he was no longer marked by his mother’s love -- that he could finally be proud of his appearance instead of feeling ashamed and angry the next.

There was too much thinking, today. Too much nostalgia that left a hole in his chest. Sometimes, Felix wanted to swallow the whole world’s ugly in a reverse pandora’s box so there would be no more pain and suffering to be found in every little crevice that he saw.

Felix inhaled a shaky breath and curled his trembling hand into a fist. He shut his eyes and tried to forget for the rest of the night, hoping that when he wakes up tomorrow, he will wake up with courage.

iv.

The scars on his arms ached and itched more than usual. The possibility of getting a tattoo lingered in the back of his head all day and Felix wanted to bang his head against the wall if it meant he could get himself to shut up.

He snuck glances out the window, subconsciously searching for a figure of black whenever he did so, but spent the rest of his time dutily tending to his tasks since they’ve recently gotten a batch of orders to touch base on for price quotes.

Felix listened to Jisung sing from the back room. It sounded like an extension of his heartbeat.

When lunch came, Felix was stopped in the middle of heading to the convenience store by Jisung, who had locked the shop and dragged Felix into the back room. The table was cleaned of papers and replaced with a few containers and a large thermos. Confused, he followed Jisung who was tugging him over to a chair across from his.

“What’s all this?” asked Felix.

“I wasn’t joking when I said you’ve been crowned employee of the month. I mean, not that it ever existed in the first place, but we made it up exclusively for you.” Jisung grinned as he uncapped the containers and a fresh, warm scent of kimchi filled his nose and made his stomach rumble. There was kimchi fried rice and japchae, and in one of the deeper containers was soft tofu stew large enough to serve two. “Eat up, man! My mom woke up early to cook all this -- woke me up too to help, even though all I did was just chop the fuckin’ onions.”

Felix looked at all the food incredulously and stammered out, “This -- you didn’t have to do this. I -- it’s too much.”

“Dude, don’t worry about it. We wanted to.” Jisung patted him on the shoulder before piling one of the bowls he brought with the fried rice. He handed it to Felix and stuck a spoon in his hand. “Here, eat. If you don’t, my mom’s gonna be, like, really upset.”

Felix curled his lips in hesitation, before he brought a spoonful of fried rice in his mouth. It was spicy and a little sweet, but most of all, it tasted warm and so, so good. He’s never had many home cooked meals before, but he knew that Ms. Han’s cooking was the best.

The only time his mother cooked for him was for his seventh birthday, where she made seaweed soup and bought him a black forest cake to celebrate. The soup was salty and hard to swallow and the cake was stale, but Felix had eaten it all without a single complaint anyway. She tucked him to bed that night, kissing his forehead and wishing him sweet dreams. For a moment, then, he had felt so overwhelmed with hope -- that perhaps, by some galactic miracle, his mother had changed. He thought that maybe all he had to do to receive love was to be perfectly obedient.

But he woke up the next day to his gimlet-eyed mother seated beside him on his bed with a cigarette hanging from her mouth, and felt immeasurably foolish for ever hoping.

(He got his first cigarette burn at the age of seven.)

“Whenever you make that face,” Jisung’s voice startled him out of his own thoughts, “it seriously hurts my heart, man.”

Felix glanced up at him from the food. “What do you mean?”

“You look like a kicked puppy whenever someone does anything remotely nice to you,” Jisung elaborated. “Like you’re not used to it or something. My mom -- she worked with at risk kids before, kids who had the same expression as you whenever someone, especially an adult, does something genuinely nice. Makes me want to beat up whoever hurt them to the point of being unable to understand the concept of kindness.”

Felix bit the spoon in his mouth hard enough for it to dig into his palate.

“Sorry, I’m not trying to pry or anything. I’m just -- “ Jisung waved his own spoon around in gesticulation. “Ugh, I don’t know. It hurts to see that. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand, but I do know the feeling of being unwanted.”

Felix felt like he was experiencing whiplash from the sharp turn of the conversation. “You do?”

“Oh, totally. My dad didn’t want a kid but you know how the baby making business goes. What did he even expect? When my mom was pregnant with me, he pushed her to get me aborted, but that totally failed since I’m here and queer, so.” Jisung shrugged. “I spent all my life growing up trying to gain his approval. I thought if I became the person he wanted me to be, then he’d finally love me.”

