The first time they met was also the first time they died. Perhaps the meeting was fated. Perhaps it was mere chance. Or, perhaps, a plan had been put into motion long before they took their first breaths—and he’d been alive for a long, long time.
It was cold that night, the sky clear and moon full, casting light into even the deepest recesses of the forest. This extended to the human propped preciously against a sword, breathing ragged and body threatening to keel over at any moment. The human was young, hair short and black, what skin visible spattered in blood. Those eyes contained a fire unlike any he had ever seen, fierce and focused directly on him.
They regarded each other in silence, two vastly different species both left in a similar state.
Where the human was forced to slump against the ground, his talons curled against the branch providing his only support. Feathers made of fire ruffled in unease and the blood oozing down aged bark was more than noticeable. That fire, once as bright as the sun, now sat dull and heavy against his battered body. Seo Changbin, one of the last surviving phoenixes, stuck out like a sore thumb; finding him would be no challenge.
Despite their physical differences, they more than matched each other with their wounds. His flames gave a weak flicker, and Changbin struggled to keep himself upright. He wasn’t quite sure how the strange human had ended up there, for he was not a part of the reason for his sorry state. The human did not seem like he was there to harm, thus Changbin left him alone.
“This isn’t how I wanted to meet you.”
The words pulled Changbin from his dream-like state, tired eyes shifting to peer at the human left to die in the dirt. Meet him? Curiosity stirred within. His claws sank deeper into the branch below.
“Oh, so you are awake!” He could make out a smile through the darkness.
Changbin didn’t answer, but his attention had been firmly captivated.
“Not really much of a talker, huh? That’s okay!” The human pulled his sword to his chest, fingers clenching it tightly. “My name is Yongbok. Do you have a name?”
A ruffle of his wings was all Changbin gave in response.
“Ah, the silent treatment.” Yongbok’s smile grew wider. “I grew up listening to stories about you, about how you lived up here. Everyone looks up to you actually. Elders and children alike. We all grew up learning about you.”
Changbin’s head tilted a bit. Humans intrigued with him? What would they want with a phoenix anyway? He kept his attention focused on Yongbok.
“Several nights ago, a party of men … these men ,” that smile dampened, “Came to our village. They were looking for you. I couldn’t let them kill you.”
His eyes flicked around the bodies hidden within the forest’s shadows, their last breaths long since taken. They were the source of both Changbin and Yongbok’s wounds, their bloody swords discarded near them. Dead hands had no need for blades.
The puddle of blood around the human’s body had grown. A faint hint of moonlight glinted along the surface, providing a macabre beauty. Strange how such a sight could be appealing yet deadly. Yongbok wavered from where he was seated within the center, but he did not stay upright long; his body slumped to the side within seconds.
Changbin watched, feeling something pull at him. A human, throwing away his life to protect him, a creature who did not need it. It was a first and he hoped it would be the last.
With what remaining bit of energy he had, Changbin spread his wings and glided down to the human’s side. The blood beneath his talons was warm. Yongbok’s head tilted to the side, those eyes devoid of the fierceness held only moments before. Instead, they were pained, and Changbin wished he couldn’t see the fear swimming within their depths. He had only seen a human die one other time and never this up close.
Ruffling his wings, he watched a single feather dislodge from his shoulder. It fluttered for a moment before landing upon Yongbok’s marred chest. A second passed before it sank, sizzling out and leaving behind a faded outline of the feather once there. If it hurt, Yongbok showed no sign of it. Perhaps it was a momentary distraction from the greater pain twisting his heart. The phoenix looked back to Yongbok’s face, feeling a little sorry for allowing the feather to burn him so. “You have fought well, Yongbok. I will not forget you.”
The human raised his hand, fingertips hovering mere centimeters from the soft feathers upon his face. Yongbok smiled again, lips ashen and stretched painfully. “May I know your name?” His voice was soft; it wouldn’t be long.
“I have been called Changbin for as long as I can remember.” He lowered his head, pain creeping through his own body. “I am sorry we met in this manner. You deserve to rest now, Yongbok.”
Yongbok’s hand slid back to the ground, but the smile remained. “Changbin … what a beautiful name. I like it …” His voice grew steadily quieter, before trailing off with a soft sigh. Changbin watched the light fade from Yongbok’s fierce eyes.
The phoenix looked to the carnage around him. So many lives, all lost because of him. Such useless fighting.
Changbin settled into the crook of Yongbok’s arm, letting his eyes fall shut. The sensation was warm, when it finally came. Like he was falling asleep. He was not afraid, for a phoenix never truly dies. There would be life for him again, when he awoke. Underneath the twinkling stars, hidden in the far reaches of Korea, the phoenix died for the first time in his life.
——— ( o ) ———
Changbin awoke in a flurry of flames and dust. It was clear from the state of the forest around him that he had been dead for a long, long time. The humans he had perished with were nowhere to be found; even their bones had been taken.
The sun danced playfully against the forest floor, leaves rustling in a gentle breeze. Birds chirped happily overhead, and the sound of a woodpecker resonated through the trees. Aside from the lack of chilly autumn air, it was like he had never died.
With a flutter of feathers, Changbin spread his wings and took off from the ground. Dust scattered around him at the sudden disturbance, the phoenix angling his body so he could rise through the branches above. Bright sunlight immediately drenched his body, warm air lifting him higher from the forest below. It felt rejuvenating to be alive once more and Changbin gratefully absorbed the heat. Trees stretched out in every direction, green with life and bustling with creatures he could not see.
Taking one last look at the clearing hidden by leaves, he made his decision. His fate became chasing a human through history.
——— ( o ) ———
When he finally laid eyes upon Yongbok again, the human was chained within a wooden stock. At first, Changbin could hardly believe it. Fate had a strange way of weaving things together, however.
Yongbok looked relatively the same, although his skin was covered in grime and ashy from dehydration. The black hair he remembered was brown in this life, although Changbin couldn’t quite tell what was dirt and what was other unpleasant things. In truth, he wasn’t sure he was even still alive. Changbin might’ve written him off as such as well had those eyes not creaked open. It was here that his suspicions were confirmed; despite the human’s sorry state, those eyes were still as fierce as he remembered.
He debated on helping, but something within him said no. This version of Yongbok would not recognize him. Even if his soul was old, his body was new … which also meant his memories were completely different. Besides, it had been years since a human had believed in his existence. In this age he was nothing but a myth.
Despite this, Changbin did not leave the human to suffer. When night fell and the moon hovered high over head, he burned away the chain holding the stock shut. As he was flying away, he swore he heard Yongbok call his name.
——— ( o ) ———
Their third meeting happened during the bustling age of pirates and seafaring. It was also the time Changbin nearly died for good.
For a creature made of fire, water was his most formidable enemy. In a world dominated by the ocean, flying across the sea was a dangerous venture. Changbin only attempted twice a year, if that, and had only just visited every continent in the last five years. The flights were long and hard, even for a phoenix, and finding places to land for a rest was often hit or miss. And a miss would cost him dearly.
In the time of pirates and sailing, that of course meant ships. Although they contained a multitude of dangers, Changbin knew he couldn’t fly endlessly. Finding a ship among the vast expanse of water was a blessing in itself. They were few and far between, and on three separate occasions he had come across them at war with another.
Tonight, however, it appeared he’d caught a break. It was a larger ship than what Changbin was used to but the fog hanging like a curtain of leaves atop calm waves gave him reassurance. Thus, peering at the mast, he glided towards the ship. The risk was high, and although the fog around him would provide a bit of camouflage, he was still weary. Perching there for a bit would pay off in the long run, however.
Changbin circled it a few times. After making sure the deck was clear, he flew to the railing and settled upon it. His talons dug deeply into the wood and it protested at his sudden intrusion. Taking a deep breath, Changbin lowered his temperature drastically and his flames fizzled angrily. The world tilted, head spinning, and Changbin realized his mistake too late; he was already plummeting.
He had fallen from the post, feeling his body catch upon a tangled mass of rope. It was unsightly but at least it wasn’t the water below.
Still, Changbin panicked. If he let his flames burn brightly again, he might be discovered, but if he didn’t, he would be stuck there.
The voice startled him, the phoenix going rigid.
“I swear on the sea if that’s yo—holy shit.”
Changbin felt the panic grow as he realized he’d been spotted. It was one thing being spotted when you could fly away; it was another when you were trapped in rope.
The human shuffled into view, the light from a nearby lantern illuminating his face. He was dirty, with a scar along his right cheek, and long hair adorned with beads. It was Yongbok and yet not Yongbok.
Changbin fluttered his free wing, trying to break free.
“Wait, wait, calm down! I’m not going to hurt you, I swear.”
He slowed his struggles as the human kept his hands up, the gesture meaning to appear as non-threatening. Changbin’s gaze was sharp and intent, keeping his eyes focused on Not-Yongbok’s face. After a moment, the human took a few steps towards him and Changbin resumed his struggle in an attempt to ward him away.
“Hold on, I just want to cut you free, I promise!”
His struggle didn’t slow, not until his eyes caught sight of something glowing on Not-Yongbok’s chest. Changbin went still, regarding it with narrowed eyes. It was a feather-shaped tattoo, peeking from his white shirt; the glow fizzled out as quickly as it started. Although he didn’t want to trust the human, seeing that tattoo brought back memories from another time. Deep down … he had a feeling he could.
Not-Yongbok walked closer, drawing a knife from some place hidden at his hip. A hint of fear sparked through him but he didn’t resume his attempts to break free. He braced himself for pain but it never came; rather, his other wing became free. Changbin plummeted for a moment before catching a sharp draft of wind. Rising with it, the phoenix took a moment to right himself, body bursting into bright flames. The familiar heat wrapped around his lithe body. The smart thing to do would be flying away immediately, but Changbin had chosen to rest here for a reason.
Despite everything in him screaming to flee, he knew he wouldn’t make it. Changbin dipped back towards the deck. Talons dug deeply into soft wood; he regarded Not-Yongbok with a level gaze. The pirate offered him a smile in response.
“That mark on your chest. Has it always been there?”
“Ever since I was born! Mom sai—wait a second. Did you just speak?! ”
Changbin dipped his head. “Please do try to keep your voice down. I don’t want to alert anyone else.”
Not-Yongbok looked hesitant. “You’re not one of those sea demons are you? The ones that steal your soul if they see you?”
The phoenix ruffled his wings, chuckling softly. At least, as much of a chuckle as he could manage considering he was a bird. “No, no, I’m nothing like that. I do thank you for freeing me though.”
A few moments of silence passed between them. Changbin took that time to regard the dirty human with an inquisitive gaze. There wasn’t a shred of recognition in those eyes but that didn’t bother him. In this life, this man was not Yongbok. Any chance of him ever being Yongbok again was slim. This didn’t deter him, however. After all, there had to be a reason he kept meeting the human through so many different lifetimes.
“Oh, um, of course! Honestly, I thought you were a seagull. We don’t see many this far out at sea.” Not-Yongbok scratched the back of his neck, offering a sheepish smile in his direction. He then tugged his shirt to the side and pointed at the mark there. It had long since stopped glowing, but it was the same vague shape as the feather once burned there. Such a long time ago now. “I was born with it. That’s why I’m on this ship actually. Everyone thought I was bad luck so when my mom died, they sent me away. Or ship was taken over, you know the usual, and now here I am.”
Changbin didn’t really need to hear all that. The human seemed a little too trusting for his own good. Well, he liked Not-Yongbok’s voice anyway so he made no attempt to stop him. “It suits you.”
“Thanks!” Not-Yongbok stared at him for a few seconds longer before tapping his fist against his open open. “I got it now. You’re a phoenix, one of those ancient fire birds. I’ve heard stories of you at port.” Not a speck of recognition lingered in his eyes. The human still didn’t realize who he was but he supposed that made it easier. This was what Changbin wanted anyway. A chance to converse with him.
“Do you believe in magic, human?”
“Woo. My name is Woo.”
