Heaven, Mark thinks, must be among the stars.
Picture books he’d read as a child depicted that setting of eternal happiness as a kingdom of bright clouds. Paintings taught in freshman art illustrated, with expert brush strokes he was never able to recreate, a lush garden of wildflowers and innocence. But the stars, the galaxies they encase, the pure wonder of countless universes in an abyss so vast it’s nearly impossible to imagine - that is true beauty. Space is an enigma more wondrous than any creation on his human planet, so Mark is positive that if a greater being exists, they would surely choose to reside where only the smartest fathom reaching and only the bravest dare to venture.
Mark would never compare himself to a god, and neither would he call himself the smartest nor bravest person he knows (those titles are reserved for his mom), but he still entertains thoughts of living like such exceptional souls. He’s loved the stars for as long as he can remember, and with every new book and toy telescope added to his collection, so too does his desire to learn grow. Originally, before he quite understood the meaning of mortality, Mark would parade around his house declaring that he shall become a famous astronaut and be the first person to live on a star. Now, as a seventeen year old who knows that going into space requires more physical and mental endurance than he can probably handle, as well as the fact that stars are molten spheres of plasma that cannot be inhabited without immediate death, his ambition has been dialed back just a tad.
“I want to be an astronomer,” he says whenever asked, to which he is usually met with “Like Galileo?” (science has greatly evolved since his time, but sure), or “So you do horoscopes?” (no - although also interesting, that is astrology). What no one ever asks, fortunately, because Mark dreads having to answer it, is “Can you really have a career in astronomy?”
Truthfully, astronomy is more popular amidst amateurs who view it as a hobby - though a rather expensive hobby for some - than it is a field with active professionals. Someone like Galileo, with proficiency in physics, math, and engineering, among other backgrounds, is definitely a fit for this selective area of science. Someone like Mark, whose enthusiasm for how magical outer space is can’t make up for him being a fairly average high school junior… not so much. Deep down, he knows his goal is farfetched. He’s not being negative, either - just realistic. Honestly, he doesn’t even want to turn stargazing into a mathematical and gruellingly detailed job - that would suck the fun out of it faster than he can list the planets in Earth’s solar system (which he could do by the time he was three, thank you very much). But the problem is, space is all he wants. He has so many thoughts of space orbiting in his head every day, so much passion with no real outlet to direct it towards. And so he continues on the career path he naively began as a child, like a “fake it ‘til you make it” sort of thing, except he seems to have convinced everyone but himself.
Ironically, whenever Mark starts to dwell on the fate of his future, he turns to the stars to calm his mind. On a day like today, for example, when he overhears his mother talking on the phone after dinner to their relatives back in Korea about how Minhyung is going to be a scientist, oh how impressive is that, and he retreats to his room before she can say anything else that unknowingly sends his feelings into turmoil before 8 o’clock.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” he murmurs in belated response to his mother as he sits heavily in his desk chair, swiveling around to stare out his bedroom window. The sun had set about an hour ago so the sky is now a cool, dark void if he can look past the streetlights illuminating buildings and roads around him. It’s hard to see stars in the city, at least to the extent that he can see them on family camping trips, but tonight there’s a good handful just inside the parameters of his window, barely escaping the glow of Vancouver’s nightlife down below. “I’m not a scientist. I’m just… me.”
Me: the boy doing well enough in school to expect to get into some universities, extracurricular band probably helping him get into a few more. The normal, average teenager with no best friend but a tight group of good friends. For a couple years he was the closest to “one of the cool kids” he’d ever get thanks to his ex-neighbor, Jaehyun “Jay” Jung - international student and resident school heartthrob - including Mark in his circle at lunch despite being almost 3 years his senior, but after graduation Jaehyun returned to Korea and took Mark’s cool-by-association with him. Not that Mark really cares about being popular in something as ephemeral as high school, but when he could jog around the track in P.E. and get cheerful smiles from people he didn’t know, or have invitations to birthday parties practically land in his lap, it almost felt like he was something, and that being something in those locker-lined halls was all that mattered. But now, sans-Jaehyun with only one school year ahead of him until his own graduation, reality tends to rush at him like a rocket launching into his stomach.
Mark lets out a noise of frustration and ruffles his own hair, jerking around in odd little motions for a moment to get rid of the rising tension in his muscles. He flops back into his chair, slouched so much he can almost hear his mother barking at him to sit up, and lets out a nearly steady breath as he focuses on the cluster of stars outside again. He just stays there, watching the tiny lights burn bright enough to reach the sky above his humble home, only temporarily disrupted by a passing cloud or an airplane before shining at him again. He raises a hand up, as if he can grab them.
“Stars don’t have to write personal statements,” he complains childishly. “They don’t have to worry about any of this. They get to chill in space and stare at crazy-awesome views forever.” He contemplates sticking his middle finger up at the sky in some act of jealous bullying, but it’s not the stars’ faults that they’re up there and he’s down here.
Suddenly, through the cracks of his fingers, Mark sees it - a quick, thin streak of light soaring directly through the bunch of stars he’d been lamenting about. It lasts a second at most, but Mark knows a shooting star when he sees one, and even if his brain hadn’t registered the moment, his heart never fails to skip a beat at such a celestial gift. He scrambles out of his chair, banging a foot on the side of his desk in the process, and bites back a whimper as he kneels in front of the window, clasps his hands tightly together, and bows his head.
‘Direction,’ he thinks. ‘I need direction. I don’t know what to do. You guys guide entire boats across oceans, so it would be really nice if you could fix this one little life crisis for me, yeah?’ He peeks through a squinted eye, as if the shooting star would still be there, then opens both eyes and sits back on his haunches.
He lets out a short breath of a laugh.
“Okay, I’m losing it,” he says. He gets up and periodically rubs at his sore foot as he heads to the bathroom adjoined to his bedroom, ready for a Friday night consisting of a relaxing soak in a hot bath followed by junk food during his continued binge watch of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series on Netflix. The shooting star traveling from lightyears away had done a good job of making Mark very aware of just how tiny his existence is, which probably sounds bad, but in the grand scheme of things it puts a lot less pressure on him for now. His future is not the most important thing in the world, or even in the city. Tonight, he is just a simple nerd with a whole weekend of absolutely nothing special ahead of him, just how he likes it.
Mark wakes Saturday morning to a hypnic jerk, sucking in a sharp breath and blinking rapidly as his mind registers with a lag that he had not actually been falling in real life. Once the notion passes he sighs and relaxes deeper into his pillow, closing his eyes again as he waits for his heartbeat to ease. He belatedly feels a slight pressure on his stomach and assumes it’s his laptop left lying on top of him after he knocked out mid-episode at 3 AM. He flops a hand down to push the computer aside onto his mattress so he can resume sleeping until the sun through his window becomes too unbearable.
His laptop is very soft.
Confusion coated in sleep slows his reaction time. He runs his hand over a surface that is a different kind of smooth than chrome. He feels a warmth that is a different kind of heat than a battery left on for too long. He squeezes, and the object gives under the tips of his fingers easily.
Suddenly Mark is very much awake. Suddenly he notices the weight next to him making his mattress dip. Suddenly he registers the situation he is in. It’s his brother, he tells himself out of desperation, but his own brain isn’t buying it - he knows that voice does not belong to anyone in this household.
He swallows and glances down. His hand is in fact not gripping his laptop, but an arm that is slung across his torso. His eyes trail hesitantly up the arm until they reach a T-shirt - one of his own T-shirts - then over to a neck, then absolutely, without a doubt ending on the completely unfamiliar face of a boy staring right back at him. It must be clear from his expression that he’s about to scream, like any normal person would in this predicament, because the boy lurches forward and covers Mark’s mouth with his free hand a second before he can get a peep out. Mark doesn’t even register that he’s still gripping the boy’s other arm out of shock.
“Hold on!” the boy urges, face now hovering over Mark’s. “Don’t freak out.”
Mark has no idea why he should not be freaking out.
“You invited me, don’t you remember?”
Mark has never invited this person to anything in his life.
The boy continues, Mark’s disorientation comically obvious. “You said you wanted my help last night.”
Mark’s brow furrows and he’s about ready to shove this guy with an adrenaline rush of strength and run to his parents’ room when he remembers, past the hours of lightsaber battles and thousands of imperial droid deaths, a shooting star. His pause seems to give the boy hope and he smiles, and it’s a welcoming smile save for the fact that he was never welcomed into Mark’s home, let alone his bed. The boy slowly raises his hand from Mark’s mouth but he’s still alert, ready to cover it again.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mark lies, because what this kid is saying is ridiculous.
The boy leans back, apparently satisfied that Mark won’t try to murder him for trespassing at the moment, and sits cross-legged next to Mark’s very tense body. He’s also wearing a pair of Mark’s sweatpants.
“Last night you saw me and wished that we could talk,” the obviously deranged stranger says much too casually. “So here I am.”
“Jesus Christ,” Mark gasps out, managing to stumble out of bed. “I have to be dreaming. What the heck.”
“Unfortunately, I am not God,” the boy says, then adds with a playful lilt, “Yet.” He crawls off of the bed and steps in Mark’s direction, and if he notices Mark physically flinch away in fear he ignores it, because he keeps coming closer and he reaches his arms out and this is it, this is how Mark dies, this boy is--
--gently holding Mark upright.
“I’m flattered that you think I belong in a dream, but I assure you this is real life. Humans are so funny.”
He leads Mark back to bed and sits him down carefully, which Mark is sort of grateful for because his legs are currently about as strong as two piles of jell-o, and Mark just stares ahead at his closet, slightly lightheaded. Maybe if he ignores the boy, he’ll go away. Like bullies in those after school TV specials. Or all those girls who pestered him for Jaehyun’s number at school. They were always annoyingly persistent when it was so painfully pointless, but Mark supposes it wasn’t really their fault that they didn’t know. Jaehyun was never outspoken about--
“Hey,” the boy says, cutting into Mark’s mental tangent, very much still there in Mark’s room, on Mark’s bed, and in Mark’s clothes, the latter of which he would love to simply pretend that he doesn’t notice.
Mark sighs and rubs at his face. “What?” he mumbles into his palms.
“You do understand what’s going on, right?” the boy asks, and Mark really doesn’t, but the boy continues anyway. “I’m literally your dream come true. Where is the excitement, the fawning, the crying? Maybe you didn’t hear what I said earlier: I’m the shooting star that you--”
“Yeah, I got that part,” Mark interrupts, hands sliding slowly down his cheeks until they fall onto his thighs. “Do you really expect me to believe you? It’s insane. It’s impossible. It makes more sense that you’re some stalker who saw me wishing on a star last night and then broke into my room using it as an excuse to talk to me. Look, I don’t want any trouble, okay? Just get out of here and I won’t…” His voice trails off once he psychs himself up to look at the boy again and sees a surprisingly baffled expression on his face.
The boy frowns as if he’s trying to solve a difficult math question but he’s stuck halfway through the purposely muddled word problem. Mark almost feels bad for him. Almost.
“No one told me what to do if you…” he mutters slowly.
Mark scoots away a good ten inches. “There are more of you?” he asks.
“Too many to know for sure, but possibly as many as 400 billion in this sector,” the boy says. “You know this.”
Mark does know that some estimates of the number of stars in the Milky Way can reach around that size, but Google exists and a simple galaxy fact isn’t going to make this proposed situation any more believable. Plus, shooting stars are not actually stars.