“But it didn’t work,” Felix guessed.

“If only it was that easy! His ideal version of me is when I’m pretty much buried six feet under the ground rolling in my grave. But, you know, why should I apologize for being this way? No one ever apologized for making me this way.”

“I -- um. I think you’re swell guy.”

“Dude, stop. You’re gonna make me blush when I’m trying to be serious here.” Jisung clicked his tongue in disapproval, though he reached over to mess up Felix’s hair to let him know he wasn’t really upset. “I know I’m lucky I have someone like my mom in my life and I don’t take that for granted. I’m happy even if I know my dad is out there fucking some hot chick who’s literally a year older than me.”

Felix opened his mouth, unsure of what to do with all that information told to him in such a nonchalant manner. All he could say was, “That fucking sucks.”

Jisung barked out a laugh. “Tell me about it.”

Felix looked down at the rice as he stirred it around. Jisung was pouring barley tea into two cups from the thermos and setting one of the cups near Felix’s bowl. Despite the act of indifference, Felix was sure that it must have been difficult for Jisung to talk about his father because there were things you never, ever get over. The hurt didn’t disappear over time. You’d learn to live with them -- to manage them -- but they were always there.

And Jisung was reaching out to him with a kind of honesty and seriousness Felix never expected. Maybe this was the courage he wished for. Maybe this was the start of ridding his mother’s ghost from haunting his splintered heart.

“My mum didn’t cook often,” Felix began as he picked up a spoonful of rice. He chewed slowly, processing his thoughts into words while trying to steady his shaking hands. “She bussed tables and never had the time to. I remember eating nothing but expired peanut butter one time because she forgot to buy groceries.”

Jisung gawked. “Dude, I’m surprised your bowels are still intact. I would have died from explosive diarrhea.”

“Yeah, she -- uh. She wasn’t the greatest, but I -- I think she still loved me in her own way.”

Jisung was silent at that. He was mixing a pint of gochujang into his stew, his brows knitted in a frown, when he bravely asked, “She hurt you, didn’t she?”

Unconsciously, his hand went to his arm. For a split second, he thought he smelled the pungent scent of cigarette smoke, and he had to bite back the bile from rising up his throat. “Yes.”

“Then that’s not love,” Jisung said matter-of-factly. “You don’t hurt the people you love.”

There was a time Felix believed in his mother whenever she said she loved him after hurting him. He thought love was about being hurt, that even if his mother never hugged him or kissed him often that perhaps hurting him was a different way of expressing love.

He tried to justify her actions -- how she was a single mother with a job that could barely sustain either of them, that he deserved this kind of love because of all the things she had to sacrifice for him. But there was a point in his life that he started to think for himself, when he watched the daisies in his backyard bloom against adversity.

But even then, it didn’t make it hurt any less.

He wanted to be loved. He wanted to be loved so badly. Everyday he wished for it. She didn’t love him and she was the only family he had in the world. Felix didn’t know what it was about him that made it so hard to be loved. When your own family doesn’t even love you, who will in this world?

“Okay. Yeah.” Felix gave a watery laugh and rubbed his eyes when his vision started to fog. “She fucking sucked.”

“Hey, man. Say it even louder.”

Felix repeated it, his voice doubled in volume, and the both of them broke into giggles. Jisung reached over the table to give Felix’s damp cheek a little pinch; then, Jisung laughed and brought his cup up. “A toast to having shitty parents -- wait, no! A toast to overcoming the worst of our shitty parents. Hey, for what it’s worth, I’m proud of you for not growing up to be sucky like her.”

“How do you know that for sure? How do you know that the idea that none of us can escape the problems of our families won’t ring true?”

“Uh, I’m no palm reader, but I know good people when I see them.” Jisung pointed at him with his spoon. “You’re kind even when you didn’t know what it was like growing up. Give a pat on your back for that, man. Celebrate the little victories! Also, if you legit sob-cry right now, I’ll sob-cry too, and that is exactly what I didn’t want.”

Felix covered his face. “I never talked about my mum before. To anyone.”