A strange name, but Changbin liked the sound of it. “I am known by many names, but Changbin will do. A pleasure to meet you, Woo.”
Woo bowed his head in greeting. He bore no reaction to the name. “I do believe in magic. After all, where could this mark have come from?”
Changbin laughed again, although it sounded more like an ungraceful squawk. “Ah, very good. Well, I will grant you one wish for saving me then. It can be almost anything, within reason of course, and I will try my hardest to grant it for you.” Changbin wondered if Woo would believe him. Offering a wish was a dangerous thing, especially to a human, but Woo hadn’t run away screaming just yet. He wasn’t all that worried about being called a liar.
“A wish, huh? Let me think for a moment.” The human stroked his chin, pausing to stare off into space. The phoenix regarded him with curious eyes. Up close, Woo was even dirtier than he realized. It was a bit strange considering they were floating at sea. That didn’t mean baths were easy though, and maybe pirates just disliked bathing in general. Water wasn’t really an option for Changbin but he rarely, if ever, got dirty. His methods of cleanliness were picking dust and tangled fuzz from his feathers or simply burning off whatever didn’t come free.
Speaking of grooming, he opted for stretching out the wing which had been previously caught. He began picking at it while he waited for an answer. A faint glow pulsed within them but not enough to give him away … or set the deck on fire. It seemed as if Woo was the only one awake at this hour anyway. The human must’ve been the nightly watch.
“Ah!” Woo snapped his fingers, Changbin folding his wing back at his side. “I figured it out. I wish fo—” The words were cut off as the entire boat suddenly dipped to the side. Canon fire exploded in his ear drums, causing the phoenix to let out a loud screech. The sound was deafening. Changbin glanced around frantically before he caught sight of the offending noise; a boat had sailed up beside them and neither had paid any attention.
“Oh shit!” Woo took off down the deck. Changbin was momentarily frozen, staring at the hulking ship next to him. If he thought Woo’s ship was big, this one was even larger. He wasn’t sure what to do. His wings weren’t rested enough to fly away and, deep down, it didn’t feel right leaving Woo behind. Not like this.
Another canon went off, wood and splinters scattering from the edge of the ship. The sound of a bell being run snapped him out of his trance. He spread his wings and lifted from the railing, riding a rush of air up high above the two ships below. People flooded from doors previously unseen upon Woo’s ship, a glint of metal indicating swords. Their attacker’s boat was larger, but their crew seemed about the same, if not less. Already there was fighting, and Changbin could smell the hard metallic scent of blood and gunpowder. It provided an eerie reminder of times better left forgotten. Surely they could win this fight.
Changbin spotted Woo among the fighting. The human was knocked to the deck and the phoenix dove towards them without thinking. His talons dug into the enemy’s shoulder, dragging him overboard. As he rose back within the sky, he heard a shout of thanks from Woo.
The same thing occurred once more, only with Woo being pinned roughly against the mast. Changbin readied himself and dove once more. Before he could reach the attacker, a sharp pain exploded through his wing. The sudden change caused him to drop to the deck in a flurry of feathers and pained screeching. An arrow had been lodged deep within his right wing.
“Changbin!” Hands were upon but the phoenix forced his fires to rise, hearing shouts of every emotion he could name break through the fighting. His entire body became engulfed in flames.
A foot caught his chest, knocking the wind right out of him. There was another kick at him, and his wing made an awful noise as it broke—and suddenly he was falling. Changbin barely had a moment to react before his entire body was submerged in water. The phoenix felt panic rise within him, blocking out the pain, and he desperately fought for whatever way was up. Water and fire were a lethal combination, and within seconds his body temperature dropped an alarming rate.
Was he going to die? This wouldn’t be a first, but Changbin knew if the water doused his inner flames, this would be his final resting place. For the first time in his life, genuine fear gripped him.
All at once, something curled against his wing and his head broke the surface. His body was slung like a ragdoll and he landed upon something with a harsh thud. His vision was swimming but he swore he saw the soaked face of Woo a few feet away. Right before his fires went out, he was certain he heard a voice.
My wish is to see you again.
——— ( o ) ———
Waking up hurt. Changbin’s entire body felt weighted, tired and sluggish. The gentle sound of waves and call of a seagull in the distance alerted him that he was, in fact, still alive. He blinked awake, raising his head to shake a bit of sand from it. Above him the sun burned brightly; the phoenix gratefully basked in its warmth. Just a few steps away sat the ocean, calm and blue and not looking deadly in the slightest.
He had died and by some chance come back to life once more. Changbin was glad his ashes had stayed in the same general location otherwise things would’ve gotten messy. A quick glance around revealed not a single human, or really any creature, around him. The beach looked as if it had been untouched for years.
Changbin rose to his feet, shaking the sand from his feathers. His newly formed wing was fluttered gratefully. How long had he been dead this time? In truth, it felt like forever. He knew it was longer than average due to the water. The phoenix really had no reason to worry, but he didn’t exactly enjoy the idea of being out of the know for two hundred or so years.
The air felt different. Cleaner, in a way. Changbin took a few minutes longer to bask in the feeling of warm sunlight upon his body. It charged up his flames and provided new energy through young feathers. This was his form of eating, for a phoenix is never really required to participate in the functions of mortal creatures. In a way, his body was almost like that of the planets hiding high above. The sun provided him with the energy he needed, and as long as his inner flame continued to flicker, he could survive.
Spreading his wings, Changbin left the beach behind.
Changbin learned much later that he had ended up on the shores of China, body floating through the sea upon a piece of driftwood. The year was 1757, long after the age of piracy had ended. Woo had perished in that fight against the enemy ship, and he was once again left to search for the reincarnated Yongbok.
——— ( o ) ———
Their next meeting occurred in the gentle lull of spring. Changbin had been exploring China for nearly ten years when it happened.
Hiding among the forest for a bit of rest, he spotted a human gathering flowers within the field a few steps away. Humans were far from a rare sight these days but never had Changbin seen one so high up the mountain. The curiosity was high. He flew from his current tree to one just before the field, settling upon the branch and lowering his temperature.
It was an older human, humming quietly as they shifted through a patch of prim roses. A basket sat at their side, filled with various plants and strange tools Changbin had never seen before. How they had managed to make the trek up here was beyond him.
After a few minutes of watching, the human seemed to find what they were looking for. A soft “ aha! ” followed them as they turned. Changbin’s eyes widened a bit as he realized the human, a man, looked familiar. The human hurried to a patch of red flowers that Changbin didn’t know the names of and Changbin got the perfect sight of his face.
It was, indeed, another version of Yongbok.
Relief flooded through him first. After his meeting with Woo, Changbin had not seen him since. Within the two hundred years he lay dead, he had no idea if the human’s soul had even still been around. What an odd thing fate was.
“You can come out. I know you’re up there.” The human hummed, picking a few of the red flowers.
Changbin didn’t react. There was no way the human knew he was watching.
Except … he did. Two eyes were turned in his direction, holding a gentle fierceness all of Yongbok’s reincarnations seemed to possess. “You have been a legend upon this mountain for five years. Come, phoenix, humor this old man.”
His feathers ruffled uncomfortably. This felt all too similar to the first time he’d met Yongbok. There were no other humans around as far as he could see but his caution was high.
“I am not going to ambush you, I promise. I simply wish to paint your beauty.” He watched as the human returned to the basket, sliding the flowers back within it. “This is of course all if you feel comfortable. My canvas is at the top of that hill.” Changbin’s eyes followed the finger pointed further up the mountain. “Please come by if you agree.”
Still he offered no reaction. The human lingered for a moment or two longer before wandering away, steps uneven and still humming that same little tune.
Strange, especially considering Changbin had kept himself confined to the mountains and forest the last few years. There really wasn’t enough time for him to form a legend in such a small place. Unless, of course, this human had spotted him before. Maybe he had been a little too careless recently. No matter. The human seemed old and non-threatening, and he did resemble Yongbok. Spreading his wings, Changbin flew off to find the location mentioned.
He had a bit of an idea what a canvas was. They’d been spotted a few times, through windows of places he didn’t care to stop at, filled with people and creatures that never seemed to move. The concept was called a painting. Changbin wasn’t all that sure about how they came to be trapped within but he knew he didn’t really want to find out. Maybe he should just fly the other direction and forget about this version of Yongbok.
Despite that thought, the phoenix knew he couldn’t.
Although he had no idea what he was looking for, Changbin knew he found it. Atop a hill further up the mountain, just as the human had said, was a large blanket held open by rocks on all four corners. The center contained a strange wooden contraption with a rectangle upon it, a log standing upright just beyond. Two packs and another basket sat next to it. Changbin wasn’t really surprised that he had beat the human back. Thus, he settled on a rock nearby and opted for sunbathing while he waited.
By the time the human arrived, the sun was already high overhead. Changbin kept his position upon the rock, watching the other being carefully; he was prepared to fly if needed.
“Ah, you actually came!” He watched as he sat down, taking a drink from the leather pouch at his hip. “I apologize for the delay. My bones aren’t as young as they used to be.”
Changbin shook his head in response.
“I shouldn’t be surprised that you can understand me. My name is Sohn. Do you have a name?” Sohn sat down upon the log, dropping the basket next to him.
“Then I suppose it wouldn’t be a surprise that I can speak as well. There are many names your kind has for me, but you may call me Changbin.”
Sohn chuckled, the sound deep and melodic. “I used to know someone named Changbin, back when I lived in Korea.”
His head tilted in response. Interesting. He’d never heard of someone else sharing his name. “I can assure you it was not I.”
Sohn looked to the canvas in front of him. It was here that Changbin seen the tiny wooden bowls spread out in front. Some were filled with colour, some were stained with what used to be, and one contained a bit of dirty water. “This was nearly twenty years ago. There was no way that man could’ve been a phoenix. Too sinful.”
Sinful, hmm? Changbin didn’t think being sinful or innocent had anything to do with becoming a phoenix. At least, those who were born into it. Those who were turned had a whole set of other qualifications that Changbin had never really cared for. It wasn’t important, therefore wasn’t bothered with. “You are taking a talking bird fairly well.”
“I am the one who asked you to come here.” Sohn hummed softly, and Changbin watched as he reached for some of the flowers at his side. They were added to one of the empty bowls. “I would love to paint you.”
Changbin settled further upon the rock, letting the tension drain out of him. It was clear at this point Sohn had no intention of harming him. “Paint, you say? That is a human concept, I assume.”
Sohn nodded in response. The human began to knead the flowers with a stick. He watched, a bit more intrigued with the action than he’d admit. “Painting, where you can put any scene you desire upon a surface. That is what I do for a living.”
“So it doesn’t trap things?”
Another laugh, this one louder than before. “Of course not! Humans have no such magic, although others do praise my talent with such compliments.”
“Ah, I see. And you said you wish to paint me?” Changbin still wasn’t quite sure what it meant but, well, there was always time to learn.
The flowers had been turned into a strange looking paste at that point. Sohn added just a smidge of water, allowing it to have a watery texture. Changbin tilted his head at the sight. It was yellow like the dandelions there only moments before. “Yes. I needed to find a good flower for your beautiful red fire. Luckily I came across these.” Sohn turned before holding up the red flowers he’d gathered earlier. They were a species Changbin had never seen. “Geraniums make the most vibrant red. It will look wonderful, I promise.”
“What is it you’re doing, Sohn?”
“Oh, this?” The human held up the bowl containing the yellow paste. “Making paint. This is what I’ll use to paint you.”
Hmm. Changbin had no idea you had to make it yourself. “I see.” They fell into a comfortable silence. Well, as much of a silence as could be applied, for Sohn continued humming and the birds hidden from view carried on with their song. Changbin had no concept of time really but after a few long minutes, he spoke again. “I agree to let you paint me.”
Sohn smiled from where he was finishing with his red. “Thank you, Changbin. I promise it will be beautiful.”
