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In Bloom

Chapter Text

He's home alone – this is the only thought in his head when the thing happens for the first time. He's home alone and he's dying, and there's no one here to save his life. His parents will come back in a few hours and find his body in the middle of the corridor, hands clenched around his neck because he can't breathe.

So this is how it starts. Pran is home alone and he can't breathe. There's something weird and tacky stuck in the back of his throat and he coughs, knees buckling under his weight, body sliding down the wall. He ends up on the floor, on his hands and knees as he keeps hacking, and for a few moments he can't even see what's right in front of him because there are tears welling up in his eyes. Everything's turned into a shapeless and blurry mess.

Just like his thoughts as he gasps for air.

Shit.

A lump of something soft and wet rolls down the flat of his tongue, and he spits it out. It leaves a faint taste of iron in his mouth, and when he lowers his gaze he sees a splotch of red on the tiles – blood and then something else, something sticky and unrecognizable at first. Little specks of white among the mess.

He reaches out and touches them. They're impossibly soft under his fingertips, smooth as velvet, and the realization dawns on Pran like vertigo. It makes his stomach churn.

He's just coughed up a bunch of petals.

Oh, he's so so screwed.

#

He cleans up the mess. When his parents come back, there's not even a trace of what happened in the corridor: the tiles are spotless, the petals are gone, and Pran welcomes them with a smile on his face – so convincing even when the only thing he feels inside is dread.

He's always been good at lying, though.

He's always had to be.

#

There are flowers blooming in his chest.

It sounds like a line from a poem, something straight out of a love song. Pran could use it for some of his own works, now that he thinks of it, if only the idea didn't make him sick. It does. The idea makes him sick, the flowers make him sick – he is sick and doesn't even know what to do about it.

So he does some research.

There's a forum online for people with the same condition. It's called Survivors  – the only ‘o’in the name drawn in the shape of a daffodil. It's cute. There are no big numbers when it comes to its posts and answers and overall users, but Pran knows that this disease is rare, and people only want to talk about it when it doesn't feel too real – when it's brought up in TV shows and comic books and cheesy poetry. It's so romantic, seeing it unfold on a screen, or between the pages of a book; but when it's real it doesn't feel romantic anymore. It's ugly and difficult and painful, and no one wants to have to deal with that.

Pran doesn't want to deal with that either.

Not that he has a choice.

He scrolls down the forum's dashboard, clicks on a few closed threads. Most of the people ask how they can confess their feelings, because that's the easiest solution: to open one's mouth and let it all out, words and flowers alike, until there's nothing left. Until you can breathe again.

They're worried about ruining friendships, destroying others’ relationships. Being rejected. Pran wishes he was in their shoes, but everything is so much more difficult for him. It's not just about his feelings – he could deal with that kind of fear, if it was; but it's also about his family and his friends and all the things he's sworn to keep hidden until the day he died.

That day might be closer that he thought it would.

He keeps scrolling, feeling even more alone as he searches for some common ground, a sliver of something relatable that could help him deal with the mess he's in. He finds it in the form of a short post by an user called theonlywayisforward:

When I found out I was sick, I told my friend and he told me to confess. Everyone always tells people to confess, and I know that's usually the easiest way out of this, but sometimes... it's not? I mean, I'm gay, I'm not out, and I'm definitely not in a safe position to come out, how in hell could I confess? So I got the surgery instead. Had to pay so much money I'm still in debt, but at least I'm free. Well if we don't consider the absurd amount of pills I have to swallow every other day, but you know-- choices. Take care guys, and remember that it gets better.

The thread is closed – no answers, no follow-up.

Pran's loneliness lingers, tucked among the flowers.

#

He can manage.

The coughing fits are still few and far between, and he can keep them at bay if he distracts himself enough. So he goes out with his friends, spends the week studying harder than ever just so he can get drunk with them on the weekends. Lather, rinse, repeat – week after week after week, till his life grows hazy, and he feels a little disgusted with it.

At least the thoughts stay away.

At least he stays away.

#

It's Saturday night – or maybe Sunday morning, Pran can't find it in himself to check on his phone. He should roll on his side and reach for it, detach the cable, unblock it, be blinded by the screen. Too much work. He's busy lying face down on the pillow now, concentrating on his breathing so that his mind won't wander.

His friends couldn't go out with him, tonight, and he's not desperate enough to drink alone. God knows what troubles that'd bring, and he already has his fair share of those, so he decided to stay in and clean his dorm room instead. Now the room is tidy, and he's so exhausted that he can't feel his own legs.

He groans into the pillow and turns his head. It doesn't matter how long he keeps still with his eyes closed, sleep just won't come, and he's tired, and wants it to be morning already so that he can find something else do, someone else to talk to... so it's inevitable, really, when his fingers slip past the waistband of his sweatpants. He leaves them there, concentrating on the warmth of his hand, thinking about stroking himself but not moving a muscle. Not yet. He needs to settle on what to imagine first.

There's a folder in his mind titled: things that make me horny. He knows its contents like he knows the contents of his own pockets, but right now he can't make a decision. Every scenario feels boring and uninspired, too cold to make the familiar excitement stir deep in his gut. Frustration seeps in his stomach and makes him kick the mattress, roll on his back, stare at the ceiling like it could hold all the answers.

He takes a long breath and lets it go. His hand skims over his belly, the touch feather-like under the light shirt he's wearing. A thumb slips over his nipple. It doesn't do much for him in terms of pleasure, but the act itself puts him in the right headspace, and that's exactly what he needs right now.

He thinks about porn – random scenes from all the videos he's ever watched, all mixed up because who cares who's fucking whom and why, he just needs something to get off to, and is too lazy to go through his bookmarks at this hour. So he settles on what he can recall first – sloppy quickies in random settings, a shower scene with the best blowjob he's ever witnessed – and lets his mind roll with it. His body answers. Pran is hard.

He makes quick work of it. He doesn't care about turning this into the best orgasm of his life, he just wants something efficient that'll make him relax enough to fall asleep – because he has to fall asleep, and soon, before he makes a mistake. Before he lets his mind slip and his head fill with sights he shouldn't even want to see – dark hair and shiny eyes and that shit-eating smirk that makes his whole body burn with want whenever it's directed at him.

Shit.

Those are things he shouldn't think about.

He drags his thoughts back to the porn, to the shower scene that's kept him company during so many lonely nights – but the magic is lost, and he wants to come, and maybe it's okay to slip a little, only for a few seconds, just enough to bring himself over the edge as he feels the ghost of the other's lips on his skin, the warmth of his tongue tracing his inner thigh and up...

His phone rings, gently vibrating against the bedside table. The hand curled around Pran's dick stops, and he huffs, eyes shut tight because for fuck's sake who the hell calls in the middle of the night what do they want couldn't this wait – and then he freezes. A sudden burst of worry bubbles up in his chest.

It could be his family.

He gets his hand out of his sweats, rubs it against the sheets. He reaches out to the phone and squints at the light until he's finally able to see the contact name displayed on the screen: just a friend. His stomach churns.

Pran drops the phone on the bed like it burned him. His heart beats so fast, too fast, and for a second he's tempted to drag his finger across the screen and answer the call. Let the other catch the sound of his erratic breathing, hear his voice as Pran keeps doing what he was doing – fist tight around his cock, the other hand splayed against his own chest.

What would the other think, then?

What would he do?

In Pran's head, he tells him to keep going. “Like that, yeah”, he whispers, and Pran his stroking himself once again, eyes closed to keep the rest of the world out. His phone is stil ringing somewhere between the sheets, but he doesn't care, he cannot care when he's so close and desperate for release, when the other's voice in his head is still breathing dirty nothings in his ear, when his mouth is back on his thighs back on his cock licking and sucking it and oh it's hot it's so hot and Pran can't hold back anymore he just can't he doesn't want to...

“Pat”, he moans as he comes.

The pleasure takes him under, and he drowns.

#

A bunch of white petals are floating in the toilet.

Pran stares at the water in the bowl, kneeling in front of it, cold and uncomfortable. His boxers are sticky with sweat and drying cum, but he's too weak to do something about it. He can't feel his legs. His throat is sore after what's been the harshest coughing fit he's ever had since this whole thing started.

At least there was no blood this time.

It's fitting, he thinks. It's fitting that the flowers growing from his love for Pat are going to be flushed down the toilet like they're nothing but waste. That's what they are, after all – because loving Pat has always been a waste of time and tears and energy, and Pran has always known it. That's why he never said anything. That's why he kept it all inside.

Some things are not meant to stay hidden, though.

“Fuck this”, Pran croaks out, and “fuck you, Pat”.

It doesn't make him feel any better.

#

When he leaves the bathroom, it's almost dawn.

The flowers went down the toilet.

His feelings stay.

Chapter Text

The call goes through, but Pran doesn't answer.

Pat can't say that he's surprised. Still, the bitter taste of disappointment lathers his tongue, and is hard to swallow. It's been days since the last time they saw each other, weeks since the last time they talked, and Pat doesn't like how it makes him feel – like there's something amiss in his life, something he needs to fix, even though he has no idea how to do it.

He sighs, lets the phone down on the bedside table.

Pran must've gone out with his friends. The thought stirs something hot and uncomfortable in his stomach, and Pat has to take a deep breath to stop himself from picking his phone again and stalking the entirety of the architecture department's Instagram accounts just to see what everyone's doing tonight.

What Pran is doing tonight.

Pat can picture him, all cute smiles and pretty dimples as he eats and drinks and jokes around with his friends – all the while Pat is stuck in his room with a headache and too many thoughts, body quivering from frustration as he wonders why the only person who could make him feel any better has been avoiding him for weeks.

He hasn't even done anything to deserve it.

I don't understand him, he thinks, rolling on his side on the bed. He reaches out for his plushie and pulls it close to his chest, squeezing it in his arms with all his strength until he's satisfied. The action doesn't bring him the usual amount of comfort, though, and he doesn't know why.

It must be because of his headache.

Yeah, that must be it.

#

On Monday, he sees Pran's friends on campus.

They're standing in front of a food stall, squeezed close against each other as they try to decide what they're gonna buy. Pat stops in his tracks and squints at them in the distance. He knows he won't find what he's hoping for, but still his heart plunges all the way down to his stomach when he realizes that he's right.

Pran is not with them.

He doesn't see him the rest of the day.

Or the day after.

Or the day after.

#

It's fine.

He's fine.

It's not like he needs to see him anyway.

#

“Hey, what happened?”, Ink asks, sitting next to him on the bench. She's sporting one of her distinctive smiles, the ones that are both kind and just a little bit teasing. The ones that make Pat feel like she knows something he doesn't – it'd be unnerving if she wasn't so sweet.

“What do you mean?”, he says, returning the smile.

“You look heartbroken”.

A snort. “Do I?”

“Hm! Did someone break your heart?”

“I'm the one who does the breaking”, Pat says, wiggling his eyebrows playfully. All he gets in return is an unimpressed look, though, and he chuckles, shakes his head. Keeps smiling. “All is fine”.

She cocks her head to the side. “I'll believe you”.

“Hey, have you seen Pran today?”

Her smile widens at that. “Did he break your heart?”

“Stop it”, he says, bumping his shoulder into the side of her arm as warmth creeps up in his cheeks. “No one broke anyone's anything, I'm just wondering where he is. I haven't seen him all morning”.

And the day before, and the one before that – and, and, and.

She doesn't need to know that.

“Oh, uhm...”. She looks around the courtyard like she expects Pran to pop up on one of the pathways any minute now. “Me neither. It's actually been a few days since the last time, I think. Is he okay?”

Pat blinks at her. “Why wouldn't he be?”

“People get sick sometimes, you know”.

The idea sets uncomfortably in Pat's mind. “Nah, I'm sure he's fine”, he says, and shrugs like it's not a big deal, like he doesn't feel his skin prickle with worry when he considers the possibility.

Because he isn't sure – he can't be sure.

Pran doesn't talk to him, after all.

#

Are you okay? :(

Pat sends the text during his first class in the afternoon.

Pran leaves him on read.

#

He knocked on Pran's door.

He did it once before buying dinner, and then again after coming back – stood in the middle of the corridor with the bag still hanging from his hand. He'd even bought a double portion of fried chicken, just in case, but of course Pran didn't answer, so Pat had to eat alone.

He couldn't finish the chicken.

Right now he's sitting on the floor, back pressed against the side of the bed. He's aimlessly scrolling down his social media feeds, alternating between Instagram and Twitter to distract himself. It doesn't work, and the frustration keeps growing in his chest, an elastic band ready to snap.

When he tries to call Pran again, the line is busy.

He wonders whom he's talking to.

He stands up, jaw set and a frown on his face. He doesn't want to care about that – why does he care about that? –, and yet the thought of Pran talking to someone else when he can't even take a minute to answer Pat's fucking texts... oh, Pat is livid.

Livid, and confused, and hurt, and a lot of things he doesn't know how to unpack yet. So he doesn't. He throws his phone onto the mattress and walks to the door without even checking if it landed safely. Why does he need a phone if the people – the person – he wants to talk to don't answer his calls, anyway?

He's about to open the door and storm across the corridor, when he hears the soft click of a lock outside. He looks through the peephole. Pran is exiting his own room, phone cradled between his ear and shoulder. The empty expression on his face hits Pat like a cold shower: all the anger drains out of him at once, leaving him hollow and weak and insecure.

Pran doesn't look well.

Pat clenches his fists to stop himself from bursting the door open and going after him. It wouldn't take him anywhere and he knows it, but part of him doesn't seem to care – the part that's still wondering what he did wrong, the one that desperately wants this to be over.

The one that misses Pran so much it hurts.

He waits for the other to walk away, and then goes after him.

#

He shouldn't be doing this.

The thought is a constant hammering in his head, step after step after step, and yet Pat can't stop walking. He follows Pran all the way to the roof, and even though he tries not to overhear too much of the other's conversation, it's not his fault that Pran's voice carries so well into the empty stairwell.

He's not understanding anything anyway.

His heartbeat is too damn loud in its cage.

“There's no need for you to come”, Pran says as he opens the door to the rooftop and lets it close behind himself. Pat can't see it from this position, but the hinges creaking and the cold air blowing down the stairs tell him all there is to know about what's going on above his head.

He waits for a few minutes before following Pran outside.

He sees the dark sky, the outline of the city, and a boy standing against it all.

#

When Pran spots him, his face grows even paler.

“Yeah, alright”, he says to the person on the other side of the line, and his grip on the device tightens. He doesn't avert his gaze from Pat's as he keeps talking. “I'm fine. No, I'm on the roof, taking a breath of fresh air and-- yeah, mom”. A light chuckle. “Okay. See you soon”.

The moment the call ends, whatever is left of his smile melts away and his eyes harden, making Pat's stomach turn into a gross cold puddle of goo. Pran is so clearly mad at him and he has no idea why, and it's driving him insane. Making him question every single one of their interactions in search of a reason. Of an answer.

