His chest burns. His heart pumps fiercely, trying to keep up with how fast he’s going. His calves are starting to get tense but he doesn’t relent. He pushes, and pushes and keeps going. He goes faster, goes harder. His determination amplifies with each push of his shoe against the gravel. He ignores the way his body is telling him to stop. The only thing he cares right now is how he’s never good enough, how he’ll never be good enough. That’s all it takes for him to keep pushing, keep going.
The look of disappointment on his instructor’s face, the mocking tick of the metronome and the demisemiquavers that stare coldly back at him. He goes through them in his head over and over. And he hates it. Hates how he isn’t able to overcome them, hates how he has no control over them and especially hates how he doesn’t seem to get better no matter how much he practices.
His strides become wider and his thighs burn from the extra exertion but that’s exactly what he wants - to feel every muscle in his body working the more he pushes himself. That’s the thing he likes about running. Everything is under his control; his speed, his steps, his breathing. If he wants to go faster, then he’ll make himself go faster. If he’s tired, he can simply slow down to a jog. Running is easy, running is a breeze.
Music though. Music is different. He doesn’t have complete control over how he plays. Not yet. He can’t help but go faster than the intended beat, can’t help coming in at the wrong count. He can’t help that he doesn’t improve as much and as fast as he wants. It irks him when it doesn’t go the way he wants. He wants to have that control, like how he does when he runs. He wants to be like all the great musicians he admires. But often all he achieves at the end of the day is just the feeling of uselessness and unworthiness, no matter how much he practices. And when he’s feeling sucky and shitty about himself, he runs.
And runs. And runs till it feels like his heart might just stop in protest and his lungs are going to collapse. He runs even before the sun awakes because he’s kept awake at night trapped in his own thoughts.
He slows down gradually when his breathing becomes too laboured and he finally comes to a stop near a bench. He hunches over with his hands on his hips. He takes in deep gulps of air as he waits for his heart rate to return to normal.
He definitely feels better now than he was earlier. Running is something he depends on to calm his mind. It’s like a trade-off, he thinks. An erratic heart for a peace of mind. Sometimes he ends up on the losing end of the trade. But other times, it helps and that mere chance of him feeling better is more than enough of a reason for him to run.
The sun is starting to peek out from the horizon, the first ray of light filtering through the clouds. The sky is cast as an orange-purple gradient. It’ll turn a clear, bright blue soon. The postman will cycle by with today’s mail in his basket and the elderly couple will walk past with their puppy. He’s done this enough to know the usual morning routines of others without meaning to.
“That’s a lot of zeal for six in the morning.”
Mark swings his head up at the interruption as he inhales and swallows. He’s greeted by a complete stranger seemingly around his age. Mark’s never seen him before. The guy’s wearing a simple shirt and shorts over tights, decked in a pair of running Nikes. It’s typical sports attire but Mark can’t help notice how it accentuates his lean and toned body frame. His hair is dripping with perspiration. The guy stretches his arm over his head to one side and he looks at Mark with an indecipherable smile on his face.
It throws Mark off, in a weird kind of way because firstly Mark doesn’t even know him and secondly why is he even talking to Mark? The whole situation seems so absurd. It’s six in the morning. What’s he doing disturbing other people’s peace at six in the morning? Mark looks at him a little too piercingly. He doesn’t know what the guy’s deal is and he doesn’t want any part of it.
“Making light conversations before the sun rises part of your morning routine?” Mark jabs back, hoping he gets the hint that Mark isn’t interested in whatever he’s intending.
The guy gets taken aback by the sharpness of Mark’s reply but his expression eases into an amused smile; a smirk that doesn’t do anything but agitate Mark even further. Mark can walk away, he decides; he doesn’t have to stay and entertain him. In fact, Mark contemplates doing just that when the guy starts speaking again.
“You an athlete or something? On some strict training regime?” He switches to stretch his other arm and he swings his head to push his sticky bangs away from his face.
“No,” Mark answers curtly. For someone who openly approaches others, the guy’s surprisingly hard to read. He hides behind his smile and his intentions, if any, doesn’t show on his face. Mark tries to analyse him as subtly as he can. “Just running for leisure.”
The guy’s expression changes into that of surprise and he lets out a short laugh. “Running that fast, this early, for leisure? That’s something alright.” He extends out a hand. “I’m Jeno. Nice to meet you.”
Mark looks a little skeptically at the outstretched hand for a second before returning the handshake. “Mark,” he offers. He gives Jeno a judgmental look. “I take it you don’t run for leisure.”
Jeno simply smiles and nods towards the unoccupied bench near them and sits. For the lack of anything to do, Mark follows his lead and sits at the bench too, careful to put some distance between them. He’s still trying to figure this Jeno guy out.
“I’m a school athlete. But it’s off-season right now. So I run outside of trainings to maintain my stamina. Although I do enjoy doing it leisurely.” Jeno looks at him, a playful glint in his eyes. “Thought I’d found a fellow athlete, a friend or rival maybe, when I saw you running so intensely. Guess that wasn’t it.”
Mark looks at him curiously, not knowing if he should trust his words. Maybe he is just a friendly guy trying to make his morning runs more enjoyable by striking up conversations. It’s definitely a better start of a morning compared to Mark’s - which mainly consists of intense physical activity and self-deprecating thoughts. Jeno’s... an interesting guy, he concludes, at the very least.
“Any sport in particular?” Mark asks, slowly letting his guard down.
“Only the best sport in the world,” Jeno replies with a proud look on his face. “Volleyball.”
Mark really sees it now, how much of an athlete Jeno looks like. His built and just the way he carries himself are very athlete-like.
“That’s cool. Which school?”
“The one fifteen minutes away from this park.”
Which only means he goes to one of the top universities in the country. Mark gives him an impressed look, which Jeno simply shrugs and says, “Scholarship, for being in the volleyball team. Which also explains why I train even during off-season. Can’t be too complacent.”
Mark nods in understanding. He knows that feeling all too well.
“So what do you do, other than being a non-athlete?” Jeno looks at him, his eyes twinkling. Mark notices how his eyes disappear into crescents whenever he smiles.
If Jeno’s trying at a joke, then he’s really bad at it. “I try to be a good music student most of the time. I go to the music school behind this park.”
This time it’s Jeno who’s looking at him impressed. “That prestigious one?” He whistles. “What do you play?”
Mark gives a sly smile and shrugs. “Guess.”
“Let’s see,” Jeno says interestedly and scrunches his face as he ponders. He scans Mark carefully, trying to figure out what instrument Mark looks like he plays. He gives out a frustrated sigh in the end that makes Mark let out a laugh naturally.
“Honestly? You just look like an athlete to me, which was why I approached you in the first place. But I’m gonna throw it out there and guess... violin?”
Mark breaks out into laughter again. “Close.”
Jeno’s eyes light up. “Really?”
“No! Way off.” Mark sees how Jeno’s face falls and a slight pout forms on his lips. “I play the drums.”
“That’s sick,” Jeno says in fascination.
“I guess,” Mark replies, a little too deflating in comparison to how passionately Jeno had been when he was talking about volleyball. Jeno senses it and he cocks his head to the side, a curious look on his face.
“I’m gonna pull a wild one again and guess that you don’t like it?”
Wrong. Way off. Mark loves it.
Growing up, it was the only thing he wanted to do. He chanced upon a drummer performing on the streets when he was five and that was all it took. He was so young then as he watched with starry-eyes how captivating the drums was. He had never been more sure of anything in his five years of life - he wanted to play the drums. At the ripe age of five, he had found his calling. As ridiculous as it sounds, there was no other way to explain how he felt.
He talked about it for weeks, which turned into months and then into years. When it seemed like he wasn’t going to forget about it any time soon, his parents finally enrolled him in drumming lessons when he was nine and he got his own drum set on his twelfth birthday (on the condition that he soundproofed the garage).
He didn’t fall out of it in high school like his parents had expected him to. In fact, he was so into it that it was all he ever cared about. When it was school vacation, he could be found in the garage the whole day, on his drum set, oblivious to the time and weather of day. It’d become something that defined him. If anyone was talking about that kid that always carries drumsticks around, that would be him. To the people around him, him and the drums come together as a pair and he honestly wouldn’t want it any other way. He’ll pick drums over anything else, even with all the tears and pain he’s gone through because of it. Especially with all the tears and pain he’s gone through because of it. It’s become such a big part of his life.
“No, I like it. Just gets a little tough sometimes,” Mark tells him. He was never a child prodigy and it took hours of endless practice to get to the skill that he’s at right now. He looks down at his feet, tapping them mindlessly against each other. “So I run, when it gets hard. It makes me feel better.”
Jeno is quiet, in a nice and polite kind of way and it makes Mark not regret walking away when Jeno had approached. Talking to Jeno had lifted some weight off his chest. Because Jeno is a stranger and is in no way personally involved in his life, talking about his problems to Jeno without worrying of how it’ll worry Jeno is like a breath of fresh air. Because Jeno doesn’t know him, he isn’t Jeno’s business. And that idea itself is somewhat freeing. He already has enough concerned eyes watching out for him and while he really does love his friends, sometimes it gets overwhelming. He doesn’t want any more people treating him like he’s walking on fine thread.
Talking to Jeno had surprisingly been easy and relaxing (he blames Jeno’s bad first impression for thinking otherwise). It’s nice and comforting in a way; it helps to clear his mind. He’s never felt this with anyone so quickly.
“Well, if it helps, I get sick of volleyball sometimes too. It becomes too much after a while, always having to rise up to expectations. It’s like I’m not allowed to have a bad day.” Jeno laughs, the way people do when they talk about something painful in the past that they can now fondly look back on. “But that’s life, isn’t it?”
“That’s life,” Mark echoes with a tight smile. He grips the bench and looks up, the sky now a clear, calming pale blue. He should probably head back before Renjun starts to worry where he’s been when Renjun sees his bed empty.
“Right, I should get going. It was nice meeting you Jeno.”
“Back at you drummer boy. Guess I’ll see you again sometime? But hopefully not for the same reasons.”
Mark thinks it’s nice of Jeno to say that. Because if he’s running again, it means that he hasn’t manage to overcome all those thoughts shrouding his mind. But what Jeno doesn’t know is that he’s been running here for the past week, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll stop any time soon.
Mark steps mindlessly on the paddle in consistent rhythm, making the beater hit against the base drum thump after thump. Jisung and him are so attuned to the sound they barely register it there around them anymore. Jisung’s packing up his things, putting his file and drumsticks into his bag. When he’s done, he turns around to see Mark still at the drum set and it’s only then he registers the steady beat that Mark’s making in the background. Mark is seated on the stool, eyes glazed and lost in thought. His right foot moves on its own against the paddle, the action as natural to him as breathing.
“You’re not leaving?”
Mark stirs, Jisung’s voice catching his ears from the monotonous thumping of the base. He stops his foot in time before another thump sounds and he eyes his drumsticks resting on the snare drum. His chest feels heavy at the sight of it.
“I think I’ll stay a while.”
Jisung looks at him disapprovingly and Mark knows, knows he shouldn’t be like this but he can’t help it. He isn’t like Jisung, he doesn’t pick things up as quickly and he struggles with the counts while Jisung breezes through them. Jisung is talented while Mark is… Mark. Mark is Mark.
“Hyung, you’ve practiced more than enough,” Jisung reminds him.
The practice room is small, but large enough for two drum sets, which Mark and Jisung had been using since after lunch. Their tutor had been going round the practice rooms, going through the scores with each pair and he was incredibly pleased with Mark’s and Jisung’s progress. He commented on how Mark had gotten better at mastering the off beats at the time signature change. No one mentions how Jisung had mastered it a whole three days before he did.
“I just want to commit this to memory. I won’t take long, promise.”
Jisung lets out a soft sigh. “Want me to stay with you? I can help to monitor.”
Mark shakes his head. “It’s fine. You’re meeting the others for dinner, right? You better go.”
Jisung stands from where he’s sitting on the floor and slips on his backpack. “There’s always a spot for you at dinner, you know.”
“I’ll grab something when I’m done, don’t worry.” Mark tries for a smile. “I’ll join you guys tomorrow.”
“You better,” Jisung says and he walks past the drums to the door, stopping shortly before he steps out. He turns his head back and looks at Mark pensively. “Don’t spend too much time in your head, hyung.”
He knows Jisung doesn’t mean anything bad by it and that he’s just watching out for him. Which Mark sincerely appreciates but the words hit accurately at the core of everything Mark’s feeling right now. It’s because he’s too wrapped up in his thoughts that he feels this way about himself.
“Just get going, Sung,” Mark jokes lightly, pointing his drumstick at the door. He hopes the smile he puts up is enough to not make Jisung worry about him. Jisung seems to buy it because he leaves with a wave and a small smile, although Mark can tell from his eyes that he’s not entirely convinced.
Now alone in the practice room, Mark turns the metronome up to the maximum volume, letting the ticking beat hypnotise him till he absorbs it and internalises it and becomes one with it. And he practices. He plays until the hour hand of the clock makes more than three revolutions and he thinks he’s reached his limit for the day. He doesn’t think he can practice any more without feeling like his brain is going to explode. He packs up his things, including his frustration, and makes his way back to the dorms. When he reaches, he notes that Renjun is not back from dinner yet (probably because Donghyuck’s convinced them into going somewhere after dinner). He thinks about getting dinner but pushes it to later because he could really use a run right now.
And so he runs. Even if it’s probably around ten at night. It’s quite dark, but he’s used to it. He’s always running either before the sun rises, or after the sun retreats. Darkness somehow always accompanies him.
He sprints for what feels like a mile and his heart beats so fiercely he feels it with his whole body. He gulps in air and eventually slows down to a jog, the lampposts and trees slowly reforming from the whir of yellow and green. He walks for a bit to stretch his muscles. He feels his whole body scream in exhaustion, the events of the day piling like bricks on his shoulders. He needs to take a break somewhere before his legs give way. He foregoes the benches scattered around and opts for the soft grass instead, flopping onto the ground and earning himself a treat of the night sky. There’s barely anyone around so he doesn’t worry about people judging him for lying there on the dewy grass, chest heaving up and down deeply, reminiscent of a fish out of water.
His brings an arm up to cover his eyes, taking a moment to relax and even out his breathing. He feels his heart beat returning to normal and the beating of his heart brings his mind to the sound of the thumping base, which he doesn’t want to be reminded of right now. He tries focusing on something else.
He hears footsteps in the distance, but he doesn’t think much of it until it comes nearer and nearer, eventually becoming the sound of grass rustling right beside him.
“You’re here again drummer boy.”
Mark’s eyes fly open and he snaps his head to the right. He looks from beneath his arm and is greeted by Jeno. Jeno is lying beside him, looking as wrecked and sweaty as he probably does himself. There’s a grin on Jeno’s face. It looks so stupid it makes Mark roll his eyes out of instinct.
He didn’t actually think he’d ever see Jeno again. He has to say, he’s not displeased at their second encounter.
“So are you,” he hums his reply.
“You were running again.”
Mark turns away from Jeno, bringing his arm down from his forehead to rest at his stomach and stares at the sky. “So were you.”
Jeno shrugs. “Fair enough.”
The sky is starless tonight, there are only satellites where Mark wishes stars would be. He pretends they’re stars anyway. He reaches out and imagines plucking one out of the sky. Unsurprisingly, his hands grasp onto nothing.
“Want me to catch one for you?”
Mark scoffs. “A satellite or a real star?” He entertains.
“Whatever you want.”
Mark can feel Jeno looking at the sky too. He doesn’t know what Jeno’s thinking but he’s sure it’s far more interesting than whatever is in his own head.
“Sure, I’d like to see you try.”
“I’ll catch you a star,” Jeno says convincingly. “Point at the part of the sky you want the star to appear.”
Mark laughs in disbelief but Jeno doesn’t seem to be joking.
“Come on,” Jeno insists.
As doubtful as he is, Mark plays along and decides at a spot between two satellites a distance apart, right below the crescent moon. He points using his index finger and says, “There, right there.”
Jeno fixes his eyes on the spot Mark is pointing at and tells him to hold it there. He raises his hand and moves it nearer to where Mark is pointing. Suddenly, he clutches onto Mark’s finger and wraps his fingers around it.
Jeno turns on his side to watch Mark’s reaction. He smiles happily, laughing even and Mark doesn’t understand what’s going on. Mark’s confusion must have shown on his face because Jeno explains, “I’ve got you a star. Get it? You’re the star.”
Mark’s face turns into one of disgust as Jeno’s words sink in and he snatches back his finger before shoving at Jeno’s shoulder, making him fall back onto the grass.
“Ugh, you’re so lame,” Mark says in a repulsed manner. But Jeno’s laughing uncontrollably and he might even be tearing a little. A smile creeps up on Mark’s face against his will as he watches Jeno appreciates his own joke. So stupid.
Mark snorts as he amusedly looks over Jeno rolling on the grass, clutching at his stomach. “You know, I felt this the first time round but you’re terrible at jokes.”
Jeno calms himself down and wipes his eyes. He eventually ends up lying next to Mark again. He turns his head against the grass to look at him. “I’ll let you know you’re not the first to tell me that.”
“I’m glad there are others who tell you,” Mark retorts with a shake of his head. He continues looking at the vastness of the night sky and a thought pops into his head. He plays with the idea of it mainly because he’s curious. Jeno is interesting; he can’t help wondering what kind of person Jeno is.
He’s also hoping Jeno hasn’t had dinner yet.
“Hey, you’re a school athlete, right?”
“Then you must be on some kind of diet or something.”
Jeno scrunches his face. “I don’t like to be reminded of it.”
Mark whips his head to face Jeno, feeling the dew of the grass on his cheek as he turns. He grins at him, mischief evident in his smile.
“How do you feel about some McDonalds?”
Jeno breaks out into a laugh and Mark has a close view of his eye-smile.
An hour later, their stomachs are both filled and there’s too much fries leftover. They’re currently trying to solve that problem.
Jeno sucks through his straw, the slurping sound indicating that his cup is practically empty. He frowns at it and accepts his fate, before raising his head back at Mark.
“Okay, my turn. Do you have a girlfriend?”
Mark snorts as he leans back against his chair. “Nope.” He raises his eyebrow in return. “Do you?”
Jeno smirks and shakes his head. “Not looking for any of those. Or a boyfriend either in case you’re wondering. And you just asked me something, so it’s my turn again.”
“How about a boyfriend?”
