Ever since they met Mark can remember there’s always been the questions. The “Oh, really? I wouldn’t have pegged you as the kind of guy that hangs out with someone like him .” or, “Isn’t he a bit… you know? How do you put up with that kind of person?”
Just fine, thanks.
“Well, I heard he-”
“People love to spread rumours about him. Barely any of them are actually - Oh, that one is true. The guy asked for it: he kept stealing my stuff.”
“But, really? Fighting back is just as bad.”
“If he hadn’t, I’d still be picking food out of the pages of my textbooks. Donghyuck’s the first and only person to ever do anything about it.”
Donghyuck is the kind of boy that mothers hate. Even though he has a soft face, almost punchable, and a wide smile like the unfurling of the sun in the morning. For everything he is, he should be lovable instead. He should be the very person parents want their children hanging around in hopes they’ll adopt some of his wonderful attributes.
But when he opens his mouth one starts to realise why he sits alone.
Mark never factored that into whether or not he’d sit in that empty desk the first time he walked into his new classroom. He never thought about who would become his seatmate at all. He just thought about his pencil case and how it was the only familiar thing about this place. Here, where everything was new but the doodles on the pencil case from his friends back in Canada and the neatly written Mark Lee at the top left-hand of his red plastic binder. He hadn’t wanted new things. He hadn’t wanted the fresh start his parents moved here for.
Here, where his knees knock together under the scrutiny of his new classmates. Here, where he presses his tongue against the backs of his teeth with the effort not to stammer when introducing himself. He sits at that empty desk and puts his books down on the table, conscious of the boy beside him like they’re pressed shoulder to shoulder, not sitting with enough space to fit a whole chair between their hips.
The boy stretches, mouth falling open in a yawn. His hand brushes Mark’s shoulders as he finishes, and Mark wants to talk to him, suddenly.
His shoulder is warm.
“Hey there, new kid.” The boy says, propping his chin up on the heel of his hand as he stares openly. “The name’s Donghyuck.”
“Yeah, I know.” Donghyuck laughs this soft laugh that sounds like it could be mean. It could easily be either.
He did say it earlier. Said it like he was forcing it out between his teeth with his tongue. Like he was spelling it out, M - A - R - K. Mark is a very easy name to say, and even easier to spell. One single syllable, and yet it felt like ten standing up there with eyes boring into his forehead, into his bony elbows and ankles, into the worn tee-shirt hanging loosely off his frame. They stared into him as if to ask why are you here?
“I didn’t know if you were listening or not.”
“I was. They weren’t though.” Donghyuck jerks his head in the direction of their classmates, dark hair flopping over his forehead. Between his fingers sits a pencil that he keeps turning over and over, flicking his thumbnail against the eraser on the end. “Watch this.” He says and plucks the eraser right out of it’s metal tether.
“What are you doing?”
“Something not boring.” Grinning, Donghyuck places the eraser atop his thumbnail and presses his thumb against the bottom of his index finger. With an ease well in the category of experienced , he flicks it off, and watches with amusement as it arcs gracefully through the air to bounce off the back of the teacher’s head, right in the shining centre of his bald spot.
The class erupts into snickers.
“Lee Donghyuck.” The teacher doesn’t even look up from the whiteboard where he is in the midst of scrawling up their work for the lesson. “Final warning.”
“That could have been anyone!”
“Unlikely.” He says, leaning across the board to erase a line neatly put under the name Lee Donghyuck. There is one line remaining, and the streaky evidence of another four that came before.
“What happens when you run out of lines?” Mark whispers, heart thudding in his ears at the thought of being caught talking on his first day. What would that say about him to everyone else? He wants to make friends.
“I’ll show you, shall I?” With a lazy turn of his lips, Donghyuck turns around and shouts, “Oi, Jeno!”
“You’re an ugly fuckface.”
“That’s not very nice.” The boy in question, Jeno, says, mouth turning down at the corners. “You heard that right, sir? He called me an ugly f- an ugly eff face.”
“Out.” The teacher finally looks at them both, staring down Mark as if he was the one who said it instead. “I’ve had enough, Donghyuck. I’m sure your classmates have too. I don’t care where you go, just get out.”
“That’s what happens.” Donghyuck laughs as he collects his things and all but waltzes out of the classroom, peeking back through the door to say, “Seeya later, new kid. Have fun.”
The teacher waits until the sound of loud footsteps has faded from the corridor to give Mark one last long look. “I hope you’re not intending on befriending someone like him.”
“Mark!” The shout comes from the other end of the street, startling him into nearly dropping the bag of still-warm pastries he’d picked up on the way. Who knows if Donghyuck ate this morning? He might have even skipped dinner the night before.
“Don’t scare me like that or I’ll throw your lunch on the ground!” Mark hollers back and immediately thinks the better of it when the lady sitting at the cafe behind him makes a face - the kind of face that suggests a phone call to the police ‘just as a precaution.’ He apologises and hurries up the street, pulling at the shorts that have suddenly become slightly too small with his most recent growth spurt.