Changbin had no reason to doubt Sohn’s words. The phoenix stretched his wings before settling back down once more, content to soak up the sun for a while longer. Sohn continued on humming his song, using a strange wooden stick upon the canvas, and Changbin watched the beautiful scene slowly come to life.
True to Sohn’s word, the painting turned out absolutely beautiful. He swore he could feel his fires radiating from the paint. It was truly a beautiful piece.
Changbin flew with Sohn while he traveled back down the mountain. They continued to meet up, day after day, for another seven years. The human never remembered that he was Yongbok, and Changbin made no attempts to push it. Their friendship was filled with inquisitive questions and many a story. Until, one day, Sohn never showed up. He learned through observation that a lantern had tipped over in Sohn’s bedroom, burning down his beautiful home and taking most of his paintings with it. Only a few survived.
One happened to be the painting that commemorated their first meeting, the phoenix settled sleepily on a rock amid a field of yellow flowers. It became world famous, kept within China’s exquisite palace and honoured following the story of Sohn’s death. Even though the story faded throughout the ages, it was still praised as the main inspiration behind just what a phoenix looked like.
Changbin lingered upon the mountain for a few more months before setting off for new lands. There was still much to see and much to learn.
Despite knowing Yongbok would be reborn once more, Changbin was certain part of his soul had died along with Sohn.
——— ( o ) ———
The phoenix ran into various incarnations of Yongbok over the next two hundred years or so years. It seemed the man’s soul was marked for death by fate, for Sohn went on to be the only version of him to survive after turning thirty. His life was always tragically cut short, and sometimes the human wasn’t even reincarnated upon the same continent. There was always a pull whenever Yongbok was reborn, functioning like a guiding beacon to provide assistance to passing ships.
Sometimes Changbin made himself known and the two got along famously. Other times, Yongbok’s then-self didn’t take too kindly to a supposedly mythical bird dropping from the sky. Not that Changbin could blame him of course; if he were human, he’d be scared too.
Due to this, Changbin made the decision to learn how to transform. It was an ancient art first created by the foxes of old. Any animal could learn it, really, provided they had at least a little magical aptitude. Despite this, it took nearly five years for him to master, as well as find the perfect form, but he eventually got the hang of it. With his new human body, it was much easier to approach Yongbok’s reincarnated forms without fear of being discovered. Or getting a shoe thrown at him. That had been an interesting meeting.
Yongbok, or rather whatever his name was in that age, never did seem to remember being Yongbok. The only variable that remained the same was the feather tattoo on his chest. Every single time, reincarnation after reincarnation, it was there. Changbin was a bit surprised by the revelation but it helped him identify Yongbok easier.
Even with his desire to see Yongbok again, that search did not consume him. Whenever he was reborn upon another continent, Changbin took that time to learn. The phoenix learned a variety of new things in each age. Sometimes he worked, sometimes he lived in the forest, and sometimes he took to traveling. Changbin learned how to play the guitar, how to rap, and even how to dance. He taught himself how to read, write, and sing. At one point e ever gave a human school a chance and there discovered his love for performing for others.
Friends were few and far between, however. It was hard to communicate with anyone that wasn’t Yongbok. They would grow old when he did not as well, making it difficult to stay in one place for longer than ten years. People suspected and began to talk, thus Changbin left. Very rarely did he take anything with him. Physical possessions were a bit of a burden when you were a creature used to living on the go. Despite this, he did have a few smaller things given to him by various incarnations of Yongbok. Like a cross necklace, a set of earrings, and a silver promise ring. All of these treasures were dear to him and he did anything he could to keep them safe.
Eventually one of Yongbok’s reincarnations gifted him with a guitar. This too became something he treasured, but it wasn’t an object that could be easily carried in his true form. Changbin became to walk wherever he needed to. Inconvenient for someone who was used to flying, but eventually he grew not to mind it. This offered a way to strengthen his human body anyway.
His human form wasn’t much. Dark hair, dark eyes, an average build … but he’d studied humans long enough to know what to go for. Changbin liked it and had grown used to the compliments over the years.
Changbin eventually became a street performer in the streets of Seoul. There was no real reason for it aside from he enjoyed playing his guitar or rapping. Sometimes cafes or clubs came by to ask him to perform on their stages; he always met these requests with excitement. In the life of a phoenix, it was usually the same thing, day in and day out, year after year. It was a welcome change of pace.
With no threat of starvation, Changbin lived a carefree lifestyle. He had money for pretty much anything he could ever want but really had no reason to spend it on anything. In fact, even though he’d learned all about finance within the human school, he really didn’t know what to do with all of it. Money was money to him.
The year was now well into the 21st century, and time had taken an interesting step. Things were so different compared to his past. Kingdoms, pirates, and wars had passed in the blink of an eye. There were now cell phones, computers, cars, trains, even planes that allowed humans the ability of flight. Changbin didn’t bother with quite a few of those options; the trains were helpful though.
It was because of this new lifestyle that he met the newest reincarnation of Yongbok.
He was performing in one of the subway stations when a cheerful man with wild hair came rushing over. The phoenix kept his performance going of course but he could tell how excited he was. Several of his audience dropped variations of money into his guitar case before wandering off. His excited visitor did not, however, and Changbin regarded him with a neutral expression.
“Can I help you?”
“You’re the wandering performer right? The one everyone keeps talking about?” His was deeper than Changbin was expecting.
It caught him a bit off guard, and he turned to place his guitar back within the case to hide this. “Yeah that’s me.” Should he be flattered people spoke about him? He figured so.
“Perfect! How would you feel about performing at my cafe? Our Friday performer suddenly dipped on us and we could really use the help.” The human clapped his hands together. “Pretty please?”
“Well, I don’t really have anything else to do. What cafe?”
The stranger practically sparkled, eyes wide with excitement. “Great! It’s the Sunny Skies cafe by the local mall. Oh, I haven’t introduced myself yet. My name is Lee Felix.”
He felt a ripple of apprehension run down his spine. This Yongbok was named Felix, which was actually a very fitting name; he liked it. That wasn’t Changbin’s problem though. He was nervous as hell. Changbin always got this way when meeting Yongbok again for the “first” time. “Sure. I can be there around four.”
Felix cheered, throwing a hand up in the air. “Yay! I’m looking forwards to hearing you play again. I gotta run; the cafe can’t make coffee on its own. Oh, what’s your name?”
“Changbin. I go by Changbin.”
There was no flicker of recognition, as usual; Changbin wasn’t really expecting one. “Changbin is a good name. Nice to meet you. I’ll see you around four!”
It was over as soon as it started. The phoenix felt a rush of exhilaration prick at his fingertips. Felix had the energetic personality and the same intense eyes. Nearly forty years had passed since the last time he’d felt a sign of Yongbok and relief settled deep within him.
Changbin picked up the money within his guitar case before setting the prized instrument inside. He took one moment to collect himself before heading off towards his apartment to clean up a bit.
——— ( o ) ———
As promised, Changbin showed up exactly at four. The Sunny Skies cafe was much, much nicer than what he was expecting. Inside, the floors were pristine white and the walls were draped with a variety of red and yellow fabric. Some contained sequins, glittering from the sunlight filtering in through the skylights above. Small tealight candles sat at the center of each table and although they were flameless, they still provided the desired flicker. Above him, the ceiling was painted in much the same manner as the Milky Way galaxy; it was truly a sight to behold. There were several people scattered about the main room but none paid any attention to the performer standing in the doorway.
“Changbin! You made it.” Felix came wandering over to him. He was dressed in a long sleeve white shirt, a black vest overtop that to match his black pants; he looked nice. His hair was still a mess of brown curls though.
His hand tightened around the handle of his guitar case and he offered a polite bow. “Thank you for having me.”
“No, thank you for coming. We were really at a loss for what to do.” The human pointed to a stage on the other side of the room. Thin curtains covered in glitter were draped around it, a few spotlights directed at the center. It was dimly lit, giving an illusion of space. A star projector was spread evenly against the back wall. Changbin had to admit he enjoyed the feel of the cafe, and no only because the idea of space fascinated him. Really, a sun-type theme suited Felix.
“So you’re basically going to perform for about fifteen minutes at a time. You can play your guitar or rap or sing, anything is fine. If you feel up for it, take customer requests as well. Don’t feel like you have to though! After that, you’ll be given a five minute break.” Felix motioned for him to follow. ‘There’s a small table in the kitchen where you can sit if you’d prefer to be away from the bustle out here. It’s a bit quieter.”
Changbin bowed his head in greeting as a customer looked to him. “I understand.”
Felix led him to the stage. It was much prettier up close. The curtains glittered much like the wall behind and the stage had a swirl of stars painted upon it. Really, everything tied together.
“Great! Orders aren’t free unfortunately but they do come with a fifty-percent discount, so feel free to order anything you like. You can start at 4:30.”
“Alright, that sounds fair.” Changbin set the case in hand upon the stage, tucking it to the side.
Felix waved before wandering over to the bar at the far wall. The wood was worn but beautiful, sitting almost directly in front of the entrance to the cafe. It seemed for today that was where Felix was stationed. Changbin padded on over, taking a seat as close to the bar as he could. “I just want a coffee please, french vanilla if you have it.”
Despite the order coming out of nowhere, Felix still nodded. The phoenix watched as he moved around. It was mindless, in a way, but seemed to have a calculated rhythm. Almost like he was dancing. Changbin figured he’d been working here a while.
A cheerful smile met him; the cup clinked against the table as it was presented to him. “Here you are! One french vanilla. Don’t worry about paying until after you’re done performing.”
The phoenix didn’t answer, instead raising the cup to his lips and taking a drink. It was hot enough to burn someone’s mouth but for him, it was just right. Changbin set it down quietly. “Thank you.”
Felix smiled, the gesture bright, before heading off in the opposite direction to help a different patron. Once again, everything seemed perfect right down to every last detail. The human seemed to have the right charisma, and from what Changbin could see, everyone loved him. Even down to the particularly grumpy looking old woman seated a few tables away.
“He owns this place you know.” The voice broke him from his thoughts. A man slid into the seat across from him. Changbin tilted his head in question. The man was on the taller side, with a wide grin and a messy tangle of blonde hair upon his head. It seemed to stick up in more directions than Changbin cared to count.
“Chan, you didn’t tell me you were stopping by today.” Felix hurried back over. Changbin really shouldn’t have been surprised that the humans knew each other.
“I wanted to pop in and surprise you. Got a new Friday performer, I see.”
Changbin glanced between them in silence, sipping his coffee.
“He’s only working here today. Our other guy skipped out on us and caused a big mess. Had to run down the street just to find him!”
The unknown human regarded him with a curious gaze. “Oh! You’re that wandering performer then, eh? Changbin? I listened to you once, over near the river. The name’s Chan.”
An interesting name. Hmm. “A pleasure to meet you, Chan.” He took another sip of his coffee. Changbin was grateful when the attention shifted off of him once more.
“You wouldn’t believe the person that came into work the other day, Felix. God damn was he heavenly.” Felix opted for cleaning the counters as Chan started telling his story. “Tall, blonde, and beautiful . He wouldn’t tell me his name but apparently he lives three doors down from me! I saw him when I was getting home … he accused me of following him but I did show him I lived there.”
Felix looked pretty excited over the information; Changbin drank his coffee quietly. “That’s great! I hope things work out this time.”
Chan huffed softly. “It’s true he comes into work all the time but … I get the vibe he doesn’t really like me. He’s not, like, mean or anything. It’s just hard to hold a conversation with him. Pretty sure he wishes he could get literally any other waiter.”
“I would assume he knows your schedule.” Both Felix and Chan looked to him. “Why would he continue showing up if he knows you work at a specific time? Just don’t push him. Bring up small things like the news or compliment his appearance. You might be giving him too much of a push.” Changbin set down his cup. “Forgive me if it wasn’t my place to comment.”
Chan blinked before his expression turned almost scheming in nature. “That could work, actually. Thanks for the advice, Changbin!”
“Wow, that’s pretty good Changbin. Well, I gotta go wipe down some tables and see if anyone needs anything; don’t scare him too much, Chan.”
