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the dawn where i barely sleep

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mark can’t sleep.

he usually doesn’t have much of an issue with falling asleep, but recently…it’s been tough. life has been tough. senior year is supposed to be effortless—you’re supposed to take easy classes and get into college and enjoy your last few moments of childhood freedom. you’re supposed to have the best few months of your youth. everything is supposed to be good.

mark’s senior year is anything but.

being a stressed, anxiety-ridden 17-year-old, mark had chosen only the most difficult classes for his junior year. he did well even with less than an hour of sleep some nights, and he was respected as a student and as a human being. the year went well, and he thought senior year would be no different.

mark was wrong.

applying to college took up the entirety of his first semester. it was hard to balance applications and regular schoolwork, but teachers were understanding, and he got through it. he got into almost all of the schools he had applied to, naturally—he didn’t work his ass off his entire life for nothing, after all—and chose one he genuinely really liked. things should have been good, but from then on, it was…hard. school was hard.

it wasn’t the content, really, but more the motivation. no matter how hard mark tried, he couldn’t bring himself to try as much as he used to. senioritis, he figured, was finally hitting him. it shouldn’t have been a big deal. he should have been able to get by.

he couldn’t.

now, in the final leg of his senior year, he’s never felt worse. there’s only a month left until his graduation, and he should be so excited, but he’s not. he’s scared out of his mind, but he’s also startlingly…empty. it takes him a while, but he figures he might have some form of depression, and it works in very confusing tandem with the anxiety that’s haunted him since childhood. his grades are slipping, but his friends tell him it doesn’t really matter as long as they don’t get too bad. he hopes they’re right, but he also doesn’t really care. it almost startles him how little he feels, even when anxiety runs rampant and seizes control of every fiber of his being.

bottomless emptiness and raging fear are a strange combination, but they are powerful, and they take mark down as easily as water flows and fire burns.

so mark can’t sleep. apparently, with depression comes insomnia, and this becomes evident when mark fails to dream until dawn for days, weeks, months. it’s infuriating, because you don’t really sleep when you have insomnia, you just sort of crash. it’s exhausting, and no amount of rest you get is enough, and it fucking sucks. it leaves mark restless, unable to sleep but desiring nothing more. sometimes, he forgets what real sleep felt like. it’s miserable.

after a while, mark decides to do something. if he can’t sleep, he might as well be productive, right? so he writes lyrics. generally, he writes fiction—that’ll be his path in college, probably—but something about his vacant nights feels melodic. mark isn’t that confident in his singing voice, but all he can seem to write is emotional, vocal-focused choruses (though he does try his hand at rap, and he’s actually pretty good at it). he never really finishes any songs, but there is one he’s almost done with—AM 01:27. he needs a vocalist, a real one, to sing it, but he likes it well enough even with his own lackluster attempts, so he feels like it’s okay.

some nights, mark can’t write. that’s to be expected—no one can be inspired every day of their life—but it’s frustrating as all hell. he has nothing to do; he finishes his homework early, and he’s too drained to get invested in anything, so he’s just…aimless. blank. empty. always empty.

it isn’t until april that he decides to go somewhere.

mark has never really snuck out before. he’s a good kid, or maybe he’s just lazy, and he’s not much of an adventurer, so there’s never been a need to sneak out. now, though, mark feels like he’ll lose his mind if he stays put any longer, so he does what any stupid teenager does and jumps out his window. his bedroom is on the first floor, thank god, and its window leads right into his backyard, where he can easily hop the fence and rush off into the night.

spring hits april fast, so the evening air is pleasantly warm against mark’s bare arms. he’s in his pajamas, he realizes, but he figures no one will judge him for his pokémon t-shirt and flannel pants at 12:47 in the morning. there’s no one out and about, and, logically, this isn’t surprising, but it’s an odd feeling to walk around such quiet, barren streets. he lives in a fairly small town, and there are hardly any lights along the little roads, so his walk is spent in half-darkness, lit only by the distant flickering lamps that lead him along his impromptu journey.

somehow, mark ends up at a park. he used to play there a lot when he was young, but nowadays, he spends more time bent over textbooks than outside playing in the grass. it’s nostalgic, even though practically every aspect of it has been renovated. only one thing remains from his memory—the swings—which probably shouldn’t make him as happy as it does. the swing screeches indignantly when he sits on the leftmost one (as he always has), which is likely a good indication that he shouldn’t sit on it, but mark’s sleep-addled brain is incapable of sound judgment, so he pushes off the ground and starts swinging.

it’s not as fun as he remembers, but it makes his heart soar the same way it did when he could hardly reach the seat at all, so mark counts it as a win. he probably swings for an eternity or two, but the moon watches, unchanging, and his phone says only twenty minutes have passed. he feels lighter, somehow, with the moonlight shining down on him. mark is glad he snuck out. maybe he should have done this a long time ago.

at some point, mark starts to sing. he’s not very loud—the park is close to a number of houses, and it’s past one in the morning now—but he’s vocal enough that his lyrics ring out all through the vast, uninhabited space. he sounds better than usual, he thinks. maybe the moon likes his song as much as he does.

a low, drawn-out whistle sounds from the far end of the park, and mark startles like he’s just seen a ghost. a figure approaches, languid and unassuming, and steps out from the shadows.

