to be soft, to say here is my underbelly
and I want you to hold the knife, but I don’t
know what I want you to do: plunge
or mercy. I deserve both.
I want to hold and be held.
Underbelly - Nicole Homer
Chenle is the first Dream member to get married.
Mark wants to say he’s unsurprised—back when it was seven of them around beer and soju bottles, Jaemin always joked about Chenle’s parents having a bride picked out for him—but truth be told, he is surprised. Somewhere between Jisung becoming the leader of Dream and SuperM going from makeshift to permanent, Mark lost track of his boys. Himself, too, if he’s being honest.
There’s something grounding about being in China without a lineup of schedules in front of him. A reminder almost, that underneath the layer of idol Mark, followed by that of Mark-who-is-still-an-idol-but-in-a-human-way, is actual human person Mark Lee, who has a set of friends, made through idolhood, but with all their intentions laid bare. They’ve seen each other cleaved down to the bone, before the regeneration of skin and muscle, before they were tougher. Nothing makes Mark softer than being with his boys with nothing hanging over them.
Nothing, except for the boy—man—seated next to him.
Renjun, as always, is less fist to the ribs and more knee to the lower jaw, immediate shock, the kind of shit that rattles your brain enough that it resets. His suit is tailored black velvet—Mark knows if he reached out to touch, Renjun would let him—hair a shade of red that’s almost reminiscent of My First and Last promotions. It’s darker though, suits the angular lines of Renjun’s face, more pronounced now that he’s pushing 32 instead of 23. Birdlike , as Jeno likes to say. Less sparrow and more bird of prey, if you ask Mark.
“I didn’t see you at the ceremony,” Mark opens. He knows dinner is going to be long; it’s a traditional Chinese wedding banquet, they haven’t even brought the bean curd out. He might as well begin the process of reaching out if he’s going to be next to Renjun the whole night.
Across Renjun, Donghyuck has a smile on his face like he can’t wait to see just how Mark can fuck up.
“I was there,” Renjun smiles. “Late, but there. I wouldn’t miss this.”
That’s true. Renjun never missed much, right down to the last days of his contract. Complained about seeing the hyungs off for enlistment and was the first at the door the next day. Cried all day when Jeno enlisted.
“What do you think about the bride?” Jeno asks from the other side.
“She’s sweet,” Renjun says off-handedly. The servers are beginning to bring food out. “She’s just as noisy as Chenle, although she doesn’t look it.”
Jaemin snorts. “Chenle doesn’t look like the devil either.”
“Well, he laughs like one,” Donghyuck injects.
“Rich coming from you, Satan,” Jaemin simpers.
Mark and Renjun both snort—Jaemin and Donghyuck haven’t been in the same group since 2021 and they still go at each other like it’s 2019 and someone’s paying them to. It’s nice being around all of them again though, ribbing each other over solo projects and how they’re slowly moving on from NCT.
The elephant in the room stays unaddressed for most of the night. Renjun is nothing if not Renjun, the best at keeping a mask on out of all of them. The kind of talent that’s landed him acting gig after acting gig, once he moved back to China. A permanent radio show host too; Mark listens to it sometimes. He spends half of dinner wishing Renjun would start yelling at him.
Mark thinks he would yell at someone, that is. If they’d been sorta-kinda-living-together for almost six months, and came back the next day to find the other’s stuff all gone. Almost radio silence. It’s just—Renjun received an offer for an acting gig in China, and Mark was the only thing holding him back in Korea. He didn’t want to be that person, didn’t want Renjun to trade off a chance for him to get back into the spotlight for Mark.
Mark, of all people, who is just an average guy, kinda lucky, nothing special.
So he made the decision for Renjun. Moved out of the apartment. Sent him a text, heard about china. wish you the best. Instigated radio silence. Thought there would be less hurt to navigate that way. Didn’t realize it would hurt even more—it took three months for Mark to realize things were way too shitty—too ashamed of seeking Renjun out after. You can be wrong and you can be stubborn about being wrong and Mark is nothing if not both, sometimes. Headstrong.
They end up being the only ones left at the table when the reception shifts towards dancing. Their friends are dancing out there and here are Mark and Renjun, still exchanging bland niceties. Mark caves.
“Will you dance with me?” Mark asks.
Renjun considers his outstretched hand and nods stiffly.
Mark will never deny is the chemistry that Renjun and him have with each other; deeper than magnetic attraction, closer to gravitational mass. A love that recognizes another of its kind, terrifying in that moment. Mark spent most of his adolescence and young adulthood afraid, is the problem. He’d never been handed love like that.
Especially not Renjun’s.
Renjun loves violently. At war with himself, like his body cannot cocoon his feelings, like it comes out of him in sporadic bursts, sunflare, one-two jab, roundhouse kick combo. Mark-hyung you’re so pretty, Mark-hyung you’re my favourite, Mark-hyung if you don’t fuck me.
