Mark adjusts the mic stand, lifting it up to reach just below his mouth. The vocalist of the band that went before them was a short woman with a powerful voice, a choppy bob and lots of eyeliner on. It made her eyes look smaller instead of accentuating them, but it also had the effect of making her eyes look blacked out and demonic from too far away, especially when Jeno’s lenses could only get him so close to 20/20 vision. It suited her.
Her voice had been so strong, it almost didn’t make sense that such a big voice could fit inside such a small body. Jeno wasn’t sure what he had been expecting when she opened her mouth, but it hadn’t been that, her sinister crooning harshed quickly by anguished yelling, like a ghost on an abandoned ship, calling out to be heard.
Jeno cringes. Someone makes a mistake as they’re setting up and it sends feedback, high pitched and sharp, blaring through the amp. It feels like being stabbed in the eardrum. To his left, Renjun is covering his ears with his eyes squeezed shut. Jeno puts a hand on his shoulder in apology. Renjun and him share that same hatred for loud, unexpected sounds. Jisung smiles apologetically. The mics aren’t fully set up so there’s no audio to accompany it, but he can see Jisung mouth “I’m sorry,” to no one in particular, maybe to Donghyuk who’s glaring at him.
He always gets nervous when they’re setting up, doesn’t relax until they’ve actually started performing. He sees Mark look around, lifting the mic so it’s no longer in the stand, looking back at Jisung with a nervous grip on his acoustic, at Donghyuk sitting behind the drums, at Jaemin with his electric guitar. Jeno didn’t think electric guitars were typically used in alternative bands, but Jaemin had shrugged, said it was alternative for a reason. They could bend the rules a little.
Then Jaemin smiles wide and cocky at Mark, gives him a thumbs up, and Mark smiles back. There’s a count, a 1, 2, a 1, 2, 3, with Donghyuk hitting the drums to start them off, and then Mark’s voice floats over them.
Jeno jumps in joy, smiling, turns to Renjun next to him who is watching with a skeptical expression on his face, not one for the band scene. Jeno laughs at the look on his face, his proud features in a crowd of people wearing stained denim and smoking joints. He doesn’t blend in. It’s so like him. Jeno doesn’t quite blend in either, but he doesn’t have that uppity facial expression, and he’s open to it even when it surprises him. Jeno takes the hard lemonade someone passes him from the cooler, the condensation and water droplets from the melting ice cooling his skin, wiping his hands off on his pants.
Mark’s voice is clear, singing lazily, like it’s easy for him. His vocals aren’t like Renjun’s, classically trained with loads of breath support and a healthy vibrato, a jazzy undercurrent to it, able to hit bright high notes, but it’s breathy and sexy and unique, enjoyable in its unpolished amateur feel, and Jeno loves it, Mark onstage in his sleeveless black shirt with the band logo on it.
Jaemin, always a show off, starts going wild on the electric guitar, the crowd going crazy while he flashes them a big smug grin, teeth flashing white. Renjun rolls his eyes. Jisung’s cute, his eyes flitting around to make sure he’s doing the right thing, checking for approval, even though he’s no beginner when it comes to guitar, big hands able to reach around the neck and a firm grip on the guitar pick.
Mark makes eye contact with Jeno and smiles, first with his cheeks rising and mouth shut, but then unable to fight it, teeth becoming visible. He holds the eye contact as he grips the mic, and his eyebrows lift with the breath he takes in to sing the next line. Renjun snorts as he looks between them. Mark even winks at Jeno before turning back to the rest of the crowd, but Jeno can still feel the burn of his gaze when it’s gone.
Jeno feels half drunk on Mark’s voice and just ever so slightly the drinks he’d had. Renjun had turned his down and Jeno had gladly taken it. It gets hot in the crowd, all that body heat. It made Jeno thirsty, and listening to Mark’s voice is like being hypnotized. He keeps focusing in on the details, Mark’s shirt low enough to show his sharp collarbones, Jaemin’s frantic hands moving on the guitar, Donghyuk’s firm and confident hits on the drums, and the way Jisung looks nervous, yet exhilarated.
