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Running Past the End Zone

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If Mark Lee were to trace the trajectory of his heartbreak, he doubts that it would be discernible on any sort of graph. It certainly would not look like a pretty curve. It would be all over the place, which is how he feels, really, now that he’s sitting on Johnny’s bed while Johnny putters about and shoves things in these big boxes and putting the things he’s leaving behind in a pile in the middle of the room. 

“Dude,” Johnny says in English. “Lemme know if there’s anything you want me to leave behind, okay?”

You, Mark thinks with a sort of desperation. Leave the rest, just stay here.

“Sure,” Mark chokes out, rising from the bed to stand by the closet Johnny’s stood in front of. 

There is an entire parade of colors, different shirts and jackets and hoodies, and uniforms that Johnny flips through until Mark finds the one he’s looking for, this soft brown hoodie that Johnny used to wear all the time, the one that made him look like a bear. 

“Can I keep this one?” Mark hazards, refusing to look at Johnny, fingers in the soft of the material. 

“Oh, I love that one--”

“NEVERMIND,” Mark squawks, letting the garment go like it’s burned him, looking at Johnny with some embarrassment before Johnny waves him off. 

“I love that one and I’d love for you to have it, man,” Johnny interjects. “As I said, lemme know, right? So you’re letting me know. It’s yours.”

Johnny pulls off more clothes from the hangers to spread them out on his bed that’s tucked away in the corner of the room against the window and the wall. Right next to his bed is his wooden desk that had come with the room, with papers and stacks of photographs strewn all over it. 

Mark cannot believe that he is standing here, watching all of this unfold, all the while holding his tongue and hoping that nothing slips out, nothing to ruin this precarious thing that exists between the two of them: something more than friendship, something that doesn’t feel like brotherhood, something that feels a lot like love, at least on Mark’s end. 

Quietly, he helps Johnny fold shirts that Mark has cataloged in his head, an endless reel of memories that match the shirts that Johnny transfers into the big boxes. How is it that all of a sudden, his brain has gotten so proficient in pulling up the time they’ve had together, now that Johnny is a week away from leaving Seoul for good? 

 

🏃🏽

 

“You’re leaving,” Mark says flatly after metal chopsticks have settled on the plate from where he’d dropped them. 

“Yeah,” Johnny says quietly. “Yeah, I got the call from mom earlier after she told me that dad was home already from the hospital, and we talked it over for like, two hours, but we decided it was for the best.” 

There’s a buzzing in Mark’s ears, tingling in his lips that he doesn’t want to address. He’s looking across the table at Taeyong and at Doyoung, who looks like he is about to start bawling into the lettuce. 

“When,” Yuta asks from Johnny’s right. “When do you leave?”

“A month from now,” Johnny replies, eyes downcast, hands fiddling with the half-empty bottle of grapefruit soju. 

Things click into place suddenly, why Johnny had been so adamant about getting pork belly tonight, about why he’d insisted it was all on his dime, about plying them with too many bottles of soju before dropping this goddamn bomb. 

Mark can’t breathe. He’s pretty sure his hands are shaking, so he folds them over his lap, and folds over himself like the wind’s been knocked out of him. The words slosh around in his head slowly, like time is moving strangely for them and only them. 

“A month,” Taeyong parrots. “Okay. Okay.” 

It’s like someone’s died, which is admittedly a little dramatic if Mark is honest with himself, but that’s how it feels, the way everyone looks crestfallen. 

“What about your job with--”

“Yeah, I had to call Kun and tell him that I’m gonna have to give the position up,” Johnny says. His shoulders curl in on themselves. “He was bummed. So am I.” 

Mark takes a slow, ragged breath. 

Johnny terminating his position at Kun’s production company makes it real, and it has him reeling from the knowledge that this is actually happening, that Johnny is going to be packing up and leaving Seoul to move back to Chicago and there is no stopping it. 

He’d figured, in the last couple of minutes since Johnny had dropped the news, that it was as real as it could get when he mentioned his dad coming from his stint at the hospital after having a heart attack. Johnny had been managing it pretty okay remotely. When Johnny’s mom had told them about the heart attack, Johnny had been quick to insist he book a flight home immediately, but Mrs. Suh had talked him out of it, saying that he was recovering nicely and would be heading home in a few days. 

This feels like a 180, but it’s not anything that any of them is allowed to complain about. 

“It just seemed like the best thing you know, after this scare,” Johnny says. 

The sizzle of the meat burning on the grill cuts through the silence at the table. 

“Yeah,” Yuta says quietly, before taking tongs and hastily dropping the singed meat onto the metal plate next to the stove. “You’re right.”

“It doesn’t make it suck any less though,” Doyoung says softly, and yes, he’s actually crying at the table, angrily wiping away the stray tear that manages to make its great escape down his cheek. 

Mark feels like his chest is caving in, but he contains it, hand moving through the air of its own accord to bring the little plastic napkin holder up over the stove before Taeyong takes it from him and hands Doyoung a tissue. 

Mark sees Johnny clench his fist under the table. He resists the urge to take Johnny’s hand. 

“Well,” Mark says, taking a swig from his own soju bottle, skipping over the shot glass. “We have a month to make sure you’ve got a shitload of memories to take back home, eh?” 

Johnny turns to Mark, slings his arm around Mark’s shoulders, and pulls him close. 

“Thanks Markie,” Johnny says. 

Mark tries not to wonder why his heart feels so splintered. 

 

🏃🏽

Mark Lee is in love with Johnny Suh. 

There is nothing novel about this story, he thinks to himself. Just living the cliche of being in love with his best friend, and not having the guts to say so. 

The difficult thing about realizing you’re in love with your best friend is realizing so exactly 3 weeks before said best friend is set to move away to an entire other fucking continent. 

In hindsight, Mark really should have known. He should have seen it coming. He’s always held a sort of affection for Johnny that he hadn’t seemed to be able to muster up for any of his other friends, but he had always just chalked it up to him having known Johnny the longest. 

Mark Lee is in love with Johnny Suh and he absolutely, under no fucking circumstances whatsoever, is not allowed to tell Johnny. This is the first thing that Mark decides when the realization hits. 

God, it’s so fucking stupid too, and inconvenient, the way it hits him like a stack of bricks over the head, because it happens when Mark is sat at his laptop, struggling between trying to Google the instructions to how to use Windows Movie Maker and sorting through all the videos that he’s uploaded, apart from the numerous videos that he’d gathered from the rest of their friends, for the sort of movie reel that Mark decides will be his project for Johnny before he leaves. 

It hits him like a stack of bricks because in the videos he watches from the ones that he’d gotten from Yuta, Taeyong and Doyoung, he can see himself looking at Johnny, and it’s all there, plainly written all over Mark’s face, all over his body language, the way he leans into Johnny, the way Mark almost always has a hand on him. 

Mark sees it on his face and then it hits him at once, and it’s all he can see. Mark sees how the Mark in the videos has smitten and in love in every lingering look at Johnny in them. It leaves him absolutely shattered. 

He starts to dry heave, mainly because he’s been trying to figure out why the news of Johnny leaving seems to affect him more than it should, more than it seems to be hitting everyone else, and that includes Doyoung bawling all night while they slept over at Johnny’s place after he told them. 

Mark is hunched over himself, thinks that he’s going to have an asthma attack despite not having had one since he was a little kid, and his hands are shaking because in his head there is a reel playing of all the times he’s slept over at Johnny’s, all the times they’d laughed in public, sometimes linking pinkies with each other while they made their way to the movies, and Mark feels his entire world close in on itself. 

He’s been in love this entire time and he hadn’t known it. 

Oh my God, he thinks. I’m going to die. 

 

🏃🏽

 

After Mark’s finished holing himself up inside his studio apartment for a solid day post-realization that he’s in love with Johnny, it’s like all he can fucking do anymore is think about Johnny, like those scenes in movies where the characters are tripping on some magic acid and everything is hyper-loud and hyper-real. 

When Johnny texts him on Sunday morning to ask if he wants to catch a movie later in the afternoon, Mark swoons on his bed like a character in Pride and Prejudice, clutching his phone to his chest, stupid smile on his face. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a direct message to him, and not one in the group chat, because they all know that Taeyong and Doyoung hold Sundays sacred (not for any religious reason, it’s just that long ago they’d established a strict rule to slow their weeks down on Sundays to offset how busy they’d been as college kids, and it’s stuck till this day). 

Mark is ready in a record-breaking hour and ten minutes, and Johnny pulls up outside his apartment shortly thereafter, and oh God, Mark is so screwed, because his heart tells him this feels like a date, but his mind tells him that he needs to keep it together. 

He is determined not to screw up Johnny’s last few weeks here, and in effect, their friendship, just because he’s come to a conclusion that now feels too late to divulge. 

To Mark’s dismay, Johnny looks unbelievably handsome, which is lame, because Johnny is just dressed in a loose floral button-down with the sleeves rolled up, shirt tucked into his black jeans with the Gucci belt he’d bought for himself two years back, his hair curly like he’d bothered to use curling the iron today---

“Yo, dude, are you with me?” Johnny asks, and Mark snaps out of the slow-mo reel he’d been running in his mind’s eye, cataloging Johnny’s features. 

“Oh, yeah, sorry, I spaced,” Mark says, belatedly remembering that he needs to buckle his seatbelt, otherwise Johnny isn’t starting the car. 

“Okay,” Johnny says, starting the engine. “So we can grab lunch first if you’re hungry, or we can catch the earlier screening and just eat while we watch?” 

“I dunno man, I think like, I want Chinese,” Mark says, pulling his phone out to check what good restaurants are near the cinema. 

“Okay, we can do that. You good with Ding Tai Fung?” Johnny asks. Mark’s stomach rumbles.

“Gotcha,” Johnny says with a laugh, reaching out with his right hand to pat Mark’s belly. 

Mark bites the inside of his cheek, wills away his blush. He needs to stop reading into shit. Jesus. 

“Looooove DTF dude,” Mark says instead, trying to mask his nervousness with the actual excitement of getting an entire order of xiao long bao to himself. 

“Please stop calling it that,” Johnny says, rolling his eyes. 

“Everyone calls it that,” Mark replies quickly. 

“Eugh,” Johnny laughs, turning into the expressway. 

They lapse into a companionable silence while Johnny lets the radio play softly, and Mark tries to allow himself to relax. This isn’t a date. This isn’t a date. This is not the first time he and Johnny have gone out together, and it won’t be the last-- yet. 

Mark digs the nails of his left hand into the palm of his right. This is not the time to cry. 

He clears his throat. 

“So,” Mark says. “Did you uh, book your ticket already?”

Johnny has his shades on, but glances Mark’s way briefly. 

“Yeah, I leave on the 12th,” Johnny says. Mark pretends to not see how Johnny’s hands clench on the wheel. 