Renjun looks at him with a lazy smile, as if he can divine Mark’s thoughts. Part clean through Mark’s skull, differentiate temporal lobe from frontal, read his nervous tissue like one of Donghyuck’s tarot decks. They sway together in time with the music, Mark leading, Renjun following and for a moment, he feels like he’s 18 again, handed the mantle of leader, culmination of shadowing Taeyong. Soft leader, put yourself on the line leader, let them walk on you leader.
It was Renjun who would coax him out in those moments, reach out and assure Mark that he was doing it right, doing it good. Silently got the other to listen on days where it was overwhelming and Mark felt like cracking. He’d hoped Renjun would become the leader after him but that didn’t happen. Renjun spins out of his arms and in again, always elegant.
The thing is, Renjun loves with tenderness, too. That is the overwhelming part, the part Mark never knew how to respond to. Gentle kisses across the nape of his neck in the morning, the weight of Renjun’s forehead against the top of his spine, the sleepy murmur of Renjun’s voice. Open, unbridled affection, mother bird gently feeding morsels into the mouth of her young, Mark voracious in his need to be loved like that.
The song crescendoes to its end, Mark brimming with all the things left unsaid.
“I’m sorry,” Mark says, at the end of their waltz.
Renjun looks up at him, lips pursed. The height difference is still there. Mark still yearns to lean down and kiss him, Pavlovian response to Renjun in his arms. “Don’t be. We were different then.”
Mark swallows. “And now?”
“What do you want now, Mark Lee? What could you possibly be left wanting?”
You , he bites down. Blood in mouth. Renjun’s cologne in his nose. Renjun’s waist cradled against his palm. The wanting never left, you see, instead it stained Mark with something, so when you put Mark under luminol, he lights up; Renjun all over Mark like a crime scene. The charges? Love.
“A second chance,” he says in the steadiest tone he can manage. “You said it, we’re different now, better now. I’m better now.”
Renjun’s hand curls against the lapel of his jacket, expression torn between wanting and disbelief. There’s too many people around for Mark to lean down and kiss him the way he wants to, and Renjun can sense the tenseness in Mark, leading him easily through the crowd and out of the reception hall, towards the elevators.
Everything picks up in tempo the moment they cross from hallway into Mark’s room, Renjun leaning in for a kiss. It’s hot and aggressive and has Mark groaning into Renjun’s mouth; he’s missed this. They both have, if the way Renjun won’t stop kissing him has anything to say about it. Tongue insistent on the backs of his teeth, nails digging into skin, Renjun’s still violent as always when it comes to love.
Renjun’s clothes come off fast when he pulls away from Mark’s mouth; inside, Mark is mourning the opportunity to strip him slow. Shirtless and perched on the edge of the bed, Renjun takes his time with Mark. Tugs him by the belt loops between his spread legs, undoes Mark’s shirt from the bottom up, palms cool against Mark’s abdomen. It’s purposeful, Renjun’s face almost level with Mark’s hard cock and ignoring it anyway, making him throb in his briefs. If he thinks too hard about the look on Renjun’s face—bird of prey, swooping for the kill—he might come before Renjun gets his hands on Mark’s dick. As it stands, he might just come from the slow way Renjun tugs his belt out of the loops, presses the very tip of his tongue against Mark’s erection.
“Are you paying for my dry cleaning?” Mark jokes, hands flexing at his sides.
He wants nothing more than to bury them in Renjun’s hair, but he’s not sure it’s allowed. Renjun grins up at him, undoes his pants and tugs them down alongside his briefs. If Mark feels something pull tight in his gut at the fact he’s naked in front of a half-dressed Renjun, he doesn’t say anything. It’s always been like that between them; Renjun leads, Mark follows, power left outside the door.
“Get the lube. And a condom. I don’t want to clean the mess.”
In the time it takes Mark to find lube and a condom, Renjun gets the rest of his clothes off and a hand around his dick. Tugs on it slowly even as Mark approaches the bed, snatches the lube out of his hand before turning onto his hands and knees.
“I can—” Mark offers helpless, tongue thick in his throat from desire.
“I’ve got it.”
And Renjun does have it, still, weight balanced on his shoulders as he reaches back and fingers himself open, puts on a show for Mark. Moans Mark’s name like he’s being paid to do it, sinks one finger then two then three into himself, has Mark so hard he feels like he’s going to pass out from a lack of blood to the brain. Before he knows it Renjun is tugging him onto the bed, rolling the condom down Mark’s dick.
Mark groans when Renjun sinks down onto his cock, Renjun leaning forward to press their foreheads together, panting against Mark’s mouth, almost kissing but not quite. Renjun’s eyes are bright, expression open, vulnerable in a way that Mark has to work to see, Mark’s hand curled tight around Renjun’s hip. This is familiar land, a choreography that has Mark’s muscles twitching the same way listening to any of their tracks make him feel, something ingrained into muscle memory, Renjun on top, Mark underneath, the middle ground between them.
