The day started out like any other. Mark wouldn’t have known that, by the end of it, he’d be left questioning everything he thought he knew about the world, about himself.
He had met Lucas at the school gates to start the day. Lucas had, as he always did, grasped Mark’s hand, intertwined their fingers. As always, he didn’t let go of Mark until they reached their lockers, outside the science classroom.
“Yeri was saying that we don’t need to worry about the votes. It’s just a matter of waiting for them to announce the results,” Lucas said, as he absentmindedly stroked Mark’s palm with his thumb.
Lucas probably wasn’t even aware he was doing it, but every time his thumb crossed the sensitive skin in Mark’s hand, it set the nerve endings alight there. Somehow, the tingly feeling traveled, all the way to the back of Mark’s hand. Mark suppressed a shiver. He tried to focus on the conversation.
“You got her to tell you the vote count?” Mark laughed, a little nervously, “Isn’t that, like, collusion or something?”
Lucas’s thumb again crossed a faint path across Mark’s palm. Lucas grinned, a little crooked, a little mischievous.
“It’s not like she’s stuffing the ballot box for us or anything.”
Mark hesitated. He supposed that was true. Lucas released his hand, to open the classroom door for Mark. Mark went through. The moment he walked in, he locked eyes with the orange-haired boy at the back of the classroom, and pulled up to a stop.
Donghyuck-- that was the boy’s name, Mark was pretty sure. They’d gone to school together for almost four years, Mark probably should be surer than he felt on that.-- looked utterly bored. His expression didn’t shift out of boredom as he made eye contact with Mark. He looked down his nose as if everything that lay before him, everyone and everything in the classroom, was beneath him. Including Mark.
“She only let me know so we’d have time to prepare our speeches beforehand. We’ve gotta say something really iconic, you know. North Side High’s first ever prom kings-- people are gonna be expecting big things from us.”
Lucas walked up to Mark’s side, slinging his arm around Mark’s shoulders. Mark tried not to care when he noticed Donghyuck’s nostrils flare as his eyes narrowed on Lucas’s arm around him. So the guy was homophobic-- whatever.
Mark had dealt with his fair share of that shit before, he shouldn’t let this particular instance bother him more than any other. Especially when the judgement came from someone as inconsequential as the kid who always sat at the back of the classroom.
Still, Mark cast his eyes down, feeling the hot, prickling uncomfortable feeling that always came with knowing that such an integral part of him would always make some people out there turn away in disgust.
“Yeah-- that’s good of her,” Mark agreed with Lucas, faintly, “I think I’ll let you handle that part of it.”
“Of course!” Lucas tightened his grasp on Mark, squeezing his shoulders. That, at least, was familiar, comfortable. Mark relaxed into his hold, “Trust me, I’ve got this. I’ve been working on my acceptance speech since, like, sophomore year.”
Mark laughed. He knew just how true that was. Mark took his seat next to Lucas’s, near the front, and tried to put the ugly look from the boy at the back of of the class from his mind.
As class started, he felt a creeping, prickly feeling at the back of his neck. But every time he looked back, the boy was looking away, out the classroom window. Not paying anyone any mind, not even their teacher, and especially not Mark.
Mark frowned as he turned back to face the front. He’d been sure as anything that he’d felt eyes on the back of his head. It was inexplicable, like some sort of sixth sense. The crawling feeling was some new sensation he’d never felt before.
He refocused on the professor, as he droned on about the chemical composition of DNA. Mark scratched, absentmindedly, on the back of his knuckles as he jotted down the words adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. He still felt tingly, as he had when Lucas had held his hand. Only, worse. It wasn’t pleasant anymore, but itchy, uncomfortable.
It remained tolerable for awhile but, as the professor began in on base swapping, and resultant changes in genetic code, the itchy sensation mounted. It grew worse, and worse, as Mark’s itching grew more intent.
What was at first simply uncomfortable became an almost painful feeling. Mark gasped, as the blunt tips of his fingernails left trails of red, raised skin in their wake.
The itch grew insistent, sharp. Mark couldn’t explain it, but it felt like something was pressing up against the skin between his knuckles, from the inside. The professor’s drone faded to a background white noise, his consciousness of the presence of all his classmates surrounding him became lost to him.
In dawning horror, Mark spotted movement. He drew his fingers from his knuckles, where blood had beaded, the skin scratched by his own fingernails. He saw something moving underneath the skin, three raised lines across the back of his hand, spanning the length of it, from his wrist to his knuckles.
