In The Beginning
“You know—like primordial soup,” Mark tried to explain, when Yuta eventually asked: So when did it start? The whole Johnny thing, which was to say it was an impossible task, blasphemous even, like finding the first ever tide on the ocean, the fundamental ripple where all his troubles were born. How did you solve a problem like Johnny Suh?
Mark settled for a measly, “It’s complicated, alright?” which was to say, I don’t know. Shrugged. “It’s Johnny—“ which was to say, It's always been this way.
It was the truth; some things just were. Before the Internet knew hot polaroid guy, there was Johnny Suh at 18—Mark had known him at 17, and then 16, and all the way back at 8 years old; there was only so much history his 5-year old brain could salvage—but there was something about 18 year-old Johnny that changed the game somehow. It was a revelation; witchcraft. One day Mark woke up and suddenly his best friend’s soft laugh barrelled into him like a train wreck, and there was a magnetism in everything Johnny touched: the faded flannel, the ripped jeans, the yellow skateboard he brought everywhere imbued inexplicably with the treacherous power of boy-sweat and a body-bumping hex, humming like a Led Zeppelin song. Johnny’s hair was longer then, the image of him so like the teenage boys trapped between glossy magazines his girl classmates snuck into class, with their smooth freckled chests and brooding eyes. But none of them moved him like Johnny did; none of them came close.
Gangly, pretty, Johnny-hyung—a month finally retainer-free, he’d started smiling as if to make up for lost time. 18 year-old Johnny could say fuck in such a classy way, not even Mark’s strict Christian upbringing rose to the surface to reprimand him.
Mark never stood a chance. That summer came out the gate swinging. As if the whole world had rearranged itself to fuck Mark over. Tapped him on the nose, opened Mark’s third eye, and said: Are you suffering? Watch—this is nothing.
“You’re so dramatic,” Yuta laughed. Which—fair. Mark hoarded those memories like prized possessions. If anything, it was the only thing left he was allowed to have these days.
It was too late now, anyway. Johnny was already slipping from his fingers. Mark had been ready to lose Johnny since he graduated from college—even longer, but something about this felt final somehow. If Mark shut his eyes right now he’d feel it—the slow aching shift, the way the weight of the world fell all wrong. Some things you can’t prepare for.
Mark came out of the soup with an ache so bad, and wasn’t that the real kicker, the thick, bastard soup of it all? How Johnny was still his, but not in the same way—who was to say he ever was to begin with?
The Apocalypse Comes In Pink
“How did you know Lee Haechan?” was penultimately the wrong question to ask in this industry, Mark quickly realized. “Who didn’t know Lee Haechan?” was the correct way to go about things. Only Haechan—or Donghyuck, how he wanted people outside film to call him since launching an evergreen career as a child actor for feel-good family movies—could perform a Houdini act like this. He possessed the uncanny ability to coexist between the world of afternoon soaps loved by the masses and the hip university bars that doubled as ramen joints along Mapo District. Effortlessly charming and a little out-of-reach; maybe that was why he and Johnny got along so well. They were both bad with moorings.
It was Mark who met him first, not Johnny; Mark found him chatting loudly with one of his regulars: a mild-mannered mid-forties auntie, like most of the people who came to watch a college junior play top 50 covers on his acoustic guitar each Friday night, in a Korean-American fusion joint called Cherry Bomb, of all things. “I like your voice,” Donghyuck said, looking out-of-place despite the simple leather jacket (Mark wasn’t fooled; it probably cost more than his monthly paycheck). “Though… I never thought I’d hear an acoustic version of Crazy In Love around here.”
Mark’s ears burned. “You’re Lee Haechan.”
“And you’re Mark Lee, right? Your name was on the poster outside,” he said, pursing his lips to point. Donghyuck had a full, pretty mouth, un-chapped, unlike Mark. “I came from a shoot across the street for this new coffee brand, but I missed a gig I was supposed to go to, so I came here instead. Heard there was live music . . . “ by then Mark had zoned out, still processing this glitch in the system that allowed Lee Haechan in his lame Friday night gig. Two minutes later, Donghyuck waved his tiny hand in front of his face. “Hey—you’re not thinking of robbing me, are you?”
“I—of course not—!” Mark spluttered. “I’m not—why would I—“
“Careful,” came the laugh. “He’s delicate. Sorry.”
Out from the kitchen came Johnny, carrying two steaming bowls of jjigae. Mark’s stomach churned violently. “I’m kidding. Who’s your friend?” Donghyuck said. His eyes turned the long-way down, appreciative.
“That's Johnny,” Mark croaked, and that was it, click, now the slow-spiral: that evening they’d talked and talked—Johnny, lacking the crippling awkwardness that stunted Mark from most of his new relationships, complemented Donghyuck’s energy with a dizzying sort of back-and-forth. “I have to say, your 8 year-old performance in My First and Last was… legendaric,” Johnny said, tipping the glass of Sprite in his mouth with one pinky lifted.
Donghyuck nodded sagely. “Wasn’t it? It was, as the kids call it—“ and here his mouth quirked, the shape a little sharper than what Mark saw of it online, “—a cultural reset.”
Johnny’s laughter rang around the room. A nice easy sound. Johnny raised his glass. “Didn’t think you’d be so down-to-earth, Lee Haechan.”
“Didn’t think your food would taste as good as the posters, and yet, here we are.”
They shared a grin. Mark slurped his noodles, watching them.
“Won’t they kick us out?” Donghyuck said, turning to him.
“Nah, Johnny’s folks own the place, it’s cool.” Mark checked his phone. It was 11:54 PM; they were the only ones left. “We should leave soon though.”
“Huh, no way,” Donghyuck gasped. He rummaged around his canvas bag and pulled out a calling card. Only three lines there, printed in no-fuss serif: Lee Haechan. Artist. Deceivingly simple.
“You’re a photographer right?” Donghyuck asked Johnny. “My manager’s number is there. Just text him, and I’ll handle everything.” He pushed off the table, downed the last of Johnny’s Sprite, and hurried to the door before any of them could clarify what he said, like a cooler, indie version of Cinderella. “It was nice meeting you kids! Text me, okay!”
After that, Donghyuck flitted in and out of their lives, like he was still deciding whether he would give them the time of day. He didn’t show up at the Cherry Bomb, but his voice trickled out of Youtube ads, winked at Johnny when they walked past his face from the backs of speeding buses. Mark watched his latest indie movie, when it came out—an epistolary coming-of-age drama with a fresh-faced cast and Do Kyungsoo of all things—and with each of Donghyuck’s kissing scenes (plural), Mark politely looked away, flustered, then listened half-heartedly to Johnny’s period evangelizing of the local film scene’s rebirth.