They both watched as Felix trotted off, humming softly to himself—it reminded him of Sohn. There was a moment or two of silence, which Changbin didn’t really mind of course, before Chan spoke. “I wasn’t lying. That brown-haired mess owns this place.”
“I don’t think your hair is much better, Chan.”
A laugh followed his words. “Hey, you’re pretty funny! I didn’t mean it in a bad way.” Chan’s expression darkened a bit, eyes holding a sudden intensity. “He’s clumsy and isn’t very good at keeping track of anything, and he used to get bullied a lot in high school. That didn’t stop him though. Even with his background, he worked and worked and eventually managed to open this cafe. I’m asking you not to place judgement on him based on the Lee name.”
Changbin’s fingers fiddled with his now-empty cup. “There’s something wrong with the Lee name?”
Chan looked taken aback. “Lee? One of the most notorious crime families in Australia?”
The phoenix shrugged. “Never heard of them. What does Australia have to do with Seoul anyway?”
“Hmm … I guess that means you can’t place much judgement on him then.” Chan leaned back in his chair. “He’s a good man and everyone loves him despite what his father has done. He ran from Australia to start a new life; I’m sure he’ll tell you more once he gets more comfortable.”
Changbin nodded in response. I have no interest in mundane affairs anyway. “It’s alright. I have no intention of judging him based on that. A parent’s actions do not reflect their child, right? I heard that somewhere.”
Chan chuckled quietly. “You seem like a good guy Changbin. I leave him to you.” The man rose and started towards the door.
“Wait, what? Leave him to me?”
His only answer was a wave before Chan exited the building.
Changbin stared at the door for a few moments after he left. “That was strange,” he finally mumbled, turning his head to look at Felix. The human was speaking with a customer, a wide grin on his face. Notorious crime lord huh? Changbin barely knew was a drug was, if he was being honest. He did know the meaning of the word notorious, however, though he couldn’t say it fit considering Changbin literally had zero idea who the guy even was.
Oh how Changbin wished it had stayed that way.
——— ( o ) ———
Although he hadn’t said either way if he would perform again, Felix came to find him again the following week. He wasn’t sure how the man found him considering he performed at so many different locations, but perhaps Felix had asked around his cafe. Enough people went there everyday; it made sense.
They didn’t interact much his first few performances aside from the usual “how are yous” and “the usual?” He didn’t typically stick around long after his shows were done either. Felix was cheerful though and brightened up the endless cycles of Changbin’s life. The human was a twenty-five year old college graduate, at least from what he’d been able to learn. Without having to worry about running away, he could spend time getting to know this reincarnation of Yongbok.
Chan became another constant presence as well. He was an interesting man and Changbin quickly formed a friendship with him, one that only grew the first time Chan heard him rap. Soon they were writing things together and laughing quietly whenever they had time off, Felix included of course. It wasn’t unwelcome, but it was a strange concept Changbin still felt mildly uncomfortable about. After all, a human’s life was a fleeting thing.
Upon the third week, Felix asked him to become a regular performer. Not just Fridays anymore, but almost every night of the week. Changbin agreed without question. The phoenix had no inhibitions in regards to admitting he enjoyed being there. He had even gathered a bit of a following in the month or so he’d begun performing there. Sunny Skies was a quiet place with a flow of its own; he had come to love it.
Changbin wasn’t the only new hire he found. A young college student named Kim Woojin had begun performing there as well. He was on the quieter side at first and was incredibly polite. After a few conversations, however, Woojin easily opened up. The phoenix got along with him well enough. They’d even managed to create a mini act of sorts together, with Changbin rapping and Woojin singing; it was a huge hit.
Unfortunately for Chan, Woojin also happened to be the very person was practically infatuated with. It amused Felix and Changbin but Chan was left suffering. In hindsight, Changbin’s struggle was similar; he left the teasing to a minimum after that realization.
It was a particularly slow afternoon when the questions began. Changbin wasn’t really that surprised honestly.
“You’re called the wandering performer right? Does that mean you used to live elsewhere? Or is it just a title because you travel around the city.” The question came from out of nowhere, and Changbin looked up from the paper he was scribbling on.
“I like to travel, yes. I’m not sure where the wandering performer thing first started, but it certainly didn’t come from me. I’m certain it began because I tend to end up at different places here in the city. Why sing in one place?” Changbin took a sip of his coffee. These days, it was like he never ran out; Felix made sure of it. “I don’t do it for the money.”
“That’s why you’re so great, Changbin.” Chan slid into the seat to his left, waving a hand in greeting. Really, the human was too good at appearing out of nowhere. “You’re not about the money. Or rather, you don’t need it? That’s not important. You’re a talented rapper and people enjoy listening to you.”
Felix whined quietly. “That still didn’t answer my other question though.”
He made a soft noise in the back of his throat, taking yet another quick drink of his coffee. “I have lived in many different places. Most of them have been within Korea though.”
On his right, Woojin’s fork clinked softly against his plate. “You’ve lived outside of Korea?”
“In a way yes. I was in China for quite a few years.” Changbin looked to the paper again; his inner flame flickered in response. Memories of Sohn flooded through him. He didn’t let any of the sudden emotions surging within him show upon his face though. The phoenix had been to all corners of the world. Ever since his near-watery grave, however, he had been much more cautious on just where he traveled.
“Still, that’s much more than any of us have ever done! I’ve been in Korea my whole life.” There were soft murmurs of agreement.
Changbin smiled a bit, scribbling at the paper again. “Traveling isn’t all they try to sell. You miss home, and you miss the few people you care about. Although … I suppose it’s easier when you don’t have a home. You can wander without worrying about paying for anything, seeing the world and living a carefree lifestyle.” For a moment, he grew lost in his thoughts. He remembered all of the reincarnations of Yongbok, cycling through all of their first meetings and all of the times they’d perished before him. To be a phoenix meant a life of solitude and constant monotone in regard to feelings. Changbin had strayed from that path nearly three months ago, and thus had ended here, surrounded by humans he was lucky enough to now call his friends.
“Are you homeless? You could stay with one of us you know.” Felix looked a bit unsure of his own words—perhaps he felt it wasn’t his place.
Chan, on the other hand, looked positively mortified. “You’re telling me you live on the streets?! Changbin, you should’ve said something!”
The phoenix laughed softly. “No, no, I’m not homeless. I live in an apartment a few blocks from here, I promise. I suppose it does come across that way since I’m on the streets a large majority of the time.”
Woojin rose, getting ready to head to the stage; it was his turn for a solo performance. “I know you said you don’t do it for the money, but there has to be a reason. Why do you perform, Changbin? What drives you?”
Changbin finished his coffee and set the pencil he was holding down. He glanced to Felix, those intense eyes staring intently at him. Curiosity swam within their depths. “There’s someone I’d like to see again. I’m passing the time until they return to me.” For just a moment, he swore he saw the feather on Felix’s chest glow brightly through his shirt.
——— ( o ) ———
Later that night, just before he was about to leave, Felix stopped him. Changbin set his guiatr case down and regarded him with curious eyes. The human seemed nervous.
“I know you said you’re waiting for someone but … I was wondering if you wanted to go out to dinner tonight? To like, an actual place, where I don’t have to cook.” His grin was somewhat cheerful but still showed the nervousness Felix was feeling.
If Felix only knew. Changbin smiled and dipped his head. “I would love to. My guitar needs to go home first though; I wouldn’t want to drag it to a restaurant.”
Almost immediately, Felix’s entire body seemed to glow. He was practically beaming. “Okay! I know a great place with private rooms down the road from here. You’ll love it, I swear.”
Changbin was slightly grateful that Felix still needed to finish closing up the cafe. He didn’t really think it was a good idea to bring him to his apartment just yet, mostly because it was fairly simple and lacked food. Or furniture … and even a bed. Felix would certainly ask questions. “I trust you. I’ll go drop this off and then come back here to meet you. I’m sure closing will be done by then, then we can walk from here. Okay?”
“Sounds good to me. I’ll see you soon, Changbin.” The human made his way back into the kitchen.
Smiling, Changbin picked the case back up and headed towards the door.
——— ( o ) ———
Changbin had accumulated a small amount of clothes the last few months. They weren’t the greatest, but he still made the attempt to coordinate something nice. It was the thought that counted right? He doubted Felix would mind anyway.
His thoughts were confirmed when he arrived back at Sunny Skies. Felix was still in his work uniform but had removed the vest. He still looked amazing, aside from the mess his hair always seemed to be. Actually, Changbin found that pretty cute too.
The human locked the door to the cafe, fiddling with the handle. He tucked the key back into his pocket and looked to Changbin, face lighting up upon seeing him. “There you are! Ready, Changbin? Trust me, this place is great.” Felix waved for him to follow. “I made a reservation while I was waiting for you to get back.”
“I’m sure it’ll be wonderful. You have good taste in food.”
“Because I own a cafe?”
Felix chuckled at that, the same deep noise Changbin had come to love. He shifted to the side to allow an elderly man passage between them. “I don’t cook anything you know. I’m the barista, not the chef.”
“Well then your coffee is good. I still think that allows you the right to be proud in your food tastes.” Changbin was far from a connoisseur. In fact, he’d only sampled a few things in his lifetime, and most of them were at Sunny Skies for appearances. He had no reason to eat and thus didn’t see a point in wasting money on food … which was something he had completely forgotten about until then. Eating wouldn’t hurt him or anything, but hopefully Felix didn’t question whatever he happened to order. Human food was still very much a strange concept to him so hopefully he could get away with ordering whatever sounded good.
“I suppose so!” Felix came to a halt, pointing at a neon sign. “Here we are. One of my favourite establishments, aside from mine of course.”
The building was one story but made up for the lack of a second floor with how far back it extended, the outside sleek. Several plants sat on either side of the entrance with a single bench off to the right of it. Changbin had passed by this place a few times before but had never taken the time to stop by.
The inside was nice, with shining white and black checkered floors, and bamboo plants situated beautifully along the straight aisle in front of them. Screen doors veiled each room from prying eyes, with workers traveling between them. The kitchen seemed to be located in the far back. Changbin had to admit, he was thoroughly impressed.
“Hello there!” A voice caught his attention. “Do you have a reservation?” The phoenix was intrigued. They led you to your food? Felix didn’t do that at the cafe.
“Yes! Under the name ‘Lee Felix.” The woman paused for a moment, staring before he seemed to catch herself. If Felix caught it, he showed no signs, but Changbin’s watchful eyes picked up on it immediately. Such a reaction was more than likely due to what Chan had told him; Felix’s father was still a notorious drug lord after all. The kind that made you disappear if you didn’t pay up. Changbin supposed he understood the fear, but he wasn’t sure why it was directed at Felix. Malicious intentions? He could sense none from the human.
“Yes, right this way.” The woman offered a polite bow before heading off down the hall. They followed, and Changbin took that time to sneak a glance at Felix’s face. Cheerful as always.
Their host slid the door closest to the kitchen open, revealing a brightly lit room with a table and cushions scattered around it. A large window made up the entirety of the far wall, revealing a beautiful garden upon the other side. It was quite beautiful and had an overall welcoming feel; it reminded him of Japan. Which, incidentally, happened to be the type of restaurant they were at.
“Sit wherever you like. Your waiter will be here with menus in a moment.”
“Thank you,” Felix said in response, but Changbin offered no such gesture. The lady seemed fairly put off by the glare being sent her direction and fled quickly. He made a soft noise and wandered to the table, sliding down upon the pillows with a huff of relief. Felix sat opposite, a huge smile on his face. “So? Do you like it?”
“The design is very nice. Thank you for inviting me, Felix.”
“Inviting?” Felix laughed, tucking his legs under the table. “Have you never been on a date before, Changbin? I do have another surprise too! Which should be coming right about … now.”
Dating? A surprise? Changbin’s head tilted a bit. He was about to ask when the door slid open.