It comes, like all things, no matter how much they wish it never had to: The end. The song dies down and the crowd screams and whistles, there’s a few out of place claps, Jeno riding the adrenaline rush as if it were him up there singing, performing for the crowd. It is, sometimes, when they have dance recitals or his team goes to competition, but right now it’s all about Mark.
Jeno beams at him, smiles at Mark as Mark smiles, taking in the praise and the relief of a performance well done, sharing looks with the others, silently congratulating them. This was a big performance for NIGHTM4RE, and they had nailed it.
Jeno grabs Renjun’s arm and runs to the entrance, to backstage. They have to wait a minute for the boys to pack up and confirm that they know them, a security precaution. Jeno wishes he could just go “I’m the lead singer’s boyfriend”, but he already knows the guard would laugh, go “That’s what they all say” and kick them out.
Jeno and Renjun are excitedly discussing the performance, which Renjun begrudgingly enjoyed, when Mark walks past the guard and claps a hand on Jeno’s shoulder, grinning.
“They’re with me,” he says to the guard, and the guard shrugs, waves them through. They have the decency to make it to the dressing room before Mark and Jeno are kissing, Mark still shaking slightly from the adrenaline and Jeno bursting with pride, Mark’s arms lazily going around Jeno’s waist, Jeno’s around Mark’s neck. Everyone is so high off the performance they can’t even look disgusted, and even Renjun is letting them have this for once, smiling just a little like he’s happy for them.
“You were amazing out there,” Jeno says, eye contact with Mark intense, on fire, the air between them electric. “You sounded so good. Everyone loved it.” Considerate, Jeno breaks away from Mark for a second to say “And you guys, you all sounded great, too. The instruments sounded incredible. Nice solo, Jaemin,” he says, through gritted teeth, because he knows any compliments go right to Jaemin’s head. He wants to tell Jisung not to be so nervous, because he has the skills to back it up, but then Jisung will know he looked nervous, will be self conscious, so Jeno leaves it alone.
“You’re just saying that,” Mark says, but he knows it’s true. He’s just humble. Jeno shakes his head, kissing Mark again.
“I’m not. I was there in the crowd, I saw everyone’s reactions. Is Chenle running the merch table?” Jeno asks, coughing when a cloud of weed smoke gets blown in his face by a grinning Jaemin.
“Yeah,” he says. “Jisung, go make sure he didn’t pocket the money.” Jisung snorts, a disbelieving laugh.
“Chenle could buy me, and you think he needs to steal our measly little merch money? All 20,000 won?” Donghyuk shoves him playfully.
“Can you be optimistic for once? All 30,000 won,” he corrects, and Jisung laughs with him as they head out to bother Chenle.
“Thought you didn’t like people smoking around you,” Renjun says, watching Jaemin suck down the joint like if he doesn’t smoke it as fast as he can it’ll disappear. Mark shrugs.
“I’m kinda over that now. It’s a special occasion, anyways. A lot of people were smoking around here anyways.”
“Oh, Jaemin doesn’t need a special occasion to smoke,” Donghyuk laughs. Jaemin almost laughs at that, but catches himself. He’d choke on the smoke, but his cheeks still rise every so slightly as he blows it out. He holds out the joint to Jeno.
“Special occasion,” he mocks. “A free hit for our number one groupie,” Jeno smirks.
“Groupie? I think I’m a step above that. I’m actually dating someone in the band.” Jaemin holds it out again, to emphasize it. Jeno looks to Mark, silently asking his permission. Mark shrugs, an unspoken Go for it, as Jeno reaches out and holds it with two fingers, putting it to his mouth and inhaling. He’s only smoked once before, so he doesn’t pull enough. Jaemin watches the pathetic little cloud of smoke he breathes out and takes pity on him.
“One more. That hit sucked.” he urges, and Jeno does, sucking in harder this time, longer. He feels the heat of the joint starting to lick at his fingers, but not enough to burn them, and exhales a big, nice cloud, smiling.
“There we go,” Jaemin says, taking it back from him, voice like a pat on the back. “I will make a stoner out of you yet.”