Mark’s lips parted as he froze, staring at the three lines. He turned his gaze to his other hand, already knowing what he’d see there. The itchy feeling was present in that hand too. And, sure enough, he spotted three lines, spanning the length of the back of his other hand.
As he looked at his hands, Mark began to realize that the three lines were extending, up from within in him, out to his hand. They pushed up against the skin between Mark’s knuckles, a persistent ache that grew more and more painful as the skin grew tauter and tauter over the tips of the lines. It almost felt like his skin was about to break against the mounting pressure, burst and split open.
With that thought in mind, Mark pushed up and out of his chair. He caught his professor’s wide eyes and blurted out a quick,
“Bathroom!” before he slipped out from his desk and started, scrambling towards the classroom door. He didn’t even wait for the professor to permit him to leave, just opened the door and dashed out.
He spared a thought as he raced through the hall to the bathroom, for Lucas. He hoped he hadn’t embarrassed him too much with the outburst. God, Mark thought, as pushed through the door to the men’s room-- what the fuck was wrong with him? Why was he seeing things, feeling things that weren’t possible?
Mark stopped, panting, in front of the bathroom mirror. The rest of the bathroom was blessedly empty. A thought that Mark was grateful for as his gasps grew into pained moans, as the lines pressed up against his skin. He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, gripped the rim of the sink with a tight grasp.
Mark snapped his eyes open, as he heard the bathroom door creak open. As someone entered. He quashed the unnerving, terrifying thought that it was Lucas, that he’d become concerned and he was about to see Mark at his least composed. Mark looked in the mirror, only to make eye contact with none other than the boy from his science class, the orange haired guy who’d glared at him.
“What-- what are you--?”
Mark couldn’t even finish asking his question, not as the sharp pain of skin splitting almost made his vision white out. Mark cried out, in pain and horror, as small, pointed nubs of-- of something burst out through the skin between his knuckles. White stained red with blood.
“Is this the first time this has ever happened to you?” the guy-- Donghyuck-- asked, quick and even, seemingly unaffected by Mark’s cry.
“Get out of here. Leave me alone,” Mark managed to say, between gritted teeth.
He squeezed his eyes shut out again, couldn’t suppress the pained, discomfited sound as the lines slid further out, splitting the skin between his knuckles wider and wider. Mark could feel them as they extended, as if they were part of him. His head dropped, as he took panicked, quick breaths.
He felt a light touch on the back of his shoulder, and he could hardly believe it. The Donghyuck guy was touching his shoulder, maybe trying to comfort him. Or, Mark thought, maybe he was simply relishing in the fact that he’d caught Mark so off guard.
Mark was so lost, confused, and, through it all, pained.
“Breathe,” Donghyuck directed him, voice low, then, “Jesus. Have you got some kind of healing factor?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Mark’s eyes snapped open again, as he glared at Donghyuck in the mirror. His own face terrified him-- the blood had drained from his skin, leaving him pale and his forehead was beaded with sweat. So he focused his eyes on Donghyuck.
He felt so unbelievably vulnerable. He had no idea what was going on, if he was losing his mind, if something was actually physically wrong with him. And this jerk was here, witnessing all of it.
“Look at your hands, Mark,” Donghyuck breathed, unbothered by Mark’s glare. Mark swallowed the defiant words that rose to his tongue, and looked down. The skin around the strange protrusions had healed somewhat, the blood just starting to dry as the skin around the finger-length extensions took on the pink, shiny look of a weeks-old scar.
Mark was embarrassed at that the sound he let out his mouth upon seeing the skin, already healing, and the bony, hardened protrusions sticking out. It was something like a keening cry.
As he looked on at his hands, feeling faint, lightheaded, Donghyuck’s other hand came forward. He dragged his finger down one of the protrusions, slow, hesitant. Mark froze, as Donghyuck’s index finger trailed down all the way to the base of the protrusion. As Donghyuck slowed and, with utmost care, felt the inflamed, pinky, scarred skin around it.
It was that touch, the care with which he’d done it, the unexpected gentleness, that prompted Mark to unfreeze. He tore his hand away from Donghyuck’s, and twisted, dislodging Donghyuck’s hand from his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and swallowed the cry that threatened itself as the protrusions extended further and further, undoing the quick healing his skin had undergone.
“Don’t fucking touch me, freak!” Mark yelled, shattering the tentative stalemate that had settled when Donghyuck had lain his hand on Mark’s shoulder.
