So… it had to happen now.
When Mark wakes up one uneventful morning in the body of a girl — not just any girl, but a girl with his face underneath her long, sleep-mussed hair — he thinks this is the most bizarre nightmare of his life at first. He tears his eyes away from the mirror with his stomach in knots, and burrows back into bed, squeezing his eyes shut.
But however desperately he tries to fall back into sleep, it’s just not happening. The more he strains, the wider awake he gets. The niggling memory from three years ago in the back of his mind doesn’t help matters.
They were still in Korea back then. One morning they woke up and a series of horrified screams pealed through the dorm as they discovered in succession the same thing — a girl in Jinyoung’s bed, half-naked. Thankfully (or maybe not for Bambam and Yugyeom, who were still teenagers), her classified parts were mostly shielded from their view by his blanket. The man in question was nowhere to be found, and when the girl was woken by their shocked wails, she looked down at the sheet covering her, grabbed her hair roughly with saucer eyes, and started shrieking too.
Perhaps they wouldn’t have been so shocked had they not known that Jinyoung prefers guys, and was already together with Jaebum, even then.
(As for Jaebum, they all swallowed in concert when they turned to him instinctively to see an unmistakable shadow of betrayal flit across his face in hurt bewilderment.)
The dorm was so chaotic that morning that it took a while to figure out what was actually happening. Which was that no, Jinyoung wasn’t cheating on Jaebum, he would never do him dirty like that; and yes, this was possible, and it had happened. Jinyoung did not have a long-lost twin sister.
He was the girl in Jinyoung’s bed, with his undeniable doppelgänger features and way of speaking and mannerisms.
After the hullabaloo finally quietened down a bit, with lots of agitated disbelief and near-fainting and Jaebum coughing as he moved in front of Jinyoung once they had established his identity, blocking all their burningly curious gazes until he had clumsily rummaged in Jinyoung’s closet with shaky hands and tossed him the smallest articles of clothing he owned. After Jinyoung had changed with her back facing them, Bambam helpfully pointed out that they could see the outline of her nipples through the shirt which stretched across her newly expanded chest. Jaebum glared at him and threw them all out of the room, Jinyoung’s face burning in scandalised outrage of modesty.
They had an impromptu group meeting in the living room, and could hear Jaebum and Jinyoung discussing the insane development in the room in hushed voices too. Youngjae helpfully Googled “changing into a girl” but they only got all sorts of weird results about some fictional trope called “genderswap” which weren’t helpful at all. Mark finally spoke up and suggested wisely that maybe the works of fiction about this phenomenon would provide ideas about how to change back, and so Youngjae searched that and found a ridiculously long list of “solutions”. They were huddled over the printer printing this out when the missing two finally emerged from Jinyoung’s room.
It was a little jarring to see Jaebum that much taller than Jinyoung at first, since usually their height difference is negligible. Jinyoung suddenly looked awfully small and petite and feminine and when she swung her wide doe eyes to lock with Mark’s he felt his face warm a few degrees, his hands fidgeting like he suddenly didn’t know what to do with them. She was dressed in one of Jaebum’s sweatshirts over the previous tee she was wearing and swimming in it. Mark noticed Jackson eyeing the exposed collarbones where it slipped off her shoulders tantalisingly. It was funny that before then he had never known Jackson had a weakness for pretty clavicles, but then again most guys probably did.
Jaebum looked more disturbed by their unabashed ogling than Jinyoung herself, who looked uncertain and lost and frightened. Mark wanted to enfold her into his arms and give her a totally platonic hug, assuring her they would all help her fix this, but he looked at Jaebum’s protective eyes and thought better.
Jackson was less wary, and he promptly leaped across the couch to sling an arm over Jinyoung. She looked up at him and Mark could almost see Jackson melt at the sudden size difference. No wonder, Jackson always liked petite girls.
“Don’t worry, Jinyoungie. Oppa knows how to change you back.”
“Oppa?” Jaebum repeated in a strangled tone, eyes turning menacing and shifting pointedly to Jackson’s hand huge on Jinyoung’s shoulder until he dropped it.
“Yeah, she can’t call me hyung now, right?”
“She — He’s never called you hyung.” Jaebum glowered at Jackson, steering Jinyoung away to sit down on the sofa. The other boys quickly moved apart to create a space for her, hovering a respectful distance away as though eager but afraid to draw closer.