“nice song,” a boy says, his tone neutral but genuine. he looks tired, tired as mark feels, but something in his eyes sparkles like the stars. “is it yours?”

mark blinks a few times to make sure he hasn’t hallucinated the entire encounter. “yeah.”

the stranger seems satisfied with that. “what’s your name, songwriter?”

“mark,” he answers, louder than he means to. “yours?”

“donghyuck.”

the boy—donghyuck—ambles forward, dropping unceremoniously into the swing adjacent to mark. “what’re you doing singing all alone at,“ he checks his phone, “one twenty-seven in the morning?”

mark looks at his own device and sees that the time, is, indeed, 1:27 AM. he barks out a laugh. “i can’t fucking believe it.”

donghyuck’s face doesn’t change. “believe what?”

“my song—that’s its name.”

“whoa,” donghyuck marvels, “for real? this must be fate or something.”

“yeah,” mark agrees. it must be.

donghyuck, mark learns, is new to the area. he’s not, like, foreign, or anything, but he used to live two hours away, and he’s never really been to mark’s sad little town before. mark tells him he’s lucky, but donghyuck disagrees.

“i like it here,” he says assuredly.

“why?” mark asks. he doesn’t really think it has redeeming qualities.

“it feels like its own little world,” donghyuck breathes, gaze dreamy and star-bound. he has moles, mark realizes, and they look so much like a constellation he almost can’t believe the boy is real at all.

he must have been looking for a long time, because donghyuck levels him with a knowing look. “you’re staring.”

“i—yeah. you’re just. you’re really…” ethereal. stunning. otherworldly. “…something.” wow, mark. smooth.

thankfully, donghyuck doesn’t look at mark like he’s an idiot; he just laughs, bright and beautiful, and grips the chains holding him aloft. “something, huh?”

mark’s cheeks burn. “yeah,” he says, like an idiot. he’s not good at the whole talking to cute boys thing.

donghyuck doesn’t seem to mind. “so what are you doing out here, mark?”

“i can’t sleep,” he murmurs vaguely.

“somethin’ on your mind?”

“no.” mark shakes his head. “i mean like…in general.”

“ah. insomnia?”

mark hums in affirmation. “i usually don’t crash ‘till like four or five.”

“damn,” donghyuck says, sounding almost impressed, “how do you go to school?”

“dunno. i sleep in class a lot. my teachers don’t say anything since i get decent grades.”

“do your parents know?”

absently, mark starts pushing himself forward and backward, feet lingering on the ground to produce some sort of quasi-swing. “no.”

donghyuck shoots him a disapproving look. “why not?”

“they don’t really…get it. mental illnesses and stuff. like, i have insomnia because i have depression—i think, anyway—and they don’t understand what that even means. plus,” mark adds, “they’re busy enough dealing with my college fund and stuff. they don’t need something else to worry about.”

somehow, donghyuck looks far away when he speaks next. “i see.”

“what about you?” mark wonders, desperate to change the subject. “what are you doing here at this time of night?”

“dunno. just felt right.”

now that doesn't make any sense at all. “huh?”

donghyuck shrugs, and the movement jostles him around in his swing. “i get weird feelings sometimes—about this town, about this park, about you. i don’t know what it means. i just follow it.”

“weird how?”

“like i have to go and find something; like fate is teasing me.” after the words come out, donghyuck flushes. “wow, that sounded a lot less stupid in my head.” mark doesn't think he sounded stupid at all. “can we talk about literally anything else?”

“d’you sing?” mark asks.

donghyuck raises a brow in question. “a little. why?”

“i think my song would sound better coming from you,” he says, vulnerable and honest as he's ever been.

for a moment, mark thinks donghyuck will say no, but he cocks his head and goes, “gimme the lyrics, then.”

mark tells the boy to turn his airdrop on and sends over a pdf of a poorly scanned page of sheet music. the paper is covered in almost-erased symbols and ugly, scrawled lyrics that mark is certain donghyuck won't be able to decipher, but he nods and tells mark to play the music and sing along as a guide.

their first attempt is clumsy, but it sounds...good. mark almost can't believe how much better he likes the song now that donghyuck is singing it, even if he still stumbles over a few lines and needs mark’s voice to lead him through the verses. it's incredible how well they work together, how seamlessly they fit into each other's curves and crevices.

they sing some other songs when they get tired of running through the same lyrics over and over again. donghyuck is an incredible singer, and mark has half a mind to be shy about his own voice, but something about singing with donghyuck is so fun that he can’t find it in himself to be embarrassed. (also, he raps along to dpr live’s know me (feat. dean) so well donghyuck actually looks a little stunned, so maybe he should be confident.)