“If you are what you say you are,” Mark says, stressing the ‘if’, “then you should have told me that at least a numerical equivalent of 15,000 tons of you exist to enter Earth’s atmosphere every ye--”
The completely fake star scoffs before Mark can finish his retort. “I am not a meteoroid, and frankly, I’m offended that you would say such a thing. Those are just rocks, Mark, how can a rock turn into me?”
“How can any of this happen!” Mark shoots back, sounding significantly crazed at this point. He doesn’t even bother asking how this stranger knows his name, because of course this stranger knows his name. He’s still half convinced that this is a dream, or at least hoping that it is.
“I’m a star,” the boy insists. “I’m a special kind of star. You know, an actual wishing star. We rarely get woken up unless it’s important, so apparently the boss thinks you need me.”
Mark blinks. “What, like a guardian angel? So this is a God thing.”
The boy leans his palms back on Mark’s bed naturally, as if they’d been friends for years and this bedroom could practically be his. “Actually your moon runs my territory, but that’s the sort of guess I expected from a human. Calling me an angel was a nice surprise, though.”
Mark frowns. For a supposed incarnation of an object that Mark often watches so silently, this guy sure talks more than expected. “You’re, uh… very... ”
“Donghyuck,” the boy says, though that is not what Mark was going for. “They told me I’m Donghyuck.” He seems a little more genuine as he relays this particular information, focusing on his own words and putting noticeable weight behind them.
“Donghyuck,” Mark echoes without meaning to.
Donghyuck smiles. “Wow,” he laughs, and it’s a light, airy laugh. “Names do feel amazing.” His pure bliss at something so normal grabs Mark’s attention ever so slightly.
Mark rubs at his face again then adjusts himself so his whole body is facing Donghyuck. “I can’t believe I’m even thinking of asking this, but do you… Do you have any proof that you’re a star?” His mother would be so disappointed in his lack of stranger danger awareness right now, but at least Donghyuck doesn’t seem threatening. Physically, at least. He’s still driving Mark crazy.
Donghyuck shrugs. “I was kind of banking on you being so overjoyed at my presence that you accept me with open arms, no questions asked.”
“That is really not making this any less creepy,” Mark says flatly. He sighs and concludes that now is a good time to get an adult. “I think I should…” He starts to stand, weight just beginning to shift from the bed, when Donghyuck grabs his arm, and this time Mark does let out a yelp.
“Don’t!” Donghyuck says. “For this to work, you need to accept me as your wish before anyone else sees me because the only reason I’m here is for you. Otherwise I’ll disappear, like, forever. No more chances.”
Mark attempts to peel Donghyuck’s fingers from around his forearm. “Now it just sounds like you’re making up rules,” he says suspiciously.
Donghyuck is finally silent, and it’s kind of weird. His grip on Mark’s skin loosens, but Mark sort of doesn’t have the heart to break away, not when Donghyuck looks so lost. After at least a minute rolls by with neither of them talking, neither of them moving, Donghyuck says quietly, still holding on to Mark, “To you we just met, but I’ve been waiting for this for an eternity. Being named for someone is all that I know to want, but if you don’t believe me, even for a second, I’ll go away. I’ve never done this before, but I think if I have to leave you, it’ll be the worst feeling in the world.” He swallows, and Mark thinks he might be about to cry, but instead Donghyuck cocks his head and snorts. “Well, infinite universes, actually, but humans seem to forget that Earth really isn’t that big, so you say ‘world’ instead. It’s funny how important this species thinks it is.”
Mark shakes his head. “You know, you were getting somewhere at first before you ruined it.” Still, he sits down on his bed again and Donghyuck pulls his hand back, choosing instead to fiddle with his fingers in his lap. Mark rubs the back of his neck tiredly. “Maybe all the sugar I had last night is messing with my brain, but I want to trust you,” he says slowly. “I guess I feel sorry for you? But this just doesn’t make sense, you have to understand that.”
Donghyuck’s hands clench at his (Mark’s) sweatpants and he leans forwards so quickly it makes Mark jerk away and gasp in surprise. There’s determination in Donghyuck’s face now, but it’s not intimidating - it’s a silent, desperate plea for his true intentions to somehow get across to the boy not half a foot away from him. He stares and Mark can’t help but stare back, feeling frozen in place at this shift in atmosphere. Donghyuck reaches up and holds Mark’s face gently with soft, warm hands, and Mark lets it happen. Radial heat that wasn’t present when Donghyuck’s demeanor was more nonchalant now emanates from his fingertips pressing against Mark’s cheeks, as if physically communicating his burning persistence. The feeling isn’t uncomfortable on Mark’s skin despite how it seeps into every cell of Mark’s body, warming him from the inside and leaving him tingling all over. Donghyuck’s lips move, but his voice comes delayed to Mark’s ears.
“Look at me.”
So Mark looks, and the world - his world, small but significant to him - pauses. Perhaps Donghyuck had worn him down the longer they spoke, and that’s why, now, Mark lets himself really take Donghyuck in. Perhaps Donghyuck’s calming body heat is lowering Mark’s guard, knocking wall after wall out of place until they’re both staring at each other in languid openness. Perhaps Donghyuck is telling the truth.
There is no other explanation for Mark looking into Donghyuck’s eyes and seeing the universe in them - pure mirrors of time and space and infinite years of existence being reflected back to Mark in the form of such strong emotion that it takes his breath away. The pull is too strong to fight. The most he can do is move his attention from Donghyuck’s irises just briefly enough that he notices flecks of gold lining Donghyuck’s eyelashes, like miniscule dustings of light that burn out before he can be positive that he even saw them at all. Then he’s back in Donghyuck’s eyes, falling through them into galaxies upon galaxies with Donghyuck’s dizzying warmth rendering him lightheaded, all while never really leaving his bed. He feels like he’s floating away into the great unknown of space, and it’s so realistic that he’s on the verge of panicking that he’s getting lost out there when Donghyuck’s hands drop from his face and Mark slowly comes back down to Earth as his skin cools.
The only sound in the room is Mark’s unsteady breathing. He feels a bead of sweat roll down the side of his neck and when he reaches up to swipe at it, his arm is quivering slightly. He blinks rapidly to finish grounding himself and he’s almost afraid to look at Donghyuck again but he does, and call him crazy, but a feeling of trust washes over him at Donghyuck’s hopeful expression, certainty settling in his chest. He won’t pretend it makes sense. He won’t pretend he doesn’t seem delusional. He still acknowledges that this isn’t scientifically possible, not one bit. But Mark knows that Donghyuck is a star.
His star, apparently.
“What was that?” he breathes, and he can’t tell if he whispered the question or if the pounding in his ears drowned it out.
“Me,” Donghyuck says softly, and his words Mark can hear crystal clear. “Um, are you okay? We’re not really supposed to expose any of our true form to humans… Please don’t tell my boss.”
Mark lets out a short, winded laugh. “Yeah. I won’t tell the, uh… moon about it.”
Donghyuck snorts and rolls his eyes, but a second later he’s blinking at Mark in surprise. “Wait. You played along.”
Mark shrugs and tries to make it look casual when on the inside he’s feeling like his existence has been flipped upside down and sucked into a black hole. “Yeah?”
Donghyuck clasps his hands in front of his chest excitedly. “Does this mean you believe me?”
“I…” The urge to give a disclaimer that none of this is reasonable nags at Mark’s brain, but he finally ignores it and simply, honestly, says, “Yes.”
Then Mark feels something change in the air, like a cloud of confusion dissipating and a strange atmosphere of normality taking its place. The moment is so short and the sensation so faint that he wonders if it’s an aftershock of his experience with Donghyuck, but Donghyuck must notice it too because he smiles widely the instant it passes and hops off of the bed with renewed vigour.
“That should do it,” he says before striding across the room and swinging the door open.
“Wait!” Mark calls, because how is he supposed to explain to his parents why this kid they’ve never seen before is suddenly in their house when he definitely wasn’t there the night prior, but Donghyuck is already gone, and from the thumping of his bare feet against the polished wood of the hallway, he’s practically running to the stairs and down into the kitchen where it sounds like Mark’s mother is cooking breakfast. Mark’s stomach does a backflip.
“Oh, good morning, honey!” he catches his mother say, and he looks around in astonishment at his empty bedroom as if it could shrug back at him in affirmation that what they’d both heard was indeed not the reaction it was expecting either.
“Morning, Mrs. Lee,” Donghyuck responds cheerfully, and that’s it, Mark needs to see this for himself.
He shoves his feet into his slippers and walks at a slow pace, using that time to steady himself and behave normally even if this whole morning is the complete opposite of normal. By the time he reaches the bottom of the stairs, he thinks he can face his mom without suspicion, although, really, Donghyuck is the suspicious one and he seems to somehow blend in just fine. He takes a deep breath, inhaling the scent of perfectly buttered toast and fried eggs sizzling in their pan, and heads into the dining room bordering their open kitchen.
Donghyuck is sitting in Mark’s usual spot at the table and smiling at him a little too pleasantly, like he knows exactly where his butt is placed. Mark sucks it up and takes the chair across from Donghyuck’s (Mark’s) seat. His mother flits by, dropping off utensils and glasses of orange juice before returning to the kitchen to dish out breakfast. Mark’s father is reading the newspaper and sipping his morning coffee in the living room, so Mark has a grinning Donghyuck all to himself for about a minute.
“How?” is all he says.
“You believed me,” Donghyuck replies, bringing his orange juice up to his lips. “You set your wish in motion.”
“And my wish involves… my parents thinking you live here?” Mark asks. His patience wanes with every long gulp Donghyuck takes of his drink and he feels his eyebrow twitch when Donghyuck finishes the glass and lets out an obnoxiously refreshing gasp.
“Oh my god, orange juice is amazing.”
Mark means to sound annoyed, but the way Donghyuck’s attention snaps back to him at the call of his name resembles that of a new puppy eager to find out what its owner wants more than someone who just got scolded. It throws Mark off, how special a name is to Donghyuck, and he loses all fire in him.
“So how does this work?” he asks.
“What? What does this--” Mark shrugs his shoulders right back. “--mean?”
“Look, I’ll be honest,” Donghyuck says. “We don’t exactly have a manual for solving all problems. We’re not here to - poof - magically make your dream come true like Cinderella.”
“You know Cinderella?” Mark interrupts, but Donghyuck shushes him.
“Your situation is probably different from someone else’s, right? So to figure out how to use my talents in order to address your wish specifically, I have to exist as a natural part of your life, observe you and all that. Then once I fix your dilemma like the gift that I am, I’m out of your hair. Sounds simple enough, yeah?”
Mark wants to protest that it does not sound simple, it actually sounds extremely vague and like Donghyuck has no real plan of action that he is currently following, but his mother brings their food over to the table so he keeps his mouth shut.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lee,” Donghyuck says in a voice that’s extra sweet with a smile just shy of overdoing it. “It looks delicious!”
“Oh, you’re welcome, sweetie,” Mark’s mother says - practically gushes - as she sits at one head of the table. “I’m glad you have an appetite after your long day yesterday. But I’m surprised you boys are awake so early, considering how late we had to pick you up from the airport.”