“Felix? I didn’t know you were coming tonight! You should’ve warned me.” Chan was standing in the doorway, menus in hand. He was dressed in a nice uniform, the jacket clinging to his shoulders perfectly. His hair, however, was still as messy as ever.
“Oh wow, Changbin too? Welcome, welcome! I’ll be your waiter tonight.” The man smiled. “And yes, this is where I work.”
Felix was smiling at the waiter. “He does good too. This is actually how we met. Chan would come to my cafe during the day, and I’d come here every other night. We became friends once we started noticing the pattern.”
“Ah, I see. Thank you for your service then, Chan.”
Chan settled himself at the end of the table. “Hey, it is my job. Now then, anything to drink? Felix probably knows what he wants already.”
There was a brow raised in Felix’s direction, and the human’s face seemed to grow a bit pink. Was he sick? Whatever just passed between them went completely over Changbin’s head.
Their first dinner together was calm. Full of questions from Felix of course, but calm. Everything tasted vaguely the same to Changbin but he still made an effort to seem excited whenever Felix asked for his opinion on something. Spending time with him was more enjoyable than the food anyway, and Changbin found himself seriously hoping this would be the lifetime Felix’s memories came back. He’d begun to love this version of Yongbok, from his deep voice to his messy hair. Even his tendency to drop sugar everywhere. Everything about him was seemingly perfect.
Such tranquility never seemed to last, however.
It happened halfway through June, when the heat was nearly unbearable and life had grown a little lazy. He’d been performing at the Sunny Skies cafe for nearly four months at that point. Nothing ever seemed to change really, aside from a new regular or the rare menu change. This was yet another quality that seemed to draw people in.
Changbin was performing when the man walked in, flanked by four people. He was wearing an expensive looking suit. At first glance, Changbin could tell he was important, the aura he was giving off intimidating. His expression seemed angry yet calculating, eyes flicking around the space he’d just walked into. The phoenix watched Felix turn around, immediately jumping at the sight—he nearly dropped the cup he was holding. His song didn’t falter, fingers still thrumming against his guitar strings, but Changbin knew immediately; the man was his father.
Changbin watched the man make his way towards the counter. Felix took a step back, waist bumping against the counter behind him. He finished his performance and immediately jumped down from the stage, hurrying over. One of the bodyguards stepped in his way; Changbin looked up at him defiantly.
“Changbin wait, don’t come over here.”
He shifted to the side so he could see Felix. “But—”
“Please, wait in the kitchen.” Felix looked so nervous and desperate that Changbin just couldn’t find it within him to protest. With a dip of his head, Changbin turned and forced himself to walk away.
Right before he entered the room, he swore he heard a question regarding him.
——— ( o ) ———
Felix wouldn’t talk about that day, but it didn’t take much a genius to figure out his father had threatened him. The thought of such a cruel being so close to Felix’s bright nature made his skin crawl. With his flames burning brighter than normal, Changbin was unable to keep his human form in tact, and instead spent three days flying around Korea to release some tension. It provided a chance to stretch his wings as well. He lied and said he wasn’t feeling well and was lucky enough that the trio he’d befriended didn’t ask questions.
For nearly a week after he returned, the cafe had a strange weighted feel to it. Felix tried his hardest to be as cheerful as usually but everyone, including customers, could see how lost he was. Something was on his mind but Changbin didn’t want to pry. When he was ready, he would share; it was one of the few human notions he understood.
On Friday during one of his breaks, Felix paused in his dish cleaning before turning his attention upon Changbin. He set down his coffee cup and waited, giving his full attention to the man. “... Would you mind if I walk home with you from now on?” Felix worried at his lip for a moment. “I’m kind of worried.” Part of him wanted to ask why, but Changbin also had more than a little bit of an idea; he wasn’t a fool.
“Sure. I have some errands to run tonight so I’m not heading home just yet. We can start tomorrow, yeah?”
He was given a crt nod in response. It was strange behaviour for Felix. Changbin wondered just what Felix’s father had said to him. Or done, rather.
When he left that night, Felix didn’t even spare him a glance. The man looked completely exhausted and entirely lost in what he was doing at the register. It was so eerie seeing the normally bright sunlight dim. Even he began to feel the effect, thus decided another flight was in order. Errands were pushed back for later.
There weren’t many things Changbin regretted in his life, but that night turned into one of them.
His walk to the forest was quiet. The urge to fly had been reawakened intensely after his recent flights, and he was looking forwards to it. The forest was quiet, a gentle breeze rustling the leaves. It felt like the night he’d met Yongbok for the first time.
The phoenix never expected it when it happened. A bag was suddenly shoved over his head, warm hands snatching his wrists. His arms were yanked harshly behind his back, Changbin grunting at the pain that followed. Cold metal clicked into place around them and he jerked forwards in an attempt to get away. He was shoved against the ground with too much force, pulling a gasp from his lips.
“Throw’im in the car. Boss wants him right away.” The voice was deep and harsh, completely devoid of feeling. Changbin struggled against the forest floor. His inner flame burned angrily in his chest but just before he could burn the people touching him, a blow to the back of his head caused sparks to explode through his vision. The phoenix felt his consciousness waver before he succumbed to the darkness pulling at his mind.
——— ( o ) ———
Waking happened in a flash. It didn’t feel like dying but for someone who never slept, it was a new experience that he would be grateful to never deal with it again. Everything came rushing back in such a sharp overload that Changbin couldn’t stop his disgruntled hiss; the noise was far from human. His senses had always been finely tuned and easy to adjust at any given time, but the moment of downtime had thrown him out of sync.
Sounds were louder, the lights above him burned fiercely, and he was hyper aware of whatever he was sitting against. Changbin moved to grasp at his head but his hands were stopped short, chained to something he couldn’t see just yet. He struggled to realign his senses before everything finally seemed to smooth out. The phoenix blinked a few times as the pole in front of him came into clear view; his hands were chained to it with a pair of handcuffs.
Changbin’s head immediately whipped around in an effort to spot anyone.
Several humans were standing around the large room. Everything was draped in brilliant yellows and fiery reds, right down to the dishes scattered lazily around the room. A large window, partially concealed by billowing red curtains, took up the entirety of the far wall; he could tell they were high up based on the sky just beyond. Right in the center was a desk, a chair just beyond, with a large man perched within it. He wore a suit and had slick black hair. His eyes were dark and burned with a fierce anger that made his skin crawl … and they were focused directly on him.
The room was silent save for the breathing of the humans around him. Their eye contact didn’t break for a good five minutes, the two of them simply regarding each other with calculating eyes. A rush of trepidation ran down his spine. Changbin was, in all honesty, a bit nervous. This man was Felix’s father.
As he watched, the human tapped the pipe he was holding onto the desk in front of him. The strange contraption was set down in favour of him standing, towering well above the other humans standing at attention. Changbin could see the similarities between the man and Felix; their eyes shared the same intensity, but Felix’s face held a kindness his father’s severely lacked.
His advance didn’t stop until he was barely a foot away from the phoenix’s body. He stared up at him with silent determination. Changbin’s mind was swimming with questions but he didn’t dare speak first. Nor did he really want to.
“You’re the one named Changbin, correct?” The man’s voice was deep, containing an accent he had only heard from Felix. Up close, he could see a tattoo of a tiger peeking from the right side of his chest.
“I hope you didn’t kidnap me just to ask for my name.” Changbin felt whatever trace of nervousness drain out of him.
“A yes or no question.”
“I was there when you came to visit; I’m sure you know the answer.”
Felix’s father grinned, an awful looking sight compared to his son. He sank to one knee, regarding Changbin with a calculating gaze. “You’re an interesting one alright.” A hand reached towards him but Changbin jerked his head away, glaring defiantly. “My name is Lee Gonhee, but you can call me Boss to avoid any confusion.”
“My only boss is your son.”
Gonhee chuckled, but it was far from being light-hearted. “You think I would bring someone he has a puppy dog crush on here without reason? I know what you are, Changbin, and I intend on getting full use out of you.”
Changbin didn’t let that spook him. “I’m just a simple performer. If you wanted me to rap for you, you could’ve just stayed and listened.”
Gonhee rose, snapping his fingers. One of the humans hovering near the edge came walking over immediately, holding out a book for the man to take. He waved it in Changbin’s direction. “You think I’m joking. Everything that has ever been discovered about you is in this book. Stores of the phoenix, the great firebird, have been around for hundreds of years. People have seen you before, if only fleeting, and have passed those stories through the ages. Others were even lucky enough to snap a picture or two. You are not elusive anymore, phoenix.”
Everything seemed to come crashing down at once. There were a million what ifs and I should’ves running through Changbin’s head, but those were the least of his worries in that moment. The fact was, a human knew his identity. A human knew what he was.
“I can see this is the first time you’ve ever been identified like this. That makes me feel wonderful.” Gonhee flipped to a random page in the book. “You’ve probably heard of my reputation by now so I’ll keep this brief. I have the tools and power to force you into helping me, and I’m not against using my own son as leverage either. He thought he renounced me years ago but he cannot escape from his pre-planned fate.”
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
Changbin looked up at Gonhee with intense eyes, raising the flames within his body to a frightening level. The human stumbled back in surprise. The chains binding him melted into nothing within seconds and the phoenix rose to his feet, rubbing at sore skin; he regarded Gonhee carefully.
“You are correct, Gonhee. You cannot escape from a pre-planned fate, which renders your illusion of your son’s inconsequential. His fate has been determined for centuries now, long before you were ever relevant.” His expression grew dark. “He may be your son in this life, but he was once a brave warrior who died a valiant death alongside me. He is so much more than the son of an awful father.” Flames licked angrily at his skin. “I could kill you now if I wanted to. Whatever sway you think you have means nothing. You will die while I continue to be reborn. You are nothing, Gonhee.”
“Nothing to a creature such as yourself, maybe, but like I sad. This book holds everything we know about you.” A sickening smile stretched across those cracked lips. “Including how to kill you permanently.”
Changbin figured a bluff might be his only way out of this. “What’s to stop me from burning this entire place to the ground? I owe you humans nothing. Felix would not miss you; you are no more a father than a speck of dust beneath his shoes.”
Gonhee threw his head back and laughed , catching Changbin off guard. “You think people fear him simply because he shares the Lee name? It doesn’t surprise me he never told you. He too was a killer. One of the best, actually.” The man slammed the book shut, tapping it against the desk next to him. “That man stole from me and opened a pathetic little cafe here in Korea as an attempt to “better” himself. My son thinks he can run from me, but even an old drug lord from Australia has connections here. At a snap of my fingers, I could wipe out his cafe and take his life. I allow him to live in the hopes he may have a change of heart and return to me.”
The information drew a moment of hesitation from the phoenix. Changbin soaked in the words with a neutral expression, refusing to let them sway him. “Killer in the past, perhaps, but that is not the man he is now. I will not help you and you will not use him to gain my favour. He will be reincarnated in the next life and once again I will find him, free of your clutches.” He didn’t wish for Felix to die. This Yongbok was kind, loving, and cheerful. It was almost a sin to even consider he could ever be a killer.
“You would throw away his life? My, my, that’s certainly interesting. Here I thought you actually gave a shit about him. How little you actually care.”
He eyed the window just beyond the smirking human. If he ran with enough speed he could easily break through; it wouldn’t be the first time. “You’re wrong. Yongbok is everything to me, and I will follow him into every life he lives. Whether he’s Yongbok, Woo, Sohn, or Felix, I will continue to chase his soul through history.” The phoenix let fire curl around his body with each word, glowing brightly. The humans around him shrank back in fear of what he was doing, but Gonhee showed no sign of it.
Not a single muscle gave away his plan as Changbin sprinted towards the window, snatching the book from Gonhee’s hands as he went. His shoulder slammed against it, shattering the glass and sending shards flying in every direction. Wind tore at his clothes as he fell, but the phoenix had been in similar positions many times before. He transformed and flew away without even sparing a glance back.