Still, life went on; Mark went to college, sang covers to pay rent, came home to the apartment he shared with Johnny and wrote his own love songs in secret.
“It was pretty wild,” Mark agreed, when Johnny brought it up; a trending Naver article contested whether Lee Haechan rightfully deserved the title of Korea’s Darling, given his questionable project choices. Mark reached under Johnny’s arm for a spoon while Johnny wrestled with the cereal box. “Like—I don’t know anything about movies but like—hey, can you pass me the—thanks—like, it was real, in a good way. You know? Like, there was too much talking. And it was kinda draggy? But that’s like—life, right? If anything, it's cool he’s trying new things.”
Johnny hummed. “I think doing the movie was pretty dope. But that’s just my onion,” he said, filling Mark’s bowl with Cheerios, and then his own. He scowled at the label. “You can only be yourself for too long before you get sick of it.”
Mark laughed at the faux seriousness, but later wished he’d paid more attention. He prided himself in being fluent in Johnny-speak, but this moment held a punchline he’d keep trying to decipher, years later. How—right under his nose—Johnny was growing up, and he’d missed the joke.
Then one Tuesday night, in the pizza place their friends liked, Johnny pulled out the card and shoved it under Doyoung’s nose. “You’re shitting me,” Doyoung said, dropping his pizza on the plate. He pushed his laptop aside, where he’d been working on a pitch deck for Underdog, the indie magazine he ran with Taeyong and Johnny, their resident photographer. Doyoung squinted at it, hard and disbelieving. Everybody knew Doyoung was a closet fan.
“This is fake.”
Johnny shrugged, with fake detachment. “Call it then.” He held the card out.
“Call the number. Lee Haechan’s number.”
Doyoung snatched the card, called it, and blanched within two minutes when the line picked. “I told you,” Johnny mouthed cheekily, as Doyoung nodded, hastily taking down notes, then stared at the card after the call like it was a golden ticket to see a chocolate factory. He wore the same expression a week later, when Lee Donghyuck arrived in Underdog’s studio, like a trick of the light.
“These are so good,” Donghyuck gushed. He pushed himself out of the stylist's chair so he get a closer look at the takes in Johnny’s LCD display. The concept was old school, 90’s boy band nostalgia. “For real! Even the outtakes are gold—could I have them?”
Ever the provider, Johnny only laughed. “Sure.”
“I’m not even kidding, like—you didn’t even need to use the props,” Donghyuck said. He held Johnny’s exposed bicep where it jutted out his fit black shirt with a little too much attention. “You’re like—a genius.”
“Oh, stop it.” Johnny waved him off, laughing too loudly. “You think so?”
From the corner, Mark stared at his shoes, trying not to watch it happen like he was a damn extra. He was so focused on trying not to focus that he missed Johnny’s question entirely.
The set had quieted, and everyone had turned to stare at him. “Penny for your thoughts?” Johnny smiled at him expectantly. “What do you think about the pictures, Mark?”
Mark jolted. “Yep,” he said, clapping like a fool. “Yep, they’re great.”
Donghyuck preened. “See?”
“Aw, Markie,” Johnny mock-cried, but Mark saw the tense line on his shoulders dissipate. Johnny carried confidence like a second-skin, like he didn’t just almost tear out his hair the night prior, angry for not being able to be innovative enough, doubting everything. That was why Mark came, to stop the spiral.
When Underdog’s online spring issue got released, with Lee Haechan as a special guest, nobody expected what happened next. Johnny got the call minutes later.
“Twitter, you heathen,” Doyoung hissed. "Log in and check your notifs!"
Johnny obeyed. His eyes nearly popped out his head.
@itshaechan00 mentioned you in a tweet
think my photographer didn’t get the memo. this was supposed to be MY shoot huffs 😫 jk love u johnny-hyung!
And there was Johnny, two pictures of him—black muscle tee, gray sweatpants, bandana on his head; that magnetic solemn look on his face whenever he worked his magic, lips dancing on the edge of a smile. That Johnny.
Mark peered down Johnny’s phone and whistled. “Oi,” he said intelligently. It was too early for this.
“Jesus, you can get 21 thousand likes? Is that um, a normal amount?” The question was tinged with a bit of hysteria; Mark couldn’t be bothered with a response; he was still thinking about the pictures, the way the light fell on Johnny’s skin. Mark already knew; Donghyuck wasn’t the only star in that shoot.
“They’re not even that good, but those photos really brought out your, uh—assets,” Taeyong said, stealing the phone from Doyoung. “Can you believe all these thirst tweets! Look—hot polaroid guy is trending at number seven. It’s nine in the morning!”
“Don’t forget to tag Underdog in your bio, okay?” said Doyoung, ever the strategist. “Don’t you forget, John!”
“Who took these photos, anyway?” Johnny said.
“I did,” Mark croaked, and Johnny’s face widened. “I’m sorry—I was just messing around with your camera, I didn’t think he’d ask for those too—“
“Dude,” Johnny said. “Thanks for making me look hot.”
“You’re—I mean,” Mark coughed. “That’s literally how you look all the time.” And before the implications of what he said could really sink in, Johnny had taken his face with both hands, his face locked and serious; Mark spluttered and turned red immediately—he always did this, it was just a Johnny thing—cutting into Mark’s personal space like a hot knife through butter.
“Shhh… you don’t understand, Mark,” Johnny said, and his thumb slid from Mark’s cheek up to his fringe, finding the childhood welt by his temple that no one else knew about. Pressing into it, Mark’s pulse jumped, and Johnny continued, “It’s a curse. I can’t help it if I was born with such a bangin’ bod.”
Mark shoved him off. Johnny laughed, letting himself fall away like he wasn’t made out of steel itself.
“I made it, mom! I’m Twitter-famous now.” He pocketed his phone and grabbed his keys. Turning to Mark with a grin, he said, “I think we should celebrate this major milestone. This is it; my peak. Get dressed, I'm taking you out for burritos.”
It was nothing momentary. If anything, Johnny’s stunt as hot polaroid guy lasted for 3 weeks and 2 days—enough time to get agents on his tail, offering actual modelling gigs. All of which Johnny politely turned down—“Sorry, I’m really flattered, but I’m a photographer first, really.”—until those modelling gigs turned into actual photo gigs, and well—Johnny wasn’t stupid. He knew an opportunity when he saw one.