Mark pauses, fork halfway to his mouth. He definitely did not leave the house yesterday after coming home from school. “We picked Donghyuck up from the airport because…”
“He arrived to begin his stay at our home as an exchange student from Korea,” Mark’s mother finishes for him as she sprinkles salt and pepper onto her eggs, not finding Mark’s lapse in apparent memory at all strange. “He flew in around 11, but you know how convoluted airports can be… By the time we got home, it was past 1 in the morning and you boys went straight to bed!” She reaches over and pats Mark’s hand. “Thank you for offering to share your bed with him while we wait for his to get delivered, Minhyung - that retailer mix-up was so frustrating. I hope you were comfortable, Donghyuck.”
“Oh yes,” Donghyuck says cheerfully. “It turns out we’re both cuddlers.”
Mark nearly chokes on his orange juice. He gives up on trying to navigate the conversation between Donghyuck and his mother, seeing as they keep remembering things that he knows did not exist before this moment, and resigns to eating his breakfast in silence.
Fortunately, and much to Mark’s surprise, the remainder of the weekend with Donghyuck glued to his side is hardly annoying and just strange enough that it’s amusing. They spend a lot of time exploring Mark’s house - a lot of time. Donghyuck has them stopping at every little nook and cranny and trinket displayed on a shelf so that Mark can tell him what it is, what it’s for, and - as if Mark would even know this - how it’s made. Donghyuck’s fascination with the most unexciting things keeps the hours from feeling like years, and Mark finds that he rather enjoys being ogled at as if his IQ is on par with Einstein’s just because he showed Donghyuck how to open a fingernail clipper. There are a few stumbles along the way, such as the incident with the stapler, but Mark is becoming positive that he has this new relationship under control.
That is, until he’s reminded that the weekend won’t last forever.
While he and Donghyuck are washing the dishes after dinner on Sunday night (Mark is washing, Donghyuck is staring at the nearly neon green liquid dish soap), Mark’s mother comments offhandedly to his father to “not forget that he’s taking the boys to school tomorrow so they can get there earlier and Minhyung can show Donghyuck around.” Mark fumbles and drops the sponge in the sink and gets a nice splatter to the face.
“You’re going to my school?” he whispers harshly to Donghyuck as he wipes his cheek on his cuffed sleeve.
Donghyuck blinks. “What kind of exchange student would I be if I didn’t go to school?”
“I thought that was just a story for my parents!” Mark says. “You’re a mystical being who traveled all the way to Earth from the depths of who knows where, and you’re actually going to waste your time in high school?”
Donghyuck’s attention is back on the dish soap. He reaches out to tentatively give the bottle a squeeze and Mark swears his eyes literally sparkle when little bubbles come flying out from the pressure. “I don’t think it’s a waste,” Donghyuck says. “I’ve never been to high school. It seems… interesting.”
“Besides,” Donghyuck adds, pouring some soap onto a plate that Mark already washed and thinking that he’s being helpful, “don’t you want me to grant your wish as soon as possible? I probably shouldn’t be twiddling my thumbs waiting for you to come home for 6 hours every day.”
Mark shrugs and re-washes the soapy plate. “It’s your funeral,” he says. “How do you know how long a school day is but you don’t know how to sharpen a pencil?”
This time Donghyuck shrugs. “We just kinda know things, but not everything.”
Mark sets the plate in the drying rack again and takes the soap from Donghyuck before he can be of more help. “That seems really inconvenient.”
“Well, we bonded this weekend, didn’t we?” Donghyuck asks, and it’s true, they did. Their constant conversation grew more and more familiar throughout their suburban home expedition with Mark playing tour guide, and he’s already talking to Donghyuck like he’s a normal person that he met at the arcade and not some thing that materialized in his room two nights ago.
“Okay then,” Mark says, drying his hands on his pants and heading to the stairs, knowing Donghyuck will follow. “I guess I’m showing you around my school tomorrow. Just, uh… Keep a low profile, alright? The less questions people have, the better.”
Donghyuck nods. “I’m a master at keeping a low profile,” he promises, but Mark isn’t convinced. First, Donghyuck does not seem like someone who is a master at keeping a low profile. Second, it’s much easier to avoid scrutiny in space than in high school.
Mark’s dad drops them off in front of school at around 8 in the morning, roughly half an hour before classes start. Donghyuck looks excited, at least from what Mark can tell through the constant tears in his eyes due to yawning every one and a half minutes. He had learned the hard way that stars apparently don’t need much sleep because Donghyuck had kept him up until dawn with questions about being a student, and yet Mark is the only one looking dead on his feet.
“Don’t forget to pick up his schedule from the front office,” his dad says as they clamber out of their seats (Donghyuck had insisted on shotgun), and once the doors are shut and the car drives off, Mark is officially left to fend for himself.
Fortunately, Donghyuck ends up being in 4 of Mark’s classes, 2 on each day, so he’ll be able to keep at least a bit of an eye on his eccentric new companion. “Okay, you’ll have these classes for Day 1’s schedule, and these for Day 2’s,” Mark explains, pointing out the alternating weekly bell schedule. “Basically, you go to them every other day.” Then he taps his finger on specific courses. “For pre-calc, bio, social studies, and home ec, you’re with me, so that’s a good thing.” He looks at the other classes. “Your spell put you in choir?”
Donghyuck nods. “Singing sounds fun,” he says happily, and Mark wonders if Donghyuck will fail out of school before his wish gets granted.
Mark looks back at the schedule. “And let me guess, drama sounds fun too?”
“Alright,” he says, deciding to move on. “What about this English Learning class? You speak and read just fine.”
“Yeah, but I’m not really supposed to,” Donghyuck says. “Exchange student, remember? I can fake an accent, probably.” (That “probably” doesn’t sit well with Mark).
“Okay... ” Mark says slowly. “At least P.E. seems pretty safe. As long as you don’t, like, fly to shoot a hoop.”
“I don’t know what shooting a hoop means,” Donghyuck says, tucking his schedule into his pocket when Mark hands it over, “but I can’t fly as a human, so don’t worry.”
Mark is still worried, but they’re interrupted by someone calling his name. They both turn, and Mark smiles at a small group of students heading towards them. “These are my friends, so be cool,” he whispers to Donghyuck, who mumbles that he is very cool, Mark, jeez.
“You’re here early,” one of the girls says, exaggerated shock clear in her voice.
“Those articles were right, the world is ending,” another teases.
“Ha, ha,” Mark deadpans. “I have an, uh, exchange student staying with me now.” He nods his head to the side. “This is Donghyuck. I’m helping him learn his schedule.” His friends seem to buy it, even though Mark could tell that he didn’t sound very convincing, because they turn their attention on Donghyuck and give him warm smiles.
“Hello,” Donghyuck greets, and if Mark didn’t know any better, he might actually believe the faint aura of shyness emanating from him. Perhaps he will do well in drama, at least.
Donghyuck does his best to remember these new faces as they are introduced (the girls who poked fun at Mark are Herin and Koeun, the other one is Hina, and the only guy with them is Lucas) because he’s pretty sure being friendly with students is part of successfully assimilating into high school. He soon learns that Koeun and Lucas are in his choir and P.E. classes, respectively; Herin knows Mark from band where she plays violin; and Hina helps run a dance club after hours that they’ve all taken part in before. Donghyuck enjoys talking to these humans who are of similar age to his current form, and before any of them realize it, the first warning bell rings throughout the school to signal the beginning of classes.
“Shoot,” Mark says, glancing up at a large clock mounted over the front office buildings. “We should go. Bio is all the way in the back.” He places a hand on Donghyuck’s shoulder to guide him away as they wave goodbye to Mark’s friends.
“They seem nice,” Donghyuck says enthusiastically as Mark weaves them through crowds of students rushing to make it to class on time.
“Yeah, they’re awesome,” Mark says. He just hopes none of them become too wary of Donghyuck’s sudden presence in his life.
It turns out, much to Mark’s surprise but also to his great relief, that Donghyuck fits right in at school, as much as one can amongst teenagers. Throughout the first week he does a good job of appearing like a completely normal new student every time Mark can observe him, and Mark hears from others in the classes they don’t have together that Donghyuck is actually liked. Like, a lot. He somehow managed to charm his way into teachers’ hearts and entertain his fellow classmates so much that by Friday he’s being clapped on the back by peers Mark has never even spoken to before despite seeing them around for years.
“How did you do it?” Mark finally asks as they stop in a refreshingly air-conditioned convenience store on their way home that afternoon.
Donghyuck doesn’t look away from the colorful cellophane decorating the snacks packed tightly in rows across two shelves in the middle of the store. “Do what?”
Mark comes over to Donghyuck’s aisle and picks out a few of his favorites chips, tossing them into his plastic basket, then motions him over to the refrigerators full of drinks. “How does nobody find it weird that some exchange program suddenly transferred you to our school during the last couple months of the academic year? Any way you look at it, it doesn’t make sense.”
Donghyuck almost picks out a bottle of beer before Mark turns him in the direction of the non-alcoholic beverages and he decides on a Calpico instead, holding onto it until he sees Mark put his own drink into the basket then following suit. “I’m just that good,” he responds with a grin.
Mark rolls his eyes and stops at the frozen section on the way to the register to grab some ice cream bars for them. “Uh huh, I’m sure.”
“Alright, fine,” Donghyuck says. “I had a little…” He wiggles his fingers. “...help.”
Mark shakes his head. “You are seriously capable of causing way too much damage. If I wasn’t your, uh, human, I’d be nervous.”
Donghyuck laughs and drops his hands. “Unfortunately, excessive use of magic is against the rules. We’re only allowed to alter reality just enough to safely insert ourselves into our subjects’ lives - so in my case, making people think my transfer was totally normal. Anything deemed unnecessary or dangerous to the balance of society will result in us being forcibly removed immediately.”
Mark blinks and adjusts his grip on their shopping basket. “Whoa, I didn’t realize things were so strict.”
“We take the natural aspect of the job very seriously,” Donghyuck says. “Things can get out of hand very fast if magic was used willy-nilly.”
“Don’t say willy-nilly,” Mark grimaces. “Definitely not something teens say.”
They get in line to buy their snacks, the only customer ahead of them already paying for her food. Mark looks around aimlessly as they wait and catches Donghyuck checking out his own appearance in the reflection of a mirror behind the front counter.
“Sometimes it’s too bad, though,” Donghyuck sighs. “It would be nice to be able to improve on the forms we’re given… At least a better nose or something.” He presses a finger against different parts of his face that he seems to not be completely satisfied with. Mark doesn’t really know why.
“Hm?” Mark asks, slightly distracted as he hands the cashier their basket and fishes in his pocket for his wallet. “Your face is pretty nice, though?” He doesn’t realize what he’s said until he’s handing over the money and catches Donghyuck blinking back at him through the same mirror. “Oh! Well, I mean…” He tries to address Donghyuck and thank the cashier at the same time and ends up stumbling over his words. He quickly takes the bag of snacks and heads out of the store.
They pause outside by some round metal tables with umbrellas in their centers so Mark can take out the ice creams and hand Donghyuck his. Donghyuck looks kind of fidgety when Mark passes him the treat, like he wants to say something but doesn’t know how, so Mark finally caves.
“Yeah, um, your face. It’s not bad. So don’t feel insecure or anything.” He sticks his arm through the handles of the plastic bag and they begin walking the rest of the way home - it isn’t too far, and Donghyuck wants to get accustomed to the area. “It’s okay that you can’t use your magic to change it. You don’t need to.”
Feeling a bit awkward, Mark glances to the side to see if Donghyuck seems as weirded out as he is, but Donghyuck is smiling softly as he opens his ice cream. Then he bites right into it and shrieks at the cold sensation against his teeth and all feels normal again.