“please tell me you were playing down your singing ability,” he says when donghyuck adds in an effortless run to a song mark could never even hope to try the chorus of.

donghyuck smiles coyly. “i've been taking lessons since i found out you could get paid for it—if you're good enough, anyway.”

“well you are good enough,” mark insists. “i wouldn't be surprised if i wake up tomorrow only to find out you're secretly a celebrity or something.”

“please,” donghyuck laughs, “if anything, i’ll find out you're a professional music producer.”

mark shakes his head. “i prefer to write novels, actually.”

“published author, then,” the boy amends. he looks equally as sincere, if not more so.

it's hard to not focus on how donghyuck’s eyes glitter in the moonlight, but somehow mark manages. “i’m still a long way away from getting published.”

“maybe,” donghyuck hums, “but you're farther from failure.”

“what makes you say that? you've never even read anything i've written—and, no, the song doesn't count.”

donghyuck smiles. “another feeling, i guess.”

they stopped swinging ages ago, but mark only starts to miss the repetitive motion now. “i’m starting to think you're, like, inhuman, or something.”

“oh?” donghyuck prompts, enthused.

“you show up in a dead town like mine—the absolute middle of nowhere—and, what, encounter me in this stupid park? at one in the morning? and then you say it's all because you get weird feelings? how am i supposed to believe you're actually a person and not, like, an alien?”

“please, if i were an alien, i’d have eaten you already; i wouldn't be so kind as to indulge you in your ramblings.”

mark pretends to be offended. “my ramblings are infinitely enjoyable!”

“yeah?” he laughs. “says who?”

“says my cat!”

“last time i checked, cats can’t talk, markie.”

“no, but you can see it in his eyes. also, i’m pretty sure he laughs at me sometimes.”

“why, because you’re so funny?”

“no, because i’m an idiot, and he finds my stupidity amusing.”

donghyuck purses his lips. “smart cat.”

“hey!” mark objects. he sounds genuinely insulted (he isn’t), and that must send donghyuck over the edge, because he barks out a laugh much too loud for the late (early?) hour, doubling over and wheezing like a madman. fatigue-induced hysteria is setting in, and it takes mark down as easily as it struck donghyuck; the pair laugh up a storm that’ll surely wake up the entire neighborhood in a matter of minutes, but neither boy can bring himself to care.

mark, for one, absolutely cannot get enough of donghyuck’s laugh. it’s youthful, somehow, and bright. everything about him seems to glow, and mark isn’t ashamed to say he’s enchanted.

a reminder goes off on mark’s phone, and without so much as a glance, he can tell it’s his “go to sleep, bitch” alarm. it’s set to go off at four every morning, which means he’s been out for way longer than he intended.

donghyuck raises a brow. “why do you have an alarm that plays shinee’s married to the music at four in the morning?”

well, when he says it like that it sounds stupid, mark thinks. “one, because i love shinee. two, because if i’m not asleep by the time it goes off—and i rarely am—then it tells me to go the hell to bed.”

“doesn’t it wake you up when you are asleep?”

mark shakes his head. “i’m dead to the world from the moment i fall asleep. this alarm has never woken me up before.”

“damn. that’s honestly sort of impressive.”

maybe it is, mark supposes, but it’s also very inconvenient when he has something to do in the morning. he wants to tell donghyuck this, but he should also probably listen to his own self-imposed restriction and head back home before the sun rises.

“i should go home,” mark says. even he can hear the reluctance in his voice, but his tone seems to make donghyuck smile.

“yeah, you seem like a good boy; we wouldn’t want you getting caught sneaking out, right?”

(that comment almost makes mark regret what he’s about to do. almost.)

“can i, um,” mark stutters, and wow he hates this already, “get your number?”

donghyuck grins impishly, but his cheeks are noticeably redder than they were a moment ago. “if i didn’t know better, markie, i’d think you were hitting on me.”

“uh,” he says intelligently.

“relax, mark, i was just teasi—“

“would you be okay with that?” mark blurts.

out of everything mark could have said, donghyuck was not expecting that. “what?”

mark wants to die. “if—if i was hitting on you. would that be okay?”

as mortifying as actually saying that out loud was, mark decides maybe it was worth it, because donghyuck’s entire face flushes, cheeks painted a pretty shade of pink. he presses his lips together in what mark guesses is his default expression for intense embarrassment, and mark has to physically restrain himself from commenting on how cute he finds it.

“...yeah,” donghyuck mumbles after a pregnant pause. if his general demeanor and i’m-shy-please-don't-look-at-me-or-i’ll-combust body language are anything to go by, donghyuck still hasn't really managed to collect himself at all, but that makes mark feel much better about the fact that his heart is about two seconds away from beating right out of his chest.