By week four, Johnny had gained about ten thousand new followers of Twitter, and eight thousand on Instagram. Each time he posted a new batch of photos, engagement went off the roof, bleeding over into his old work, and even Underdog’s very first online issues, when they were still bright-eyed fresh graduates in Doyoung’s home studio. That was when Donghyuck re-appeared, joining Johnny on photowalks around Han River and Hongdae, hanging off Johnny’s shoulder like they knew each other for years. He came to Mark’s gigs too—Mark nearly choked seeing him there, watching from the table with Johnny—Donghyuck requesting Beyonce each time to his endless chagrin. “Is he always this uptight?” Donghyuck said, and Johnny replied, “Born and raised, baby.”—click—it was like Johnny had found the sweet spot—that uplift in the air that shot him up and up and up; each new gig he did only seemed to multiply the halo effect, and Underdog started to get real clients—“Like real, big-money type, you know?” Taeyong said—click—“I'm really sorry, Markie, I got a gig on Friday night but I’ll try to catch up, okay? You can say no when someone requests Beyonce, it’s your right.”—click—Doyoung, in behalf of Underdog, gifted Johnny a fruit basket after their first successful client shoot, saying tearfully, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it, I love you.”—click—Johnny's weekends were booked, and each time he went home at 3am smelling like samgyupsal and Lee Haechan’s Dior Homme Intense, and still Mark was so happy for him, he managed to surprise him with a new roll of film from his measly savings; he just needed a day without Donghyuck or any of Johnny's clients around around to give it—click—Mark texted: oh my gosh hyung, you’re getting so big it’s crazy don’t forget about me okay, and when Johnny replied 12 hours and 2 minutes later, with an, oh such is life of an Artiste :D thanks Mark, Mark’s heart twinged only a little bit.
Click—two months later, Mark was staring at Donghyuck’s toothbrush in their sink.
It was pink, between Johnny’s electric toothbrush and Mark’s green one. Pink, like his own high-top converse strewn on the floor, by Johnny’s door. Pink, like the soft-bitten skin on Johnny’s clavicle, and the love-addled blush on his cheeks when Donghyuck tottered out the room in shorts and Johnny’s big black hoodie. Mark blinked, walked out of the kitchen and back into the bathroom. But the toothbrush was still there. Didn’t move, didn’t dissipate into toxic fumes.
“I think Mark Lee is awake!” Donghyuck called, and if Mark wasn’t he was definitely awake now. Mark padded back into the kitchen where they were already lounging on the table. Donghyuck pushed his sleeves up, stirring a pot of something velvet. “I’m making hot chocolate. Hurry and gimme your cup.”
“It’s perfect,” Johnny moaned around his mug; his hair was in disarray, like Donghyuck had run his hands through it. “Have some, dude. Tastes like home.”
Mark accepted his now-steaming cup with a smile and sat down hesitantly. There was food on the table, but his mind blurred them out. He felt like an intruder.
Johnny watched his face across the table, looking loose like he always did after a good shoot, or a good fuck. Both, Mark decided, throat tightening.
“Well?” Donghyuck pressed.
Mark took a sip, and sweetness flooded his mouth. Suddenly, he was hyper-aware of the way time flowed, the way Donghyuck sat on the kitchen counter all splayed out, There—on the table, a perfect plate of sunny side eggs and a good, Korean breakfast Mark never knew how to make, and Johnny’s cheeks were full and pink, and when Donghyuck prodded him again there was no doubt about it, and he said, voice cracking, “Perfect. It’s perfect.”
Lee Donghyuck Unearths A Relic, Part One
“That’s it for tonight! Thanks everyone for coming, I hope you enjoyed the show,” Mark said into his mic, holding his strings still. It always made him blush, saying it—as if all these aunties came here for him, not for the greasy fusion food Johnny’s parents served. Still, the crowd gave him a few measly claps, polite—or bored, like the regular who always sat at the front every other day with nothing else to do. There were louder voices too, and when Mark squinted against the glare of the spotlight and found them, his heart raced.
“Sit down,” Mark hissed, stuttering out a laugh as he all but scrambled to their table. Johnny kept his standing ovation, and Donghyuck—the sight still strange, but welcome—lifted his cup to toast.
“Bravo, my songbird!” Johnny said. Mark swiped the Coke from his hands and put it down, and they all sat eventually.
“I thought you guys left after Yuta’s set,” Mark whined, trying not to let his eyes rove. Johnny and Donghyuck made a strange, eye-catching pair, even stranger tonight; it was like Freaky Friday, how Johnny wore a red turtleneck and black leather jacket, while Donghyuck wore an ensemble from Johnny’s usual in college; an oversized beige sweater that went a little past his thumbs, ripped jeans that flirted tanned skin.
“And leave my baby behind? Never.” Johnny reclined, eyes sparkling. “It’s Friday! Was thinking we could go out. Road trip!”
Mark gasped, “Ice cream?” It had been a good two months since their last ice cream run.
“We’ll get you real food first,” and when Mark whined some more, Johnny sighed, extremely put-upon, said “and then you can get ice cream after.” He shushed Mark before he could open his mouth. “Chocolate. I already know, I’m not stupid.”
“You guys are ridiculous,” Donghyuck said. He was giving them that look again, like they were the best thing since sliced bread. “Remind me—you’ve known each other since when?”
“The beginning of time,” Johnny said, in his documentary voice. He pretended to topple sideways when Mark swatted his shoulder, nearly colliding with other customers as they stood up and made their way out. Mark rolled his eyes and pushed him, just because.
“So violent,” Johnny mumbled, as Mark announced, “Twenty years. Now do you see what I have to deal with? I think I was cursed in a previous life, Hyuck.” And now it was Johnny’s turn to put him in a headlock. Donghyuck watched it all, his eyes glittering.
This is why you can’t score dates, Doyoung told them, once upon a time, gesturing vaguely at the white space between Mark and Johnny like there was something off-putting there, an invisible horrendous blight tendered by time. But while most people were uncomfortable by their history, Donghyuck navigated it with ease, cracking open the blinds to Johnny’s favor and basking there. He was smart like that. Three years since Johnny’s last girlfriend, and he’d been the first to see past Mark’s standoffish awkwardness and Johnny’s initial menacing aura, reaching his small hands past the gates and finding the truth: that if anything, Johnny was like a big, loyal dog. Get him once and he’s yours, forever.
Mark would know. As Johnny and Donghyuck walked ahead, Mark tried not to think about the hand Donghyuck slipped into Johnny’s back pocket. The nonchalant way Johnny let him.
When their knuckles brushed, Mark looked away. This was protocol he was used to. He could do it again, right?