Mark laughs, looking at him disbelievingly. “Man, your questions suck. I’m making you eat these fries just because.” He pushes the tray of fries on the table towards Jeno. Jeno calls him unfair but he eats them eventually.
They’ve decided on a game where the person who can’t answer the other’s questions will have to eat some of the leftover fries. It seemed like a pretty good idea when they came up with it, except for the fact that their stomachs are practically bursting. They shouldn’t have ordered so much.
“And to answer your question, no. My drums are all I’ve got. I don’t need anything or anyone else.”
“Ah, what a committed man. Pretty sexy.”
Mark throws a fry at him for the comment.
“Alright, my turn. Can I watch you play at one of your games?”
Jeno looks at him surprised, and he leans forward towards Mark, his arms crossed on the table. He watches Mark interestedly, the ends of his lips hinting at a smirk. “You want to watch me play? Why?”
“To see if you’re any good,” Mark shrugs nonchalantly. He’s really curious. Jeno is very intriguing.
“Oh, I’m plenty good,” Jeno says with a smug smile. “I’ll text you if there’s a game coming up. If you’ll give me your number.”
Mark stares at Jeno with a questioning smile. Jeno’s expression doesn’t falter.
“No point flirting with a committed man,” Mark throws Jeno’s joke back at him but still takes out his phone. They exchange their numbers and Mark doesn’t know if they’ll actually contact each other. But he’s comforted by the idea that he’s able to reach Jeno if he ever needs or wants to.
“Alright so my turn, right?” Jeno asks. He cocks his head and looks at Mark curiously. Mark wonders what kind of question he has in mind.
“You don’t have to tell me, but you mentioned you run when it gets hard.” Jeno’s eyes become more focused and his voice becomes delicately gentle. “So drummer boy, what’s making it hard?”
Mark knows from looking at Jeno that Jeno isn’t asking to pass conversation or because he’s a snoop. Jeno’s asking because he really cares and Mark finds it hard to understand why he would. They’ve only met twice. Even if Mark admits that he’s never felt so comfortable around anyone else this quickly, it doesn’t mean Jeno feels the same way about him. He doesn’t know if Jeno finds it as easy as he does to talk to him.
Mark takes a few fries in his hand instead of answering and pops it into his mouth. He chews slowly and Jeno sighs, watching him resignedly.
“Alright, a secret it shall remain. Your turn.”
Mark swallows and when he looks at Jeno, his stomach flips, making him feel squirmy. It’s not that he doesn’t want to tell Jeno, he just doesn’t want to dump all his baggage onto him and maybe scare him away. Jeno doesn’t deserve that mess. But here he is, giving Mark that look, wanting to know, wanting to help. Mark doesn’t think he can do that to Jeno.
“My question is... you won’t hate me for refusing to tell you, right?”
Jeno purses his lips and frowns. “Of course not. It’s your right to keep it to yourself. I just thought if you ever needed a shoulder, or a listening ear, then you know,” Jeno shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, I could be that for you.
“Right.” Mark clears his throat. “I just, I didn’t want you to think I’m trying to be distant or anything like that... I’m fine, you don’t have to be so worried. It’s not that serious.”
“If it’s making you feel down so frequently, it’s probably not as insignificant as you make it to be.”
Mark feels his heart drop to his stomach. Jeno’s probably right but there are some things he isn’t ready to admit yet. It’s not a problem unless he voices it aloud, right? Whatever is bothering him is all still in his head, non-existent to everyone else, as they should be.
“I can handle it,” he says with a weak smile. He nods his head forward at Jeno. “Your turn.”
“Okay,” Jeno hums, his head resting in his palm. He contemplates for a while before he speaks up. “Will you promise to invite me the next time you run? If ever.”
Mark looks at him confusedly. “Why?”
“You've got to answer first.”
Mark ponders it over. He takes in a long breath and holds it in before exhaling again. “Okay, fine I promise. Why?”
A sly smile appears on Jeno’s face. He shrugs and takes a handful of fries to his mouth instead.
Jeno had texted him first. It happened while he was having a late dinner with his friends. He had almost forgotten about having Jeno’s number when his phone lit up on the table with a text from Jeno. It had been a picture of the night sky specked with a few twinkling lights. Mark guesses he must have been out running at the park again. The message that accompanied the picture was ‘Plucked one out for you’.
It managed to make Mark smile and his reply had been, ‘Star or satellite?’
’What do you want it to be?’
‘I still want my star.’
The reply to that had been a picture of Jeno himself, smiling his signature smile, his bangs wet and plastered to his forehead. He had definitely been running.
Mark had replied a ‘Gross, Jeno!’ because going by the picture, Jeno was implying that he’s the star.
‘What? You’ve had your turn. Now it’s my turn to be the star :D’
Jeno was probably the lamest person Mark’s ever had the misfortune to meet. Mark had smiled as he read Jeno’s reply, which he wouldn’t have noticed if Renjun hadn’t pointed it out.
He told Renjun it was nothing when Renjun had asked. Renjun had side-eyed him but he let the matter go eventually, glancing at Mark every once in a while whenever Mark had his phone in his hand.
It becomes a regular thing, texting. They keep sending texts back and forth almost every day. Jeno sends him the weirdest things, like random facts or pictures or updates about the questionable things him and his friends get into. Mark learns a lot more about him too, like how he majors in Math because it’s the only subject he didn’t suck at in high school, or like how Jeno likes the colour green and absolutely loves strawberry ice-cream even if he’s lactose intolerant.
It’s easy, conversations with Jeno. The only hard thing is keeping the promise he made, which was to tell Jeno if he’s out running again. He finds it hard to do because most of the time, he starts running with.. a not very pleasant energy within him that he doesn’t want Jeno to see. Jeno’s only seen him after his run, not before and he knows that half of the time, there’s a big difference between the two states of him. So sometimes he runs around the neighbourhood of his dorms instead of the park, or he runs at timings he usually doesn’t just so he won’t bump into Jeno. He’s not breaking the promise, he’s just working himself up to it. He’ll definitely keep his promise, just maybe, maybe not yet.
Mark’s day had gone quite smoothly. He ended early and he’s back in his dorm with Renjun after they had had dinner with the rest of their friends. They’re both lazing around on their own bed, Mark’s listening to the piece he’s been practicing on while Renjun does up an assignment on his laptop. Mark’s studying his music score along with the music when he realises he has new texts from Jeno.
‘Hey remember how you said you wanted to watch me play?’
It’s not a game but I was wondering if you’d want to come down and watch me practice instead?’
‘Like right now’
‘If you’re not busy’
Mark almost chokes on his saliva. Was Jeno always this spontaneous? Trust Jeno to pop it on him like it’s nothing. He thought it’d be a while before he gets to see Jeno play since Jeno mentioned it was off-season. He didn’t expect it to be this fast.
It might be due to the abruptness of it all, but he doesn’t quite understand why his heart is beating faster than it usually does. He tries to minimize the trembling of his fingers as he types out his reply.
‘Cool I’m down’
He thinks it might also be because he hasn’t seen Jeno in a while. But it still doesn’t make sense.
‘Great! I’ll text you the directions’
‘Try not to get a nosebleed when you see how cool I am’
A text detailing the directions follows. Mark gets up to grab a change of clothes. He decides on a pair of sweats and a hoodie since he’ll just be watching Jeno practice. Besides, they’re always wearing sporty attire or super casual clothing whenever they meet. There’s no need to go out of his way to look... nice.
He rummages through his closet, aware of how Renjun’s glancing at him subtly.
He addresses Renjun’s curiosity. “I’ll be out late. Don’t wait up for me.”
“Are you going out for a run again?” Renjun frowns, abandoning his subtlety altogether and completely looking up from his laptop. “I really don’t like it when you come back late. I get worried.”
“Do you now?” Mark pokes at him. He quickly slips on his hoodie and sits back on his bed to put his shoes on. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I’ll try not to stay out too late.”
Renjun sighs resignedly and goes back to typing out his assignment. The sound of him typing fills the silence for a while until he speaks up again.
“Hey Mark?” Renjun calls out to him cautiously. “I’ve been thinking and… do you run when you’re stressed?”
Mark pauses in the midst of tying his shoelace, not bringing his eyes up to Renjun’s. He feels Renjun’s inquisitive stare lingering on him and he doesn’t know how to respond. He feels like if he tells Renjun honestly, it’ll be opening Pandora’s box. He’ll spill and spill and spill and everything ugly about him will be revealed and... and who knows what will happen then. He’s not ready to face that.
“You could say that,” he replies briefly.
He knows Renjun is smart enough to come to a conclusion looking at how much he’s been out running.
“If there’s anything bothering you,” Renjun says quietly. “You know you can-”
“I know,” Mark says as he tightens the knot of his shoelace. Renjun is one of his closest friends and he knows he can trust Renjun. It’s him that’s the problem. He doesn’t trust himself enough to believe that he won’t be a burden or a nuisance to Renjun. Or any of his friends for that matter. That’s something he has to work on. In fact, he has a lot he has to work on.
He finally raises his head to meet Renjun’s eyes. There’s that look of concern again, the same one Jisung wears every now and then whenever they practice together. “I know, thanks Jun. I’ll see you later.”
Mark leaves and arrives at the court about half an hour later. He tries to be as discrete as possible as he makes his way to the stands. He chooses a seat at the corner at the far back. He scans the court and all he sees at first is just a bunch of boys in jerseys, shouting and moving around. He tries to find for Jeno and he finally spots him in the middle of the court. Jeno’s position is in the attack zone at the right front and the energy he radiates is immensely noticeable. Mark doesn’t know how his eyes didn’t land on Jeno the moment he laid his eyes on the court. It’s impossible not to look at him now that he’s seen him. Jeno’s very active and alert, he’s loud in both words and actions and he’s extremely fast. Mark would believe within a heartbeat if someone told him Jeno’s the star player. In fact, someone doesn’t have to because he already thinks so.
It seems like the team has been practicing for a while looking at how drenched all of them are. Mark watches them practice engrossedly, sometimes being fixed on Jeno far longer than necessary. But Jeno is magnetic. When the coach blows his whistle for a break, Mark’s eyes searches for Jeno and he doesn’t know what force is out there playing with them because Jeno turns his head towards the stands at that same instant Mark locks his gaze on him. Jeno’s eyes land on Mark immediately without scanning the crowd and Mark swears he almost has goosebumps; as if Jeno knew he was right there.
Jeno’s whole face lights up and he gives Mark a wave. Mark nods stiffly and gives a small smile in return, cowering into his hoodie to avoid any attention. It seems he isn’t the only one here to watch Jeno, going by how many pair of eyes turn back to look at him.
The practice lasts twenty more minutes before it ends and Mark feels sorry that he couldn’t have made it earlier to watch longer. The small crowd at the stands disperse and the players too make their way to find their friends from the crowd or to head to the locker room.
Jeno jogs towards the stands and a handful of people greet him as he makes his way. He talks to them and smiles and laughs but his eyes glance towards Mark a couple of times, a sorry smile accompanying it. Mark doesn’t mind, if anything he gets to observe Jeno a little bit more. He finds Jeno even more interesting the more he learns about him.
When Jeno nears, Mark stands and walks towards Jeno to meet him halfway. Most of the people have left the court by now.
“Hey,” Jeno says softly and Mark thinks he might be imagining the shyness in Jeno’s voice. Jeno is confident and affirming, he can’t possibly be shy. “I don’t know why but I didn’t think you’d actually come.”
“I did say I wanted to see you play,” Mark shrugs, putting his hands into his hoodie pocket at the front. He clears his throat awkwardly. “And I was free anyway, so. You seem to have a lot of fans.”
“They’re just friends, really.” Jeno explains. He rubs the back of his head. “You know, same classes and all that.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I know what friends are, Jeno,” Mark jokes back. It’s weird, this atmosphere between them. It’s different from before. It feels like they’re treading on something delicate and neither is brave enough to do anything more for fear of risking something, Mark doesn’t know what. They’re both being cautious and it isn’t anything like how they usually are. There’s this tension that Mark can’t exactly name the source of. It just feels weird, but not in a bad way. It’s… unfamiliar.
“Was I any good?” Jeno’s asks expectantly, his eyes wide and round, as if what Mark thought of him mattered that much.
Mark isn’t used to this strange atmosphere between them and he feels the need to change it.
He sways on his feet and his lips curl up teasingly. “I don’t know. Your teammate over there caught my eye most of the time,” Mark nods towards a player with blond hair. “I didn’t really manage to watch you.”
It seems to snap Jeno back into the smug Jeno Mark’s only too familiar with. It brings relief and Mark breathes a little easier.
“Chenle? Really? But I’m way better than him!” Jeno protests.
The blond-haired guy, Chenle, whips his head back to find the caller of his name. He looks at Jeno confusedly. The guy who Chenle had been talking to turns to look at Jeno as well. Mark belatedly realises it’s just left with the four of them in the court.
“What?” Chenle asks, his eyebrows furrowed.
“I don’t like you,” Jeno wrinkles his nose. “Hurry up and leave. You’re pissing me off.”
Chenle gapes at him. “I didn’t even-”
“Bye!” Jeno waves at him exaggeratedly. Chenle huffs.
“You’ll regret this,” Chenle says indignantly as he drags the guy he was talking to out of the court with him.
Jeno gestures a phone with his hand to his ear and says, “I’ll call you!” as Chenle and his friend disappear from sight.
Jeno laughs and Mark watches how his smile grows. His eyes curve into crescents and there’s a redness to his cheeks from practice that gives him a cheery glow. The crinkles by his eyes does nothing but to make him look pretty and it makes Mark’s stomach squirm. Jeno probably isn’t aware of the effect his smile has.
Mark’s heart stutters looking at Jeno; hair dripping with perspiration, biceps out for show and a lethal smile on his ridiculous face. Jeno should look stupid, not like this.
“Great, now that the distraction is out of the way,” Jeno says (Mark would beg to differ), “I have your focus all to myself.”
Mark tears his gaze away consciously and eyes the door of the court which Chenle had just exited. “Was it ok for you to kick him out like that?”
Jeno waves his hand to dismiss Mark’s words. “He’s actually one of my closest friends. It’s fine.”
Jeno sits at the front row of the stands and pulls Mark down with him. He stretches out his legs. “Ahh, I invited you over to watch me but you watched someone else instead. Such a waste.”
“You’re so petty,” Mark rolls his eyes. And just like that there’s a shift and they’re back to how they usually are. Somehow, it’s easy to fall back into step with Jeno despite whatever weird thing that was going on before. It’s like being with an old friend, only that it’s not - it’s Jeno. “Obviously I was watching you. Why would I watch anyone else? I don’t know them.”
It seems to make Jeno happy because he asks excitedly, “Really? What did you think?”
“Pretty cool,” Mark shrugs, trying not to let his words get to Jeno’s head. “I wish I could play at least half as well as you do.”
Jeno’s eyes twinkle. Mark has a bad feeling.
Jeno looks mischievous and Mark is worried.
“I’ll teach you! Come on.”
“What?” Mark splutters. “I don’t think that’s a good-”
But Jeno is already pulling him up and towards the court.
“Are you sure?” Mark eyes at Jeno worriedly as he goes to retrieve a ball. “Are you even allowed to stay here? Aren’t you tired? Surely you-”
“Shut up,” Jeno says, unbothered, and passes him the ball. Mark catches it with ease. “Have you ever played?”
A ball in his hands feels awkward. It’s not as familiar as holding his drumsticks.
“Well, not properly. As in, I’ve never learnt it from someone, just picked it up somehow.”
“Consider this your lucky day,” Jeno winks. “Don’t worry I’ll just teach you some basics - I’ll show you how to hit. Throw the ball in a high arc towards me!” Jeno runs a distance away and when he’s ready, he nods, gesturing for Mark to throw the ball. Mark does. Jeno has the perfect stance; knees bent, hands outstretched with his thumbs next to each other. The ball hits his forearm and bounces off nicely. There’s something about watching an athlete play that’s undeniably charismatic.
“Basically you’re just bumping the ball,” Jeno explains. He jogs after the ball and hugs it under his arm. He gives Mark a slant smile. “Now you try.”
It seems pretty easy. Mark thinks he can pull it off. “Okay,” he says and he copies Jeno’s stance. He spreads his legs apart and bends his knees. He stretches his arms out signalling to Jeno that he’s ready. Jeno throws him the ball and it bumps against his forearm, bouncing off nicely.
“That was nice!” Jeno yells encouragingly. “But there’s one more thing. After you’ve hit the ball, you should follow through.”
“I’m not as fluent in sports as I am in music,” Mark states blankly.
“It just means you have to continue swinging your arm in the same motion after you’ve made contact with the ball. So you know, the ball follows the trajectory you want it to take.”
Jeno demonstrates the movement to him.
Mark puts a hand on his waist and he looks at Jeno, holding back a smile. Jeno raises his eyebrow curiously. “What?”
“It’s nothing, it’s just,” Mark says, his lips quirking up, “you’re pretty sexy when you turn all professional athlete.”
Jeno barks out a laugh. “Fuck off, just because I jokingly called you sexy once. Let me live.” Mark doesn’t miss how the tip of his ears have gone red.
“Are you actually flustered?” Mark asks in disbelief and when Jeno threatens to throw the ball at his head, he laughs even harder.
Jeno laughs along while still hurling threats at him, and it takes them a while to calm down.
When they do, Jeno motions for Mark to get into position again. He has the ball ready in his hands.
“I know me being sexy might be distracting but do try your best,” Jeno speaks. “This time follow through with the ball.”
Mark nods determinedly. Jeno throws the ball in an arc and Mark hits it as before, immediately looking at Jeno for his reaction. “Did I do it?”
“You hit it pretty nicely but it’s not there yet,” Jeno scrunches his nose. He asks Mark to pick up the ball. “I’ll show you again. Watch carefully. Ok, throw it to me.”
Mark does and Jeno hits it beautifully again, but Mark still has no idea what he means by a follow through.
They go at it again but Mark is as clueless as ever.
“It’s not that hard,” Jeno laughs.
“I’d like to see you playing the drums at 160 bpm on your first try,” Mark bites back.
Jeno blinks. “I don’t even know what that means.”
He walks over to Mark.
“A follow through is simple. Get into position,” he tells Mark. Mark looks at him skeptically, not sure if Jeno is trying to trick him into doing something weird. Jeno gives him an exasperated look. He complies for now.