“Well, now we can trade stories about my dad and your mom. You’re practically part of the family, man. My mom fucking adores you more than me. Even my fourth aunt from my sixth aunt from my fifth uncle-in-law adores you. So, you know, you can always come to me if you need someone.”

“Geez,” Felix laughed at his family gibberish. His shoulders felt lighter. His heart felt less worn. “Thank you, Jisung.”

“You can thank me by eating. If we don’t finish all of this, my mom’s gonna feed me to the cantankerous vermin of the ocean.”

Felix laughed even harder. He finally finished up his rice that had turned cold and went for the tofu stew next. Then he said, “I want to get a tattoo.”

“Huh? All of a sudden? Okay, please tell me this isn’t a ruse just to talk to Mr. Sexy Arms. Learn from my mistakes, Felix! I may be handsome but in this handsome head is but a mere blob of dumb grey matter.”

Felix sighed. “I want to cover my scars.”

“Oh.” Jisung beamed. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

Felix balled up a paper napkin and hurled it at Jisung. He felt a sense of accomplishment when it hit Jisung square in the face.
.
.
.
.
.

On the last day and in the last hour before applications closed, Felix sent in his submission. He looked out the window and heard the moon-splashed sky whisper in his ears, courage.

v.

“Hey, what if humans lost all their skin every winter and walked around as skeletons? And trees get livid because they have to rake all our skin off their lawns?”

Seungmin looked over at Felix, unamused. “I am frankly appalled at your thoughts.”

“It’s a legitimate question.”

“Then I’ll say that maybe it’s the last stage of global warming and we should prepare for our deaths. We all belong in the ocean anyway because the ocean is just oil and dead marine life taking us with it.”

Felix said gravely, “Fuck.”

Jisung sallied out from the back room. “Did you guys know that Hyunjin really thought the earth was flat at some point because some classmate at his university told him so?”

Seungmin swore underneath his breath and rubbed his sleeves over his face, as if he was physically in pain from hearing that. Jisung gave them a toothy grin before he ran back into the back office. Felix patted Seungmin on the back as consolation.

As the day went by quietly, Felix watched how the sun began to descend from its highest point as evening arrived. The buildings across from him looked like a painting still wet with oils from the blurry sunset burning bright against it -- a wavering stillness that demanded the earth’s attention.

Once it reached 7 o’clock, they cleaned up the shop before locking up. He was helping Jisung with the gate since it was a rickety, old thing that often got caught on its mechanisms, and as soon as they succeeded in closing it after ten minutes of attempting to do so, Jisung gave Felix a wet smooch on the forehead before he said goodbye.

“Yeesh,” Felix muttered, wiping his forehead. Not that he minded the sudden affection, but there was too much saliva. Gross.

Just as he was about to head home, he heard a soft voice behind him.

“Hey.”

Startled, Felix spun around and found Chan standing there, hands in pockets and a scarf bundled around his neck. He looked exhausted as usual but he had a small smile plastered on his face. Felix wondered if he ever got tired of doing that -- smiling when he didn’t mean it.

“Hi,” said Felix.

“Were you heading home?”

“Yeah, I --” Felix stopped, watching the way Chan’s expression wobble for a fleeting moment, before he changed his course of words. “What’s up?”

“No, it’s nothing. I mean, if you have stuff to do, it’s fine. I was just wondering if you wanted to grab a bite. There’s a diner a few blocks down the road near the Orpheum.” Chan rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “I just wanted some company and you were the first person that came to mind to ask.”

Warmth lingered in his chest as it puddled down his stomach. Felix smiled and swept his arm towards the opposite direction of where his apartment was. “Lead the way then, good sir.”

Chan laughed, bright and prodigious, and Felix noted that his laugh was one of the things that hadn’t changed about him.

The diner was a quaint, flashy building that collected dust in the corners of a flashy neighborhood that more often than not, reeked of shady business and a lot of weed. It was left to its quiet discretion with its flickering neon lights running along the streamline exterior, highlighting the stainless steel panels in a city that so often reflects against the surface with its own variation of sunlight. When they entered the diner, they were greeted with the sounds of clinking dinnerware filling in the empty spaces, accompanied by soft, mellow 80’s rock music from the jukebox.