“That won’t be happening,” Mark says, only a little bite in it, putting his arms back around Jeno and pulling him close so his head is snug to his chest. Jeno feels just a hint of something, a really watered down version of being high. He’d ask for another hit, but Mark has put his foot down, and the joint is starting to taste burnt and terrible at the end, almost gone.
“Renjun,” Jaemin says, making him look up from where he’s been examining the instruments. “No kiss for a job well done?” Renjun smirks.
“When you taste like an ashtray?” he counters, quick on his feet. “Maybe next time,” Jaemin pouts, but he doesn’t look too disappointed, eyes sparkling with a challenge. Jeno is glad Jisung wasn’t here for that, leaving with Donghyuk to see if they sold any of the t-shirts, or the 3-song album that Mark produced himself. Jeno has four copies. Renjun has one too, but he didn’t acquire it on purpose. Jeno gave it to him with his Christmas present, lavender essential oil and a box of mint tea, fuzzy socks and a knit scarf. Renjun is always cold.
Jeno looks up at Mark, a question in his eyes. Will Mark still kiss him even if he tastes like an ashtray? But Mark bends down quickly to meet his lips, Jeno’s sweet gaze too hard to resist. The kiss is a little deeper this time. Maybe Mark feels more comfortable without Jisung there to make gagging noises or Donghyuk there to tease him. Renjun will be disgusted in silence and Jaemin, well, he likes to watch. Jeno’s feelings about that change depending on the day. Right now he’s kind of alright with it.
Jeno breaks the kiss to inhale and tilts his head back, and Mark goes in to suck a little bruise on his neck. Jeno can tell Renjun is about to clear his throat, tell them that’s quite enough, but Mark makes it quick, kissing the little mark one more time before he fully pulls away, and Jeno smiles at him.
“When’s your next performance, superstar?” Jeno asks, hearing Mark’s heartbeat up close. It’s fast, the way Jeno likes it to be. He likes to think it’s partially because of him. Mark leans his head against Jeno’s, humming, considering the question.
“Two weeks from now? A slightly bigger venue. Do you work?”
“Send me the time. I’ll see what I can do. The manager seems to like me. I always cover Jaehyun hyung’s shifts.”
“If things keep going well, you won’t have to work,” Jaemin speaks up, Jeno looking over at him. “You can be our little band sugar baby, paying for things with NIGHTM4RE money.” Jeno hums.
“But wouldn’t I feel bad riding the wave of others’ success? I think it should be a collaborative effort, right?” Jaemin snorts. “But you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Jeno adds, coy. “For me to spend your money,” Jaemin looks between them, at Mark and then at Renjun, back at Jeno, flustered for once in his life.
“I can’t say I’d mind it.” he says. The joint has one sad hit left on it, all burnt and rough. Jaemin takes it, coughs a little and then ashes it. He has another one in his pocket, but he’s saving it. “I know you’d spend it on good things.” Sometimes Jeno wonders why Mark lets Jaemin flirt with him like this, out in the open where everyone can see, why it doesn’t make Mark want to kick Jaemin out of the band. But then, they’ve known Jaemin for a while. He’s always been like this. It makes Jeno wonder, but he lets it happen too. So he doesn’t say anything.
“Are your hands rough?” Jeno says all of a sudden, the thought occurring to him late. Maybe he’s pushing it. Jaemin raises an eyebrow, Mark watching carefully to see where this is going. He’s being awfully quiet.
“You play guitar,” Jeno explains. “So your hands. They must be rough, have calluses on them, right?”
“Yeah,” Jaemin says, but he’s back to his usual self now, shameless. “You wanna feel?” he says, and that’s where Mark draws the line.
“Okay, okay,” he says. “Knock it off,” but it’s only directed towards Jaemin, not at Jeno who started it in the first place.
“We made 140,000 won!” Donghyuk yells as he enters, cutting through the weird atmosphere with a knife. Jeno is grateful for it. Jisung comes in, panting, swinging the wads of bills in his abnormally large hands. Jeno has a feeling Jisung wanted to be the one who announced it, but he didn’t have enough air to get the words out.
“What?” Mark asks, eyes wide. “That’s great!” He lets go of Jeno to count the money himself, eyes shimmering as he flips through the bills. “Wow…” he says. He looks at Jeno, at Renjun, who both share his smile.