“Okay so imagine you’re hitting the ball. The ball bounces off your arms.” He places his palms on Mark’s forearms. He’s notably warm, Mark realises, probably because he hasn’t properly cooled down yet. “What do you do after? You continue to swing your arm in the same motion.”
He holds Mark’s outstretched arms and raises them up, mimicking a swing. “This is a follow through. Try it.”
Jeno lets go, allowing for Mark to try the movement without the ball. Mark thinks he’s doing it right but Jeno laughs a little too loudly at his attempt. He glares at Jeno.
Jeno placates him. “No you almost had it, just don’t swing too much.”
Jeno brings himself closer to Mark, pushing down at Mark’s elbows. He holds Mark’s arms gingerly, as if unsure if Mark is fine with the contact and Mark almost shivers at how delicate yet firm Jeno’s hold is.
“So when the ball hits,” Jeno says, “you swing up like this,” and then his arms slide to Mark’s biceps to push them up gently, looking at Mark all the while to see if he understands. But his stare is a little overwhelming with how close he’s standing and Mark can’t focus on anything else other than how his heartbeat is suddenly increasing. He’s too aware of Jeno’s fingers around his arms and he’s sure his blood is pulsing so intensely Jeno could probably feel it too.
He tries to shake it off. He swallows and nods to show that he understands.
Jeno lets his hands fall but Mark isn’t as relieved at the loss of contact as he thought he would be. Jeno goes back to his position a few meters away with the ball in his hands.
Mark exhales slowly, ignoring his heart and focusing his mind instead. He purses his lips in concentration. “Bring it.”
Jeno throws the ball and Mark adjusts himself such that it hits his forearms. He imagines the ghost of Jeno’s hands guiding him and he follows through.
“Perfect!” Jeno exclaims, running up to Mark and enveloping him in a bone-crushing hug. Mark hugs him back just as enthusiastically, exhilaration pumping through his blood at the achievement. Neither of them registers what’s happening until they do. It happens at the same time and they both tense up when they realise they’re actually hugging.
Mark’s mind whirls into panic, thoughts flashing between ‘what do I do now?’ and ‘what if he’s uncomfortable with this?’ But Jeno, being Jeno, just laughs it off. He lifts Mark up and twirls him around and relief flows through Mark like a river meeting dried land. Mark laughs along with him.
Jeno puts him down and pats Mark on the shoulder encouragingly, his hands resting there. “That was great.” His smile is ridiculously bright and he looks so pretty and Mark doesn’t know where this desire comes from; he can’t help but stare at Jeno’s face. He can’t help as his eyes trace down the slope of Jeno’s nose and travels further down, helplessly drawn to his lips.
“Yeah,” he says and he forces his eyes back up to Jeno. He swallows dryly. “Yeah, thanks to you.”
“Hey, umm,” Jeno starts to say but he looks hesitant. This close-up view of Jeno is doing things to Mark’s heart, weird and dangerous things, and for some reason his lips are drying up. He licks at his lips but what he wasn’t expecting was Jeno’s eyes following the movement of his tongue.
Jeno’s staring at his lips, Mark is sure, and his own heartbeat is deafening in his ears.
“Do you, uhh,” Jeno says, eyes still trained on Mark’s lips. Jeno inhales shakily and all words are lost as he starts gravitating towards Mark. Mark doesn’t know how or why but he finds himself leaning towards Jeno as well. Jeno’s hand on his shoulder slides to his nape. Jeno’s so warm it’s scary how inviting his touch is. They’re too close that Mark can hear Jeno breathing. Mark frighteningly realises that he wants, oh god he stupidly wants, but he isn’t sure if he should. But Jeno is this close and it’s so easy if they just-
And it seems to make Jeno realise what they’re doing because Jeno’s eyes come into focus from staring at Mark’s lips and he pulls away almost immediately. He retracts his hands as though he’s been scalded. He clears his throat and Mark lets out an exhale, looking at the floor instead of at Jeno.
Jeno brings a hand up to run through his hair perplexedly. “I was umm wondering if you wanted to get coffee or a smoothie, or something.”
Mark wills his mind and his heart to calm down. He braves a glance up at Jeno and Jeno has that hesitant look in his eyes again, as if afraid of what might just come out of Mark’s mouth.
Mark tries not to let his voice shake. “Yeah sure, sounds great.”
Jeno nods stiffly and tries for a smile but it doesn’t match all of the other smiles Mark’s received before. “Okay, I’ll just go wash up and then we can go. Just give me like, ten minutes.”
“You can take longer,” Mark reassures him.
“I don’t want to keep you waiting,” Jeno replies with a small smile and then he’s off to the locker room, leaving Mark alone with a confused mind and the ghost of a kiss.
Mark doesn’t know what to make of the situation and he’s not sure if he wants to understand because he doesn’t want to think about whether or not Jeno had wanted to kiss him. Because what’s even more frightening than that is the fact that he had wanted Jeno to kiss him and he honestly doesn’t know if that’s for the best. He already has enough things to think about as it is. Having things being complicated with Jeno is not something he looks forward to. But hanging out with Jeno just like before, he thinks he can handle at least that much.
The almost kiss remains unspoken between them. Neither brings it up; both seemingly fine with pretending it didn’t happen at all. Mark doesn’t dwell on it, not because it doesn’t bother him (it definitely does because now he sees Jeno differently and he doesn’t know how to go back) but because he doesn’t have the chance to. He’s been too wrapped up with practice ever since. With assessments and assignments due, he’s barely breathing as it is.
He’s been cooped up in the practice room for weeks. He’s been waking up when the sky is dark and goes home with the sky the same colour as when he wakes. He runs on bad days, when things don’t go well during practice, and Renjun voices his worry for him whenever he comes back close to midnight. But Renjun too is swarmed with his own things, he doesn’t have time to check up on Mark, which is just as well. Mark doesn’t need anyone else other than himself to suffer because of him.
Currently, Jisung and him have been practicing together almost the whole day and it’s getting late. They’ve been at it for hours and it’s about dinner time so they’re both sensitive and cranky. Practice is exhausting, more mentally than physically but they won’t ever not practice. Practice is as vital as breathing in times like this.
They’ve just ended a brief run through of the piece they’re working on. Jisung stretches over the snare drum, his head turning over to Mark who’s at the other drum set and calls out to him.
“Hyung, let’s call it a day. I’m starving.”
Mark rests his drumsticks on the snare drum and stretches his arms over his head. They’re both sweaty despite the air-conditioning and Mark’s fringe is sticking annoyingly to his forehead. It’s not unfamiliar, given how long they’ve immersed themselves in their practice but it’s definitely not comfortable. Mark would really like to call it a day too but he hasn’t mastered the last phrase of the second movement and he really needs to get it done by today.
“You go ahead, Sung. I’m just gonna practice for a bit more.”
Jisung whines. The corners of his lips turn downward. “Let’s eat together. You’re always staying back late. You’ve become a zombie, hyung.”
Mark laughs tiredly. “If turning into a zombie means getting better then why not.”
“Hyung, come on,” Jisung begs. “You’re allowed to get some well-deserved break.”
Mark shakes his head. “Thanks, but I really want to get this down today. Why don’t you go on first?”
“There’s always tomorrow-”
Mark sighs, grabbing his drumsticks to start practice again. “I really don’t think I have enough time to perfect this. Next time, ok? We’ll eat together next time.”
“Hyung,” Jisung whines. Mark wishes he would just accept it. It would be easier for the both of them. It’s been a long day and it still hasn’t ended yet, not for Mark at least.
“I really need to cover this part. I know you already have it down, but not all of us are like you.” Mark’s tone comes out more cold than expected and he really doesn’t want to snap at Jisung. But if Jisung keeps on pushing him like this he cannot promise that he’ll hold himself back, no matter how much he adores Jisung.
He’s hungry and tired and weary. But he’s more disappointed in himself above anything else and he really doesn’t need Jisung to see him here, now, practically at rock-bottom. Jisung probably wouldn’t know how that feels like, would he? He does everything so well.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jisung frowns.
“Nothing, just,” Mark inhales slowly, “please, Sung? I’m really trying my best right now if you could just-”
Jisung stretches over to shake his arm pleadingly. “Come on. We’ll come back early tomorrow and make up for today. It won’t hurt-”
And there’s only so much control he can display before he loses it. Everything is ticking him off.
“Why won’t you just-”
“Enough,” Mark grits out, snatching his arm away from Jisung more forcefully than intended. The shock on Jisung’s face would pull at his heart any other day, but not now, not when he’s so close to feeling utterly miserable. He’s trying so hard not to get there.
Rage bubbles in his chest before he even realises and when he does, the irritation he feels is hard to ignore; it feels as if hot lava is rising inside of him and he has no way to make it all go back down. Pent-up frustrations come alive and burns through his blood, searing hot as it rises and rises and rises. And Mark tries to fight it, tries not to let it win but anger and frustration is powerful in its raw form, and Mark is hopelessly vulnerable.
With the turmoil taking place inside of him and Jisung’s insistent pleading - wonderful Jisung who isn’t at fault in any way - telling him to take it easy and not be hard on himself, Mark feels like his head is going to explode. The more Mark thinks about it, the more baffling he thinks it is. Because Jisung had mastered everything much earlier than Mark while Mark is still struggling so badly. Jisung who seems to live and breathe complicated rhythms, Jisung who never has trouble in whatever song they do, asking him to take it easy. If anything, he should be working even harder.
It’s so unfair that he has to put in at least twice the effort to be anywhere as good as Jisung is. He chokes up the more he thinks about it and what’s even worse is that it’s not even Jisung’s fault that he’s being this way.
But in his anger-hazed mind, the world is horribly unfair and he feels utterly worthless.
The lava boils, rises and threatens to spill.
And Mark loses control. The heat of anger takes over.
“Just, stop,” Mark bites out harshly, his breathing laboured. “I know you’ve got this piece down and you’re doing well. You’re talented, we all get it.”
Jisung’s gaze shakes. “Hyung…”
“You should have just dropped it when I told you to. Now you’re just pissing me off.”
Jisung is stunned and rendered silent. His hand falls limply to his side and his eyes start to glisten.
The silence is suffocating. Jisung is close to crying because of him and the sight of it should make him feel guilty and deep down he does but his pride doesn’t allow for it, won’t allow for it.
“Hyung,” Jisung finally speaks, sounding more timid than he usually does. He blinks to keep the tears from falling and his fists clench open and close, wanting to reach out but afraid. “I didn’t mean to- I swear I wasn’t trying to stress you out. I just- you’ve been so hard on yourself, I only wanted to help...” His voice faltering.
“I have to work at least this hard,” Mark looks at him, face hardened. “I’m not a genius like you.”
Jisung looks hurt. “But I’m not. I practice just like everyone else and-”
“And pick up things with ease like you’re just brushing dust off your shoulder while it feels like I’m lifting lead.” Mark doesn’t mean to, but his instincts take over and he’s glaring at Jisung before he even realises. “Admit it, I’m just holding you back. You don’t have to practice with me out of pity, you know. I know where I stand.”
Jisung’s expression contorts with anger, making the hurt on his face even more unbearable. “Do you even hear yourself? Hyung you’re a good player and it’s stupid you keep bringing yourself down like that!” His chests heave and tears gather in his eyes. “And take back your words about me! You know how hard I work too. That’s really not fair.”
Mark’s breath stutters at Jisung’s outburst. The steam in his head backs down at the sight of Jisung’s watery, red eyes. His pride retreats ashamedly.
“And pity? You think I practice with you out of pity? I practice with you because you’re my friend! Because I want to! God knows how many years I’ve spent practicing alone. I don’t want that anymore. I hate it,” Jisung spills heatedly and his voice drops, quivering notably. “I thought you, out of everyone else, would know that. I thought we were close.”
Mark is an asshole and he wishes Jisung would say that to his face. Mark doesn’t deserve to be called a friend. But Jisung had called him exactly that. Jisung, who embarrassedly revealed he never had any real friends when they first met. Precious Jisung, who was brought up strictly, made to practice every single day because they believed him to be a child prodigy. Jisung who followed obediently and traded away his childhood because he was too innocent back then to know any better, hating the word ‘prodigy’ as he grows.
Mark is an asshole and Jisung should hate him.
“Look, Sung. I’m just, feeling like literal shit right now, I didn’t mean-”
“No,” Jisung says and he packs up his stuff roughly, swinging his bag onto his shoulder.
Jisung shakes his head, a few tears rolling down his cheeks. “You meant what you said and I heard it loud and clear. I’ll back off now. Sorry to annoy you.”
“Sung please, wait,” Mark says out in a rush, reaching out to grab his arm desperately but Jisung is faster and dodges his hold. Jisung holds his gaze and the fact that he isn’t glaring, wearing upset and hurt like scars on his face, makes Mark’s whole body tense up with guilt. He watches helplessly as Jisung walks out with teary eyes, the door slamming shut behind him.
Mark feels horrible.
There’s nothing he can do now. Nothing but practice. It’s ironical how he doesn’t want that anymore.
But what else can he do? So he practices, just to taunt himself - this is what you wanted, so do it. He practices to let the guilt eat him inside out and turn him into nothing. He plugs in his earpiece and turns the volume up. He hits the drums with strength he knows he isn’t supposed to. But he couldn’t care less if he tears the skin of the drum or causes his drumsticks to snap. He breathes in heavily and hits and hits and hits till he can’t take it anymore. Because his mind keeps flitting back to Jisung and he worries. Of course he worries, after all those disgusting words he had hurled at Jisung. He throws his sticks aside not caring where they land and gets up in a haste. He leaves the room, leaving all his stuff there, sending a quick message to Renjun.
Renjun’s reply is immediate.
‘What do you mean? Isn’t he with you?’
Mark’s heart drops to his stomach.
He calls Renjun. Renjun picks up in a second and the worry in his voice is evident.
“Hey, what do you mean? Jisung said he’ll drag you out to have dinner with us. Is everything ok?”
“No,” Mark answers despairingly. Where could Jisung have gone to?
The first thing on Mark’s mind right now is to search for Jisung but he’s sure Jisung doesn’t want to see him. Mark exhales shakily. “Find him. Find him and make sure he’s ok.”
“Why isn’t he with you? What happened?”
“I was being a jerk. I said some stuff and I was being dumb - just, find him ok?” Mark says out in a rush and he knows the tremble in his voice is worrying Renjun.
He just needs to get out, get some air, clear his mind. He isn’t sure where he’s going but his legs seem to move on their own.
The rustling on Renjun’s end tells Mark that Renjun’s rushing and panicking. “Did you guys fight?”
“I- I didn’t mean to. It’s just everything’s been piling like crazy and he caught me in a bad- but that’s not the point. Jun, please,” Mark says worriedly as his steps widen and his pace quickens. His voice croaks. “Just find him and see that he’s safe.”
“I’ll check the usual spots first,” Renjun breathes out heavily and Mark can hear from the bristling of the wind that he’s running. “But Mark, what about you? Are you alright? Do you need- hey, oh my god are you crying? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Mark says and he hears how his voice breaks. “Just update me as soon as you can.”
“Mark? Shit- you’re really crying. Where are you? Let me at least ask Hyuck to get you-”
Mark ends the call. When he comes to observe his surroundings, he realises he’s in the park. He laughs bitterly to himself. Of course, where else would he go to? He walks slowly towards the track that he’s only too familiar with.
He stares at his phone, contemplates for a few heartbeats and makes up his mind. He sends a quick text before stuffing his phone into his pocket.
He steps onto the tracks, the gravel greeting the soles of his shoe like a welcomed guest. He looks up to the sky, closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath. And he runs.
Mark doesn’t think he’s ever ran this hard. As tiring as it is, he has no intentions of stopping. He doesn’t want to stop, wants to keep pushing till his heart beats so hard it’ll possibly overwork and freeze. He keeps replaying Jisung’s expression in his head and god he’s such an idiot. What was he thinking?
He grits his teeth and runs harder. He inhales loudly and his chest heaves deeply. His thighs and lungs feel like they’re burning but he doesn’t care. Because he feels too hideous to care about anything else. He doesn’t think he can stop, not when he’s still consumed by his thoughts and everything that’s been piling up and pushing him down. He doesn’t care at this point that he’s breathing a little too loudly, that his body is moving off-tangent to the track, that he might just crash into the ground any second from exhaustion. He’ll let that happen. He probably deserves it.
“Mark! Hey! Mark, stop!”
Jeno. It’s definitely Jeno. He doesn’t know if he’d done the right thing by texting Jeno. He kept his promise but he doesn’t think he can face Jeno now. So he ignores him. He doesn’t want Jeno to see the state that he’s in.
He sprints on.
“Mark, what the fuck! Slow down!”
Mark doesn’t. He keeps going at that insane speed. He waits for the moment his body is going to just drop. He won’t be able to cope much longer. He’s tired, so tired of himself. He’s had enough - of thinking he doesn’t deserve to be in that school, that he’ll never have the skills that he wants and that his playing will always remain mediocre. Tired of comparing himself and then hurting people along the way. Others can tell him how great he is and he still won’t believe it. Because he doesn’t think he is and he hates that he thinks that way. He’s tired of having these stupid thoughts that he can’t help but entertain because he’s so insecure of his own playing and the potential he possesses. If each of those thoughts were stones, he’d be twenty feet under by now. It’s so hard for him to push against it, to release himself from the heaviness of it all. He succumbs and finally he surrenders.
There’s a sudden hand on his shoulder and he feels a hard tug, the grip so strong the force of it has him stumbling. He persists to move forward but his body is only too willing to comply to any resistance to his motion. Jeno takes advantage of it and pulls him back and Mark’s body is unfaithfully relieved at the intervention, resigning immediately to Jeno’s harsh pull. Jeno steadies him by his shoulder. Mark heaves heavily. His vision is blurry and he doesn’t really understand the look on Jeno’s face.
Jeno’s breathing is heavy but it’s nowhere similar to Mark’s, whose breaths sounds so painfully broken. Jeno exhales shakily and he throws his arms around Mark, crushing him in what is possibly the tightest hug Mark’s ever received. Mark’s body goes limp in his hold, as if it’s been waiting for an embrace for so long and is finally, finally relieved of the wait. Mark isn’t surprised by Jeno’s sudden gesture, more grateful than anything as he basks in Jeno’s hold. He thinks he might otherwise really fall apart.