“Guys, stop staring at me.” Jinyoung covered her face in distress and they all swallowed audibly in sync at the sweet, girlish voice coming from her lips, that suited her new look unnaturally well. Yugyeom tentatively moved a tendril of her shoulder-length hair behind her ear to see it flaming redly — it was their Jinyoung all right. Jaebum looked less than happy about his gesture but kept his silence.
“It’s still me! I’m Jinyoung!” Jinyoung continued unnecessarily, as though any of them would believe she was an impostor.
Jaebum looked again at Jackson suspiciously. “You said you know how to fix this?”
Jackson grinned, childishly glad to have Jaebum at his mercy in any way. “Say please and I’ll tell you.”
“Jackson, you —“ Jaebum looked about to manhandle Jackson down with sheer strength, but at one alarmed look from Jinyoung he softened.
All of them tore their gazes away from the girl the first time to see Jaebum with his face reddened, the supplication in his voice raw and sincere. Jackson relented, looking thrown.
Jaebum and Jinyoung grimaced when they saw the lengthy list of possible methods. “Are you sure these are credible?” Jinyoung asked thoughtfully, sounding strangely like a girl for the first time.
They all shrugged. “It’s worth a try. We couldn’t find anything else online,” Youngjae answered.
“Ugh. I’m definitely not drinking beetle juice.” Jinyoung made a disgusted face. “I swear I’d rather stay female if I had to.”
“What even is that? Where would you get it from?” Jackson queried, his eyes dancing with something that looked almost like schadenfreude.
“Maybe by blending dead beetles in a juice blender. Youngjae hyung, Google a recipe,” Bambam instructed imperiously.
“Stop messing around, this isn’t funny,” Jaebum growled, looking highly unamused. “We have a rehearsal tonight, and the gig is tomorrow. Jinyoung definitely can’t be absent for that.”
Jinyoung shook her head furiously, making her hair swish. “I won’t.” She grit her teeth. “If all else fails, I guess… I can force myself to drink it.”
Bambam let loose a gleeful chortle before he covered his mouth and cleared his throat.
“Don’t spout nonsense. You won’t have to. Let’s go out and try all the other options first. You’ll have to disguise yourself. I don’t want any paparazzi pictures of me being “out with a girl” again.”
“Yes, oppa.” Jinyoung pouted, and Jaebum’s authoritative tone immediately disappeared as he sputtered on his own spit.
Long story short, they left the house alone, to all of their disappointment, Jaebum saying that it would attract too much attention for them to all be out and Jinyoung might be noticed and identified. Jackson flopped back onto the couch sulkily and arched with grace, tilting his head back over the armrest. His hair flopped over his eyes, but Mark could see a dreamy expression.
“Damn, I never knew Jinyoung would make such a hot girl. Right, hyung?”
Mark caught his eye and laughed, the adrenaline in his veins slowing a little. He kicked Jackson’s shin lightly. “Be serious. What if they don’t manage to change her back?”
Jackson shrugged and flashed a wicked grin at Mark. “I hope they don’t, so I get to see her again later. Wouldn’t you be sad if we don’t?”
Mark shook his head and went to make them both coffee. It was going to be a long day.
Back in the present, the Manhattan sun streams through his window and brings out shimmery flaxen highlights in his hair the umpteenth time he looks into the mirror. Because he has seen this happen before, he can actually believe his eyes. He just didn’t think it would happen to them again. After that night when Jaebum and Jinyoung came back, the latter thankfully restored to his gender, there was a scare the next April when Yugyeom shrieked the house down to announce that Bambam had morphed into a girl but it turned out to be just an ingenious and juvenile April fool’s prank by the two of them. Three years passed and they had all kind of started to complacently assume that it had just been a one-off unfortunate freak accident that would never occur again, at least among the seven of them.
After much grilling, Jinyoung finally caved and came clean about how they had eventually changed her back — they had stumbled onto the method quite by accident; it was mentioned in the list from the internet but was right at the very bottom so they hadn’t worked their way there yet. They had spent all day running around Seoul in disguise doing all manner of ridiculous things to no avail, and were finally losing steam and hope. Jinyoung started to cry and apparently (in Jaebum’s words reported by Jinyoung) she “looked so pretty crying that he had to kiss her”. For the record, Jaebum denied ever spouting anything as cheesy as that, so it was their word against each other’s.