“What’s gonna happen to her?” Mark asks, patting the dashboard gently. 

“I’m gonna be putting her up for sale,” Johnny says, before tutting. “Fuck me. I’m not ready.”

“Ready to sell her, or ready to leave?” Mark asks, and he hates how his voice breaks when he does. 

“Both,” Johnny says, looking straight ahead. “You know that.”

Mark does know that, but he also knows that when it comes to family, Johnny drops everything for them. There’s a helplessness that fills Mark’s bones as he watches the love of his life drive through the city that they both essentially grew up in. Ten years in Seoul is a long time. Johnny had come here for his undergraduate degree and then stayed on for his masters. He’d wanted to join the ranks of Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. 

“One day, baby,” Johnny had said after the five of them had screamed their lungs out watching Bong Joon-ho win the Academy Award for Best Director. “One day, that’s gonna be me.” 

“You want to win a local award? Shouldn’t you be gunning for the Daejong?” Yuta had teased. 

“All of them,” Johnny had said, stretching out on the couch. “I want all of them.” 

Mark had never thought of the possibility that Johnny would leave. It’s throwing all of them in for a loop. 

They arrive at Myeongdong and Johnny miraculously manages to find parking in under five minutes flat, not too far from the restaurant that looks like it's teeming with life. There’s a bit of a wait when they arrive, a young lady with cropped hair and nose ring taking their names while they wait to be seated. 

“I’m getting so much xiao long bao, I won’t be able to eat it again for a year,” Mark says, stuffing his fists into his jacket and doing a little jig while Johnny looks at him fondly. 

“You need vegetables, Mark,” Johnny says, his voice deadpan but teasing. 

“I am twenty-one, not twelve, John,” Mark says in English, voice petulant. 

“Yeah yeah,” Johnny says, bringing his hand down onto the beanie Mark has on and pretending to ruffle his hair. “Come on, big boy, let’s go.” 

Mark ducks his head to hide his blush. Jesus, what the fuck? Big boy? 

Mark is so flustered that he spends a solid five minutes staring at the first page of the menu while Johnny rambles on behind his, thinking out loud about what he intends on ordering. Mark can’t stop thinking about the words “big boy”, and they play over and over until he realizes that the waitress is standing next to them waiting to collect their order sheets. 

He quickly lists down his crab roe and pork xiao long bao, noodles with mince pork sauce, and salted yolk squid before handing it over. 

Under the yellow ambient light of the restaurant’s interiors, Johnny looks especially handsome, and there it is again, the massive inconvenience of his heart climbing into his throat and making its home there, beating too loudly for any sort of comfort. 

“Did you talk to Jaehyun about pulling extra hours at the cafe?” Johnny asks as he takes a sip of water. 

It has always struck Mark, in all the years that Johnny has been in their lives, just how thoughtful he is, consistently. Johnny remembers birthdays by heart, remembers food allergies and the food everyone hates, remembers things said in passing, things told in confidence. Johnny listens with his entire body, leans in to really pay attention, holds people’s gaze when he’s learning something new about someone. 

Mark already feels the loss of him so acutely. He thinks that he might actually cry before his soup dumplings arrive. 

“Ah, yeah, I texted him the other day and he said I can take Taeil’s slot for the rest of the week since he’s going on vacation with Gongmyung,” Mark replies. “It’ll be good. I’m excited for the work.”

“I’m gonna miss your coffee, dude,” Johnny says, a small twist of the mouth. “You don’t even like coffee, no idea how you’re that good at making it.”

“It’s called training,” Mark says. “Besides, I don’t think it’s that good. You just like my latte art.” 

“I mean I do like the latte art, but it’s good too,” Johnny says, just as their orders begin to come in. 

Johnny laughs easy, always easy, when they’re together. For the nth time, Mark wonders how it is that it took Johnny leaving to realize that the emotion that Mark has always carried in his chest around Johnny was something that sat well beyond just the usual kinship that bros are supposed to feel. Perhaps it’s because Johnny’s always been there. Johnny had seen him through his romance with Mina, his failed attempt at dating Yeri, his heartbreak when he and Lucas broke up. None of his relationships had ever felt remotely close to what his friendship with Johnny felt like.

Maybe that was the problem. 

“You are spacing out so much today, Mark,” Johnny says, but it’s not with any sort of disdain. “I told you you need to stop jacking off until 3 am to 2D porn.”

Mark sputters, indignant, nearly choking on his first dumpling. 

“Excuse me! I was not up-- I can’t believe--” Mark says, words muffled, red rising hot on his cheeks. God, that had been one time years ago and Johnny has never let him live it down. 

Johnny’s laughter is like wind chimes. Mark swallows his food before he can choke on it again. 

“Sorry, sorry,” Johnny says, patting Mark’s hand lightly. “Chill. Just worried is all. You look beat.” 

“I had a rough night,” Mark says before he can catch his tongue. 

“Oh, what’s going on?” Johnny asks, a small frown now on his face.

Fuck. 

“Uh, nothing, just like, stuff,” Mark tries to deflect, but it only makes the crevice between Johnny’s perfectly shaped eyebrows deepen. “Just. Nothing! It’s really. Stupid.”

The word “stupid” falls flat and heavy between them. Mark isn’t usually one to brush off Johnny’s concern like this, but the massive alarm system going off in his head tells him that if he starts divulging anything at all in relation to what’s kept Mark up at night all weekend, he's going to end up spilling his heart out and making a mess of the table and their friendship. 

“You know how the saying goes, ‘You never know what you have until it’s gone?’” Mark starts, until he reminds himself that he’s supposed to have his filters up. He can’t be talking about this. Jesus Christ. 

“Yeah? What about it?” Johnny asks as he heaps some spinach onto his plate. 

“Uh— well, I lost my, my plushie! My Totoro plushie,” Mark says, and he’s lying through his teeth, he’s lying so fucking badly, he’s sure Johnny sees through it. 

“Your Totoro plush,” Johnny repeats flatly. “The one that just sits on your window and has been sitting at your window for the last 5 years. That one.” 

Mark’s dug himself a goddamn hole here and there’s no backing out now, so he doubles down. 

“Yeah! I woke up and he was gone!” Mark says. It’s so, so pathetic. Johnny’s face looks beyond skeptical, his eyebrow raised, his chopsticks poised over the platter of dumplings. 

“Mark… how…”

“I don't know! A mystery! Do you see why I keep spacing? What if there was a thief in my room and—“ 

“And the thief decided to take your stuffed toy,” Johnny says, enunciating the word “stuffed” like it makes any difference. 

Mark Lee, you fucking disaster, Mark thinks. 

Johnny chews and swallows, then takes a sip of his iced tea. 

“Okay, I’m just going to ignore the fact that you’re blatantly lying to me for one reason or another, and hazard that you’re going to tell me eventually,” Johnny says. “But for now I don’t want us to let our xlb go to waste, so eat up,” Johnny adds, taking another soup dumpling and cradling it gently in the spoon he has raised to his mouth. 

Mark takes the out Johnny offers and takes another dumpling of his own. 

“Anyway, I was thinking about getting the gang together for a sendoff thing, you know, we dem boyz out on the town, one last hurrah kinda thing,” Johnny continues as Mark chews. “Like The Hangover but less facial tattoos and more just getting royally smashed.” 

“How is that different from any of the other times we’ve gone on benders?” Mark asks after another mouthful of iced tea. 

“Okay, fair,” Johnny says. “But like, one perfect night you know where we can make mistakes and then just laugh about shit, and hopefully no one ends up in the hospital this time—“

“Oh my God please never again,” Mark groans, not at all relishing the reminder of when they’d to rush Mark to the emergency room where he’d had to be hooked to an IV line with what the nurses called a “banana bag” because he was so hungover and dehydrated. 

Johnny laughs again so beautifully, and it makes Mark hurt just a little more than he expects. How is he expected to be without this? Without Johnny’s wind-chime laugh and his half-moon eyes?

 

🏃🏽

 

They arrive at the cinema with thirty minutes to spare and Mark groans about how he’d ordered too much, while simultaneously thinking about getting popcorn and soda before heading into the theatre. 

“You’re going to upchuck that popcorn but it will not be on my shoes, bitch,” Johnny warns as Mark looks up at him with a stupid grin, waiting for Johnny to hand his card over to the grumpy teenager manning the cashier. 

“Thank you,” Mark sing-songs before the plastic tub of popcorn is handed to him. 

Johnny sighs, fond, and does that thing again, rubs his hand over the back of Mark’s neck like he’s going to strangle him, when really all he does is guide him to the entrance of their theatre. 

In the ten years that they've known each other, Mark has lost count of all the movies they've gone out to see together. He used to collect ticket stubs when he was younger, until he saw that the ink had started to fade, and stopped.

Mark tucks his ticket stub into his wallet.

Johnny rattles on about the details of how Céline Sciamma pulled off her vision for what Johnny keeps referring to mononymously as "Portrait", gushing about the artist they had on set painting for 16 hours while they filmed in Saint-Pierre-Quiberon.

Mark's going to miss this.

As the movie plays, Mark realizes that he really shouldn't have said yes to watching this specific movie with Johnny, not when he feels so fragile. He'd thought that he'd be impervious to the emotion behind it, but as he watches Héloïse and Marianne's charged staring march, as he watches them kiss onscreen while he keeps his hands clasped in his lap to save himself from reaching for John's hand, as he watches them say goodbye one final time, Mark sees the error of his ways, and the floodgates are open. They're so open that Johnny startles at his sob.

Silently, Mark sees Johnny reach into his pocket and pull out a folded handkerchief before handing it to Mark. It smells like Johnny's perfume and makes Mark sob some more, bringing the neat white square to his nose while the lady two seats away from him glance their way. This is agony. This was such a stupid idea. Mark isn't going to be able to hold his tongue at this rate. He's already acted strange all day, and he knows that Johnny is just waiting for him to break and spill, but he can't. He absolutely cannot, because it will be their undoing.

The lights are on before Mark can get a fucking grip, and he's got both hands over his face while Johnny rubs comforting circles on his back, brushing Mark's hair off his forehead gently. 

"Hey," Johnny whispers. "Here."

He's pressing a bottle of water into one of Mark's hands.

"I'm sorry," Mark says, nose completely clogged up. He's soaked up the entire handkerchief, and it goes without saying that he's going to be taking it home and washing it out. "Sorry." 

"It's okay, I didn't know the movie would make you this sad," Johnny says apologetically.

"No!" Mark replies. "No, we've been planning to see it for ages. I'm just overwhelmed." 

Johnny's a little skeptical. Mark hadn't even cried when they watched 'Her' and Johnny had bawled into his jacket for the entirety of Scarjo's monologue.