“You’re crazy as fuck. Running like that,” Jeno breathes out. He gently rubs up and down Mark’s back to calm him and his steady breaths help Mark to breathe properly. Mark focuses on the sound of it, trying his hardest to push his thoughts away.
“You’re allowed to cry,” Jeno says softly as he continues rubbing Mark’s back soothingly. “You can cry in front of me.” Jeno pulls him impossibly closer and Jeno’s words have an immediate effect on him, making him crumble like a fragile flower caught in a thunderstorm. He hides his face in Jeno’s shoulder and lets his tears run free.
He trembles as he cries and Jeno doesn’t say anything, simply holding him close till he calms down.
Jeno pulls back when Mark’s breathing becomes steady. He wipes Mark’s tear-stained cheeks ever so gently and strokes through his hair.
“I’m an idiot,” Mark manages to say out, his throat sounding coarse. He looks into Jeno’s eyes which are looking tenderly back at him.
Jeno smiles and shrugs. “I’m an idiot too.”
“You’re so annoying,” Mark speaks in a half-sob, half-groan. He hates that Jeno is trying to comfort him through a terrible joke. And he likes it, because that’s Jeno.
Jeno tilts his head as he brings his hand back down to his side. “So… do you want to talk about it?”
Mark probably should. He’s been keeping it all to himself for so long it’s wrecked him to this extent. And he trusts Jeno. He doesn’t know what it is about Jeno that makes him feel at ease. When he’s with Jeno, his thoughts somehow fade to the back of his mind and he feels better. Not completely, but notably and that’s already a feat in itself. Because before Jeno happened, he could hardly escape the clutches of his own mind.
But he doesn’t know how willing Jeno is to listen to him and he doesn’t want to trouble Jeno anymore than he already has. Even if Jeno did once offer to be a shoulder for him to lean on. Putting words into actions is a whole different thing.
Mark looks down at his feet and mutters, “I don’t want to bother you.”
“The only way you’ll bother me is to send me away when I know you’re not ok,” Jeno tells him. “I don’t want to see you sad.”
Jeno reaches for Mark’s wrist, making Mark look back up at him. He pulls lightly to start them walking and Mark falls into step with him. Mark watches Jeno as Jeno leads them forward and his stomach does this weird thing that he doesn’t know how to describe. He doesn’t know why but it feels right to slide his palm next to Jeno’s. Jeno doesn’t seem to mind, with how he tightens his grip when their fingers lace together.
They end up sitting at a table outside a convenience store, each with a carton of banana milk Jeno had bought. Jeno had bought Mark some bread too when he learned Mark hadn’t eaten yet.
Jeno sits in front of him, silent and patient. Jeno waits for him to be ready to talk, and Mark knows that if he doesn’t, Jeno would be fine with it. But it would be unfair because Jeno has shown how much he cares and Mark thinks he shouldn’t hurt anyone else. So he tells him about practice, running, feeling worthless, and up till what had happened earlier with Jisung. Jeno listens quietly, nodding every once in a while. His eyes never veer away, looking at Mark the whole time and his expression is so kind and understanding; Mark finds it hard to comprehend why Jeno cares so much. But he doesn’t have to understand to know that Jeno genuinely does.
When Mark’s done, he watches Jeno carefully for his response. He’s never really told anyone before about how frequently he keeps having those thoughts. It’s not exactly something he parades. He’s never even admitted it to his friends. He drums his fingers anxiously on the table.
Jeno places his hand over Mark’s to stop his drumming. He thumbs the back of Mark’s hand softly to calm him down. “Thank you for telling me.”
Jeno continues to look at him and says, “I don’t mean to put you in your place or to tell you what to do but Jisung is right. You’ve been too hard on yourself. And I know it’s hard not to think about your flaws when you’re surrounded by talented people. Trust me, I’ve been there. But it’s something you have to work on. Don’t let it eat you and control you. You’re talented too.”
“It’s not easy,” Mark says weakly.
“I know, I know it isn’t. But you don’t have to fight it alone. Your friends care so much about you. You can talk to them, I’m sure they won’t just sit and watch you destroy yourself like this.” Jeno nudges his hand and gives a small smile. “You have me too. I’ll help as long as you let me.”
“I don’t want to hurt anymore,” Mark says quietly.
“And I won’t let you.”
Jeno insists on walking Mark back to his dorms, reasoning that he wants to see that Mark gets back safely. Jeno walks him up to the lift lobby and Mark’s steps falter when he sees Donghyuck there pacing about, looking desperately at his phone. His hair is messy and his expression is drained of energy. His eyes aren’t as bright as they usually are and his hands fidget restlessly.
At the sound of footsteps approaching, Donghyuck looks up and his worried expression breaks out into relief the moment he sees Mark. He glances at Jeno, curious, but not curious enough to win over his relief at Mark’s appearance. Jeno pulls his hand away from Mark’s and gives them space.
“You moron! Do you know how many times I’ve tried calling you?” Donghyuck glares but Mark knows he’s not angry. Donghyuck is afraid, was afraid and Mark feels sorry for putting him through it.
“I’m sorry, there was a lot on my mind.”
“I looked everywhere for you,” Donghyuck frowns angrily at him. “You can’t just scare us like that.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” Mark opens his arms and looks at Donghyuck expectantly. Donghyuck shakes his head disapprovingly but he gives in and walks into Mark’s arm and hugs him. “It won’t happen again.”
The tension in Donghyuck’s body dissipates. “We were so worried. Jisung was crying and Jun said you were crying. And I couldn’t find you anywhere.” Donghyuck says, his chin hooked over Mark’s shoulder. He exhales slowly. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine now,” Mark assures him. “How’s Jisung?”
Donghyuck sighs. “He was quite upset but Jun is with him now. You don’t know how frantic Jun was. You’re as good as dead when he gets to you.”
Mark scrunches his face. “I’m scared.”
“You scared the fuck out of him and then he scared the fuck out of me. You deserve every bit of Jun’s wrath.” Donghyuck hurls without malice. Then quietly, as he pats Mark’s back, he says, “Come on, let’s get you back. We can deal with everything else tomorrow.”
“Right,” Mark says and he extracts himself from Donghyuck’s embrace. Jeno is standing a distance away to give them some privacy.
“Jeno,” Mark calls out and Jeno turns back, looking at the two. Mark nods and Jeno walks closer to them. “This is Donghyuck, he’s one of my best friends. And Hyuck, this is Jeno. He’s my…” Mark clears his throat. “He’s Jeno.”
“Hi,” Jeno offers and Donghyuck returns the greeting. Donghyuck looks between the two and he isn’t without tact so he proceeds to pretend to be engrossed in the posters pasted on the walls.
Mark pulls Jeno to the side. “Hey, I really want to thank you for...” everything, holding me together, being there, listening, making me feel better “…you know…”
“Sure,” Jeno nods, understanding what Mark means without Mark saying it. He gives a warm smile and pushes Mark’s hair away from his eyes. Mark’s breath gets caught in his throat.
Mark swallows. “You should get going, it’s late.”
“Yeah, I should.” Jeno says, his gaze unwavering as he looks at Mark. Mark’s heartbeat races. “Text me whenever you need to. Or want to.”
“Ok,” Mark says. He wants to reach out to hold Jeno because he knows that Jeno will hold him back and he wants. Jeno makes him feel secure and he craves for Jeno’s warmth, for his touch. But there’s no label to what Jeno is to him and he thinks better than to indulge in his desires. “So umm, I guess, this is, you probably should,” Mark says in a jumble. He shakes his head at his mess of words and lets out a small laugh. It makes Jeno laugh as well. He rubs his arm embarrassingly, giving a small smile. “Goodnight, Jeno.”
“Goodnight,” Jeno smiles back, and then he’s off, hands in his pockets as he walks away. Mark watches him till he turns the corner and disappears. Mark lets out a breath he doesn’t realise he’s been holding. He jumps when Donghyuck clears his throat.
He turns and enters the elevator that Donghyuck’s been holding. The door closes.
“So, Jeno?” Donhyuck raises an eyebrow.
“A friend,” Mark emphasizes. Only that the word ‘friend’ doesn’t seem suitable enough to describe how much Jeno means to him.
“Huh that’s funny. Seemed like you forgot the word ‘friend’ earlier when you introduced him.”
“Hyuck,” Mark warns but it has no effect on Donghyuck.
“It’s ok. I always get my answers in the end.” The elevator doors open at the fifth floor. “Get some rest. I think Jun’s probably back in your room waiting for you.”
“Can I just check on Jisung first?”
“No, you’ve hurt my roommate enough today. And he’s most likely asleep.”
Mark complies and steps out, while Donghyuck continues up to the seventh floor to his and Jisung’s room.
Renjun doesn’t ask much when Mark enters the room. He simply hugs him and asks if he’s feeling fine and then he ushers Mark to sleep.
Mark knows Renjun and Donghyuck won’t let him off easy but that’s for tomorrow’s Mark to worry about. For now, he sleeps.
The smell of waffles and syrup floats around them, circling them like a carousel. It makes the place feel cozy, reminding Mark of breakfasts at home before he had left for college, the sweetness and care coming back to him as a memory in the form of scent. Mark is at his favourite breakfast place and he hasn’t been here in a long while. He would enjoy it better if the reason he’d come was solely for a light-hearted meal with his friends. He has a plate of eggs and sausages in front of him but the meal is quite far from being light-hearted judging from how Renjun and Donghyuck are sitting opposite him with heart-broken expressions on their faces. And Mark doesn’t really feel like eating, not after he’d just confess what he’s been going through for the past months. He can’t bring himself to look at their eyes, choosing to push his scrambled eggs about his plate.
He knows from the heavy silence that they don’t know what to say and that they’re probably shocked, disappointed and a mix of emotions that aren’t that very nice to have. Donghyuck might actually even be angry and that wouldn’t be surprising. Donghyuck has never been one to hide how he feels.
Renjun talks to Donghyuck without actually talking, their eyes doing most of the work. Renjun lets out a heavy exhale after what feels like an excruciatingly long ten seconds.
“You could have told us,” Renjun says out finally. He squeezes his hands tightly together on the table. “And I should have talked to you. All those nights, coming home late…why was I so dense?” Renjun shakes his head, disappointment and guilt growing in his eyes.
Mark sighs, feeling sorry. “Jun, it’s not-”
“I just can’t believe you kept all those thoughts to yourself,” Donghyuck says harshly, his reaction a stark contrast to Renjun’s. “Your playing is crazy good. Why do you do this to yourself? You’re such a fool.”
“Hyuck…” Renjun says in a gentle warning.
“What? Am I wrong?” Donghyuck bites.
“No, you’re right. I was foolish. But I couldn’t help it. It gets so frustrating to want to do better and not be able to,” Mark says, shrugging wearily. “And over time it just gets worse and worse and sometimes nothing helps me feel better. Not even running.”
“Mark listen, look at me.” Renjun starts, sounding pained. Mark does. Renjun looks hurt and worried and Mark can see that Donghyuck is doing his best not to explode out of rage and cry. “We get it. And trust me, every musician feels like this at least one point in their life. You think Donghyuck never has doubts about his singing? You think I don’t feel the same about my playing? It’s normal to have these kinds of thoughts. But what makes you stronger is how you let it affect you.”
At Renjun’s words, Donghyuck sighs and his body releases some of the tension he’s been keeping in. “Just don’t be stupid anymore. Talk to us, we’re here. Don’t bottle it all up.”
Mark nods. “I know. I know that now. Jeno said I should give you guys more credit. And I do trust you but it was hard for me to believe that you guys would want to listen. I’m sorry.”
“As long as you know now, then we’re good,” Renjun says. He nods towards Mark’s plate of eggs and sausages and smiles kindly. “Eat, you need it.”
Silence accompanies them for a while. It’s not stifling but Mark knows Donghyuck is dying to say something from the way he fidgets and keeps on glancing subtly towards him. Renjun notices it too but he doesn’t do anything about it because dealing with Donghyuck takes a lot of effort. What Donghyuck wants, Donghyuck gets. And it’s probably because Renjun is curious as well that he doesn’t stop Donghyuck from being so obvious.
Mark leans back against the cushioned seat and eyes Donghyuck knowingly. He doesn’t feel like eating, he might as well entertain Donghyuck’s burning desire. He raises his eyebrow at Donghyuck, gesturing for Donghyuck to speak and freeing him from his silence.
“It’s this Jeno guy,” Donghyuck bursts, looking curiously at Mark. “You’ve never mentioned him before and he shows up out of nowhere. Jun and I just want to know what’s up with him.”
So they’ve been talking about him. Mark had expected it to happen but he didn’t know that they’d discuss about it between themselves already. Donghyuck had only met him yesterday night.
“He’s just a friend. I met him a while back and we’ve been hanging out and stuff.”
Donghyuck squints. “And stuff.” Mark rolls his eyes.
Renjun slides in. “We just want to know if he’s your boyfriend. If he is, great! But also shame on you for not telling us. If not then-”
“He’s not,” Mark clarifies. “He’s just a really good friend.”
“Then what’s up? You two were holding hands and being all touchy yesterday,” Donghyuck points out. Mark flushes. Right, they did hold hands but it was more out of comfort than anything. Jeno had wanted to make sure he felt alright, that’s why they’d held hands. Right? Right.
“He’s just…” Mark pauses and contemplates. “Look, we’re not seeing each other like that. But Jeno is nice. Without him, I’d be worse off than I am right now. I feel better whenever I meet him and talk to him. I don’t know, we just match each other well.”
“Sounds to me like you like him,” Donghyuck remarks. “Admit it he’s hot.”
Renjun piles more sausages onto Mark’s plate, glaring at him to eat his food. Mark takes a bite out of fear.
“How hot?” Renjun questions as he scans the table for food to pile Mark’s plate with. Mark groans.
Donghyuck taps his chin, thinking about it seriously. “Like on a scale of 1 to 10? A hundred and ten.”
“I don’t like him because he’s hot,” Mark emphasizes.
“But you like him?” Renjun shoots.
“I do,” Mark admits and Donghyuck chokes on his drink. It’s funny how Donghyuck gets surprised when he’s been baiting Mark to say it. “But we’re not like that. I’m not really up for a relationship and neither is he.”
Renjun frowns. “How is that supposed to work? You like him, but don’t want to be with him? I don’t like the sound of this.”
“We’re fine. There’s no problem being friends. It’s not like he sees me as anything more anyway,” Mark says and the memory of them at the volleyball court pops into his head, questioning him. He pushes it far, far away. “I’ll get over it, it’s whatever.”
Donghyuck huffs and leans back, hands folded across his chest. “Whatever, he says.”
Renjun sighs worriedly. “Just don’t keep anything from us anymore.”
“I won’t,” Mark promises.
“And please talk to Jisung today?”
Guilt rises up Mark’s chest. “I will. Can we stop at a cafe on the way back?”
Mark knocks at the door carefully before he enters. Jisung turns around as the door swings open and when he sees that it’s Mark, he stiffens and turns back around with a face of indifference. He has his earpiece in both his ears and a pencil in hand. He studies his score on the music stand and scribbles some notes, his eyebrows scrunch in concentration while he nods his head subtly to the beat.
The coldness coming from Jisung couldn’t be more prickling and it feels like Mark’s walking on thin ice. One wrong step and everything cracks. Mark moves to sit at the chair where their instructor always sits, near the front side of the room beside the drum set Jisung is at. Jisung packs up his stuff as Mark comes near and Mark starts to feel pathetic because Jisung doesn’t want to be around him. Jisung pulls out his earpiece and stands. Mark quickly catches the opportunity to talk before he loses it.
“Hey, can we talk?”
“I thought you wanted the room to yourself,” Jisung responds coldly, his piercing gaze new to Mark which makes it hurt even more. Mark knows Jisung will really leave if he has already made up his mind but Mark has to at least try.
“I want to apologise,” Mark says. “You don’t have to listen if you don’t want to. But I’m hoping that you’ll at least hear me out.”
Jisung looks at him, face hardened. Mark can see him weighing out his options and he feels relieved when he sees Jisung sitting back down.
“I got you your favourite.” Mark hands him the iced chocolate drink he bought at a cafe after breakfast with Renjun and Donghyuck. Jisung looks at it and hesitates but Mark holds the drink there, waiting for Jisung to accept. Jisung takes it because Jisung is kind even when he’s angry.
He holds it in his lap, subconsciously wiping the condensation formed on the surface. “I won’t say thank you.”
Jisung is horribly cute too, even when he’s angry. Mark shakes his head. “I won’t hold it against you.”
“So…” Mark starts, gathering his hands into his lap. “Yesterday was…I was a jerk. I was mean and rude to you when I shouldn’t have been. I’m sorry.”
Jisung breathes in slowly, his gaze glaring and sad when he looks at Mark. “You were really horrible. I honestly thought our friendship was going to end then. You don’t know how devastated I was.”
“I’m sorry,” Mark says and he internally recoils when Jisung’s expression yesterday reappears in his head. The way Jisung had sounded broken and hurt makes him regret every single word he’d spit out. “Let me make it up to you. I know you were just watching out for me. And I do appreciate it. It’s just sometimes I-”
“You stay in your head too long,” Jisung says for him, his expression now softer than earlier. He sighs. “You have a tendency to do that and it worries me.”
“I’m working on it,” Mark confesses. Out of his friends, Jisung’s the one who sees him during practice the most and Jisung spends more time with him in school than Renjun and Donghyuck do. So Jisung has seen his many sides, especially his low-confidence self multiple times. He can only imagine how worried Jisung feels each time he sees Mark pushing himself more than what’s considered healthy. Jisung only had good intentions but Mark had twisted them in his own head and turned Jisung into what he’s insecure self saw, not the real Jisung that had only wanted to help.
“I’m sorry too,” Jisung says. He puts his drink on the floor in favour of reaching out to hold Mark’s hand. Mark returns the touch. “I kept being so insistent and it pushed your buttons. I should have given you space when you needed it. I’m sorry.”
Jisung is so pure and precious. No one should ever hurt him. Including Mark.
“I didn’t mean what I said. It was in the moment, everything just-” Mark squeezes his hand. “I actually really enjoy practicing with you. Practicing alone is so dull.”
Mark tries for a smile. “Are we ok then?”
“Yeah,” Jisung smiles genuinely. “And thanks for the drink hyung.”
Mark laughs fondly. “Alright so does this mean we’re up for a jamming session?” Mark stands and heads over to the other drum set. Jisung’s eyes light up and trails after Mark as he takes a seat.