“okay,” mark croaks, suddenly very, very tired. he's drained, probably because he hasn't slept in at least 30 hours, and he's just spent the last four or so under a pretty boy’s spell. (not that he’s complaining, since the aforementioned pretty boy seems to be under a spell of his own, but still. mark needs sleep.)

apparently, mark’s exhaustion is obvious. “gimme your phone so you can go home and crash, doofus,” donghyuck demands. mark obliges and watches as the boy adds his contact information to the phone and sends himself a quick text. now they have each other's numbers. it's hard for mark to process.

donghyuck hands the phone back to mark, who stares at its black screen vacantly. he’s so tired. unwilling to wait for mark to get his act together, donghyuck stands and holds out his hand, waiting. mark grabs it, relying on sheer instinct at this point, and lets donghyuck haul him up.

“jesus, do you need me to walk you home?”

mark shakes his head. “i’m okay. just...need sleep. my house isn't far.”

“...if you're sure,” donghyuck says dubiously. he watches, unmoving, until mark’s figure blends in with the inky blackness of the night. he finds that the park is too quiet with just one, so donghyuck fades into the darkness, too.

somehow, mark makes it home and into his room with little incident (except he definitely bruised his knee on his way through the window, but whatever). the sun has barely started its rise into the sky, still unseen despite the arrival of its gentle light to the otherwise dismal morning, so mark counts it as his second win of the night.

he does indeed crash, first onto his bed and then into dreamland less than a minute later. it's nice, whatever his subconscious conjures for him, though he can't remember any of it when he next wakes. he supposes he's had a good dream—the first in a long, long time. he almost doesn't want to wake up again.


unfortunately, mark’s unwillingness to wake up costs him attendance in his first three classes—or it would have if his friends didn't have his back. his first-period teacher is old, partially blind, and probably senile. yukhei doesn't have to do much to convince him that mark is present. apparently, they have a sub (the chill one!) second period, so dejun’s bad mark impression during roll is only suspicious to the four kids awake enough to process anything, but there are no snitches in the senior class, so it works out fine. and third period is ms. park, who, to mark’s knowledge, has never taken roll properly in her life, and also loves him, so he escapes any trouble there, too.

when mark checks his phone, he has several messages from yukhei and dejun who claim he owes them big time, one from his mother telling him to take out the trash and get his car washed because some birds pooped all over it (great), and one from jisung asking for test answers before his spanish test fifth period. he almost decides not to answer any of them but recognizes that's probably a dick move.

 

  

yuck (8:07 AM):

bro

where are u tf??

am i bailing u out

im bailing u out

mr. kang is so far gone he actually believed me when i said u went to ur locker

this is the best english class ive ever had omfg i swear he cant read anymore

anyway u owe me for saving ur sorry ass

bring me chipotle for lunch i want Beans

mork (10:32 AM):

i cant stand u

but like. thanks

yuck (10:33 AM):

so he lives!!

shocking

dejun’s been losing his shit over u not answering him

also jisung is 100% gonna fail his spanish test if u dont give him the answers asap

mork (10:33 AM):

ughdhfhjdc okY ill send him mine jesjs

today is not my dAy

yuck (10:34 AM):

yeah whatever get me a burrito!

complain when u actually get here !!!!

mork (10:34 AM):

🖕🏼

 

 

 

xiao (8:55 AM):

um

not to alarm you but ur kind of not in class

we have a sub tho so like it's fine i can just pretend to be you

it's the cool one that never looks up from his computer hell yeah

fuck hsnxjs yerim gave me the weirdest look

is my mark impression really that bad?

mork (10:33 AM):

yes

its garbage

id roast u for it but my dejun impression is worse

xiao (10:33 AM):

i should have left you to Die

bring me toast as compensation

mork (10:33 AM):

t

toast?????

xiao (10:34 AM):

did i stutter

i’m craving toast okay. it's a bread day

mork (10:34 AM):

;;;yeah alright

 

 

 

jipwark (9:57 AM):

mark

markamekamrk

makejrmekammr

m

a

rm

k

pleas give me ur old spañish test

choptet 6

im goinf to FAILHHXJJD

PLEADE

mork (10:37 AM):

how did u manage to fuck that up every single time after the first

jipwark (10:42 AM):

i have stupid big hands and a small phonr be kind 2 me

anyway TEST

mork (10:44 AM):

yeah whatever i shared a typed version with u

jipwark (10:45 AM):

TY

I’LL SAVE U A HOTBONG

mork (10:45 AM):

um

jipwark (10:46 AM):

HOTDOT

HOT. DOG.

mork (10:46 AM):

gjdjdnsjd thanks buddy

 

 

 

mom (9:26 AM):

Sweetie please take out the trash when you get home. And wash your car this week, okay? Looks like some birds pooped all over the windshield.

mork (10:49 AM):

will do mom

 

 

mark is a little disappointed there's no message from donghyuck, but only a little, because it takes him a while to remember his late night (early morning??) adventures at all. everything felt like a dream, and he spends a lot of the day reminding himself that yes, it really did happen, even if all he has is a new contact (“hyuck 🌻”) to verify.

he makes it to school just in time for fourth period, slams some lukewarm toast on dejun’s desk (“ew, hey! you know they never clean these things!”), and all but collapses into his seat. taking math senior year was a mistake, and mark regrets it every single day of his life. mrs. choi’s complete lack of sympathy (or any emotion at all, really) doesn't help.

what does help, though, is how techy his school is. all of mark’s textbooks are online, so no one bats an eye when he opens up his computer and starts typing away. (except dejun, who always seems to know what mischief he’s up to. it's kind of scary.)