Thankfully there was pretty much no one around when they did, because Jinyoung metamorphosised back into a boy “within seconds,” too quick for Jaebum to even catch more than a glimpse of how such an unreal thing was possible.
So, they had discovered the secret to changing back. For a while after that they all privately fretted about who would kiss them if they underwent this ordeal too, but mercifully it never re-occurred and with the passage of time the crazy and incomprehensible miracle simply got buried in the backs of their minds.
Mark drags himself reluctantly into action, knowing but dreading what must be done. Still in a stupor, he unearths a set of bra and panties left behind by an old girlfriend for when she would sleep over on weekends and kept a spare set of clothes in his closet. They fit, though a little loosely. Mark can’t believe he’s even skinnier — um, less well-endowed — than her. He stumbles into his bathroom, thanking god he has a private one, and stares at himself in the mirror above the sink. Nope, not an optical illusion. He’s a Girl.
He groans and does his business as discreetly as possible, highly uncomfortable. He avoided looking at his female parts even when shimmying into the underwear, feeling absurdly like he should respect this female body even though it’s technically his own and despite the countless times he’s seen different bodies of his various girlfriends by now.
The sensation is indescribable, walking around and doing stuff in a female body. It’s so startlingly different, a whole world apart from being inside a male’s. He tries not to imagine the horrendous possibility of the method that had worked for Jinyoung not working for him, for some reason, and him ending up having to live life as a girl forever.
He looks around the house cautiously, and finds it empty. Both Jinyoung and Jaebum must be in Jaebum’s room, as they are some mornings. The other guys moved out one by one some time ago and now the three of them are left sharing an apartment. They got a smaller one when the band switched record labels and moved to be based in New York, since they didn’t need so much space. Sometimes he feels like a third wheel but Jaebum and Jinyoung both reassure him sincerely that he is anything but, and that they would never agree to him moving out on account of giving them privacy. Yugyeom sometimes comes to sleep over on weekends and occupies his spare room so they don’t feel that much like an awkward trio. There’s another guest room with all of the other three’s stuff which they use alternately or share whenever they drop by to crash for a few nights, when they have overnight recording or jam sessions which end in too much pizza and beer after midnight.
Mark idles on the sofa, reluctant to knock on Jaebum’s door, knowing he will give them an unpleasant shock and there will be that moment of awkwardness when the question of one of them needing to kiss Mark arises. They will both be excessively gentlemanly as they always are, and go out of their way to reassure him neither of them mind who he prefers, but he knows that it’s never a desirable experience to see one’s lover being kissed by another, and he doesn’t want their living arrangement to get inconvenient and awkward.
Plus, now that he’s getting used to it, it doesn’t feel exactly painful or particularly agonising being a girl. Other than the natural worry that he won’t be able to change back even after being kissed, and the whole jarring other-ness of it all, he’s kind of settled down into his body and feels even comfortable lounging on the couch in his girlfriend’s clothes with his hair tied up clumsily with a rubber band he found in the kitchen. It was way too long and spilling over his shoulders, getting in the way when he bent to wash his face. He combed his bangs back but they just flopped back over his eyes and he didn’t want to use the hair gel he usually uses to style them into a quiff.
Now, he brushes his bangs out of his eyes as he takes a super-awkward picture of himself and holds his breath, uploading it into the group chat.
Guys, help. I woke up like this.
He feels a little stupid for a beat after he sends, his heart pounding just a little as he awaits the inevitable outpouring of stunned replies that will flood the chat.
Sure enough, within a minute so many messages arrive in succession that his picture gets shoved way up out of his cell phone screen.
Hyung, why do you sound so calm??? Are you okay?? Are you in shock???
Don’t do anything stupid, Mark hyung! I’ll be right there in fifteen!!!
Me too!!! Yug, wait for me~!!!
For the first time since he woke up, Mark can’t help chuckling at the influx. Youngjae quickly asks if he’s okay and tells him not to worry in a calmer tone, and promises Mark that he will visit the apartment immediately after he finishes his current appointment.
Jackson hyung, where are you??? We’re having a CRISIS!