“Just like old times?”
Mark winks at him. “Shall we start with Park Jisung’s favourite, the classic Wonder Girls’ ‘Nobody’?” Mark sets his phone on the music stand and readies his music player. It’s been a while since he’s played their jamming playlist. It mostly consists of classic pop songs. The fun part of it is jamming to them and taking it up a notch by free-styling to the beat. They used to do it regularly, simply fooling around before practice. He misses it and he’s sure Jisung misses it too.
“After you,” Jisung says with a twinkle in his eyes.
Mark gets reminded of why he started drums in the first place, and sometimes a little reminder goes a long way.
It seems that the events that have taken place, together with the endless demands from school, have resulted in Donghyuck deciding that they all need to unwind and let off some steam. And according to Donghyuck, his cousin throws the sickest parties that would leave you crying for weeks if you ever missed one.
So that’s how they find themselves outside of his cousin’s house each carrying a small birthday gift that suddenly seems worthless in the grandness of what they can only dream to call a home.
The front yard is huge, with a fancy fountain and a beautiful pond and there are white brick arches leading to the front door. The state of the front yard is pristine, obviously paid to be well taken care of seeing how the grasses are trimmed and a healthy green and the flowers are flourishing vibrantly.
“Your cousin lives like this?” Renjun gawks, speaking what they’ve all been thinking.
Jisung trails along behind them as they make their way to the front door. “Why can’t you be rich like him too?”
“I ask myself the same thing whenever I come over,” Donghyuck sighs.
The front door is slightly ajar and from the small view that it allows, Mark can see that there’s already a crowd inside. The music is blasting but thankfully whoever the DJ is or whoever made the playlist has taste because it’s not one of those irritating, ear-worm kind of EDM. The song has a nice vibe and Mark doesn’t feel so bad about coming for now.
The interior of the house is crazy beautiful. Mark sees a high sparkling chandelier, a sick sound system standing grand and magnificent at the front of the living room. The house a sense of antiquity mixed with simple modern touches and it looks like something that would appear in a youtube video about million-dollar homes. Mark wonders what the house truly holds because all that he’s observed so far is from a simple glimpse through the gap of the door.
“What are the odds that his trash would actually be better than the gifts we got him,” Mark comments as Donghyuck pushes the door open wide, sliding in and integrating into the crowd.
“He’s not like that. He’s a noob and doesn’t know how to appreciate the fast lane. He’s a disappointing rich kid. Come on, I’ll introduce you guys.”
They follow behind Donghyuck who navigates through the house with ease. Now that they’re actually in, Mark is in awe. It’s ridiculously luxurious yet homely and it takes a lot of effort for him to keep his jaw from falling as he takes in the sights around him. It feels like one of those sophisticated rich homes from the twenties only that it’s been modernised by being furbished with the latest accessories and high-tech looking equipment. The contrast between the two eras have been smoothened and molded beautifully. It must be nice to live here.
They meet Donghyuck’s cousin near the marble staircase beside the humongous kitchen.
“Yo, Na!” Donghyuck shouts and a tall guy with soft brown hair turns around, a blinding smile on his face when Donghyuck waves at him. He squeezes through the small crowd in front of him to get to Donghyuck and he crushes him in what looks like an extremely soft, warm hug.
“You made it!”
“Yeah, I missed your stupid ass. These are my friends, Renjun, Jisung and Mark. Guys this is my cousin Jaemin.”
“Nice to meet you all!” Jaemin chirps and his eyes fall on to the gifts they’re holding. “Oh my god, you brought me gifts! Hold on, let me just get my best friends to help me put them away. Their my slaves for today.”
Jaemin tilts his chin up and scans the crowd. A smile on his face forms and he raises his hand to beckon someone over. “Hey Chenle! Slave number one! I need you here!”
Mark’s ears prick up. He knows that name.
He whips his head back to the direction Jaemin is looking and he sees him, the same guy with the same blond hair from the court a few weeks ago. If Chenle is here, could it possibly mean…?
Mark tries not to get ahead of himself. What are the chances anyway?
“I hate you,” Chenle comes up to them and Jaemin responds by ruffling his hair affectionately.
“This is my beloved cousin and his friends,” Jaemin provides, gesturing to them and introducing them by name. “And this is Chenle, my best friend and slave of the day.”
Chenle rolls his eyes. “I’m just going with it because it’s his birthday. Here pass the gifts to me, I’ll help put it in the gift room.” He smiles at each of them and gathers the gifts in his arms. Chenle doesn’t seem to recognise Mark but Mark thinks it’s because he wasn’t really focused on their faces. There’s also the chance that Chenle might not even remember how he looks like given they barely interacted the other day.
Anyway at a party like this, a face in a crowd isn’t that interesting, simply just another face and there’s no point in building friendship with strangers when they’re probably not going to meet again. Unless they each were looking for something to walk away with in the first place. Which Mark really isn’t. He’s here to unwind, have a good time with his friends and relieve his mind of the stress that’s been haunting him for weeks.
However Chenle does do a double-take on Mark, his eyebrows scrunch together while he looks at Mark like Mark’s someone he’s seen before. When he finally, finally realises who Mark is, his face lights up in shock. His lips give way for a smile that grows so wide it has Mark confused if he’s really that happy to see him when they hadn’t even talked to each other on the court.
“Oh my god,” Chenle says, his eyes bright and twinkling.
Mark rubs his neck and gives a smile in return. “Hi.”
Renjun and Donghyuck are taken aback at the exchange and Jisung simply blinks.
Jaemin looks between Mark and Chenle, confusion evident on his face. He tilts his head. “Do you guys-”
“It’s him,” Chenle says behind his teeth while smiling and it’s a bit creepy because it wasn’t as discrete as Chenle had probably wanted it to be. Everyone’s caught him saying it.
Mark doesn’t know what Chenle means by ‘it’s him’ but he nods, “Yeah, it’s me. From the other day. Sorry about that by the way. I didn’t expect him to kick you out.”
Chenle shakes his head. “No, it’s fine really. I got my revenge. Wait hold on, if you’re here then-” Chenle stops midway, excitement building in his voice and he turns his head around as if searching for someone.
As if the universe wanted to align things for him for once, Jeno appears then, at the top of the staircase behind Jaemin and Chenle and makes his way down, chatting with a pair of guys who are on their way up. Jeno sees Jaemin and Chenle first, yet to register the presence of Mark and his friends. He’s wearing a his signature smile as he jogs down the last few steps.
Jeno, in sporty attire and casual clothes is eye-catching (it shouldn’t be), Mark has to admit. But this Jeno, right here under the lights of that ridiculous chandelier in tight black jeans and a loose navy button down might just be the most luxurious thing in the house yet. His hair even if styled, doesn’t seem to have received much care, falling softly into his face, bringing a sort of gentle and mysterious charm that opposes the vibe his toned physique exudes. The top few buttons of his shirt are undone, teasing his chest and when he moves, the lean muscles are clearly visible under the fabric. Jeno is fatally breathtaking in this moment and Mark is completely unprepared. He hadn’t come for this. It’s unfair. Jeno is supposed to look stupid, like how he really is.
Jeno claps his friends on their backs and laughs when they startle. “Why are you having fun without me?”
Jaemin elbows Jeno’s stomach which he gracefully dodges. “Right, slave number two. You’ve appeared at the right time. Help Chenle bring these gifts to the room at the back. These are my cousin, Donghyuck, and his friends.”
“Donghyuck?” Jeno’s pitch increases as he makes to look at the people Jaemin had just introduced him to. His face of surprise when he sees Donghyuck is quickly replaced by a delighted smile when he sees Mark.
“Mark! What are you doing here?”
“Hey,” Mark laughs awkwardly. “I honestly didn’t know you’d be here either.”
Jaemin squints. “Wait if you know this Mark, this means he’s your Mark, which means,” his pitch increases and his smile becomes wider and wider, eventually curling into a smirk. “You must be drummer boy!” Jaemin says brightly, looking directly at Mark. Jeno grimaces and pokes Jaemin’s side in a not very subtle manner.
“That’s what I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Chenle says exasperatedly, shoving half of the gifts into Jeno’s arms.
“Well, this is going to be an exciting party!” Jaemin’s eyes glint.
“So this is Jeno,” Renjun murmurs under his breath, a mischievous smile sent to Mark, suddenly making Mark feel hyperaware. He has a feeling his friends will be watching for any interactions between him and Jeno tonight. He consciously tears his gaze away from Jeno.
Jaemin sends Jeno and Chenle off to do their slave work while he herds the rest towards the kitchen for drinks and small bites. Jaemin is already hitting it off with Jisung, talking animatedly about something sports related, soccer, Mark thinks from the few words he manages to catch. Mark and the other two follow closely behind, having a conversation amongst themselves as well. Mark manages a glance back to see Jeno disappearing down a hallway and his stomach does this weird squirming thing.
“He is a solid hundred and ten,” Renjun whispers to Donghyuck.
Donghyuck smiles smugly. “I told you. I know a pretty boy when I see one.”
Mark tries hard not to strangle his best friends.
“But what about your cousin though,” Renjun whispers, sticking closer to Donghyuck. “He’s kinda hot.”
Donghyuck makes a face. “I am not playing cupid for you and my cousin.”
“Ok, but what if-”
Mark doesn’t bother listening at this point.
With the invasion of alcohol inside his system, it becomes relatively easy for Mark to let loose and go along with the flow. When Jisung drags him out into the middle of the house for a dance, he willingly goes. They’re not great dancers, there’s a reason why both of them are drummers, but they don’t really care. They’re too busy in their own little world out on the floor, busting out ridiculous moves to pop songs they’re not familiar with. Jisung does a weird thing with his knees that has Mark laughing and Mark twirls him around. Mark has never felt this light and free since, since he doesn’t even remember when but what he knows is that he wants to remember this.
Jisung has a bright grin on his face and they’re both grooving and flowing along to the beat till someone, Mark doesn’t manage to catch his face, asks Jisung for a dance and Mark sends him off with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
Mark moves to the rhythm awkwardly on his own, looking around hoping to find at least Renjun or Donghyuck to dance with but he doesn’t see them anywhere. He decides he might as well take a break and tries to wriggle his way out from the crowd, careful not to trip over his own feet. He’s buzzed and warm but nowhere near wasted. He’s making his way through, hoping to safely reach the side where the expensive looking leather couch is when someone grabs his wrist. Mark turns to find Jeno smiling, tugging his hand and possibly his heart along with him.
“Join me,” Jeno says. Even in his buzzed state of mind, with the pounding bass in his ears throwing his mind into a further mess, Jeno still looks pretty. Him and his stupid moon eyes and his pretty smile and soft-looking lips. Mark lets himself be pulled back into the crowd. He changes the grip Jeno has on his wrist to let their palms meet. Jeno laces their fingers and pulls Mark near.
“I thought I missed you when I couldn’t find you anywhere. Thought you’d gone back,” Jeno says.
Mark moves in rhythm with him, their hands still connected between them. “What, and leave a party early?”
Jeno laughs. “I was really surprised to see my favourite musician here. But glad, of course.” His eyes turn gentle and his voice is tender when he asks, “How have you been doing?”
The last time they had met was the night of Mark’s breakdown in the park. They haven’t met since then but they’ve been exchanging texts and calls. Mark knows it’s Jeno’s way of checking up on him and Mark admittedly finds it sweet.
The song changes and it seems to be a hit because more people are joining in onto the dance floor. “I’m good. I’m more open with my friends, and there’s also you who keeps calling me almost every night.”
There are crinkles by Jeno’s eyes when he smiles. “Are you trying to hint that I should stop doing that?”
Before Mark can get out his reply, someone bumps into him from the back causing him to stumble forward. Jeno is quicker, firm hands steadying his waist within an instant. Mark gasps, more out of surprise at Jeno’s reflex than at the fact that he had almost lost his balance. Jeno’s touch is warm, like how he remembers it to be, but it still sends a shiver down his spine. Jeno uses the hold he has on Mark’s waist to pull him protectively nearer.
“That was close,” Mark breathes out.
“Yeah,” Jeno nods and he tenses when he realises the space between them has narrowed significantly. He’s suddenly conscious of where his hands are and Mark knows he’s about to pull away but Mark doesn’t want him to. He likes the feeling of having Jeno near him, of him being this close to Jeno. Mark can’t help himself from being drawn to him.
“Jeno,” Mark says, trying to catch his attention. Jeno looks at him, hands still on his waist and Mark breathes a silent relief that he hasn’t pulled away yet. Jeno looks conflicted so Mark decides to spare him from deciding. Mark slides his arms around Jeno’s shoulders and his heart hammers when their faces come closer together. “Dance with me.”
There’s pink colouring Jeno’s cheeks but the hesitance in his eyes slowly fades. He holds Mark more confidently and the corner of his lips curl up shyly. “Ok.”
They move as one with the song and the mass of people around them leaves them no chance for personal space. The people are loud, the music is loud but Mark thinks the sound of his heartbeat is the loudest. Jeno’s face is so pretty and with Jeno staring right at him, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable.
“You look really good. I wanted to tell you that when I saw you earlier,” Jeno strains to say above the noise.
Mark hardly believes him because if anyone is looking godly tonight, it’s Jeno. But he entertains Jeno’s sweet compliment.
“Sexy?” Mark asks with a smirk.
“Sexy,” Jeno confirms, saying it scandalously. It makes Mark laugh. Jeno brings a hand up to stroke Mark’s cheekbone, his eyes roaming Mark’s face. “Has anyone ever told you you’re especially pretty when you laugh?”
The touch of Jeno’s fingers on his cheeks makes him shudder and his heart stutters with the way Jeno looks at him. He flushes.
“You’re a horrible flirt,” Mark struggles to say, trying to keep his heart beating at a normal pace. But it’s difficult when Jeno looks at him like he wants him and Mark can only hold on for so long before he gives in. But he has to know. If Jeno wants this.
“It’s not flirting if I’m just saying what I think,” Jeno says, eyes flitting down to Mark’s lips. “I think you’re pretty.”
Mark inhales, slow. “Jeno, don’t say things if-”
“I want to kiss you,” Jeno breathes out. He gazes into Mark’s eyes and it feels fatal. “God I want to kiss you.”
Jeno’s words hit Mark like a rain of flames, burning him and setting him alight. And although Mark’s desire is thrumming under his skin, Mark doesn’t give in just yet. Because it’s not just a simple kiss. They both know what it would cost them; would it be worth to have this and risk everything else.
“I’m not looking for a relationship,” Mark says carefully.
“Neither am I,” Jeno says, cautious. “But if you want this-”
“Can we still be friends?” Mark whispers softly, as his hand slides to Jeno’s nape. He feels the goosebumps on Jeno’s skin and he presses closer and closer till Jeno’s lips is only a breath away.
“Nothing has to change,” Jeno assures, his breath hot on Mark’s skin. Mark swallows and Jeno’s eyes follows the movement of his Adam’s apple.
“Ok,” Mark manages to say out and whatever else he wants to say dies on Jeno’s lips. Jeno squeezes his waist and Mark presses forward against Jeno, trying hard to muffle the noise at the back of his throat. Jeno kisses him sweet and slow and it drives Mark insane with how good it feels. The slow pace is painfully perfect, allowing Mark to savour the kiss as much as he wants. Mark licks the swell of Jeno’s lips and when he tries and tongues the space between Jeno’s lips, he finds that Jeno has already opened up for him. Jeno’s tongue meets tentatively with his. The contact makes Jeno groan and he slides his legs in between Mark’s. Mark’s breath gets caught in his throat.
Slowly they start familiarising with each other, pushing and pulling and exploring. Tasting, giving and taking till they get breathless. Somehow Mark’s fingers ends up tangled in Jeno’s hair and he grips tightly when Jeno sucks his tongue, which only drives Jeno to kiss him harder. The kiss is everything Mark can ever imagine. It’s intimate and sweet and heated and it’s Jeno. And if this is what Jeno tastes like, then Mark has set himself for doom.
They pull away out of breath, chests heaving. Mark’s hand comes to rest on Jeno’s shoulder. Mark’s eyes are still closed because it feels like it’ll end there if he opens them. He doesn’t want it to end yet. Or possibly, ever.
“You want to go get some air?” Jeno asks breathlessly. Mark slowly opens his eyes. It ends. He nods.
Mark had expected them to go outside but Jeno hauls them away from the crowd and up the stairs, bringing them through a hallway. They enter a reading room which has a balcony beyond a sliding glass door. Jeno must be over at Jaemin’s a lot if he knows the place like the back of his hand.
Mark finds himself out in the night breeze, wind tussling his hair and Jeno’s hand still in his. He lets go because it feels wrongly intimate now and Jeno’s hand lingers beside his before he brings it closer to his own body. Mark goes to the railing, leans over to see the garden of flowers below and the shining full moon above. Everything feels so wholesome and enchanting, a stark contrast to the pang of his heart.
Jeno comes up beside him, his hands crossed over the railings, face tilted upwards to the sky as well.
“I’m sorry,” Jeno says. He doesn’t say what for but Mark knows without him saying it.
“I’m sorry too.”
“I like you,” Jeno confesses, but it’s not done with a fluttering heart or a nervous smile. There’s no pink and romance, no shy glances and jumbled up words. Mark’s heart doesn’t warm at the confession and he finds it hard to smile. It’s funny how a confession brings heartbreak and hurts more than falling out of love would. But both he and Jeno had asked for this. They don’t want to go further than friends. It’s true, Mark’s not interested in a relationship. He doesn’t think it’ll be fair to the other party when he’s too caught up in his own dreams.
“But my scholarship renewal is coming up which means I have to pull my grades up. Coaches are scouting too so I have to put out all of my cards to get into a good team after graduation. Even if it’s still too early. Volleyball is all I’ve ever known. I don’t want to mess it up.”
Jeno has a lot that he’s fighting for which Mark finds admirable. Mark has his own things he wants to achieve as well. Having a relationship wouldn’t really be ideal if it ends up distracting them. And they may disappoint each other with how little they’re able to contribute to the relationship. Not going there would be easier for the both of them.
“I get it. I’d do the same if I were you,” Mark says, closing his eyes, feeling the breeze caressing his face. “You go and be the best volleyballer out there, and I’ll work hard on becoming a drummer I can be proud of.”
“We’ll still be friends,” Jeno reaffirms.
“You can still call me as much as you want.”
“I thought you told me not to,” Jeno teases.