 

 

mork (11:03 AM):

hey

i’m in class rn so i can’t really talk much without my teacher noticing and Ending Me but like

i had fun last night

wow that makes it sound like we went on a date

haha. anyway

just wanted to check up on u. make sure u got home safe

i wouldve last night but i crashed like the second i got home

anyway yeah we should do that again sometime

but like not at 4 am maybe. bc i was really late to school and ok im rambling bye

  

 

xiao (11:09 AM):

who the hell are u texting. we’re supposed to be suffering and learning about parabolas right now

mork (11:09 AM):

ok except i wouldn’t be learning even if i was paying attention

mrs choi is so Monotone. how am i supposed to pay attention when she sounds like SHE’S asleep

xiao (11:10 AM):

it’s called khan fucking academy

also our TEXTBOOK?

i do the hw in class why don’t You

mork (11:10 AM):

haha…funny

good one dejun

xiao (11:11 AM):

i hope u fail the next test

mork (11:11 AM):

i won’t!

xiao (11:11 AM):

UGH. I KNOW.

wait i got distracted. who are you texting

it isn’t yukhei. he’s always asleep 4th period

dumbass

mork (11:12 AM):

um

so i met. a boy??

xiao (11:13 AM):

w ha t

 

 

 

 

gays galore (9)

xiao (11:13 AM):

excuse me everyone i have an announcement

mork (11:14 AM):

dejun No

xiao (11:14 AM):

mark met a BOY

jaem (11:14 AM):

what the fuck

before me?

jennifer (11:15 AM):

jaem you’ve met plenty of boys

you just can’t ever keep any of them

chonlo (11:15 AM):

ooooooh burn

jaem (11:15 AM):

i Hate you all……..

henderson (11:16 AM):

wait so what’s this abt markly getting a mans

mork (11:16 AM):

oh my fucking god i dont have a mans1!!

xiao (11:16 AM):

don’t make me send screenshots, coward

mork (11:16 AM):

GAHHHH

yuck (11:17 AM):

i literally woke up for this

mark tell me Everything or i’ll Start Crying

run (11:17 AM):

please tell him. he’ll really do it

i don’t need him sobbing all over my fuckinf art

mork (11:18 AM):

um. his name

is donghyuck

he just moved here

jennifer (11:18 AM):

how do u kno him

mork (11:19 AM):

haha

suddenly my laptop is dying i have to go

jaem (11:19 AM):

MARK.

mork (11:20 AM):

i…may have met him in the park at midnight last night and talked with him for like four hours which is why i missed all of my morning classes.

hahaha

xiao (11:21 AM):

i.

you’re telling me i embarrassed myself in front of ap bio students this morning because you were being GAY LAST NIGHT

jaem (11:21 AM):

as if that is not THE worthiest endeavor

xiao (11:21 AM):

YERIM LOOKED AT ME LIKE I’D LOST MY MIND.

run (11:21 AM):

that’s because you Have lost your mind, dejun

jipwark (11:22 AM):

CAN U ALL PLEASE SHUT UP IM TRYING TO CRAM FOR THIS SPANISH TEST.

jaem (11:22 AM):

(0-0)

damn. aight.

jipwark (11:23 AM):

Thank. You.

 

 

despite his best efforts, jisung only manages a 73.4% on the test (which was online, for crying out loud), which is a little pathetic considering mark gave him an exact copy of the damn thing, but whatever. mark has bigger things to worry about.

the biggest problem is that donghyuck hasn't texted mark back. he's starting to get a little worried that his double-texting tendencies and inability to shut his stupid mouth scared the boy off, and his friends are not helping.

his friends are, of course, the other thing to worry about. they hound him like he has the secrets of the universe (he doesn't) or the last slice of greasy overcooked pizza from the cafeteria (he does, but he's not sharing), and it's both stifling and a little freaky. chenle is literally breathing down his neck, and yukhei has been staring with his obnoxiously big eyes for the entirety of their miserable lunch period.

“will you guys give it a rest?!” mark shouts after jisung tries for the third time to strike a bargain with him (in which he stops putting the weird mushrooms he finds outside in mark’s locker if mark gives him all the juicy details about donghyuck).

