It was a hot summer day when Yukhei left, along with the rest of the Chinese members. He remembers hiking his bag up higher, higher, higher, on his shoulder to give his hands something, anything, to do. Because he had been avoiding look at him all day, occupying himself by spending time with Johnny or Taeyong, pestering his hyungs into being nice to him. But Yukhei could feel his stare burning into his back, following him all day. Every room he travelled to, there he was, a small smile ever present on his face.
It built up all day, chasing Yukhei into the bathroom, where he stood in front of the sink, gripping the edges. He repeatedly shoved handfuls of water into his face, not realizing when the tears started mixing into them. His shoulders shook, and the sound of water rushing filled his ears as his knees buckled, slamming into the floor. Yukhei was scared. He didn’t want to leave him yet —he shouldn’t leave him yet.
A hand wrapped around his shoulder, dragging him back to the world around him, anchoring him. Yukhei could tell who it was without looking. He had held those hands everyday, wrapped his much larger hands around them, brought them to his lips for a kiss, spent nights memorizing every ridge and angle of them. Murmurs of reassurance replaced the water, a soft nudge before his trembling body was fully enveloped into a warm embrace, heating radiating from his body, a gentle hand running his hands through Yukhei’s hair.
“Xuxi, xuxi, xuxi,” Fell from his lips, wrapping around Yukhei like a blanket until the tears dried and the shaking stopped, his hands wrapping around the other’s waist instinctively.
“You’re going to be okay, you’re going to be okay,” His whispers tattooed themselves on Yukhei’s heart, becoming the mantra in his head. He would be okay, he would be okay, because he had said he would be. And that was the only reassurance he needed.
Mark wondered if this was what drowning felt like. Being suffocated on all sides, his lungs compressed until everything hurt and his vision swam. It had been one week. One week since Yukhei left. And it felt like an unbearable pressure on his soul, like someone had shackled a weight to his hands and thrown away the key (or in this case, taken the key to China).
Mark had spent the first few days messing around with Donghyuck and Johnny, letting himself get lulled into a mindless happy state, knowing he couldn’t release the floodgates. He had agreed (with Yukhei and their managers/SM) to keep their relationship a secret, buried under hundreds and hundreds of lies, of offhanded “Oh, there isn’t enough space for us, so Yukhei and I will go in the extra car,” or “Yukhei and I practiced late, so we’re going to grab dinner.”
It was the phone call that broke him.
The rest of NCT had gathered around the TV, excited whispers filling the air as they bounced impatiently in their seats, waiting for the moment that nct 116’s faces would fill the screen. From Yukhei’s rapid fire texts, Mark had gathered so far that: Kun’s vocals were off the charts, Sicheng held the center for quite a while, and his rap was going to be “the bomb, yeah man.” Mark was squished in between Doyoung and Ten, grateful that they had both chosen to ignore the small trembles running through his body, the little bounces from his right leg.
Mark held his breath from the minute the performance started, eyes glued to the TV, all of the sounds around him fading. Yukhei was all he saw. They had dyed his hair black, waves of it flying everywhere as he danced with enthusiasm, his lips pulled up into a bright smile. Mark felt his heart swell when Yukhei secretly shot a finger heart at the camera (he had texted Mark earlier that day and told him to keep an eye out for the finger hearts).
The second the performance ended, all of the members erupted into loud exclamations and chattering, complimenting all of the Chinese members that were so far away, yet doing so well. Mark exchanged smiles with Taeyong, who excitedly shared that Yukhei’s rap had gotten so much better, the flow really coming together. Taeyong knew how close Mark and Yukhei were, becoming each other’s life line in this harsh industry. His sharp eyes had caught the small smiles the two shared, the linked hands and chaste kisses in the backseat of the van when they thought everyone was sleeping. But Taeyong had kept it filed away in his mind —he had seen nothing wrong with it; in fact he helped them, subtly carving out opportunities for the two to get some time alone, pulling the other members away to give them space.
It happened maybe an hour after the performance, when Mark was getting ready for bed. He was sitting on his bed, staring down at his phone blankly, wondering what he should do. Go to sleep? Play some games? Send a text to Yukhei?
His ringtone snapped into his thoughts, nearly making Mark send his phone flying across the room. Mark’s heart thundered when he saw “Baby Xuxi” appear across the screen, a photo of him smiling lighting up the phone. His shaky finger swiped across the screen to accept the call, bringing the phone up to his ear as quickly as humanly possible.
“Mark!” Yukhei’s giggly, breathy voice filled his ears, surrounding Mark in a warmth he hadn’t properly felt since Yukhei had left. He realized too late that he was supposed to answer.
“.....Mark? Mark Lee? Minhyung? Hello?”
“Ah, sorry, I just zoned out for a second.”
“It’s okay baby, I just wanted to hear your voice. So….?”
“So….?” Mark replied, teasing Yukhei. He giggled when he heard Yukhei huff on the other side; even if he was thousands of miles away, his childish tendencies never failed to be projected to Mark.
“Ahhh!” Yukhei whined into the phone, making Mark wince at the sudden increase in volume, but his urge to laugh won, laughter bursting forth. “Did you see my performance? Wasn’t I so cool? Rapping power!!”
“You were brilliant, Xuxi,” Mark answered, blunt and honest, going straight to the point. If anyone overhead, they would easily be able to pinpoint the gross amount of pride in Mark’s voice, coloring every word that spilled from his lips. “Truly. I was captivated by you alone. I couldn’t keep my eyes off you.”