"I've just had a hard week," Mark says, and it's the truth. It has been. It's going to keep being like this. He's doing the exact thing he promised himself he wouldn't do-- make things difficult. 

"Your missing plushie really hittin' you hard, huh?" Johnny teases softly.

Mark’s got his glasses back on before they clear out, Johnny’s arm hanging loosely around his shoulders as they step back out of the cinema. Johnny doesn’t ask questions and Mark doesn’t offer answers. Instead, Johnny offers a diversion, and says, “Come on, we’re getting bubble tea.”

 

🏃🏽

 

The drive back to Johnny's place is quiet, a little bit strained, though not necessarily uncomfortable. 

That is, until Johnny opens his mouth, staring straight ahead, aviators perched his nose. 

"I don't really wanna go, either, Mark."

What the fuck is Mark supposed to say?

"I know."

They leave it at that. There isn't much else to say, really, after that. 

So Mark stares out at nothing in particular and waits for the city to change its shape to the familiar streets leading to Johnny's apartment.

Mark makes himself at home on Johnny’s couch, considering that it technically is. He’d spent a month and a half squatting Johnny’s apartment rent-free a few years back while he’d tried to lock down a job and find a new place after his roommate Donghyuck had moved in with Jeno.

It’s strange knowing that Mark will no longer be able to flop down on this couch, pull open Johnny’s grey refrigerator door, prop his socked feet up on the coffee table in front of the television. There are stacks of cardboard against the wall in the living room. There are empty spaces on the wall, Mark notes. Johnny's photographs that he'd framed for an exhibit he'd done before finishing his undergrad studies no longer hang where they used to.

"Hey, man, you started packing already? Where are your photos?" Mark calls out to Johnny.

"Oh," Johnny says while he putters about in the kitchen. "I sold them already. Kun wanted them for his office at the studio. I was gonna give them up but he insisted that it had to be a 'formal sale'," Johnny pausing to put air quotes up with his hands. "So I sold them to him."

"Oh, cool," Mark replies. 

He takes small comfort in knowing that when he gets a chance to visit Kun, there will still be traces of Johnny.

It really is small, small comfort, but comfort nonetheless.

"You wanna just sleepover? Your stuff's still here and your shift doesn't start till 2 tomorrow, right?" Johnny as he plops down on the couch next to Mark, a little close for comfort but nothing out of the ordinary for them. God, how is it that he agreed to Netflix and chilling?

There's a voice in Mark's brain, a cautious one, the one that has been manning his filters, saying that he should go home. Regroup. Take a break. 

The other voice, the one that has been tracing his eyes unnecessarily over Johnny's lips all day tells him, "He is leaving, Mark."

"Yeah okay," Mark says, voice scratchy, throat dry. "Yeah, I'll just crash here." 

"Cool," Johnny says, before pulling up the Netflix app on his phone and linking it to his television. "Alright, Kingdom season 2 here we go, baby!"

The sun sets outside them as they marathon the show, pausing only to use the bathroom, and pick up the pizza they order in for dinner. It’s nice, and Mark has calmed down enough to almost forget how much of a fucking wreck he was the entire day. Johnny, bless him, doesn’t mention it.

They’re halfway through the season when Johnny offers him beer, and Mark knows that he just keeps setting himself up for failure. He’s never really held his drink well, and he knows he’s ridiculous when he’s had too much, but he knows his limits. He hopes he remembers them tonight.

"I keep trying to think of things to talk about that aren't about you leaving," Mark says quietly, after his first swig of beer. "Like I keep trying to think of what normal stuff we used to talk about before--"

"Yeah, me too," Johnny replies.

"I mean, I'm not gonna like, pretend that I matter so much that---"

"You do, though," Mark interjects. "I know you don't think you do but you do." 

'To me, especially', Mark doesn't say.

Johnny doesn’t continue, so Mark does. 

“You’ve got big shoes to fill here, bro,” Mark says, going for the good ole’ slap to the shoulder that Johnny always used to react dramatically to. Tonight, he just smiles sadly. 

“I’m the best you guys ever had, baby,” Johnny replies.

The silence stretches out between them as the television flickers, the paused zombie in mid-attack vivid onscreen. Mark clenches his fist against his thigh, digs the nails into his palm to keep from blurting out things he’ll regret, while trying to skim telling the truth.

And the truth, at least a big part of it, is easy to say out loud. 

“I don’t know what we’re gonna do without you around, dude,” Mark says. “You were always the man with the plan, you know? More than Yuta. We’re going to miss you. It won’t be the same.”

“I’m gonna miss you too,” Johnny replies, and takes a long, long drink from his beer before tipping all the contents into his mouth and swallowing. Mark tracks the movement of his Adam’s apple and looks away. “I don’t know what’s worse— being left behind, or the FOMO of leaving.”

Being left behind, Mark thinks. Definitely that.

Mark clears his throat instead. He needs to stop having these silent conversations with Johnny in his head, especially when he’s with Johnny, to begin with. 

“It won’t be so bad,” Mark tries. “We’ll video call all the time.”

Johnny throws him a wry smile. 

“Sure Markie,” Johnny says, slinging his arm over the back of the couch, tickling the short hair Mark’s nape with his fingers. “Promise me we will.”

Mark holds his pinky out. Johnny links his own. Mark pulls away quickly after that.

 

🏃🏽

 

[ Mark Lee meets Johnny Suh on a summer day when his mother calls him over and introduces him to the new neighbor across the hall from their apartment. 

Mark’s mom has her hands on his shoulders while she fawns over a lady about her height and her son who towers over them all.

“This is Johnny!” the lady says, and Johnny greets both of them pleasantly. “I’m just here for the time being, helping him move in and all. He’s here for his undergraduate studies.”

“Oh, how nice! What are you taking up?” Mark’s mom asks.

“I'm a film major at SMU,” he says.

From that point on, Mark’s mom latches onto Johnny like he’s her second son, making sure to send food over or have him come over for dinner whenever possible. Mark likes the company cos Johnny doesn’t act like he’s too cool to hang with him once in a while. 

Mark’s life consists very much of monotony: school, tuition, home for the most part, but once in a while he’ll catch Johnny on his way home and Johnny will fist bump him and tell him he’s coming over for dinner. It’s nice. Feels extra cool for having a cool friend and neighbor. And when Johnny introduces his friends Taeyong and Yuta from university, Mark finds himself a little sort of found family too. When Mark is sixteen and realizing that he might be bisexual, it’s Johnny, Yuta and Taeyong that he runs to for clarity.

When Mark starts dating Mina, and Taeyong starts dating Doyoung, their little group grows to accommodate the new blood, and it’s wonderful. Mark is young and in love and on his way to university himself while Yuta starts his own business and the rest go on to take their masters. It’s an easy friendship, the one they all have with each other. Mark thinks of their little group fondly, grateful for them in every sense of the word. They look out for each other in a way he’d never expected to be part of. Solid, steadfast, even when partners come and go.

Mark moves out of home to be closer to his university, and rooms with Lee Donghyuck who is vibrant and is the perfect foil to Mark. Mina and Mark break up. Yeri and Mark Do Not Happen. Mark is an absolute disaster when Lucas Wong very gently tells him it’s over 7 months in.

And somehow, through every graduation, every milestone, every Milestone added to Mark’s Facebook profile, every drunken Bad Idea, and every little triumph: there is Johnny.]

 

🏃🏽

 

Mark doesn’t know when they fall asleep, but when he comes to with his neck stiff and in pain, the sun is not yet risen. Johnny is sprawled out with his head thrown back on the back of the couch, legs splayed open, body completely lax. The television has gone to sleep as well.

Maybe he isn’t necessarily ’in’ love. Maybe this is just deep, deep affection. What does it even mean, to be in love with someone? Caring for them? Thinking they’re handsome? Wanting to kiss them? Wanting the best for them? What if Mark is just being dramatic? Maybe he is just endlessly fond of Johnny? Don’t all best friends feel this way about each other?

There’s an infuriating voice in his head. “Dunno about you buddy, but I’m pretty sure most best friends don’t trace their eyes over their homies’ plush lips on the reg”, it says.

That isn’t to say that Mark thinks that physical attraction means being in love with someone— it’s just that. Well. In the couple of days that Mark has been sitting on his newfound discovery of something that seems to have always been there, it’s been difficult to control.

Mark sort of feels like he’s in those period movies where people used to make oil rigs in dusty towns, and he’s tapped into a deluge of oil, and now he’s just fucking standing there, getting doused in the black fossil fuel spewing from the earth’s surface. 

Jesus. Get it together.

The temperature has dropped, and it’s a little cold, the fan in the corner of the room still blowing air gently towards them. 

Mark allows himself one last look-over, to imbed into memory how Johnny looks when he’s asleep: serene, a little dumb with his mouth open, very endearing.

“Hey,” Mark says, shaking Johnny awake, his hand in Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny.”

Mark needs water. His throat’s all dry.

Johnny comes to, stretches out on the couch, his t-shirt riding up to expose taut belly and a fine line leading down into his loose Adidas sweats.

Mark’s throat is even drier. 

“Dude,” Mark continues. “Move to your bed. Your neck must be killing you.” 

As if on cue, Johnny reaches up to his nape and turns his head this way and that, groaning low at the movement. Mark staunchly ignores the sound. 

“Fuck, yeah, okay.”

Johnny rises from the couch, and twists his body so that he can work out the kinks in his back, his vertebrae snapping from the motion. 

“You good here, Markie? I’ll get you a blanket—“

“John, I know where they are,” Mark says, pushing Johnny’s thigh with his foot. “Go to sleep.”

“I’m going, I’m going, Jesus,” Johnny laughs. His eyes are puffy. Mark figures he probably looks the same, or worse. “Night, Markie.” 

There’s that goddamn hand on Mark’s neck again. Always this. An affectionate squeeze before Johnny makes his way to his room. 

“Night.”

Mark’s eyelids are heavy, but he’s also got a headache starting to build, and his mouth is screaming at him for some water. When Mark takes a look around the small kitchen, the harsh light of the white fluorescent overhead, he feels the loss bone-deep. How had he missed it? How had he not seen how seamlessly he and Johnny had fit together this entire time? And more importantly, how is supposed to carry on knowing just how intertwined their lives are? 

Mark looks at the hinge of the cupboard door he’d fixed while he still lived here. The spot over the stove that had gotten burnt when Johnny had attempted to cook with some fancy wine and the flames had shot up uncontrollably. There is so much of Johnny that Mark knows.

 

🏃🏽

 

Mark wonders if Kun knows. He wonders if anyone has picked up on it, or if everyone just thinks that Mark is being extra eager and extra earnest about everything because they know Johnny and Mark are best friends. 