A month of Donghyuck masquerading as Mark’s new roommate passes by relatively smoothly, especially for Donghyuck himself - apparently his spell had also convinced teachers that he didn’t need to catch up on any of the schoolwork he’d missed out on for most of the year, nor does he have to complete any of the current assignments since he’s just too far behind in class, so he finds himself casually sailing through the weeks with his hardest task being to memorize a Shakespearean passage to perform for drama. Mark, on the other hand, although grateful that Donghyuck won’t flunk out of school quite yet, grows increasingly aware of finals looming just around the corner and his desk at home becomes more and more cluttered with notes as he attempts to keep track of what he needs to study.
When Mark is stressed about upcoming events such as tests or band recitals, he tries to grab hold to some sense of security in the moments leading up to D-day. To do this, he relies on multiple horoscope apps on his phone, as well as a few astrology websites open in tabs on his laptop, that he checks every morning before leaving the house in hopes that they will continuously tell him good news for the next 24 hours.
Donghyuck can soon tell just by the changes in Mark’s body language what kind of reading he gets each day. If he only turns off his phone’s screen before shoving the device into his pocket, it’s good. If he deliberately exits the app and tucks his phone away, it’s bad. If he doesn’t bother checking himself in the mirror one last time, it’s good. If he runs a hand through his hair with a sigh as he looks himself over, it’s cute, but bad. If he slings his backpack over one shoulder with a slight bounce in his step, it’s good. If he picks up his bag by the handle at the top and walks out of the room, it’s bad.
Sometimes Donghyuck sneaks a peak at what the websites write about Mark’s day when it’s a Bad One, and the descriptions make him frown every time. They are certainly not things he’d ever say to Mark, at the very least. He doesn’t quite see the point of putting words into stars’ mouths anyway - the constellations do have nostalgic symbolism behind them, but wishing stars are the only ones who can interact with humans and they only exist to improve lives, not to be downers. It starts to make Donghyuck upset when he realizes that Mark sometimes starts his days already expecting them to be negative.
Today seems to be one of those Bad Ones - Donghyuck can mentally check off every action from the list. He reaches forward as Mark passes him and snags his phone from his pocket, grip almost slipping off of it from the resistance of Mark’s jeans but managing to swipe it all the same.
Donghyuck tries to unlock Mark’s phone, but he doesn’t know the password. “...Open this for me so I can delete that stupid app.”
“Wh-- I’m not going to help you sabotage my phone,” Mark says, snatching it back and holding it to his chest protectively.
“That phone is sabotaging you!” Donghyuck huffs, crossing his arms and protruding his lower lip. Mark wants to tell him that pouting is also not something teens do, but for some reason he doesn’t. “Don’t you notice how sad you get when your horoscope isn’t good?”
Mark frowns - he doesn’t get sad… does he? Annoyed, maybe, and okay, he can feel a little down after reading the app sometimes, but…
Donghyuck drops his arms back to his sides. “You don’t notice, do you?” he asks, and it’s not really a question.
Mark answers anyway. “I’m not sad,” he insists. “It’s just… I’m used to reading the app, so what? When the horoscope is good, I know I’ll have a nice day. It takes some pressure off of me.”
“But is it worth it when the words of some faceless stranger can also hurt you half of the time?” Donghyuck pushes. He reaches forward and Mark turns away slightly, but Donghyuck is still able to gently lower Mark’s phone away from his chest. “You don’t have to follow what someone else expects of you. Maybe things will turn out badly, or maybe they’ll be good. Go into life with your own intentions, otherwise you’re letting yourself fail because you didn’t even try to enjoy it.”
Mark is rendered speechless, not expecting something so serious and thoughtful from Donghyuck.
“Besides,” Donghyuck adds, walking around Mark to pick up his backpack from its spot by the closet, “I like you a lot better when you’re happy.” He flashes Mark a smile before slipping out of the room.
Mark shakes his head with a small chuckle and tosses his phone into his bag.
The next morning Donghyuck watches Mark the entire time they’re getting ready, waiting for him to open that app, but he doesn’t. Thinking that Mark just forgot to do it today, he hesitates to bring it up and remind him, but curiosity always kills the cat.
He’s waiting for Mark to finish tying his shoes, anxiously shifting from foot to foot by the front door, when he finally blurts out, “You’re not checking your horoscope?”
Mark stands and adjusts his backpack straps on his shoulders with a little jump. “Oh, um… nah, I don’t think so,” he says. He opens the door and holds it for Donghyuck. “I don’t have to read it all the time, you know?”
Donghyuck smiles as he passes Mark and steps outside.
“It would be really helpful if you could just turn me into an astronomer and drop me off at a job, like, right this very instant,” Mark says as he flops back onto his bed, notes in his lap sliding off of his legs from the movement.
Donghyuck gathers up what papers he can reach within arms length from his spot on the floor and neatly places them on the mattress next to Mark’s body. “That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m supposed to do,” he reminds, setting his own study material aside and leaning forward to place his chin on the bed. “Besides, aren’t you supposed to finish high school and get a special degree before becoming a scientist?”
Mark groans loudly, and Donghyuck always finds it amusing when he’s the dramatic one. “I just never want to take finals again,” he complains. “I want to hurry up and be done with all this already.”
Donghyuck tilts his head so his cheek is now resting on the bed. “I don’t know much about Earth jobs, but I’m pretty sure everything about science is like taking tests over and over again.” Mark grimaces at that truth he’s always trying to avoid. “And anyway, you shouldn’t rush through your youth. You’ll probably miss it later.”
Mark scoffs. “Yeah, I’ll totally miss waking up early every day to write essays until my hand cramps and staring at the board during math until my head hurts.”
Donghyuck shrugs then grins. “Maybe you’ll miss me.”
Mark sits up and nudges Donghyuck’s head. “Yeah right. At the rate you’re going, I’ll still be stuck with you when I’m 40.”
“Hey, I’m working on figuring out the wish, okay?” Donghyuck says with a pout, and Mark still doesn’t tell him not to do that. “So you do your part and pass your finals.” He hits Mark’s knee then goes back to reading the notes from earlier that year that Mark had lent him, but Mark is fairly certain that Donghyuck’s magic will make him ace his tests no matter what and he just wants to learn for fun, like the weirdo he is.
A brief thought of “If I fail, maybe my grades won’t be good enough and I won’t have to be an astronomer,” flashes through Mark’s mind, but he quickly brushes it aside - he doesn’t want to fail, even though the prospect of schools rejecting him somehow seems a lot easier than facing his own second guessing. It’ll be fine, though. Donghyuck will make it work.
Mark doesn’t fail any of his finals, thankfully (he has to remind himself that this is, in fact, a good thing). Donghyuck doesn’t fail any either, which shouldn’t make sense, but of course, no one is the wiser.
They’re making their way slowly yet steadily to the front of the school once the last day of classes ends, squished amongst the throng of students eager to start their summer vacation, when Mark feels a firm clap on his shoulder. He turns and sees Lucas looming over him.
“Hey!” Lucas calls over the chatter of the crowd around them. “You guys survive the year?”
“Barely,” Mark answers, wondering if people are already starting to forget that Donghyuck only got here two months ago. “You?”
Lucas nods. “The girls did, too. Hina texted me during last period, by the way. She wants to know if we should do the Freedom Feast tomorrow since Koeun’s family is coming into town soon and she might not be able to meet up for a while.”
“Oh, okay,” Mark says as they manage to squeeze out of the hallway and into the open space of the lunch courtyard. “I’m down.”
“Freedom Feast?” Donghyuck echoes, looking up at Lucas.
“Yeah,” Lucas replies. “At the beginning of summer we all go to our favorite Korean barbecue place and eat until we’re about to burst to celebrate school being over. We’ve been doing this for, what, four years now?”
Mark nods. “It’s become a tradition.”
Lucas’s phone chimes and he checks the message that pops up on his screen. “I gotta go,” he says. He pats Mark’s shoulder again. “I’ll let you know when it’s happening.”
“See ya,” Mark says with a nod of his head as Lucas branches off in the opposite direction.
It doesn’t cross Mark’s mind at all that Donghyuck would want to join them, not even with Donghyuck standing right there when the Feast was mentioned, because he’s just so used to his friend group being a unit of five. Even on the day of the meetup, he’s so excited at the prospect of what an entire summer of nothingness has in store for him that he doesn’t notice Donghyuck looking over at him every time he gets a text, as if waiting to hear something. Finally, when a time is mutually agreed upon by everyone and Mark rummages around in his closet for a clean shirt, he realizes that Donghyuck expects to tag along.
Donghyuck is looking at him, anticipating, eerily mirroring a dog waiting to go for its walk. “Is it customary for humans to bring each other gifts for these… Freedom Feasts?” he asks. “I found a really shiny coin the other day, is that nice enough?”
Mark changes into his fresh shirt and balls his old one up in his hands. “Listen…” he starts hesitantly. “This is kind of something that we like to do together… It’s special to our group.” Donghyuck just nods and why does Mark feel so evil right now? “I think the others are only expecting me to come,” he admits.
“Oh,” Donghyuck says, and Mark swears that light literally dulls from his face. “That’s okay. I shouldn’t intrude. Have fun!”
Mark twists around to toss his shirt into the laundry bin and makes a defeated face while his back is turned. “But I’m sure it’s cool if you come too,” he says as he meets Donghyuck’s eyes again, and Donghyuck’s skin has a glowing undertone once more.
“I’ll find my coin!” he says excitedly.
Mark isn’t too crazy about letting someone new into he and his friends’ sacred ritual of summer, but when Donghyuck looks at him like that, it’s hard to say no.
It turns out that Mark’s friends are actually quite happy to see Donghyuck. Lucas had even assumed that Mark would bring Donghyuck along and has an extra glass of cold tea waiting for him when they arrive at the restaurant. It’s not as awkward at first as Mark expects, and soon the whole table warms up to a relatively new face being there. The girls especially love Donghyuck, piling his plate high with meat and giggling when he gets sauce on his face. Donghyuck just has a natural (magical?), likeable charm about him, and when he and Mark collapse into bed later that night, stomachs stuffed and eyelids heavy, perhaps it’s that charm that convinces Mark not to object to Donghyuck falling asleep against his side.
Donghyuck begins to join Mark and his friends more and more, and while Mark is now accustomed to Donghyuck’s spark-like behavior being a norm of his day, he still sometimes wishes that they could have a bit of separation once in awhile. From the moment he wakes up, Donghyuck is by his side (literally - is that bed ever going to come?), and it stays that way for practically 24 hours, 7 days a week. This would probably bother Mark less if he felt that their constant proximity to each other was useful, but he’s not so sure that it is. Occasionally Mark will casually ask about his wish and Donghyuck will assure him that he’ll figure it out, but from the looks of it Donghyuck is just having a normal, fun summer. Mark does like Donghyuck, really. However, as this is his last break before senior year, his last taste of freedom before he has to really think about his future, he can’t help but feel anxious at Donghyuck’s carefree attitude.
“Come on, dude,” Mark calls from the foot of the stairs, already set to go with a backpack full of water and snacks. “We’re gonna be late.”
Donghyuck finally emerges from their room and quickly slips his shoes on by the door. “Do hiking trails close so soon?” he asks as he stands and sticks a tube of sunscreen into Mark’s bag.