Donghyuck’s face hardened, became unreadable. He drew up, jutting his chin out. He looked down his nose at Mark as if, even now, despite the bones growing out from his hands, he was still beneath Donghyuck’s notice.
Donghyuck snorted, cruel and humorless, “Really? I’m the freak? Take a look in the mirror, asshole.”
Mark didn’t know what came over him, some kind of reversion, some animalistic instinct taking over. But he looked on Donghyuck’s impassive face, his curled lip, and Mark snarled. He growled like some kind of inhuman beast, instinctively raising his hand in a fist, conscious of the long protrusions, angling so they wouldn't knock into the sink as he raised his hand high.
Something flickered in Donghyuck’s eyes, like flame, like fire. The sight of it arrested Mark, as he peered closer, wondering if the dual flickering lights he saw in Donghyuck’s eyes were just another symptom of him losing his mind.
Then, the bell rang, signalling the end of the period. Donghyuck blinked, and when he opened his eyes, the flickering look was gone. Vanished, and Mark was left surer than ever that he was losing it.
Spell apparently broken in the wake of the bell, Donghyuck laughed. He choked out a sharp peal of laughter, then shifted, and spun on his heel. He didn’t even bother keeping an eye on Mark as he walked back to the bathroom door, showing just how little intimidated he was by Mark and his odd, sharp protrustions.
Mark watched, wide eyed, as Donghyuck paused at the door. He stilled, with his hand on the handle, then looked over his shoulder.
“I don’t give the slightest shit about you, but it’d be bad for me if you were caught prancing around with those claws of yours. Try and calm down,” Donghyuck shook his head, dismissive, and Mark was filled with anger, “if you’re even capable of doing that. That might take care of them.”
Then, before Mark could so much as form a response, Donghyuck slipped out of the room. The bathroom door was open for just a split second, just long enough for the sounds of conversation, of laughter, of screaming of students streaming into the halls to be audible. Mark took one quick glance down at the bony protrusions-- the claws, as Donghyuck had called them-- and moved to hide out in a bathroom stall.
He slid his eyes shut, blocked out the background noise as best he could. it was hard. For some inexplicable reason, his senses felt overloaded. Everyone outside the bathroom sounded as though they were shouting. Every awful smell, every whiff of cologne or perfume was heightened, prickling his nose. Mark pushed those thoughts aside. He didn’t like Donghyuck, not in the slightest, but right then, Donghyuck’s advice was all he had to go off of.
So Mark took a deep breath, and started the slow process of calming himself. It took minutes, but eventually his breathing evened out, his chest stopped heaving. And, even later, the claws started to diminish, sliding back into his hands, sheathing in his skin. As Mark watched with something like nausea encroaching upon him, he had to give it to Donghyuck. Calming himself down had helped.
Mark only convinced himself to emerge from the bathroom stall when Lucas texted him asking where he’d gone, whether he’d ducked out from school without Lucas. Like Mark had ever skipped school, even with Lucas. Mark huffed a shaky laugh, as he walked out of the bathroom.
He typed a response, wondering slightly at how normal his hands looked. No weird lines, no claws. The spaces between his knuckles had healed completely over, barely the faintest hint of slightly paler skin where the claws had burst through. Even as he walked to meet up with Lucas in their school’s library, the paler skin darkened, faded, became completely indistinguishable from the rest of his hand.
Mark tried to recall what Donghyuck had called it-- healing factor? Or, Mark shook his head, wry grin spreading across his lips, maybe he’d imagined the whole encounter. That might be it. Senior year breakdowns weren’t that rare.
Mark’s had just been a little more vivid than he could have anticipated. And he had no idea why his hallucinated breakdown had included the strange boy at the back of the classroom. He rarely thought about him, if at all. He’d had no reason to think him up at his most vulnerable.
Mark tried to shunt those thoughts aside, as every seemingly plausible explanation only brought up more questions. He smiled a shaky grin, as he walked into the library and spotted Lucas. Lucas waved cheerily, hefting up Mark’s backpack.
“Baby, what happened?” He asked, as Mark slid into the seat by him. “You, like, booked it outta there.”
Lucas immediately, unhesitatingly, seized Mark’s hand. Mark froze, for a moment, as he watched Lucas’s fingers slide through his, curl over his knuckles, covering the spots where Mark had seen claws tear through not even half an hour prior. Had imagined he’d seen. Whatever.
“I--,” Mark couldn’t think, not as two images flashed in front of his eyes. One, his hand with bloodied claws extended. The other, Lucas’s hand curled over his.