Mark had given up on trying to do the video project on his own, so he enlisted the help of Kun who had been more than willing to give him a hand. 

Mark’s sitting in Kun’s office, staring at one of the three black and white photos that he’d bought from Johnny. The photo looks like it’s moving. Johnny’s always had a flair for capturing motion.

“Okay, first off, are we just using all the footage you already gathered?” Kun asks, holding up Mark’s little Storm Trooper flash drive. “Or do you want me to take some shots of him as well?”

Mark chews on his lip. 

“Both maybe? Both sound pretty good,” Mark says tentatively.

"Alright," Kun says. "Now what message are we trying to send with this?" 

Mark looks down at the pencil that Kun has poised over his notebook. How do you condense 10 years of friendship with someone into a 15-minute video? 

"I guess," Mark says. "That he's integral to us."

"I don't know how to like, say it? But that's what I'm thinking. That he's integral to all our plans, all the-- all the stupid shit we got up to in years he's been in our lives. How he's larger than life." 

Kun writes all this down. His expression is unreadable.

"Alright, do you have any ideas as to how you want it to sort of come out?" Kun asks. 

"I kind of want it to look like a Lana Del Rey music video, jafeel?" Mark says.

Kun nods, and furiously writes down "LANA DEL REY MV" in block letters with two underlines.

“Cool,” Kun says. “If you get any more ideas, you know how to reach me.”

“Thanks Kun,” Mark says. “Do you have an idea of how much you’re gonna charge for this?”

“Mark, we’re all losing a friend to Chicago,” Kun says fondly. “This is my pet project, too. Just pay for drinks.”

Mark stays for lunch on Kun's insistence, his partner Yangyang popping into the office with bags of take-away for the three of them shortly thereafter. They chat about the new projects that Weishen V has lined up, and Kun offers a standing invite for Mark to hang out there.

Once the takeaway is finished and they've bid their goodbyes, Mark finds himself stepping out onto a quiet street with cool air hitting his face. He tugs his hoodie tighter around himself, and decides to walk the rest of the way home before his shift at the cafe at 6.

Once again, Mark wonders what this means for him. The approach to the 12th looms over his head, and all he can think about is squandered time. At night, when he's lying alone in bed, he wonders how Johnny would react if he just said something. Anything. 'I love you.' 'I want you.'

He wonders if he'll learn how to move on. 

He wonders if people can die from heartbreak. 

He wonders if the weight in his chest will disappear when Johnny parts ways with them at the airport, or if it will only grow heavier and heavier as time goes on.

It's a massive sort of injustice, the predicament he's put himself in. But then again, Johnny has never really expressed interest in him. Sure, Johnny's been single for the last two or so years, but if Johnny had ever even remotely had feelings for Mark, he would have said.

What a fucking tragedy, really, to mourn the loss of something that never even really had a chance to grow into anything. Mark thinks he's being dramatic, handling things the way he has been. Johnny's still here. Even when he's not physically there, he's still going to be there.

Perhaps that's what Mark really laments over. What if he had realized it sooner? 

What if he had said something? 

What if he spoke up now?

God. 

Mark can't even begin to process the prospect of Johnny being weird around him so close to his departure date. It's always that.

His phone rings, interrupting the music filtering in through his headphones, and his stream of thought. 

Speak of the fucking devil. And on video call, no less.

"Hey Markie," Johnny says, holding the camera up to his face. "Where you at?" 

"Heading home for a bit," Mark says.

"Oh cool, okay so I'm out trying to figure out what to get your mom as a present for like, you know, keeping me alive all these years? My mom's on my ass about it and I really can't seem to come up with anything other than a lame scarf and like, a new handbag," Johnny says.

Mark squints. 

"Are... you in a Burberry right now?" Mark asks incredulously. "You are not buying my mom a Burberry handbag!" 

"Why not?" Johnny asks, flipping the camera over to show a black leather purse with gold embellishments. 

"Cos you'll make me look bad," Mark says.

"How in the fuck will I make you look bad?" Johnny asks, camera flipping back to show his face, eyebrow raised at Mark skeptically. 

"I'm supposed to get her the designer stuff, me, her biological son," Mark says. "I just can't afford it yet! And like, neither can you actually."

"I could maybe do a wallet?" Johnny says. "Fuck man, I don't know what to get her."

"She's always liked your work, Johnny," Mark says. "She'll be happy with a photograph."

"That isn't enough though, that's like, a cop-out!" Johnny says, walking out of the store.

"Dude, my mom's a crier, you know that," Mark says calmly. "If you write her a heartfelt letter or something, she'll frame it and tell all her friends about it." 

Johnny laughs into the camera, and Mark bites down on his lower lip.

"Fine, okay, I might actually do that."

"Anyway, don't overthink it," Mark says. The irony of him saying that as he goes over every idea for Johnny's going-away party and video does not go over his head. 

"Yeah, yeah, gotcha," Johnny says. "Aight, text you later, Markie. Thanks." 

"Bye, John," Mark says fondly.

Later in the cafe, Jaehyun greets Mark as he steps in, 15 minutes early. 

"Hey man," Jaehyung greets, wiping down the counter. 

The cafe is a little packed with some of their regulars, and Mark heads to the back to stow his backpack away in their little lockers before washing up.

Mark checks Jaehyun with his hip, which makes Jaehyun laugh a little for his cheek. Jaehyun's a nice guy, a good boss to have. For a while it had been a little weird when Johnny and Jaehyun had been dating and then subsequently broke up two years ago, but they seemed to have worked it out considering that Johnny still came over all the time for their coffee and they still chatted like there wasn't this weird history between them. Mark's always marveled at Johnny's ability to move so seamlessly and patch things up with people, even people he'd been involved with.

“You’re early today,” Jaehyun says, putting the cloth away and leaning his hip on the edge of the counter, arms crossed over his chest. “You only ever come in early when something’s bugging you.” 

Mark is only just tying the ribbons of his apron before he looks up. Mark purses his lips. 

“It’s okay,” Jaehyun says, holding his hands up defensively. “I’m not gonna pry. Just— you know, if you wanna talk about it, you can with me, okay?”

Mark considers himself lucky. He’s always sort of held cards close to his chest, not really big on being a sharer. He’s never really relished in opening up to people much, always worried about taking up too much space, about weighing too much when he knows full well that other people have their own problems. But he’s surrounded by people who are patient with him, who can read him.

“Just a little stressed planning for everything,” Mark says. “The party’s coming up, we’re gonna have to figure out like food, and the program and—“

“Hey,” Jaehyun says. “Slooooow down my dude. You’re not doing this alone. Pretty sure the hyungs have this on lock.”

"I know," Mark says. "Yeah, sorry. I-- yeah. You're right. I just things to go smoothly." 

"It's a send-off, not a sweet-sixteen, Markie, things are probs gonna go wrong but it's still gonna be a blast regardless," Jaehyun says reassuringly. "You know how John is, he's chill."

Johnny is chill. He's easy-going, easy to talk to, easy to be with, easy to love. 

Mark clenches his jaw shut, thankful that a customer steps up and he has a distraction from the rest of the conversation. 

He's worried about a lot of things, and it's starting to wear him down.

He'd always wondered what it must have been like to be a passenger on the Titanic, which is a horrible thought, or what it would feel like to know when and what time you were gonna die. He'd always thought that being pushed into a corner like that would make him brave. Instead, Mark feels sort of paralyzed by it, overwhelmed like he can't move. He wakes up in the morning and ticks off another day on his calendar. He wonders if he's doing this right. Shouldn't he be trying to soak up as much time as he can with Johnny while he can? 

As he piles the coffee grounds onto the portafilter and presses down with the tamper, Mark tries to imagine himself adjusting to life after Johnny, which annoys him, because it's not like they're breaking up. There's nothing to break up. Johnny will still be around to talk to.

It really isn't that bad, all things considered. 

Sure, a time difference. 

Sure, Johnny won't be around when they go out anymore.

Sure, Johnny will miss out on all the milestones that their rag-tag group of friends will have. 

It's fine. They'll deal. He'll deal.

 

🏃🏽

 

Jaehyun is right. 

Things do go wrong. 

But they also go spectacularly right. 

They rent out this pretty massive flat for the evening, something that Doyoung had found listed in Airbnb, and it’s more than enough to accommodate all the friends that Johnny’s made along the way.

The catering that they had enlisted for the party had had to cancel at the very last minute, and Mark had spent the evening prior by putting out the fires with Yuta. But they decided to just fuck it and call in bulk orders from a restaurant which turned out to be cheaper in the end. Guests arrive a little later than expected, but all in all, it’s a success so far. There’s way more alcohol than people in their mid-to-late twenties can possibly handle, but Taeyong had figured it was better to have too much of it than not enough.

Everyone’s bellies are filled, and Mark watches the room from where he’s leaning against the kitchen doorway. 

Doyoung slings his arm around Mark’s shoulders, and they both turn to look at Johnny who is working the room, laughing as he pours another shot into Sicheng’s glass.

“Mister Life of the Party,” Doyoung sighs a little sadly. “It won’t be the same, huh?”

Mark says nothing. They both know the answer anyway. 

Out of the corner of Mark’s eye, he sees Kun enter the room, laptop sandwiched between his ribs and his arm. 

“You ready?” Kun asks them.

“No, but who cares,” Mark replies. Doyoung pulls away, and the three make their way to the massive television where Kun sets his laptop up and hooks the HDMI cable in. The rest of the room starts to quiet down in increments, and Taeyong leads Johnny by the hand to sit on the couch.

“Okay so,” Mark starts, and all eyes are on him, but he keeps his eyes fixed on Johnny. “Korea’s losing its next-gen Park Chan-wook to the West in a few days. It seemed fitting for us to make a little movie about our favorite filmmaker in this room. A lot of you guys sent in videos that you had gathered of Johnny from your trips, from your nights out, from your days working with him. We wanted to kind of give you a highlight reel of how important you are to us. Kun did like, 95% of the work but this is from all of us for you, Johnny.”

Here goes. 

Johnny sits with a smile on his face, his body leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. He looks so handsome, Mark could cry. His gaze is fixed on the screen, and Mark turns his attention to it.

Mark hasn’t seen this video yet, not in its final form. Kun had insisted, and Mark hadn’t begrudged him for it. He kind of wishes he had, though.

The soft music blends into something melancholy, and Mark realizes distantly that it’s a Lorde song that Johnny loves.

The video is painful to watch. 

Mark glances at Johnny and decides that doing that hurts even more because Johnny has his hand over his mouth as the video plays, intercut with voice-overs of people talking about him. 

“John? He’s a pain in the ass,” Taeyong says fondly onscreen. “But he’s my pain in the ass, you know?” his voice continues as a shot of Johnny laughing while wearing a clown costume comes into view. That had been Halloween of 2016 then. They’d nearly gotten arrested for singing too loudly in the middle of their noraebang concert.