Lee Donghyuck Unearths A Relic, Part Two
“Where’s the aux? Bluetooth? No?” Donghyuck’s face fell dramatically as Johnny shook his head. “I’m dating a heathen,” was Donghyuck’s response, but he punched the stereo on and bumped it up as the first few chords trickled out—ooh, baby do you know what that’s worth?—and as Johnny sent them breezing down the highway, Donghyuck leaned back on the passenger’s seat and sought Mark’s gaze through the rearview mirror, grinning when they began to sing themselves hoarse.
“You!” Donghyuck said once the song ended, startling a laugh out of Mark. “You got any originals? I bet you do. Johnny, you didn't tell me we got a singer in our midst!”
“He’s shy,” Johnny mused.
“Am not,” Mark said.
“Then why don’t you ever play them?”
“They’re not ready, okay?”
Johnny turned to Donghyuck. “He used to have a Soundcloud, isn’t that adorable?”
“Stop,” Mark moaned.
“Mark Lee, with a heartbreaker’s voice like that, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.” Donghyuck said. “You sound fucking great.”
“I keep telling him that, but he never believes me.” Through the mirror, Johnny shot him a betrayed look. “I swear, he’d be bigger if he tried moving out and playing in bigger clubs in Gangnam.”
“Glad for the confidence, guys. But maybe next time,” Mark lied. There was never a need to move, and that wasn’t going to change. Johnny was here. That, and thinking about all the love songs he’d composed, hidden in a secret folder made his head spin with nausea.
“Booooo,” Donghyuck said, then: “Hey, Johnny-hyung, what’s this—?” and if only Mark paid any attention he would’ve been able to snatch the moment back—Donghyuck’s hands unearthing the relic from Johnny’s glove compartment—and maybe he could’ve been quick enough to toss it out the window, where it could’ve been crushed by a tank or a beamed up by an alien spaceship, taken far far away from where Johnny’s eyes were turning to see the age-old handwriting on the CD jacket: For J, From M—
“Who's M, hyung?” Donghyuck said, feeding the CD into the slit. All the oxygen in Mark’s body turned to ice. 10 seconds in, Donghyuck said, “Oh.”
Johnny was laughing. The sound was tight and wrong. “Oh, man, Markie—remember this?” and how could Mark not? There was Frank, narrating Mark’s first heartbreak with ease—a tornado flew around my room before you came, excuse the mess it made—and suddenly Mark was fourteen again, offering the mixtape through the car window like a surrender, because Johnny was leaving for college, leaving the cul-de-sac and the summers and movie nights with Mark. Johnny ruffling Mark’s hair, his thumb finding the scar hidden in his hair like Mark was fucking Harry Potter, except there was nothing magical about this—about cars leaving and never turning back—
“I love this song,” Donghyuck murmured, and the spell broke; Mark was in Johnny’s car again. The city fell in streaks out the window. Mark’s face felt numb and hollow inside. As Donghyuck began to hum, Mark stared out into the night and wished for rain, that it would wash him home.
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed softly. “Same hat.”
“You said—“ Mark laughed. His fingers clawed into his own thigh. “You said you didn’t get Frank.”
“Took me a few listens.” Johnny turned the corner, careful as always. “But I got what you meant, eventually. It’s a really cool album.”
“I didn’t know you kept it.” Mark tried to go for unbothered, but his voice cracked from the weight of it. Through the rearview mirror, Donghyuck was watching him, his eyes wide and too knowing for his liking.
“It’s my most prized possession,” Johnny said with sudden seriousness.
“You suck,” Mark said. He let his face drop into his hands. “Did you—this is so stupid. I’m so embarrassed right now.”
“Aw, don’t be! You guys are the cutest,” Donghyuck cooed, pinching Johnny’s cheek. “I wish I had a childhood bestie.”
Mark looked out the window, pressing his hot forehead against the glass. Be quiet, he willed, choking the pulse on his wrist, and was grateful when Donghyuck dialed the volume up as they entered the tunnel, the dark shrouding his face and keeping him hidden for another day longer.
We’re All Dead Here, Part One
“No entourage today?” came Yuta’s voice. On Saturdays his band played last—his fuck-around band, as he liked to call it—and Mark liked to stick around to watch their sets. He was a real fan, alright; Yuta was a more than competent drummer, and with Taeil and Jungwoo on vocals and guitar, Jaehyun on bass, they made a magnetic bunch. They used to hang out more, until they started scoring gigs outside Hongik, optimizing their repertoire. As always, Mark liked to stay put.
“Not today,” was the only thing Mark said.
Yuta frowned. Wiping the sweat dotting his forehead, his eyes roved the floor for the familiar tallness. “It’s really weird seeing you without your other brain cell.”
“He has a shoot. For some... magazine.”
Yuta whistled. “Damn, well,” he said, glancing at his phone, "we gotta go ahead too.”
“Mad Dog. We’re opening an album launch for a band called Your Gig Is Cancelled. I know—meta, right?”
“Opening?” Mark looked at his own phone. “But it’s 11:30 PM.”
Yuta grinned, wolfish. “Yep.”
Mark watched the band pack up, the last of the customers filing off as the staff piled empty ramen bowls and gathered metal chopsticks like loose toothpicks, flipping the sign to CLOSE as the lights outside were flicked off—and maybe it was because he was alone, because he’d left the last of his decision-making capacity with Johnny, who was a city away doing something for his own dream—or because he was restless, feeling the slow monotony his own existence choking him from the inside like a hundred year-repressed cough, that he surprised himself, grabbing his guitar and calling out—
“Hyung, wait—wait up! Can I come?”
We’re All Dead Here, Part Two
“It was a joke, but you really don’t get out much, do you?” Yuta said. The red of his hair caught the street lights outside the window. The last bus rumbled and clicked sleepily, but with his hair alight, Yuta looked like a human torch, guiding him home.
Mark managed a sheepish smile. Outside, the street unravelled like a technicolor spool, and Mark wondered if this was the same sight Johnny saw each time he left for his late-night gigs. Yuta had sat with him, while the rest of the band took the seat across them, playing games on their phones.
“Don’t laugh at me,” Mark said, embracing his guitar case to his chest. “I feel like Dorothy.”
Yuta looked at him blankly.
“You know—Dorothy? Tin Man? We’re not in Kansas any—nevermind, sorry.” By then he’d suddenly realized what drew him to Yuta the first time they met; theirs was a kinship you couldn’t invent, the kind that came from leaving your homes and finding a strange city when you woke. In all the ways that mattered, Yuta was just like him.