“can you really blame us?” renjun grumbles over a piece of what might be chicken. “none of us have interesting love lives, and you literally met a mysterious, beautiful stranger in the middle of the night and got his number?”

“okay, yeah, i get that, but why are you all bugging me for details that i don't have—kunhang if you even think about taking that piece of pepperoni, i’ll gnaw on your ankles.”

kunhang freezes, hand suspended over mark’s pizza like a thief being lowered from the ceiling toward a priceless artifact. even in the face of mark’s vengeance, he seems to consider taking the meat anyway, but one painfully knowing look from jaemin tells him to heed mark's warning. kunhang takes an olive instead, and mark lets it slide because kunhang’s plate consists of a pathetic excuse for a salad, some watery dressing, and about forty-seven croutons, all of which look extraordinarily burnt. gotta love cafeteria food.

“how do you not have more details?” dejun whines. “you spent four hours with the guy, and all you can say is that he's funny?”

mark shrugs helplessly. “he is funny.”

dejun looks about three seconds away from popping a blood vessel. “i hate you.”

“i don't know what to say! donghyuck is just—“ he gestures vaguely, “a lot!”

“a lot?” jaemin laughs.

“like. he's overwhelming, in a good way. he has this...energy, like all he has to do is smile and suddenly he's the only one in the room.” it only strikes mark how cheesy and absolutely whipped he sounds after the words have settled amongst his friends.

jaemin grins in that evil way that mark hates. “our little markie has it bad.”

“shut the hell up, jaemin, or i swear i’ll tell jeno about what you did to his—“

“don't you dare mark lee or so help me god i’ll shred your underwear—“

“like that?” chenle asks suddenly.

jaemin pauses in his angry tirade, pointedly ignoring jeno’s pleas for someone to tell him what the hell jaemin did. “like what?”

chenle points to the cafeteria entrance and everyone turns to watch whatever has caught the boy’s attention. when mark finally makes out the figure standing there, he can feel the breath being stolen from his lungs.

“who is tha—oh my god.” it takes renjun less than three seconds to figure it out, and a single glance at mark’s lovestruck dumbfounded expression confirms his suspicions.

“holy shit,” yukhei grins, “is that donghyuck?”

“kill me now,” mark says in lieu of an answer. nothing good can come from this.

mark is right. “HEY,” chenle screams, garnering the attention of every single student in the vicinity. he stands, waves with his entire body, and drags mark like a ragdoll along with him. “DONGHYUCK!”

donghyuck looks up from the conversation he's having with the principal, sees mark, and flushes so visibly mark can see it from all the way across the cafeteria. oh, he’ll never live this down.

the principal says something, gestures for donghyuck to go, and turns his attention toward a woman who bears a striking resemblance to donghyuck. left with no choice, donghyuck slinks across the cafeteria, trying his utmost to ignore the hundreds of gazes trained on his every move.

he stops in front of mark’s table, cheeks still painted a startling shade of red. “hi.”

should mark be able to feel all the moisture leave his mouth like that? “hey.”

renjun clears his throat as annoyingly as possible, only to smile innocently and bat his lashes when mark shoots him a glare that would make any lesser man crumble. “so who's your friend?” he asks. yukhei is trembling beside him, and mark can't tell if it's from excitement or fear of mark’s wrath. (it's both, but mainly the caffeine he shouldn't have had twenty minutes ago. also, the burrito mark got him has finally “taken spiritual effect,” or whatever that means.)

“guys, this is donghyuck,” mark introduces. “donghyuck, these are my idiot friends.”

“hey!” kunhang objects. the (admittedly impressive) crouton kingdom he's built for himself isn't helping his case.

mark sighs, resigned to whatever disaster is about to happen, and starts from the left. “kunhang, renjun, yukhei, dejun, jeno, jaemin, jisung, chenle. my idiots.”

donghyuck doesn't catch any of that, but that's okay. “nice to meet you all!”

“so, uh, what’re you doing here?” mark asks, trying not to sound awkward. his attempt is failing miserably.

“first day,” donghyuck answers. he's missed half of it, but mark won't point that out. “well, more like tomorrow is. i’m just getting a tour of the school and stuff right now. i don't have much to do since i transferred so late into the year, but my mom thought it’d be good for me to get a feel for the place, anyway.”

relief floods mark’s chest. donghyuck wasn't ignoring him, he was busy touring mark’s school. the school he’ll be attending. oh god.

“welcome to our school!” renjun chirps, his tone too friendly to be genuine. “feel free to sit with us every day. any friend of mark’s is a friend of ours.”

somehow, that feels more like an order than an invitation. “haha, thanks...”

“so,” kunhang tries in his best (awful) attempt at being casual, “how do you know mark?”

donghyuck sends a nervous glance mark’s way. “just happened to meet him yesterday.”

“where?” jaemin prods. they already know the answers to these questions, so mark can't for the life of him understand why they're asking. (except he knows exactly why, he just hopes he’s wrong.)