Mark stops laughing at Bambam’s next message, an unidentifiable feeling creeping into the pit of his stomach. He wants to reply to Jackson to ignore Bambam, or Bambam not to overreact, but he doesn’t know how to word his reply so it won’t sound incredibly awkward.
He can’t really put his finger on why, but he doesn’t want Jackson to see him as a girl.
Remembering Jackson’s undisguised interest in girl-Jinyoung three years ago, Mark can’t help wondering if he will react the same way when he sees him, checking him out with an exaggerated double take and wolfish appreciation in his eyes. Or maybe his disinterest might spurn Mark indirectly and unintentionally — after all, Jinyoung makes a much prettier girl, and guy, than him.
His phone beeps, startling him out of his panicked reverie. His heart flips as he looks down to see the first reply with Jackson’s carefree and broad grin in the display picture.
Fuck, Mark, you’re so pretty. Don’t let any of those horndogs kiss you before I get there ;)
Mark’s face hurts, and he belatedly realises that he’s smiling. So… Jackson is in Manhattan. He’s been flying in and out so often lately Mark lost track of his work schedule, and even when he’s in the country he’s usually knee-deep in pending schedules. The last time they met was Jackson’s birthday, at the party all the others threw for him, but he’s been worried about Jackson’s health lately. It’s nice to know he’s still his usual undimmably brilliant self.
Movingly, Yugyeom is true to his word somehow and manages to skid pantingly into the apartment in just above fifteen minutes.
“I sped all the way here, hyung!” He rushes into the room, red-faced, explaining his speed.
“Thanks, Gyeommie. You didn’t have to.”
“Of course I had to! Hyung, what —“
He is interrupted by Jinyoung emerging from Jaebum’s room, probably roused by the noise. “What’s going on? Yugyeom, who’s that? Did you bring your girlfriend to visit?”
“It’s Mark.” Jaebum’s flat voice answers him as he walks out a pace behind, hair tousled hopelessly and half-lidded eyes flying open at Mark’s stricken face. His phone wobbles in his hand.
Jinyoung nearly trips as he rushes forward to kneel in front of Mark. He brushes Mark’s hair off his forehead and peers into his face urgently. “Mark hyung?”
“It’s me,” Mark croaks. “I don’t know what happened. I just woke up like this.”
“Did you eat something? Do something?” Yugyeom pries curiously.
Mark thinks about it, then shakes his head. “I don’t know. I can’t remember. My head is a mess.”
Jinyoung immediately flips the switch into maternal mode, ushering Yugyeom to move and let him sit down beside Mark. Mark is uncomfortably aware of his body heat, his maleness and masculine scent enveloping him. Jinyoung’s shoulders suddenly look terribly broad and his voice is deep and husky.
Jinyoung doesn’t seem to sense his discomfort, but Jaebum strangely appears to pick up on it and sits down on his other side slightly further away. He doesn’t crowd Mark and seems to understand his feelings of apprehension and fear although he’s never been female before, his eyes kind as he places a hand on Mark’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get you back to normal in a jiffy.”
Bambam bursts conveniently through the door, and they go through another flurry of questions midway through which Youngjae sidles in and moves to stand attentively behind Mark. None of them make any catcalls or otherwise flirtatious remarks as they had with Jinyoung and Mark can’t tell if it’s because it’s their second time going through this, or he’s just that unattractive in female form.
Then he feels bad, because obviously he realises it’s because they’re all more mature now. They’re no longer teenagers or adolescents, but Mark abruptly feels overwhelmed by the understanding and silent, steady reassurance in all of their eyes. It must be the girl effect — but he feels like right here, right now, he could fall in love with any or all of them in a heartbeat.
“Hyung!” Bambam sounds alarmed, his voice rising. “Why are you crying? Are you all right?”
Crying? Mark doesn’t realise he is until Jinyoung’s thumbs are below his eyes and brushing away his tears with even more tenderness than he had been aware their most gentle member is capable of. Beside him, Jaebum moves closer and Mark quickly recovers himself, drawing away from Jinyoung, but Jaebum doesn’t show any irritation as he takes one of Mark’s hands and comfortingly says, “Hyung, I told you not to worry. You can be back to normal in a second. I promise.”