They were led to a red-cushioned booth and given menus to peruse. Felix looked at all the options and was surprised at how relatively cheap they were, and thanked the waitress when she came back with a glass of iced tea for Felix and a cup of coffee for Chan.

“Do you come here often?”

“Mhm. Usually for a late night snack when I get hungry and want something other, than like, two-minute microwave cookies.” Chan flipped the menu over. “I know they’re in a pretty weird location but this place is an absolute gem. Their blueberry pancakes? Scrumptious. The first time I tried them, it touched the deepest pits of my heart down to the single cells that make up the muscles of this pumping piece of meat.”

Felix opened his mouth. Then closed it. Everyday his patience was tested by the pure eccentricity of his friends. “I’m sure those pancakes were very titillating.”

Chan almost choked on his coffee.

Dinner was cozy. They talked about meaningless things over the greasy food they ordered, and bit by bit, Felix could see the tension ebb away from the rough edges of Chan’s shoulders. His smiles looked less forced and when he laughed, it rumbled deep from his stomach. When he found something particularly hilarious, his laughter turned shrill and squeaky. It was an amusing sight when Chan, who looked relatively intimidating with his piercings and chain accessories, let his giggles roll about the room like a child's spinning top, vibrant and heart warming -- loud to soft to nothing at all and back to loud again.

At some point in the night, they were sharing awful customer stories that had Felix sinking in his seat from the sheer secondhand embarrassment.

“There was this one guy who came in and demanded to transform his whole dick and balls into a dragon. I refused, but Minho -- he lives for those kinds of requests. Charged him for a ridiculously high price and tattooed him in a private room. It took, like, maybe three hours? Even our shop manager was curious as to how he did it because you’d, like, have to stretch the dick skin, y’know? We thought the client would just have a perpetual hard-on the whole time, but it was kinda difficult to keep it up when he was getting jabbed by a needle.”

“But how would he piss? Take a shit?”

“Beats me.”

“Did -- did your friend, like, saran wrap his entire dick and balls and cut like a tiny hole for his pee pee and butt hole?”

“Please don’t make me imagine that.” Chan shuddered and scrunched up his nose in disgust. “Ugh! Needless to say, that was the last time we ever allowed genital tattoos.”

“I’m surprised you guys allowed that in the first place. But your story totally beats my story about how a man flashed us, once.”

Chan glanced up. “But why?”

“He wanted to show that his buds were more beautiful than any flower we could ever have.”

Chan winced and rubbed a hand over his face. He had a look of resignation that resonated within Felix when it came to public service.

Felix then told him about the time where Jisung told a very privileged woman to go shopping for a new life after she criticized the bouquet Seungmin had spent a whole day on arranging. Then Chan mentioned how Hyunjin had a client who wanted a tattoo on her lower back, and almost threw up from the amount of times the client kept farting in his face. In the back of his mind, Felix felt relieved that he fainted, then, if that meant Jisung avoided sharting his pants in front of his crush.

They both talked until the sky turned dark, save for the stars that looked like sugar spilled over black marble. Though Chan insisted on paying for the both of them, Felix managed to wrestle the bill out from his hands and was running to the counter to pay when Chan caught him by the waist and pulled him back to the booth.

“This clearly isn’t fair,” Felix complained as he stretched his arms as far as possible to keep it out of reach from Chan. “You’re built like a brick shithouse.”

Chan laughed and Felix could feel his chest reverberate from the sound. “What does that even mean?”

After a lot of wriggling and kicking, Felix managed to slip out of Chan’s arms -- but only by elbowing him in the stomach that knocked some air out of him. Horrified by his own actions, Felix shook him by the shoulder and frantically asked, “Shit, are you okay? I didn’t hit you too hard, did I? I’m so -- hey!”

Chan plucked the bill out from Felix’s hands with a giggle and squeezed out of the booth. Felix was too shocked to react, mostly because Chan’s ass was right in his face for a moment when he was speeding out of the booth, and he finally relented when Chan was already at the counter with his wallet out of his hand.

Huffing, Felix tidied up the plates together to make it easier for the waitress to collect when Chan returned with a triumph grin on his face.

“Cheater,” Felix grumbled.

I’m the one who got hurt.”

“It was barely a graze.”