“No, but Hina likes to be early to things,” Mark says, ushering Donghyuck out of the house. “She and Herin will probably be there in a bit and we still need to catch two buses.”
“Ah,” Donghyuck hums as they begin walking. “So you would like to be prompt for Hina.”
Mark hits Donghyuck’s arm lightly. “Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking.”
This time Mark pushes Donghyuck with his shoulder. “Quit it, man. I just don’t want to keep them waiting in the sun and everything.”
“I know about having crushes,” Donghyuck continues anyway. “It’s one of the many emotions I was given to become a human, so it must be very normal for a high school-aged boy.”
“Please stop talking.”
They make it to the hiking trail in one piece - although Mark did briefly entertain the thought of gagging Donghyuck’s mouth at one point on the second bus - where Hina and Herin are sitting at a bench under the shade of a large tree. Mark passes around water bottles, extra sunscreen is lathered on faces, and then they’re off.
The hike itself is actually quite peaceful. Donghyuck is finally silent, submerged in the nature around him that he must not be used to seeing in person. Mark stops him from poking at a spider web near the beginning, but after that he seems to understand that nature walks are for looking, not touching, and his eyes give off a strange sparkle as he takes it all in, especially when a wild rabbit bounds across the trail near their feet.
When they’re nearly back at the entrance they started from, Donghyuck leans in and whispers to Mark, “Do you want to go talk to them?” He’s trying to subtly motion to the girls who are chatting together a few feet in front of them. “I won’t be offended.”
“No,” Mark says through his teeth, glancing at Donghyuck. “I told you, I don’t--”
A shout from up ahead startles them both and Mark turns his head just in time to see Herin fall forward and roll once on the slight incline of the trail before she’s able to stop herself. Hina hurries to her side and Mark and Donghyuck are there a moment later.
“Are you okay?” Hina asks, helping Herin sit up and brushing dirt from her clothes.
The only sound Herin can get out is a whimper as she holds her left wrist close to her chest.
Mark notices blood on her palms from where she instinctively broke her fall and kneels next to her. He sets his backpack on the ground and pulls out water and a pack of tissues, urging Herin to let him wash off the dirt on her hands. Cleaning her right palm is no problem, but the slightest touch to her left forearm elicits another whimper and tears slipping through her clenched eyelids.
“I’m barely getting any service here,” Hina says, wandering around with her phone out, holding it up high. “Does it look bad?”
Mark catches a glimpse of Herin’s wrist and notices it already starting to purple and swell. “It might be broken,” he says, eyebrows furrowing in concern. “We should hurry and get her to the entrance. I saw a park ranger there earlier.”
“Oh, I did too. I’ll run and get him,” Hina offers. “I’m the fastest. You guys watch over her, okay?”
“Be careful!” Donghyuck calls as Hina jogs ahead. He looks back at where Herin had tripped and sees what seems to be a small hole that got caved in. It must be one of those snake burrows Mark had pointed out to him during the hike that gave way under Herin’s weight when she stepped on it.
A few minutes pass and Mark is getting restless just waiting there, not knowing when help will arrive. Herin is trying to be strong, but he can feel her body shake in his arms whenever her breath hitches in a silent sob. “We should start walking so we can meet them halfway,” he decides.
“Are you sure?” Donghyuck asks. “Maybe she should rest…”
“It’ll be faster than if Hina and the ranger have to come all the way back here,” Mark insists. He puts Herin’s good arm around his shoulders and slowly begins to stand. “It’s fine, it’s not her ankle that’s--”
A small rock under Mark’s foot suddenly gives way and he stumbles, managing to stay upright but jostling Herin in the process. She lets out a pained cry when her injured wrist is knocked around and the sound goes straight to Mark’s gut, manifesting as guilt.
“I’m sorry!” Mark says immediately, sitting Herin back down. She’s crying openly now, and Mark feels so useless. “I’m sorry, Herin… We’ll stay here, okay?”
Donghyuck leans in and tries to dab at Herin’s cheeks with a tissue, ultimately being just as helpless as Mark, which strikes a nerve in Mark’s head.
“Can’t you do something?” he asks, tone coming out accusatory.
Donghyuck blinks at Mark, not understanding what he means, which only angers Mark more.
“Don’t you see she’s in pain?” Mark presses. “Do something, Donghyuck. Fix it!”
Donghyuck realizes what Mark is asking for and shakes his head. “I can’t do that,” he says. “I’m sorry, but that’s not--”
“Yeah, that’s not how it works, I get it,” Mark interrupts. “Or maybe you just don’t want to bother trying.”
Donghyuck frowns, and if Mark wasn’t so worked up he’d realize that this is the first time he’s ever seen Donghyuck genuinely unhappy.
“Jeez, Donghyuck-- I didn’t even ask for you to exist, the least you could do is finally make yourself useful to me.”
Mark regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth - even in his emotional state, he can feel the aura around them drop, like the energy had been sapped from the air. He expects to see Donghyuck glaring at him, but when his eyes focus on Donghyuck’s face he sees disappointment. Not disappointment in Mark for what he’d said, but disappointment in himself. Mark knows that look all too well - he sees it in the mirror every time he fails to admit that he needs to rethink his future and stop pretending that everything’s fine. He opens his mouth to apologize but Hina calls out to them, running towards them with a park ranger in tow.
Donghyuck leaves as soon as Herin is in the ranger’s reliable hands, and Mark has a feeling that now isn’t a good time to ask him if he remembers the bus route back.
Mark doesn’t get home until nighttime, having spent the rest of the day with Hina keeping Herin company in the hospital. Fortunately, although her wrist is indeed broken, Herin is going to be fine and eventually her parents had urged Mark and Hina to return to their own families. Mark didn’t have the heart to try and contact Donghyuck during that period of time, so he can only hope that going home also means seeing Donghyuck there instead of hearing that he got lost and ended up in America somehow - or worse, that he decided to go back to space.
He briefly assures his parents that Herin is okay before heading to the staircase with heavy steps, feeling almost comically nervous at the simple action of going to his own bedroom. He stands outside the door for a moment, closing his eyes to concentrate, but he doesn’t hear any noise from inside. He turns the doorknob slowly, pushes lightly, and stares ahead of him at the empty room. His heart sinks. He’s a lot more upset than he thought he’d be at the idea of Donghyuck just up and vanishing as quickly as he’d appeared, even without realizing in that moment that the star never solved his problems - it’s Donghyuck himself that he’s worried about.
A cool night breeze brushes against Mark’s face and he belatedly notices the open window. Calm washes over him at the familiar sight, somehow knowing that things are fine - for now. He carefully slips through the window and onto a ledge just big enough for his feet to stand on, then reaches forward for a thick, sturdy tree branch that passes right by his room. He climbs onto it effortlessly, action mastered over the years, and shimmies up to the roof above his bedroom where Donghyuck is sitting with his legs to his chest, head resting on arms propped against his knees. Mark steps onto the roof and sits next to him.
They don’t say anything for a while - neither of them keep track of the time, but it gets significantly cooler as they sit in silence. Finally, Mark thinks it’s been long enough.
“I come up to this very spot to stargaze all the time,” he starts. “Is that some kind of star spirit instinct thing you have?”
Donghyuck shrugs. “Maybe it’s the one thing I can do,” he says, and he doesn’t mean it to be snarky, there’s no bite in his voice - it’s just pure doubt.
“Hey,” Mark says gently, scooting closer until their shoulders are nearly touching. “Look, I didn’t mean what I said back there. I’m really sorry, Donghyuck. Herin was just crying so much and she looked like she was hurting a lot and I freaked out. But I know you can’t use your magic like that, and I shouldn’t have put such pressure on you. I’m sorry.”
Donghyuck turns his head away and Mark thinks he’s ignoring him, but then Donghyuck wipes at his face with a sleeve and Mark feels so, so bad. He takes Donghyuck’s other hand and squeezes it tightly.
“I’m glad you’re here, Donghyuck. Really.”
Donghyuck sniffles and peeks back at Mark. “But I still don’t know how to help you,” he says. “It’s the one thing I’m here to do, and I just can’t figure out how to improve your life the way you want me to. What kind of star am I like this?”
Mark hums and looks up at the dark sky, thinking. “Well… that’s just how friendships are,” he settles on. “You aren’t friends with someone because you want them to do something for you. You’re friends because you like each other, and eventually there will be a time where they’re there for you when you don’t even have to ask. So it’s not like you’re doing anything wrong.”
Donghyuck fully looks at Mark now, and the wet tracks on his cheeks seem abnormally bright, reflecting the moonlight like shimmering cosmic dust. “We’re friends?”
The question sounds so odd to Mark, but he supposes that he never was intently clear to Donghyuck about their relationship. Perhaps Donghyuck was as aware of his intrusion into Mark’s friend circle as Mark was at first and he still sees himself as an outsider.
Mark smiles and slings an arm around Donghyuck’s shoulders. “I sure hope I’m not sharing my bed with an enemy,” he says, and Donghyuck gets that subtle glow about him again.
Donghyuck wipes his face dry. “I really will help you,” he promises. “Then your life will be the way you want it to be.”
Mark nods. “Yeah, you will,” he says.
The unspoken fact that Donghyuck is only here for as long as Mark needs him hangs in the air and leaves unease in Mark’s chest.
A few weeks into summer break, Mark realizes that Donghyuck has friends. It’s not that Donghyuck is unsociable - he’s quite the opposite - but he’s always clinging to Mark when they’re together, and the only time Mark has seen him hang out with people is when he’s with Mark’s own friends, so it just never crossed Mark’s mind that others would have relationships with Donghyuck.
It’s been a particularly hot couple of days when Mark decides to arrange something just for Donghyuck and himself, actual activities for them to do instead of simply existing in the same house. To avoid the heat they’ll have a movie marathon inside of all the Star Wars films (starting with episode IV, of course) so Donghyuck can really experience Mark’s culture and inner being, and if they’re up for it afterwards, Mark’s family has accumulated a good number of board games over the years. He kind of wants to attempt to bake some sort of treat with Donghyuck beforehand that they can enjoy during the movies, but if (when) that doesn’t work out, he had his mom stock up on chips and frozen pizza bites. The plan isn’t a big or very exciting one, but Mark still keeps it a secret from Donghyuck (which proves very hard because Donghyuck likes to be in the know about everything) so he can surprise him the day of. It’ll be nice - they can finally do what normal friends do all the time.
Except Donghyuck apparently has other plans.
“What do you mean?” Mark asks, standing in the doorway to his bedroom with a stack of DVDs in hand. He’d expected Donghyuck to be ecstatic about the big reveal, but Donghyuck had just turned the offer down.
“I really want to watch your War Star movies!” Donghyuck adds quickly.
“Yeah, those,” Donghyuck says. “But I was invited to a get together with people from my drama class today. I’m told this girl has a really nice house and she wants us all to have a pool party. I haven’t seen my school friends since the year ended so I said I’d go… I’m sorry, Mark.”
Donghyuck shouldn’t have to apologize for having plans. Mark knows this, but the sentiment gives him a bit of morbid satisfaction anyway. He really had not even considered the fact that Donghyuck - Donghyuck - would say no to him. It’s weird.
“It’s okay,” Mark manages to say. “Yeah, go hang out with your friends. It sounds fun.”
“I wanted to invite you too,” Donghyuck adds, “but it’s only for drama students. We’re even going to watch all the Romeo & Juliet movies since the play was our last assignment in class.”