“...a park? um, why does it—?”

“how do you feel about our little markiepoo?” jaemin is grinning almost predatorily. “he seems to be quite taken with you, donghyuckie—“

“okay!” mark all but screams, shooting up from his seat. jaemin looks like he's just won tickets to disney world. “that's enough! i hate you all!”

driven entirely by hatred for the gremlins he calls friends, mark grabs donghyuck's hand and runs. chenle is screeching some sort of celebration behind them, but mark refuses to acknowledge it. he drags donghyuck through the south exit, up the stairs, and into a random classroom, chest heaving as he laments his disregard for any physical education class he’d ever taken. maybe he shouldn't have half-assed all those laps.

donghyuck looks equally if not more worn out, which makes mark feel better and then twice as bad. “oh, shit, i’m sorry. we shouldn't have run the whole way, i don't know what i was—“

“no,” donghyuck huffs, “it's fine. i’m just—whew—out of shape. fuck, does this town have a gym? i need to get a membership or something.”

mark has no idea. “maybe? my brother has a bunch of exercise equipment at my house, so i've never bothered to look for one.”

“huh. maybe i’ll drop by sometime,” donghyuck says, and mark hates how his heart rate speeds up at the thought of donghyuck showing up at his doorstep, sparkly-eyed and fluffy-haired, wearing shorts and a muscle tank and—mark doesn't let himself think any further.

“yeah,” mark rasps. he stands by what he said earlier: donghyuck is a lot.

mark has to actively remind himself to figure out where he even is, and the answer is a little surprising. apparently, he brought them to a science classroom, one that mark has never had a class in even after all this time. he sits down in a wobbly stool, almost toppling over and taking the darn thing with him. meanwhile, donghyuck wanders over to an unnervingly realistic model of the human body and lifts a flap of fake skin to find something that might actually be real guts. not human, but still. ew.

“i’m sorry about my friends,” mark grimaces. “they can be...a handful.”

donghyuck flushes, remembering jaemin’s questions. “no, it's okay. they just wanted to know more about the new kid. and like, how we met, i guess.”

mark groans. “no, that's the thing—they already knew.”

“huh?”

“i—they hounded me about it. i don't know if you saw my texts, but yeah. i was late this morning, and they just had to know why, so. they already knew.”

“oh.” donghyuck looks down at his phone. “my phone died earlier. i didn't see. sorry.”

and now mark feels like an idiot because the possibility that donghyuck's phone was dead hadn't even crossed his mind. wow, he’s a dumbass.

“it's okay!” mark assures. “i just wish i could have warned you about them before they opened their big mouths.”

donghyuck laughs, and immediately mark’s heart feels lighter. “they weren't that bad, markie. don't worry about it.”

somehow, mark finds that hard to believe, but he doesn't press further. he’s too caught up in all things donghyuck, with how he seems to feel like he and donghyuck are the only two in the entire universe no matter where or when they are. it’s disarming, but it feels incredible, like the first breath of fresh air mark has had in eons.

that doesn’t mean, of course, that donghyuck has to let him breathe. “so, when that guy said you’re ‘quite taken’ with me—“

“oh my fucking god,” mark groans.

“no, c’mon, i answered his questions—“

“—questions he already knew the answers to!”

“but i didn’t know that!” he says, and mark hates that it’s true.

mark can feel his ears starting to burn, and he’s sure they’re already coloring with his embarrassment. “wasn’t i being obvious enough about that already?” he grumbles, arms crossed across his chest like that’ll somehow prevent anything else from wounding his pride. he’s staring pointedly at the ground, perhaps in the hopes that it will swallow him whole before he hears a response.

with a smile, donghyuck walks over and plants himself right in mark’s space where mark has no choice but to look at him. he’s almost too pretty up close, and those moles will probably be the end of mark, not to mention the tan that seems to make his skin glow like the sun itself took the time to specially craft a being so stunning that mark, specifically, would actually die upon their meeting. “yeah, but i just wanted to hear you admit it.”

mark’s line of sight falls to the floor again, which still, unfortunately, hasn’t eaten him. “oh my god, you’re worse than they are.”

“maybe,” donghyuck hums, fingers dancing to lift mark’s chin up until their gazes meet, “but just for the record, i’m pretty into you, too, markie.”

highly doubtful, mark thinks. why would a boy like donghyuck fall for a boy like mark? “really?” he asks anyway, suddenly acutely conscious of the proximity between them and the way donghyuck is staring at him with something akin to…fondness?