“You couldn’t stand listening to Jones talk chemicals for another second, right?” Lucas asked, laughing. Mark seized upon the excuse, nodding, feeling grateful.
“Yeah,” Mark agreed, though his voice shook. It was okay, he thought. Lucas wouldn’t notice, “That’s it.”
“Sucks. I was hoping to copy off you,” Lucas smiled after, to show he was joking.
Only half joking, anyways, because Mark had little doubt that Lucas hadn’t been paying attention, and that Mark would probably end up helping him go over what Jones had talked about in class the night before their next exam.
Mark opened his mouth, to say he’d gotten half the period’s notes, that Lucas could copy those down at least.
But instead of those words, a question came from his mouth.
“Did that Donghyuck kid ditch the rest of class too?”
Mark ducked his head, as he asked. He didn’t know why he’d let the question escape him-- only that, if Lucas confirmed that Donghyuck had left just after him, it meant that maybe Mark hadn’t imagined the whole scene in the bathroom. The claws, the flames in Donghyuck’s eyes.
“Donghyuck…?” Lucas’s brows lowered in his confusion.
“Orange hair,” gaze like fire, Mark choked off, “Uh, about my height.”
“Oh,” Lucas’s eyes brightened in recognition, “Freakshow! Yeah, he ran out right after you.”
Lucas shrugged, not noticing Mark’s sudden paralysis.
Freakshow. Mark had called Donghyuck a freak, and Donghyuck had rightly pointed out that real freak was Mark. He hadn’t imagined the events in the men’s room after all. Mark’s palms suddenly felt sweaty, hot and cold all at once. He had fucking claws. Bloody, bony, claws.
“Now accepting bets on if that dude shows up to school at all tomorrow,” Lucas snorted, “Maybe he’s finally following the rest of his loser squads’ leads and vanishing.”
It was a fair enough speculation, from Lucas. Mark’s mind, half occupied with thoughts of fiery eyes and painful protrusions, only vaguely remembered the group of boys Donghyuck used to hang around with. There’d been a few of them, then, one by one, they’d stopped showing up to school. One by one, they’d disappeared. Since the start of senior year, only Donghyuck had remained.
But Mark shook his head.
“He’s not going to vanish.”
Mark turned he and Lucas’ intertwined hands over so he wouldn’t have to stare at his own knuckles any moment longer. Not when he knew what lay between them, and the very thought sickened him.
“What makes you so sure?”
There was that preternatural note of amusement in Lucas’s tone, the one that always made it so hard for Mark to discern whether he was joking or not. Mark decided, this time, to accept his question on face value. But he couldn’t very well answer that he knew Donghyuck hadn’t up and vanished because Donghyuck had been in the bathroom with him, talking to him about claws and healing factors.
“Just a hunch.”
The rest of the school day passed normally enough. Lucas regaled their lunch table with the story of Mark racing from science class to escape another second of lecture, to uproarious laughter. Mark laughed along, politely, lying to himself and telling himself he wasn’t scanning the cafeteria for a glimpse of faded orange hair.
But he didn’t see Donghyuck throughout the rest of the day, no matter how hard he searched. And everytime his pulse beat faster, everytime his breaths came quicker, Mark forcibly reminded himself to stay calm. Donghyuck’s voice, low, came to him, as the claws pressed up against the skin between his knuckles.
“Breathe, Mark,” Mark whispered to himself, as he paused in between one class and the next.
The rest of the students flowing around him as easily as water around a rock in a stream. He inhaled, exhaled, and it was only when he regained a semblance of calm that the pressure pushing up against his skin recede.
It felt like some sort of cosmic joke, how the day ended just like any other when it had started off so earth shattering. Lucas kissed Mark on the forehead, as he always did, before bidding him goodbye. They split up, Mark headed towards the soccer fields, and Lucas headed towards the gym. Mark tried to remember the last time he’d felt anything other than excitement at the prospect of getting to spend another couple hours playing soccer.
But with exercise came an accelerated heartbeat, and with an accelerated heartbeat came the pressure up against his skin. His claws-- Mark felt a spike of panic, as he thought about the bony protrusions in those terms, with that word-- his claws wanted to burst out again, wanted to split through his skin and extend all the way out.
Mark didn’t know what to think, as he started to lead his team through warm up drills and, even as the best players started to breathe heavier, started to slow, he didn’t feel an ounce of exhaustion. He felt just as fine as he had when he’d started practice. Every sprint felt like a stroll. It took fifty push-ups for him to feel the strain he would have felt with just one, normally.