He comes up empty handed.

“Hey”.

The spell is broken. Pran takes a step towards the door, but Pat doesn't let him walk past him. “Wait”, he says, gently circling the other's wrist. Pran's skin is soft and cool against his own, and for a second Pat wonders if his fingers would feel just as cold.

In another life, he could hold his hand and find out.

In this one, Pran shakes his arm free.

“What do you want”, and it sounds like an accusation.

“Are you avoiding me?”

“And what if I am?”

“Can I know why?”

Pran doesn't answer. He crosses his arms against his chest and raises an eyebrow, like he finds the question ridiculous – like he finds Pat ridiculous – and something in Pat's chest finally cracks.

“What the fuck is your problem?”, he says, and doesn't like the way his voice trembles – not because of anger, but because this is so unfair. He's never asked for things to be like this between them.

And yet here they are.

“Move”, Pran says.

“Not until you give me an answer”.

“What do you want me to tell you?” Pran scoffs, his voice dripping annoyance. “I don't wanna talk to you, do you need a reason? Nothing good ever happens when you're around, so stop acting like we're friends when you don't even know me”.

And oh, that hurts – so much that for a moment Pat doesn't know what to say. Because it's true, isn't it? They don't know each other, and maybe they never did. How can you know someone when you're not even allowed to be seen with them? How can a friendship bloom when it can only exist within the walls of a classroom, behind the safe excuse of a school project – until that, too, is taken away?

The universe never wanted them to be friends.

But Pat never cared about the universe, and he's not about to start now.

“I do know you”, he whispers, and doesn't care if it only feels like half the truth. “I know that that's not what you really think. And I'm not sure why you're acting like an asshole, but I know that if things were different between our families, then we wouldn't be doing this right now. We wouldn't be fighting”.

“What would we be doing then?”

A question, a challenge – Pat doesn't understand.

“We would be friends”, he tries.

The words taste weird on his tongue. Pat swallows down the feeling, but Pran looks at him like he can read his mind – like that tiny moment of insecurity was enough to soak up his words and make them sound weak and fake and useless.

A lie.

“You don't know anything”, Pran whispers.

“Then tell me”.

Please, tell me, I'm so tired of not knowing.

Pran opens his mouth to comply, but the words never come.

Instead, he coughs.

Chapter Text

When the first lump of petals climbs up in his throat, Pran is already kneeling on the cold hard ground, the heel of one hand pressed against his mouth like it could make a difference.

It doesn't.

His feelings spill onto the floor in a mess of flowers and saliva.

“Pran!”

Pat's voice is too close to his ears. Pran shuts his eyes, shame burning hot on his cheeks. He wishes he was anywhere else but here, with anyone else but him. He doesn't want to be seen like this – gross and vulnerable, his sickness painting a disgusting picture on the concrete in front of his knees – and yet he  can't do anything to stop it.

He can't run, he can't hide, he can't disappear.

There are tears in his eyes.

“Go away”, he croaks out, but Pat's hands are on his shoulders, his warm breath on the side of Pran's face as he asks if he's okay, and the tenderness of his touch makes another coughing fit erupt from Pran's chest. This one is bad, and he tastes blood when it's over.

The new petals in front of him are coated in red.

Shit.

“Pran! Hey, look at me?”

“Just leave me alone!” Pran shoves Pat away with his arm, but he's too weak to do anything, and ends up with his side plastered against the other's body – so warm even with all the layers separating them. For a second Pran closes his eyes and pretends that he's allowed to have this.

Then he catches himself and pulls away.

“I can't leave you like this”, Pat says.

“I'm fine”, it's your fault, it's your fault, let me be.

“I'm gonna take you back to your room, okay?”

“I don't need it, I can walk on my own”.

“I know that. I'm just worried. Let me help”.

Pran looks at him. Pat's face is so open, big doe eyes staring back with intent – pleading, begging –, but would he still be this gentle if he knew the truth about the flowers? Would he still look at Pran like he cared? Pran doesn't know.

Pran will never know.

For once, though, he's too tired to protest.

So Pat offers his hand, and he takes it.

#

His legs are weak, and his arms are even weaker.

He's glad that Pat offered to help, because he's not sure he would've been able to face the staircase alone, and the last thing he needs in his life is a concussion – or worse, to die a ridiculous death.

Boy falls down the stairs and dies after refusing help.

Oh, his mother would be so proud.

That's why he lets the other snake an arm around his shoulders, his other hand placed on his waist. The contact feels intimate and safe – and if Pran leans against Pat a little more than what is strictly necessary, then it's no one's business but his own.

#

His room feels colder when they walk inside.

Pran already misses the warmth of Pat's touch, but lets the feeling burn till there's nothing left of it. Annoyance is already building upon the ashes, and when he looks behind him he almost hopes that he won't find Pat standing there anymore – staring, waiting, and for what? He shouldn't care.

“You walked me back, now leave me alone”.

But Pat doesn't move a muscle. He lingers in the entrance, wringing his hands like he's nervous. “You sure you're okay?”, he asks, and the sweet hesitation of his voice makes something in Pran's chest tighten.

“I told you I'm fine”.

“Alright”, Pat says with a nod.

Still, he doesn't move.

“Do I have to push you out of the do--”.

“Who is it?”, Pat cuts him off.

Pran glares at him – half mad, half confused. “What?”

“The flowers”. Pat swallows. “Who is it?”

Heat rushes to Pran's neck and cheeks and ears. “That's none of your business”, he spits out. The words are bitter, but the flowers blooming inside his chest taste even worse. “Why do you even care?”

“Because whoever it is, they're hurting you”.

And Pran could tell him a lot of things: that he's wrong; that it's not their fault that he's sick. That he was just too dumb to smother his feelings before they turned into a problem. But he feels spiteful, and there's still a faint taste of blood on his tongue, and all these secrets are taking a toll on him.

And he's so angry.

So tired.

So he says: “They're killing me”, and each syllable's as sharp as a knife, but they won't cut anything. They won't make Pat bleed, won't even brush against his skin – because Pat doesn't know he's the target, so he can't get hurt. This is a game and those are the rules, and Pran is only allowed to bend them so much.

He'll take whatever he can.

“Why don't you tell them?”, Pat asks.

Oh, he makes it sound so easy. Why don't you just tell them? – like the matter's as simple as letting the words out. Open your mouth and you're done, then you won't have to think about it anymore.

Then you'll be free.

The thing about words, though, is that they don't evaporate into thin air once spoken. They linger and grow like a living thing, change the world like magic, and that's what makes them so hard to handle: you can't ignore them once they're out.

Pran sighs. “Just get out, Pat”.

“Pran--”.

“What are you doing here?”, another voice cuts him off.

Wai is standing on the threshold, a white paper bag in one hand, his phone in the other. Pat must've left the door open when they got inside, and Pran feels so stupid because he should've noticed, and he should've remembered that Wai was coming but he didn't. He didn't and now the mess is getting even worse and it's his fault and he can't deal with this he can't he can't – not like this.

The room feels too small for all of them.

“He was leaving”, Pran says, trying to keep his cool.

“Why the fuck is he here in the first place?”

“It doesn't matter”.

“What--”.

“I said he's leaving, Wai”. Pran takes a step forward, chin raised, jaw set. It feels weird, but he doesn't waver. “It doesn't matter”.

They stare at each other, eyes expressing what their voices won't say. Finally, Wai turns his gaze away, fixes it on Pat. The corner of his mouth curls in a snarl. “Yeah, he better”, he spits out, the challenge all too clear in his tone.

For a second Pran is afraid that Pat will raise to it.

He doesn't, though – just shoots Pran one last glance, shrugs like he doesn't care, then turns around and exits his room. His steps echo as he crosses the corridor, and then Pran hears the clink of his keys, the click of his lock.

Then silence.

#

“Are you gonna tell me what's going on?”

Pran shoots Wai a glance. They're both sitting on the couch, each on one side, too far to touch. Not a word has been said since Pat left the room, and the air around them buzzes with tension, weighted down by all the things that Pran is keeping to himself.

“It's nothing”, he murmurs.

“Why didn't you tell me that he lives here?”

“I didn't know”.

“Bullshit”. Wai turns to the side, his face a mixture of annoyance and confusion and maybe something else. Something like betrayal. “Why are you lying to me?”, he asks. “You're my best friend, we're supposed to tell each other everything. Why were you hiding this?”

He looks disappointed, he sounds disappointed – and Pran feels his stomach fold on itself like a paper ball when he thinks that he has every right to be. Pran should've been a better friend, an honest one, and he couldn't.

He can't.

“It's complicated”, he says.

Wai huffs. “Is he bothering you?”

Pran shakes his head no.

“Are you scared of him or something?”

“I'm not scared of him, what the fuck”.

“Then what? What's going on?”

Pran could lie again. There's a story ready on the tip of his tongue – all he'd have to do is give it a voice, so then Wai would be satisfied, he'd be let off the hook, and for one night everything would be right again.

The temptation is strong.

The soreness at the back of his throat is stronger.

“I can't do this alone”, Pran says in a whisper, and then tears are welling up in his eyes, and he's hiding his face in his hands – scared and desperate and ashamed as he realizes that this is it, this is the time of truth, I won't be taking this secret to the grave after all.

“Pran, you're starting to scare me”, Wai says.

Pran nods, wipes the tears away. He doesn't feel ready for what he's about to do – but then again, he doesn't think he'll ever be. So he just bites the bullet and: “If I tell you something”, he says, looking at his own shoes, “do you promise to keep it a secret?”

“Of course I do”.

The answer comes immediately, but it's not enough.

“Even if you won't like it?”

“Shit, Pran, what did you do?”

Pran meets his gaze. “Even if you won't like it?”, he asks again, because even though he knows that this doesn't mean anything – even though he knows that words sometimes don't mean anything – he needs to believe that he can trust Wai with this. That he's not about to make the worst mistake of his life just to get one night when he doesn't feel completely alone.

It doesn't matter how much he needs it – it's not worth it.

“Yeah”, Wai says. He nods once, then twice. He looks serious enough. “Even if I don't like it. What is it?”

Pran takes a deep breath.

He tells him everything.

Chapter Text

Behind Pat's eyelids, the flowers keep falling.

He tries to will the image away, but it keeps playing in a loop in his head – over and over again, until he feels sick with it. Sick with every little detail he recalls.

The sticky petals.

The hacking sounds.

Spit and blood on the ground – against Pran's mouth, on his chin.

He smothers a whine into his pillow, face pressed down so hard against the fabric that he can't breathe. A second turns into two turn into three, seven, sixteen. Half a minute. Pat tilts his head to the side and huffs, feeling the world spin around him.

Pran has Hanahaki disease.

The idea feels preposterous, a tasteless joke, not like something that can really happen to real people in the real world. It should be the stuff of fiction. A fever dream. And yet Pat's witnessed it with his own eyes, heard it with his own ears – Pran wheezing as he struggled to breathe. He's seen the spit-coated petals shine under the moonlight, so he knows it's true.

And the fact that Pran is sick means two things.

One, Pran is in love.

Two, that love is killing him.

#

There's also a third thing, Pat realizes later that night, arms wrapped around Nong Nao as he tries to fall asleep. He's rolling around in bed when it happens, and the sudden thought makes his body freeze.

Because Pran is in love, and that love is killing him.

And Pat can't do anything to help.

#

The next day, Pran is back on campus. Pat tries to get closer, follows him around in hope of finding him alone for a few minutes, but it never happens: Wai seems to be stuck to his side like ivy.

The sight makes Pat feel bitter for some reason.

I could be there in his place, he thinks, and then shakes his head because what does it even mean? There's no way Pran would let him – they're not allowed to be close, after all, they can't be friends.

“Wow, man, you look like murder”.

Pat raises his head and meets Korn's gaze. He's standing next to his table, lips puckered around a straw as he sips on an overly saturated drink. There's a smug glint in his eyes, like he's just caught something interesting and can't wait to point it out.

Pat schools his face in a neutral expression. “What?”

“I said you look li--”.

“Yeah, I heard you, what do you mean?”

Korn scoffs. “What do you mean what do I mean”, he says, and sits down in front of Pat, his drink abandoned between them. “You look like you're about to kill someone. Need help with that?”

Pat shakes his head, clicks his tongue. “I'm just worried”, he says, and his eyebrows scrunch up again when he's reminded of what happened last night. Of what he saw, and heard, and felt. Of what he'd like to ask Pran if he could just find him alone for a fucking second.

Korn's mouth finds the straw again. “About what?”

“Stuff”.

“Uni stuff?”

“Mind-your-own-business stuff”.

“Alright, alright, no need to be so defensive”, Korn says, clearly amused by his reaction if the toothy grin on his face is anything to go by. “Just wanted to help”.

Pat shoots him an unimpressed look. “You just want an excuse to cause trouble”, he says, but doesn't really mean it. They're second-years, now – they've started taking this shit seriously.

Well, most of the time, at least.

“If causing trouble can help, it's a win-win situation”.

Pat snorts, but doesn't say anything. He has no idea what could or couldn't help, but he suspects that causing trouble is not at the top of the list of possible solutions.

“Hey, what do you know about Hanahaki disease?”

Very smooth, Pat, very smooth.

Korn stops mid-sip, then swallows and lets go of the straw, eyebrows furrowing. “This is so random, Pat, why are you asking? Is that what you're worried about?”

“I'm just curious. Saw a clip on YouTube the other day and it kinda stuck with me”. It's not exactly a lie. He did spend a lot of time looking for related videos the night before. “I guess it's just weird to realize that it's a real thing, you know? Seeing all those people talk about their condition--”.

“You're not sick, right?”

Pat rolls his eyes. “Of course not”.

“You say it like you're immune or something”.

“But I'm not in love”.

“Didn't you like someone in architecture?”

Pat opens his mouth to answer, then closes it. Shakes away the sudden thought of Pran from his head. “Why do you keep saying that?”, he mumbles, looking anywhere but at his friend as warmth creeps up in his cheeks.

He ignores it.

Korn doesn't.

“Oooh, you're blushing!”, he says.

“Shut up”.

But it's true, and Pat doesn't know what it means.

#

He waits for him.

Since he couldn't talk to him on campus, Pat waits outside of Pran's room when his classes for the day end. It's not ideal, because now it's been two hours and he really needs to go to the bathroom, but he just crosses his ankles and refuses to leave.

So he waits, and he waits, and he waits some more.

Pran doesn't come back, though.

The texts Pat sends him are left on read.

#

Sitting at his desk with a pencil in his hand, Pat sulks.

He shouldn't care about where Pran spends his nights – he knows that it's none of his business, and Pran doesn't need his supervision. The thing is, Pat does anyway – cares enough to send a message to his sister and ask her if Pran is at his parents' house.

She says he's not, so he must be at one of his friends'.

Probably Wai.