“Ah.” Chan pretended not to hear as he touched his stomach. “I think there’s a bruise here now. Who knew you could pack a real punch, eh?” When Felix smacked him on the arm, Chan recoiled and exclaimed, “And another bruise!”

“Oh, please.” Felix laughed and lightly shoved at his shoulder. “Shut up.”

When they were being scolded for being too loud, they sheepishly hurried out of the diner. It was cold outside so Felix zipped up his jacket to his chin. He glanced up at the tapestry of stars and the moon that hung like a mandala in the sky. It looked sharp and bright, as if it had been carved to look like a sword.

He felt nicely full from the food and the laughter that still left warmth in his chest. Chan stood beside him with his scarf tightly wrapped around his neck and covering half of his face. Other than the scarf, he only wore a light denim jacket over a t-shirt. Compared to him, Felix was bundled up in a winter coat and he wore two long-sleeved shirts under his wool turtleneck.

“Aren’t you cold?”

“Not really,” Chan said. He lifted up his palm to Felix. “See?”

Felix stared at his offered hand in a moment of contemplation before he gingerly took it. Chan’s hand was hot, as if he had spent the last two hours letting hot water run over his hands to soak the heat into his skin. Puzzled, he squeezed his hand, distantly noting how Chan’s hands were bigger than his. “You’re literally a human heater.”

Chan was staring down at their intertwined hands. His ears had turned red. Felix wondered, distantly, how red he could go if Felix did something else. Something more.

But then Chan retracted his hand. He smiled a bit tentatively. “We should eat together more. You can treat me next time if you’re so determined about it.”

Felix was about to respond when the words died on his tongue. Next time, Chan had said. Next time, as if Chan would still be here. Next time, as if Chan would stay in this city of clementine peels just so he could eat another meal with Felix.

The realization rushed over him like he’d been doused in ice-cold water, startling him back to reality, no longer basking in the warmth of Chan’s light-hearted company.

“Ah, it’s getting late. I’ll walk you to your bus stop. It’s the one that runs down 9th, right?”

Felix silently watched as Chan walked ahead of him, his shadow flickering underneath the pools of dimmed light from the streetlamps. Other than the rush of cars that sped by on the quiet road, he heard his heartbeat echo in his eardrums, beating and beating until he thought his heart would fly out of his ribcage. In that frame of Chan’s slowly receding back, Felix wondered what would happen if he opened his mouth and spoke of the unspoken -- if, this time, he was the one who reached forward so that Chan could finally look back.

What if it wasn’t enough? What if he got what he wanted and it still wasn’t enough, and that he still felt alone and apart? To simmer in longing and restlessness, and to let his unsaid feelings rot in the core of his chest was a life he had brought upon himself.

But he could hear his bones straining under the weight of the truth he was not telling.

Something untangled in his chest. Impulsive courage surged forward as Felix took a step forward and followed after the blood-trail of wounds he’d ripped open.

“Hey,” he called.

Chan halted. He looked back, surprised to see that Felix was rather far away. Against the slab of moonlight, he looked a bit like a ghost. “Yeah? Are we going the wrong way?”

“Next time,” Felix continued on and didn’t bother to conceal his trembling voice. “You said next time.”

“Yes?”

“What if you’re not here next time?”

The more he spoke, the more Chan looked confused. “Sorry?”

“You don’t do goodbyes,” Felix said. “And you don’t recognize me. How will I know you’re still here if there’s a next time, then?”

Chan looked at him, still lost, before he started to walk back to Felix. “Are you okay? I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” Standing before Felix, Chan lifted a hand and placed it on his forehead to gauge his temperature, but Felix snatched it into his own cold hands and held him tightly in case he was going to run away. “Felix?”

“Do you really not recognize me?”

Chan looked at his hand being encaged in Felix’s. “Am I supposed to? I’m not sure where this is all coming from, but maybe we should take you home so you can rest --”

“I promised,” Felix said, his heart hammering in his ears. “I promised I’d never forget you. I promised that I’d always think of you whenever I looked at a daisy, because daisies were my favourite flower and you were my favourite person.”

Chan shut his mouth.