Maybe it was some delayed response to his freakout in the bathroom, Mark thought, desperately. Maybe it was some late adrenaline rush, maybe that’s why he wasn’t even breaking a sweat when the rest of his teammates were collapsing, prone onto the field, after another exhaustive drill.
Maybe, Mark thought, as he ripped open a ball bag and drew one out, that was all bullshit and nothing made sense. The only one who seemed to know the slightest thing about what was going wrong with him, Mark thought, was Donghyuck. He hadn’t even freaked out at the sight of Mark’s claws.
With a sinking heart, Mark realized that Donghyuck had actually been kind of helpful. Up until Mark had snapped at him, anyways. Mark wondered if he’d ruined his only chance at understanding what was happening to him, why he was sprouting claws and healing over cuts in a matter of seconds. Why he’d run a mile and felt like he could still run a hundred more.
Mark lined up a ball, backed up, and waited until he received a go-ahead nod from his keeper. He took a step forward, then another, gaining momentum. Mark planted his foot, and kicked out with the other. When his cleat connected with the ball, Mark could tell in an instant that something had gone wrong.
“Minho!” Mark shouted towards his keeper, before his foot had even landed back onto the field, “Dodge it!”
Minho, conditioned over the years, obeyed Mark’s command without thinking. He leapt to the side, out of the path of the ball Mark had kicked. And just in time, too, as the ball rocketed forward, dead on target, before bursting clean through the back of the net. It tore a hole in the netting, and kept on sailing, straight into the uncleared trees beyond the edge of the field.
Minho, still on the ground, looked from the ripped area at the back of the net, to Mark. He had an expression of disbelief, of confusion but, primarily, one of fear.
“What the fuck?” Minho asked and, though he’d nearly whispered it, the words travelled.
The entire team had gone silent. Mark looked around-- all of his teammates were looking at him with expressions like Minho’s. Confused, afraid.
“I-- I don’t know what--,” Mark shook his head. He looked at Minho, still worried. He’d nearly kicked that ball directly at his face. What would it have done to him if it had connected and hit him, Mark wondered.
“I’m sorry,” He said, begging his teammates to see how much he meant it, “I wasn't trying to--”
“What’s wrong with you?”
The horrified question came from another senior, a boy Mark had practiced with from the start. He had carpooled with him from junior varsity games on, before they’d even gotten their licenses.
“I don’t know,” That, at least, Mark could answer truthfully.
He didn’t know, and he needed to find out, before he accidentally hurt someone. He needed to talk to Donghyuck.
“I’m sorry. I’ve gotta go. Keep running through the drills coach texted out to us. Minho, you lead cool down.”
Mark left, shaking. He nearly ran in his haste to remove himself from their fearful eyes. The claws were pressing up against his skin, insistent. Before he’d even stepped off the field, they’d burst through, between his knuckles. Sharpened, extending.
Mark blinked, hard, to clear the tears welling up in his eyes. He crossed his arms and wrapped his hands around his torso. Even as the claws extended, and scraped the bare skin of his biceps, he bit his lip to bury his pained gasps. He couldn’t let his teammates see, couldn’t let them hear, couldn’t let them know.
“Breathe,” Mark reminded himself.
He winced, as one of the claws poked through his shirt, punctured his midriff. He paused, to draw his hands from his sides, to pull the claw out from his skin.
Mark ducked behind the bleachers, to hide himself completely from his teammates. He lifted up his shirt and watched, feeling ill, as pale skin knitted over the small slit in his stomach. Closing over, sealing the gap. His skin was healing itself in seconds before his eyes.
Mark raised his shaking fingers, and touched the place where he’d wounded himself. It felt no different from the rest of the skin around, and he hated it. He hated how the blood was still wet and slick around the wound but the cut itself was already gone. He was so fucking tired, so fucking exhausted of the weird shit that kept happening to him. Because of him. Nothing about his own body made sense, nothing about the world made sense.
Frustrated, lost, Mark let out a strangled yell and, on impulse, lashed out. He curled his hands over into a fist and slashed his claws up against the nearest object. He blinked, feeling even sicker, as he watched a chunk of the metal bleacher stands slide out. His claws had sliced clean through the thick support beam.
Mark stared down at the metal, its edges shiny enough to make him squint with the afternoon sun glinting off them. His chest heaved, as he looked up at the damage he’d left behind on the bleachers. Mark choked as he inhaled, as he felt the claws sliding back into his hands.
He staggered off, away from the pitch, one thought repeating itself over and over in his head. What’s wrong with me?