Instead, it’s Jinyoung who clears his throat and eases Mark’s hand out of Jaebum’s, obviously not thrilled to see Jaebum holding a girl’s hand, even if it is Mark. He ignores Jaebum’s look as he holds Mark’s hand soothingly and adds, “Yes, hyung. It really is super easy. I’ll help you if you want.”
Jaebum starts beside Mark, but seems to bite his lip to keep from objecting. Mark quickly puts them both out of their suspense by saying, “No, I don’t want you or Jaebum to kiss me.” They sag visibly in relief, and Youngjae snorts behind him at Mark’s frankness.
“I know, you want me, right?” Bambam preens smugly, and Yugyeom flicks his forehead.
“Pabo, Mark noona’s lips are mine.” Mark nearly loses his marbles at the address.
“But seriously, why are you crying? Are you worried you won’t change back in time for the gig next week?” Youngjae nudges him gently, sounding concerned. His voice is stupidly deep too and Mark feels his heart skip a beat. It’s ludicrous. Does every girl’s heart flutter like this around five — admittedly devastatingly attractive — men?
“Crying? Who’s crying?” The last member of their team barges into the house unceremoniously, out of breath and sweaty. Jackson looks breathtakingly classy and chiseled, even dressed down, his celebrity aura unmistakable. Mark’s heart gives a startling and painful throb and he nearly gasps out loud. He feels emotional, more sensitive, and has no idea if it’s the metamorphosis that has thrown his nerves out of whack, or just the way girls are.
“Mark!” Jackson hunkers down in front of him, peering up into his face like Jinyoung had before, his open face filled with urgent concern. “Why are you crying? Did someone kiss you and fail? I told you to wait for me!”
“No one kissed him yet,” Jaebum interjects flatly.
“Yeah, don’t jinx it,” Yugyeom adds.
“Oops, sorry.” Jackson looks chastened, but his brow furrows. “Why are you in tears then? We’re here for you, hyung.”
“That’s why,” Mark mumbles, and they all look confused.
“I’m just… touched that you guys rushed here just for me, I guess,” he mumbles incoherently. It looks like although his body is female, his self is still the same. It’s reassuring somehow.
“Pabo hyung! Of course we would!” Bambam flicks Mark’s forehead thoughtlessly, then cowers at their combined glower.
“Be a gentleman,” Jinyoung reminds him.
“So… who do you want to kiss you? You must be getting antsy.” Youngjae massages his shoulders knowingly, his hands keeping respectfully far from Mark’s chest.
“Yeah, we’re all ready,” Bambam enthuses, leaning closer. Mark notes with curious amusement that Yugyeom looks less than happy at his eagerness, placing a hand on his arm to hold him back, but not saying anything to stop Mark from picking him.
Interesting, Mark thinks, hiding his smirk. Maybe it would be a good idea to take up Bambam’s offer, just to goad Yugyeom into revealing his apparent feelings. Or to request Yugyeom to do the honours, and have fun watching Bambam’s reaction. He knows Yugyeom would appreciate getting a glimpse of Bambam’s feelings too and wants nothing more than to help them both as a hyung.
Youngjae too, he knows, would oblige more than happily.
So he has three good choices. But… Mark’s eyes shift towards Jackson, quietly and intently studying him, his expression unreadable. He no longer wears his every emotion like a movie on his face and so it’s been harder in recent years for Mark to read his thoughts like he used to think he was good at. Jackson has grown more complicated, just like all of them have. They’ve matured, deepened. There was a phase when Mark went through an “emo” stage when he thought he “didn’t know Jackson anymore”. He never said all those super dramatic and cliche stuff people usually blurted like “I don’t recognise you anymore” or “you’ve changed”, but he thought them. And Jackson must’ve sensed it.
They’d first met when Jackson was sixteen, and he was seventeen. They had been thrown together when, looking for a place to stay in Korea, an acquaintance had recommended a bunch of friends who were around his age sharing a house. They had a very nice place staked out which was cheap and a deal too amazing to miss out on but it was way too big for just the three of them and they were looking for people to share the rent. Yugyeom and Bambam joined their team soon after, since the terrace house still had plenty of vacant room and they were impossibly young students looking for lodgings.