“No, I like it.” Mark avoids his eyes, speaking to the sky. “As long as you don’t ghost me.”
Because there’s a high chance that one of them would ghost the other in these kinds of situations. Normal friends don’t kiss and go back to being friends. But that’s exactly what they are pushing for, no matter the impossibility of it. Mark knows he would never ghost Jeno because Jeno means that much to him to let go. If Jeno doesn’t ghost him either, their friendship could possibly work. And Mark really wants it to. He doesn’t want to lose Jeno.
“Are we gonna do that thing where we pretend the kiss didn’t happen?”
Mark drums his fingers on the railing and turns to look at Jeno. Jeno and his stupid face that he can’t get enough of. “Do you want to?”
“I wanted to kiss you ever since that day at the court. I don’t want to pretend we never kissed.”
It should be comforting that Jeno had felt the same way as he does. But it isn’t that great of a feeling. Because wanting to kiss Jeno, and actually kissing him, and then knowing that they’ll never again, is not a series of steps he can easily navigate through. It’s a struggle he’s putting on himself.
Mark grips the railing, his knuckles turning white. “Good, because I wanted that kiss as much as you did.”
Jeno smiles to himself. “I was that good of a kisser huh?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, moon eyes.”
Jeno laughs and everything looks perfect. Them, here in the balcony under the silver moonlight, with quiet confessions and the pain of a kiss. Jeno’s pale skin contrasts against the shadows and his features are accentuated beneath the glow of the moon, making him look unfairly ethereal. Mark adjusts Jeno’s hair that’s been blown messily by the breeze and his hand lingers near his cheeks.
“Is it wrong if I want to kiss you again?” Jeno says into the silence between them.
“And if I wanted you to?” Mark caresses his cheeks sadly and slowly brings his hand down. “I’d kiss you back if you kissed me but we’d be cheating ourselves, Jeno.”
“You’re right,” Jeno says resignedly and he tries for a smile but it doesn’t look right. “We better head back. We’ve been gone a while.”
Jeno steps back into the reading room, leading the way out.
Mark doesn’t want a relationship, but he knows that he wants to be with Jeno. He wonders if he’s saved himself or has he really set himself for doom.
Jeno doesn’t ghost him. On some of Mark’s bad days, they run together and Jeno listens to him talk. On other days, Mark talks to his friends and he tells Jeno about it. Jeno still texts him and they still talk like nothing’s changed. They don’t hangout often or have dinner together and Jeno’s calls become infrequent. But Jeno doesn’t ghost him.
Mark’s in the practice room with Jisung when he receives a text.
‘How’s my favourite musician doing in this hot weather?’
Mark replies him.
‘Practicing in air-conditioned bliss’
‘Also I still can’t be your favourite musician if you haven’t heard me play’
Jeno replies immediately.
‘Then let me hear you play ;(‘
‘You’ve seen me practice. We have to do a one-for-one’
His reply makes Mark snort. Jeno is stupid.
‘Jeno this isn’t some supermarket deal. Stop being lame’
‘Fine if you come down within 30 minutes’
‘But you have practice don’t you? Shame’
Mark taunts him on purpose. In reality, Mark is just afraid to know what Jeno thinks about his playing. He’s afraid Jeno’s already formed some image of him in his head that he can’t live up to. Maybe it’s better for both of them if Jeno never hears him play for now.
Mark stifles a laugh and pockets his phone. He adjusts his snapback that he has on backwards to pull his hair away from his face. He turns to Jisung to start another run through of the phrase they’ve been working on but he finds Jisung already looking at him. It’s slightly unsettling.
Mark opens his mouth to ask if there’s something on his mind but Jisung is faster, cutting him sharply and straight to the point.
“Is Jeno hyung your boyfriend now?” Jisung purses his lips.
It comes out of nowhere and Mark splutters, choking out a, “Where did you even get that idea?”
“So you’re not?”
“No,” Mark confirms, clearing his throat. “We’re not dating.”
Jisung continues to look at him scrutinisingly. “Because I heard from Hyuck hyung who heard from Jun hyung that he saw you making out with Jeno hyung at the party.”
Mark sighs. Of course things like this spread fast between his friends. Kissing on the dance floor blatantly visible to whoever was watching was a mistake.
“And I told Jun who should have told Hyuck who should have told you that it was just a one time thing. We’re not dating.” Mark reiterates. He changes the subject of interest to Jisung. “But I also heard that you hit it off well with someone you met at the party. What’s that about?”
Jisung flushes and tries to be stoic about it. “I’m not sure what you’ve heard.” Mark ruffles his hair.
They start practice and it lasts for another half an hour because Jisung has a lesson he has to attend. Mark meanwhile doesn’t have any more lessons for the rest of the day so he’s free to practice on his own.
Solitude only lasts for fifteen minutes because there’s a knock on the door. Which is strange because if it’s Jisung he can just come in by himself. Did he forget something? Mark scans around to see if there’s any of Jisung’s stuff lying around.
Another knock sounds but this time it’s to a familiar tune, the beat so recognisable Mark internally cringes.
Mark gets up and opens the door.
“Sung, what are you-”
“Hi,” Jeno beams brightly. Mark scoffs in disbelief.
“Jeno? Why are you here?” Mark moves aside to let Jeno in and closes the door behind them.
Jeno turns around to face him. “Do you like my knock? I thought it might impress you.” Jeno lifts up a bag from the convenience store and Mark can make out two ice-cream cones inside. “I got us ice-cream.”
Mark grimaces. Jeno’s lameness is spectacular. “Drummers don’t get impressed when you knock to the beat of ‘Do you want to build a snowman’, Jeno. How did you even get here? You need access.”
“Ahh, I thought the song was worth a try. I bumped into Jisung downstairs and he kind of helped me. He’s cute.” Jeno looks around the practice room, taking in the drum sets, the music stands and the music theory spread across the whiteboard alongside some doodles. “So this is your home-ground.”
This is where Mark lives and breathes and eats and play. This is where Mark trades his hours for a chance at a future that he wants. He’s suddenly conscious of the fact that Jeno is actually here. He hadn’t expected Jeno to come at all.
“Don’t you have practice?”
“Our captain won a bet against the coach, so practice got cancelled. That’s why I’m here with ice-cream on this hot day.”
Mark doesn’t mention that he’s been indoors away from the hot weather for a few hours now. Besides any time is a good time for ice-cream. But there’s one important thing.
“Jeno, you’re lactose-intolerant,” Mark squints at him.
“And stubborn,” Jeno adds like it’s a trait he’s proud of. Jeno plops on the floor in front of the drum sets, making himself comfortable. “I’ll give you your ice-cream if you play for me.”
Mark laughs incredulously and sits at his drums. “And if I don’t want ice-cream?”
“Just play for me,” Jeno whines, hugging his knees as he faces the drum set waiting for Mark to play. “And what’s with the snapback indoors?”
“My hair gets in the way,” Mark complains, stretching his wrists and neck to get ready. “Is it weird?” He flips through his music scores, trying to find something suitable to play for Jeno. Mark wants to impress him of course, but he doesn’t want to show off. Technically Jeno isn’t even allowed to be here because his school is strict about visitors but Jeno is here and Jeno’s done so much for him. If Jeno wants a one-for-one, then Mark will give him a one-for-one.
“Nah, it’s sexy,” Jeno says with a daring smile.
“Fuck off, Jeno,” Mark rolls his eyes, hiding a smile. He grips his drumsticks tightly, nervous from the fact that Jeno’s here to listen to him play. It shouldn’t be this nerve-wrecking because Jeno isn’t musically trained but he cares about Jeno’s opinion. The drums is such a big part of his life and he hopes it shows just as much when he plays. He takes a tentative look at Jeno. “This is one of the first few pieces I learnt when I first came here. I really like this one.”
And he plays. As he plays, he watches Jeno’s face, whose eyes never stray away, watching Mark with an unreadable smile on his face. It has Mark’s heart pumping wildly.
When Mark’s done, he brings his arms up, forming a cross to hide his face behind. “How was it?” He asks nervously.
“Unbelievable,” Jeno says in awe. Mark slowly brings his hands down. There isn’t any sign of smugness or teasing on Jeno’s face. Jeno looks mesmerised, glitter in his eyes and a smile that still remains mysterious. Mark thinks he looks somewhat entranced, like someone’s bewitched him, characteristic in the way he doesn’t pull his gaze away. Mark feels hot being at the receiving end of unwavering attention, Jeno looking at him like he’d just plucked a star out of the sky for him. It’s overwhelming and terrifying.
“It’s because you don’t learn music you don’t know how mediocre that actually was,” Mark says, avoiding his gaze as he comes down from the stool and sits with Jeno on the floor. He reaches for his ice-cream from Jeno’s lap and unwraps it. “But I still deserve this.”
“I think you’re lying. And I don’t care what you say. I think that was perfect and so it shall remain perfect in my head.”
“You are a stubborn one.”
As they enjoy their ice-creams, they chat and joke between themselves. They talk about their friends, their lives, their families, they laugh and make fun of each other, bringing a sort of warmth to Mark’s chest. It’s one of those rare times he thanks the universe - for bringing Jeno into his path, even if he didn’t quite like him when they first met. He doesn’t believe in fate, not really, but he can’t deny that he thinks it was right for Jeno to cross his path. Maybe he should stop being skeptical about the forces of the universe.
“You blanked off,” Jeno says, waving a hand in front of Mark’s face. He frowns. “Rude, I was telling about how I managed to score the winning point last practice.”
“I was just thinking.”
Jeno hums. “Of?”
“When we first met. Do you remember that?” Mark laughs. “No offence but I hated your guts.”
“Offended, but it’s fine because it’s what got us here now.”
“You know Jeno,” Mark starts quietly, looking down at his lap. “I don’t want to say this because I know it’ll just get to your head, but I appreciate you.” Mark looks up, searches his eyes and holds his gaze. He breathes in, sees how Jeno’s face warms and softens at his words. “You’re someone I never knew I needed.”
Jeno’s smiling but his eyes are downcast, making his smile painful to see. Mark hadn’t meant for this when he said that. Jeno closes his eyes and where there is happiness in the lines of his face, there is also hurt, inevitably shadowing after. He tucks his face into his knees. His voice comes out in a murmur when he speaks. “You can’t just say that and expect me to not feel… like this.”
“Like what?” Mark asks lightly, nudging Jeno’s feet with his.
“Like wanting to kiss you,” Jeno exhales. He raises his head. He looks so desperate in this moment that it clutches viciously at Mark’s heart. It does something to Mark, it shakes his heart and rattles his mind. The desire is so painfully evident in Jeno’s eyes, the same way it aches and stings Mark’s from the inside. The desire to reach out and touch, to want something more, only to be burned by the reminder of the agreement established between them.
Jeno leans forward carefully, using his finger to tilt Mark’s chin up. He crawls into the space between Mark’s legs and fits himself there. Mark can see the shadow of his lashes on his cheeks and when he looks down, he sees the invitation on Jeno’s lips.
But Mark resists because he has to. If he doesn’t want their agreement to break, if he wants to continue having Jeno by his side, he can’t give in. He squirms to put space between them for his safety and sanity, hands flat on the ground to support himself lest he topples over and causes Jeno to topple over as well. He swallows thickly and forces his eyes back to Jeno’s. “Jeno, we talked about this.”
“Let’s take a time-out,” Jeno says, inching dangerously near.
“A time-out?” Mark strains to say, finding it difficult to keep himself away. Jeno stops, his hand palming Mark’s cheek. The burning flames in his eyes have settled and are no longer, now replaced with gentleness and fondness. It drives Mark crazy because he’s not blind; he can see from how Jeno looks at him that Jeno really likes him. And he really likes Jeno too.
“Let’s put the agreement on hold for a while,” Jeno says quietly, staring straight into Mark’s eyes.
And Mark is weak when it comes to Jeno, so he gives up only too easily.
Like a switch has been turned off, Mark’s resolve to keep his part of the agreement dissipates and he pushes back, crashing his lips against Jeno’s. It shouldn’t feel right, but it does. Jeno’s breath and gasps are deafening in his ears, and Mark’s blood rushes up to his chest as his heart pumps ferociously. Jeno’s managed to climb into his lap somehow, legs crossed behind Mark’s waist. The proximity only makes his heart race faster.
Jeno tilts his head and sneaks his tongue past Mark’s lips, making Mark squeeze his waist a little too tightly. Jeno hisses and groans. He pushes and pushes, fitting himself against Mark like he belongs, and then he takes and bites and pull. Jeno tastes sweet, like ice-cream but it hits like alcohol, the way it intoxicates Mark the deeper Mark kisses him.
Mark rubs circles on Jeno’s waist, keeping them from falling the more Jeno leans in towards him. Jeno pants in his mouth and Mark takes the lead from there, coaxing Jeno to go slow, kissing him languidly, exploring every inch of his mouth. Jeno follows his lead, his hand sliding to Mark’s nape, making Mark shiver at how his touch burns.
“Fuck, you’re so hot,” Jeno breaths out. “You with your words and your stupid snapback and your stupid drums.” Mark laughs breathlessly, hands climbing up Jeno’s back as he licks into Jeno’s mouth. Jeno makes a sound that only fuels Mark to do it again.
Mark pulls away to catch his breath but Jeno doesn’t stop. Jeno nuzzles against him, kissing his cheekbone and then trails kisses to his jaw where he starts sucking. Mark’s breath hitches and his grip on Jeno’s hips tightens.
“Jeno, wait,” Mark struggles to say as he breaths deeply.
“No,” Jeno says, his breath hovering against Mark’s skin. “Not yet.” Mark’s words dies in his throat and he lets Jeno do what he wants because he doesn’t want to go back to their agreement just yet either.
Mark whines for Jeno to kiss him and Jeno does. His fingers skirt underneath Jeno’s shirt, feeling the hard lines of his abdomen, the warmth of it so scalding and addictive, he can’t help roaming his fingers across.
“Fuck,” Jeno laughs against Mark’s lips at the sensation of Mark’s palm on his stomach. It induces a smile on Mark’s face. Laughter slips in between their kisses and it feels intimate, a secret that belongs to them.
But pain is bound to follow at the end, because hurt inevitably shadows, always there to remind them of what they shouldn’t do, or shouldn’t have done.
The agreement lurks and comes to claim once again.
“Friends don’t kiss.”
Mark knows this of course, all too well.
“You kissed him twice.”
Mark doesn’t need the reminder.
Renjun has that look of disapproval on his face. They’re both sitting cross-legged on Mark’s bed, their knees touching as they face each other. Mark had decided to confide in Renjun because among his friends, Renjun is more rational, rarely letting his emotions decide for him. Renjun’s strength lies in his ability to listen to his head and push away the urges and whispers of his heart.
So Renjun is his best bet for proper advice, although he knows the other two are likely to come round to knowing about it sooner or later.
The agreement between him and Jeno is complicated in ways it shouldn’t have been. If they’d both kept to their part of the agreement, it wouldn’t be stressing Mark out like this. But Mark isn’t sure how well he can keep his part of it, becoming less and less certain the more they see each other. He doesn’t know if Jeno will keep to it properly from now as well and he really hopes Jeno does because they’ve kissed twice, which is two more than they should.
And if Mark were to be truly frank with himself, he knows that he won’t be able to keep to the agreement. Deep deep down, something tells him he already knew when he agreed to just being friends.
He’s only fooling himself.
He knows now that there can never be friendship between him and Jeno, not like before. Because his heart jumps and flips and soars whenever he sees or thinks about Jeno. Friendships don’t work like that and it gets tiring to have to push it all away, to ignore everything and pretend that they don’t have feelings for each other when they know they do.
Renjun grabs Mark’s hands and holds them together between their laps. Renjun’s forehead creases in concern. Mark sighs wearily, making Renjun clutch his hands more tightly.
“But do you want to stay as friends with him?” Renjun questions earnestly.
“I told him I didn’t want a relationship.”
Renjun looks at him pensively and states, “But you want to kiss him.”
Mark groans and brings his knees up, tugging his arms around them to hide his face. Mark doesn’t only want to kiss him. Mark wants to hold his hand, be the reason for his laughs, make him smile, listen to his lame jokes no matter how bad they are and tease him till he pouts. Mark wants to be with him, hear him boast about how good he plays and be there to comfort him when he’s doubtful of himself. Mark doesn’t want a relationship, but he doesn’t mind trying if it’s Jeno. If it means he gets to be with Jeno freely, to express how much he likes Jeno without having to hold back.
“It doesn’t matter if I want to kiss him or not,” Mark mumbles into his knees. “He said he’s not looking to have a relationship.”
“So did you. But now you’re willing to do it. And he might be willing too. You can’t just ignore what you feel for him. It’s best to talk to him about how you feel.”
“I know,” Mark huffs, popping his head up and resting his chin on his knees. “But I don’t want to complicate things between us.”
“Are they already not?”
Mark really hates Renjun and his straightforward personality.
Renjun sighs and strokes Mark’s hair comfortingly. “Putting the agreement and everything aside, think about how you can make yourself happy. Think about what’s worth.”
Mark had told Jeno he’d be free to come down to watch his practice today but he got held up at school and by the time he reaches the court, it’s empty.
He ventures to the locker room to check just in case and when he enters, he sees Chenle packing up his stuff. Chenle turns to him when he hears the door open.
“Oh, hey! Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Hey,” Mark greets back. His eyes flits around the room, hoping to find an indication that Jeno’s still there. “Has Jeno left yet?”
“Nah, he’s just washing up. He’ll be out in a few.” Chenle zips up his bag and pats Mark’s shoulder as he makes his way out. “I didn’t tell you this but he was disappointed when he thought you weren’t gonna come. His mood only improved when he saw your text saying you were running late.”
Mark flushes, not knowing what to do with the information he’s just received. Chenle laughs when he sees Mark freezing up, simply giving Mark a wave as he leaves. Mark pushes the information away for now and walks a tour of the locker room as he waits for Jeno to be done. The players have their lockers decorated, some covered with doodles ranging from cute to crude, some simply having a name at the front and others totally clean of any sort of personal touch. Mark wanders around, hoping to find Jeno’s locker.