Donghyuck meets him halfway, always has, and pushes a small water bottle into his hands. It’s half-empty, torn plastic around the base of the top where he twisted it off, but Mark takes it and sips carefully anyway. He hadn’t remembered to bring his own - a choice he had regretted almost immediately.
Now he’s not so sure that he does. There’s something strangely nice about sharing a water bottle with Donghyuck - not that he’d ever voice this thought to anyone. It’s bad enough that he thinks about it at all, let alone anyone having anyone else know. Let alone Donghyuck find out. If Donghyuck found out, he’d-
“You forgot your water again.” Donghyuck sing-songs, cutting Mark off in the midst of another, very concerning, internal tangent. He’s rooting through Mark’s backpack with an uncomfortable intent clear in his eyes.
“What are you looking for?” There’s not a lot in there save for his wallet, phone, a half-used tube of chapstick, and his scratched sunglasses. He hadn’t felt the need to bring anything else.
“The part of you that really loves me.” Donghyuck mumbles and retrieves the tube of chapstick with a satisfied huff. Popping the top off, he rubs it over his own mouth until it looks soft and slick before reaching over to wipe some on Mark’s own too. “You were looking a bit dry.” He explains and tucks it back away again.
Mark’s lips burn.
Burn with what? Want? For as long as he’s known Donghyuck he’s wanted him just a little, like smouldering embers. He’s terrified of doing anything that might set them alight.
“What do you mean the part of me that loves you? I bought you food, ungrateful jerk.” He holds the bag of food out of reach, simply because he knows it will make Donghyuck whine. They’re roughly the same height (Mark a tad taller), but Mark has developed lankier, longer arms than Donghyuck, whose are shorter and softer. That’s not to say Mark’s are stronger by any means, because they’re really not. Donghyuck’s are strong in a way that only someone who isn’t a good influence can have.
As expected, Donghyuck groans and leans up on his tiptoes to grab Mark’s elbow, tugging at it in a weak, fruitless attempt to get what he wants.
“Say the magic word.” He mutters, ribcage open and free with adoration, “Come on, you can say it. I know you haven’t forgotten how.”
Donghyuck closes his eyes, shakes his head in resignation. It takes him a few moments, and then he’s leaning in close, the smell of Mark’s chapstick on his mouth. His tone drops, and he’s quietly murmuring, “Fuck off.”
Mark jerks, and Donghyuck takes the opportunity to drag his arm down and snatch the bag before he knows it, and scampers away. “Hah!”
He gives him five seconds before he follows, hot on his heels, giggling like they’re fifteen years old again and Donghyuck has just convinced Mark to skip class for the first time in his life.
He’d regretted missing the class, but not the time spent, back to back underneath the big oak tree at the park.
One thing Mark knows about Donghyuck: He’s not what they think he is.
Once, they were walking back to Mark’s house after seeing a movie in town. They’d just been talking over the plot, pointing out holes and characters they didn’t like (Mark hated the protagonist, and Donghyuck insisted it was because they were so alike) when they’d spotted a kitten.
The day had not started well. Mark had woken, fizzing with excitement over a day spent with the only friend he’d managed to make at his new school to the steady and heavy drum of rain on his roof. He’d looked out into swaying trees and clouds so thick there wasn’t a single spot of sunshine visible. It was almost dark enough that he thought it was still nighttime until he looked at his watch.
They still showed up at the meeting place at the right time, but instead of going to the park where they’d intended to attempt to skate, they went to see a film.
But they see the kitten, and Mark’s heart rises in his chest, enough so that he finds it hard to take in air, because the kitten is drowning.
Around the curve that leads to Mark’s house there’s a pothole so deep he’s nearly broken his ankle tripping into it countless times - but the clouds have filled it to the brim with water, and the little black kitten has fallen in.
It struggles, legs searching for purchase, but it’s so small that it can do nothing but tread water.
This much Mark can tell: It is going to drown if nothing is done to save it.
This much Mark can tell: He is numb right up to his waist. He can’t move an inch, and this kitten is going to die.
He stands there and looks for a few seconds, unable to really grasp what’s come over him, but without skipping a beat, Donghyuck is striding forward and scooping the kitten into his freezing, blue-knuckled hands. He cradles it to his chest, bottom lip caught between his two front teeth, and Mark is still standing there without a clue when he shoves him and yells.
“Come on, what are you doing? We have to go!”
They burst through Mark’s front door, babbling for blankets and warmth, and for the next three hours, Donghyuck sits with the kitten perched on his thighs in front of their heater, stroking it’s shivering body. He kisses it between the ears when Mark’s mother drives it to the veterinary centre and he has to let go.
And then he walks home with tears glossing his lashline.
“Why do you even hang out with him anyway? He’s such a nerd.”
“Yeah, he’s a nerd. But he’s kinda cool when you get to know him.”