Johnny is in tears on the couch, hands folded like he’s in prayer, his shoulders shaking. 

This video is incriminating. 

“Johnny Suh is one of those once in a lifetime kinda guys, you know?” comes Jaehyun’s voice as a shot of Johnny and Jaehyun come onscreen from when Johnny had thought Jaehyun teaching him how to make coffee would be a good idea. “Like, even if we broke up, that doesn’t change that fact, does it?” 

Once in a lifetime kind of guy.

And there it is. The videos of Mark and Johnny, laughing together when Mark had had too much to drink and had nuzzled into Johnny’s shoulder before another shot of Mark running off-camera while Johnny and Yuta collapse on the floor laughing, wiping tears from their eyes. Another shot of Mark looking up at Johnny right before Johnny throws a basketball and sinks it. A quiet shot of Yuta and Johnny at the park, footage of Johnny driving, Johnny at the beach, Johnny in Mark’s living room, Johnny singing at Taeyong’s sister’s wedding, Johnny cooking, Johnny doing pushups in a competition with Kun, Johnny’s face puffy after watching Moulin Rouge. Johnny’s low baritone, narrating a short story he’d written back in university when he thought he’d wanted to pursue writing instead of filmmaking. 

“In all the hours,” his voice says. “That sleep escapes me, there is only the constant belief that life holds something greater.”

The video builds as the music does, shot after shot after shot of memories that the people who hold Johnny dearest have managed to preserve for history, to celebrate this man who is indelible in their lives. Mark still hasn’t seen the part he’s dreading the most, until—

“Me? Why?” Mark asks onscreen, startled. 

“You’ve known him the longest,” Kun’s disembodied voice replies. Mark on camera looks flustered. The blush on his cheeks is visible even with the faux vintage filter Kun put over it. 

“Yeah. Yeah. He’s my best friend,” Mark says. “I mean— we’re still gonna talk all the time but life gets in the way you know? That’s what scares me I guess.” 

Mark wants to die. He wants the ground to dissolve or he wants to dissolve into it. Whatever. He’ll take whatever. 

“He’s— the best of men,” Mark says, and laughs.

“He’s the best of us,” Mark continues, as a shot of Johnny peering into his own camera, and then looking up at the camera comes on, and the music fades.

The video is ten minutes, twenty-seven seconds long, and there’s barely a dry eye in the room when it ends. Johnny is hunched over himself, and then they’re there in a heartbeat, Doyoung and Taeyong rushing to crush him under their weight as Johnny hides behind his hands.

It’s a lot. 

Mark feels his body move on its own until he’s slotting himself next to Yuta on the couch, who brings him in. It’s a mess in this group hug, Johnny’s low crying still audible over the ooh’s and aww’s of the people around them.

Somewhere in the chaos, Kun manages to hand them tissue, and Johnny pulls away, blowing snot into the paper towels and pulling another one to pass over his face. 

“What the fuck,” Johnny says, choked up, eyes shining, smile in place. “Guys what the fuck!”

“Thank you,” Johnny says softly, kissing Taeyong and Doyoung and Yuta and Mark all in turn on their cheeks, their foreheads. “We dem boyz, right?” he asks, holding back another sob. 

“Yeah bitch,” Yuta says. “You’re stuck with us forever.”

“Good,” Johnny laughs. “Good.”

 

🏃🏽

yongie 🐱 [8:52 am]

hey markie ru awake? dons and i are otw

Mark has been awake for three hours, after the fitful one hour he managed of sleep.  He sends out a “gotcha” and locks his phone. 

It’s the 12th.

He stares at his ceiling the way he has all morning. 

This is it. 

They’ll pick him up, and then Yuta, and then Johnny, and then bring him to the airport. And then bid their goodbyes and then drive back home. And then what?

Mark sits up, exhales, stands up and stretches out. His back is killing him, and he’s starting a migraine. He glances in the mirror and knows he looks like shit, so he tries, puts a little effort, takes out his BB cream and fixes up. He won’t have Johnny see him like this.

There’s an envelope sitting on his desk filled with four pages of cream paper that Mark had wasted all night trying to work on until he was happy with his final draft. 

Handwritten, romantic. 

Cowardly. An entire confession that he can’t bring himself to say out loud.

Mark looks at himself, just a really fine dusting of eyeshadow on in an attempt to distract from the dark circles under his eyes. He looks exhausted, and when he smiles at his reflection, it doesn’t reach his eyes at all.  He pulls on his denim jacket, takes the letter, his keys.

Taeyong is just pulling up to the front of his apartment when Mark reaches the final step, and he rushes out to greet them. 

“D-day,” Taeyong says in greeting, reaching back with his right hand to slap Mark’s palm and slide it back. “You ready?” 

Mark just sighs.

“Yeah, us too.”

Doyoung’s jazz music fills the car, some cello instrumental thing reaching into Mark’s mind in the back seat as they make their way to Yuta’s. It’s a fine morning, sunny but cool. The traffic isn’t too bad, either. Mark stares idly at the people going about their day. Taeyong’s fingers tap along to the music on the wheel. Doyoung is conversing with someone on the phone softly, talking about how inventory needs to be done by the time he gets back from his vacation leave.

When Yuta slides into the back seat, he’s quieter than expected. 

The atmosphere is so heavy, and it builds and builds as they approach Johnny’s place, Johnny’s stuff already out on the curb while Mark’s mom clings to Johnny’s arm. His mom had offered for Mark to stay over but he’d opted not to. He didn’t think he could stomach the thought of having to hear Johnny putter about across the hall, or the thought of Johnny asking him to come over while he packed his last-minute essentials. He hasn’t been back since the last time he stayed at Johnny’s.

Mark wants to remember his place that way. Filled with everything that still mattered to Johnny. Mark didn’t want his last look of the place to be the bare bones of a man about to depart.

Mark steps out of the car to help with the luggage, these two big suitcases and a backpack.

Around Johnny’s torso, his leather bag, and slung around his neck, his Leica. Johnny’s got a beanie on, his widow’s peak showing itself just at the top of his head. Mark swallows around the lump in his throat as his mother fusses over him.

“Mark Lee,” she says sternly. “Why are you so skinny again? Did you sleep at all? Why are you—“

“Mooom, come on,” Mark whines as he bats her hand away. “I’m fine, come on, leave it.” 

Johnny laughs softly, and pulls her away from Mark and into his arms. 

“Mama Lee, thank you.”

“You tell your mother to come visit okay? The whole family needs to come visit soon. Bring that stubborn father of yours,” Mama Lee says tearfully. “You really are like the son I never had.”

“Hey!” Mark says indignantly. “I’m right here, mom.”

“Yes, and?” Mark’s mother says.

“Nothing, nothing,” Mark says, hands up defensively. “Carry on.”

“You take care of yourself, Johnny,” Mama Lee says. “You’re a good boy. Find yourself a good husband and invite us to your wedding. I’ll be very upset if you don’t.” 

Mark grits his teeth, clenches his jaw.

“I will, I will,” Johnny says, and presses a kiss to the top of her head. “I’m gonna miss you and your cooking. Don’t tell mom i said that last bit.” 

Mama Lee mimes zipping her mouth up and throwing away an invisible key. Mark rolls his eyes and kisses her cheek. 

“Bye mom.”

By the time Mark joins them in the back seat, Johnny is on a call with his own mother, who demands that he switch to video call, making John huffy until he finally gives in. 

“Hi Eomma Suh,” Mark says, leaning in while Yuta waves vigorously into the camera. 

“Hello everyone!”

Mark sees the woman who brought Johnny into this world, and understands in that instant just how it is that Johnny turned out the way that he has: brimming full of love that is unending and relentless. She’s smiling, talking about how grateful she was for all of them taking John. 

“When you all come to Chicago you are staying with us, okay?” Johnny’s mother says jovially. “I won’t take no for an answer.”

Doyoung holds up Johnny’s phone so Mama Suh can see Taeyong, and Taeyong laughs shyly when she compliments his blue hair.

“Mama,” Johnny says, taking his phone back and looking into the camera. “I love you, but I’m gonna have no one else to talk to but you when I land, let me have my last hours with my friends in peace please. I’ll text you when I get to the boarding gate okay? Go to sleep I beg.”

The call ends after another round of goodbyes, and then there’s silence. Johnny locks his phone, and slumps back in his seat, the seatbelt digging into his neck. Mark is in the bitch seat since Yuta had made him trade places. He can see how nervous Johnny’s hands seem.

Mark takes his hand. He slips his fingers through Johnny’s, and Johnny glances at him, looks down at their hands. 

Squeezes tighter. 

Doesn’t let go. 

Mark feels like he’s going to come apart.

Doyoung and Johnny chat about something that Mark doesn’t pay attention to. All there is is his hand in Johnny’s and Mark wonders yet again if this is it, if he needs to say something, if this is his chance. Fuck it all. Give Johnny the grandest kiss of his life right in this moment.

Mark does no such thing. 

He just sits there, his right hand enveloped in both of Johnny’s, Johnny’s knee shaking like he’s anxious. All conversation is tuned out. 

They’ve never held hands like this before. 

Mark tries to keep his breathing steady. 

In. Out. In. Hold. Out.

Mark wishes, insanely, for something to happen. For Johnny’s flight to get cancelled; for some obstruction on the road that prevents them from taking any other routes to the airport. Something. A storm. Something. A herd of cows clogging up the streets. 

Something. 

Anything.

Instead, they get an unobstructed stretch of roads and green lights that lead them to the airport without delay. All Mark can do is hold on. Keep holding on. Keep his cramped fingers between Johnny’s as the airport looms into view. He will not cry. He will not cry. He will not.

Taeyong parks the car. Pauses the music. Exhales. 

Seatbelts come off, one by one, and then doors open. Johnny looks at Mark once with the saddest eyes, and lets his hand go.

The afternoon is cloudy, like it’s deciding whether it wants to unleash rain or just stay heavy and muggy for the rest of the day. Both of Johnny’s luggage sits on the concrete. Mark has his letter in his hand, procured from the pocket of his jacket.

Yuta has his face buried in Johnny’s neck, and Johnny’s fingers dig into the cloth of Yuta’s jacket. Both their shoulders shake with emotion. 

Mark repeats like a mantra in his head: Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t wanna cry. 

Taeyong and Doyoung come next, their eyes red-rimmed.

And then there’s only Mark. 

Before Johnny can get a word in, Mark interrupts, pulls on Johnny’s little purse strapped to his chest, and unzips it, tucking the folded letter into it. 

“Don’t read this until you’re on the plane,” Mark says. His voice is shaky, but firm.

“Promise me you won’t,” Mark says. 

