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mr. flower thief

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It had felt like he had something stuck in his chest, and then his throat, and then, it erupted from within him - a single petal.

The first time Luminous’s symptoms had shown was after he had seen him on stage for what seemed like the hundredth time.

Even the mask Phantom had worn as Erik couldn’t hide his good looks, and the cape he wore did nothing to hinder his elegance as he moved about the stage.  And his voice, God , his voice during the Music of the Night number was what finally made Luminous realise: the man that he had known since childhood, the man that had been his rival since they met, the man that was on stage in that very moment, that was the man he was meant to love.

The doctors who heard his story simply laughed and told him that he would be alright, that they had seen much more serious cases of hanahaki, and that Luminous shouldn’t lose hope. After all, wouldn’t it be easy to confess to someone who’s been by your side all your life?

If only it was that simple, Luminous had thought, but he just nodded and agreed with the doctors anyways, knowing that they would never understand.

It all began with Phantom's expressions. Phantom had always had an expressive face. Maybe that was why he was a natural actor. When they used to compete in grade school over the teacher’s attention, his brows would furrow into an expression of unwavering determination. When he had approached Luminous for the first time after class one day, asking him if he wanted to hang out, his features were casual and confident. When kids tried to bully Luminous in high school, Phantom would fight in his stead, face contorted into a cold, seething glare. And when Phantom asked if Luminous was okay after the fight had blown over, he would smile kindly and cradle his bruises like nothing had happened. Luminous thought he had seen every expression Phantom had to offer.

That was, until she walked into their lives.

She had been introduced as an exchange student named Aria. It had been normal at first - Phantom had indulged himself in making remarks about the new girl’s figure, Luminous had rolled his eyes, and that should’ve been it. He hadn’t thought that Phantom would’ve actually been interested in her.

Something about the two of them must’ve just clicked. That was the only explanation Luminous’s logical mind could think up. Aria was a gentle, proper, kind-hearted girl with an angelic demeanour. Phantom was a show off, a loudmouth that fought others both physically and verbally whenever the chance arose. Somewhere along the line, she just fell for him, and he for her.

It was only years later, at their wedding, as Phantom made his vows with Aria, that Luminous saw the expression of true love on his friend’s face for the first time. Recalling on it now, he realised that the reason he remembered the moment so vividly was because he had been jealous all along.

But jealousy did nothing good. Their story continued, and the pair should’ve had a perfect life after that. Finding true love in your early twenties, the announcement of pregnancy a few months later, it seemed as if their love was guided by the heavens above.

But what the heavens created, they could just as easily destroy, Luminous had thought during Aria’s funeral. Neither she nor the baby had made it through the process of childbirth. And Phantom, Phantom had never been the same since then. His expressive face froze over, and he became a shell of the spontaneous, quick witted man he used to be. He became bitter and sad in all aspects of life except theatre, where he donned the guise of emotion for a few hours at a time, only to return to his melancholy when the show ended. It was as if he too, had died with Aria.

“I’ll never love again,” he had announced one night in their shared dorm while he was barely sober. “She was the only one, and she will continue to be just that.”

It felt terribly wrong, then, Luminous thought. To love a man whose heart and soul belonged to someone else. Everything felt like a sin as he coughed up clumps of geranium petals, the flowers increasing in amount with each bout. Sometimes when he lay in bed at night, knowing Phantom was in the same room as him, he could feel the roots of the flowers taking hold in his lungs, constricting them slowly but surely. All while the cure was within arm’s reach. But he didn’t want to be cured. Not if it meant that he would only live on in Aria’s shadow, serving as a shallow replacement that was never worthy of the love he had seen on that wedding day.

“Why are there flowers in the trash?” Phantom asked one day as he was taking out the garbage.

“They’re mine,” Luminous murmured. He tried to focus on reading the antiquated copy of The Great Gatsby that was in his hands, but the words on the page seemed to spin and blur as he struggled to keep his composition. If Phantom learned that he had hanahaki, and that he was the cause of it all, would he try to love him just to save his life? Luminous didn’t think that he could bear to hear the answer.

“If a girl rejects you, she isn’t worth your time,” Phantom said simply, and suddenly, Luminous could breathe again. “Or your flowers.”

“I see.”

It was that night that Luminous decided, on a rare whim, that he was going out to a bar to lose himself in alcohol.

His classmate in his optical science class, Freud, was the bartender. He was the only one Luminous confided in these days, and when Luminous sat down at the bar and ordered a shot of their strongest vodka, his friend seemed to immediately know what was going on.