“Doesn’t he nark on you? A guy like that must be a nark. Huh, nark. Rhymes with M-”
“Shut up, you don’t know shit about Mark.”
Another thing Mark knows about Donghyuck: He’s everything they think he is.
“Hey, hey, Mark.”
Lying on the couch upside down, head level with where Mark is sitting on the floor, Donghyuck blows at a single strand of hair that had clung to his forehead. He’s getting antsy. They’ve been here for hours, Mark poring over his biology notes, and Donghyuck fiddling with the rubik's cube he found on the bookshelf. He gave up ten minutes ago and has spent the time plucking at the nape of Mark’s sweater.
It’s so large it has to have been a hand-me-down from his older brother.
Donghyuck wants to slip his hands underneath the hem of it. It’s sweltering inside, much too warm for sweaters - he’s only got on a loose tee and a pair of threadbare denim shorts, and even then he can feel his back sticking to the leather. Mark barely has a sheen of sweat on his forehead.
“We should break into your neighbour’s back yard. Don’t they have a pool?”
“No.” Mark turns his head slightly, eyes slipping onto the first line of the next page. “I’m not getting in trouble for that.”
“It’s so hot!”
“There’s water and juice in the fridge. That might cool you down.”
Donghyuck tugs on a strand of Mark’s hair until it stands upright, only to blow it back down again. Warm breath gusts down the back of Mark’s neck, and he shudders.
“Can’t we do something? I’m bored.”
“Pleasure to meet you bored, I’m Mark.”
“Ha ha, very funny.”
Summer always has this effect on Donghyuck - in winter, he’s a beacon of warmth in snow, but in summer he fits in so well Mark would think he’s an extension of the sun. Like a sunflower bathed in gold, or honey. He’s like the sea-salt smell that carries when they walk through the part of town closest to the ocean, and the taste of lemonade popsicles from the convenience store at the end of the street. Touching him is like putting the bare soles of your feet on the hot pavement in the middle of the day.
Mark looks at his books because otherwise he might catch himself staring too long. Don’t you know that if you stare at the sun you’ll go blind?
“Seriously-” He draws the last syllable out, torturously whiny, grinning when Mark finally glances back at him. “Mark, it’s the middle of summer and you’re reading about - about fuckin’, I don’t know, gravity and shit.’
“That’s physics, which isn’t at all what I’m studying.” Mark says absently, caught between Donghyuck’s bright white teeth, the front one on the left chipped from a fight two years ago. He hopes they don’t snap down too fast.
“Well. It’s physics-ally impossible for me to stay here any longer without melting. You’ll have to mop up puddle-me before your parents get home.”
“Go down to the convenience store then.”
“I might get trapped there! Maybe the cashier will want to talk to me and I’ll never come back. I could get kidnapped. What if Jeno’s working? You know he’s had it out for me ever since I called him an ugly fuckface on your first day. And!” He tugs gently on Mark’s ear, “Think of it as a break. You can go back to looking at nerd things after.”
Mark sighs. Stands. Tugs his sweater down over his thighs where it rode up. Slips his socks up his ankles properly. Picks up his stack of books. Holds out his hand to Donghyuck to pull him to his feet.
Jeno is, in fact, working cashier that day, so without a word Mark moves up to the counter by himself to pay for the ice blocks Donghyuck decided they had to have.
“Still hanging out with him after all these years?” Jeno asks, mouth curling at the edges in what could either be the beginnings of a bigger smile, or distaste. He’s always liked Mark, but the same can’t be said for his companion. Words like ugly and fuckface tend to linger like a bad smell. “I’d have gotten sick of him by now, if I were you.”
“Lucky for us both he’s my friend then.” Mark shrugs, slipping his wallet out of the back pocket of his shorts, “He is a handful though. Are you coming to the robotics meetup next week?”
“Ah, can’t.” The icecreams are scanned, tiny little beeps in the otherwise silent store. “Dad’s taking me to this fishing expo. God knows why.” He grins like he’s about to drop the punchline of a terrible joke. “Neither of us know how to fish in the first place.”
“Eh, bonding experience, right?”
Jeno snorts, “Yeah, sure. He’s just guilty he didn’t go to my last dance comp.”
“Bet he regrets it after hearing how much you killed it, yeah? That trophy was yours the second you walked on stage.”
Jeno does something strange: His ears pink, and the smile that’s always naturally come to him wavers. He knocks over one of the standees as he hands over Mark’s change and mutters, pleased, “Liar.”
Someone clucks their tongue behind them and Mark hastens to collect his things. “Seeya later, Jeno.” He shoots a wink as he turns back, gesturing at Donghyuck standing with his shoulders hunched outside the front door. “Gotta go look after this jerk.”
“Ha-have a nice day!” Is the answering almost-shout from behind him, and Mark ducks outside into the hot sun.