Johnny huffs a wet laugh, wiping a tear away hastily. 

“Alright, you’re being so bossy,” Johnny says. “Yeah. Okay.” 

He envelopes Mark in a hug, and Mark closes his eyes, inhales Johnny’s perfume, holds on to him like he’s going to disappear.

“Gonna miss you the most, but don’t tell anyone that,” Johnny whispers, before pulling away slightly. 

Mark looks up at him, and thinks that he sees the same love he feels staring back at him. But he says nothing, save for, “So am I.” 

He’s still in Johnny’s arms.

Slowly. 

Slowly. 

Everything in this one second happens slowly. 

On tiptoes, Mark reaches up to press a kiss on Johnny’s cheek. 

What Mark doesn’t expect is for him to turn to face Mark. 

His lips land just a millimeter shy of the curve of Johnny’s lips.

Mark pulls away in an instant, and there’s a question on Johnny’s face, some shock that registers before Mark is forcing a laugh, and smacking him on the arm. 

“Haha see you online, man!” Mark says, his voice pitched up much higher than normal. 

Johnny’s gaze is still on him.

“Johnny,” Doyoung says. “Take care of yourself.” 

Johnny breaks his focus on Mark, wipes the last vestiges of his tears away, and pulls up the handles of his luggage. 

“Alright,” Johnny says. “See you guys.” 

And with that, he walks toward the entrance, crossing the street.

Look back, Mark thinks. Look at me.

Mark waits, waits, waits. 

Johnny’s by the sliding doors, passport in hand. 

Mark’s breath catches as Johnny turns back at them, and nods his head at Mark, the smallest smile on his usually bright, bright face.

And then he’s gone. 

Taeyong gets into the driver’s seat, Doyoung following suit. 

Mark still stares at the glass doors like Johnny might run out of them. He doesn’t want to leave. 

Wildly, desperately, Mark realizes that Johnny didn’t pinky-swear like he usually did.

Maybe if he stays here—

“Hey,” Yuta says quietly, gently putting his arms around Mark from behind. “It’s time to go, Markie.” 

Mark doesn’t respond immediately. He takes a breath, holds it, lets it out. Does it again. 

“Okay,” Mark finally says. “Okay.” 

He gets in the car.

No one speaks. Just the radio on a station that no one pays attention to. Mark stares out at the city, head buzzing, lips on fire, the only thought circling in his messy head being how he’d almost kissed John, and how John had looked at him after it. The letter sits with John now.

A familiar song plays, and that’s when Mark breaks. 

He chokes out a sob, and hides behind his cap, pulling it low, trying to stifle his sniffling, but he can’t control it anymore. He’d used up all his defenses to get through the goodbye at the airport, and now he’s got nothing left. He feels arms around him as he curls in on himself and knows that he must be alarming the rest of the car. Johnny had told him when they’d watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire together that he could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen Mark cry. It’s even less for them.

Mark wants to stop, knows objectively that it’s really not that bad, that Johnny will still be a constant presence in their lives because he’d said so, and he trusts Johnny that much, knows that they’re solid enough to let their friendship endure the distance and the time skip.

He knows this, and yet. 

And yet. 

Mark sobs for all the regrets that he’s built up as the days went on leading up to this point, for having been so stupid as to not see what was staring him in the face in the first place, this glaring longing now a crevice in his chest.

He knows he’s taking this so much harder than the rest and he knows that no one questions it. He’d braced himself for this for a month and yet here he is, completely undone the way he’d told himself to avoid at all cost. He hides his face in Yuta’s chest, and accepts the comfort. Mark is angry with himself for many reasons, and now he’s subjected himself to even more anguish because he decided to spill his heart out onto a page. He has no idea how Johnny will react to it. He only hopes that whatever happens, Johnny will remember him fondly nonetheless.

Mark pulls away, and Doyoung has a pack of tissue already in his hands. 

“You okay Markie? I’ve got water in my flask if you want some?” Taeyong asks, glancing at Mark through the rearview mirror.

Mark blows his nose. Absolutely disgusting. Of course he’d fall apart for Johnny.

“I’m okay, sorry,” Mark says, his voice scratchy. “Yeah, I’ll take the water if that’s alright.” 

Doyoung hands it over to him, and Mark takes a long gulp, the ice water sloshing onto his chin and his shirt. 

“Let’s get you home, yeah?” Yuta says kindly. 

“Yeah, thank you.”

 

🏃🏽

(Mark stares at the letter. 

Four pages of the truth, ready to get on a plane and be read as the plane crosses an ocean and several timezones. Four pages to try to condense ten years of friendship and Jesus, who even knows, maybe two? Three? Years of having been in love and oblivious?

He quells the nerves. Considers burning the letters. Considers calling Johnny up. Considers running to Johnny’s place. But he keeps himself on his desk, his lamp’s yellow glow coating everything it can touch in his bedroom. He glances at the photograph he has framed by his bed. There isn’t much left to do, really, except wait. 

Mark is spent, emotionally wrung out. He feels like laundry on a clothesline. He kind of wishes a strong breeze would take him away. 

He’s prepared for the possibility that Johnny might not speak to him after reading it. There is that. That’s definitely a big fear. 

But then again, that isn’t really true, is it? 

Because Johnny can tease, and Johnny can have a temper, but he’s never shown himself to be cruel. Never cruel.

Objectively speaking, the worst-case scenario would be for them would Johnny maybe not speaking to him for a while, but Mark can’t seem to override the panic command in his head that tells him that Johnny will cut him off completely. 

Or worse, he’ll treat Mark differently.

Mark dreads the change in his voice. Dreads Johnny looking at him differently, seeing him differently, dreads the pity in his tone. He could just not say anything at all. He’s already been a coward about everything, why start being brave now? He could just move on and be done. He doesn’t exactly want to have to live the rest of his life with that ‘what if?’, though. 

So this is his middle ground. 

He hopes it’s not the fucking disaster his brain keeps telling him it will be.)

 

🏃🏽

It doesn’t really register to Mark that they’ve arrived at his place and have all decided to come up with him until Mark’s hunched over his sink after splashing his face with water. Belatedly, very belatedly, he realizes that he isn’t alone, and they probably won’t leave for a while.

He knows his friends are alarmed. For all he knows, they all probably know already, anyway. He might as well bite the fucking bullet know, address the elephant in the room. Hopefully they’ll leave so he can cry in peace after this. Johnny texts them shortly before they arrive at Mark’s, this long block of text that Mark can’t bring himself to read yet. His last message reads, “Taking off! I love you guys!” 

So now, Mark waits.

He wonders if Johnny will forget to read it, or if he read it as soon as he buckled up and just didn’t bother to message Mark about it. He wonders if Johnny will read it once the Wear Your Seatbelt sign pings off. He wonders if Johnny will be angry with him. 

Anyway. Jesus.

He pats his face dry, stretches his slumped shoulders back, and steps out of his bathroom and into the small living room where his friends are all seated, making themselves at home in his tiny, familiar space. They’re on their phones save for Taeyong who is dozing off. 

Mark sits down next to Yuta, who slings his arm over Mark’s shoulders. 

“I’m sorry for making you guys worry,” Mark says quietly. “I really am.”

Doyoung tuts, and smacks Mark lightly. 

“Enough of saying sorry when you mean thank you,” Taeyong says, his eyes still closed.

“Well, I’m both,” Mark replies. 

There’s silence again, before:

“I guess it’s obvious I’m in love with him, huh,” Mark says, head tipped back. There’s a cobweb on his ceiling that he hadn’t noticed before. 

“Oh Markie,” Yuta says, bringing him closer.

“Do you think he noticed?” Mark asks, not really sure what answer he’s hoping for. 

“If he did, he probably talked himself into believing he was imagining things, knowing him,” Doyoung says, his hands in Taeyong’s hair, stroking through the strands he’d Olaxplexed 3 days prior.

“How—how long have you known?” Mark asks Yuta quietly. 

“Much longer than you have, Markie,” Yuta says, patting Mark gently on his side. 

Figures. Yuta was always the most intuitive one out of all of them, quiet and measured where Johnny was boisterous and full of feeling.

“I told him,” Mark says. “I wrote it in a letter and told him to read it on the plane. Why the fuck did I do that?”

“Cos I don’t think you’d have been able to live yourself if you hadn’t said something at all,” Taeyong replies, sitting up from Doyoung’s lap and stretching.

“What response are you hoping for, Markie?” Doyoung asks. It’s not unkind. Doyoung always knows the right questions to ask, even if they aren’t necessarily the easy ones. 

Mark doesn’t know. He hasn’t even considered the remote possibility that Johnny might feel the same way.

“I just don’t want him to hate me,” Mark says sullenly. 

“That’s a literal, physical impossibility, Mark Lee,” Taeyong says firmly. 

“Yeah, dude, I don’t think he’d be able to even if he tried,” Yuta laughs. “Boy’s whipped for you, too.” 

Mark refuses to let hope bloom.

“It’s gonna be okay, Mark,” Doyoung says. “Whatever the outcome, it’s gonna be okay. It’s Johnny. You know it’s gonna work out, whatever that means for you both.”

“Do you think he’ll get in-flight wifi?” Yuta whispers. 

Jesus fucking Christ, Mark hadn’t even thought about that.

“I— I don’t know,” Mark says. “We’ll see, I guess.”

“Right, well, we’ve got quite a wait, boys, might as well tuck in and get comfy,” Taeyong says, standing up and walking to Mark’s refrigerator. “I’m making us dinner.” 

“Wait, what do you mean ‘we’ve got a wait’?” Mark asks.

Yuta knocks on Mark’s head very gently, very fondly, and says, “You’re crazy if you think we’re gonna let you wait this out alone.” 

It’s a wonder, really, how Mark’s gotten this lucky to have the friends he has, people who know what to do before he even has to ask. He’s grateful.

It works, for the most part. He’d done his groceries a few days prior, so there’s more than enough for the four of them once Taeyong’s made some dak galbi and rice. They talk about all the mundane shit, work and projects, and politics, that didn’t use to matter, years ago.

It takes his mind off of things for a while, and Mark loses himself in their Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood rewatch for a couple of hours. He’s coping, but he has no idea what it’s going to be like once Johnny lands, or when his friends leave.

Doyoung confiscates Mark’s phone after the 5th hour of Mark checking it compulsively. 

“Come on,” Doyoung says, holding his hand out. “It’s gonna be okay.” 

Mark relinquishes it with only some hesitation, knowing full well that it isn’t doing him any good. 

It works, until.

There’s a message alert tone from Mark’s phone, and when Doyoung pulls it out to check who texted, he looks up at Mark. 

His fingers grow cold in an instant. Yuta looks at Doyoung’s face, then Mark’s, and says, “Well, looks like he got in-flight wifi.” 