The house share ended up turning into a garage band when they found the seven of them got on like a house on fire. Jaebum got them into the indie scene with his prior music connections and Youngjae’s voice took them places Mark would never have thought possible. He’d come to Korea with nothing but his bare necessities on his back and now stumbled into quasi-stardom, with a growing gang of groupies that followed them as they travelled around in a trailer doing gigs at underground clubs and watering holes, and finally releasing albums.
This was how they had passed the end of their teenagehood and entry into young adulthood. Alongside each other.
When Mark first met Jackson, he had instantly developed a mega crush on him. They all had. Jackson was the vitamin of their group, the mascot and happy virus. And it made Mark feel so special that at the start it seemed like Jackson saw him as his best friend, before anyone else. Then their friendship sort of mellowed and they grew up and apart, and there was a period when Mark felt lonely and distant, but was mostly occupied with building his own life and relationships and starting to date around too, and then there was that period when Jackson suddenly seemed to be blowing hot and cold towards him; and there were those heated irrational arguments that he no longer remembers the topic of; those heart-to-hearts when Jackson opened himself up and spilled his guts and Mark felt closer to him than he ever had, closer to him than anyone else in the world.
There had been that time when Jackson “reinvented” his personality and all of a sudden seemed to become this tall dark and mysterious guy some of their fans denounced as “no longer himself”, and Mark had been confused for a while too. He had wanted to speak out of turn, to tell Jackson things like you don’t need others’ validation; like just be yourself: but now he sees that Jackson was being himself and it was Mark who had been foolish to expect him to act like his teenage self forever when they had both grown up and he himself had changed just as much beyond recognition, if in more subtle ways.
Jackson has deepened, expanded, in ways that are no longer invisible, like fine wine. And Mark doesn’t know why he feels suddenly able to see everything clearer than before, to appreciate not only how Jackson has grown but how their friendship has. He’d never even expected the formation of this friendship, much less predict the course it has taken. It’s been nearly a decade since he met Jackson and Mark has gotten to know the many facets of him slowly and gradually, through the years. He’s always known how ever-changing and mercurial Jackson’s personality is but it’s only recently that he’s seen the bravery Jackson has shown in time and again, exposing only the best sides of himself, challenging his boundaries to become a bigger and bigger person.
Nowadays, sometimes, Jackson feels like a shadow, slipping in and out of Mark’s life, elusive, uncatchable. But today, here he is, on his knees right before Mark, looking so achingly familiar and thrillingly new at the same time that Mark’s heart is doing somersaults out of his chest. He knows it’s because he’s a girl that Jackson is looking at him like this, wide-eyed with wonder and undisguised appreciation, but he wants to enjoy every second of it while it lasts.
That’s why he clears his throat and says in a small voice, “Actually… I’d like to think about it for a while.”
There is a beat of silence as everyone absorbs this. Then Bambam pipes up uncertainly, “Hyung… you don’t want to change back now?”
Mark feels his cheeks warm, and quickly clarifies, not wanting to give any strange ideas about him enjoying being a girl, “Of course I do! I just… haven’t decided who, I, um…”
Before he can continue his stuttering, Jackson authoritatively pushes Bambam away and stands up. He towers over Mark. “Let him take his time to decide. This is really important.”
Jackson looks down to wink at him, and Mark doesn’t know what to make of it.
“Sure, hyung. We’ll hang around here until you decide. I’m free today anyway.”
“So are we,” Yugyeom chimes in. “We were going to go to the movies together, but it’d be nice to just stay in and watch Netflix with everybody too.”
“But Jaebum hyung and I have work,” Jinyoung says apologetically. “We can cancel, though —“
“No, don’t! I’ll be fine,” Mark quickly places a hand on Jinyoung’s arm. Jinyoung’s face softens.
“Okay, if you say so. We’ll see our Mark hyung back again when we get home, right?” Before anyone can stop him, Jinyoung kisses Mark’s cheek chastely.
Mark’s hand flies to his face, which is burning. He regards Jinyoung with widened eyes. Jinyoung is blushing too, looking down. “Sorry, you were so cute I couldn’t help myself.”
“I thought you didn’t like girls,” Jaebum recovers enough to squawk in a somewhat irked tone.
“I don’t,” Jinyoung retorts defensively. “But if Mark hyung were a girl, maybe…”
“Don’t finish that sentence,” Jaebum groans.