The building burned to the ground as a result of his stunt, and the incident later became one of the most notorious mysteries in Seoul’s history. Lee Gonhee’s body was discovered among the mess, a single scorching pipe next to him; it was determined it had caught the desk on fire. Seoul’s crime rate dropped sharply afterwards. His gang disbanded shortly there after. Many of them cleaned up, becoming better people, and left the gang life behind them. Changbin heard rumours of someone speaking about a phoenix being the cause, but the soul doing so was quickly lost to the havoc of human life.
Felix made no indication of his feelings on the tragedy either way, but Changbin could feel the relief radiating from him whenever they were together. He didn’t share the story of his abduction either; there was absolutely no reason to. Things settled back into their usual routine within a week, and soon even the news grew tired of reporting upon the dead man.
The book on the “phoenix” turned out to be nothing but lies as well. Changbin burned it the first chance he got. Once again, he could go through life without worrying about being discovered just yet. At least for now. After all, he had plenty of days ahead with Felix.
——— ( o ) ———
About two months afterwards, Felix’s entire personality seemed to light up once more. He was more excitable and spoke more freely. Changbin was incredibly relieved; he hadn’t been the same since the appearance of his father.
“I’m happy. That he’s dead, I mean. That’s bad I guess but … I’m glad he’s gone,” Felix said quietly, refilling Changbin’s coffee.
He was caught a bit off guard but if Felix was finally ready to talk about it, he would gladly listen. Changbin took a drink of his new coffee and fixed his gaze on the people passing by just outside. “There is nothing wrong with being glad. He was a drug lord and you are a barista. You are from two different worlds.”
“My father … he didn’t have the right to be called a Lee. Our family goes back centuries you see, all the way back to the Sword Dancer Lee Kisung. Everything about being a Lee is centered around order and beauty, both of which my father lacked.” Out of the corner of his eye, Felix’s smile was pained. Tears dripped onto the counter. “I loved him when he was a good man, before he became power hungry and destructive. I loved the old Lee Gonhee.”
The phoenix slid from his seat and made his way around the counter, pulling the sobbing Felix into his arms. He gently patted his back as the brown-haired man buried his face in his neck. Changbin said nothing the whole time, allowing Felix to cry against him. The tears burned a bit, for it was still water against his skin, but he endured. It was better to let everything out than hold it in, another concept Changbin understood well. No remorse grazed his conscious, however; it was better this way. Both of them were safe.
After a few moments, Felix pulled away. The man rubbed at his eyes with a sniffle. Changbin held out a tissue and he gratefully accepted it. “Thank you, Changbin. You’ve been really supportive these last few months.”
He merely dipped his head, unsure on how to phrase the emotions he was feeling. The phoenix just wanted to make sure he didn’t cry again. Changbin rounded the counter to settle back within his seat, taking a quick drink of his coffee. “Would you like to come to my apartment tonight, Felix? I have alcohol.” Not the smartest idea, but the words were out before he could stop them. Changbin didn’t have a bed and he certainly didn’t have any alcohol, but Felix didn’t need to know that. “Or we could go to yours if you were prefer. I don’t have a television.”
“You can call it a TV you know.” Chan’s voice was playful, the man plopping down next to him. This was the first time Changbin had seen him since last week. His ability to randomly materialize was still the same of course.
Felix sniffled and dabbed at his eyes. “You can come to mine. I have snacks.” Chan looked like he wanted to throw in a self-invite but one glance at Changbin warned him way. Perhaps he could hear the don’t you dare being sent at him.
Half of his coffee was already gone so he simply finished the rest off, enjoying the heat as it trickled down his throat. “Sounds like a great idea. I’ll walk home with you then if you don’t mind.” Felix nodded but didn’t answer, having to run off down the bar to take an order. Changbin immediately turned, fixing his gaze upon Chan. “Is it true he used to kill people for his father?”
Chan choked upon the water he was drinking, having to hit his chest a few times to help himself. After his coughing fit was over, he looked to Changbin with a stern expression. It was the most serious he’d ever seen the human. “Where did you hear that? I thought I told you not to judge him.”
“His father,” he said, without hesitation. “The day he died, he also abducted me. I need answers, Chan. I wouldn’t bother you with this if I had any other choice; you know that.”
“Did … did you cause that fire?” Chan’s voice was hushed.
He couldn’t bring himself to look at the man, instead fiddling with his coffee cup as he watched Felix move around the opposite end of the cafe. “I did, but I feel no regret for it. That man was going to kill Felix if I didn’t become a member of his awful gang.” It certainly wasn’t the truth but Chan didn’t need to know that. “I need to know, Chan. Was he a killer?”
Chan glanced at Felix in an effort to make sure he wasn’t coming back just yet. He then looked at Changbin with clear eyes. “Are you sure you’re prepared to hear this? Your opinion of Felix, of me , won’t change?”
“I swear to you it will not.”
The man let out a tired sigh, tapping his fingers upon the counter. “Yes, he was a killer. Worked for his father like a machine, taking innocent lives and performing orders without question. The two of us were actually partners back in Australia; we did everything together. Best pair Gonhee had, actually.” Chan scratched his neck. “Eventually, Felix was faced with the decision to kill a child, and ultimately decided against it. That event woke him up, really opened his eyes. So we stole a bunch of money from him, flew to Seoul, and opened Sunny Skies.”
The phoenix listened to the story with a neutral expression, glancing between the two humans he had come to care for. “He has always been good at the core. I admire him for that. Thank you for telling me, Chan. My opinion on both of you hasn’t changed, I promise.”
An exhausted smile was given in return. Changbin turned away from Chan’s face so he could stare at Felix. The man was currently cleaning off a few tables, chatting happily with a few customers seated nearby. Woojin’s singing created a calm atmosphere despite the heaviness left behind by Chan’s words. Sadness crept into the fire in his chest, for he knew it wouldn’t be like this much longer; Felix was nearing the age he normally died at.
I wish I could see you again.
——— ( o ) ———
The weeks seemed to pass by in a blur after his conversation with Chan, quicker than anyone was really prepared for. Everything was relatively smooth sailing, however, and without having to worry about anything their routines fell back into place. Eventually, Chan and Woojin announced they were dating but neither Felix nor Changbin were surprised. In fact, this on top of the death of his father, gave Felix the motivation to finally ask Changbin to date him. The phoenix said yes of course and the four of them spent many a night wandering the city together, going on double dates and just genuinely having a good time.
This life was calm, and Changbin dreaded the day it would end. He had become attached to this version of Yongbok, but also to Chan and Woojin as well. Friendship was still an awfully new concept, and dating was a whole other realm Changbin had never experienced before as well, but Changbin was smart enough to learn as he went. It was easy to write off as part of his awkwardness. In truth he really had no idea what they were talking about most of the time. The phoenix still wasn’t caught up well with the times, but he was good at pretending.
During those dates, he caught a few mentions of words he didn’t understand. That led to the discovery of the human reproductive system … something he wished he never would’ve had to look up. Changbin luckily didn’t have a phone or computer, thus sparing him from accidentally stumbling across porn. Woojin actually laughed when he asked about it and told him he couldn’t help, so Changbin simply left it alone.
Soon it was Felix’s twenty-sixth birthday. Chan came to him with a plan that sounded good in theory but not in practice. He was still willing to give it a shot though and agreed to assist with set up. Changbin spent a majority of his day buying decorations while Woojin ordered a cake. Once they met back up at the cafe, he was supposed to ask Felix to help him with an urgent matter. The phoenix didn’t like lying about why he needed help but if it was for his birthday … he supposed it would be fine.
They’d been informing customers in secret for about a week when one of their regulars brought up a great idea. Changbin could ask for one of the chef’s keys so they could sneak in at night and decorate then. That way on the next day, Changbin could distract him long enough for the customers who had agreed on the surprise to get there, and they could all spring a large surprise party on him in the morning. It was a brilliant plan, better than Chan’s determination to pick the lock, and he was on board with it immediately.
He stayed the night at Felix’s after passing the keys off to Chan. Woojin and him would decorate with a few other employees that night.
“Hey Changbin? Can I ask you something?” The man’s voice drifted from the kitchen, bringing the scent of popcorn with it.
Changbin stretched his legs out on the couch, hugging the pillow he was holding tighter. “OF course, Felix. You know that.”
A faint “ oops! ” could be heard and Changbin smiled; the noise was cute. “Well, my birthday is tomorrow, so I was just wondering … you’ve never told me yours. We’ve known each other for almost a year and you’ve never told anyone.”
Ah, a human question. Changbin leaned back against the arm of the couch, his mind working to come up with something. “Well, in all honesty, I don’t really know. I was born during a colder month though. Snow was covering everything outside.” Not untrue. He’d been born high atop a mountain in a shrine. His shrine. Changbin hadn’t been there in nearly forty years but he knew nothing had disturbed it; the land there was sacred and shrouded in mystery. Most humans were too afraid to venture into the snowy hills guarding his beautiful birthplace for fear of a curse.
“Eh? You really don’t know?” Felix’s head peeked out from the kitchen, staring at him in disbelief.
He shook his head in response. “I was found on the doorstep of a hospital during winter, and that’s all I know.”
“Hmm …” Felix stepped fully into the doorway and Changbin admired his boyfriend from where he was laying. “Then could I give you a birthday? I mean, we have to celebrate sometime right? I can make it in winter too.”
Changbin rolled off the couch, walking over to the taller man. “I would like that very much actually.”
After a moment or two of thought, Felix snapped his fingers. “December 10th! Not too far into winter but not too early either.”
The phoenix shimmied around Felix, snatching a handful of popcorn from the bowl on the counter. “Perfect. We’ll be able to celebrate it this year then.” No matter what happened to Felix, December 10th would stay with him forever. To humans, birthdays seemed immensely significant, and if Changbin really needed one … then he would gladly accept. This too would become a treasure from one of Yongbok’s reincarnations, something meant to be taken with him no matter what happened.
“I’m so happy!” The man practically danced around the kitchen, brown curls bouncing with each step. “Hey, Changbin! What did you get me for my birthday? Do I have to wait until tomorrow?”
He ate a piece of popcorn. “I have something for you, yes, but you have to wait.”
Felix pouted a bit but the happiness from giving Changbin a birthday was still enough to keep his face lit up. “I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted a gift from you.”
A pang of sadness went through him, for the phoenix had given this same gift many times over, in almost every single life Yongbok had lived. He made no indication of the sudden rush of emotions, however, and instead turned to scoop up another handful of popcorn. “You will enjoy it, I promise.”
Changbin wished this could last forever.
——— ( o ) ———
The cheers from everyone hidden within the cafe perked Changbin back up. Felix was practically on cloud nine, caught in a whirlwind with all of the sudden activity. He hurried inside, a skip in his step and smile warm and wide. Woojin had even seemed to shed his shy personality, letting Felix jump around in front of him. Changbin was feeling the effects of the atmosphere as well. He’d never seen a birthday party before and even though that fact was kept hidden, excitement bubbled in his chest.
The phoenix shoved his guitar case behind the counter. Within, the gift he had gotten for Felix was hidden. Presents weren’t a new concept to him, for Changbin had given multiple throughout his various lifetimes, but never to Felix. In all honesty, he was looking forward to it.
Chan chose that time to wander over within a strange looking contraption in his hand. “Here Changbin, put this on.” It was shoved in his direction.
“... What is it?” Changbin took it reluctantly, staring at the strange cone covered in golden glitter. There was a flimsy strap attached to the bottom. Human things were so … strange.
Chan laughed and took it back from him. “It’s a party hat. You wear it!” He reached up and fiddled with a strap, letting it snap against Changbin’s chin. The phoenix tried to look up at the ‘party hat’ but every time he tried, the strange device vanished.
“What the hell? This thing has a mind of its own.” The human was practically rolling on the floor in laughter, clutching his sides. Changbin on the other hand didn’t understand what was so funny, but everyone else lucky enough to be near them seemed to find it amusing as well. “Seriously, what is it? Why can’t I look at it?” It was distressing, to say the least, but he figured it would be pretty funny seeing someone who was supposed to find these things normal acting the way he was. He clearly did not.