“I told you they loved it,” Jeno said. “Even Renjun here loved it.” Renjun laughs.
“It was...okay,” he says, but his grin shows that he’s kidding. Jeno didn’t imagine Renjun holding his hands and jumping up and down with him at the most exciting parts of the song. The memory was practically etched into his mind for all eternity.
“Stop,” Jeno says softly, smiling at him knowingly. “We have to get you a t-shirt for your new favorite band.” Renjun groans at that.
“Now we’re pushing it,” Jeno laughs.
“How’s it feel to be rich and powerful?” Chenle asks as he comes in, as if he doesn’t already know. “I got the merch stuff put away. How much did you make exactly, by the way? Jisung ripped the cash out of my hands before I could write it down and ran.”
Jisung comes over and pecks him on the mouth, sweet, embarrassed by all the people around, slightly apologetic for messing up Chenle’s System. Chenle accepts the kiss with a strangely businesslike attitude, meeting his mouth but then focusing on everyone else almost immediately. Jeno had asked once, was he always like that? Timid Jisung had said no, that he was more affectionate in private, but even then he was a little brisk, not overly sentimental. He liked that, though. That it never got too mushy or weird.
“140,000 won,” Donghyuk answers, eyes glinting. “We’re practically famous.”
“I’ll say,” Chenle says, laughing. “Do you know how many girls came up to me asking for ‘the guy with the electric guitar’s’ number? I had to explain to them that I can’t just give out personal information like that to anyone who asks for it. Also I don’t know Jaemin’s phone number by memory.”
“You don’t need to be so cautious, Chenle,” Jaemin says, making everyone laugh. “Just give it to them next time,” Chenle gives him a look.
“They weren’t your type, hyung. They seemed like they’d get attached.” Jaemin clears his throat.
“Maybe it’s for the best that you didn’t give it to them, then,” he says, and Jeno watches him after that, his face, the look in his eyes. It only makes him more curious.
“I’m proud of you,” he whispers in Mark’s ear. Mark smiles at him, a secret one. “Renjun and I better get going, though. Roommates, you know? I’m responsible for him because I brought him out, and we both have 8 AMs tomorrow. You understand,” he says, kissing right below Mark’s ear.
“Okay,” Mark says, but he seems sad to see Jeno go, like he should be. “Be safe, okay? Text me when you get home,”
“You always worry,” Jeno says, grinning. But he likes that Mark worries. “You know I will.” He turns to Renjun who heard himself being mentioned, links arms with him.
“We’re gonna head out,” he announces, and everyone shares their goodbyes. He gives Chenle a hug, squeezing him a little too hard.
“Thanks, merch boy,” he says fondly. Chenle giggles.
“No problem, hyung.”
On the cab ride back to dorms, Renjun takes Jeno’s hand in his. Jeno is tired, the excitement wearing off, the little bit of weed and booze in his bloodstream, the warmth of Renjun beside him.
“You really like this kind of thing, huh? The live performances? Going backstage?” Renjun asks softly. Jeno smiles, and it reaches his eyes.
“Of course! When Mark first told me he was starting a band, you know, I worried. I knew he was talented, but I didn’t know if it’d really...take off, you know? But then I realized even if it didn’t...it would make him happy. So at first I just went to support him but now I just like the scene, like seeing him so happy and proud of himself. And I like...being a part of something. I like being behind the scenes.” Renjun smiles at him.
“I’m happy for you. I’m glad I could see what it’s all about, you know? You talk about it so often.”
“I’m so glad you had fun. Would you wanna come again sometime?”
“Sometime,” Renjun says, noncommittally, but it isn’t a refusal. “Your dance competition is coming up, right?” Jeno looks at Renjun closely, eyes wide.
“How did you know that?” He hadn’t mentioned it. Renjun lets go of his hand.
“We wanna go. You can’t keep it a secret from us. I saw the post-it note on your desk. Three weeks from now. We’ll be there. And then you can be the star of the night.” Jeno fights the urge to tear up.
“Thanks, Renjun.” he says, and Renjun just gives him a crisp nod, like a coach, and the rest of the ride is silent.