Pat doesn't like the idea. Pran should be in his own room, because if something happened... well, he supposes it'd be better if he was not alone in that case, but that doesn't mean it was right for Pran to go to the trouble of leaving his dorm for that reason. Pat could've kept him company just fine – he would've offered, even.

He would've liked to.

And yet he couldn't even get a conversation with him.

He wonders if Wai knows – about the disease, about the flowers that get stuck in his best friend's throat when his feelings hit a bit too hard. It wouldn't be the first secret that Pran keeps from him, Pat can attest to that. He's one of those secrets, after all, has been for a very long time, and he hates it and loves it – sometimes doesn't know what to make of it.

What to make of them.

Because Pran said that they don't even know each other, but that's always been only half the truth. Pat knows Pran, he knows him like no one else does – and that doesn't mean better, it just means in a different way. The way that spans a decade, that made him a witness of all the versions of Pran that his other friends will never see.

He knows the way Pran looked when he was a kid, and how his voice sounded when it had yet to break. He knows the games he liked to play when he was alone, the song that got stuck in his brain for a whole week during the summer he started learning guitar – so catchy that Pat ended up memorizing it as well. He still remembers the lyrics by heart.

Above all, Pat knows that Pran saved Pa's life.

All those secrets belong to them, but this is a different matter. Pran's condition is not something he would've shared with Pat if he hadn't caught him coughing up flowers on the rooftop. That's a truth reserved to his friends. The real ones. The approved ones.

So Wai knows – he has to know.

Unless Pran can't tell him.

Unless he's too scared to tell him.

“Unless it's him”.

Pat tightens his hold around the pencil, pushing his nails into the soft flesh of his palm until it hurts. He winces and eases his hand open. The pencil falls, clicks against the desk and then on the floor, but Pat almost doesn't notice, mind consumed by a string of so it's him it's him so it's Wai so it's him.

The flowers are for him.

#

Pat doesn't sleep that night.

He lies on his bed and thinks, thinks, thinks.

Chapter Text

“You know what you need to do”.

Wai's stare is boring holes into the side of his face – Pran can tell even without looking, gaze fixed on the ceiling as he lies on his best friend's bed. He's not comfortable with the way his legs are bent, his right one half dangling over the mattress, and there's a small hard object pressing against his back, but he doesn't dare move. Maybe if he keeps still for long enough then Wai will let this go.

Let him close his eyes and pretend that all is fine.

“Are you even listening to me?”

Or maybe not.

“Yeah”, Pran half says, half sighs.

“And? What're you gonna do?”

That's a good question. A great question, even – and one Pran wishes he could ignore like he's been doing since all of this started. It's not like he has many options to ponder anyway: either he confesses to Pat, or he tells his family and proceeds with the surgery, and both scenarios are nothing but fuel for his anxiety.

“I haven't decided yet”, he says.

“Shit, Pran, what's there to decide?” Wai rolls his chair next to the bed and slaps Pran's thigh to get his attention – like he doesn't have it already. Like Pran could ever ignore him. “You can't tell him, he's never gonna let you live it down! Do you really think that asshole won't take advantage of the situation?”

Pran looks away. “He wouldn't do that”.

“You talk like he's your friend or something”. Wai crosses his arms and fixes Pran with an icy glare. “Let's say you're right, that he'll keep his mouth shut – what makes you think that his friends will do the same? Those dicks have been picking fights with us since uni started. Give them a chance, they'll take it”.

Pran can't argue, because it could be true – he doesn't know them. Still, he speaks again: “He could've told them about my condition too”, and it's out in a whisper, because what does it even mean, what value does it hold? It's not nearly enough.

Pran wants to believe it is, though – because Pat's seen him in his most vulnerable state and never tried to hurt him. He offered him his help and didn't judge him, or mock him, or make him feel like his sickness was something to be ashamed of.

Something disgusting that had to be kept hidden.

This can't mean nothing.

“Sure”. Wai scoffs. “Let's see how long it lasts”.

And Pran is too tired to answer.

So he doesn't.

#

Pat keeps trying to contact him.

Pran ignores him for most of the evening – mutes his chat and pretends like there's nothing going on. He can feel Wai's gaze on him – following his every movement, catching every little breath of air like he's waiting for something to happen. Like he's ready to see Pran crumble at any moment.

Pran knows it's a risk: he could crumble, he could get sick if he read the messages flooding his phone. So when he caves in and decides to do just that, he excuses himself to the bathroom and sits on the floor, with his back pressed against the shower door as he stares at the words on the screen.

Pat asked him where he is, if he's safe, if he's okay.

Let me know if you need anything, he wrote.

The flowers inside Pran's chest shiver, threaten to climb up in his throat. To make a mess. Pran clenches his fists and breathes – in through the nose, out through the mouth – one, two, ten times, till the sensation fades and he feels normal again.

Well, this new version of normal anyway.

His fingers hover above the keyboard, and he wonders what would happen if he texted back. Is Pat still awake? Is he waiting for him, waiting for an answer? Pran entertains the idea. He sees Pat in his mind, lying on his bed, eyes raking over the ceiling, and in his imagination Pat's hand is curled around his cellphone, so that he can be ready to unlock it as soon as he hears it ping.

The idea makes Pran giddy, but then he feels stupid and dumb and delusional, because it's not like Pat cares about him enough to spend the night like that. It's not like his texts are something more than just an act of basic human decency.

A product of sympathy.

Something he'd do for anyone.

“I'm such a dumbass”.

Pran tilts his head back and sighs.

The texts stay unanswered.

#

His mother doesn't notice.

Pran waits for the moment she will look at his face and realize that something's wrong, but it doesn't happen. She talks about her day, asks Pran about his own, cooks his favourite meal – but not one word about her son's health ever leaves her mouth, and he doesn't know if he should be disappointed or grateful.

Pran doesn't understand. He's wearing his hardships on his sleeve, but people seem to be blind to them: they don't register the pallor of his face, the dark circles under his eyes, while every morning he stares at his reflection in the mirror and can't see anything else. Sometimes he has to remind himself that there's so much more to him than the ugliness he feels inside.

Right now, he looks at his mother and can't stop the wave of resentment that builds in his chest – because she should know, she's supposed to know. And yet she doesn't, and the more Pran waits for her to notice the more he feels like crying. He squeezes his eyelids shut and focuses on his breathing.

A small part of his brain wants to let go.

His self-control doesn't let him.

#

After dinner, he helps his mother wash the dishes.

They stand in front of the kitchen sink, side by side, working in tandem. There's an old song coming from the TV in the other room, and she hums along with it with a smile. Pran stares at his own hands and thinks of what Wai told him that afternoon.

“Tell your mom”, he said. “It's for the best”.

Pran doesn't know if he believes that, but it's already been a few weeks, and he can't keep delaying anymore. He needs to make a choice and he needs to do it soon, or else his body will make it for him. He's read enough articles about Hanahaki to know that he won't like it if it does.

He doesn't wanna die with bloody petals in his mouth.

“Mom”, he says, voice low but surprisingly steady.

“Hm?”

“What if-- what if I liked someone?”

Her hands still. “What if, huh?”, she says, and even without looking at her Pran can tell that her smile has widened. He's gonna wipe it off her face in a matter of seconds. “Who is it? Someone I know?”

“It's, uh, complicated”.

“Oh, Pran, dear”. She sighs, puts down the bowl she was lathering up in soap, takes the towel from Pran's hands and uses it to dry her own. When her fingers circle his wrist, they're still a little damp, and Pran would recoil at the sensation if he didn't feel so shaken. “You know that you're free to date whoever you want, don't you? I really don't mind”.

Pran's breath hitches. “You don't?”

“Of course not”. She squeezes his forearm and smiles. “You can love whoever you want – a boy or a girl, it doesn't matter. I just want you to be happy”. She caresses his cheek. A light chuckle escapes her lips. “Is this what made you so nervous?”

Pran looks away, guilt gnawing at his insides. “So you won't get mad if I--”, but his voice cracks before he can finish that sentence, and he lets it fade into silence. Lets her fill the empty spaces even though she'll never say the right thing and he knows it.

“Of course I won't, silly”, his mother says, and then she's back at the sink, shaking her head in fond exasperation. “What, did you think I'd behave like one of those crazy moms we see in dramas?”

“But what if you don't like this person?”

His mother blinks at him. “I trust your judgement, Pran”, she says, and then shrugs like that was something obvious. “You're not a kid anymore, and you know what kind of people you should surround yourself with”.

“What kind of people...?”

“Well, you're not gonna fall for a criminal, are you?”

Pran smiles – a weak thing on his lips. “I don't think so”.

“See? It's all good, then”.

It's all good, then, he repeats in his mind, it's all good it's all good it's all good, and he's about to open his mouth and tell her more, tell her the truth – because he knows that this is not gonna get any easier – but she beats him to it.

“Besides”, she says, and laughs even before finishing that sentence, “the only thing that could make me mad is you dating one of the kids next door. Luckily you're way too smart to fall for either of them”.

“Yeah”. Pran lets out a forced laugh. “I would never”.

He feels empty and on the brink of tears.

His mother starts humming a different tune.

#

This is not how the night was supposed to go.

Pran thinks about it as he walks towards his building, sight blurred with tears that refuse to spill. There's a tight knot in his throat, and it doesn't matter what he does, it just won't go away. It burns and hurts and makes it hard to breathe, but Pran can't start crying in the middle of the street, and he's almost home anyway, so he grits his teeth and keeps walking.

When he gets to his floor, Pat is sitting in the corridor.

“What the hell are you doing here?”, Pran asks, too stunned to feel what he would usually feel in such a situation – the swarm of butterflies fluttering in his stomach, the flowers trembling in his chest. He's just confused and more than a little weirded out.

And also tired.

So fucking tired.

Pat raises his head and pouts, his eyes big and sad and as pretty as ever. “Waiting for a miracle”, he says, and then his lips stretch in a smile. “Is that you? Are you my miracle, Mr Pran?”

Pran feels himself blush. “As if”, he scoffs, and walks towards his own room. The keys clink in his hands, and the sound is a thousand times louder in the sudden silence. He concentrates on that.

“Hey”, Pat says, “are you really ignoring me now?”

“Tsk, I asked you a question and you didn't answer”.

“Come on, I was just teasing you”. Pat stands up with a grunt, but Pran doesn't dare turn around and look at him again – not even when the sound of his voice comes from a point that's a bit too close to his ears. It still causes him to miss the keyhole a few times. He curses inside.

“I actually wanted to see you”.

“Why”, Pran asks, and he knows that he sounds dry, almost annoyed, but he's feeling so many things at once that he doesn't know how to deal with them and his key is stuck and he can feel Pat's breath on his neck and it's so warm and his heart is accelerating and and and – and oh, he just wants to go to sleep.

“Well, I don't wanna spend the night out here”.

Pran gives up on the door and turns around. “You don't need my blessings to leave”, he says, because what the fuck?  But then the explanation crosses his mind, and he can't stop an amused grin from growing on his face. “Ah, you forgot your keys again”.

Pat juts his bottom lip out. “It's not my fault”.

“Sure. So what, you're stuck outside?”

“What do you think?”

Pran shoots him an unimpressed look. “I think it sucks to be you”.

“Oh, come on!”

“What?”

“Can I sleep with you tonight?”

Pran bites the inside of his cheek so hard that he tastes blood on his tongue. That was some poor ass wording if Pran has ever witnessed it, and Pat doesn't even look like he noticed. He's just standing there, big doe eyes fixed on Pran's face as he waits for an answer.

Something shivers in his chest, and Pran grimaces. He shakes himself out of his stupor and turns around again. “No”, he says, trying to open the door for a second time. Luckily the key doesn't jam, the lock clicks, and he pushes forward till he's halfway inside.

Pat pulls him back by the hem of his shirt. “Please”.

“No-- hey, let go!”

“How can you be so evil, huh?”, Pat whines, but does as he's told.

“Can't you ask Pa to bring you the spare?”

“I tried, but she's not answering, and it's too late to go ask for another one now”. Pat presses the palms of his hands against each other, fingers interlacing. “Please, just for tonight, I won't bother you. I just need a corner to sleep in and I'm set, please please please”.

Pran knows what he has to do – he knows – and yet the words don't come. He's stuck in place, eyes fixed on the other's face, a tremor in his fingers, in his chest, in his heart. Because Pat is right in front of him, and he looks tired and sweaty and still so beautiful, and it shouldn't be possible but it is. Pran can't stop staring at him – the way his mouth purses, the gentle curve of his nose. His dark lashes that would feel so soft under Pran's fingertips.

As soft as flowers.

The sound of coughing is startling in the silent corridor.

#

“Are you okay?”, asks Pat.

Pran wants to laugh at that. He's on his knees in front of the toilet bowl, with spit on his chin and the bitter taste of flowers still lingering in his mouth, and Pat asks him if he's okay. He turns his head to let out a sarcastic remark, but Pat doesn't give him the time.

“I mean-- do you feel a bit better?”

Pran sighs, closes his eyes. All the fight leaves him, replaced by bone-deep exhaustion. “Not really”, he says, and is surprised by how easily the truth slipped out of him. The vulnerability makes him feel queasy.

When he tries to stand up, Pat asks: “Can I help?”

“I can do it”.

“I'm gonna get you a glass of water”.

He's out of the bathroom before Pran can stop him.

Pran gets to the door and gently closes it. Standing in front of the sink, he takes a deep breath, looks at his reflection doing the same. The light is too strong, too white – it accentuates each one of his flaws till they're the only thing he can see –, and he feels ugly and ashamed at the thought of being seen like this.

It's not like it should matter, though.

It's not like it would make a difference.

#

Pran wants to smack himself in the face.

He's lying on his mattress, hands clenched so hard around the blanket that the joints in his fingers hurt. Pat keeps making too much noise, moving his pillow one way and then the other, tossing and turning on the makeshift bed Pran prepared for him next to his own, and Pran knows that he can't blame anyone but himself, that these are just the consequences of his own weakness, but – but this doesn't mean that he can't unload his frustrations on someone else.

So “Can you stop moving so much?”, he hisses.

Pat huffs, lies down. “I'm just making myself comfortable”, and the way he says it reminds Pran of a sulky child. It should be annoying, and yet Pran is almost endeared.

Stupid crush that makes him feel stupid feelings.

He turns on his side. “Well, do it silently”.

They don't talk for a while, after that, and for a few long minutes Pran dares hope that maybe the worst has passed. They will fall asleep, and tomorrow he'll wake up even earlier than usual. He'll take a shower, eat breakfast, and he'll leave the dorm before Pat does as much as try opening his eyes.

Yeah, it's perfect.

Well, it's far from perfect, but he'll take what he can.

“Hey, Pran”.

Of fucking course, Pran thinks.

“What do you want now”, he says.

“Thanks for letting me stay”.

“Just lemme sleep”.

“Can I ask you something first?”

Pran's heart beats in his throat as he says: “What”.

“Are you gonna confess to the person you like?”

“I don't wanna talk about it”.