“I love you.”
Mark almost dropped his phone, a blush settling comfortably on his cheeks at the drop in pitch in Yukhei’s voice. It felt like if he closed his eyes and opened them again, Yukhei would be right there, large eyes devouring him.
“I love you too,” Mark whispered back, unable to help the slight tremble in his voice. No matter how many times he said, his lips trembled, a light pink blush crawling up his neck to let the whole world know how much those words could affect him.
“That performance was for you, Mark. Did you see my finger hearts?” Mark laughed, nodding before vocally saying he had. They rambled on for ten more minutes, mainly Mark talking about his favorite parts of the song while Yukhei interjected with a random fact about practice or the recording. Mark showered him with praise, ending every sentence with a compliment, smiling proudly when he made Yukhei squeak with pleasure over the phone.
“Good night Mark. Sleep well.” Yukhei’s voice washed over him, settling around him even after the call ended, his phone finding its way to his desk.
And before he knew it, tears were spilling out, slow at first, before falling rapidly. Watching Yukhei get the recognition he deserved had felt so good, so right. It had made his heart expand to see his long hours pay off, his insistent texts that he just had to stay for a few extra hours of practice, his demands of Mark and Johnny to teach him more english while Jaehyun appeared once in a while to help explain things. But watching the show had reminded him of something else: how far away Yukhei truly was from him.
He had debuted in South Korea right next to Mark, bright eyes and large ears winning Mark over the first time he had stumbled into practice, looking like a skyscraper next to the rest of the members of NCT U. They had been rocky at first, Mark watching Yukhei with eagle eyes, wondering if he was worthy of debuting. His opinion of Yukhei had changed within the first month, when he had gone back to the studio to grab his water bottle that he had left there during morning practice. They had retired to the dorms, going out to grab lunch before escaping for some alone time to their rooms.
Mark could hear the telltale sounds of the beginning of BOSS playing in the studio, indicating that someone was still there at almost midnight, still practicing. Mark rolled his eyes, ready to tell off Taeyong for staying late again. He almost choked when he looked into the room through the side window, immediately dropping to the floor so the person inside couldn’t see him.
Yukhei was dancing, eyes squinting in concentration as he restarted the same part of their choreography over and over again, attempting to master it. Mark peeked through the window, slowly taking in the sight in front of him. He was covered in sweat, shirt drenched all the way through. Beads of sweat bunched on his forehead, trembling as Yukhei took large, rasping breaths.
If asked, he would deny it, but Mark had found the sight of Yukhei’s bangs tied back into a small ponytail adorable, melting his heart.
Mark left a small, cold can of iced milk tea next to the studio entrance, smiling to himself when he saw the empty can in the trash can the next day.
They had shared the stage, never too far away from each other throughout the choreography. Mark had enjoyed working with Yukhei, his infectious energy rubbing off on everyone, even Taeyong, someone who was known for getting serious during practice. However, after Yukhei joined, something about practice seemed lighter, reminding Mark of his early days, when he had been happy and grateful to even be at SM, let alone debuting. Their practices were filled with laughter and smiles, their moods orbiting around Yukhei’s.
Mark’s shoulders shook, letting out a small whine when his hands made contact with the hoodie Yukhei had left him.
“Keep this.” Mark let out a ‘oof’ of surprise when Yukhei suddenly ripped off his sweatshirt, practically shoving it into his arms “Keep this, and wear it when you miss me.”
“I won’t miss you,” Mark stuck his tongue out, but wrapped a possessive hand around the large bundle of cloth anyways. His mind lit up with an idea; Mark quickly pulled off the sweatshirt he was wearing, plopping it into Yukhei’s expectant arms.
A bright smile filled Mark’s vision.
“Thank you, Mark.”
“Just shut up and keep sending me your hoodies, idiot,” Mark said, burrowing his face into the sweatshirt to hide his red face. “I’ll send you mine too.”
His tears bled into the sweatshirt as he slowly pulled it on, curling up into a ball on his bed. For once, he was glad that he had declined the offer to go to dinner with the others. Mark’s broken cries filled the room, echoing and reminding him how lonely he was. Sure, he had the rest of the members, his family. But Yukhei was something else, something closer. Someone who understood his humor perfectly, someone who could sense one of his moods before it even began, someone he considered his best friend.
Mark cried for what felt like hours, sobbing with a small hand curled around a pillow that Yukhei had left on his bed the last time he slept here.
(It had been a Tuesday; they were both tired from practice, and had declined to go grab dinner with the rest of nct U. Yukhei had whined and begged his way into Mark’s bed, a coy smile letting Mark know that he wouldn’t have actually died if Mark didn’t let him cuddle with him. Yukhei had dragged his own pillows and blankets to his room, greeting Mark’s playful eye role with a blinding smile. Mark had forced Yukhei to become the little spoon, far too aware of the purple tinted bags lining Yukhei’s eyes, of the tightness in his smile when the choreographer had told him he did a move wrong for the nth time, of the unshed tears shining when Taeyong had snapped and scolded him in front of the other members for joking around too much. He had held Yukhei in his arms, pressing a hand to Yukhei’s heart, unable to help the smile that appeared when he felt Yukhei’s heart rate speed up after Mark pressed a small kiss to the nape of his neck. It had been peaceful, content to just be in each other’s arms.)
Mark fell asleep with tears drying on his face and thoughts of Yukhei’s smile, the ghost of his arms around him.