“You took too long.” Donghyuck grouses, slipping one of the crinkly plastic packages from Mark’s grasp to tear the wrapper off. He looks between the two and sighs, reaching over to unwrap Mark’s too while he shoves his change into his wallet one-handedly. “I nearly died.”
“That’s nothing new.”
“Hey! Who’s teaching you to talk back?” Mouth full, Donghyuck nudges Mark with his elbow until he takes the other ice cream back.
“Oh, right. I guess I am.”
It’s only when they’re at the park, Mark’s books spread out across one of the few picnic tables strewn around the field that Donghyuck slips his hand into his waistband and retrieves a shiny new tube of chapstick, complete with the plastic covering still intact.
Mark sighs. “Donghyuck.”
“Yours was running out.” He tears the wrapping off and stuffs it into his pocket. “I thought you’d like a new one.”
“But you didn’t pay for it.”
Donghyuck ignores him in favour of smearing it over his lips, smacking them together once he’s done. Then he stands and slides onto Mark’s side of the table to grab his chin in between his fingers. Clumsily, he pats it onto Mark’s before putting the lid back on and tucking it away in the front pocket of Mark’s shorts.
“There.” He turns Mark’s face side to side, as if checking for mistakes. “Now we can’t give it back. Plus, we both know if I’d gone up there Jeno would’ve been all ‘oh, it’s you.’ and I’d have been embarrassed as hell!”
“Why? It’s not like he’s still that mad about that. He just doesn’t like you because you’re… You know how you can be sometimes.”
“Well, for one, because his tender ears were not yet ready to hear that word back then. And also, I would be embarrassed because it’s not exactly like he’s ugly anymore, is he? I can’t let him hold that over my head!” Donghyuck is still holding Mark’s face. “Did you see the way he blushed at you? He thinks he can take you away from me with his devilish good looks.”
“He blushed because I complimented him! That doesn’t mean anything. ‘Sides, I’m not ever being stolen from you.”
Donghyuck pouts, finally dropping his hand. His bottom lip shines in the light. “You never compliment me like that.”
There are two options here. One: Mark could laugh it off. He could give some half-assed compliment as a joke and change the subject. Hopefully Donghyuck would, out of the kindness of his heart, drop the subject. They could move on with their lives.
Two: Mark gives him a completely honest compliment that reflects every single repressed feeling he’s ever had. This is, essentially, a death sentence. A boy like Donghyuck couldn’t ever hear a compliment from a boy (if at all, not from Mark) and not take it as an invitation to have the crap beaten out of him. Not that Donghyuck would ever. But no one really knows with things of this matter.
And Donghyuck is as fickle as the changing winds.
“What’s got you thinking so hard, then? Is the thought of saying something to me that isn’t piss off really that bad?” Donghyuck raps his knuckles against the crown of Mark’s head, no move having been made to shift back to the side of his table that he’d originally inhabited. Mark winces, jerks his head away, and Donghyuck cackles.
“All you had to say was,” His voice pitches down in a terrible imitation of Mark, “‘Wow, Donghyuck, you’re the most handsome guy I’ve ever seen in my fuckin’ life, wow, I’m just so blessed to be in your presence.’ It’s really not that hard.”
Donghyuck has always had such a soft, lilting voice that it’s jarring to hear even half the vulgarities that spill from his mouth with every sentence. Mark doesn’t like cursing, but maybe he just doesn’t like hearing it from Donghyuck in particular. It doesn’t sound right coming from him. It’s a lump of salt in a sugar bowl. A collapsed lung in an otherwise healthy body.
“I…” He stops. Donghyuck’s eyes are soft. “I…”
There’s a little old lady living in the house beside the park, and just as it looks like Donghyuck is going to lean in, her grandfather clock chimes. It’s not loud, but it’s surprising.
“I don’t wanna lie to you, Hyuck. Your ego’s fed on enough crap as it is.”
The moment is broken - Donghyuck squeals and flops backwards, laying back on the bench.
“You’re so mean! Everyone says I’m the asshole but I’m starting to doubt it.”
With the flap of the book’s pages sliding closed, Mark turns and leans down into Donghyuck’s personal space, watches his mouth open and close, eyes wide, before he says with utmost clarity and honesty, “Donghyuck. You are the most handsome guy I’ve ever seen in my life, and every moment in your presence is blessed.”
Donghyuck flushes and gapes, backpedaling off the bench to fall on his ass. For a moment he just swallows audibly, hands fluttering to his cheeks. “I didn’t think you’d actually- What the fuck, dude?”
Mark shrugs, lips pursing around the words he wants to say, and shifts minutely towards his beloved books, his beloved distractions, and tunes out the emotion writhing in his gut like a knot of snakes.
“Do you even want me to hang out with you today?” The small voice below him comes, plaintive and almost pathetic, because Donghyuck isn’t flustered anymore. Just upset. “I know I’m… I’m really annoying, but. You don’t have to pretend I’m not. You can tell me if I’m bothering you.”