Pat lets out a chuckle – a soft, sad thing. “You never wanna talk”, he says, and his tone is light, but Pran can see what lurks beneath the surface – it makes his stomach churn. “I know you said that we aren't friends, but I've known you since forever, Pran. You can't tell me that this doesn't mean anything to you”.

I've never said it, but the words get stuck in his throat.

“I did some research”, Pat says. “About Hanahaki”.

“And what did you find?”

“Nothing you don't already know”.

“There's nothing much to know. It just sucks”.

“So why are you doing this to yourself?”

Pran rolls around to face him again. “What part of I don't wanna talk about it don't you understand? I have my reasons for dealing with this the way I do, and they're none of your business”.

Pat sits up, and Pran kind of regrets having turned around, because their faces are a bit too close for comfort now.

“I just hope they're very good reasons--”.

“They are”.

“Because this is not a joke and--”.

“I said they are!” It comes out a lot louder than Pran wanted to, and it startles them both. Pat visibly deflates, and the sight makes Pran feel guilty. He rolls on his back and sighs. When he speaks again, it's almost in a whisper: “Can we just drop the subject?”

A moment of silence.

“Please?”

Pat hums. “Yeah, sorry”.

“It's fine” – but it's not fine, it's never fine.

#

Later into the night, Pran stares at Pat's sleeping face and dreams of reaching out, of tracing the soft edge of his cheekbones with his thumb. Placing a light kiss on his forehead, between his eyes. On the corner of his mouth.

“They're for you”, he says in a breath.

It's not enough to make the flowers disappear.

Chapter Text

In the dream, Pran kisses the palm of his hand.

There are flowers blooming on his naked skin, at the corner of his lips, between his fingers. “They're for you”, he whispers, and petals spill from his mouth like words incarnate.

Pat watches them fall to their feet.

I wish it was true, he thinks, but says nothing.

#

When Pat wakes up, it's to an unfamiliar place. It takes him a few seconds to remember where he is, and when he finally does he sits up straight on his makeshift bed, legs tangled in the blanket, heart accelerating as the last fragments of his dream slowly come back to him.

They're for you, a voice in his mind whispers.

There are no flowers in this room – not where anyone could see them, at least. They're tucked away safely, buried in a cage made of flesh and bone, asleep just like he was – just like Pran still is, lying on his side, with one hand under the pillow and the other in front of his face.

Peaceful.

Beautiful.

The thought is a firework going off in his head.

Pat feels warm. He kicks the blanket off, stands up, walks out of the room to reach the bathroom. He closes the door and turns the light on: in the mirror above the sink, his own eyes stare back at him, big and scared and confused, and he has no idea what to do, what to say, how to make it better.

But there's no way he can make it better, because it's true. Even now that he's awake, now that he can understand the foolishness of his own thoughts and feelings – even now, especially now, it's still true: he wishes the flowers were for him. Then Pran wouldn't need to worry about ruining his friendship with Wai, wouldn't need to beat himself up for something he can't control.

If the flowers were for him, Pat could make Pran confess, and he wouldn't even have to reject him afterwards because shit, he wouldn't want to.

In the mirror, his reflection doesn't look surprised.

Pat should've seen it coming.

#

He doesn't go back to sleep.

He's tired, and it's they've got a few hours before the alarm goes off, but he doesn't feel like taking his place next to Pran's bed and ignoring the feelings still buzzing in his veins – not when he knows all too well he'd lie there with the sound of his breathing in one ear and the beat of his own heart in the other. He wouldn't be able to close his eyes for more than two seconds, too aware of Pran's presence, of the warmth of his body, the softness of his skin.

Not that he could know anything about that.

God, does he wish he knew everything about that.

He's still jittery. He can't stop bouncing his leg, sitting on one of the chairs in Pran's kitchen, with the lights off and nothing else to do but stare at the empty counter. He goes through the events of the night – his conversation with Pran, the dream he had, what he discovered about himself – and it's too much too soon, too out of the blue, and yet.

And yet everything is so much clearer now.

This is not what he thought was gonna happen tonight. When he left his keys inside his room that afternoon, he didn't even know whether Pran would spend the night at the dorm or not. He just wanted an excuse to be with him, a chance to look after him – and he decided to create one for himself.

And now here he is, all alone in a dark kitchen, thinking about a crush he didn't even know he had and with no idea how to deal with it. Maybe it would've better if he hadn't realized it at all – then he could've gone on with his life without this additional source of suffering in his heart.

Well, this doesn't change anything: the only thing that matters is still Pran, has always been Pran, will always be Pran. Pat has promised himself that he would help him get rid of the flowers, and he's not about to back out now just because the thought of seeing Pran with someone else makes his stomach churn and his whole chest hurt.

No, he's gonna see this through.

His heart can take a hit or two in the process.

#

The first step of his plan is to make breakfast.

He toasts the bread, cooks the sausages, searches online for the easiest and tastiest way to prepare an omelette using the only things Pran's got in the cupboard. He manages not to make a mess on the counter, and that's already a victory in itself.

“What the hell are you doing in my kitchen?”

Pat almost flings the omelette against the wall when Pran's voice breaks the silence. He raises his gaze and sees him in the middle of the room, still sleepy and with tousled hair, a grumpy and confused expression on his face making him look like a cat. He's just the cutest thing, and Pat has to bite the inside of his cheek not to comment on it.

“I made you breakfast”, Pat says with a smile.

Pran squints at him with suspicion. “I see that. Did you hit your head? And why are you already up, the alarm hasn't even gone off yet and you don't have classes today”.

“How do you know that?”

“I just noticed because I don't have classes either-- can you pay attention to what you're cooking? Are you trying to poison me or to set fire to the whole dorm? Look at those sausages!”

“They're fine”.

“They're black”.

And okay, maybe they're a bit on the darker side, and maybe that's because Pat's gotten more than a little distracted by the way Pran keeps scrunching up his eyebrows as he tries to fight off the remaining sleep still clinging to him, but they're definitely not bla-- oh shit the omelette.

He turns off the stove with nonchalance, and Pran snorts. “Great save”.

“Ugh, sit down and lemme do my thing”.

“I'd rather not”, but he complies anyway.

They eat in silence after that. Pran keeps scrolling down his social media feeds, munching on his bread and acting like Pat doesn't exist, and Pat would usually be bothered by this behavior, but right now he's just grateful for the opportunity to steal glances at him without being noticed. He's always found Pran attractive, but he's never let himself look at him – not really, at least, not like he's doing right now, taking in even the smallest detail, committing it to memory – so he's not gonna let the chance pass him by.

Then Pran coughs, lets the fork drop from his hand and hit the plate with a clink. He's up in the blink of an eye, phone forgotten as he runs to the bathroom and shuts the door behind himself. It's no use. Pat can still hear him hacking like he was in the same room.

His eyes fall on the screen of Pran's cellphone. There's a picture on it, and a pang of jealousy makes its way in Pat's stomach when he realizes it's a selfie – Pran and Wai smiling under the sun, arms around each other's shoulders, a drink in both their hands.

So that's what triggered it, Pat thinks.

He turns to the sink with a sigh and fills up a glass of water. When Pran comes back, eyes downcast and a new heaviness in his body, Pat nudges it towards him, offering him a tentative smile. “Drink up”.

Pran blinks at him. “Thanks”.

The word is so soft. Pat clenches his fists beneath the counter.

#

“Do you have plans for today?”, Pat asks when they're done with breakfast.

Pran stills for a second. “None of your business”.

“You hesitated, so that's a no”.

“In what world is tha--”.

“Get ready, Mr Pran”, Pat says, getting up from his chair. He picks up the dishes and puts them in the sink, flinching at the noise they make when they hit the bottom. He does a double take to make sure nothing is broken, then lets out a sigh of relief. Turns around again and smiles. “We're going out today”.

“Yeah”. Pran scoffs. “Sure”.

“Don't yeah sure me, I'm serious”.

“Cut it out, Pat”.

“Why are you so stubborn?” Pat sits down on his chair once again, right in front of Pran. Their gazes meet and he has to force himself not to look away when he says: “I wanna take you somewhere nice. I know you're worried people will see us together, but I'll be careful. Also I have a car, in case you forgo--”.

“That's not the point”, Pran cuts him off.

“So what's the point?”

“I'm just not coming”.

“You are!”

“You're gonna have to kidnap me, then”.

“Don't test me, I'm stronger than you”.

“You're also very ticklish, if I remember correctly”.

Pat tries really hard not to grin at that, but it's no use: he can feel his lips betray him. He snorts and shakes his head, fond and a little exasperated – because Pran can never make anything easier, can he? He's as stubborn as a cat, and just as cute.

“No need to threaten me”, Pat says. “I just wanna do something nice for you, to thank you for letting me crash here. Is that so difficult to accept?”

Pran looks away. “You made breakfast”.

“Didn't you just say I was about to burn your kitchen down? Come on! It's a nice day out and we both deserve a break”.

“Why are you so insistent?”

“Because I wanna do this. Please”.

He tries to convey his sincerity as best as he can – jutting out his bottom lip, clasping his hands together as if he was in prayer –, and doesn't miss the way in which Pran's mouth twitches at the corners when he does. There's a smile hidden there, and it makes something warm unfurl in Pat's chest.

Pran tips his head back with a deep sigh. “I can't stand you”.

Pat smiles. “Is this a yes?”

“Hm”. Pran rolls his eyes. “Yeah, whatever”.

Pat stretches his arms towards the ceiling in celebration.

“But you won't bother me anymore after this”.

“Yes, Mr Pran”.

“Whatever happens”, Pran adds, and his tone is suddenly serious, heavy in a way that Pat can't point out. But it's there – in Pran's voice, in his eyes – like a switch has turned inside of his brain to bring it out.

“Yes, Mr Pran”, Pat says again.

It feels like the wrong answer.

#

Pat waits in his car, and is so nervous that he just can't stop drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. There's a catchy song playing on the radio, and somehow he finds himself singing along.

The more I think, the more confused I get

You're a mystery

He snorts.

Those are some relatable lyrics.

He looks at the time and sighs. Pran will be here any minute now, and it's hard not to feel giddy and excited when the thinks about the day ahead. He tries to hold his thoughts in check, to stop the silly, love-struck voice in his head that insists on calling this a date, but it's so hard. He knows this is not a date, but would it be so bad to pretend for a little while? It will all be in his mind anyway...

So he lets his imagination run wild.

When Pran enters the car, Pat's heart is soaring.

#

The beach is as beautiful as Pat remembers. The sea shines underneath the afternoon sun, the golden sand is warm under their feet. The only sound in the air is the sweet crashing of waves on the shore.

There's no one else but them here. Pat walks with his shoes in one hand and his backpack in the other, smiling at the sky, at the rocks, at the breeze brushing the hair off his forehead. He can hear Pran following close behind, and when he shoots a look over his shoulder, he catches him smiling too.

When Pran realizes he's being watched, he schools his face in a neutral expression, but it's not very convincing, and Pat feels so fond, so endeared that he doesn't know what to do with himself. He looks away.

“Do you like it?”

“What exactly are we doing here?”

“We're having a picnic, of course”.

Pran raises his eyebrows. “You brought food?”, he asks, and his eyes focus on the backpack Pat is carrying before returning on his face. “You thought about everything, huh?”

“I'm a master planner, you'll see”.

Pran snorts, shakes his head. “Drinks?”

“Yes, sir”.

“Beach towels?”

“Absolutely, sir”.

Pran laughs at that. “Asshole!”, he says. “Stop calling me that”, but how can Pat take his demand seriously when his teasing brought him this? Pran's smile, open and carefree and so beautiful. He hasn't seen it in such a long time.

He shakes himself out of his reverie. “Alright”, he says, and is half tempted to let this go, to focus on something else, to change the topic. But then he decides that if he's gonna be annoying, he's gonna be annoying till the very end, and so he adds: “... sir”.

The word has barely left his mouth when Pran starts chasing him – and Pat runs, runs, runs.

#

They eat and they laugh and they play in the water, and when the sun starts its descent towards the horizon, they sit side by side on the seashore to stare at the sky. Their heels sink into the wet sand, and any time the waves touch their feet, Pran wiggles his toes and smiles.

Pat thinks this is what freedom must feel like.

“Do you ever think how it would be?”, Pran asks.

Pat frowns. “What do you mean?”

“If our families didn't hate each other”.

“Oh”. I think about it every day. “You know I do”.

“Yeah. You said we would be friends, then”.

Pran is not looking at him. Pat tries to meet his gaze, searches for a connection, but Pran's eyes stay fixed on the waves. Pat should do the same. He should look away, smother the sudden burst of awe and affection that's threatening to overflow – spill out of his lips, out of his eyes – but he's bewitched. He traces the other's side profile with his mind, and wishes there was at least one dimple showing on his cheek. Pran clenches his jaw and here it is. Pat wants to touch it.

He swallows his feelings down and finally – finally – turns to the sea. “Do you think we wouldn't?”, he asks. “We've been friends already. In high school. I considered you one of my closest friends”.

Pran chuckles. “Are you for real?”

“What's so funny about that?”

Pran shakes his head. “Nothing, I guess”.

“How about you, huh?” Pat moves his leg to the side, just enough to gently hit Pran's foot with his own. When their skin touches, his heart accelerates. “Did you think of me as a friend back then?”

Pran scoffs. “As if”.

“What's that supposed to mean?!”

“I had standards”.

“Take it back”.

Pran smirks. “Or else?”

Pat pounces on him. Pran lets out a cry and falls back against the sand, hands raised in front of himself like a shield. They grasp Pat's shirt and push against his chest, so Pat circle his wrists and forces his arms down, down, down, till there's nothing between them except their own breath, the soft fabric of their clothes, the secrets they're keeping from each other.

They're laughing and screaming, and then they're silent.

“Jackass”, Pran says. “Now I have sand in my hair”.

“That's your bad karma”.

“My bad karma, huh?”, Pran murmurs.

Pat is so entranced by his eyes that he misses the smirk forming on his lips. A moment later, Pran's nimble fingers are on his waist, tickling him till he rolls to the side with a wheezing laugh. Pran then straddles his legs and keeps tickling him, relentless, deaf to Pat's pleas to let him breathe.

“Please stop, please stop!”, Pat shouts.

“This is your bad karma!”

“You're right, you're right-- I'm sorry!”

But when Pran finally stops, it's not because Pat asked.

It's because his body forced him to.

#

There's a bunch of bloody petals in front of them.

Pran covers them with the sand, and the image reminds Pat of a burial – a kid kneeling in a backyard with a small box in his hands and tears streaming down his cheeks. There's tenderness in his touch, and cold, hard sorrow in his eyes, and Pat wishes he had words to say, words to make this better, but he doesn't even know what Pran is burying.

“You okay?”, Pat whispers.

Pran nods. “This was bound to happen anyway”.

“I thought-- they say the sea air helps, you know?”