Mark makes a noise of acknowledgement and sets his DVDs down on the dresser next to him. A voice in the back of his head reminds him that this is exactly what he’d tried to do when he almost didn’t let Donghyuck tag along to Korean barbecue, but he’s still a little put off. That was different. Donghyuck is the one who came into his life - he couldn’t be expected to automatically integrate Donghyuck into everything he did. But it’s normal for Mark to feel strange about Donghyuck, the one who forced himself in, rejecting a chance to have Mark all to himself. It’s different.
“Don’t forget to text my mom your friend’s address just in case,” is what Mark says instead of voicing his inner displeasure out loud - Donghyuck really looks happy talking about this.
“I won’t!” Donghyuck says. Then he grabs a bag he’d already packed full of swim trunks, playing cards, and snacks (probably some of the ones meant for movie night) and hurries out the door.
“Oh,” Mark says to himself. “You meant right now. Okay. Cool.” He just stands there for a few minutes, wondering what to do now that his day is suddenly free. He looks around his room and nothing really seems to stand out. His eyes fall on his laptop sitting atop his desk, and right behind it in a mini built-in bookshelf are his old, secondhand Korean textbooks from when Jaehyun had helped him improve in the language. He thinks about Skyping Jaehyun, but the world clock on his phone reads 4 in the morning in Korea, which makes him oddly disappointed. He shrugs it off and heads downstairs to find something to eat his boredom away with.
Throughout the day Mark alternates between distracting himself with a momentary activity and sitting at his desk in his room staring at his phone, waiting to hear from Donghyuck. The house is just too quiet without him and it creeps Mark out, if he’s being honest. Besides, Donghyuck’s never hung out with classmates outside of school before and Mark’s sure he’ll want to come back soon. Even stars have to ease into new situations, right?
Though he’s half expecting it, the sudden vibrations of Mark’s phone against the wood of his desk that evening surprise him and he jolts in his seat. Donghyuck’s picture (a selfie he’d taken one day while Mark was in the shower) flashes on the screen and Mark scrambles to answer the call.
“Hey, Donghyuck,” he says quickly. “You ready to be picked up soon?”
“Actually,” Donghyuck says, speaking a little louder to be heard over the friendly chatter in the background, “the pool party got turned into a sleepover because everyone’s having so much fun! There are enough pillows and blankets and extra toothbrushes here so you don’t have to worry about bringing me anything, but can you let your mom know that I won’t be coming back tonight?”
Mark hides the annoyance in his voice as he says, “Sure, I’ll let her know. Have a good time and don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
Donghyuck doesn’t reply for a moment and all Mark can hear is the noise of the party, then Donghyuck says, “I gotta go, they’re bringing out a chocolate fountain! See you tomorrow!” He hangs up and Mark is left blinking in surprise at the sudden end to the conversation.
Mark sets his phone aside and frowns. He grabs his laptop and opens Skype, knowing that enough time has passed by now, and clicks on a familiar icon.
After about ten seconds of calling, the application connects to its destination and Jaehyun’s smiling face takes over Mark’s screen. He’s in a tank top and fanning himself with an uchiwa that Mark recognizes as the one he had bought for Jaehyun that time Hina took them to an Obon festival years ago. Jaehyun’s appearance reminds Mark of how much he hates summers in Korea - not everyone can look like a glistening god when they’re sweating like Jaehyun does.
“Mark!” Jaehyun greets happily. “What’s up? It’s been a while.”
“It’s been too long,” Mark says, reciprocating Jaehyun’s infectious smile and feeling better already. “How’s your summer?”
“Hot. Fun, but hot. You’re on break now, right?” Jaehyun asks, English sounding a bit rusty but still comforting, nostalgic. “My little man’s almost a senior, how exciting.”
Mark ignores that last comment. “Yeah, school ended a few weeks ago. It was kinda hectic but I’m mostly good now.”
“Rough finals?” Jaehyun guesses as he reaches out of frame to grab a glass of water sitting on his desk.
“Nah, it’s Donghyuck,” Mark says without thinking - he probably should have eased into the topic smoother.
“Who’s Donghyuck?” Jaehyun asks, glass to his lips.
Mark figures he might as well say what he can and explains how this exchange student came to be, hoping that Donghyuck’s spell reaches Korea too and Jaehyun won’t get suspicious. He skirts the topic of Donghyuck being a star and his own wish, of course, but he ends up rambling about everything else, from having to show Donghyuck around school while juggling his own courses to Donghyuck blowing him off earlier that day. He even adds in the annoying tidbit of Donghyuck being convinced that Mark has a crush on all of his female friends, which Mark thinks is utterly ridiculous. Jaehyun is a good sport as always and hears Mark out the entire time, not interjecting or seeming to judge this sudden release of built up tension.
“And then he calls to say he’s sleeping over and just hangs up!” Mark finishes, slouching down in his chair, head leaning back so he’s staring at the ceiling and hands motioning wildly. “Like, dude, I was waiting for you all day after you already ruined my surprise, and you don’t care at all? I mean, he has friends, I get it, but he’s always tagging along with me when I go out and the one time I actually make plans for him, he bails. He’s the one who wanted to be friends so badly in the first place, too. So it’s like, do you want to hang out with me or not?”
Mark finally figures he’s said all that he needed to say and sits up again, but pauses when he sees Jaehyun trying not to smile.
Jaehyun shakes his head. “It’s nothing,” he says. “I’m just wondering… like…” He appears to be thinking, probably trying to figure out how to phrase his words.
“Korean is okay,” Mark says in the language, pronunciation sounding a bit odd but he can understand and speak enough to converse.
Jaehyun continues in his native tongue. “I was wondering if you chose to bring this up to me for any reason in particular.”
Mark blinks. “What do you mean?”
Jaehyun rests an elbow beside his keyboard and leans his cheek against his palm. His bangs fall lightly to the side, following the tilt of his head. “You have other friends, right?”
“Wh-- Of course I do!” Mark bristles defensively. “What does that have to do with anything?”
There’s a sly grin peeking out on Jaehyun’s boyish face between deep dimples and it reminds Mark of why so many of his classmates fell to Jaehyun’s charms. Jaehyun waves his free hand casually as he hums slowly. “I’m just saying that you decided to come to me to talk about him, so…”
A sinking feeling reaches the depths of Mark’s gut at the same time that Jaehyun’s hand falls back onto his desk. Mark’s own hands suddenly feel clammy as he palms nervously at his thighs, jeans now ten times scratchier than they were not even a minute before. He doesn’t pay attention to how long the silence between them lasts as his mind fully wraps around what Jaehyun is implying. His brain goes through stages of denial and wondering if Jaehyun’s right, then back to denial again.
Eventually, Jaehyun says softly, “It’s okay, you know.”
“I know,” Mark accidentally snaps, and he hates how angry it sounds. It’s just a lot, when everything comes at you so quickly. Everything about Donghyuck is a lot. “I just don’t think it’s-- I mean, I spent the past half hour ranting about him. That’s not, you know… that. It’s annoyance.”
“Honestly?” Jaehyun says with a shrug. “Same thing.” But he can see that maybe Mark isn’t ready for this, so he takes a different approach. “At the end of the day, you guys sound like you have a nice friendship, so you need to cherish and respect it. Relationships are a two-way street - he’s allowed to have other friends, just like you are. You can’t stifle people like that, okay? From what you’ve said, he sounds like he really enjoys spending time with you, and you two can have your movie night tomorrow or any other day this summer. I doubt he had any ill intentions. He just wanted to go to a pool party.”
Mark gives a half-hearted shrug, but he knows that what Jaehyun’s saying makes sense.
“Relax a little,” Jaehyun adds, switching back to English and making Mark snort. “This is a time of your life where you should be having fun. Don’t stress yourself out more than you need to.”
At the mention of stress Mark debates also opening up to Jaehyun about his dilemma over his future career, but he already has enough to think about right now. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “Thanks, Jay.”
“No problem. I love you, man.”
When Mark’s mother picks Donghyuck up the next day, Mark isn’t angry like he was worried he’d be. Instead, he’s just glad that Donghyuck is back. And when Donghyuck comes bounding into the bedroom looking so happy and launching right into telling Mark all about his first sleepover (not including the fact that his entire stay at Mark’s house is basically a sleepover), Mark is genuinely glad to hear about it.
After Donghyuck finishes recalling every little thing about the party and he’s unpacked and settled, he asks hopefully, “So can we still watch your War Star movies?”
Mark looks at Donghyuck - looks at his ever-curious eyes with their unique sparkle and his nose that Mark never thought he needed to change - and smiles. “Star Wars,” he corrects.
Mark groans dramatically as he shoves another box out of the way, then immediately coughs at the dust that floats into his throat from the action. He and Donghyuck were asked to help organize the attic since they pretty much do nothing all day long, but Mark doesn’t see the point - the only reason they venture into the attic is to get the Christmas decorations, which are near the entrance in the attic floor so they never have to wander around the rest of the junk, but they ended up with the job anyway. It had been a long, sweltering day up there, but at least they’re almost done.
On the other side of the attic, Donghyuck accidentally kicks something and Mark hears a familiar, musically hollow sound. He walks over to where Donghyuck is observing a long, black case and raises his eyebrows in surprise.
“Oh, it’s my old guitar,” he says, kneeling and brushing dust from the top of the case.
“You play guitar?” Donghyuck asks, crouching next to Mark, seemingly unbothered by the suffocating body heat trapped between them in this position.
“I did,” Mark answers as he undoes the case’s clasps and swings the lid open. His acoustic guitar lays inside, looking just as he remembered it, if not a little less shiny. He feels a tug in his chest as he runs a hand over the strings, hearing them strum quietly.
“So… you stopped?” Donghyuck asks. “How come?”
Mark closes the case and locks it again, then carries it over to a pile of boxes. “I got busy with school,” he says, explanation slipping easily from his mouth. “I had to focus on other things. Sometimes hobbies can’t last forever.”
Fortunately Donghyuck seems to sense that Mark doesn’t want to be pressed about it, because he doesn’t ask any more questions. They finish sorting through the attic about twenty minutes later and climb down the retractable ladder back into the freedom and air of the second story hallway.
“Ugh, I need a shower after that,” Mark grimaces, fanning his T-shirt away from his body. “It was torture up there, how are you not even sweating?”
“My original temperature is 3,500 Kelvin,” Donghyuck says.
“Right,” Mark says. “Star things.” He ends up just peeling his shirt off and using it to wipe the back of his neck. “Well, I’m gonna shower. Human things. Do you remember how to put the ladder up and close the door?”
Donghyuck nods. “I can do it.”
Mark makes a noise and retreats to his bedroom, immediately heading into his bathroom and starting a cold shower. Donghyuck looks up at the attic, hesitating.
Once Mark steps out of the shower, he thinks he hears a faint, vibrating noise coming from his room. He dries himself and dresses, and as he exits the bathroom, rubbing at his hair with a towel, he sees Donghyuck sitting cross legged on the bed with Mark’s guitar perched in his lap attempting to figure out how to make music from six taut strings and a hollow hole. He looks up as Mark approaches and appears guilty, like he’d been caught red handed.
“I was going to put it back…” Donghyuck starts, but Mark just drapes his towel over his shoulders and sits next to Donghyuck.
“You’re holding it wrong,” he says, switching which hand Donghyuck is holding the neck of the guitar in. “And loosen your grip more. You can’t press down on all the strings at once.”