Taeyong holds Mark’s hand.

 

jyani 🐻[6:16 pm]

Mark? 

 

Me [6:17 pm] 

Hey, Johnny

 

jyani 🐻[6:17 pm] 

I got inflight wifi

I mean obvs u know that already

I read your letter

 

Mark’s heart is racing, racing, his hands clammy now that he can read the words Johnny’s texted in. Nothing follows. John’s waiting.

 

Me [6:19 pm]

Ah, yeah. 

Um

How uhhhh skdjfjdjfj im sorry uh. Thoughts? 

 

jyani 🐻[6:19 pm] 

I would have texted sooner if i hadnt spent like. Half an hour trying not to wake up my seatmate from crying so hard. 

Mark what the fuck?

 

Me [6:20 pm] 

Wait why did you cry 😣

Wait im so sorry 

do you hate me? 

 

It’s surreal, texting Johnny like this, almost casual, when they’ve both kind of just had to go through some earth-shattering revelations. 

 

jyani 🐻[6:21 pm] 

Mark it’s so much to unpack

 

Me [6:22 pm] 

I know. Im sorry 😞

 

jyani 🐻[6:22 pm] 

Do you know what you’re apologizing for? 

Mark come on 

God 

How can you even think I would hate you for this?

 

Me [6:23 pm] 

I have anxiety that isnt easy to manage and also I didn’t want to fuck up ten years of friendship because of /feelings/ 

I really dont want to lose you, johnny. That’s really all there is to this. 

 

jyani 🐻[6:23 pm] 

Do you honestly think that you would? 

Lose me?

 

Me [6:24 pm]

No

i trust you enough that that wont happen 

 

Mark’s heart is starting to settle. The fear of the unknown is always so much greater than facing it head-on, at least that’s always what John used to tell him. 

A reply doesn’t come for a while, but Mark waits and waits.

 

jyani 🐻[6:35 pm]

I didnt know i was allowed 

 

Me [6:35 pm] 

Allowed to what? 

 

jyani 🐻[6:35 pm] 

To love you. 

To love you like that.

 

Me [6:36 pm]

Johnny what do you mean? 

 

Me [6:37 pm] 

Johnny please reply 

 

A minute through instant messaging really does stretch out like a fucking eternity when you’re anxious about shit. Mark’s wondering if his wifi is lagging. All the while, his friends pretend to not see.

 

jyani 🐻[6:40 pm]

mark 

Jesus this is Not How It’s Supposed To Go

Fuck 

You know. I had all these plans to tell you. I kept chickening out. Didnt think you liked me like that. This isnt how i was supposed to make my grand confession. This isnt what you deserve

Not a text.

😣



jyani 🐻[6:41 pm]

Can 

I mean

Can it wait. Can you just like. Hold on a little while longer? I know im being so fucking vague but i really dont want to do this through text and I’d really like for us to see each other for this conversation so. Like can you hold on just a little?

 

Me [6:42 pm] 

Johnny, it’s okay. Take all the time you need. I kind of just dumped everything out there, i know it’s a lot

And yeah 

I’ll always hold on for you. 

You know that. 

 

jyani 🐻[6:44 pm] 

You’re going to be the death of me, Mark Lee.

 

Me [6:44 pm] 

:) 

 

jyani 🐻[6:45 pm] 

God. 

GOD. 

I miss you already. Is that okay to say? 

 

Mark feels the flush all over his face, and brings his hand up to his mouth to prevent himself from screaming. 

 

Me [6:45 pm] 

thats okay. 

It goes w/o saying that i feel the same way

 

It’s a little anti-climactic, but it still leaves Mark on edge. Johnny doesn’t hate him. Johnny... might feel the same way? It’s still a little unclear, but that’s secondary now to the weightlessness he feels. It’s off his chest. The world didn’t implode. He’s still intact.

 

jyani 🐻[6:46 pm] 

Did the guys get home okay? I havent texted them yet 

 

Me [6:47 pm]

About that 

They’re at my place

I was kind of a wreck on the way home. 

 

jyani 🐻[6:47 pm] 

I’m so sorry markie 

 

Me [6:48 pm]

For what? Dont be cmon

 

jyani 🐻[6:48 pm] 

you know why

 

Mark does. 

If things were different, Johnny would have stayed. He would have gone on to work with Kun and his crew and maybe turn out an indie sleeper hit and maybe made the rounds at Cannes and Hollywood with them. Maybe he’d have said something. Maybe Johnny would have.

But that’s the thing about life, isn’t it? 

There are things that can be controlled and things that can’t. Mark has constantly had to sort of allow himself to be like water, roll with the punches, push against what he could when he could. But there are things you can’t fight. Johnny’s apologizing for the what might have beens, the could haves, the what ifs. Johnny apologizing for not speaking up sooner, though clearly they both could have said something. Why do people always make things so much harder for themselves?

 

Me [6:50 pm] 

I do. it’s still not anything u have to apologize for okay? 

Im just really happy right now 

Im sad too, obviously, but

Youre here arent u? 

☺️

 

jyani 🐻[6:50 pm] 

Im right here, markie. 

Do the rest know? 

 

Me [6:51 pm] 

How i feel? Yes

How u do? Well, idk yet either

 

jyani🐻[6:52 pm] 

But you're holding on 

 

Me [6:52 pm] 

Im patient :) 

 

jyani 🐻[6:53 pm] 

Thats a lie we both know you hate waiting for stuff 

 

Me [6:54 pm] 

You’re different 

H my god

SORRY 

🤢🤢

 

jyani 🐻[6:55 pm] 

OHOHO

🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰🥰

look at you now, starting to out-cheese me

 

Mark is hiding his face in Taeyong’s shoulder, and Taeyong’s laughing under his breath, hand on Mark’s nape. 

“Looks like it’s working out?” Doyoung says with amusement. 

“Told you,” Yuta says, popping a potato chip into his mouth. “Boy is whipped for you.”

 

Me [7:00 pm]

Yuta says ur whipped for me 

 

jyani  🐻[7:00 pm] 

he would b correct 

He really is the wisest out of all of us 

Dont tell him that his ego is gonna swell up 

 

Me [7:01 pm] 

the imagery, wow 

Also ☺️

so u agree 

 

jyani  🐻[7:01 pm] 

Mark ive never pretended otherwise

 

Mark cannot stop smiling. He can’t contain it, the giddiness he feels, the calm that settles over him, like it’s easy. Johnny makes things so easy. 

“You okay, loverboy?” Taeyong asks quietly, his eyes bright. 

“Yeah,I’m-I’m so fucking happy,” Mark says. “I’m so fucking happy.”

The group chat comes alive momentarily after that, the air in the room completely devoid now of the fog that they’d been sitting in all afternoon. There is, of course, the mandatory teasing but it’s light considering how Johnny and Mark have yet to discuss what this means for them.

 

jyani 🐻[10:20 pm] 

Hey Markie 

When I land it’s gonna really late for u. Is the gang sleeping over? 

 

Me [10:20 pm] 

Yuta is, but Dons and Taeyong are heading home now that they dont think im gonna internally combust haha :) 

Why?

 

jyani  🐻[10:21 pm] 

Im just glad ur not alone❤️

 


jyani 🐻[10:22 pm] 

I dont want you to have to stay up for me so maybe we can set a time for me to call? Im gonna be jetlagged so i’ll probably still be awake

 

Me [10:22 pm] 

Are you asking me on a facetime date? :) 

 

jyani 🐻[10:23 pm] 

I would if you didnt own an android :/

 

Me [10:23 pm] 

Here we go haha

I can stay up for you

I don’t think I’ll get any sleep anyway 

Im too happy ☺️

i wanna see you.

 

jyani 🐻[10:24 pm] 

You

God mark 

You have no idea how huge my smile is right now 

 


jyani 🐻[10:25 pm] 

Idk if the wifi is strong enough to send this but

[image attached]

hi 👋 


Mark groans at the selca Johnny sends in, and throws his phone to the edge of the couch, startling the others. 

“Trouble in paradise already?” Taeyong teases as he shrugs his jacket on. 

“He’s so cute,” Mark says behind the hands he has over his face. “Why the fuck is he so cute?”

Doyoung pretend-gags.

“Okay Markie, we’re off,” Taeyong says, pressing a kiss to Mark’s forehead, his hand already in Doyoung’s. 

“We’ll check up on you tomorrow,” Doyoung says. “Good luck on your date.” 

“It’s! Shush! It’s not. I mean,” Mark says, flustered. “Yeah, okay, bye. Thank you guys.”

Yuta settles on the couch, comfortable with the big pillows that Mark keeps on them since he himself has a tendency to fall asleep on there often. It’s a good couch, something he and Johnny had spent 2 days deliberating before Mark decided to use his birthday money and savings on it. Yuta lifts his legs so Mark can settle back on the couch, before Yuta’s feet are flopping back onto Mark’s lap. 

“I always wondered if either of you would say something,” Yuta says. “Him more than you, really.” 

“For real?” Mark says. 

“Yeah, I could see it plain as day.”

“Why—“

“Why didn’t I say anything? Cos I don’t fuck with fate, Markie,” Yuta says, stretching out. “If Johnny didn’t feel like he could come to one of us to talk about having feelings for you, I wasn’t gonna coax it out of him, you know? All in his own time, I figured.”

Mark nods, not quite sure what to say to that. 

“And you didn’t come to me either,” Yuta continues. “But man, I kept waiting. This entire month, I kept waiting for something to happen. I’ll say though, the letter is a pretty sweet surprise. I didn’t see that one coming.”

“I keep kicking myself now, honestly,” Mark says quietly. “We wasted so much time.” 

“You know, I disagree,” Yuta says thoughtfully. “I think that these things happened in their own time. I mean sure, maybe you guys could have gotten your freak on.”

“But,” Yuta continues. “Don’t you think that would have made things harder? So much more complicated?” 

Mark swallows his emotions. 

“Yeah, I mean, you’re right, I completely agree,” Mark says. “‘Things happened in their own time’. I like that.”

 

jyani 🐻[11:37 pm]

Hey Markie, I’ll be landing an about an hour and a half, but i really dont u to have to stay up for me you need sleep 

 

Me [11:37 pm] 

Okay but like

Can you promise me you’ll call when ur settled? 

 

jyani 🐻[11:38 pm] 

Thats gonna be like 4am there

 

Me [11:38 pm]

Johnny come onnnnnnnn 

Im serious 

I’ll wake up i swear 

 

jyani 🐻[11:39 pm]

Ok, ok if u insist 😥

U dont get to be grumpy ok!! 