When Pran turns to him, he looks betrayed. “That's what this was about?”, he says. “That's why you dragged me here? Because the sea air helps? Because of-- because I'm sick?

“I just wanted to take your mind off things”.

“Yeah well it didn't work”. Pran stands up, shakes the sand from his clothes. “You can't take my mind off anything if my body doesn't follow, and this thing won't just go away because you made me sniff some sea air”.

“I was trying to help”.

“Why!” Pran raises his arms in question. “Why?”

“Is it really so hard to get into your head that I care about you?”, Pat shouts. “All the time you act like I'm not supposed to care, but that's not for you to decide, alright? Because I do! I care! So forgive me for giving a shit about-- about my friends”.

They stare at each other, both frowning, both a little out of breath.

“We will never be friends”, Pran finally says.

Then he turns around and walks towards the street.

#

“Pran”. Pat walks faster. “Pran!”

“Just leave me alone”.

“My car is the other way”.

“I'm catching the bus”.

His tone is final. Any trace of the Pran that Pat saw when they first set foot on the beach, the Pran who smiled and laughed and teased him and let his guard down – any trace of that person is gone, buried in the sand, tucked in a mess of bloodstained flowers.

Pat wishes he could bring him back, but he knows he can't.

“I'll wait with you, then”, he says.

Pran lets him.

#

“Are you sure you don't wanna come with me?”

Pran doesn't answer. It's been almost twenty minutes, and he hasn't said anything since they reached the stop. Still Pat tries, and tries, and tries again, hoping that one of his words will manage to get through. Hoping that Pran will stop ignoring him and he'll finally know what's going on.

“I didn't mean to make you angry”.

Pran rolls his eyes.

“And I didn't get you here just because you're sick. I wanted to spend a day with you, and I figured a trip to the beach would be nice”. Pat bites the inside of his cheek. “You liked it. Don't think I didn't see you smiling at the waves while we were chilling on the shore”.

Pran clenches his jaw, turns his head.

Is he blushing?

“I'm worried about you, alright?”

“You don't have to”, Pran says, standing up from the wooden bench on which he was sitting. He's looking at the far side of the road, and when Pat glances in that direction, he sees the bus approaching. His heart sinks all the way down to his stomach.

“I know that I don't”, Pat says, standing up as well.

“Glad we're on the same page, then”.

The bus stops right in front of them, and the doors open with a swish. Pran is already halfway on board of the vehicle when Pat calls his name and makes him turn around.

“Please, come back with me”, says Pat.

“You really don't get it, do you?”

“What?”

There's a weird feeling swirling in his gut.

“They're for you”, Pran says with a broken voice, and suddenly Pat is in a different place, at a different time, and Pran is naked and his skin is covered in flowers and he's kissing the palm of his hand like it's a vow or a promise or a goodbye – maybe all of them, maybe none of them.

Maybe this is just another dream.

“What”, Pat breathes out.

“The flowers are--”.

The bus door closes.

Chapter Text

Three sounds.

Looking back to this day in a year – in two years, three years, looking back in a decade – there are three sounds that Pran is sure he's going to remember.

First, the gentle crashing of waves on the shore.

Second, Pat's laughter as he tickled him.

Third, the thumps of Pat's hand against the side of the bus as Pran gets further and further away – as he goes back to the real world, leaving him behind, on the sidewalk, nothing more than a fantasy bathed in salt and gold.

Nothing more than a dream.

Time to wake up, he thinks.

It was nice while it lasted.

#

Less than twenty minutes pass before he's forced to get off the bus. He can't breathe properly – the bus is stuffy, and there are too many people on board. They crowd the space till it's difficult to move an inch without inadvertently touching someone's arm or shoulder, and Pran feels dizzy. His throat itches, his chest hurts, and he needs to leave right now.

So he gets to the door, stumbles down the steps.

The cool air outside makes him feel better, but there's still a dull pain in his lungs. He feels like coughing. A voice in his head tells him that it's gonna hurt if he does, so he tries to push it back, to breathe slowly and carefully, shoving the need down and down and down – as if he could control it.

But he can't.

So he lets go.

#

God, it hurts.

#

“You okay, boy?”, someone asks.

Pran startles and straightens up, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand. There's an old woman standing at the entrance of the alleyway: she's walking towards him before he can even begin to answer, and her eyes are sharp as she takes in the scene in front of her.

“Yeah, I'm okay”, mutters Pran.

She catches sight of the bloody petals on the ground and her mouth sets in a hard line. “Oh, dear”, she says. “I haven't seen this in years. Come with me, young man, you need something to drink”.

Pran blinks. “No, it's okay, I'm--”.

“Please, don't make an old woman repeat herself, will you?”, and Pran is way too respectful to do anything else but comply. So he lowers his head, the softest yes grazing his lips, and follows the woman through a door he hadn't noticed before. It leads to an antechamber, all empty except for the folding table and the two chairs set against the tiled wall.

“Wait here”, the woman says, and disappears behind a bead curtain. Pran watches her leave, manages to catch few glimpses of a busy kitchen before the beads turn back into a colorful door. He sits down on a chair and waits.

The woman comes back with a glass of water and a small plate of sweets. “I made these”, she says, smiling at him proudly. “I don't work in the kitchen anymore, but I'm still the only one who can make this dessert exactly as it should be made. Family recipe, a secret that'll die with me”, she adds with a wink.

Pran eyes the colorful dish in front of him and forces out a smile. Eating candy is the furthest thing from his mind right now, but he doesn't want to be impolite, so he says: “Thank you, auntie”, and pulls the plate closer to himself.

“Call me aunt Nam”.

Pran bows his head in assent.

“So, do you wanna talk about it?”

“It's-- a long story”.

“That's what the sweets are for, boy”.

And that's all it takes to convince him.

#

When Pran finishes telling his story, feeling lighter than he's ever been, the plate of sweets between him and aunt Nam is almost empty.

The taste of candy is heavy on his tongue.

Gone is the bitterness left by the flowers.

#

Aunt Nam sighs. “You've been very brave, Pran”, she says, and reaches out to pat his hand on the table. The touch is soft and barely there, but it makes something expand in Pran's chest till he feels like he's about to cry.

He doesn't.

“I don't feel brave”, and it's out in a whisper.

“Well, our brains love to make us feel like nothing we do is ever worth our praise”, she says. “But you know what? I'm very old, and I've seen many things. I think I can recognize bravery when I see it, hm?”

Pran smiles. It's sad and fake and it probably doesn't reach his eyes, so he looks away, lets his gaze wander around the room – so small and so white. White are the tiles on the wall, the folding table, the chairs. The door that leads to the alleyway where Pran's blood is still scattered on the ground.

“Let me tell you, when I was your age, or maybe even younger”, aunt Nam says, and her voice is light, coming from far away, “I had a friend. He was so shy – a bit of a loner, too. The kind of kid you could always see sitting by themselves at school”.

“But he was your friend?”

“Oh, yes. I think I was his only friend for a long while, you know. I brought him out of his shell a little, but he was actually pretty funny when he gave himself the chance to be”. She lets out a dreamy sigh. “Soon enough he was surrounded by friends, more than I'd ever had. It made me very happy for him”.

“What happened to him?”

“We were in the bathroom – I can remember it so clearly, because we had been painting that afternoon, and our arms were covered in paint – when he started coughing”. She shakes her head. “I got so scared, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to call for help, but I didn't wanna leave him alone, so I stayed. I stayed, and then I saw the flowers. And I understood”.

“Had you ever seen it before?”

“No, but we'd heard of it – in poems, in songs. It wasn't as pretty as they made it sound like. Looking at my friend's face, I could tell it hurt – but you already know it does. He made a mess on the floor, you know, and I cleaned it up for him”.

Pran lowers his gaze.

He sees himself the day that everything started, when he was home alone and scared for his life, scrubbing at the corridor's floor till everything was clean. Till not a trace of his sickness was left behind. He can still smell the detergent, feel it burn as it touched the small cuts on the back of his hand, and the memory's so vivid, so intense, that he finds himself gripping the edge of the table so hard that his fingers hurt.

Aunt Nam taps her fingers against his. “Too much?”

“It's okay”. Pran smiles. “You were kind to him”.

“He was my best friend, of course I was!” She chuckles. “But I suppose it's nice to know that he could find kindness that day, huh? I probably shouldn't say this, but he was very lucky to have me as a friend”.

“I can see that. What happened then?”

“He got worse, and worse, and worse. At that time, you know, science wasn't as advanced as it is today, and the only known cure for the disease was to confess your feelings. He wouldn't. I begged him to confess to the person he loved, but he wouldn't. One day I cried and cried for hours on end, and he finally caved in.

“He told me that he loved me”.

There are tears caught in her eyelashes, and for a second, under the dim white lights of the antechamber, she looks a lot younger than she is. Pran can almost see the girl she once was – no wrinkles, no grey hair, but the same gentle smile she's directing at him. The same eyes, too, small and sharp and a bit mischievous.

“He was very brave”, she says. “It took a lot of courage to tell me what he felt, and it didn't make things any easier between us. But the only thing that mattered was that he wasn't sick anymore. He was well, and he could breathe again, and we could still be friends”.

“Did you love him?”, Pran asks, even though he already knows the answer.

“I did. But he and I, together-- it felt like we were doomed from the start, and I had my own secrets I wanted to keep. There were things I had never told anyone, not even him, even though I suspect he'd always known. He could see right through me, somehow. It was me who was blind.

“But you know, his courage inspired me. The day he confessed to me-- I spent it with him as he recovered. It wasn't nice. There were still flowers in his lungs, and he had to cough them up – but as he was hacking and spitting in the bathroom, all sweaty and tired, he smiled at me and told me that he was happy.

Telling the truth is painful, he told me, but sometimes it's the only thing that can make you heal, and I've never forgotten that”.

“Where is he now?”

“He's probably reborn”. She joins her hands, interlaces her fingers, and the smile on her face isn't sad, despite the words that left her mouth. “We had a good life together. A long life together. Not an easy one, mind you – but sometimes easy is simply not worth it. Sometimes easy demands too many sacrifices”.

Aunt Nam scoots forward till she's on the edge of her seat. Once again her hand is touching Pran's, and her eyes are locked with his as she says: “There were many times in my life when I had to tell the truth, and every single time required a great amount of bravery, sometimes even more than what I believed I had. You confessed your truth, today. It was brave, and it was difficult and painful. It doesn't get easier with time, you know? Some truths are always gonna hurt, but it doesn't matter, because the important thing is that you heal.

“You can do it, now, Pran.

“You can heal”.

#

When Pran leaves the restaurant, it's dark outside.

He feels like a different person.

The life waiting for him at home is still the same.

#

He spends the night in the bathroom of his dorm room, coughing up what's left of the flowers in his chest. It's more painful than it's ever been, but he closes his eyes against the pain and thinks this is the end.

Petals in his mouth, this is the end.

Tears wetting his cheeks, this is the end.

Blood on his tongue, this is the end.

The end tastes like salt and iron.

#

The next day passes in a blur.

Pran somehow manages to avoid Pat once again. He doesn't go to class, doesn't answer his calls or texts, doesn't even look through the peephole when the other knocks on his door – and it's not because he's scared. What's there to be scared of? The truth is out, and it's not like Pran has ever really thought that Pat could like him back.

Loving Pat has always been a waste of time.

No, Pran isn't scared. He's just tired, doesn't have the emotional energy to face the other boy right now – or any of his friends, for that matter – and so he doesn't. He's gotten so good at avoiding him that he's pretty sure he could turn this into a job if he wanted.

He spends his morning and afternoon working on his assignments, and then goes home for dinner. It's nice, not having to worry about getting sick as he spends some time with his family – not having to constantly check if he's breathing fine, if he's in pain, if something in his body feels the tiniest bit off.

It's nice, being able to simply exist in their company.

To feel like himself again, even if it's all a lie.

#

He should've remembered to close the window.

#

“What the fuck are you doing here?”, Pran hisses.

Pat looks at him like he just asked a very dumb question. “You've been ignoring me again”, he says, and his voice sounds too loud in Pran's bedroom, too clear.

Pran locks the door. “Because I don't wanna talk to you-- are you out of your mind? What if my mom sees you, what if-- shit, you're gonna get us in trouble”.

“I'm gonna get myself in trouble”.

“Get out”.

Pat lets out a noise of frustration. “Why are you doing this?”, he asks. “I don't understand you, Pran. You tell me you like me and then disappear. Do you know how worried I was? I tried to call you, I tried to text you – and you ghosted me. I didn't know if you got home safe, someone could've kidnapped you for all I knew!”

Guilt gnaws at Pran, but he ignores it. “You're being dramatic”.

“Oh, I'm the dramatic one?”

“Pat, I'm serious, get out now--”.

“I'm not gonna get out until you listen to me”.

Pran presses his lips in a tight line.

“Please”.

And Pran can't get out of this, can he? Because Pat is here, in his bedroom – in his house –, and he looks so sad and lost and confused, and it's all Pran's fault. He was so focused on his own suffering that he forgot other people had hearts too.

That they could bleed too.

“What do you want”, he says.

“I need to tell you something”.

Pat gets closer, and with every step he takes forward, Pran takes one back – till there's no space anymore and his shoulders are pressed against the door, the cool surface hitting his nape, making him shiver. He swallows, willing his eyes to move away from the other's, willing his knees not to give out under him.

He almost fails at the words that leave Pat's mouth.

“I like you too”.

It feels like a dream come true.

It feels like the ground crumbling beneath his feet.

“What?”, Pran whispers.

Pat clicks his tongue, a mask of fond exasperation on his face. “I like you”, he says again, and he's way too close, way too loud. The smile on his lips is small and sweet, and his eyes look soft, so full of honesty and affection that Pran almost can't stand it. In them he sees a reflection of what he could be but isn't.

And it breaks his heart.

It breaks his heart because he knows he should be happy about it. This is everything he's ever wanted and never dared to ask for, and yet there's no joy in his heart – just a new weight taking the place of the other. Just a different kind of pain.

“This doesn't change anything”.

Pat's smile withers. “What do you mean?”, he say. He circles Pran's wrists, takes his hands in his own, squeezes his fingers. His skin is warm, and Pran's heart stutters in his chest because they've never touched like this before. Not in the real world at least, so distant from the one in Pran's dreams – and now so close to it.

“This changes everything”, Pat says. “You were always there, Pran. Since we were kids, since high school, and it never-- it never made sense, but now it does, and this changes everything-- why do you look so sad?”

Pran's sight blurs.

He starts crying.

#

There's the fabric of Pat's shirt pressing against his mouth. It's a bit rough, wet with his tears. There's the side of Pat's collar brushing against his ear. The smell of his laundry detergent mixed with a faint trace of sweat. The path his fingers trace on his shoulders and down his back. There's the sound of his breath, slow and even, and the hiccups Pran is trying hard to keep at bay.

There's the whole world spinning around them.

There's nothing else but them, holding each other close.