Donghyuck has annoyed Mark before - many times in fact, He spends most of their time together annoying him, truthfully, but Donghyuck has never been annoying . To him there’s a difference. To him, Donghyuck being annoying means ‘god, do you ever shut up, Donghyuck? Fuck, you’re so irritating,’ and being annoyed by him means moments like this, where Mark is doing his best to do his work and all his best friend wants is a teensy tiny bit of attention.
The difference is that being annoying isn’t a defining trait. It’s not what makes him who he is, just an extra that comes with being friends with someone like him.
Maybe that’s just agonising over small details.
(Mark agonises over a lot of small details, like the way the soft roundness of Donghyuck’s cheek curves when he’s smiling, as opposed to when he’s not).
“You’re not bothering me. You bother me sometimes, yeah, but it’s not really bothering me, you know? You get what I mean?”
Donghyuck huffs, eyes on the blue sky above them. When he’s looking away, Mark feels he can look as much as he wants, and so he does.
“Kind of. How do I know you’re not lying though?”
“Because I’m still here.” Mark taps his index and middle fingers of his right hand against Donghyuck’s ankle gently, once, twice, before uncurling his fist to curl around the skin, flesh, and bone. Hotter than the summer sun. He’s still sticky from suntan lotion. Mark’s parents don’t let them out in weather like this without it.
Donghyuck thinks that in this moment, with heat on the bone of his ankle, and heat in his chest, that he would die for Mark Lee.
“Mark-” Donghyuck sits up in one big rush, frowning. “Mark, I have something to say.”
“What is it?”
For a single lapse in time, a fragment, barely even a single corner of a photo in the scrapbook of their friendship, Donghyuck looks scared. Only the weight of it may as well be an entire goddamn book with how long Mark knows this is going to stay with him.
Donghyuck may as well be tearing open his chest and spilling something raw all over the floor by their feet. It seeps and grows under Mark’s skin, unknown, yet so familiar.
“I.” Donghyuck reaches a trembling hand out to grip onto Mark’s wrist, “You know what I mean, yeah? Surely, you can see it. God knows everyone else does.”
“I don’t.” Mark murmurs, “Tell me what you mean, Hyuck. Please.”
“You have to have seen it!” Their breaths are meeting in the middle now, desperation pouring from Donghyuck’s mouth in torrents.
“You said you have something to say. So say it. Don’t- don’t be such a fucking coward.” He spits the word, force behind the fuh and the hard kuh sound in the middle, but it falters at the end, and by the time he gets around to saying coward it’s weaker. More vulnerable. Donghyuck hears it, but is taken aback nonetheless.
“You don’t like cursing.” He mumbles.
“I don’t like cursing around you .” Mark replies primly, rubbing his lips together as if to rid them of lingering chapstick.
To Mark, Donghyuck is the sun. But to Donghyuck, Mark is the ocean. He’s constant, tumultuous or calm, dangerously breathtaking, and he wants nothing more than to wade out into the middle of his peaceful blue and sit up to his neck in cool relief. Mark is something to be marvelled at and he has not even an inkling of an idea of that.
Jeno sees it - it’s why he blushed so deep under the beam of Mark’s praise.
Donghyuck is only jealous of Jeno because he’s worthy. If he was still that scrawny kid he’d called a name all those years ago just to get the attention of the new kid, then he might not have thought about it in as much depth as he has today. But he’s not. His teeth are straight and white, no longer confined in braces, and his smile is so much brighter than Donghyuck’s own.
He’s kind, and handsome, and tall, and everything Donghyuck thought he himself would be one day. Was reassured of this by grainy photographs of his father standing so much taller than his mother, with his muscled arm around her shoulder and the square jaw to stake his claim in masculinity.
Instead he’s soft and round, not a single hard edge to be found outside his personality.
He’s not what he’s been brought up to believe is wantable.
But Jeno is.
And the thought of how happy they looked together, smiling and laughing, while Donghyuck stole a fucking tube of chapstick he definitely could have bought, sends him careening forward until their noses are barely touching. Like he wants to earn some kind of unrealistic ownership before Jeno does, even if he has no right to it.
“Mark, tell me if it’s okay for me to do this.” He whispers as Mark’s cheeks darken and his pupils dilate. “You just gotta say stop, and I will. I’ll stop and we don’t have to talk about this ever again.”
Hitch clear in his breath, Mark moves almost imperceptibly closer, and Donghyuck thinks to himself this is it, this is it, you coward.
He puts his hand on Mark’s shoulder, the other on the curve of his cheek, and tilts his head ever so slowly.
Then Mark says evenly, “Please stop.”
So Donghyuck stops.
He takes his arms back, stands, and walks back around the other side of the table. He sits. He builds himself a little invisible box, with barely enough room in it to stretch his arms out on either side. Each time he shuts his eyes he pictures Mark, Mark smiling, Mark laughing (Mark shutting him down with two syllables).