“I looked at the daisies in my backyard and thought about you everyday. Even after you left, I drew daisies on the sand just so I could think of you and pretend you were right beside me because you had been my only friend in the whole world. You were the first person to have ever loved me. Do you know how much you meant to someone like me, who wanted to be loved so badly but felt so unlovable?”

“Felix --”

Everything was poured out of him from the cracks, like a dam had been broken. “When we would draw flowers all day on the sand even though you didn’t like it, or watch the clouds and make up some imaginary world, or do some other stupid kid shit, I felt loved for the first time. I was ten years old and I felt loved for the first time.”

Felix didn’t know what face Chan was making because he had his eyes screwed shut. He was distantly aware of how fast he was breathing -- how tight his lungs felt and how hard he was shaking. “It’s been eleven years since then, and I still feel loved.”

He could feel Chan tugging gently at his hand, but Felix remained rigid. He dug his heels into the ground when Chan tugged even harder. When Felix opened his eyes, something unreadable had Chan’s face tight like rigor mortis. His lips were set in an uncharacteristic grim line but his eyes were glossy. The moonlight traced his features in a disarray.

“So many things happened after you left,” Felix said in a slow whisper. “When I left home, I left everything behind. I buried you in a grave I made in my memory because I didn’t want to remember anything associated with home. But here you are, digging yourself out of my memory just as easy as you left it.”

Chan looked like he wanted to run. To leave. Felix could see it in the shape of his brows, the uncertainty in his eyes, the stiffness in his shoulders. But Felix kept his hand close to his chest anyway.

The muscles of his chin trembled like a small child when he spoke. “How long have you known?”

“A while, now. When you called my freckles angel kisses I suspected, because nobody has ever called them that before,” he said. “Nobody but you.”

Chan clenched his jaw and looked down at their hands. “Please let go.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“You'll run, because that's what you do.”

“Don’t talk like you know me,” Chan snapped. “You never did. It’s been eleven years. Do you think I’m still the same pathetic kid? That I never grew up? That I never learned to move on? That I never learned to accept the fact that there was no use holding onto something so useless? So temporary? So why bring this up now, when the past should stay as the past?”

Half of Felix wanted to let go and step back, because anger was a defense mechanism no matter how uncharacteristic it seemed. But the other half of him couldn't, because he knew Chan would run. Back then as kids, Felix wasn't able to chase after him, but now, he had the power to.

“Because I knew you. Before I met you as a kid and as I am now. I've known you my whole entire life. That's why I felt like I knew you before I even remembered you.” Felix was unfazed. He held Chan’s hand a little tighter. "I don't think you're still the same, Chan. I'm not the same either, just like how I don't go to the beach everyday to draw daisies in the sand anymore and how I don't think you've ever learned how to stay.”

Chan opened his mouth, ready to fire back, but then he stopped. The flash of anger in his eyes disappeared as quickly as a star at daybreak, and his face withered.

He shut his eyes and looked away as if to compose himself. Felix tentatively reached forward with his other hand to touch Chan’s ear. He traced the shape with his thumb and tugged at his lobe gently, before he moved and cupped the side of Chan’s face. “I think you just want to be loved like I do.”

And like that, the anger leaked out of him as though he’d forgotten what he was angry about in the first place. For a moment, Chan looked far away; he always had that about him, that look of otherness, of eyes that see things much too far, and of thoughts that wander off the edge of the earth.

But then Chan was looking back at Felix, seeing him -- recognizing him and every detail on his face. The coldness in his eyes waned into slightly bruised longing and his hand felt like the warmest light in his.

He lifted his other hand and let it hover over the side of Felix’s face, and his gaze turned wobbly. When he let his hand touch Felix’s face, he let out a breathy chuckle that gradually progressed into uncontrollable, quiet laughter, that pushed Chan onto his knees and curled forward into himself. Chan was laughing in a way that was pained and hysterical; stunned, Felix followed down after him.

“Chan?” Felix cupped his face into his hands and lifted his head. Chan took one look at Felix and his face immediately crumpled.

“I looked for you in everyone I’ve met.” He whispered in a cracked voice. “I looked for you in everyone. How are you here?”