#

Pat dries Pran's under-eyes with his thumbs, holding his face like it's something precious. “Stop crying”, he says, “or you'll make me cry too” – but his voice is already cracking, his eyes shiny with unshed tears, and Pran would mock him for this if he could find the words right now. As it is, he can only shake his head and sniffle.

“You're cute when you cry”.

Pran widens his eyes, then scoffs. “Is this really what you should be focusing on?”, he mutters, but there's no denying the warmth creeping up his neck, his cheeks, the tip of his ears.

There's no denying how much he liked hearing that.

“I didn't change my mind, you know”, he says.

Pat snorts. “Well, I hope so”.

“Not about that!” Pran grabs Pat by the wrists, forces his hands away from his face. His skin feels cold. He wants to put them back. “About this”, he adds. His voice is a bit too loud, his tone a bit too harsh, and he wants to run away and hide, to never have to utter another word in his life because whatever he says, it doesn't matter. It won't change anything.

“Why are you pushing me away?”, Pat whispers.

“You know why”.

“But it's not right”.

“It doesn't matter”.

“It does to me!”

Pran presses his palm against Pat's mouth. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”, he hisses. “Keep your voice down. If my mother finds out you're he-- ew, you asshole! You licked me!”

Pran pushes him away, wipes the offended hand against the side of his own shirt. Pat looks half amused and half annoyed, and the glint of satisfaction in his eyes as he stares at Pran – who's still shooting daggers at him – makes Pran want to smack his head and call him an idiot.

Or push him down on the bed and make out with him – but that's a dangerous territory to cross now. He needs to focus. He needs to focus on something that's not the fact that he could actually kiss Pat now if he wanted. And he wants to. He's wanted to for so long...

“Distracted much?”

Pran shakes his head and glares at him. How dare he smirk like this when Pran is going through the five stages of grief over losing something that he hasn't ever had in the first place?

“Get out”.

“Not until you promise me that you won't disappear”.

“Why?”

“Because I'm not letting you go this time”.

Pran closes his eyes. “I should've gotten the surgery”.

“Hey, don't say it”.

Pat's tone is so serious that Pran is forced to open his eyes again. His expression is stern, it makes Pran feel ashamed of himself. He makes a face, says: “I can say what I want. It was my sickness”.

“Getting surgery wouldn't have gotten rid of it. It would've just removed the flowers, and then you would've been forced to take the medications and--”.

“I know, I did my research--”.

“Then don't make me think about it”.

Pran is stunned silent.

“I was scared, okay?”, Pat says. He sighs, sits on the edge of Pran's bed. “You were sick, I didn't know how to help, and you were avoiding me. You kept me out. When I realized that I liked you I thought you had a crush on someone else, and it was fine, because I just wanted you to be okay. But now that I know the truth, you can't possibly believe that I'll let you go”.

“What if I ask you to?”

“No way”.

Pran scoffs. “Maybe I don't like you anymore”.

“These things don't change in a day”.

“Maybe you heard me wrong in the first place”.

It's ridiculous, and Pran doesn't really mean it. It's just that Pat's confidence in his feelings irks him. He didn't confess because he wanted to, after all – that should give him the right to ask the other to ignore it and pretend like nothing ever happened.

Pat squints at him as he stands up from the bed. He walks up to him again, but this time Pran stands his ground and doesn't step back, not even when he feels the other's breath on his face as he says: “Then where are your flowers now, huh?”

“Jackass. Don't make me cough in your face”.

And Pran sees it – the way Pat's eyes flicker to his lips. The desire written all over his face, probably mirrored on his own. How easy it would be to give in, to get even closer and kiss that mouth like he's always dreamed of...

“Pran, dinner's ready!”, his mother calls from downstairs.

The dream shatters in a million pieces.

#

Something is off.

They're sitting at the table – Pran, his mother, his father. Side dishes are being passed around. The smell of food is as delicious as ever, and yet it makes something foul coil up in Pran's stomach. It's bitter and it's cold, and Pran wants to push his plate away and go back to his room – a room that must be empty now, an open window the only witness of his last conversation.

Pat said that he wouldn't leave unless he told him what he wanted to hear – that he won't disappear again, that he will give them a chance –, and Pran could've lied to him. He's always been good at that, after all.

So he could've lied to him, told him that he was willing to try – that yes, sure, the idea of sneaking around wasn't so bad, that he could live a double life and be content with it, because sometimes life is about sacrifices and compromises and lies, and he could also play this game if he needed to.

Instead, he didn't answer.

“When I come back I don't wanna find you here”, he said.

All of a sudden, they feel like the wrong words.

#

He looks at his father and feels disappointed.

He looks at his mother and feels angry.

He looks at himself and feels both things at once.

#

It's something dumb that triggers it.

He's once again helping his mother with the dishes, standing by her side in silence. He hasn't talked much during dinner, and she must've noticed because she suddenly says: “You're quieter than usual, Pran”.

Pran hums noncommittally. The irritation he felt as they were eating has not subsided, growing bigger and bigger at every word spoken, at every laugh shared. Now it's the only thing he can feel, filling him with so much anger that his skin is tingly with it. It's about to burst into flames.

“Something on your mind?”, she asks.

Nothing you'd like to hear, is what he thinks.

“I'm just tired”, is what he says.

She chuckles. “Nice try, hun, but you can't lie to me”.

I've been lying to you since I learned how to do it.

“I'm your mother, I know you”.

You don't know anything.

“I know you better than anyone”.

“You don't know anything”.

The clink of ceramic against the sink. A sharp intake of breath. Pran looks at his hands, still drying a plate, and realizes what he just did. What he said out loud.

“What?”, asks his mother.

He can't make himself look into her eyes.

“Pran”.

“You heard me”, he says, and doesn't know where the strength to let the words out is coming from. There's a buzz in his ears, his heart is beating too fast, and in his bones seeps the awareness that there is no coming back from this, no matter what he decides to do.

“What did you mean by that?”, she asks.

In his mind, Pran still hears aunt Nam's words echo, and his hold on the plate tightens. “I was dying”, he says, his voice still tentative, still small, “and you didn't even notice”.

“Pran”.

“I was dying in front of you and you didn't even--”, his voice breaks.

“Pran, what the hell are you saying?”

She grabs him by the shoulders, turns him around so she can meet his gaze. Her eyes are wide in fear and confusion, her cheeks pale even under the make-up, and the only thought crossing Pran's mind is I love you.

I love you, so why can't you see me?

Why do you keep hurting me?

“I was sick, mom”, he lets out, and the tears blur his mother's face till she's nothing more than a smudge of color floating in front of his eyes. “I was sick and you couldn't even tell”.

“What do you mean you were sick? Pran, Pran, you're scaring me”, she says, and she takes his hands, caresses his arms, and the contact feels like something out of a different life. It brings Pran back to when he was a kid, when everyone touched him with such tenderness he's never felt since.

Until Pat.

“I had Hanahaki disease”, he says. “For weeks I've coughed up flowers and blood and you didn't have a clue”.

Her hands leave his body. She gasps, brings her fingers to cover her mouth. “Why didn't you tell me”, she says, her voice barely a whisper. “For how long-- when did it-- Pran, why didn't you tell me?”

“Because I couldn't”.

“What do you mean you couldn't--”.

“Because it's Pat”.

Her eyes widen ever more.

“I like the boy next door. And the last time you saw us interact you made me change schools, mom, so how was I supposed to tell you this?” He shakes his head. “How was I supposed to trust you with this?”

“Pran, I always told you not to--”.

“I don't wanna hear it!” Pran puts the plate on the counter with too much force. He doesn't care. He doesn't spare it a look. “I already know what you're gonna tell me anyway. That they're bad, that I should stay away. That they tried to ruin our family”.

“And that's the truth!”

“I don't care”, Pran shouts. “Pat is not his parents, mom. Whatever they did to us, why must we be the ones to carry their responsibility? Why can't we just decide for ourselves if we wanna be friends?”

“You can't be serious, Pran, you can't be--”.

“But I am! I'm serious, mom, I'm-- I'm tired of this”.

She takes a trembling breath, trying to collect herself. “Go to your room, Pran”, and her voice is shaking with shock and anger. “We'll talk about this after we both cool down”.

“I'm not twelve, you can't tell me to go to my room”.

“Don't talk back to me, Pran!”

“Or what? You'll make me change schools again? You'll make my life miserable again?”

Her hand is cold when she slaps him.

His face burns long after that.

#

He doesn't cry on the way back to the dorm.

In his head, aunt Nam tells him he's been brave.

You confessed your truth, she says.

Now you can heal.

Chapter Text

Pat leaves through the window.

He crosses the narrow space between their houses, gets back inside his own room. Stands there for a while, in the middle of a place he's not sure he can still recognize – no trace of familiarity, no trace of comfort. Just his bed and his stuff and all the ways in which these walls feel like a prison.

“I forgot I have plans with Korn tonight”, he tells Pa when he sees her downstairs. It's a lie, and not even an inspired one, but he can't be bothered. He just needs to get away from here, before he says something he'll regret. “Tell mom and dad, okay?”

He's out before she can answer.

#

He really ends up having dinner with Korn.

They're sitting in front of a food stall, with two bowls of noodles in front of them and empty cans of soda scattered all over the small table. Korn is talking about something Pat doesn't really care about – maybe he would, if he could pay enough attention to remember what it is – but he hums and nods anyway, even though his mind is somewhere else, with someone else.

Stuck.

“... and that's when I realized she had two heads and a tail”.

Pat shakes himself to attention. “Eh?”

A scoff, and then a dirty napkin hits Pat's cheek. “It was a test”, says Korn, “and you failed. What's up with you tonight, huh? You're not even listening”.

Pat lets out a weak chuckle. “Ah, sorry”.

“Sorry my ass. What is it?”

“Nothing”.

Korn raises one eyebrow.

“Alright, I have a question”.

“Fire away”.

“If you liked someone--”.

“You got a crush?”

“No, this is hypothetical”.

“What does that word mean?”, Korn says, making a confused face. Pat picks up the crumpled napkin again and throws it back at him. Korn laughs, dodges, sticks out his tongue like a kid on the playground.

“Jackass”, Pat says with a chuckle. “I know you're dumb, but there's a limit to your stupidity”.

“Yeah but is there a limit to yours?”

“Ha-ha, you're so funny. You gonna listen or not?”, and he doesn't wait for an answer this time. “Let's say you have a crush on someone, and you know they like you too, but... they still don't wanna date you”.

“Unlikely”, Korn says. Then he sighs and his face turns serious – as serious as Korn can manage, anyway. “I don't know, man. If she likes you too then why doesn't she wanna date you?”

“It's a boy”.

The words are out before Pat can stop them – before he can even realize they're coming. For the shortest second he thinks that he made a mistake, and a rush of cold emptiness fills his belly till he feels almost sick with it.

Then Korn says: “Same difference”, and the tension dissolves.

“Aren't you surprised?”

“Well, yeah, I didn't think you were gay”.

“I'm not. I just don't really mind gender, I think”.

“Uh, that's cool – larger dating pool and all that”. He snorts. “And yet you've got a crush on someone who doesn't wanna date you, that's just your luck”.

“You asshole, is that how you comfort your friends?”

“Right, sorry. So why is that?”

Pat sighs. “It's complicated”, he says, and shakes his head. Complicated is an understatement. “It's a shitty situation. It's like Romeo and Juliet: our families hate each other, and our faculties don't get along either--”.

“I fucking knew it!” Korn stands up so fast that he almost knocks his chair down. The scraping sound it lets out as it moves back makes Pat grimace. “You like someone from architecture!”

“Get the fuck down, are you crazy?”

“Is that it? Do you like someone from architecture?”

“Yeah, yeah, now sit down before the auntie there decides to kick your ass”. He shoots a look at where said woman is staring daggers at his friend's back and sends her a forced smile. “I think she wants to kill you”.

“Oh, shit”. Korn turns around and does a wai for the woman running the stall. “Sorry, sorry”, he says, but she just rolls her eyes and goes back to her cooking with a somewhat annoyed expression. Korn sits back down. “She could beat the shit out of me”.

“You would deserve it”.

“Hey, don't think that I forgot what we were talking about!”, Korn says, and here it is, that infuriating smirk on his face. “So who is it? Do I know him? Is he one of those assholes that we helped with the bus station?”

“I'm not gonna tell you who he is”. Pat tsks. “What do you care anyway? Also-- you have to promise me you won't tell this to anyone else, alright? I feel bad enough as it is. I should've kept my mouth shut”.

“I'm your best friend, of course I'm gonna keep your secrets”.

“Thanks, man”.

“But is he hot?”

Pat leans over the table. “If you keep asking questions about him”, he says, a fake smile stretching his mouth, “I'm gonna leave without paying. Do you wanna risk it?”

Korn thinks about it a few seconds. “No”.

“Exactly. Be useful instead”.

“Alright, but I don't know what to tell you. It's family, Pat, you know better than anyone else how demanding and controlling family can be”. He takes a sip of soda and shrugs. “I mean-- you could go behind everyone's back like Romeo and Juliet did, but do I need to remind you how that story ends? They kill each other”.

Pat frowns. “That's-- not how the story ends”.

“It isn't? Well, they both die”.

“So what you're saying is that I should give up?”

“Fuck no. I'm saying that if you have to die”, and he raises his can of soda like a chalice in a toast, “at least you can stick it to your parents in the process”.

Pat shoots him un unimpressed glare. “That's your advice?”

“Yeah”.

“Go back to your noodles”.

#

The knock on his door catches him by surprise.

He rolls around on the bed and frowns. He's not expecting anyone, but it's not that late yet, so maybe one of his friends has decided to come see him for a drink. It wouldn't be the first time – even though no one called or texted to let him know now.

He opens the door, and is startled to find Pran waiting on the other side, looking dejected, a little unsure. Pran averts his eyes, suddenly too interested in the tips of his shoes or Pat's boring doormat to keep eye contact.

“I don't know why I'm here”, he says.

Pat wants to make a joke, to lighten the tension he can feel radiating from the other's body, but he doesn't have anything funny to say. The words that reach his mouth are: “Are you okay?”, and he's not sure they're right, but at least they're honest.

Honest should be enough.

“I told my mom”, Pran says.

“What did you tell her?”

Their gazes meet.

“Everything”.

And Pat doesn't know what compels him to take that step forward – if it's the look in Pran's eyes, or the way his voice cracks halfway through that single word, so soft and raw and heartbreaking – but it doesn't matter.

What matters is that he takes that step, he reaches out.

He holds Pran in his arms, and Pran lets him.

#

“I'm sorry”, Pat says when Pran stops talking.

They're sitting on the edge of the bed, turned towards each other, their knees touching. Pran's eyes are fixed on the space between them – a few centimeters that feel like a thousand miles. Pat wants to cross them, just to caress the other's face, feel the softness of his hair as he brushes them off his forehead. Trace a line down his nose, under his eyes. Touch his ear.