He spots it, the fifth one from the row on the left side of the room, a big ‘JENO’ written in white marker against the faded metallic blue. Mark comes closer and he sees that Jeno’s locker couldn’t be a better representation of himself. Once seen, his locker is hard to miss. It stands out, seeing as how everything on his locker is so loud, from his name largely smacked at the top to the numerous motivating phrases written in bright colours with exclamation marks spread all over. His randomness shines through the stupid, cute doodles littered all over and Mark can’t help but laugh at the bubble speeches Jeno created for them. Jeno’s passion is shown through his achievements in the photos that are pasted in the middle. The main attraction. There’s one of his first game as part of his school, then there’s another one where he’s being piggybacked by one of his teammates, holding a trophy high over his head. There’s one where Jaemin is hugging both him and Chenle, and there’s one of his family with him, a medal round his neck.
Volleyball is all I’ve ever known.
Mark sees it, how volleyball is such a big part of Jeno’s life. Mark knows how that feels. He’s had his drums for so long he can’t imagine his life without them, it’s probably the same for Jeno. Not many people ever find something they’re good at in their lifetime and Mark thinks they’re lucky to have found it early on in theirs. It only makes sense that they want to continue being good at what they’re doing. It only makes sense for Jeno to choose volleyball.
“How long are you going to stare at my locker?”
Mark turns around to find Jeno freshly showered and changed, a delighted smile on his face.
Mark crosses his arms against his chest, leaning back against the locker. “Maybe a while longer? It looks nicer than your face does.”
“Only because there’s more of my face there,” Jeno replies shamelessly.
Mark makes a face. “Jeno, don’t be disgusting.”
“I was just kidding!” Jeno defends himself. Jeno comes up with his shoe bag to put inside his locker. He stops short in front of Mark. His eyes shift from his locker which Mark is leaning on and back to Mark. He’s considering something from the way he has his lips pursed.
“We can put your face there too if you want.”
It takes Mark by surprise. “Why would you put my face there?”
Jeno shrugs, not giving it much thought. “Why not? Everyone else is there. I’ve been meaning to put a picture of us up anyway.”
Something washes over Mark that Mark finds hard to shake off.
Jeno looks at him strangely. “It’s basically a collage telling the summary of my life. Why should you not be there?”
There, as in the compilation of everything that’s ever mattered to Jeno, everything Jeno’s ever cared for in his life. There together with the one constant thing in Jeno’s life that he’s been fighting for and still is. Mark might be overthinking things but the feeling of having his picture there doesn’t make him feel comfortable. He isn’t worth that much. He’s not anyone special to Jeno. The agreement is enough proof, Jeno chose volleyball over him. It becomes clear now, he doesn’t fit there.
“I shouldn’t be there,” Mark says out, the words clawing at his throat. His eyes are frantic and he knows Jeno sees it. He doesn’t want Jeno to read him, to see what he’s thinking so he looks away.
“What do you mean?” Jeno questions, starting to get worried at the change in Mark’s demeanour. He drops his shoe bag and holds Mark gingerly by the shoulder. When Mark doesn’t look at him, he cups Mark’s face and tilts his head up. “What did I say wrong?”
His touch is gentle but it’s too intense for Mark, especially with how Jeno’s staring at him worriedly. Mark turns his head away from Jeno’s touch, his rejection making Jeno flinch. Jeno’s hand lingers and then drops.
“Jeno, I can’t,” Mark says quietly but the shakiness in his voice rings loud.
“You can’t?” Jeno asks gently, trying to comprehend what’s happening. “Mark you have to make sense for me to understand.”
Mark breathes in. “Look Jeno, I can’t continue doing this. Because if you kiss me every time you wanted to, I will kiss you back. Then there would be no point to the agreement. We agreed to be friends but I don’t think I can do it. The agreement doesn’t work for us.”
Jeno doesn’t speak and Mark knows it’s partly because he feels guilty for not upholding his part of the agreement. But Mark’s at fault too so Mark doesn’t blame him. Mark knows that Jeno’s silence is mainly due to the heaviness of the words he had just uttered. Because getting rid of the agreement means they will no longer be friends - either they go separate ways, because seeing each other platonically evidently isn’t working for them, or they embrace what they feel for each other and take it a step further.
“I know I said I’m not interested in seeing someone romantically but you - you confuse me. The one thing I’m sure about is that I like you a lot. And I think I’m willing to give us a try, just because it’s you.”
Jeno looks conflicted. “Mark, I don’t know-”
Mark adds in hurriedly, “But it’s fine if you don’t want to. I know you said you’re not for a relationship right now and that’s understandable. And if that happens, then that happens. We-,” Mark inhales deeply, “I guess we part on good terms and continue on with our lives.”
“You’re asking me to choose? Between having you or losing you?” Jeno asks, pained. “You know I like you too, but things are really tight for me right now - it’s not as easy as choosing-”
“I know it’s not fair and that it’s not easy,” Mark states carefully, trying his best to appear collected and not let his shaking be obvious. Renjun told him to think about what would make him happy. He’s decided that he can only be happy if he gets to feel freely. He doesn’t want to hide or pretend anymore. Be it happy or in pain or infatuated or whatever emotion he feels, he wants to at least experience them freely. He doesn’t want to suppress anything he feels.
“You once told me you won’t let me hurt. This agreement is hurting me, Jeno. I can’t go on liking you and knowing I won’t be able to do anything about it.” His voice is coarse and he feels prickling heat at the back of his eyes.
Jeno steps back, his head hung low, hand running through his hair roughly. “How am I supposed to choose?” He sounds so broken Mark has to stop himself from reaching out to hold him.
But the answer is already set even if Jeno doesn’t know it. Mark doesn’t even dare to hope.
Volleyball is all I’ve ever known.
“I know it’s hard. I’ll give you time to think,” Mark tells him. “Whatever you choose, I’ll be fine.”
Jeno raises his head, looking at Mark helplessly. “What about you? What do you want?”
“I want to be happy,” Mark says quietly. “That’s why I want to break the agreement. So whatever happens to us next, I want you to choose what you want for yourself. Don’t worry about me.”
Jeno’s breath quivers and he looks close to falling apart. Mark knows he shouldn’t but he thinks this might be the last of it so he risks everything and pulls Jeno into an embrace, a form of resignation sitting in his heart. Jeno clings onto him, his face hidden into Mark’s shoulder. Mark cradles his head and shuts his eyes closed. “I would still appreciate you, no matter what happens.”
Mark holds him like that for a while longer before he lets go. He gives Jeno a weak smile. “I know I came here so that we could hang out, but I think I’m gonna go.”
Mark turns and walks away, leaving Jeno there alone. When he’s sure Jeno can no longer see or hear him, he lets his tears fall freely. He had decided on what would make him happy and he wonders if the tears are worth.
Jeno’s answer had come in the form of a call late at night. When Mark comes back into the room after the call, he abandons his bed completely and squeezes in with Renjun. On any other day, Renjun would push him away. But when Renjun hears him sniffling, Renjun holds him near instead and strokes his hair till he falls asleep, tears staining the pillow and his cheeks.
The agreement’s off, he should be happy now.
Mark continues his days as usual, trying to fill Jeno’s absence with other things, mainly through practicing. Mark still has bad days, he’s only human after all, and when it happens he runs, just like all the other times before. He doesn’t bump into Jeno but he’s learnt how to deal with his thoughts over time. He doesn’t run as intensely as before, just enough to clear his mind off of things. He turns to his friends about his problems and they’re always there to provide a listening ear.
It’s mostly thanks to Jeno how much he’s changed and he still does appreciate Jeno just like he said he would. The difference is that Jeno isn’t around anymore which is something he’ll learn to cope with. He doesn’t hate Jeno, doesn’t see a reason why he would, instead hoping that Jeno is doing well in what he has chosen. Not having Jeno around hurts less than having the agreement between them, Mark wants to believe so. He should be happier now that he can feel freely, and he’s trying.
But sometimes, he slips up and misses Jeno. Times like now.
Renjun and Donghyuck are supposed to be here, they’ve promised to meet for dinner but they’re not where they said they would be. Jisung isn’t be able to join them, reasoning that he has to submit a paper before the day ends.
Mark waits in the practice room Renjun had said to meet. He sits on the piano stool, pressing on the keys randomly, not aware of what he’s actually doing because he’s too lost in his head.
He misses Jeno and his heart aches annoyingly and he can’t make it go away. Even if he does try, it’ll only make it worse because by trying to not think about Jeno, he’s making himself more aware of the fact that he’s thinking about Jeno. The only way is to wait for it to fade and hope for it to not come back again. It’s cruelly painful.
Jeno’s made his choice, and Mark should really stop letting himself dwell on what they had between them because there’s no point. It’s clear what Jeno wants and what Jeno doesn’t. And Mark had gotten what he wanted. Mark should be happy, he had told Jeno he’d be happy no matter what Jeno chose as long as the agreement doesn’t hold anymore. He had known then, before Jeno even knew himself, what Jeno’s decision would be. So he shouldn’t be as affected by it as he is now. Mark breathes out slowly, trying to ease out the ache in his chest.
“Has the drummer come to take over Jun’s profession? Quite a melody you’re playing there.”
Mark turns to the door, seeing Donghyuck lean against the frame.
Donghyuck raises an eyebrow when he takes in Mark’s appearance. “Not to be caring, but you’re eyes are red and close to leaking.”
Mark wipes at his eyes with the back of his hands lifelessly. “Thanks for not caring.”
Donghyuck nods at the stool, gesturing for Mark to make space. He takes a seat beside Mark, sighing at how slumped and down his best friend looks. He turns to the piano, hovers his fingers above the keys for a second and starts to play. It’s calming and slow, a melancholic melody that’s beautifully soothing. Donghyuck’s fingers betray his tongue because everything about the tune he’s playing shows anything but apathy.
“So I was talking to Jaemin the other day, very interesting conversation.”
Mark grips his own knees tightly. “I’m not interested.”
“Jaemin says his best friend hasn’t been himself lately. To the point that he’d rather hear his best friend’s lame jokes all day than to see him smile only on rare occasions.”
Mark’s heart betrays him with how it drops to his stomach. But how Jeno is, is not his concern anymore. Jeno made his choice and Mark accepted it. They parted on mutual feelings. It’s what Jeno wants for himself, and it’s what should make Mark happy. Mark shouldn’t care about why Jeno isn’t smiling.
“When is Jun coming?”
“Jeno is sad, Mark. Even if he’s trying to hide it, it’s painfully obvious.”
Mark looks at the piano keys and how Donghyuck’s fingers glides across them.
Donghyuck is trying to comfort him and help him at the same time. But he doesn’t understand why Donghyuck needs to bring Jeno up. He knows Donghyuck is trying to tell him something but he’s not sure if he wants to hear it. He sighs resignedly. “People can be sad, Hyuck. It’s not a strange phenomenon.”
“Why do you think he’s sad?”
Why do you think he’s sad?”
“I don’t know,” Donghyuck answers. “But I think it might be the same reason why you’re sad too.”
Donghyuck’s fingers stop and he brings it to rest in his lap. “Look, whatever this is between you two has got to stop. He obviously needs you and you need him too.”
“Don’t say that,” Mark grits out.
“Remember before you met him, when you were out in a cycle to destroy yourself? Really stupid, might I add. And then he happened and remember who pulled you out of it? Not us, your useless best friends, but him.”
Mark stands up to leave. “I don’t need this right now.”
“Listen to me. Without him, who knows what you would have turned out to be. He makes you happier and he listens to your worries and he makes you feel better about yourself. He’s-,” Donghyuck falters, searching for his words. “He’s your coda.”
Mark stops short of the door. “My coda?” He laughs bitterly. “What are you on?”
“Look, without him, you’d be stuck in that stupid cycle of yours. Practicing crazy hours and when it doesn’t get better you run like you’re chasing death. And then repeat it all over. He’s the coda to bring you out of it.”
Mark considers Donghyuck’s words. “And I’m thankful to him for it, I really am. But this thing between us is something that we both agreed on. It’s for the best.”
Mark turns to leave but Donghyuck grabs him. “Is it really?”
Mark doesn’t know anymore.
“It has to be.” He tugs his wrist free.
Mark briskly walks out of the room when Renjun enters. Renjun halts him by his shoulder and throws a curious, “Where are you going?”
“I’m not hungry,” Mark murmurs and brushes him off.
He needs space to collect his thoughts. He’s supposed to be happy now that the agreement is no longer. Why isn’t he happy? Why isn’t Jeno happy?
The next time Mark meets Jeno isn’t by coincidence. He should have expected it but he didn’t and he finds out only when Donghyuck lets slip that Jeno is here at his recital too.
Donghyuck glances guiltily at Mark once the words leave his mouth, obviously not expecting that he’d spill it out on his own. Mark’s not angry, not really. There’s no point in being angry anyway, Donghyuck’s done nothing wrong, it’s his recital he can invite whoever he wants. And Jeno’s done nothing wrong either. Mark simply wishes he’d seen it coming, then he could have mentally prepared himself for the encounter if it ever happens.
Donghyuck fidgets uncomfortably where he’s perched on the dressing table with a bouquet on his lap. “I told Jaemin he could bring whoever and so he brought-”
“That’s great,” Mark says, a weak smile on his face. Mark knows it’s too late to run away now, because he’s here in Donghyuck’s dressing room and more people are bound to come in to congratulate him on a successful recital.
But he thinks he might have the chance not to face Jeno if he’s fast enough. He doesn’t want to risk meeting Jeno. He’s been trying to cope without Jeno all this while, he’s afraid everything would become meaningless if he sees Jeno again. He would have to pick himself up all over again and go through everything-
If he leaves now, maybe-
“Hyuck, I’m sorry,” Mark breathes out heavily, feeling frenzied, “but I’m heading out first.”
Renjun and Jisung are there too, but nobody tries to stop him. Mark can see just how hard they’re trying from holding him back. They don’t want to pressure him into something he’s not comfortable with which he truly appreciates.
“Take care of yourself,” is all Donghyuck says before Mark’s out the door, big strides to get out as fast as he can.
Mark doesn’t believe in fate but he’s never hated the universe more when he bumps into someone in his haste. Because that someone is the very person he’s trying to avoid. Jeno catches him before he even registers his face, steadying Mark by his shoulder. Mark’s stomach twists.
“Careful there, oh- hey,” Jeno says, slightly flustered when he realises it’s Mark. Its awkward, they haven’t seen each other in months. Jeno isn’t alone thankfully, he’s with Jaemin and Chenle, otherwise Mark thinks he’d be at a complete lost of what to do or say if it’s just him and Jeno.
“Thanks,” Mark says out stiffly, giving a polite nod. Jeno still looks as good as he remembers, his pretty face and his pretty eyes. Seeing Jeno again reminds him of the reason why they haven’t met in months and why he had been rushing out of the building in the first place. His body is awkwardly rigid because his brain is screaming at him to leave but he can’t bolt just like that. There’s tension between them, subtle but growing and it seems like Jaemin and Chenle can feel it too from how they seem to be restless at the interaction, or lack of.
“We’re actually on our way to see Hyuck. Do you want to join us?” Jaemin asks nicely, saving them all from the suffocating silence.
“No, it’s ok. I’m on my way back from meeting him. I’ve to get somewhere actually so-”
“Oh, then we shouldn’t hold you back,” Chenle says, giving space for Mark to walk through. Chenle glances at Jeno and gives him a look. He seemed to have sent Jeno a message before looking back at Mark. “It was nice seeing you again.”
“I could say the same,” Mark says and gives them a brief smile. Jeno hasn’t said anything the whole time and they don’t make eye contact but Mark can feel that Jeno’s watching him.
They separate ways and Mark walks away fast, his heart beating unnecessarily hard in his chest. He comes out of the building, the night breeze unwelcoming and the coldness of it stabbing him mercilessly. He hugs his suit jacket tightly round his body, foregoing the bus stop in favour of walking despite the unfavourable weather just so he can clear his mind.
He walks along the streets and notices that there isn’t a lot of traffic, a car or two passing by every once in a while. The only sounds around him are from the harsh breeze and the occasional beeping of the traffic light. The quietness of the night helps to calm his buzzing mind. Meeting Jeno after not seeing each other for so long was… triggering. It’s like the Jeno-filled space in his heart and mind that he had painstakingly cleared and replaced was only too willing to accommodate to make room for Jeno again.
He chastises himself, tells himself to keep it together. He can do well without Jeno, he’s been doing so for months. He wants to believe he’s been doing well. A small voice at the back of his head tells him that it’s only because Jeno had been such a positive motivating force that he’s able to carry himself well. He is thankful to Jeno, always is, but he shouldn’t involve Jeno in his life anymore. No matter how much seeing Jeno again makes his heart ache despite months of trying to numb himself of any type of emotion related to Jeno. Jeno had made it clear what he had chosen and it wasn’t Mark. Which Mark understands and had adjusted to. He can’t crumble again.
“It would have been better if you’d stayed at the bus stop.”
It’s a voice Mark knows too well. Mark closes his eyes and breathes in deeply. He really doesn’t need this right now.
He turns around, fists clenched determinedly.
“It’s warmer at the bus stop,” Jeno huffs, his hair blown waywardly by the breeze. He had run here. “Would have saved us both the trouble.”
Mark shakes his head, the lines on his forehead hardening. “Jeno, what are you doing?”
Jeno straightens and catches his breath. There’s a look in his eyes, one of unexplained desperation, of someone who’d snap into realisation at the last minute, one who’s tired of himself and of everything.
Mark doesn’t know how to feel at the fact that Jeno had ran after him, probably ditching meeting Donghyuck backstage altogether. He doesn’t think Donghyuck would have questioned Jeno’s absence either, possibly accepting it like how he had accepted Mark not being able to bring himself to stay in the waiting room. It’s a cruel joke the universe is playing on him, bringing Jeno to him when he doesn’t want it.
“I’m not sure. I just- I saw you. Then you left and I just felt like I had to.”
Mark looks at him pensively. They’re not meant to be friends, he knows it and Jeno knows it. They can’t go back, and even if they try to make it work, it won’t. They’ve been through it, the agreement nothing but a facade and an excuse for them to hold on to each other. Mark is tired of it and he won’t let himself go through it again.
“Jeno, we agreed to go our separate ways. Why are you here?” Mark asks looking at him pleadingly.
“I think we should talk,” Jeno says out in a breath, staring straight at Mark. Mark doesn’t think it would be a good idea. He tries to be distant, tries not to let old emotions take over. He shakes his head resolutely. “I’m sorry. Goodbye Jeno.”
Mark turns back around but Jeno grabs his wrist desperately. “Mark, wait.”