“Narnia, right?” Yuta said, finally. Mark didn’t correct him. “I don’t know much about Narnia, but I get it. Took me a while before I could leave the house, too. It gets bigger and bigger when you don’t watch it. You wake up one day, and you just have to leave, you know?” His grin returned. “You’re like—Chihiro. And I’m the dragon, leading you into the afterlife.”
“Shh,” Yuta said, putting a finger to Mark’s lips. “The dead don’t talk.”
Mark found that unspeakably profound, but could only giggle. “I love Ghibli,” Mark said, and didn’t know what was so funny about that to warrant the kind laugh that spilled out of Yuta—a full-body laugh, eyes and cheeks dimpling. Beside them, Jungwoo and Taeil shot them curious glances. “What?”
“What,” Yuta imitated, twisting his ear. Yuta had a really pretty smile. “Weeb. Hey Mark Lee—let’s have fun tonight, yeah?”
We’re All Dead Here, Part Three
Front row seats, Jungwoo promised—which Mark quickly realized meant he was being used to watch the band’s bags as they set up on stage. Mark fished his phone out his pocket and texted Johnny: Don’t wait up, i’m watching yuta’s gig hehe
Johnny replied, an hour later: I guess i’ll eat this pizza all by myself :( jk, have fun oppa
The lights in Mad Dog were different compared to Johnny's restobar—muted, dark red, then purple, then blue, like a technicolor seance. It was strange, looking into the crowd without spotting a single boomer stuffing their face in their greasy food. This crowd was electric, reckless and thrumming like a live-wire. The hairs on Mark’s forearms stood.
Mark knew his friends were good, but they had a knack for surprising him. In their second song, Yuta peeled off his shirt and tossed it out to Mark, who yelped, “That’s gross!” but caught it anyway, and Yuta laughed irreverently; Jungwoo pointed him out in the darkness, announcing, “this song’s for our very special maknae, who decided to leave his house and grace us with his presence tonight. Give him a hand guys—he needs a little positive reinforcement!” Mark ducked his head but couldn’t quite hide how he enjoyed the applause, or the rest of this rowdy, sweaty box at the edge of ghost-town—the miracle of Taeil’s and Jaehyun’s vocals, Yuta owning the beat and winking at him between songs. When Yuta kissed Jungwoo full on the mouth in the guitar solo, all heat and tongue—Mark found himself roaring along with the crowd.
“Anyone know this song?” Taeil grinned—it was the rock version of Don’t Start Now by Dua Lipa. Jaehyun introduced the slick bass-line like it was no one’s business, and immediately the place was doused in heat. The way they carried music was different, too; not the back-breaking, difficult relationship Mark always had with his own words. As Taeil began to sing, Mark could only watch, mouth ajar. If only osmosis worked on humans too.
“Don’t be so stiff,” Yuta yelled, after their set ended and a DJ took their place, and without warning Yuta had nudged Mark into the crowd, where the spell was its most potent. Gripping his hip, Yuta laughed at the face Mark made, assured him, “Relax, you're already dead, remember?” and Mark stared into his eyes and felt something inside him unclip, shift, and expand—
Feel It Bubbling From Below, Part One
When it finally happened, it was too late to rearrange his face into something neutral. Mark had been staring at Yuta’s text—Taeil-hyung's sick, you think you could cover him tonight? 🙏🏼 🙏🏼 🙏🏼—with it came image of what was possible: singing his own shit under Mad Dog’s lights, his own guitar, possibly electric if Jungwoo lent him his baby—and his heart seized, and he let himself bask in it without consequence for two whole seconds, until he got cold feet. Mark always got cold feet, in the end.
He padded into the kitchen, face ducked into his phone—and walked right into the scene: there was Donghyuck, in his rumpled jeans, pressing Johnny against the cupboard, Johnny’s hand fisted in Donghyuck’s soft hair. Their bodies were moving.
“Oh," Mark stuttered. His brain did an emergency shut down, then rebooted. He dived for his phone where it fell, and when he straightened the pair had shoved a five foot space between them, their chests heaving.
“Mark Lee! Good morning, princess,” Donghyuck greeted. His hair was in disarray. Johnny wasn’t faring any better. Mark tried not to glance at the obvious tent in his jeans.
“Mark,” Johnny said simply. He leaned an elbow behind him, which turned out to be the sink, and he flailed. “Good—good morning. How long—?”
“Sorry, I—“ Mark didn’t know what to do with his hands. “I’ll just—I should go—“
“No,” they both said out loud.
“I mean,” Donghyuck began, glancing at Johnny. “We were just—making breakfast. Right?”
“Right.” Johnny nodded. “Breakfast. It is breakfast—that we are making.”
Last night, Mark had heard about the news of this poor man’s chandelier, one day falling on him without warning—crushing him instantly. Mark didn’t have a chandelier, but right now he wished for that same, random, swift death. It wasn’t like Mark didn’t know either—just seeing it was different than theory, twenty times more potent than hearing a phantom gasp through the walls.
So his best friend was really dating a boy. Johnny Suh was dating a boy—kissing him, making out in the apartment they shared, who knew what else? God, Mark should’ve bought a chandelier.
“Guys, no, you—“ Mark began with a hysteric edge. “It’s okay. Haha. I just didn’t think—the two of you—“
“Yeah,” Johnny interrupted, sliding a palm to cover the ridiculous hickey on his neck. Mark had been caught staring. “Yeah, the two of us… surprise?”
As if sensing the change in the room, Donghyuck closed the distance between him and Johnny and slipped his arm into his elbow, pressing into his side almost protectively. The rush of hot jealousy hit Mark faster than he could name it; Donghyuck fit in there like he was made for it.
“I mean, I didn’t plan on it or anything, but Johnny here made some convincing points,” Donghyuck said, and Mark managed a weak laugh at that. So Johnny had asked first. “And he can be very convincing.”
“Yeah, he’s good at getting what he wants,” Mark agreed, which seemed to be the right thing to say, because Donghyuck glowed. “One of his many talents,” he said, and wanted to add, he can burp the alphabet but he won’t because his first girlfriend said it was disgusting. And he’s never grumpy in the morning. His back massages are the best.
Johnny's bottom lip would start bleeding if he kept up the way he was chewing on it.
“So, while we’re in this horribly awkward situation—do I get the blessing of the best friend or what?” Donghyuck said. He unravelled from Johnny’s side and made a show of pouring Mark a cup of coffee from the press on the counter. “I’m not feral all the time. I can be domesticated if you want me to.”