Felix walked up to him and pulled the hat free. There was a huge smile on his face. The phoenix stared at it intensely, waiting for it to grab his head again. “They’re called party hats. You wear them on your head. It’s supposed to help you get into the party spirit!” Still watching carefully, his eyes followed the ‘hat’ as Felix placed it upon his own head instead. His hair flattened to accommodate but really, it suited him; just as golden and bright as the person wearing it.
Some human things he would probably never understand. ‘Party hats’ were definitely one of them.
“Who’s ready for cake?” The call out distracted them just enough that no questions were asked. Felix lit up immediately and tugged on Changbin’s wrist so he would follow.
Woojin had done a good job with it. The cake was covered in white frosting, the middle somehow containing a picture of the four of them in front of Sunny Skies upon its surface. A few suns drawn in yellow icing circled it. Below the picture, a large ‘happy birthday, Felix!’ was written in black icing. Changbin glanced at Felix, seeing a few tears escape him; he could tell they were happy.
Changbin wasn’t, however, prepared for when everyone started singing. Another human tradition he didn’t understand? The phoenix panicked a bit and tried his hardest to look like he was singing along with them. After all, he did perform here for a living.
Felix shoved a slice of cake in his direction. He stared at it for a moment before taking a bite. In truth, it didn’t really taste like anything to him, but everyone kept commenting on how delicious it was. Woojin looked especially pleased at picking a good flavour. Changbin played along with it whenever someone asked if it was good, giving a thumbs up.
As he finished his piece, a hand suddenly reached for his face. Felix swiped his thumb against the corner of his mouth with a laugh. “You got frosting on your face.” Changbin watched him bring the finger to his own lips, licking the frosting away. The flames in his chest fluttered at the sight but Chan, bless the human, managed to distract both of them.
“Time for presents!” Chan called. He was shuffling plates into a provided garbage bag, but Changbin didn’t miss the devious smile on his face. He probably bought Felix a gift that Changbin or Woojin would have to clean up.
Felix gave a thumbs up in response, finishing the last bite of his cake. Changbin watched him head over to the table piled with everyone’s gifts, before turning to go find his. He fiddled with his guitar case for a moment before it popped open, revealing the tiny black box held shut with a yellow ribbon. The gift was something he had presented to every single reincarnation of Yongbok, the same ring he’d gotten forged over four hundred years ago. It was his way of staying at least a little connected with a soul brimming within.
Chan’s gift was a pair of VIP tickets to a concert Felix had been eyeing for a while, and he practically yelled he was so excited. Woojin’s gift was a set of matching mugs patterned liek the sky on a sunny day; Felix found them incredibly cute. His other gifts ranged from money to homemade sweets and even included a new star projector from the old woman Changbin had initially found grumpy. Eventually it was Changbin’s turn, and he held out the small box with slightly shaking hands. Nerves weren’t really something he experienced often, but when he did, it was nearly overwhelming.
Felix was careful as he unwrapped it. Inside was the ring, attached to a silver chain atop a note Changbin had written himself.
A promise that I will never leave you, no matter how tough life seems to get.
The man turned tearful eyes in his direction and Changbin couldn’t stop his smile. “I love you, Changbin!” Chan helped him put the necklace on before Felix wrapped his arms around the phoenix. He hid his face within Felix’s chest. Below the weight of silver, the feather mark hidden beneath his shirt sparked—no one but Changbin noticed.
——— ( o ) ———
For the first time since Changbin had arrived in this world, he felt the happiest he had ever been. Following Felix’s birthday party, he asked if Changbin would move in with him; the phoenix agreed before he could really weigh the repercussions. There weren’t many things to move aside from his clothes, which Felix didn’t really seem convinced by, but he eventually let it go.
One night, as they lay in bed hands curled within each other, Felix finally asked.
“You said you were waiting for someone, right? Are you really okay with being with me?” His voice was quiet, quivering a bit as the question cut through their tiny room.
Changbin squeezed the hand in his own, channeling a little bit more warmth as a type of reassurance. “You. I was waiting for you.”
Felix rolled over, curling up against Changbin’s body. He pressed a kiss against his cheek, and his eyes were brimming with tears. It was something he had come to realize the last few months. Felix was an emotional human and it wasn’t uncommon to see him cry over the smallest of things. This, however, could hardly be counted as small.
The phoenix wasn’t that good with emotions, but he wasn’t a fool.
“Really? Waiting for me?”
Changbin turned as well, bringing their linked hands up to rest between their chests. He cupped the man’s cheek with his free hand, wiping at the tears with gentle fingers. “Yes, for you. I swear.” The phoenix kissed him gently.
Changbin dreaded the day this would end.
——— ( o ) ———
About two weeks had passed since Felix’s birthday party. Life continued on like normal, aside from him now heading home with Felix rather than the opposite direction. It was a content existence, filled with a calm that mirrored his time spent with Sohn. Peace has a way of searching for trouble, however. It happened on a Friday afternoon, were Changbin was on his day off and simply lounging in Sunny Skies to pass the time.
Nothing about him was malicious of course. In fact, the only thing inherently strange about his appearance was his fox-like eyes. Changbin sensed immediately he wasn’t human, eyes flicking up from the book he was reading. The creature seemed to spot him right about the same time because he came trotting over with a friendly smile on his face. He slid into the seat opposite him.
“Well hello there, Sir Phoenix! You’re exactly who I’m looking for.”
Changbin immediately dropped his book, glancing around. Felix was on the other side of the cafe, chatting vibrantly with a customer. He sighed in relief. “I would prefer if you address me as Changbin here; none of these humans know what I am,” he said quietly.
“Ah, my bad, my bad. The name’s Hyunjin; I’m a kitsune.” An ear upon the kitsune’s head twitched. To ordinary humans, they were probably invisible. Then again, kitsunes were much more common than the phoenix; he probably had not a care in the world.
“A pleasure to meet you. Is there something you need, Hyunjin? I doubt you would be here if not.” He looked between Felix and the kitsune once more, making sure there was no chance of the barista walking over.
The fox made a soft noise, a devious smile upon his face. “Very impressive, dear Changbin. I’m not here to cause trouble or anything, I promise.” A brow was raised in Hyunjin’s direction. “I may be a fox, but not all of us are sly. Actually, my master sent me to speak with you; he would like to extend an invitation to meet.”
Changbin leaned back in his chair. “Your master?”
Hyunjin hummed quietly. “I am not tricking you. Foxes may be tricksters but this is no joke. Haemosu wishes to meet with you.”
“Mm, the sun one. I have heard of him.” More than heard of him, actually, but Hyunjin didn’t need to know that. “What does he want with me after all these years?” Changbin had met with the god before a long, long time ago; it’d been nearly three hundred years. Their last meeting hadn’t gone the greatest either. Haemosu had fallen for one of Yongbok’s reincarnations but had reluctantly let ago upon discovering the mark burned into the human’s chest. His favour had not gone easily though and Changbin had been certain the god was the cause of Yongbok’s unfortunate accidents.
The fox simply shrugged. “No idea. I’m just the messenger fox, you know. Seemed urgent though. My master operates out of the penthouse downtown. I wouldn’t keep him waiting.”
Changbin sighed. All he wanted to do was read his book. The phoenix rose, drinking the last of his coffee. “Felix!”
The man looked up from the counter, waving at him. “More coffee?”
He shook his head, leaning over to give him a quick kiss. “I’m gonna head out for a bit. I should be back within an hour or so.”
“Okay! It’s your day off anyway.” He smiled. Changbin got the vibe Felix was almost happy he was wandering off by himself. The phoenix rarely went anywhere but the cafe these days, now that he thought about it. “Be safe, alright?”
“Of course, of course. I’m gonna leave my guitar here for now. I’ll see you soon.” He slid his cup across the counter and stepped away, leaving the smirking kitsune behind. Changbin didn’t miss the glance between Hyunjin and Felix. It was a bad idea to leave the two of them alone, but he dearly hoped the fox would keep his mouth shut. With yet another sigh, he left the cafe.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
——— ( o ) ———
Gods had always been known for their eccentric style, no matter which category of mythology they came from. Such a factor was not uncommon, no matter what corner of the globe nor religion they came from. Haemosu was no different. In fact, he was on par with Apollo … and Changbin had met both of them. Maybe it was a sun god thing.
His penthouse was covered floor to ceiling with large tapestries, intricately woven and carefully handcrafted. The floor was covered in beautiful red silken rugs. Strange artifacts from multiple points in history were proudly encased in glass near the edges. The smell of honey and jasmine permeated the air, a thin veil of smoke lingering towards the top of the room.
“Ah, Changbin! It’s been so long!” The creature the voice belonged to matched the penthouse perfectly. His body was clad in every shade of red, yellow, and orange one could possibly imagine. How it all worked together was unknown, but Haemosu made it work, the colours blending to look like that of a sunset. Fitting, considering he was a god of the sun. His hair was as unruly as ever but his beauty had remained unchanged. An overwhelming aura radiated off of him; the god was truly a sight to behold.
At his side stood a silent guard. He too was draped in shades of red and orange, but not nearly as many as Haemosu. He complimented, but did not outshine. His eyes were sizing Changbin up but he did not feel intimidated; in fact, the aura he held was one of calm. Changbin liked it.
“It has, Haem—”
“Nope!” The god interrupted. “I go by Jisung now. That name is only used in extremely formal situations.” Which, knowing him, was rarely.
“Okay. It’s nice to see you again then, Jisung.”
The god clapped his hands together in delight. “It sounds so nice in your voice. Come, come, take a seat. I have plenty I want to speak to you about.” Jisung motioned for him to follow. “Oh! You’re probably wondering about my guard here. His name is Minho; he’s a human I made immortal and now he works for me.”
Minho bowed deeply. “An honour to meet you.”
Changbin smiled and followed Jisung into the main living area. “You don’t need to be so formal with me, I promise. I’m just an old bird.” The human nodded and straightened back up, padding after Jisung with a strange grace in his step. He must be the one Jisung had fallen for. After all, gods didn’t just go around making humans immortal whenever they wanted to. Changbin could see why; they looked good together.
Jisung sank into a comfortable looking chair and motioned towards the couch. The phoenix sat down but didn’t get too settled in just yet. Minho stood next to Jisung’s chair.
“Now then, I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you hear. I wish I could say it was for a cheerful reunion, but I’m afraid it’s quite serious.” The god’s eyes grew heavy, and Changbin felt worry crawl down his spine. “I know we’ve had disagreements over the Yongbok you love so much, and it is because you love him that I summoned you here.” Jisung reached for a tea cup next to him, taking a small drink. “I’m afraid … his soul is nearing its end.”
Dread filled every corner of his body, but Jisung didn’t allow him a chance to speak. “You of all creatures know how reincarnation works. All humans are granted a chance at being reborn if they have not committed a heinous crime, contrary to the ‘one life only’ theory. When a human dies, their soul is sent to be repaired and cleansed, scrubbed of most of their memories and interactions to spare them issues in the next life. One some rare instances, traces are left behind and thus humans feel as if they are experiencing a sense of deja vu. Every time one of Yongbok’s reincarnations dies, it does not go through this process.”
“What does that mean for him?” Changbin’s voice was quiet.
Jisung let out a heavy sigh. “Like I said, his soul is nearing its end. I’m afraid this life with be his last, and if not this one, then the next. It has gone through too much overwriting without a cleanse and is at a point where he simply cannot be reincarnated once more. His soul will perish forever.”
Changbin looked away from Jisung and focused his gaze upon the floor, trying to ground himself. His thumbs battled against each other as the information sank in.
“There’s a way to fix it though, Changbin.” It was Minho, his voice unlike anything Changbin had ever heard. The phoenix regarded him with a calm expression. “You are a mythical being, right? You have the power to make him immortal should you wish, just like what Jisung did with me.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” he mumbled. “I am not a god like Jisung. Certain conditions must be met before I can even think of making him immortal. He must remember that he is, in fact, Yongbok. His first life must be reclaimed but the chances of that happening are slim. His soul has been overwritten so many times I don’t think it’s even possible at this point. He has never showed any signs of remembering what used to be, thus I have no bothered.”