Mark hastily gets up from between them, not wanting to be the cause of discord. He sways on his feet a bit, perhaps from the sheer out-of-body experience, literally, and feels Jackson’s hand strong above his elbow.
“Do you want to go out for a walk? You look really pale.”
Somehow this sounds like a recycled line Jackson uses on all his girls, but Mark can’t help smiling. “Sure.”
“Bring him back in one piece!” Bambam shouts after Jackson, whatever that means, and Jackson muffles a chuckle, shaking his head.
“I don’t know what they think I’m going to do with you.” He has this innocent smile on his face which Mark finds irresistible for some reason. This being-a-girl thing is making him giddy.
Their hands brush as they walk alongside each other and Jackson respectfully doesn’t linger. He shoves his hands in his pockets as they walk down the sidewalk outside the apartment. A small mercy, they didn’t need to disguise themselves like Jinyoung and Jaebum back then because they’re in laid-back, anonymous New York.
Mark is glad they came out, and that he didn’t only get to experience the inside of the apartment as a girl. Maybe it’s his imagination, but the air feels different, as does the clarity of his vision. It’s not clearer, per se, as much as it is unfamiliar, a novelty. He wouldn’t be able to describe it if he tried. It’s just the whole physiology, the way his body moves and cuts through the air. He’s probably over-dramatising this, but it’s not every day that one gets to try life out as the opposite gender.
“So, where do you want to go?” Jackson asks, giving him a sidelong look. Even though they’re both standing now, he still looms over Mark. Needless to say, the most novel feeling here is gazing this far up at Jackson.
Mark shrugs, feeling his ponytail swing. Jackson notices too and gives it a playful tug. He flashes Mark another coy smile. “Let down your hair. I want to see it.”
“Bossy,” Mark huffs, but slips the rubber band off obediently. His hair feels thick and unruly, and he’s worried he looks strange, a girl with a manly face, but Jackson stares goggle-eyed at him, nearly walking into a passer-by.
“Mark, you’re ten out of ten.”
“As a girl, I mean,” he hastily adds when Mark doesn’t reply, at a loss for words.
“Uh… thanks.” Mark laughs, but it sounds unnatural. He tries to tie his hair back up again but Jackson snatches the rubber band mischievously from his hands and holds it high out of his reach, sticking out his tongue. “Come and get it, shawty.”
Mark winces. “Don’t ever call me that again.”
“Why, shawty?” Jackson’s face is flushed with colour, his eyes bright and dark with teasing. He looks happier and healthier and more full of life than Mark has seen him in a long time. His heart aches unexpectedly.
“Did I interrupt your schedule today?” Mark changes the subject, trying not to shiver with pleasure at the way Jackson is absently running his large hand through Mark’s long locks like a comb.
Jackson fixes his eyes on him again, and smiles. “No. Even if you did, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
He’s being more charming than usual. Flustered, Mark nearly walks into oncoming traffic at a crossing. Jackson grabs him easily, but his fingers are tight around Mark’s hand, his eyes serious. “Watch out.”
Mark is pretty sure he’s flushing visibly down to his neck. He feels ungainly and delicate, fragile at the same time, standing in his girlfriend’s crumpled old clothes with his arm in Jackson’s hand as the cars whizz past them. Mark thinks about the long years that brought them to this moment, here, now, with them feeling like strangers and two halves of a whole simultaneously. He wonders what it all meant.
Sometimes, days pass without him thinking of the man standing by his side. At other moments, like now, he can’t imagine how his life would have been without Jackson in it.
Sometimes, it makes him angry that he needs Jackson so much.
Others, he just doesn’t care.
“Have you decided where to go?”
The lights have turned green, and Mark feels a light nudge on the small of his back, the heat of a palm resting there through his filmy tank.
He looks up at Jackson, who’s regarding him with his usual inscrutable but attentive expression. “Where do you want to go?” Mark asks, and watches surprise flit across his face.
It’s quickly replaced by joy. “Really? I can decide where to take you?”
Mark shrugs, his lips twitching up at the corners under Jackson’s infectious beam.
They end up at Central Park. It’s autumn, and the floor is blanketed with maple leaves the colour of burnt sienna. Jackson solicitously checks if he’s tired and settles Mark down on a bench. He asks Mark to wait there while he buys them a drink.