And then Renjun braces his weight, rocks against Mark, the two of them pressed together from torso to torso, Renjun’s cock hard and wet between them and Mark loses all train of thought. Renjun leads and Mark follows, fucking in a slow grind, Mark biting down on his shoulder when Renjun picks up a rhythm of bouncing on his cock.
It still feels like there’s something between them, something keeping them from truly letting go, fucking with abandon, bearing down. And Mark doesn’t know how to equalize it.
“Renjun,” Mark pants out. “What do you need? What do you want?”
Renjun’s eyes flutter open, stares Mark down lazily as he keeps fucking himself on Mark’s cock. Mark wants more than he has words for, just knows that he’s loved Renjun for longer than he wants to admit. A torch that was lit around the same time Renjun tried to jump on him and kiss him in public. Jaemin was half-hearted but Renjun, Renjun had strength in his skinny arms, Mark pulling away in the interest of self-preservation. Wouldn’t learn that kissing Renjun would be a fight every time until a year and a graduation later.
And it dawns on him.
Mark wraps a hand around Renjun’s wrist, rests Renjun’s hand against the base of his throat, head tipped back. Renjun’s eyes get impossibly darker, thread of self-control snapping as he begins rocking down harsher, as if the symbolism of the act alone is enough to get him off—carving knife in hand, heart on platter kind of shit.
“Mark,” Renjun whispers. Mark’s fingers are still firm around his wrist.
“I want you to,” Mark pants out.
Renjun doesn’t argue the fact, thumb gentle over Mark’s Adam’s apple. He does that multiple times, brushing his thumb over Mark’s neck in time with him rocking down; Mark doesn’t get a warning when Renjun’s fingers go tight on his neck, head spinning. Mark whimpers, fucking up into Renjun, Renjun rocking back into the thrust, anchored by the gentle squeeze of Renjun’s fingers. Violent and tender, all the jagged contradictions that make up Renjun.
Mark wants to say they last forever like that, Renjun murmuring praise against Mark’s skin, weight bearing down on Mark, but the truth is with Renjun’s hand around his throat, he feels weightless. Braces his feet on the mattress and fucks up into Renjun every time he rocks down, Renjun’s voice clear in his cries, his precome smeared all over Mark’s abdomen. It goes faster when Mark fumbles between them, wrapping a fist around Renjun’s cock and jerking him off. Mark comes around the same time he realizes he’s in his thirties and doesn’t have the stamina of his twenty year old self, which would be funny if it weren’t for Renjun coming at the same time all over Mark’s torso, drawing out Mark’s orgasm.
They stay together until their breaths even out, Renjun wincing when he pulls away, Mark grimacing at the mess on his chest. His body aches in a way that’s half the effect of alcohol in your thirties and half the effect of not having sex recently, Renjun tossing a tissue box in Mark’s direction. Cleanup is quick and quiet, and Mark wonders if they’re going to lapse back into radio silence tomorrow.
“Move over,” Renjun says, shoving Mark’s shoulder. “I’m too lazy to go back to my room.”
Something in his heart soars as he makes space for Renjun, catches when Renjun settles against his body, tucking himself close. The lights are flipped off and Mark feels brave for the first time in a long time.
Mark swallows. Lips pressed to the nape of Renjun’s neck. “I’ve loved you. I still do. Couldn’t get over you.”
Renjun hums, intertwining their fingers and tugging Mark’s hand higher, until Mark is curved along his spine, close as they can be. Heart settling into sternum, cradled in security.
“I never got over you either,” Renjun admits, voice low.
There’s still more that needs to be said, actual apologies, not vague references but this alone has Mark aching.
“Will you be here in the morning?” Mark whispers.
“Why don’t you go to sleep and find out tomorrow?” Renjun jokes.
Mark smiles. Kisses the nape of Renjun’s neck again. Drifts off to sleep before Renjun does.
When Mark stirs awake, Renjun is still there. Heavy and real in his arms, legs tangled together, even more beautiful in the morning light.
“You’re here,” Mark mumbles, palm pressed against Renjun’s chest.
Renjun hums, twins their fingers together over his heart. “You’re the one who tends to leave.” Mark flinches; it’s harsh, but the truth.
“Sorry, that was mean.”
“We can start out again,” Mark says. “Slow. We’ll figure it out.”
Renjun turns on his side, their hands still intertwined. Mark can feel his heartbeat; alive and real. He can feel the scars of heartache too, even if they’re phantom wounds. After all, they sunk the knife into each other, twisted it in, jagged shards embedded in cardiac muscle, hurting with every love that isn’t the other. When Renjun smiles at Mark, he feels those shards disappear. There is no cloak and dagger, just tenderness laid bare.
“I’d like that.”