“While that may be true, Yongbok is still within him. Lee Felix is merely an extension of his previous lives. The closest, probably, since he was originally born as a new soul.” Changbin finally worked up the courage to look at Jisung again; the god was smiling softly. “He can be saved, Changbin. I am willing to help you. After all, if we had not gotten into that argument all those years ago, I would not have met Minho. I owe you, in a way. I found someone i love and I want you to be able to be with the one you have come to treasure as well. I would not have called you here just to poke fun at a hopeless situation; I’m not that cruel.”
The phoenix smiled, and for the first time in his life, struggling to hold back tears. “Thank you, Jisung. I truly appreciate it.”
“Of course. I’ve already given Hyunjin instructions and he should be completed here in the next ten minutes.” Jisung took another sip of his tea. “Felix has an excitable soul, so I have given him a substance that will induce dreams of his past lives; it is masked as candy. He will have to find the correct memory on his own, but don’t be surprised if he asks you about the adventures you’ve had together.”
Changbin dipped his head in response, rising to his feet. “As soon as he remembers being Yongbok, I will be able to change him. I just hope he isn’t afraid of me …”
“I have never met this Felix, but it seems he cares just as deeply for you as well. I’m sure he won’t be afraid.” Minho gave him a soft smile. “It will work out.”
Changbin bowed deeply, to both of them. “I won’t forget this, Jisung. I’m glad you found happiness as well. Thank you.”
A wave answered him, the god trying his hardest to look unbothered. Jisung was never very good at masking his emotions. “It’s time an old bird settles down for good, don’t you think? Now go to him and wait. Things will fall into place soon.”
Changbin was so overcome with emotions that he flew the entire way back. He arrived just in time to see Felix eat a piece of the candy Hyunjin had left behind. Now it was his turn to wait.
——— ( o ) ———
The first life Felix brought up was one Changbin didn’t have a presence in. According to Felix, it was an almost realistic dream where he was living in a small town in China, working at a tiny corner store. He couldn’t remember what he was doing at that point of time, but Changbin knew for sure that he had not been there for that life. The human chattered excitedly about it as he focused on making breakfast.
Two days later, the next life came to him. The phoenix was a part of this one but the era was long before Changbin had chosen his human form. Felix described it as ‘terrifying but exhilarating.” It had been the time a much younger reincarnation of Yongbok had almost given away his existence. When Changbin asked if Felix would ever give the phoenix away, he repleid with an almost offended “of course not!” That quieted the fears in his chest a bit.
His next night was filled with dreams of Woo. Felix found it strange he dreamed of the phoenix again but he found it fun to be a pirate … even if he died at the end. Changbin held him for a bit after the dream, for he had jolted awake late into the night; he too understood all too well the terror that came with it.
Each night after that brought about a different life, some with Changbin as a human and some with him in his phoenix form. He was lucky enough to escape being the phoenix and Changbin in both for the moment. That was, until two weeks after Felix had eaten the first candy.
Changbin had pretended to be asleep that morning, allowing Felix to leave early. He wandered into the cafe around noon and sat down in his usual place, waiting for Felix to walk over for a kiss. When his boyfriend didn’t, he looked up from the book he was holding. The man was hunched over the bar, messing with a few coffee beans but looking utterly lost. “Felix?” There was no indication of hearing him. “Felix!” His voice was firmer and it seemed to snap the man out of whatever thought he was having.
“Oh, Changbin! Good morning. I didn’t even see you come in.” Felix’s voice was trembling. Changbin pressed his lips together and set his book down. “I had another dream last night. It was … different than the others.” He want to pour Changbin’s coffee, completely missing the cup. His yell startled a few customers and he hurried to clean it up, apologizing profusely to everyone. That wasn’t like Felix at all.
“Are you going to be alright? Maybe you should go to the doctor if these dreams don’t stop soon.”
Felix continued to wash the counter well after the coffee was gone, rubbing the same circles upon the surface. “This one had a name in it this time so I … I looked it up online, right? And I found an entire person who did the same exact things that happened in the dream. I had never heard of this person before, not in school, not here, nowhere.” Felix looked right at him, eyes wide. “They looked just like me.”
Changbin paused right before his cup touched his lips, staring back at Felix with the same amount of shock. He had completely forgotten the internet was a thing that existed, a thing Felix knew how to use perfectly.
“S-so I looked up the other names I’d dreamed about and … the same thing. The paintings look like me, the adventures are exactly what I’ve dreamed over, and it’s all the same. Why do they look like me? Why are you in some of the pictures?”
Fear exploded in the fire burning within, flames flickering as Jisung’s plan finally reached its end. “I …”
Felix looked away, staring at the water pooled upon the counter. “Changbin. What’s going on? I don’t understand why these people look like me. I certainly don’t recognize any of them …”
The phoenix finally snapped out of his frozen state, glancing around them. Only two other people remained in the cafe, and they were seated as far away from the bar as you could possibly get. Changbin looked up at Felix’s face; both their hands were shaking. His voice, when it came, was low. “If I tell you this, you have to promise not to panic. Okay?”
Felix looked back to him, nodding. “I promise.”
Changbin had gone through this very conversation once or twice before, but never before had so much been leaning upon it. Everything felt overwhelming and heavy against his chest. He took a deep breath. “I’m not … I’m not what you think I am. I haven’t been, ever.”
“What do you mean? Are you a demon?”
“No!” The word came out harsher than he intended. “No, I’m not a demon. The opposite actually.” He looked to the counter, the starry walls, the door leading to the kitchen, and then Felix himself. This place was everything he loved … and he was terrified of losing it. “Please don’t panic.”
A silent nod was his only answer, so Changbin steadied himself against the counter with another breath he didn’t need. His hand curled against his coffee cup so hard it was actually surprisingly it didn’t shatter. “I’m … the phoenix. The big firebird you keep seeing in your dreams? That’s me. And those aren’t dreams either. They’re you. Well, versions of you, in your past lives. I’ve been chasing you for a really, really long time. I wasn’t lying when I said you are the one I’ve been waiting for.”
Felix looked absolutely taken aback and really, Changbin couldn’t blame him. This sudden information, especially in the era the world was currently in, would be shocking for literally anyone to handle. “I’m? You’re? Changbin … you’re a bird?”
“That’s what you’re shocked about? Yes, I’m a bird, and you’re the human I have been chasing for centuries.”
“Me … Why me? Why me, Changbin?” Felix dropped the towel he was holding, looking like he might cry. “Have we … have we had this conversation before?”
Changbin tried to calm himself but was unable to. “We have, a few times before. In your original life, you attempted to save mine. We perished together after a group of vagabonds tried to slay me, only I woke up in that forest and you moved on to a new age without me. At first I simply wanted to meet you again and say thank you but eventually I could do nothing else but search for you.”
Changbin drank the rest of his coffee, feeling overwhelmed with emotion. “I would look for years on end, only to find I had just missed you. Sometimes when I did, you were afraid of me. Other times you tried to kill me. It all depended on the era that version of you grew up in. I wanted to find Yongbok again … I wanted to see those fierce eyes and speak within him once more. So I taught myself how to transform, learned everything I could about the human world, and started trying to fit in. I’ve tried my hardest to learn what it means to be human but I’m still too much of an animal to simply walk away from that life.”
Silence stretched between them, just as vast and unforgiving as the expanse of space, before Felix laughed softly. “That explains why you had no birthday, and you don’t sleep, and you don’t really care about food. It’s a crazy story but what’s even crazier is … I believe you.” The most intense gaze Felix had ever given him was turned in his direction. “I remember being Yongbok. I remember that night in the woods. I remember every cut, every stab, every little detail down to how cool the air was … I even remember when I got this mark.” Felix raised his fingers, running them along feather burned into his skin so many years ago. Changbin felt every emotion possible flood through him.
Felix extended his other hand, placing it gently upon Changbin’s. “You have to accept that here, in this life, I’m Felix. I am no longer Yongbok, just like I am no longer Woo or Sohn, and every reincarnation in between. You have to love me as Felix too, Changbin.”
His gaze wavered. “I already do. I have loved every reincarnation of you since, even the ones I did not meet. From Yongbok all the way to Felix, you are the world to me.” Tears slid down his cheeks, hot and stinging—tears the phoenix didn’t even know he could cry. Strange, for water to leave a being made completely of flame.
“I know I won’t be around forever though, and you’ll have to do this all over again in the next life,” Felix said. Changbin looked at him; the man was staring at a constellation on the ceiling. “But somehow … somehow I feel like this is the end. Is it? The end I mean.”
Changbin jerked his hand away, jumping to his feet. “It’s not!” The amount of emotion in those words scared him, and the phoenix scrubbed the tears away from his eyes. “I can make you immortal. I can make it so you will never die again.”
Felix leaned against the counter for a moment, grabbing a napkin. The human made his way around it before gathering Changbin’s shaking body into his arms, gently dabbing at the tears that just wouldn’t quit flowing. “I want to stay with you forever. I wished I could see you again remember? And that wish has continued to come true.” Felix buried his face in Changbin’s neck. “Will you allow me to stay with you forever?”
“I want nothing more,” he whispered, clinging to Felix tightly.
“I love you, Changbin, more than you will ever know.”
Changbin pulled back a bit, meeting those now-gentle eyes. “You’re wrong. I have watched you fall in love with me many times over. I know just how vast your love is.”
His face was buried within Felix’s chest once more, listening to the sound of his heart beat. “Come to the park near here tonight. Bring Chan and Woojin as well. I need to go make preparations, okay?” He squeezed Felix’s hand in his own.
“Okay. I’ll see you tonight then. I love you, Changbin.”
“I love you too, Felix.”
——— ( o ) ———
That night, Changbin explained what he was to Chan and Woojin as well, for it felt wrong to keep it a secret from them. Both were surprised of course but it was understandable. It didn’t take much to convince them, actually. Shifting into his true form was really all it took. Although he himself couldn’t make the two humans immortal, Changbin had a plan to appeal to Jisung later; he was certain the god would agree. He was truly grateful to have such wonderful humans in his life, and he didn’t wish to lose them.
As for Felix, he would become a phoenix just like Changbin, rising from ashes with wings made of the brightest places. He massaged Felix’s hands within his own. Although he had warned Felix it would hurt, he was still worried. His flames roared to life upon his body before flickering across to engulf the human. No struggle occurred, nor did a sound escape him. Before their eyes, Felix was reduced to nothing. Chan was terrified that Changbin had actually killed him, but the phoenix held him back with a quiet huff. After nearly ten minutes of waiting, a brilliant light exploded from the pile of ashes left behind.
A phoenix rose from within, burning bright and yellow with an intensity that matched his personality. Felix was a beautiful phoenix, and Changbin had to fight the urge to turn and fly away with him immediately. The newly born firebird settled back on his pile of ashes before his entire body flashed, revealing Felix’s human body in its place. Changbin was impressed—it had taken him nearly five years to master that art.
Chan seemed a little too shaken up by what had just happened, losing his lunch in a few bushes nearby. Woojin was gently patting his back, and Changbin glanced between the pair and the newly born phoenix near him; he was itching for a first flight. Seeming to sense this, Woojin pointed towards the sky.
“I’ll take care of Chan, don’t worry. Go fly.”
The phoenix expressed his thanks before tugging Felix towards the center of the clearing. He was excited, and it was evident in the flames dancing across his skin. Changbin let his body burn into its true form, spreading his wings as Felix followed suit. They both took off at the same time, rising high into the sky above the city. They flew together early into the morning, dancing around one another and fighting for control of the air. To anyone that saw them that night, it was truly a sight to behold, and moment they would likely never forget.
For Felix and Changbin, they had all the time in the world. They could truly be together forever.