Mark laughed, accepting the mug. The sound was too loud in the room. “Stop, you don’t have to—prove anything to me or anything—I’m happy for you guys, really—it’s just… I don’t know,” he said, and the way Johnny’s grin dimmed was a small victory. Bullseye. Mark knew the sway his stupid opinions had on Johnny, just as Johnny’s had on him. Stalling, he sipped his drink, feeling callous. Mark could destroy him, just like that.
“I didn’t think you were into dudes,” Mark finished finally. He couldn’t do it. The arrowheads stayed in his fist.
“Really? Well, personally I had my doubts,” Johnny said, scratching his neck. “But uh, mostly it’s been a recent development.”
Mark moved to the table, reaching for the cream. “He had two girlfriends before,” he told Donghyuck, and he didn’t know why; his hurt was a thrashing, living thing, existing separate from him. “He’s still friends with them.” The hurt perched on his shoulder, whispered: keep talking.
“Oh?” Donghyuck said. “Johnny didn't tell me that.”
Mark shrugged. “It’s okay, they didn’t last long anyway.” A lovely little laugh escaped Donghyuck’s mouth, but he held onto Johnny’s elbow a little tighter.
“Mark,” Johnny laughed, a warning. Mark stared into the swirling bits of lumpy cream in his lukewarm coffee and decided he didn’t want it.
“Well, thank god you didn’t turn out to be het,” he heard Donghyuck say. “What a waste of all this potential, right?”
“I shouldn’t have given you caffeine,” Johnny groaned.
Mark left his mug as he walked out, feeling Johnny’s gaze follow him into the hallway. He ducked into the bathroom, locked the door behind him and pressed his forehead into the mirror. Like a cosmic joke, Donghyuck’s pink toothbrush caught his eye. It took him every ounce of decency in his body not to swirl it in the toilet.
Mark shut his eyes, touching the lumpy scar under his bangs and remembered Johnny telling him, half a lifetime ago: we’re not the bad guys, okay?
Pressing his face into both hands, he let a bottled breath shudder out of him. What am I doing?
Swiping his phone open, he texted Yuta back: sure i’m your guy
Feel It Bubbling From Below, Part Two
“I made a mistake,” Mark told Yuta, when he arrived at Mad Dog at 10 PM, and it was clear Mark wasn’t ready, not by a stretch. Taeil’s text read, just do your thing!!, splashed with a generous amount of encouraging emoticons, but Mark was a mess, a pitiful baby bird, looking down the ledge to certain death. “I can’t do it. I made a mistake—I don’t have a, a, a thing—“
“Yeah you do,” Yuta pressed, untangling the chord that had snaked around Mark’s ankle from all his frantic pacing. He kicked it off the side, like a dead snake. “Hey. Cover boy. You’re good at that, right? You don’t have to perform any new shit. Just covers tonight, I told you. Nice and easy.”
Thirty minute intermission. Read: half an hour before Mark made a complete fool of himself. Someone in the audience was celebrating their birthday, his raucous friends gathered around a bucket of cold beer. Too bad Mark was going to be ruining it. This crowd of smart-looking university students would see right through his imposter’s facade in seconds; at least Cherry Bomb’s crowd cheered, no matter what kind of shit hit them. They wouldn’t know a good song if it was splashed like hot soup on their laps—that was their charm.
“Markie, it’ll be okay,” Jungwoo cooed. Jaehyun pushed past them, checking his amp and cringing at the bad resonance. Yuta did a little dramatic drumroll and didn’t look the least bit sorry. “Hey—look at me. Just like we practiced!”
Fifteen minutes left. Birthday boy in table two was a goner; at least he wouldn’t be sober to hear Mark’s voice cracks. Ten minutes. Mark had never played in a band before, he realized. Five. Oh, Jesus; Mad Dog didn’t have a chandelier either. Two. Maybe he’d have that talk with the manager next time.
“Just relax. We’ll cover for you, if anything happens, okay?” Jaehyun said.
Yuta waved him over. “Look, isn't that Johnny?” he whispered when Mark came close enough.
"Not fucking funny—"
Before he could demonstrate the rest of his outrage, Yuta shoved Mark under the spotlight, white beam strong enough to blind. Jungwoo tapped his mic: “You’ve all probably realized by now, but Taeil-sshi won’t be here today . . .“
Mark tuned him out, slapping on a shaky smile. He wiped his hands on his jeans. Adjusted his guitar strap.
Birthday boy cheered hoarsely.
Jungwoo’s spiel ended. Jaehyun nodded at Mark encouragingly. And to be fair, pushed to the wall like this, Mark was great at doing what he was told. A desperate, searing image: Johnny Suh at the back, white shirt and blue jeans. Same as always. Something in his chest settled.
“You’re my number one,” Mark began. He held the chord there, felt it carry it him through. “You’re the one I—want.” The word cracked at the end from its weight, but still, he kept it through.
Like Jaehyun promised, the band rallied behind him: Yuta’s drums crashed with each second, like waves breaking. Mark was lost in its depths. He’d sung this song many times before, but the stage and the lights and the band trickled something into his veins, until he was scorching from the inside. “So I’ll keep turning down the hands that beckon me to come—” he was out of his skin now, incandescent, voice scratched and raw but it felt like a release, “I will be the one you need—I just can’t be without you.”
Yuta, Jungwoo, and Jaehyun carried him the rest of the way. Mark’s head dropped to his chest as the final notes spun into a nosedive. The pendulum swung, taking him with it—words crashing into foam—Mark opened his eyes—Johnny was smiling—
Wade Into the Deep End
The buzz wouldn’t leave him after he’d done it—five more songs after Geyser, and Jaehyun and Taeil bowed into themselves with laughter at the first glimpse of Mark’s water legs as they exited the stage. Yuta had to unclamp each of Mark’s fingers from his guitar neck before he could clap him on the back, whistling, Mark Lee! When strangers dropped by his table, saying, that was cool, man, you got an EP? Yuta shooed them off like pesky insects, as if he could tell Mark’s transfiguration was at its limit. It was true; a weight shifted inside him, and it felt lighter after shedding the exoskeleton, but still, he’d revealed too much of himself tonight; time to come home.
Yuta took him out for a drive, when it was clear only a cool night out could calm Mark down. “So… that was really your first time performing outside Johnny’s bar?” Yuta said, and Mark laughed: “Well, if you don’t count my practice sessions in the shower—then yeah.” At 12:30 AM the city’s neon lights looked almost scenic, illuminating the road to nowhere. Yuta was right, Mark thought; he didn’t know what the fuss was all about, now that he’d done it. It was just a song, at the end of the day. Just a stage. He was still here, and nobody had struck him dead yet. Mark wanted to tell Johnny everything.