“really,” donghyuck affirms. his grin has turned shy, but sincerity and adoration ooze off of him in intoxicating waves. with a surge of courage spurred solely by the wideness of mark’s glimmering eyes, donghyuck leans forward and pecks him softly on the edge of his lips, retreating before either boy can really process what just happened. it can hardly be counted as a kiss, but it was certainly something—and, more importantly, it’s enough to make mark realize that donghyuck is absolutely serious.

a gentle smile slips onto mark’s face without his knowledge, lighting up his demeanor and making donghyuck’s heart sing. “okay,” mark whispers, all soft edges and boyish charm. oh, donghyuck can’t even begin to describe the tenderness that wells up in his chest, but it’s warm and good and so very, very mark.

the warning bell sounds in the distance, reminding the pair of their whereabouts. mark looks up at the clock in the corner of the room and takes donghyuck’s hand, tugging him lightly toward the door. “we should get you back to your tour, huh?”

that’s probably the absolute last thing donghyuck wants (an afternoon spent alongside a pretty boy with soft skin and sparkling eyes is much more appealing than a tour led by a too-friendly middle-aged man with starchy slacks and crooked glasses, after all), but he nods and follows mark all the same. his mother is probably antsy to wrap it all up so she can get his brother from daycare, donghyuck supposes, and there’ll probably be a class occupying the room soon enough anyway. it’s also way too warm in there, so the shock of the cold hallway air sends shivers down his spine. donghyuck hopes mark doesn’t notice. (but he does. of course he does. how could he not? donghyuck shivers with his entire body, and it’s cute as hell, in mark’s humble opinion.)

mark and donghyuck wade sluggishly through the stream of tired high schoolers, barely avoiding the swing of a negligent senior’s arm as he gesticulates to his friend about something or other. they slip down the stairs, thankful for the reprieve from the bustling crowd, and reenter the cafeteria. mark’s friends are still there, lunches consumed and faces blank as they attempt to cling to any sense of motivation they have left in order to make it to class.

“he’s back!” someone—dejun?—crows, but mark plows forward and away from them. the principal is sitting very awkwardly at the end of an abandoned lunch table with the woman mark assumes to be donghyuck’s mother, still droning on about the school and its many, many perks (half of which are untrue, but mark doubts he knows that since he only ever leaves his office for these tours).

“mom!” donghyuck calls, and it’s only then that he remembers mark is holding his hand, and his mother still has no idea what’s going on. the look she sends him is somewhere between muted shock and fascinated glee, and he almost considers yanking his hand out of mark’s grasp, but…warm. warm and nice and mark. letting go is not worth a moment of embarrassment spared.

“there you are, sweetie!” she chirps, eyeing mark like she would a particularly promising buy at the store. “mr. choi and i were just talking about your elective options.”

donghyuck doesn’t really care, but he’ll pretend to if it gets him out of here. “ooh, cool. i’ll have to think for a while on what i wanna do.”

mr. choi nods, apparently satisfied by donghyuck’s attitude, and turns to donghyuck’s mother. “i’ve given you two a lot of information for one day, so i’ll take you to the main entrance and let you go, okay?”

“wonderful.” her smile is sweet, but donghyuck knows that look. she’s definitely had enough of him.

“ah, mark!” the principal says suddenly as if only just now noticing him, “i take it you’ve shown our newest student around a bit more?”

mark turns on his Model Student™ act, complete with a megawatt smile and a honey-sweet voice. “yeah, i showed him around the science building a bit. i know that’s not really on the tour agenda.”

“just what i’d expect from our valedictorian!”

oh, now that’s news to donghyuck. mister i-wander-the-darkness-until-dawn is valedictorian? he shoots mark a pointed glance, and mark squeezes his hand in reply. later, he seems to say.

“of course, sir,” mark replies smoothly, quite proud of how collected he appears even though his anxiety is practically tearing him apart.

mr. choi grins, glancing down to mark’s and donghyuck’s intertwined fingers. a look passes over him, one that mark recognizes as the way straight people react to anything unexpectedly or potentially gay—discomfort immediately followed by a guilt-driven effort to overcompensate.

“so…you two are…?” mr. choi struggles. his smile is painfully forced, and he keeps looking at the lack of space between the pair as if it’ll tell him what to do next.

even if everything about the situation weren’t mortifying, mark wouldn’t know what to say. they’re not together, per se, but they…like each other? probably? they’re still holding hands, and donghyuck keeps inching closer to mark when he looks the other way, so yes, mark decides they definitely like each other very much.

donghyuck doesn’t seem to have the reservations that mark does. “yeah,” he answers, intentionally vague and blushing like mad. his mother looks positively delighted (terrifying), and mr. choi’s fake grin only ends up more distorted (hilarious).

“wonderful!” the principal says, artificial enthusiasm so palpable mark can feel his skin crawling. “i’m glad our new student has already found something to love about the place. why don’t i show you out so you can get ready to join us properly tomorrow?”

‘found something to love,’ huh? donghyuck muses, squeezing experimentally at the hand in his. mark doesn’t hesitate to squeeze back, and he even starts rubbing his thumb in soothing circles on the back of donghyuck’s hand. the gesture is meant to be soothing, but it sends his heart flying up to the clouds, and donghyuck doubts it’ll ever come back down.

maybe i have.