Mark has his eyes closed, enjoying the late morning breeze caressing his skin, when a deep voice that doesn’t sound like Jackson’s makes him jump.
“Sorry, miss, but you look so beautiful against this background… could I possibly take a photograph of you?” The man standing before him looks awestruck for some reason, and hastily profers a name card. Mark takes it and notices that his palms are sweaty. He’s blushing, seeming unable to meet Mark’s eyes, but otherwise seems like a nice person.
“I’m a photographer,” the young man adds unnecessarily, after Mark observes the professional camera hanging from his neck.
For obvious reasons, he has to regretfully decline. As he’s about to covey this delicately, Jackson walks up from behind.
“What’s going on, Mark?” In contrast to his earlier mood, his voice has an unfriendly edge. Mark can’t see his face as he’s standing behind him but he can feel Jackson sizing up the guy above his head.
“It’s nothing; this gentleman just wanted to take my picture —“ Mark can gather what kind of stink eye Jackson must be giving him from the man’s blanch and the confusion flitting across his eyes at Mark’s name.
“Sorry, you can’t,” Jackson says shortly, without offering further pleasantries.
“Yes, I’m very sorry, but I appreciate it…” Mark murmurs awkwardly, and the man looks more embarrassed as he bows to both of them and accepts their answer, retreating.
Jackson sits down beside him heavily. Mark didn’t realise until now, but his delivery must have been a touch dampened by the two ice cream cones melting in his hands. He presses his knuckles to his lips to stifle a giggle.
“What’s so funny?” Jackson says grumpily, shoving one at him.
“You didn’t have to be so rude. He was nice.” Mark licks a circle round his cone to prevent further dripping, and catches Jackson’s eyes widening before he averts them.
“Of course he was nice, that’s how men usually act when they’re trying to get laid,” Jackson snaps.
Mark is shocked by the crude language. Get laid? Him?
He’s definitely blushing hotly to the roots of his hair now.
“He just wanted a photo…”
“Have you forgotten now that you’re a girl? All men are wolves.” Jackson intones their long-time favourite slogan, which was in fact coined by Mark, as if he needs a reminder.
He snorts. “You’re overreacting.”
“Maybe I am,” Jackson admits reluctantly, taking big bites of his cone. “But if you came to any harm…” Mark sees his Adam’s apple bob, and he shoves the rest of the cone in his mouth, crunching noisily.
“We should go back,” Mark says suddenly, after a silence in which they both finish eating.
Jackson turns to him, eyes round. “You… you’ve decided?”
Mark nods, and watches consternation chase across his face.
Jackson laughs nervously, turning back to face the front and licking his lips, as if to cleanse off phantom traces of ice cream. Mark wonders what his mouth would taste like right now. It’s been years and years since the last time it crossed his mind. Mark thinks of the ennui he feels at the awkward age of twenty-four, the sense of tiredness of everything, including towards himself and their friendship. Everything seems to have settled down, somewhere when he hadn’t noticed. Sometimes it feels like their best days may be over.
But then there are moments like this, crystalline ones with diamond-sharp clarity, like the one they inhabit now. He can feel and smell and see everything around him, his senses focused on one object — the shadows Jackson’s downcast eyelashes cast against his cheeks and the urge of a girl wanting to kiss a boy Mark feels surging up inside him. He doesn’t push it down this time, doesn’t suppress it — just lets it grow and consume him until he’s saturated, overflowing to the brim.
He doesn’t know what will happen in the next moment. He wishes they could stay in this one forever. But he knows that time isn’t static, that it will flow on regardless of his wishes, and that if he wants this moment to last he must grab on to it recklessly, take the headlong plunge before the window of opportunity closes. It almost feels like a blessing bestowed upon him, a wish answered — that he became a girl today.
After all, everything will be totally and completely different after this. He will be changed the most, if this works. After all these years of blind stumbling, not even knowing what he really wanted, he finally feels like he has nothing to lose. Whatever happens, he’s not afraid. Jackson takes a deep breath and opens his mouth finally, tipping the balance from this moment into the next.
“Who?” he asks, and Mark leans forward to steal the end of the word clumsily out of his parted lips, answering his question.