He pulled out his phone—then stopped. Yuta glanced at him when he sighed.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Yuta said, in such a familiar tone Mark tensed all over.
“Nothing,” he said, but when he felt Yuta’s unimpressed gaze, he relented. “No really—I just get these—thoughts, sometimes. Like, it’s crazy how much music there is out there! So much cool shit! I don’t know. I guess I just needed to get out more. You were right.”
Yuta pulled the car up a hill, and up here the view was a dream. The moon was big and luminous and good for secrets. “Keep talking, I’m listening,” Yuta said, like Mark’s very own spirit guide, and even that surprised him; Mark knew Yuta had a great ear for things other than music, but the kind of keen attention he kept providing was one in a million. Mark talked about everything; songwriting in secret, his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle obsession at 14, life before Korea, and eventually—Johnny.
Of course, his brain ratted on Donghyuck too. Yuta whistled.
“Do you know him?”
“No,” Yuta admitted. “Hey, I’m a foreigner, remember?” he added, as if they didn’t just pass by Donghyuck's face on the milk tea billboard ad on the way here.
They parked the car by the bend in the road, with a convenient stopover that jutted out into the sky. The rest of the city fell hushed below them, glowing faintly. As they got out the car and sat back against the hood, cool air nipped their cheeks, turned their noses pink.
“Look,” Yuta said, popping open a warm ginseng drink that he retrieved from the trunk—Mark passed politely—“I was alone when I first arrived here too, you know. No one wants to talk to some sad Japanese kid who can’t speak a drop of Korean.” The sharp indent of his Adam’s apple bobbed as he drank. “It’s cool you had Johnny. Not everyone’s paths meet like that, you know? You’re lucky. Aren’t you happy he’s found someone?”
Yuta kept hitting him where it hurt. Mark tried to hide it, but it was too late; Yuta had eyes Mark couldn’t hide from. “I mean—of course I am, but—“ Even now, with Yuta’s clarity, Mark couldn’t give the words form. He sighed.
The truth, then: “S’lonely.” Mark looked at Yuta, expecting a laugh, a look of pity—anything. Nothing came, and Mark continued, grateful, and small: “Course. He's my best friend. I’m happy if Johnny’s happy, you know? But have you ever tried thinking about your first ever memory? And how you can’t remember anything that happened before that? Like—it’s all fog.”
“...Yes? Because it’s my first memory? I think that’s the whole idea—“
“Listen. Anyway, bad metaphor. But that’s how it feels like. When I try thinking about how it was before Johnny. Or after. It’s always been—“ Johnny and Mark, Mark and Johnny, two of us against the world, “—like this.” And now—now everything’s changing. Changed. I don’t know—“ Mark clawed into the meat of his palm and looked up at the moon, wished for it swallow him whole. “Maybe I’m just bad at growing up. Johnny says—he says I grew up trying too hard to be the textbook perfect son that I missed out on all sorts of stuff. It fucked with my brain. I skipped my whole teenage rebellion phase, which should’ve been an essential part of my character development, or whatever.” Mark laughed. “He fucking jinxed me! Said it’s bound to rise out of me sooner or later.”
Yuta’s lips barely twitched. He tilted his head, watching Mark carefully. “What stuff did you miss out on?”
“What’d you miss out on? You know. While you were busy being perfect.”
“I don’t know,” Mark mumble-laughed. “Stuff.”
A dangerous grin slanted Yuta’s mouth. He planted an arm on the hood behind Mark, eyes narrowing like he could smell the blood in the water. Mark’s pulse jumped; this close he could smell Yuta’s cologne. “Should I start guessing?”
“Pretty sure you’re not the stoner type. Nah. What could be Mark Lee’s poison? I wonder. You’re too much of a good Sunday school kid to—“ then Yuta paused, like something big and revelatory dawned on him. Mark squirmed in his grip. “Mark Lee—you wanna mess around with hot girls?"
Yuta’s gaze dropped shamelessly to Mark’s mouth. Mark was definitely not trying to think about the way Yuta kissed Jungwoo onstage again earlier. And maybe it was the moon, something in the air, or Johnny’s curse that he stood his ground and said, “Not girls.”
Yuta’s eyebrows rose, birds-in-flight. “Not girls?”
Mark gave up on eye contact. “I know how to kiss girls.”
“Ah,” Yuta hummed. “Boys, then.”
Mark swallowed. Eventually, his eyes found Yuta’s face again, where there was nothing there he could pin to judgement, or even teasing. Just sight. Mark breathed, and for the first time, let himself be seen.
“Silly Mark Lee, there’s loads more you can do than kissing,” Yuta began slowly. “There’s a whole universe you can do. Kissing is like—psh—you try it once and you're good. Like riding a bicycle. Kiss one boy and you’ve kissed them all, really. If you really wanna know—“
“Stop.” Mark covered Yuta’s mouth, before he could embarrass him to death. “Of course I fucking know that’s not all there is. It’s stupid. What does it mean to “grow up” anyway? That’s what I wanna know. Like—how do you know you made it? That you’ve—arrived—“ he yelped—Yuta had licked his palm, like some feral cat.
“Simple,” Yuta said, pulling Mark’s wrist down and freeing his mouth. “You go out there. You shake things up. Or let things shake you. You fuck up. Do it again. Keep shaking the can until all the bad stuff settles down at the bottom.” Yuta’s grin looked sharper tonight, pulled into an unearthly definition. He thumbed Mark’s chin. “They usually do, in the end.”
"That’s sounds like that Ril guy. That poet. Rilke? Johnny likes him.” Mark didn't know what he was saying anymore; he’d lost his senses the moment he hopped into Yuta’s car. Right now he was burning, anxious energy transmuted into heat.
“Ril who?” Yuta was saying. Mark worried his lip, watching a thousand city lights catch on Yuta’s silver dangling earring. The instinct jumped in him—he simply followed it. He tugged on it once, twice.
“Rilke—“ Mark managed. “He—uh—wrote a book of something—sorry I forgot what I was saying.”
Yuta’s grin was Cheshire-wide. “You wanted to know about sex.”
“What!” Mark said, releasing Yuta’s stupid earring. “No.” But as Yuta’s grin shunted into an unimpressed line, Mark realized, quickly, how useless self-consciousness was around Yuta; Nakamoto Yuta, who hated liars and went for the front seat on the mechanical dragon ride last year while Mark watched. Mark had been half-baked all his life. He didn’t have to be tonight. “No. Well, I mean—on the topic of growing up—how did you—“
“How did a foreigner like manage to have a sex life? Or how do I hook up with dudes, in general?”