Donghyuck observes where Mark places his fingers, letting Mark maneuver him however he sees fit. Mark looks into the guitar’s case on the floor and spies a pick inside it, sticking that in Donghyuck’s free hand.
“Hold it like this…” Mark says, adjusting Donghyuck’s fingers on the pick as well. “And…” He holds Donghyuck’s hand and makes him run the pick down the strings over the hole in the guitar and Donghyuck already seems impressed at Mark’s knowledge, as usual. He begins to explain how pressing down certain strings in certain spots creates different chords and sounds, starting off awkward as he’d never taught someone to play before, but soon he’s spouting information from memory nonstop and even teaching Donghyuck how to play, ironically, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
On his fifth try, Donghyuck makes it almost to the end of the song until he hits a wrong note that sounds so bad, Mark can’t help but laugh enthusiastically. Donghyuck whines about it, but he’s not hurt at all - he’s having fun.
“You look happy,” Donghyuck remarks once their laughter and bantering dies down.
Mark glances at him. “Hm?”
Donghyuck adjusts his sitting position slightly and holds the guitar close. “When you’re talking about music you look really happy.”
Mark stands from the bed and ruffles his hair with his towel one more time before hanging it back up in the bathroom, using the lapse in conversation to pick his words carefully. “Seeing you play brings back memories of when I was learning,” he says. “It’s… interesting.”
“When did you start learning?” Donghyuck asks, eyes completely focused on Mark. It makes Mark feel pressured to say the right thing, like he’s being scrutinized.
“When I was a kid,” he says. “But I don’t play it anymore. Not this one. The school lets me use one of theirs for band, and that’s the only one I need.”
Donghyuck frowns. “Why is that? You still like it, I can tell.”
“Because we can’t all care about nothing but drama and choir this late in the game,” Mark says, sitting down heavily in his desk chair and pretending that he has something to do on his laptop. He hears Donghyuck move and hears the guitar moving with him and he thinks (hopes) that Donghyuck will put it back in the attic, but instead Donghyuck is by his side, holding the guitar out to him.
“Your happiness isn’t a game,” Donghyuck says, and his voice is soft but the aura of his words is firm. “This is the first time I’ve seen you be passionate about something since I got here. This is special to you, I know it is. You have time to play.”
But time isn’t the problem for Mark. The problem is that a guitar isn’t a scientist’s tool.
“Put it away, Donghyuck,” he forces himself to say.
“One song,” Donghyuck compromises. “At least play me one song, a real song. Then it can go back in the attic.”
Mark sighs and takes the guitar, turning in his chair to face Donghyuck. He tells himself that the sooner he plays, the sooner Donghyuck will let it go, but deep down he knows that he’s been desperately looking for an excuse like this. Donghyuck presses the pick into Mark’s palm and closes his hand around it.
“What do you want to hear?” Mark asks.
“Anything,” Donghyuck says.
Mark positions the guitar and strums aimlessly as he tries to think of a song, and soon he finds himself instinctively plucking out an original piece he’d written years ago that he hasn’t played in just as long. The notes keep coming to him easily, fingers reacting on muscle memory and nostalgia, and soon he’s back in middle school where carefree enthusiasm dictated his life and he spent hours filling journal after journal with compositions and lyrics and ideas of what his future concert posters would look like. He’s back in a time where everything seemed like it would be simple and okay. He closes his eyes and allows himself to feel it all, and maybe he lets himself believe that that’s still how his life can be, just a bit.
When the song ends and the last note of the guitar dies out, Mark just stays frozen in place for a while, as if opening his eyes means having to face reality again. He can’t see, so the light touch on his face startles him and he jolts back, but the touch follows him. He feels thumbs brushing across his cheeks and finally notices the tears that Donghyuck is wiping away.
“Please keep playing,” Donghyuck requests quietly, so Mark does.
Something changes after the day that Donghyuck brought Mark’s guitar down from the attic. The instrument finds itself tucked safely under Mark’s bed where he can easily access it, where it used to be all the time before he thought he had to grow up and move on. Mark is once again spending afternoons just sitting in his room and playing whatever melody his relaxed mind and nimble fingers choose for him, but now he has an audience. Donghyuck never seems to tire of listening to what Mark and his guitar have to say, or of watching Mark sprawl out on his bed and jot down tentative lyrics on pieces of scrap paper. Even when Mark gets so absorbed in his thoughts that he forgets that Donghyuck is there for a good hour or two, Donghyuck doesn’t care. Mark is smiling more and glowing nearly as much as the star himself.
“Let’s go on the roof,” Mark suddenly says one evening as he’s lying on his back in bed with his guitar resting on his stomach, fingers strumming just to hear the sound in the room.
Donghyuck puts down his book. “The roof?”
Mark nods and sits up. “I told you I stargaze up there, right? But that’s not all I used to do.” He hands Donghyuck the guitar as he climbs out onto his window ledge and Donghyuck gives it back when Mark is steady on the sturdy tree branch outside. Mark carefully sets the guitar on the roof then turns back to help Donghyuck, who, although he made it up there once on his own, can’t seem to do it again.
When they’re both safely seated on top of Mark’s house, they take a moment to just sit there quietly and feel the night breeze around them. There’s noise from the neighborhood down below, but their focus is above.
Donghyuck is growing so relaxed that he almost lies down to doze off when he hears the light plucking of Mark’s guitar coming from beside him. He glances over and sees Mark playing, eyes closed and with the body language that Donghyuck has come to know means that he’s letting a stream of consciousness take over rather than attempting to piece together stanzas of a song. Donghyuck watches Mark and wonders if this is what he used to look like before pressures of the world caught up to him. He feels an urge bubbling up and turns his gaze to the stars as he begins to sing softly.
Mark opens his eyes and looks at Donghyuck humming along to his impromptu tune, and it’s just a melody, no lyrics or deep thought put into how he changes notes or slips into vibrato, but it still sounds like any noise Donghyuck could possibly make belongs with Mark’s music.
They both finish at the same time, then it’s silent for a few seconds before they lock eyes and smile.
“That was awesome,” Mark says. “You’re really good. I never heard you sing before, but I guess choir was the right choice.”
Donghyuck laughs. “Well, I signed up for it again for next year, so you can come to my recitals all you want.”
“Definitely,” Mark promises, and for once the topic of senior year doesn’t scare him. For once, he’s only thinking about enjoying something that comes with it. For the first time in a while, Mark feels like maybe, just maybe, things are starting to go his way.
And then Donghyuck begins to gets homesick.
The rest of summer break is fun and cheerful for the most part, but Mark can’t help but notice small changes in Donghyuck’s mood - it’s hard not to, after how closely they’ve been living (and Jaehyun would probably mention something else too, but Mark doesn’t). It’s the little things, like not laughing as loudly as he used to when Lucas tries to tell a bad joke; or not bothering to tease Mark whenever he’s squished against Koeun on the subway; or even something as seemingly mundane as curling up in bed when he sleeps, because Mark knows that Donghyuck likes to obnoxiously take up as much space as possible. But these instances are still sparse in comparison to how often Donghyuck appears to be his normal, loud, excitable self, so Mark selfishly shakes the concern off and continues enjoying the days with his friend.
When school starts up again, Mark is actually looking forward to it. Donghyuck had convinced him that they should do yoga together, which is apparently a class that their school offers, and it turns out to be more fun than he’d expected - they’re always paired as partners, so the entire period is spent with them laughing at each other for not being able to do a pose correctly (or at all) and falling all over their mats. Yoga might not be relaxing them in the way their teacher wants, but being able to truly play like a couple of kids every other day does well for Mark’s mentality.
They also have chem together as their year 12 science where they are once again placed as lab partners. Mark is better at going through experiment procedures and Donghyuck is better at remembering chemical compounds (he says it’s probably because he’s a giant ball of space matter, but Mark doesn’t see how that would help in this situation), so they make a good team, something their teacher likes to constantly scribble on their joint assignments.
(The first time they receive their lab report back and see what their teacher had written, Donghyuck gives Mark a grin that makes Mark slightly unsettled and highly suspicious.
“So you could say…” Donghyuck whispers as the teacher continues to pass back work to other students, “that we have chemistry.”
Mark gets a stern look from their teacher when he pushes Donghyuck out of his stool, but it’s worth it.)
But their favorite class, by far, is home ec, which they decided to take again at the year 12 level despite neither of them being all that great at cooking. They both enjoyed the course last year, and it’s a nice break to have in between their academic classes. And of course, they’re sat next to each other and always partners, sometimes in groups of three or four, but most often secluded together. They do actively try not to make messes because they’re the ones who would have to clean them up, but things don’t always go according to plan.
All in all, even though Mark can tell that his classes are harder than they were in previous years, he thinks he can handle it. Donghyuck is keeping him on schedule with his AP courses and now that he’s taken up guitar and writing music again, he has a way to relieve tension at home. He especially likes it when Donghyuck practices his choir songs and lets him strum along in the background.
They have a nice rhythm going, so when that rhythm starts to falter the more Donghyuck’s mood changes, eventually Mark can’t ignore it anymore.
Mark would say that the biggest red flag is during warm-up stretches in yoga one morning. Mark is lying on his back with Donghyuck pushing Mark’s leg towards his chest like they do every class, but this time something is off. Mark looks up at Donghyuck hovering over him and from this position, when Donghyuck’s face is the focus of his entire line of vision, Mark can clearly see the sparkle of Donghyuck’s eyes - or, rather, the lack thereof. Donghyuck is looming over him while Mark can do nothing but let it happen, and instead of teasing Mark about it, Donghyuck’s face is unreadable. It’s as if Donghyuck is spacing out - no pun intended - and when the moment passes a second later and Donghyuck is back to smiling at him, Mark can tell that it’s forced. It makes him uneasy for the rest of the period.
A few days later, Donghyuck passes on cracking science jokes all throughout chem, even though the lecture is full of opportunities, and later during home ec, he’s even less like himself. They’re baking classic chocolate chip cookies today, something Donghyuck discovered that he absolutely loves, to practice memorizing measurements, but Donghyuck couldn’t be less interested. He zones out during the teacher’s lecture, uses the wrong measuring cup twice, and when they have about a cup of chocolate chips left over, he doesn’t even nibble at them.
In an attempt to get Donghyuck more engaged, Mark slaps him playfully on the back and says, “Hey, anybody home up there?”
Donghyuck just blinks back at Mark, not knowing what that expression means on top of his unusual mood.
“Uh, okay, so we have to turn the cookie trays right about now,” Mark continues on. “Can you do it? I gotta wash my hands. They’re all sticky.” He holds out his hands and waves them around a bit, but Donghyuck doesn’t seem amused. He just makes a noise and heads to their oven, and Mark frowns.
Mark is about to turn on the faucet near their station when he hears a loud yelp that his body registers is Donghyuck before his mind does. He spins quickly, then his eyes focus on Donghyuck holding his hand to his chest protectively, away from the open oven. Mark hurries over and shuts the oven door before bringing Donghyuck’s hand to the sink and running cold water over the reddening tips of his fingers.
“What happened?” he asks. “Are you okay?”
“The trays…” Donghyuck mumbles, and Mark stares at him.
“...Did you reach in there without oven mitts?” he asks.
“I forgot,” Donghyuck says, looking solemnly at his burned hand. He doesn’t seem to be in pain, not physically, but the absence of golden glow in his face or shining wonder in his eyes sure hurts Mark, and it feels physical to him.