“You know, hanahaki is only dangerous for those who are faint of heart,” Freud said as he poured Luminous his drink. “It’s terrifying, not knowing whether the one you love will save you or leave you to die. But if you have the will to live, then you must have the will to seek the answer to that question.”

“How did you tell Mercedes?” Luminous asked, paying for his drink and closing his hands around the cold shot glass. He took a deep breath and threw back the drink, relishing in the burning of alcohol running down his throat. Cold burning. That was what heartache felt like.

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on telling her. I thought that I would just die,” Freud said, shaking his head. “Until I found her one day, coughing up her own flowers. That’s when I realised she had hanahaki because of me. Life surprises you sometimes.”

“But this is different. I know he doesn’t love me.”

Freud’s face darkened. “You don’t deserve to die over something like this. If you won’t tell Phantom, then I’ll tell him for you. You’ll see, once he finds out you’re dying, he’ll do anything he can to save you. You don’t know how much you mean to him.”

“I will tell him myself,” Luminous sighed, the lie spilling out of him like the geranium flowers. “It’s simply a matter of timing.”

Later that night, Luminous found himself half drunk, somehow having managed to stumble his way to the nearby beach. He sat on a rock, thoughts coming in and out of coherence as he looked up the nearby hospital on his phone. He could have his flowers removed. It was a surgery with minimal risks, given how often it was performed, and he wouldn’t have to tell Phantom who he had been so madly in love with. He could just play it off cool and continue with the rest of his life. He could graduate college, get old, maybe even settle down with someone who had feelings with him. He could never think about Phantom again.

Luminous inhaled sharply, taking the frigid night air into his lungs, where the geraniums resided. His head was throbbing because of the alcohol and the bright screen of his phone and the crashing of the waves. It would’ve been impossible for him to make the right choice, because there wasn’t one.

Was wanting to die as selfish as wanting to live? He didn’t know the answer to that question.

The weeks passed, and then the months did as well, and Luminous dragged himself through each and every day. He somehow managed to maintain a sense of normality in between the discreet bathroom breaks to cough up flowers, the long sleepless nights, and the even longer, crueler days where he awoke next to Phantom, but not next to him in the way he wanted. It was never how he wanted it.

And then the doctors told him that he didn’t have much time left.

The news didn’t shock Luminous as much as he expected it to. After leaving the examination room, he simply walked out of the clinic with the newfound realisation that he was indeed dying, and that he didn’t care. He didn’t care for the fact that the doctors ordered him to go to the hospital for the necessary surgery, and he didn’t care that his life was at stake either.

What he cared for were answers, and he wanted them now more than ever.

One nondescript weekend night, Luminous found himself sitting on the couch next to Phantom as they watched one of the latter’s ridiculous soap operas play out on the cheap television screen. The two were sitting close to each other, close enough to be the best of friends, but not quite close enough to be lovers. As the time on the clock ticked to one in the morning, Luminous found his head lolling against Phantom’s shoulder as he struggled not to fall asleep. Phantom didn’t seem to mind at all - he was too engrossed in the drama on screen.

There wasn’t a better time to ask.

“Phantom?”

“Hm?”

“Would you make yourself love somebody if it meant saving their life?”

Phantom’s eyes flickered away from the screen for a moment. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just tired. Humour me.”

There was a long pause, one not filled with silence, but with screams of joy as the woman onscreen was proposed to by her true love. The idle chatter from the show became a dull buzz in Luminous’s head as he started to feel sleepier and sleepier. His entire body weight was leaning against Phantom now, who was ominously still.

“I wouldn’t be able to,” Phantom replied after a few seconds, his voice quiet. He elbowed Luminous gently. “You’re saying stupid things again. Go get some rest.”

Phantom’s words barely reached Luminous, who was drifting off into the world of dreams already. That night, he dreamt of something strange. He had a dream that he was a magician, and that Phantom was a famous thief, and that the two were on a flying ship somewhere in the sky’s boundless seas. They were sitting on the ship’s deck, gazing at the stars that surrounded them. In that moment, there was a pristine silence that settled between them - no coughing, no flower petals, no stifled pain, but a simple happiness in living. Music of the Night  then began to stir up in the backdrop as a quiet serenade, and memories of that moment when Luminous saw Phantom on stage on that fateful night began to surface. And as the dream world Phantom turned to meet Luminous's eyes, he saw it again - that look of true love in those purple eyes. But now, it was a look that was for him, only him.

And as the real world Phantom continued to watch the television, waiting for the inevitable plot twist that was to occur, he didn’t notice the faint smile on Luminous’s face, the smile that would be his last.

And even if he did notice, he could only have ever wondered what it was that could've made a man like him so happy, so at peace, and so filled with joy. The answer to that question, however, was one that he would never have.