Felt felt like his heart might burst. He wiped away the hot tears that stained his thumbs from Chan’s red-rimmed eyes before he wrapped his arms around Chan’s neck, burying his face into his scarf and carding his fingers through the back of his hair. And just like that, Felix felt like the delicate unravelling of a human being in motion. The sun was inside him; his emotions burned holes in his skin and the light seeped through.

“Stay,” Felix said.

There was a moment of silence. Then, Chan hugged him back, and said, “Okay.”

. . .

When Felix was ten years old, he ran away from home.

As much as he could, at least. He went to the beach everyday and stayed as long as he could until he was forced to go home. He drew daisies in the sand so that his friends could be with him too and he wouldn’t have to be lonely.

But he met his first real friend, one day: a boy who looked sadder than him but had the brightest smile as though he swallowed the sun. He took Felix by the wrist and lended him a kind of warmth he’s never felt before.

And so, they stuck together like glue everyday at the beach at the same time.

He brought a Sharpie with him one time so that he could draw daisies on Felix’s arms by adding petals around the cigarette burns without ever asking how he got them. He complained about wanting to draw monsters in the sand instead of stupid daisies but he drew them anyway. He put sand in Felix’s pockets and laughed gloriously when Felix got angry at him. He gave him a sloppy kiss on the cheek once just because he wanted to touch his freckles.

When he would show up with a dampened mood, Felix would hug him until he felt better. When it rained and the sand stuck to their clothes, they’d stay under a tree and capture ladybugs and name them after their favourite flowers. When he fell down and scraped his knee on the sidewalk, Felix would hold his hand until the wound stopped hurting.

“It’s okay if you did forget about me,” he said a day after he told Felix they shouldn't share their names with each other. “You’re special. I won’t be sad if you did. I’ll still be happy anyway because you’ll always be my friend.”

Felix beamed. “You think I’m special?”

“Of course I do,” he exclaimed, his arms akimbo on his hips. “Who wouldn’t?”

Felix stood up from the sand and copied his pose. “You’re special too! Tell me your name then!”

“Okay, but I don’t want to hear yours.” He covered his ears. “You can know my name but I don't wanna know yours.”

Felix whined and the boy adamantly held his ground by keeping his ears covered. At his stubbornness, Felix pouted and finally relented at the proposed condition. “You're such a weirdo, but fine. As long as I get to know yours, I’m okay with it.”

He smiled so widely his eyes turned to crescents. “I’m Chan.”

Felix repeated his name so many times that Chan had to physically shut him up by keeping a hand over his mouth for the remainder of the day.

But Chan didn’t show up the next day after that. Felix thought maybe he got sick. When he didn’t show up the next day, and the next, Felix realized it was that unspoken goodbye they had talked about. Felix drew their flowers in the sand by himself. He cried a bit, but hoped Chan wasn’t crying either. He hoped that Chan would be happy wherever he moved to. He hoped that they would meet again and return to being best friends once more.

Then, when Felix turned fourteen, he got beaten so badly that he had to be taken to the hospital.

The policemen and the doctors and the nurses and his foster parents looked at him with so much pity that Felix wished he never woke up. He wished, just for a split second, that his mother hit him a little bit harder on the head so he stopped breathing. He wished his neighbours had left him to rot a little bit longer before finding him and calling the ambulance so he didn’t have to watch his mother be taken away without a single ounce of remorse in her eyes. He wished he was dead so his head wouldn’t hurt and his arms wouldn’t itch and he wouldn’t wake up to her hands around his throat.

Pain had been an outlet but it didn’t work for long when every cut started to feel like his mother’s nails digging deep into his skin. He was alone with nothing but the daisies he plucked from his backyard, and so he forgot and forgot and forgot.

Felix stopped looking for love in places where he lost it.

But at twenty-one, he found it again.

Chapter Text

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.”

“What?”

“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.

i.

No one saw Chan for a few days.

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?”

“Oh.”

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 what?”

“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.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Okay.”

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 what?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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?”

“Yellow?”

“Any patterns?”

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.”

“Hm?”

“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.

ii.

“Look at what you’ve done to my peonies!”

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?”

“Excuse me?”

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?”

“Uh.”

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 -- “

“Bye.”

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.”

“Okay.”

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.”

Chan sighed.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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?”

0.

Felix saw him through the window.

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 --

and Chan.

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.”

“Hi.”

“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.