Pran's mouth twitches in a sad smile, and the moment is lost.

“It's not your fault”.

“It's not yours either”.

The truth of that statement hangs heavily over them.

“I know”, Pran whispers in the end. “But we're the ones who are being punished, over and over again – and for what? We don't even know what happened to our families, and we're expected to just-- hate each other without a reason”.

“Does it really matter?”

“What?”

“Whatever happened between them, does it matter?”

Pran shrugs, and then goes back to looking at the sheets. He picks at a loose thread and plays with it, a concentrated frown on his face. “Maybe it doesn't, I don't know. But at least we'd have something”.

“I don't care about it”. Pat lets his hand slide across the space that separates their fingers till they touch. The contact is feather-like, but it makes something warm and bubbly unfurl in his chest. “I don't hate you”.

Pran snorts. “No, you have a crush on me”, he says, and now there's a cheeky smirk on his lips. One of his dimples makes its first appearance of the night, and Pat has to pull his bottom lip between his teeth to stop himself from letting out a very embarrassing sound.

Pran has no business being this cute, dammit.

“Like you don't”, he retorts.

Pran makes a face, but doesn't deny it.

Pat sighs, takes Pran's hand in his own. “I don't hate you”, he says again, “and nothing they could tell us would ever change this – because I know you, and you know me. And yes, I like you, so what?”

Pran smiles and raises his eyebrows. “So what?

“Yeah”. Pat leans closer. “So what”.

“You tell me”, and in his eyes there's the glint of a challenge. Pat is hypnotized – by his dark irises, the way his lashes trembles. The light shade of pink that dusts his cheeks, and his ears, and his lips.

Those lips, Pat was so close to tasting them just that afternoon...

Pran's breath hitches, and he pulls back – not much, just enough to look Pat in the eyes as he asks: “Do you really think that we can make this work?”

“Yes”.

“Aren't you scared of your father?”

Yes, but “I don't care”.

“It's your family, of course you care”.

“I care about you, too”.

“Yeah?”

Pat leans in again. “Can I kiss you?”, he whispers against Pran's lips, and revels in the way the other shivers, his breath stuttering for a second as he mulls over Pat's question. His eyes flicker to Pat's lips.

“No”, he says, but then his hand is on Pat's nape and he's pulling him closer, and their mouths are crashing on one another in a searing kiss. Pat closes his eyes and lets his fingers travel up the other's arm, his shoulder, the side of his neck.

He can feel Pran's heartbeat under his fingertips.

A mirror of his own.

#

Things might be moving a little too fast.

Pran's mouth is on his mouth, and then on his jaw, and then on his neck. His tongue traces the sharp jut of his collarbone, the barest hint of teeth grazing his skin, and Pat is already hard. Having your crush straddling you – kissing you, touching you, grinding on you – will do that to a guy, he supposes, and it would embarrass him more if he couldn't feel the other's erection pressing against his own.

As it is, he feels it all too well.

“Wait, wait, wait”, he says, and the word tastes like sexual frustration and self-sabotage. “Isn't this-- aren't we going too fast?”

Pran pulls away, shoots him a look from under heavy eyelids. “Too fast?” He pushes him down on the bed, splays his hands against his chest, and-- has he always been this sexy? “I think we took our sweet sweet time to get here, but if you wanna stop--”.

“Trust me, I don't”.

“Then why bring it up?”

“Because I'm worried”.

Pran blinks at him. “About what?” Understanding dawns on his face and his eyes widen. “Oh, you-- you've never had sex before?”

“What? No! I mean, yes! No, I mean, kinda--”.

“What does it even mean?”, Pran says, a laugh weaving its way through the words. He sits up straighter, and Pat has to bite back an embarrassing sound because Pran is very much still on top of his dick, and he's very much still hard – and as it turns out, these things don't make it any easier to think clearly.

“I wasn't talking about that”, he manages to say.

“Then what is it?”

“Why do you want to do this?”

Pran looks at him, then slowly moves his gaze down at where their crotches are pressed against each other. Pat follows his line of sight and feels warm all over.

“Pran”, he whines, “you know what I mean”.

Pran sighs. He lies down on top of Pat, resting his head on his shoulder. “I have no idea what will happen now that my mother knows”, he says, his voice barely audible. “Is it really so wrong to want to pretend like this freedom isn't gonna end as soon as she asks me to go back?”

Pat threads his fingers through his hair. “No”.

“Then don't push me away”.

A chuckle, and: “Hey, that's my line”.

“See?” Pran snorts, turns his head so that their gazes can meet. “This is not how this is supposed to go”.

“Then how is it supposed to go?”

But the smirk blooming on Pran's lips is enough of an answer.

#

Pat comes embarrassingly fast.

In his defense, Pran is very good with his mouth – a skill that goes above and beyond his eloquence and ability to bullshit his way through any situation, it seems. Pat was doomed from the start and didn't even realize it.

He lies on his bed, legs dangling from the edge. His eyes are closed, lower body fuzzy with the fading orgasm, but he still feels the warmth of Pran's hands on his thighs, knows that if he looked he'd find him staring from between his legs – a vision that Pat is not sure he'd be able to handle right now.

“Well, that was quick”, Pran says.

Pat groans in his hands. “Give me a break”.

“Are you gonna leave me hanging?”

“No”. He raises his index finger in the air. “Give me one second”.

“Alright, it's gone”.

Two fingers in the air. “Two seconds”.

Pran snorts. “You suck”.

“Enough with the slander”.

“I'm going back to my room”.

Pat sits up like one of those spring toys that jump out of a box when you open it. “You're not going anywhere”, he says, and catches Pran before he can walk to the door, winding his arms around his waist and pulling him on his lap. Pran yelps, and laughs, and tilts his head back against Pat's shoulder.

Pat puts one hand on his hip, where the hem of his white boxers meets the skin. His other hand caresses Pran's side, the soft expanse of his stomach, then his chest. His thumb swipes over his nipple and Pran shudders.

“Do I still have to wait?”

Pat snakes his hand in Pran's boxers and: “No more waiting”, he whispers against his ear. He noses the side of his neck, breathes in his intoxicating scent. Holds him tighter. “You waited long enough”.

“Finally something we can agree on”.

#

Spit-coated hands against hot skin.

The warmth of Pran's body in his embrace.

The rise and fall of his chest against Pat's chest – so close that he doesn't know where the other ends and he begins. The thought makes him shiver, fills him with such unbridled euphoria that he doesn't know what to do with it.

Pran threads his fingers through his hair. “Faster”, he mouths against his shoulder. The wet touch of his tongue, the pang of pain when his teeth meet the skin. “Can you do that for me, huh?”

Pat is so far gone that he could do anything – would do anything. So he moves his hand faster, whispering sweet nothings as he brings him closer and closer to climax. Pran's thighs tighten their grip around his waist as his whole body tenses, as he thrusts his hips so he can fuck Pat's fist till he's coming, a chain of don't stop don't stop don't stop rolling off his tongue.

They kiss, and it's hot and wet and a bit messy.

When Pran pulls away, his skin is damp with sweat, his cheeks flushed, his lips red red red, and Pat would kiss him again if it wasn't for the look in his eyes. Their foreheads touch and they stay like this, eye to eye, noses brushing against each other as they try to catch their breath.

“I don't want morning to come”, Pran whispers.

Pat smiles a sad smile, closes his eyes. Places a kiss on Pran's lower lip and rests his hand on his nape. “Then I'll tell this night to last forever”, he says, and it makes no sense, and he doesn't care.

He'd say the most ridiculous things just to hear Pran laugh.

#

“Thank you”, Pran whispers against his back.

They're spooning, and as he's being held like this, with Pran's arm wound around his middle and his leg thrown over his side, Pat feels small in the best kind of way. Like he's safe, teleported back to the days when he thought that nothing could ever hurt him.

“For what?”, he asks.

A kiss on his shoulder. “For not giving up on me”.

Pat smiles, holds his hand and brings it to his mouth.

“Thank you”.

“For what?”

“For not giving up on yourself”.

#

They have breakfast together.

Pran kisses him with ketchup-tinted lips, and it's messy and salty and Pat pretends to be disgusted, but then kisses him back all the same. He knows there must be fondness seeping through his eyes, the crack of his smile, the inflection of his voice when he says: “You're gonna pay for this!”, because he's never been good at hiding what he feels.

He wears his heart on his sleeve, on the tip of his tongue, and it'd be so easy to grab it and squeeze it till it becomes nothing but a gory lump of blood and shattered hopes. It'd be so easy to hurt him – Pran could do it and he wouldn't be the first.

Instead he's having breakfast with him, kissing him with ketchup-tinted lips. He laughs when Pat tries to smother him in a hug, pretends to run away and then slows down to let himself get caught, as happy as Pat and just as vulnerable because of it.

They put their hearts in each other's hands.

They'll be kept well.

#

Someone's knocking on Pran's door.

They hear it from Pat's room, Pran sat on his lap as they watch dumb videos on YouTube. When the first series of knock knock knock reaches their ears, they exchange a panicked look and freeze. The voices coming from Pat's cellphone are suddenly too loud.

“Pran”, the muted shout of a woman from the corridor. “Pran, open the door!”

“Your mom?”, Pat asks.

Pran nods. “I haven't returned her calls”.

Pat snakes his arms around Pran's waist and squeezes him close, hides his face under his chin. “You don't have to answer”, he murmurs. “She doesn't know where I live, right? You can wait here for a while. She's gonna give up eventually”.

The moment the words leave his mouth, though, he knows that it's no use: Pran's already made up his mind. So Pat lets him go, a sad smile etched on his face, but when Pran stands up he doesn't turn around. He keeps looking at Pat, stretches out his arm and asks: “You coming?”

Pat's heart skips a beat.

“You want her to see me?”

“I wanna try”.

Pat takes his hand, and they walk to the door. His stomach fills up with knots and nervous energy, cold dread rushing through his veins. This is gonna be so awkward, and he has no idea what to say or do, how to act to let her understand just how much he cares about her son. Just how much he loves him. Maybe if she saw it in his eyes, she would accept him.

Maybe he watched too many rom-coms.

“Mom”, Pran calls after opening the door.

The woman in front of them startles and turn around. “What-- I got the wrong room?”, she asks, looking confused, but then her eyes meet Pat's and her expressions sours. “Ah, I see”.

Pat does a wai, but she doesn't greet him back.

“Since when are you neighbours?”, she asks Pran.

“Since the start”.

“And you never told me?”

“So you could make me change dorms? I like it here”.

Something indefinable passes through her eyes. It dies as quickly as it was born, and she schools her face in a mask of neutrality. “We need to talk”, she says to Pran. “Let's go home so we can finish our conversation”.

“Can't we talk here?”

“Pran”.

“If we wanna talk, we can do it here”. He grabs Pat's wrist, holding it so tight that Pat has to clench his jaw not to wince from the sudden pain. “Whatever you wanna tell me, he can hear it too”.

For a second, Pat thinks she's gonna get mad. There's a look on her face that speaks of angry shouting and tears – and yet when she opens her mouth, she sounds calm and collected. “Better this way”, she says, and for the second time her gaze meets Pat's, and a fearful shiver travels down his spine at the eye contact. “So he'll be able to tell you that I'm not lying”.

#

Pran's mother talks, and every word coming out of her mouth is a little piece of Pat's father slipping through his fingers. When she's done, Pat looks at his empty hands and doesn't remember what they were holding: the man he thought he knew is gone, consumed by the woman's voice, replaced by someone Pat doesn't can't recognize.

The man he thought he knew is gone.

A piece of Pat is gone with him.

#

“Can you understand me now?”, Pran's mother says. There are tears in her eyes, wet trails on her cheeks. Her face is red, her lips even redder – but not as red as the shame Pat can feel burning on his own skin. He wants to claw it out, to hide from the humiliation, the sheer disappointment that makes his stomach boil.

That's my father, he thinks. I am his son.

The thought makes him sick.

“I trusted him like a brother, and he betrayed me. He stole my future, my dreams, my ambitions-- I can't get them back, Pran. I will never get them back. How could I ever allow you to get close to his family after what he'd done to me?”

“But why must Pat be responsible for his father's actions?”, Pran asks. He squeezes Pat's hand, and Pat holds onto the contact like it's a lifeboat, the only thing still keeping him tethered to the world. Let it go, and he would float away. Let it go, and he'll be consumed like his father was.

“Apples never fall far from the tree”.

And Pran speaks up at that, tells her that she doesn't even know him, how can you say that when you didn't even try to get to know him, but Pat gently shakes his hand and asks him to stop.

“I'm sorry for what my father did to you”, he says – and it's not enough, not even remotely enough, but what else is he supposed to do? “I didn't know”.

She gives a rueful smile. “Of course you didn't. He didn't want you to know. What he did to me was so unforgivable that he can't bear the thought of his own son knowing”.

Pat lowers his head. “Nothing I could say would fix this”, he says, and then gathers all his courage to raise his gaze and meet hers once again. “If my apologies were worth anything, I would apologize a thousand times. But the only thing I can say is that I'm not my father, and I would never do anything to hurt Pran, because-- because I love him, and I want to keep him close to me as long as he'll have me”.

Pran's hold on his hand gets tighter and tighter, his thumb digging into the side of his wrist. Pat doesn't look at him. Pran's mother is studying his face like she's looking for something – a proof that he's lying, or a sign of the truth – and he doesn't want to give her any reason to doubt what he's said.

I have nothing to hide, his eyes tell her.

He just hopes it can be enough – if not now, then one day.

#

She doesn't give them her blessings.

She doesn't forbid them to see each other either, though – and Pat supposes this is as good as it can get.

#

When Pat goes home, his family is sitting on the couch. His mother stands up as soon as she sees him, a warm smile on her lips, and offers to bring him something to eat. He shakes his head, his eyes fixed on his father's face like it's the only thing in his line of sight.

“Everything okay, hun?”, his mother asks.

“Dad, I need to ask you something”.

His father averts his eyes from the TV. “What is it?”

“Is it true that you stole Mrs Siridechawat's scholarship?”

A few unexpected words and the whole room turns cold. His father's eyes widen, his mother pales. Pa stares at the three of them with confusion written all over her face, but asks nothing – like she knows that the silence is the only barrier between peace and chaos, and doesn't want to be the one to destroy it.

“Who told you that?”, his father asks.

“It doesn't matter now. Is it true?”

His sudden silence is confirmation enough.

“I didn't wanna believe it”, Pat says, and is surprised to find that his voice isn't shaking when he feels like every cell of his body is. “How could you do something like that, dad? How could you betray your closest friend like that?”

His father slowly stands up from the couch. “You don't know what you're talking about, Pat”.

“Then tell me! Explain it to me”.

But the explanation never comes. His father stands still in the middle of the room, and for a second Pat doesn't recognize him – no trace of confidence in his stance, no sense of authority. Just a pathetic man who can't even answer a single question.