With Christmas around the corner, Donghyuck’s spirit seems to rise a bit, if not just because it’s his first Christmas on Earth. Mark’s family loves to decorate the house, and Donghyuck is excited to help in any way that he can. He and Mark even manage to buy each other presents without either of them spoiling the surprise, though Mark is pretty sure that Donghyuck would have found his hiding spot if he really wanted to look for it. Still, everything is going smoothly and Donghyuck’s eyes sparkle once or twice in anticipation for the upcoming celebration.
On Christmas morning everyone exchanges gifts under the tree (Donghyuck had gotten Mark a new guitar case and strap with the help of Mark’s mom, and Mark’s dad had helped him pick out an affordable recording microphone for Donghyuck), and it’s a typical, classic, jolly old time, complete with hot cocoa and marshmallows and everything. They feast that night on a combination of Korean and North American traditional Christmas dishes, and Mark and Donghyuck are ready to pass out into food comas by the time they make it back upstairs for bed, but Mark has one more gift to give before visions of sugar plums can dance in their heads.
He reaches under his bed and pulls out a long mailing tube, but Donghyuck beats him to it.
“I have something else for you,” Donghyuck says, managing to break himself away from the comfort of their bed and reaching into his school backpack.
Mark sets his present aside and lets Donghyuck go first.
“It’s not much, but…” Donghyuck sits back down next to Mark and hands him a thin paper bag with a bow stuck to it.
Mark tears the tape on the top of the bag and pulls out a small journal. The cover is a lovely baby blue and there are pale yellow stars around the edges, and each page inside has a star adorning the upper corner. It’s simple, but pretty.
“You’ve been writing songs on pieces of paper since you started playing again,” Donghyuck says. “So I just wanted to get you a journal… I hope it’s okay. I don’t know what kind of journals musicians use.”
Mark smiles and shakes his head. “It’s perfect, Donghyuck, thanks.” He hugs Donghyuck tightly. “I love it.” He leans back and sets the journal aside, then grabs his tube. “I actually got you something else too.”
Donghyuck takes the tube and, after a bit of a struggle opening it, pulls out a long, glossy, rolled up poster. Mark helps him unfurl it on the floor and they set a couple books on the ends to keep it flat down. The poster is only about two feet tall, but it nearly spans the entire length of Mark’s bedroom. It’s a detailed map of labeled stars and constellations seen in the Milky Way, and it’s quite overwhelming even to a space lover like Mark, but it’s still wondrous to look at.
“I don’t know if we can find a frame big enough for it, but we can still put it up as is,” Mark says, standing back to observe the poster. “It should fit on the far wall if I move my other posters out of the way. I figured it would be nice to have, for both of us, but especially you.”
Donghyuck is silent as he stares at the stars in the poster and his only movement is the bobbing of his Adam’s apple when he swallows thickly. Mark grows nervous.
“Do you like it?” he asks.
Donghyuck doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he pushes the books aside and rolls the poster up again and puts it back in his tube, and Mark’s heart sinks. But then Donghyuck hugs the tube tightly, pressing his cheek against it, and nods.
“I like it,” he chokes out, trying to rub away tears before they fall but most often failing.
“Why are you crying?” Mark asks, brows furrowing as he pulls Donghyuck into another hug. He can tell that these aren’t just happy tears, and it concerns him, just like Donghyuck’s recent behavior has been concerning him.
“Sorry, I really love it,” Donghyuck insists through sniffles. “I just miss it.”
And that surprises Mark, because he never considered the idea of a star getting homesick. Should he have? Is he a bad person - a bad friend - for not thinking about Donghyuck’s feelings?
“You miss being in space?” he clarifies.
Donghyuck nods. “We aren’t just floating out there-- I don’t know, I can’t explain how it works,” he mumbles. “It’s a reality that humans can never understand, but I miss home. Jobs usually take one Earth month, but I keep failing and I’ve been gone for so long and it’s my first time away…”
“Why don’t you go visit?” Mark asks, dabbing at Donghyuck’s cheeks with his sleeve.
Donghyuck shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says. “I exist here for you, I can’t leave on my own accord. And once I leave, the bond is broken. I go back to being a wishing star waiting to be sent to someone in need.”
Mark doesn’t want that at all. He doesn’t want Donghyuck to leave, not at all. The thought of Donghyuck not only disappearing, but ending up by someone else’s side, living this close to them and coming to know them as well as he knows Mark - it stabs at his chest. But he also can’t stand to see Donghyuck like this, and he wants more than anything to help him.
When Donghyuck finally exhausts himself and falls asleep, poster tube held tight in his arms, Mark lies next to him and just looks. He takes in every detail of Donghyuck that he can - every eyelash and freckle and teenage imperfection - because he thinks he knows what needs to be done.
After the Christmas joy dies off, Mark is left with the realization that he has less than a month to finish his university applications and his stress levels max out again. He’s come to need Donghyuck whenever situations get tough, but after their talk, he knows that Donghyuck needs something else. He’s already decided to attempt his plan and he does hope it works, but it’s hard to approach the topic.
“Want to watch the fireworks on the roof?” Mark asks the day before New Year’s.
Donghyuck faces Mark, finally looking away from the map of stars they’d tacked to the wall. “I thought we were celebrating with your friends tonight,” he says.
“Yeah, uh, something came up,” Mark lies. “They can’t do it anymore. But we can still count down together, if you want.”
“Of course,” Donghyuck says with a smile, and it’s a little better than before Christmas, but it still doesn’t reach his eyes.
That night, they bundle up (Mark needing to do so more than Donghyuck) and carefully climb onto the roof. They sweep snow from the tiles and lay down a thick blanket to sit on and huddle up close in the chilly winter air. There are about five minutes left until the new year reaches Vancouver and Mark is just as nervous as he expected he’d be.
“Do you have any resolutions?” he asks Donghyuck, who looks perplexed at the term. “People see the beginning of a new year as a fresh start, so they like to make lists of things they want to accomplish, like going to the gym and stuff.”
Donghyuck hums for a moment, then shrugs. “I want to grant your wish, but that’s not a resolution. I want to do it all the time.”
Mark swallows. “Yeah,” he says.
“Do you have any resolutions?” Donghyuck asks back, and Mark sucks in a breath and forces the words out before he can change his mind.
“I want to send you home.”
A strong gust of wind rushes past them and Mark wonders if it carried his words away, but Donghyuck’s expression morphs into one of shock then confusion, and Mark knows he heard him.
“You want me to leave?” Donghyuck asks, and his tone breaks Mark’s heart because that’s the last thing he wants.
“No,” Mark says quickly. “God, no. But you want to leave. I know you want to go home so badly that it’s making you sad and unlike yourself. I noticed something was going on months ago but I didn’t want to ruin anything-- No, I didn’t want to ruin my own happiness, so I pretended not to see. But you aren’t happy.”
“I am happy!” Donghyuck insists, leaning in out of a sense of desperation. “I’m so happy to be here with you.”
Mark gives him a small smile. “I know that, but… you’re not happy enough, Donghyuck. And I can’t keep being selfish like this. You may not have figured out my wish, but I’m grateful for everything else we’ve done together. It’s okay for you to go.”
“Don’t say that,” Donghyuck begs, gripping Mark’s arm. “Don’t say it’s okay, don’t say you’re content - I don’t know what will happen. They might take me away, don’t…”
Mark pries Donghyuck’s gloved fingers from his arm and holds them tightly in his own hands. “That’s what I want,” he says, and he hopes it sounds convincing enough, at least to whatever higher power is listening - the moon, maybe.
“But you have to apply to schools soon,” Donghyuck says. “I need to fix this.”
“I’ll be okay,” Mark says, and it’s what he keeps saying every time Donghyuck tries to change his mind. He doesn’t budge, not even when Donghyuck starts crying again. He just looks up and watches the fireworks go off as he holds Donghyuck in his arms and rubs his back soothingly.
That night, they fall asleep tangled together as a mass of awkward limbs and nervous anticipation.
Mark wakes to an empty bed.
On any other day, he’d assume that Donghyuck is in the bathroom, or maybe downstairs watching his mother cook breakfast, but today he just knows better. He reaches out and Donghyuck’s side of the mattress is cold, almost like no one had ever shared the bed with him, but when he brings his arm back and blinks his eyes open wider, he thinks he sees faint flecks of gold dust on his palm. He clenches his hand into a fist and buries himself under the covers once more.
It’s a week before most of Mark’s university applications are due and he still can’t bring himself to look at them. He hasn’t even thought about them since Donghyuck left because he feels like he doesn’t know how to be calm without Donghyuck there, but he no longer has a choice. He grabs his guitar, which has become somewhat of a security blanket over the months, and fiddles with the strings on its neck as he opens his laptop with his free hand. Once he’s staring at tabs of applications, he begins to fully play in an attempt to relax, and as he shuts his eyes and lets the music surround him, it works.
Thanks to Donghyuck encouraging him to pick up the guitar again, he now associates the instrument with happy thoughts - the feeling of accomplishment when he taught Donghyuck something as simple as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; the release of imagination as he writes lyrics; how time can slip by when he’s playing in a way that it just doesn’t do with anything else. He knows what he wants, but he’s so used to not letting himself have it.
He spins in his seat as he gets more into his song and hits his foot on something heavy by his chair, hearing it get kicked out from under the desk and sent sliding across the floor. He opens his eyes and looks down - it’s the recording mic he’d given Donghyuck for Christmas, still in its box. His insides churn and he sets his guitar aside to go grab it when he looks up and sees where the box had come to a stop. It’s at the map of stars hanging on his wall, directly under the constellation of Leo, his own Zodiac Sign.
At first he thinks it’s some cosmic message from Donghyuck, but then he thinks that sounds ridiculous and it’s just a coincidence. However, it does remind him of how he hasn’t checked his daily Astrology predictions in a very long time. He used to be obsessed with relying on Astrology to dictate his days, but one sentence from Donghyuck and he was convinced that he could choose his own fate.
“Go into life with your own intentions, otherwise you’re letting yourself fail because you didn’t even try to enjoy it.”
Mark grips the microphone box in his hands and faces his desk again, where his laptop is waiting with applications staring him down. He recalls Donghyuck telling him to embrace his youth, but just how much is he allowed to sink into the arms of a childish dream of concerts and recording studios?
“When you’re talking about music you look really happy.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he tells himself. He sets the microphone back on the floor and sits in his chair, filling out his first application. “Just do what you said you were gonna do.”
He reaches the Majors section of the application and hovers his cursor over Astronomy, but he doesn’t select it. He goes through the typical routine in his head - “You love space. You want to study the stars. It’s all you want. Your life revolves around knowing as much about stars as--”
Suddenly something clicks in Mark’s head and he sits up straighter, staring at his screen with wide eyes. The epiphany comes at him so strongly that he half expects a lightbulb to be floating above him: He doesn't believe those words anymore. And it’s not that his love for space went away - that was never the problem - but now, every time he thinks of the stars, he can only picture one. His mind is filled with everything he’d experienced with Donghyuck, everything he’d felt with Donghyuck, and he’s satisfied. He had a personal journey with space, and maybe it wasn’t in the way he expected, but it happened, and his desire to mold his life around the universe has been sated with his own unique brand of space exploration.
Nothing Donghyuck did to affect his life was magical, but it was what he'd been searching for.
“This is special to you, I know it is. You have time to play.”