Without a single pause, he looks back down at his pages, but it’s clear he’s barely processing the words. Just glancing at the same sentences, over and over. Mark usually isn’t the kind of person to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He wears them inside his ribcage, behind protective layers of bone and muscle, behind everything he can use to keep himself safe.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t.” Mark finally looks up, right into Donghyuck, eyes wet. “I didn’t want - I don’t ever want -” He swallows thickly, and all at once, Donghyuck sees it.
He bites his lip, “I understand. Just. Forget I did anything. Pretend I never fuckin’ even came over there.”
It hurts. God, it hurts. It tears at a part of him he naively kept unguarded, and now he wonders why he was so blind as to not put up some semblance of defence. But, still, he is old enough to know rejection when he stares it in the face. He is old enough to take it without complaint.
He’s making Mark uncomfortable the longer he stays, so he stands up again and brushes off the tops of his thighs.
“See you around, I guess.” He mumbles on his way, looking out at the road rather than this spot, because if he does, if he has to look at Mark’s face for a second longer, he might not be able to make himself leave. Or even worse, he’ll start crying. God forbid he ever cry in front of Mark.
Sometimes, it’s not the boy with bandaged knuckles and a wicked smile that’s the heartbreaker but the one with a stack of schoolbooks and a sweater so long it reaches his knees.
“Wow, you sure, uh,” Johnny pets Mark’s hair gently, rests their temples together, “Screwed the pooch there.” His voice comes out garbled through the straw stuck in his mouth. He slurps up another gulp of thick shake and offers the straw to Mark who takes it, frowning.
“That’s gross, this is also gross - why peppermint? I think I might hate you.” He swallows the dregs left in his mouth and takes a swig of his soda to wash the taste out.
Johnny shrugs with the air of someone accustomed to defending his choice of drink. “Hey, my taste in thick shakes isn’t hurting anyone, and I mean actually before you get on my shit about that. But this little fuck up of yours did.”
“Johnny.” He nearly pleads, almost searching out nonexistent pages to flip with his fingertips. He needs a distraction. He needs anything to avoid talking about this in the depth Johnny wants to. He only told him what happened because Johnny asked. “Please don’t.”
“I’m allowed to be concerned about my weenie baby brother. I’m also allowed to be concerned when he’s hurting feelings.” Johnny rubs his forehead until Mark’s hair frizzes up, sticking up straight in staticky clumps. “I need to make sure you’re okay, sure, but if it’s really your fault like you said, then it’s my duty to give you wisdom.”
“Watch your dang language, weenie.” With one finger that manages to be as gangly as the rest of him, Johnny flicks Mark in the forehead. “It’s obvious you don’t want to talk about it. That’s understandable, considering you had one friend other than me and you just sorta… pushed him away. So, you’re upset. What needs to happen now, though, is reconciliation.”
“I know, I know.” Mark mutters, twiddling his thumbs, “I don’t know how. He looked like he was gonna cry , Johnny.”
“He probably did. Probably went home and cried into his pillow, the same pillow which definitely has a little cut out of your face under it.” Helpful as ever, Johnny tugs at the ratty hem of Mark’s shirt, inspecting it as if it’s personally affronted him. As if it leaned up while Mark was occupied elsewhere and shouted suck a dick!
“How am I gonna make it up to him?” How could he possibly earn Donghyuck’s forgiveness after what he did?
“First off, why is it important that he forgives you?”
That’s a very good question. It digs at him as they sit, huddled at the one table in the convenience store. Jeno isn’t working today, instead there’s a smiley boy Mark recognises from one of his classes but isn’t actually too sure who he is. He keeps sneaking glances at them both every time a customer leaves.
“Because.” Mark huffs, “Because he’s important to me. Because he’s my best friend.”
“Why is he important to you?” Johnny prods, carefully, sipping his ghastly drink.
“Because he’s my best friend! I already said that.”
“But,” Johnny shrugs, putting his drink down to pick at his nails. Mark watches the tall paper cup with vague interest. The Longest Drink in Town, it proclaims in bold red letters. “Why? What separates him from any other kid in your classes? What separates him from, say, that kid behind the counter? They both smile big enough. I bet that kid can be pretty mouthy too. So what’s the difference? Why him?”
Johnny stares, eyebrows raised, smiling. He’s got that smug grin he always gets seconds before Mark admits he was wrong. It’s the look that lets Mark knows he’s fighting a losing battle.
“I don’t… lovethem.” He grits out, and Johnny grins wider, cupping his hand over his ear.
“Sorry, what was that? I didn’t quite catch it.”
“I said I don’t love them! It could only ever be him! I’m friends with him because I love him.” He says, a bit louder than he intended, and the boy behind the counter’s eyes widen. He yanks out his phone and begins to tap at it.
“You’ve taken your first step. Congratulations.” Johnny claps him on the back, smug as ever, before standing to throw away the small mountain of ice block wrappers and wooden sticks they’ve amassed in their time here. Soon, they could be considered to be loitering, so Mark stands too and they head out into the dry heat waiting for them.