“There’s no point. Please let me go,” Mark says, barely keeping the tremble of his voice a secret.
Jeno lets him free but his voice clutches onto Mark forlornly when he speaks. “I won’t hurt you, I promise. Please, just hear me out.”
They find themselves sitting outside the nearest convenience store, a cup of warm coffee in their hands. The bench they’re sitting at faces a park. It’s funny, Mark thinks, how their most significant interactions always involve a park.
It’s late and quiet and tension sits apprehensively between them. Mark wonders if this is all what they’ve become. It somewhat saddens him because Jeno was one of the few people he could really click well within a short period of time.
Mark drums his fingers against his cup, looking out blankly at the park. Jeno had wanted to talk but he hasn’t uttered a word. He seems hesitant, like he’s afraid of saying something wrong. Mark knows Jeno is watching and waiting on his reaction, trying to find the right timing and right words to say.
Mark takes a chance, relaxes his body and leans back against the bench. Jeno senses his unguardedness and he seem to breathe easier. Mark decides do him the favour and break the silence.
“How’s your volleyball coming along?”
“Manageable, but barely. Scouting season’s over. I’ll just have to wait and see. In short, it’s been… it’s been good.”
It’s good to hear that what Jeno chose is working out well for him.
“How are things for you?” Jeno tosses back at him.
“I’ve been keeping myself busy. You know, practice and all that.”
“It’s nice to hear that you’re doing well.”
“Not all the time,” Mark says quietly. “But I try.”
Jeno nods and doesn’t say anything but it looks like his head is a mess of thoughts. Jeno suddenly laughs dryly to himself. Mark has never heard his laugh sound so hollow. “I tried too, but I guess it doesn’t seem to work as well for me as it does for you.” Jeno grips his cup tightly that it forms a dent.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been quite a mess. Not having you around was harder than I thought. I didn’t realise you impacted my life to this extent when I chose-” Jeno swallows thickly, finding it difficult to continue. His jaw is clenched and his face hardens. He’s been struggling, it shows, and it resonates deeply.
“You chose not to hurt me. Jeno, whichever you chose, you wouldn’t have hurt me in any way. Because I wanted to be free of our agreement and you gave that to me.”
“But I pushed you away,” Jeno grits out, looking like he did something unforgivable. Seeing Jeno in this state tugs achingly at Mark’s heart. “Because I was selfish, because I didn’t want to risk anything getting in the way of achieving what I wanted.”
“It wasn’t selfish. Volleyball meant that much to you, you deserved a chance to chase it,” Mark says. It’s what he tells himself as well. The conclusion they’ve decided on is supposed to be a win for the both of them; Mark is freed from the agreement and Jeno can chase after what he wants wholeheartedly. But it doesn’t feel like any of them have won.
Jeno turns his head to look at Mark, eyes begging, the desperation in them so hard to ignore. “Are you happier now than you were before?”
Mark swallows. “Jeno-”
“I just need to know if what we’re doing is right. If you are happier, then we don’t have to change anything you don’t want to.”
Mark doesn’t answer immediately, finding it difficult to meet Jeno’s eyes.
The branches of the trees in front of them sway in the wind and the wide grassy area looks so lush and welcoming. Once upon a time, they’d lied on the ground together watching the night sky looking for stars.
“Are you?” Mark throws back at him.
“No.” Jeno says, no hesitance or contemplation. It feels like an answer that’s been searched for through sleepless nights and lonely hours.
“Would have you chosen differently?” Mark asks patiently, not certain what he wants to hear.
“I wouldn’t have pushed you away. I would choose to give us a chance. Because you’re worth it. You’ve always been worth it. It took me too long to see.”
“But it doesn’t matter if you’re happier now,” Jeno adds, giving a smile that breaks Mark’s heart as much as it’s probably breaking Jeno’s. “But if ever there’s any chance that you’re not, I’m willing to give us a try, just because it’s you. You’re worth it.”
Jeno is ridiculous. He remembers the exact words Mark had uttered that day in the locker room when Mark had asked him to choose. And now he’s putting Mark in the situation Mark had put him in, asking Mark to choose what makes him happy. It’s ridiculous, the turntables. Mark is supposed to be happy. He shouldn’t have a problem making a decision.
Yet here he is, his heart feeling tightly constricted. He’s feeling conflicted when he’s not supposed to. It’s ridiculous.
“Jeno you’re so stupid,” Mark breathes out, head hung low. His mind is in a whirring mess. “It’s not fair.”
“Give me time,” Mark forces out, hoping he doesn’t regret saying this words later on. “I need to think.”
The lights come on and Mark has to squint, adjusting his eyes that were already comfortable with the darkness.
Jisung freezes at the door, not expecting to find anyone else in the room. He blinks at Mark, thinking hard of what to do at this unexpectedness. It’s obvious Jisung doesn’t know whether to leave or to confront him. Mark lets out a breathy laugh watching him and it seems to loosen Jisung up because he lets out a sheepish smile. He closes the door behind and steps closer to Mark.
“Hyung, what are you doing here? I thought you said you’d be in the library working on your assignment.”
“Ah,” Mark replies hesitantly, sitting slumped against the practice room wall. “I didn’t really feel like it. Why’d you come?”
Nobody’s supposed to come at this hour. That was why Mark had come here in the first place.
“I forgot my file. Why were you in the dark?”
“I was thinking.”
“In the dark?” Jisung asks, fitting himself comfortably by Mark’s side. Mark smiles at him fondly and throws his arm round Jisung’s shoulder.
“What’s wrong with that?” Mark hums.
“Nothing. I like to do that too.”
Jisung doesn’t ask him anything else. Instead, he delves into telling Mark about Donghyuck’s mis-pitching during rehearsal, Renjun’s unfortunate encounter with an overly eager puppy, then he shares about his disappointing lunch story which reminded him of a similar story when he was younger. Mark listens to him talk and laughs at all the correct places.
And then Jisung looks at him, a pleased smile on his face.
“You’re smiling again.”
Mark’s stomach twists and squeezes. “Because you’re funny,” Mark tells him.
Jisung shakes his head. “It’s hard to see you smile these days.”
Mark looks down into his lap. “I have a lot of things on my mind these days.”
“Is it Jeno hyung?”
Mark’s silence is his answer. It’s Jeno and Jeno saying he would have chosen differently and Jeno now wanting to give them a chance. And Mark’s afraid. He’s afraid of hurting. Because Jeno had come in, sweeping him off his feet, and chose something else over him in the end. But Jeno isn’t to blame, Mark knows that. That’s just how things are.
Jeno had decided to put his commitments over everything else. He’d chosen to have no ties with Mark but he comes back and takes back his words. Mark doesn’t know what to do. He had been trying to move on. Maybe it would be better if he just did. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if what he wants and what he needs are the same things.
He just doesn’t know.
“Can I just say something?”
Mark looks at Jisung curiously and then gives him an encouraging smile. “Shoot.”
“I don’t want to see you sad like this anymore,” Jisung says, playing with his own fingers. “If you’re confused about what to do, then choose the other one. Because whatever it is that you’re doing now, it’s making you sad. I don’t see how the other choice can be worse. You should be happy, hyung.”
Mark had thought he’d chosen happiness for himself. Nobody seems to tell him he has.
Mark closes his eyes. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t.
Jisung pats his shoulder comfortingly. “Come on hyung, let’s go back.”
And maybe Jisung’s right. Maybe the other is what he needs.
Mark looks gratefully at him and ruffles his hair. “Thanks, Sung.”
“No need to thank me, hyung. Just buy me supper.”
“Hyung, hurry, you’re gonna be late!” Jisung exclaims once their instructor is well out of the room.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Mark curses, frantically packing his things into his backpack. “Pretend you didn’t hear that Sung.”
“Just hurry. And Good luck!” Jisung shouts as Mark sprints out of the room, making his way out of school.
According to Donghyuck who had heard it from Jaemin, Jeno has a game today. After their talk outside the convenience store last week, Mark had kept thinking about what Jeno had said. It took a lot of brooding, being lost in his head, a round of drinks with his friends, some lovingly thrown insult and threats (mostly from Donghyuck) and finally that talk he had with Jisung for him to finally come to a decision.
Being with Jeno makes him happy and if Jeno is still willing to try then…
Mark doesn’t want to think about what could be. He’ll just simply speak his mind and whatever follows, follows.
Mark thinks he’s changed a lot. He only cared about one thing before and that ended up almost destroying him. He had learnt from it, picked himself back up and had also learnt that he’s allowed to lean on others. He now shares with his friends more, he knows that the people who care for him wouldn’t watch him go through a path of self-destruction. He’s less bent on reaching the finishing line as fast as he can now, he’s learning to smell the flowers along the way. And he thinks Jeno might just be a blooming flower he’s meant to cross in his path, to stop and appreciate along the way. Jeno was the one who steered him towards changing for the better. Most of the time the people who leave a positive impact on your life are the people that you need to keep close.
Mark knows this which is why he is out to give them a chance. But he’s running late, Jeno’s game having ended about ten minutes ago. Mark doesn’t know if he’ll be able to catch him but he makes a mad dash to the court either way, hoping luck is on his side.
He spots Jeno outside the sports hall, walking along the fences of the tennis courts together with Jaemin and Chenle. Jeno doesn’t see him, too engrossed in his conversation with Chenle. It’s only when Jaemin says something to him that Jeno turns his head mid conversation, his eyes landing on Mark. His mouth forms an ‘o’ and there’s a flustered expression on his face.
Mark stops running about a distance away once Jeno sees him. He hunches over with his hand on his knees. He takes in big breaths but he doesn’t break his eye contact with Jeno. He gives him a shy smile and a wave which Jeno returns.
Jaemin and Chenle pat Jeno’s back and move off in another path, whispering and giggling among themselves. Mark stands up straighter as Jeno approaches.
“What are you doing here?” Jeno asks, his tone that of disbelief, coming off warm and pleasant.
“I wanted to watch your game.”
“You missed it. And we lost anyway,” Jeno says but he doesn’t sound too disappointed about it. He doesn’t even look the part. It’s probably because Jeno has an inkling about why Mark’s here. It’s obvious from their little interaction earlier when they saw each other. Even Chenle and Jaemin could tell.
“That’s ok,” Mark says. “I actually wanted to see you.”
“Why did you want to see me?” Jeno asks, trying to hide a smile. If Mark was unsure before, then Mark is certain now Jeno definitely knows why he’s here. Mark would really like to smack him and tell him not to be so smug but they’re not at that stage as of yet. They have to actually resolve this thing between them first. And Mark wants to do this right. This is what they both had wanted. It took them a while and it wasn’t easy to come too. But they’re finally here.
Mark doesn’t know why he’s nervous. It’s just Jeno he’s talking to but his heart hammers in his chest. “You said I was worth it. And I think you’re worth it too.”
“So does this means…?” Jeno asks, expectance and hesitance mixed together.
Mark holds Jeno’s gaze. His lips give way to a tender smile. “I want to give us a try. If you want to as well, that is.”
Jeno grins and it feels like it’s been forever since Mark’s seen his pretty eye-smile. His heart feels a thousand times lighter.
“I want to.”
Mark laughs, relieved. A warm, fluffy feeling spreads in his chest. He cautiously stretches his arm out between them. He tilts his head. “So… take me on a date?”
Jeno doesn’t stop smiling. He takes Mark’s hand, their hands fitting together naturally. “With pleasure.”
Mark uses Jeno’s thigh as his pillow, grateful that they had chosen an old, reliable shady tree to rest under. The sun is mercilessly bright and he feels the warmth of the sun rays on his skin. Thankfully the rays get filtered through the branches and the leaves so he isn’t left blinded as he lies facing the sky, fingers drumming on Jeno’s arm that’s draped across his stomach.
The sky is a cloudless bright blue and the river sparkles and glistens in front of them. Daffodils and daisies reside peacefully on the river bank, accompanying the river as it flows out into the ocean somewhere further, further down. The sound of children playing soccer enthusiastically at the field behind keeps them company.
They have leftover rice rolls and sandwiches from lunch and they’ve just finished their strawberry ice-cream. Mark hadn’t been keen on going out initially but Jeno had been excited at the weather, so Mark strapped on his old guitar and they’d pack lunch and set off for an impromptu picnic. Forward two hours later, they’ve eaten half of what they’ve brought and are currently simply lazing around.
“Why’d you bring your guitar if you’re just gonna use me as your drum?” Jeno hums, looking down at Mark amusedly as Mark continues tapping intricate rhythms on his arm. Mark’s guitar sits outside their little mat on top of its clothed casing. Mark had tuned it earlier when they first arrived but he hadn’t played anything since then. He hasn’t played in a long while in fact, his guitar simply collecting dust in the corner of his room for almost a year. His skills may have gotten rusty but he knows he’ll be right back at it after a few strums.
He meets Jeno’s gaze lazily. “Later, when I feel like it.”
Jeno sweeps Mark’s bangs to the side, feeling the soft strands of Mark’s hair between his fingers. “I actually know how to play the guitar,” he throws out casually.
Mark sits up immediately, surprised at the revelation because Jeno hadn’t mention or even shown that he had any knowledge of music. After about a year of knowing each other, which includes three months of dating, Mark only finds out now. He’s kind of pissed, because he has always had a thing for boys who play the guitar. And Jeno just had to fit that criteria. How unfair.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mark asks, sounding upset.
Jeno raises an eyebrow. “Is it that important? I learnt it from a friend, my skills are probably far below yours.”
“Play me something,” Mark insists, taking the guitar and pushing it onto Jeno’s lap. He leans back on his elbows as he watches Jeno position the guitar comfortably.
Jeno looks at him with a smug grin. “I hope you’re not scared off by me being too perfect. You know, being a talented athlete who can also play the guitar and all.”
Mark wants to wipe that smile of his face and smack the back of his head. “Don’t worry, I know how much of a loser you actually are.”
“I’m gonna pretend that didn’t hurt.”
Mark nods forward at the guitar, an encouraging smile following after. “Play for me. I promise I won’t laugh.”
Jeno starts off hesitantly, his fingers slowly adjusting as they move across the fretboard. Jeno plays shyly, so focused on it he doesn’t even spare a glance at Mark. His playing isn’t spectacular but it still is nice and Mark finds it cute how his lips purses whenever he changes to a tricky chord and how he starts smiling along the way, bobbing his head to the music unconsciously. Mark has to stifle back a fond laugh not because it’s funny but because Jeno is that endearing. Jeno always puts up an arrogant front acting like he’s all that when he’s just a softie on the inside.
Mark watches quietly and when Jeno’s done, Mark wears the widest grin on his face and gives him a huge round of applause. If Mark had a thing for boys playing the guitar before, he has a thing for Jeno playing the guitar now.
“Juilliard worthy?” Jeno asks jokingly as he puts the guitar aside.
Mark leans up and crawls into Jeno’s lap. He cups Jeno’s face as Jeno’s hands drop to hold his waist. They’re both smiling knowingly at each other because they both know Jeno’s playing is nowhere near that standard but they both also know that Mark’s probably gonna say something ridiculous or make a joke out of it.
“Spit it out,” Jeno demands whiningly, laughing at the same time.
“Not really Juilliard worthy, but I thought it was sexy,” Mark says sleazily, their noses touching.
Jeno mouths a “Fuck you,” in response which has the both of them laughing. Jeno pouts, bringing Mark’s attention to his lips. “You’re never gonna let this ‘sexy’ thing go, are you?”
Mark lets their lips touch and smiles. “Why would I? Besides there’s no lie in it anyway.” He pushes forward slightly, applying just enough pressure to start a kiss. Jeno’s lips comply only too willingly, moving smoothly against Mark’s. Jeno hums contentedly when Mark tugs his bottom lip and he pulls Mark nearer by the waist.
Their bodies are pressed together and Mark is kissing him open-mouthed, hot and intense. Jeno could easily kiss him like this for hours, to hold him and feel him and hear all the different noises he can get out of Mark, but the sound of kids laughing and screaming reminds him of where they are.
Jeno forces himself to pull away causing Mark to whine in protest.
“Wait, wait,” Jeno says breathlessly as Mark nuzzles into his neck, licking and teasing. “Mark, wait. There are children here,” Jeno whispers with a tone of alarm.
Mark stiffens as Jeno’s words sink in and he drops his head on Jeno’s shoulder, groaning dejectedly. He climbs off Jeno’s lap and plops beside Jeno, adjusting his own shirt and hair. He sighs and rests his head on Jeno’s shoulder, joining Jeno in leaning against the old tree.
Jeno laughs with a shake of his head and turns to leave a placating kiss on Mark’s cheek. “Later,” Jeno promises, sounding secretive. “Jaemin says he’s bringing Jun out, so…”
Mark scoffs and he laces their fingers together on his thigh. Mark wonders if he should take a nap; he finds Jeno’s shoulder very comfortable. He thinks it must be something about athletes and their broad shoulders.
Mark forgoes the nap, choosing to watch the view they have in front of them instead. He notices a group of ducks swimming in the river. He tells Jeno of the time some ducklings imprinted on his cousin. Jeno tells him of the time he almost had a pet duckling. They talk and talk, and giggle, and Jeno draws abstract patterns using his thumb on the back of Mark’s palm that he’s holding. Everything feels perfect and Mark’s heart has never felt so at peace before. Mark couldn’t have asked for anything better.
“We should take a picture here,” Mark says. “It’s so pretty.”
“We should,” Jeno agrees. “I can put it on my locker later.”
Mark feels all kind of warm inside and his stomach flutters. He turns and kisses Jeno’s cheek.
“That would be nice,” he comments, pleased. “Also why haven’t you put a picture of us on your locker yet?”
“Who told you?”
Mark scoffs. “Unbelievable.” He makes to sit away but their hands are connected so Jeno pulls him back easily.
“Because I actually have three pictures of us on my locker and one more inside,” Jeno says, smiling proudly.
Mark flushes, hitting Jeno squarely on his shoulder. Jeno is stupid, and he tells him that much.
“That makes you even more stupid for falling for me, drummer boy.”
And there’s such a stupid smile on Jeno’s face, the stupid smile that Mark has fallen for, therefore according to Jeno, making him stupid too. But Mark will take it, he will take whatever if it means he gets to have this with Jeno.
He cups Jeno’s face and pulls Jeno down to his level, stealing a quick kiss from Jeno’s lips.
He feels happy.
Mark doesn’t believe in fate but he thinks if he does, this might be it.