Pat feels the telltale prick of tears in his eyes. “All this time”, he says, “I've been wondering why things had to be like this – why I had to compete with Pran when all I wanted was to be his friend – and you're telling me that it was because of you? That it's your fault?”

“You don't understand, Pat”, his father says. “I didn't want to do that but I had to. Your grandfather had lots of expectations, I just wanted to make him proud--”.

“At what cost?”

“Pat”, his mother says, “please, let it go now”.

“I can't do that, mom”. Pat shakes his head. “I can't do that. I lost so much time because of this, we could've had so much time together if it wasn't--”.

“What are you talking about?”, asks his father.

“I'm talking about me and Pran”.

“What does he have to do with this?”

“I love him”.

Pa gasps from where she's still sitting on the couch. “Oh, Pat”, she whispers, and Pat would turn around to see the expression on her face if he wasn't so focused on his father.

The man frowns. “So it was him?”, he asks. “Did he tell you all this stuff to turn you against me?”

“Does it even matter if what he told is the truth?”

“Of course it does! I told you not to get close, I told you--”.

“And you know what? I never listened!” Pat laughs – a short sound, a bitter sound. Almost mocking. “We've always been friends, even when we weren't. In high school, in middle school. He saved Pa's life when we were kids, did you know that? No, of course not”.

Both parents turn to Pa, and she nods. “It's true, he saved me from drowning”.

Pat's mother brings her hands to her mouth. “Why didn't you tell us?”

“Because I wasn't supposed to be around him”.

“We would've thanked him, we would've--”.

“Let me befriend him?”

She doesn't answer.

“It doesn't matter now”. Pat sniffs, wipes his eyes with the heel of his hands. “I'm just here to tell you that I'm not gonna follow that stupid rule anymore. Pran and I-- we're together now. Just wanted you to know”.

“You can't be serious”, his father says.

“But I am”.

“I forbade you to get close to him, Pat”.

“If you want to forbid me again, then go for it. I will leave this house behind and find something to do with my life even without your help. You've already stolen your best friend's future, surely you can do the same to your own son, can't you?”

“How dare you speak to me like this?”, his father says, and steps forward. Pat doesn't flinch, but Pat's mother and Pa both rush to stand between them, arms raised in a placating gesture.

“Dad, Pat-- let's all calm down, now”, Pa says.

“Pat, apologize to your father”.

“He never apologized to me”.

“Pat!”

Pat licks his lips, bites his bottom lip to stop the anger threatening to climb up in his throat. “I apologize”, he says, and the words is like barbed wire wrapped around his tongue. “But this doesn't change anything”.

He walks to the door.

Before he goes, he shoots his father another look.

“Your father turned you into a traitor”, he says. “Did you want to do the same to me?”

Once again, his father's lips are sealed.

#

He lies on the rooftop for a long time.

When Pran finally finds him, he doesn't ask questions, and just lies next to him. His hand finds Pat's, their fingers interlace, and with the muted sound of the city in the background, they look at the sky and dream of what could've been, what wasn't, and what will be.

In each one of these dreams, they're together.

Chapter Text

“You shouldn't be here”, Pran says, looking up from where he's sitting on his bed. There's a guitar in his lap and an open notebook next to his thigh, pages empty save for a few messy doodles in the margins and two crossed-out sentences.

He's spent the whole afternoon trying to compose a new song, hoping to distract himself from what is gonna happen tonight. The words are particularly elusive today – and his head, despite everything, is still elsewhere. As if that wasn't enough, Pat is now standing in his room, body clad in a black outfit that suits him a little too well for Pran's tastes.

“Got a hot date tonight”, Pat says.

“And you shouldn't be here”.

Pat scoffs. “Is that the way to greet your boyfriend?”

“It is when my boyfriend acts like a dumbass”.

Pat leans back against the side of the window, crossing his arms. He wiggles his eyebrows at Pran and says: “A very hot dumbass”.

A moment of silence.

“That's not the compliment you think it is”.

“Come ooon”, Pat whines, “don't I look hot?”

And the thing is: he does look hot, clad in a classy outfit, hair pushed off his forehead with gel. It's also hot that he managed to get ready – well, almost, since he's still shoeless – an hour before he needed to, although Pran is sure that in that hour Pat could find a thousand distractions and end up being late anyway.

Still, the fact that he tried is hot.

Not that Pran is gonna tell him.

So he just shrugs and says: “Dunno, I can't see it”.

“Praaan”, Pat whines, and a second later he's kneeling on Pran's bed, prying the guitar from his hands. Pran makes a weak attempt at resisting, but soon lets him do as he pleases, following his movements as he gently lowers the instrument to the floor and shuffles so that he can straddle Pran's thighs.

His weight is a familiar feeling by now.

“Then have a closer look”, Pat says, and his lips curl in a smirk. He inches closer, till his breath ghosts Pran's mouth and chin, and it's clear that he's about to kiss him. Pran pulls away, eyebrows raised in feigned disinterest. He makes a show of raking his gaze up and down what he can see of the other's body and says: “Still can't see it”.

Pat gasps in shock. “Mr Pran, you wanna see it? Someone could catch us!” He shakes his head. “What would your mother think of you if she knew--”, but he can't finish that sentence because Pran shoves him off towards the foot of the bed. “Ouch!”

“Jackass”, Pran says. “Go back to your room before someone actually catches us”.

“What's the matter? I'm supposed to be here”.

“No, you're supposed to get in through the front door”. Pran gave him a fake smile. “You know, like an actual normal person who gets invited to dinner at someone's place. At the agreed time”.

Pat rolls his eyes, pouting. “I was trying to protect you”.

“Protect me from what? My guitar?”

Pran shouldn't have asked that, he realizes, because there it is again – Pat's insufferable cheeky grin, the one that makes him look young and a bit dumb and so so endearing, and that makes Pran bite the inside of his cheek not to smile back.

Pat winks and says: “I'm so hot I don't want you to get a heart attack in front of your parents later”.

Pran wants to smother his pretty face with a pillow.

Instead, he fixes him with an unimpressed glare.

“Alright, I'mma go back to my room”.

“Yeah, you do that”.

“Kiss me goodbye first”.

“Go away”.

“Kiss me goodbye!”, Pat says again, hands squishing Pran's cheeks, trying to pull him closer. Pran is smiling so hard that his face hurts, but still he pushes Pat back, saying that no, he doesn't want to kiss him – but of course he does – and he will ruin Pat's carefully styled hair if he doesn't cut it out right now – but of course he won't. He likes it a little too much.

In the end, Pat presses his nose against his neck and sniffs. “Ah!”, he sighs, a satisfied grin on his lips as he stands up from the bed to escape Pran's attempt at smacking his head. “Thank you, babe! See you at dinner!”

Pran watches him blow kisses from the window.

#

His mother is wearing an antique pink blouse, and every time she moves the earrings dancing at the sides of her face capture the light from the ceiling in a way that's hypnotizing. There's the hint of a gentle smile hidden at the corners of her mouth. Pran thinks she's never been so beautiful.

“Thanks”, he tells her while he helps her set the table.

“For what?”

A second, then two, then: “For giving him a chance”.

Their eyes meet, but she doesn't answer. Her gaze is warm, though, and her smile a little bit wider, and when her hands find Pran's to give them a comforting squeeze – her fingertips gently digging in his palms –, he feels the hot prickle of tears behind his eyelids, emotions tangled in a tight knot in his throat.

“I'm sorry it took me this long”.

“It doesn't matter”, Pran says, even if it's not true, even if the lie digs a hole deep in his chest. There's so much hurt stored in there, so much pain and anger and resentment – everything buried down down down where he almost can't reach it anymore – but there's also a love so strong that it's all-consuming.

How these things can coexist, he doesn't understand.

#

It's not like he pictured it in his dreams.

The conversation is stilted, no matter how hard Pat and Pran's dad try, and the sound of food getting chewed and drinks being poured is jarring in the otherwise silent dining room. Pran would sell his soul for some background music right now – for anything else to focus on. Even one of Wai and Korn's terrible duets at the karaoke would be better than this torture.

Pat finds his hand under the table and intertwines their fingers, and when their gazes interlock he finds no trace of discomfort on his face, just a wide happy smile that turns his eyes into little crescents. Pran smiles back, and squeezes his hand, and thinks that it doesn't matter how awkward everything feels right now.

Things will get better with time.

And they have time.

#

Pran shoots a worried look over his shoulder and at the door leading to the kitchen. A few minutes ago his mother stood up from her chair to get dessert. She asked Pat to help her, and when Pran offered to give them a hand, she told him to stay where he was and keep his father company. He looked at Pat, and Pat winked – and Pran wasn't sure if that should've calmed him or made him spiral even harder.

“You can go check if you want”, his dad says, and Pran startles out of his reverie.

“What?”

“If you're this nervous, you can go check on them”.

“I'm not nervous”.

His father raises an eyebrow.

“I'm not”, Pran says again, and yet less than ten seconds pass before he's standing up and walking across the room. He hesitates in front of the kitchen door when his mother's voice reaches his ears, and he stops, feeling like a thief in his own house. Maybe he should go back, but he's way too curious to do that, so he stands still and listens.

“That's not true”, his mother says. “We both know it. But it doesn't matter, now. We can't turn back time, we can't go back to change the past... what's done is done”.

“I'm sorry”, Pat says.

“You're not the one who should apologize”.

“I know, but--”.

“It's me”.

Pran holds his breath, and judging by the silence that stretches on the other side of the door, Pat seems to do the same. There's the tinny clink of cutlery, the click of heels against the floor, a sigh. Pran's mother says: “You make him very happy, you know? I wish I could've realized it sooner”.

“You tried to protect him”.

“But I just hurt him instead”.

At this, Pat doesn't answer, and Pran is grateful.

“As I said, there's no use dwelling on the past. I just want you to know that I see you, now, and I see how much you care about Pran. I'm happy he found someone like you to love, Pat, and I'm happy I get to welcome you into our family”.

Pat chuckles. “I'm happy too”.

Pran walks back to the dining room with wet eyes and a smile, and as soon as he's close enough, his father stretches out his arms and pulls him into a hug.

#

After that, when they resume dinner, the awkwardness in the room evaporates.

They eat dessert, they talk, they laugh – and to Pran it feels like a dream come true, being surrounded by all the people he cares about the most, in the house that watched him grow and change and fall in love. It's almost overwhelming. It's the greatest feeling in the world.

“Next time we should invite your sister too”, Pran's mother tells Pat. “I saw her this morning, she's all grown up! I bet you're so busy trying to keep all her suitors at bay, right, Pat? She's a very pretty girl”.

Pran snorts. “Oh, I think Pa's girlfriend's got that covered”.

“Definitely”, Pat adds with a light chuckle. “No one could do a better job at scaring guys away than Ink, she's been doing that since Pa started attending classes”.

“Oh, she has a girlfriend?”, Pran's mother asks.

Pran hums. “Ink's a high school friend of ours”.

“Then Pat can tell Pa to bring her along next time”.

“That would be great”, Pran's father says, a kind smile on his lips. “I've always wanted to have large family dinners”.

As the rest of the evening flies by, the echo of that single word doesn't leave Pran's mind even for a second.

Family.

#

Pran and Pat leave together after dinner.

“Thanks for having me”, Pat says to Pran's parents, hands joined in a wai. There's a big smile brightening his face, and his eyes shine with happiness, and all Pran wants to do right now is grab his cheeks and smother him with kisses.

Soon enough, he thinks.

The second they're alone, their lips press against each other.

#

“You made it!”, Korn shouts from inside the bar. He's sitting at a table with Wai, Pa and Ink, who all raise their heads to look at the entrance as soon as the words leave his mouth. They cheer as Pran and Pat walk to the table and sit next to each other.

“How was it?”, asks Pa.

“Yeah, how did it go?”, Ink adds.

“We were afraid for Pat's safety, man”, says Wai.

“I told them you were just being inappropriate in a dark alley but they wouldn't believe me”. Korn points at Pat's neck with a smirk. “Look at that hickey. Who's obsessed with gay sex now, huh?”

“You”, everyone at the table yells.

Korn raises his hands in surrender. “Still I was right”.

Pran shakes his head, face burning with embarrassment. He and Pat weren't having sex in a dark alley, thank you very much: they were just enthusiastically making out. And maybe Pat's hand tried to sneak into his pants at some point, but Pran didn't let it. They were already late as it was, after all.

“Pa, my parents want you to join us for dinner next time”, he says, so that conversation can move to comfortable waters again.

Pa's eyes widen. “Really?”

“They invited Ink too”, Pat adds.

“Man, it's been ages since I've been at your house”, Wai tells Pran. “I miss your mother's cooking, can I come over too?”

“And what about me?”, says Korn.

Wai raises an eyebrow. “What about you?”

“I feel left out”.

“What are your connections to Pran's family again?”, asks Ink.

“Well of course I'm Pran's best friend”.

There's a moment of bewildered silence before the whole table erupts in laughter. Pat boos, leaning forward to pick a napkin and throw it at Korn. He shakes his head as he chants: “Betrayal, betrayal” over and over.

“Go find your own best friend, homewrecker”, says Wai.

“Pran's not your property, dude, just accept it”.

“Alright, do we need to take this outside?”

“Ah, you gonna fight me? You gonna fight me?”

“Pran!”, Pa calls. “Aren't you gonna stop them?”

Pran smirks, and then scrunches up his nose. “They can fight for me if they want”, he says with a shrug, causing a chorus of ooh's and aah's to raise around himself. Then half the table is protesting while the other half is cheering, and Pat's getting himself in the middle of the fight because “There's no way I'mma let you fight for my boyfriend's heart without me, that would make me look so bad”.

“That's why you wanna fight for me? You suck”.

Nooo, babe, it's because I love you”.

“Nuh-huh, stay away”.

“Babe”.

“Stay away!”

When Pat wraps his arms around him and kisses the side of his neck, Pran pretends he's not the happiest man in the world. Since he's smiling so wide everyone can see it, he knows he's doing a poor job of it, but it doesn't matter: no one would believe him anyway.

#

Later that night, with Pat fast asleep on his chest, Pran thinks back to how it started: with bloody petals on the floor of his parents' house and the taste of iron on his tongue. That image is burned against his eyelids, and yet he's almost forgotten all the rest – what it felt like to have flowers blooming in his lungs and reaching up up up till he couldn't breathe.

He brings a hand to his neck, rubbing his thumb up and down where it meets the shoulder. The pressure of Pat's body on his own is comforting, grounding in a way that makes him feel warm and safe and present, and not alone.

“Love you”, he whispers.

Pat shifts and mutters: “Why're you still ’wake”.

“Just thinking”.

“No think, jus’ sleep, ’s late”.

Pran hums. “I know”, he says, stroking Pat's head, threading his fingers through his hair. Pat lets out a content sigh, the corners of his lips rising in a little smile, and Pran feels his whole body get warmer with affection.

He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes.

In his dreams, flowers bloom in the palms of his hands, where everyone can see them.