“What you gotta do now is tell him what you told me.” That’s an easy enough concept - it’s not rock climbing or skydiving, it’s just the act of saying words, opening his mouth and molding sounds into meaning. It’s not fighting a dragon, it’s not even the first time hopping behind the wheel of a car. It’s just talking. It’s just being honest.
At the time he thought that the scariest thing in the world was looking Donghyuck in the eye and knowing the way he felt, being so utterly overwhelmed with it all that he could barely speak.
Now he knows the scariest thing in the world isn’t Donghyuck, or even having to confront him. Confronting himself is so much more intimidating than he ever could have thought.
Confronting the part of him that loves Donghyuck, confronting it to scream in it’s face and have it scream back, having it scream exactly what he’s been afraid to hear for years.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Sure you can.” Johnny shrugs, loping forward, shoulders broad. He’s always been a comforting sort of tall, like a thick wooden doorframe - the ones they tell you to shelter under during earthquakes. It’s always felt as if he’s a pillar, strong and comforting. And even here, he is strength. “All you gotta do is just… I dunno. Write it down or something and use it as a guideline. Donghyuck will be understanding. If he really cares for you like he said he does, then he’ll be prepared to listen to you explain.”
If only it was that simple, or felt that simple at least.
Eleven thirty that night finds him with a small stack of lined paper filled to the edges with his own messy handwriting. Upon reading over it, he finds that not a lot of it really says at all what he means. It’s just feelings that dance around the real depth of it all.
He reads through them again, takes it like studying for a test, and compresses the mass of words into one page of bullet points summing it up.
Then he stares at those, over and over again, until his eyes begin to itch and droop. When it becomes too much, he slips them underneath his pillow and goes to sleep.
The problem with talking to Donghyuck after everything that happened between them lies in finding him - Mark searches high and low to find him in the city, wanders around aimlessly in hopes that he’ll see a flash of cherry red hair out of the corner of his eye. He remembers a little too late that Donghyuck only ever came into popular places like this because Mark insisted.
Maybe he should have seen Dongyhuck’s infatuation from the very start. Or maybe he had, but hadn’t wanted to.
Instead of fussing about with that, he calls him as soon as he gets home. The call goes unanswered.
He calls him after he’s finished dinner, right before he goes to help Johnny clean up. Again, no answer.
He calls before he goes to bed too, hair damp and sticking to the base of his neck, shirt clinging to his shoulders. He hangs up after the tenth ring and slides into bed, stares out his window into the night sky and wonders if, somewhere, Donghyuck is doing the same.
After hours of tossing and turning to no avail, the urge to pick up his phone again strikes and he finds himself blearily slipping out from under his sheets and sneaking down the stairs, through the kitchen and out the one door in the house that he knows won’t creak. He tiptoes into the back yard and settles onto the dry grass, still warm from the day. He’s lucky Johnny sleeps with his door closed otherwise he might have been caught.
Without even thinking, he hits the call button next to Donghyuck’s name, but instead of being ignored, the ringing stops. And there’s a soft breath in his ear.
“Mark?” Donghyuck asks, sounding very much awake for the time. It wouldn’t surprise Mark at all if he hadn’t slept yet. The sound of a car rushing past filters through and Mark realises he’s out. Why don’t you go home, Donghyuck?
“I want to talk about,” He stops, because he’s not entirely what word to use to sum up everything. “Last week. Johnny sorta kicked my ass and made me really think about it all. And I want to tell you -”
“Don’t.” Donghyuck whispers, fragile, “If you don’t mean it, don’t say anything. Don’t say it because you don’t want to hurt my feelings. Don’t say it because you feel you have to.”
“I’ve always. I’ve wanted to tell you but… you’re the confident one. You’re the one who nearly kisses me out of the blue because that’s what came to your head at the time. I can’t do that. It’s hard enough just telling you there’s something on my mind at all.”
“Would you wait until we were face to face to say then? If you really needed to say it?”
“Yeah. I would.”
Donghyuck heaves out a sigh, nervous amusement. “Then. Uh, just. Wait a second. I took a walk and fuckin’ ended up in your neighbourhood for whatever reason. I dunno why.”
That’s a lie. Someone like Donghyuck doesn’t just end up in places he doesn’t intend to go. Mark smiles.
“I’ll wait.” He would wait hours if it meant he got to see Donghyuck again.
A heavy body dropping over his fence and into the hard-packed dirt below knocks Mark out of his musings. There’s a weak grunt, and a scuffling sound as whoever it is tries to stand.
“Fuck, I forgot how much that hurt.” Donghyuck grouses, rubbing his elbows with dusty palms. With a snuffle, he drags himself over to where Mark is seated and lays back, eyes on the sky. Mark mirrors him, and it’s soothing not having to look him in the eye as he opens his mouth.
Mark swallows, and his throat makes a noise he’s sure Donghyuck hears but doesn’t comment on.