 

Me [11:40 pm]

For you john i will reign it in somehow haha 



jyani 🐻[11:41 pm]

Man, ur serious about me, huh 🥰


Me [11:41 pm]

:)

 

🏃🏽

 

The ringing of his phone startles Mark awake, making him jolt immediately and feel around in the dark until he feels the vibration from the call. He sits up in bed, switches the lamp on, and scurries to answer it. 

His heart is racing when he sees the caller ID. Here goes nothing.

Awareness comes to in increments as Mark register’s Johnny’s face on the screen, and Mark mutters, “Hold on, sorry, brain still booting up,” with his sleep-wrecked voice. He needs to wake up, wake up, wake up. This is the most important call of his life.

“Take your time,” Johnny says softly. Mark reaches out blindly for his glasses. “You look like a baby lion. I’m so sorry I woke you up.” 

“Johnny,” Mark says as his fingers find the metal and glass on his bedside table. “If you apologize for that one more time, I’m hanging up.”

“No, no, please don’t,” Johnny pleads. “Sorry. You’re just so cute.”

Johnny’s face is clear as Mark slips his lenses over his eyes, and there he is, the man of Mark’s dreams in full color on his screen. Johnny’s hair is wet, his black hoodie on his shoulders. 

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

Mark looks over Johnny’s face, and sees wonder in them. Does Johnny see the same in Mark’s?

“So, okay, before anything,” Johnny says. “After I read your letter for like, the fiftieth time, I started working on one of mine. Though I will tell you, I’ve written you a lot of letters that you don’t know about, Markie. But I wrote a new one for you, so I’m gonna read it out to you if that’s okay, and then we can talk about it together?”  

Johnny’s face is so earnest. Mark feels sleep leave him, and he sits up to let Johnny see him better. 

“Okay.”

Johnny clears his throat and looks into the camera, his own glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. Mark aches with longing, wanting to reach out, to touch Johnny’s cheekbones. 

“Dear Mark,” Johnny starts. “Falling in love you was as gradual as it was terrifying.”

“I always thought that finding the great love of my life would happen like those happy accidents where you bump into someone on the street and time stops and all of a sudden you know that that’s the person you’re meant to be with forever, and things would just slot into place, rearrange themselves so that you and the other person can spend the next steps sort of awkwardly getting to know each other. I thought finding the love of my life would happen with small kisses on apartment steps. Finding the love of my life didn’t happen like that. Instead, it happened in small moments, with you. It happened as I’d wake you up for breakfast when you used to live here. It happened as we’d go out to movies, and I’d think about holding your hand.”

Johnny pauses, takes a breath, and continues.

“It scared me, trying to go about my day and keep my distance and still keep you close without tipping you off, without fucking things up with us. You have to understand that I didn’t think that you’d see me any other way than as your best friend. And I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want you to pull away, isn’t that selfish?

I’d always prided myself in being able to read you better than everyone else, but you’ve always sort of held your cards close to your chest, and I guess I just told myself that I could be content with loving you from afar, loving you like this, and not anything more. So that’s why I never said anything. I wish I had, but this is where we are now, with me sitting in my childhood bedroom while you sit in bed in your apartment in Korea, where I wish I was.”

“So this is what I wish I had told you two years ago, what I wish I had told you this month. Mark Lee, you’re the best person I’ve ever met. You’re exacting, you’re focused, you’re every good thing I wish I was.

You’re bright and honest, and you talk without filters and you make me happy.

There’s something about you where you can spill your heart out about the things you enjoy doing, and half the time I’m groaning from how you say some shit and it makes no sense but it’s in those moments where I think to myself: ‘God, I am so in love with you.' And that’s what I am, Mark. I’m in love with you. I’ve been in love with you every single day for two years, and it’s all I know anymore. I meant it when I said I didn’t know I was allowed to love you like this, so I kept it quiet, tried to hold back. Told myself I shouldn’t.”

Johnny leans in closer to the camera. 

“Told myself I shouldn’t, but that didn’t stop me anyway. It didn’t stop me from asking you out on dates that weren’t dates, it didn’t stop me from wanting to spend time with you. I’m sorry that that makes me selfish. I’m sorry that I’ve been keeping this from you. Mark, I wish more than anything that I could kiss you. Is that too forward of me to say?

I know it’s a lot. But I told myself I would tell you the entire truth about how I feel, and that’s part of it. The way I’d imagined this going would be for me to tell you all this, and sweep you off your feet in some grand gesture, some huge sort of embrace, kiss you until you can’t remember your name. I wish I could have been all that, your knight in knitted sweaters and floral button-downs. I know it’s difficult. This entire thing is difficult.” 

“I don’t have any expectations as to what will happen after I finish talking, not really, but I do have some hopes. Like I hope you’ll still be willing to let me tell you that I love you every day, even if our timezones are flipped. It’s that simple. That’s all I want.” “I’m not going to sit here and ask you to be in a relationship that’s hard for you to be in. I don’t know if that’s something you want, but please know that if you do want it, I want it, too. I would try for you. But there’s no pressure, Mark. I just want to love you.”

“I’d planned to tell you so many times, you know? I came so close to telling you the last time you stayed over, but that had been a difficult day for you, and I didn’t want to push you into opening up if you weren’t ready to talk about anything. I guess it was for the best. I’m sorry that these are the circumstances with which we’re having this conversation.

I wish it was any other way. I wish I was with you right now. I wish I could read your face while I say all this. But it’s okay. The point is we’re here now, and I’ve got this off my chest. Whatever happens from this point forward, know fully that in this moment, right here and right now, I love you, Mark Lee, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving you. So. There.” 

Mark watches Johnny put his phone down. His hair is starting to dry, starting to curl at the ends.

Mark’s shivering a little, and his chest aches and aches, because it’s a bittersweet letter, and Johnny’s smile is radiant but his eyes are sad. 

“Is that the end of your letter?” Mark asks softly. 

“Yeah, that’s it,” Johnny says, and rests his cheek on his hand.

“We were being stupid, huh,” Mark laughs, and his voice breaks a little. He feels a little fragile, but he isn’t too worried about that. Johnny loves him. Johnny loves him and for now, that’s all that matters to Mark. 

“A lot, yeah,” Johnny replies, his eyes soft as he watches Mark.

“Where do we go from here, Johnny?” Mark asks quietly. He already has his answer, but he needs to know if Johnny will ask the question first. 

“I— I don’t know, Mark,” Johnny says honestly. “I can’t remember what it’s like to be without you. I don’t want to ever be without you.”

“I don’t, either,” Mark replies. Slowly, slowly, the sun begins to creep into his room through the blinds. It’s a new day, a new morning, and the first day without Johnny there. 

“I know it’s a longshot,” Johnny says. “But do you think you’d maybe like to try this with me?”

Mark smiles into the camera. 

“I don’t know how to do this,” Mark says, figures that now that Johnny knows the entire truth, he’s not about to start holding back now. “But I want to try. Whatever that means for us. I don’t know how suited I am for a long-distance relationship, and it’s gonna be really hard. It’s gonna be so, so hard. I don’t think either of us is ready for what all of this means. But Johnny, God, do I want to try for you. So I’m willing if you are.”

Johnny dips his head, hides behind his hands, his eyes half-moons as he smiles like he can’t contain himself. 

“So, this is day one,” Johnny says. 

Mark looks at Johnny on his screen, and he longs for him, but he thinks they can do this.

He knows that navigating a relationship from miles and 14 timezones away is going to feel difficult on some days, impossible on others. He and Johnny are solid in ways that he knows not a lot of other people have the luxury of.

He knows that it takes more than loving each other isn’t always enough, but he’s a work in progress, and so is Johnny. Mark had spent an entire month trying to pick up the pieces of a heartbreak he had essentially orchestrated for himself.

But Johnny has a way of making things feel new. If Mark Lee were to trace the trajectory of his heartbreak, he certainly would not have known, at the start of it, that he would end up here at a reset point. 

Johnny’s hair curls behind his ear. This is the love of Mark’s life.

“Day one,” Mark smiles. “I like that.” 

“I like you,” Johnny says, goofy smile in place.

“Oh, that’s lucky, I like you too,” Mark replies, before hiding behind his hand. “God, I still have to get used to that.” 

“What? Being sappy?” Johnny asks. 

“Yeah,” Mark says, shivering.

“You’ll learn,” Johnny says smugly. “And you’re gonna love it.” 

Mark scrunches his nose up, his shoulders coming up to his ears. 

“I might,” Mark replies, feeling warmth settle in his chest now that his heart has calmed down. 

“You will,” Johnny nods.

“Wow, you’re so sure of yourself now, huh?” Mark laughs. 

“You wrote me a four-page love letter, Markie,” Johnny teases. “You’re just gonna have to accept that you’re as huge a sap as I am.” 

“You are the one outlier,” Mark says. 

“Would you say I’m the only exception?”

“Oh my God,” Mark laughs, feeling the full-body cringe that comes with Johnny being— well, Johnny. 

As they continue talking, Johnny filling him in on how the rest of his flight went, how his mother fussed over him before he could hold his father in his arms for half an hour, Mark realizes that sometimes the most life-altering events don’t always come with a huge bang and an earthquake and the ground splitting open. Sometimes things really do just happen, easy and effortless, like a flower unfurling itself in spring.

He watches Johnny give him a tour of his home, Johnny’s mom coming into view, her face radiant as she says hello. Johnny takes a moment to whisper something in her ear, and she pulls away quickly and says, “Why did you only tell me now?” and smacks him on the shoulder.

“Ma,” Johnny says. “Ma, it only literally just happened! Stop hitting me!” 

Mark laughs, knows that Mama Suh’s attack probably feels like a bird’s wing to Johnny. 

“Why did you wait so long? My God I thought I raised you brave,” Johnny’s mother huffs before walking out of view.

“I literally just got back and she’s already mad at me about not confessing sooner,” Johnny says, rubbing his forehead. “I cannot fucking win.” 

Mark wishes he could pull Johnny’s hand away and kiss his forehead. 

“I mean,” Mark says, shrugging on camera.

Mark starts to doze off, even if he keeps fighting it, and Johnny calls his attention as Mark’s phone slips from his hand. 

“Markie,” Johnny calls out. “Hey, sleepyhead. It’s time to catch up on your sleep.” 

“No, sorry—“ Mark startles awake. “I’m here. Sorry.”

“Come on,” Johnny says gently. “I’ll still be here when you wake up. I’m not going anywhere.” 

“Hah,” Mark says, before stifling a yawn. “Okay, you win. I’ll text you later.” 

“I look forward to it,” Johnny says softly. “I love you, Mark.” 

Mark feels his whole body warm up.

“I love you too, Johnny,” Mark says sleepily. “Good night. Please get some rest, too.” 

Johnny nods, and presses his fingers to his lips, and brings them up to the camera. Mark follows him and ends the call. 

Half asleep, Mark thinks to himself, day one.