“You know how I feel so I guess that’s a good place to start, right?” Donghyuck gulps too, a clicking noise that almost reverberates in the quiet. He continues, softly yet fiercely. “Ever since we met, I’ve liked you. I’m not sorry for feeling the way I do, but I am sorry that you didn’t like me telling you.”
“I asked you not to kiss me because I wanted to be sure first.” Mark reaches around until his hand brushes against something warm, twines their fingers together, grass pushing it’s way through gaps where it can. “I would have liked you to, but I’m glad you didn’t. Wasn’t ready for it.”
Donghyuck’s hand is warming, slowly. He’s already a warm person, soft hands and soft body meaning he retains heat just that slight bit more than Mark’s own lankiness does. It’s dampening slightly, enough so that it’s getting a bit more difficult to hang on.
Donghyuck is nervous.
“I, fuck,” Mark fumbles into the pockets of his sweats until he finds the little sheaf of paper worn down by his hold and unfolds it, glancing over it by the light of the moon.
Full of wonder, Donghyuck turns his head to watch Mark read, mouth falling open, “Did you really write notes on this?”
“I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.”
“Can I see them?” Without even waiting for an answer, Donghyuck reaches over to take the paper from Mark’s unresisting hands. It seems to take an age for his eyes to flick down them, like he’s committing every word to memory.
Mark rolls onto his side and sees that Donghyuck’s pretty eyes are wet, swimming with pearly tears.
“Is that really what you think of me?”
He tells Donghyuck this and realises it wasn’t the right choice of words when his face crumples up like Mark has just done something horribly mean.
“No! No, no, I didn’t mean that I was lying on that because I’m really not. It’s all true, but what I wrote… It isn’t everything. I didn’t know how to get down everything. I didn’t know the words.”
“Do you know them now?”
In the morning he will deny saying any of this. But it’s not morning yet, so he pulls Donghyuck’s head until it rests in the crook of his neck and presses his lips to the top of his head, ignoring his own thundering heart.
“It’s like… It’s like you’re the sun, you know? You’re always…” He mutters, skin damp where it meets Donghyuck’s cheeks, “You’re warm. It could even be said that I, uh, need you. Just maybe, you know. I’m just, uh, a flower in the grand scheme of things and I.” His voice gives out on him for a mere second and he swallows frantically, “I can’t grow without you.”
“Was that a love confession?”
“It might have been.” Mark is glad for the privacy both the darkness and Donghyuck’s fascination with his collarbones brings. He shivers, curling his fingers into the fine hair at the nape of Donghyuck’s head. “Yeah. Yeah, it was.”
Donghyuck chuckles, legs shifting to accommodate one of Mark’s. “That’s what I wanted to hear.”
They aren’t perfect, nor have they ever been, but this moment, when they aren’t thinking about the bad things, they feel like the closest things to perfect there can be. They feel like they fit, and that’s all they need.
Donghyuck shifts, pulling back to look Mark in the eyes, earnest. “Tell me if this is okay.”
“It’s more than okay.” He replies and leans in.
Kissing Donghyuck is nothing at all like he’d expected (daydreamed). In his mind, it was always Donghyuck, brave Donghyuck, with sure hands and surer mouth dipping Mark backwards and kissing him with a fierceness not unlike what eating chilli pepper feels like. Heat, spreading from his lips down his tongue right to the back of his throat when he leasts expects it.
But kissing Donghyuck is nothing like that. Kissing Donghyuck is aloe vera on a burn, eating ice cream on the way home even though it’s dark and the air is shifting, pressing your sunburnt cheek to the cool metal door of a fridge. Kissing Donghyuck is languidly peeling an orange with your bare hands and eating it with the juice still dripping sticky down your wrists and chin.
It’s what calm feels like.
Just as Mark is steeling himself to put his hand on the base of Donghyuck’s spine, maybe even lower if he’s feeling brave (which he really isn’t), Donghyuck sighs and shifts his head so his mouth is trailing across Mark’s cheek instead.
Tap, tap, tap.
Mark looks up and finds himself watching Johnny frantically waving through his bedroom window, pointing behind him as he mouths, Code Red.
The kitchen light flicks on and they spring apart as if they’d been yanked by invisible strings. The back door opens and Mark’s mother slips off her slippers to trudge across the porch, rubbing at the tender skin underneath her eyes.
“I heard voices.” She yawns into her fist before looking down at Mark, “Were you talking to someone?”
“Uh,” Mark coughs, making his way up onto the deck. “Couldn’t sleep so I phoned Hyuck. We had an argument the other day and I wanted to apologise.”
“I could have sworn I heard more than one voice.” She turns back and inspects his face, hand coming out to feel his forehead. “Are you alright? You’re red.”
“Must just be sunburnt.” He looks back before he follows her inside, watching Donghyuck smile cheekily at him from his place underneath the porch, eyes shining with an intensity that could rival every star in the sky combined. “It’s been hot out lately.”