“Uhhhh,” Mark said. “Both? I mean! I don’t want to pry—“
Yuta’s laugh was a breathy staccato. “It’s okay, it’s all true. It sucked in the beginning, if that makes you feel better. But sex is just sex, you know? At least, until you really start thinking about yourself. Think about it: how can you lead your life when you can't even look at your own body? Shit like that. Actually—“ Yuta paused. “Actually, wait. Don’t take that shit seriously. You’re not supposed to want it. If you don’t want sex, that’s fine, too. But if you do—“ he shrugged. “I don’t see why not go out and try some.”
“What should I do then,” Mark swallowed. “If I want… to try?”
“Try what exactly?”
Oh, this was just cruel now.
“You know.” Mark whined. He touched his neck. “Stuff.”
“Words, Mark Lee. You’re twenty-one years old.”
“Everything. Wanna—” Mark’s gaze dropped down to Yuta’s mouth, “—try everything. See if I like it.”
Mark’s heart jumped when Yuta pulled Mark’s hand. Just when he thought Yuta would kiss him, he pressed his mouth into the center of Mark’s open palm; his lips were dry, and very warm. Mark shuddered. “Oh, Mark. Baby. You know you don’t have to right?” Yuta whispered. “Told you. S’not everything. It’s just sex.”
It wasn’t just sex to Mark; Mark felt like he’d been running on borrowed time. Twenty-one empty years of it—choking his desire against his own fist, because the walls were thin; changing the pronouns on his love poems, sealing them shut in blank CDs and hiding them forever. Not everyone got their good endings, especially if you’re a gay Asian kid who spent half a lifetime a stranger to his own country. Apparently, not until Johnny brought home a boy one day, pressed him into his bed, Mark on the other side of the wall—still running.
“I know—“ Mark dipped his head, feeling the heat from Yuta’s mouth travel outward from his palm, up his wrist and fingertips. “But I need—I need to see—“
Mark pressed close, drunk on the proximity of Yuta’s breath. Yuta looked at him with an intensity that was off-the-books crazy, and Mark responded by squeezing his hip with his sweaty hand.
“C—can I kiss you?” Mark managed, eventually—and thank god Yuta didn’t laugh, or he would’ve chickened out forever, or stood in front of the bend until he was roadkill. Instead, Yuta tugged him closer by his belt loops and licked the tip of his nose. By normal circumstances, this would’ve been gross, but Mark was already a goner.
And the fall: “Go for it, champ.”
Mark kissed him. And kissed him. And kissed him. Yuta’s hair was soft. When Mark opened his mouth—he forgot to breathe! He was kissing a boy!—Yuta’s tongue briefly licked his bottom lip and that single wet heat was enough to send Mark into a frenzy. He gasped, canting against Yuta’s waist.
“Hyung—“ Mark begged, sliding both hands on Yuta’s shoulders. “Hyung. Do you—do you want—”
Yuta was laughing in disbelief. “What the hell. Christ. What the hell. Oh look at you,” he cooed. “You really want me to be your first time?”
“Yeah, you can—whatever—“ Mark buried his face into Yuta’s neck, breath labored as Yuta’s hand crept up his side and thumbed the dip on his hip, “—pop my cherry or whatever.”
“Jesus,” Yuta said, then pulled him inside the car.
Yuta drove them to his place slowly, as if to give him time to pull his shit together, maybe cool down the embarrassing tent in his jeans. When they arrived at Yuta’s apartment, he’d fetched a cold can of Coke for Mark and didn’t say anything when he scurried to the bathroom in a fried mess of nerves, and when he’d sat himself on the toilet seat he was still thinking about it—it was impossible not to. Yuta was hot. And he was going to have sex with him. Jesus Christ.
When Mark found his old courage again, he sat on the edge of Yuta's bed after taking a quick shower. Yuta looked up from his magazine and groaned at the tight, cramped look on his face, said, “Relax, we’re not signing a contract. I promise. Look, we can just rewatch some old episodes of—“ and Mark really was going to chicken out if he continued to listen to Yuta monologue, no matter how profound a declaration it was, so he interrupted him with a clumsy kiss, and that wasn’t so bad, was it? Hands were complicated; Mark didn’t know where to put them. He felt the hard planes of Yuta’s abs, the tiny trace of stubble on his chin, and that was good. “Let’s warm you up,” Yuta said cloyingly into his ear, his very own death angel. They kissed and kissed and Mark rutted against Yuta’s thigh and soon they were peeling each others’ boxers off. It drove Mark bonkers—the smell, the feel of skin, Yuta’s hands between his legs and his lips on his chest and the burning bloomed so wildly inside of him, grassfire and smoke, that he was almost afraid of its size, but not once did Yuta ever look away. Yuta took it all in, watching him with kind, blown eyes: the the year-old hunger, the ugly raw want inside him that Mark failed to kill, all those years ago—even later, when Yuta pried Mark’s legs apart, kissed him on the knee like he was something precious, and took him in his mouth, and Mark really went underwater. “Oh my god,” Mark said, like a warning—an impossible tide uprooted inside him and he came so hard the world went white for one out-of-body moment. After, the miracle: he didn’t feel dirty. As Yuta cleaned him, Mark took his hand and squeezed it, managing a shaky, disbelieving, “Holy shit.” Which meant to say, thank you, for seeing me. Yuta only winked, like he didn’t just turn Mark’s entire world upside down. He’d never know just what he did for Mark that day, probably never will.
Mark broke the agreement first. The next day, he didn’t mean to talk about it, but it was like the spirit of horniness itself had possessed him. His alarm blared, his eyes shot open, and all he could think about was fucking: Yuta’s fingers in his mouth. The shuttered groan he managed to pull out of him. His very own brain rot had a whole new dimension to it now; was this what Johnny felt too, the first time with Donghyuck?
He’d braced himself for the hurt, but it didn’t come. Instead, it stoked the fire in him more. Mark padded into Yuta’s kitchen, keeping silent as Yuta talked mindlessly about a recipe he wanted to try, and maybe he’d been too obvious that he was just staring at Yuta’s lips, because Yuta sighed, said, “Jesus, come here—“ and pushed him up the counter, Mark begging if they could do it again, just one more round? “I’ve created a monster," Yuta announced, but pushed their boxers down anyway, jerking them off together—and wasn’t that eye-opening, game-changing, abso-fucking-lutely mind-blowing, watching his own dick lined up with another man’s? That was a first. And later, after another performance at Mad Dog, Mark had texted Johnny—don’t wait up!—and Yuta had let Mark navigate him on his bed, let Mark put it in, the artful arc of his back so terribly beautiful, like a viola’s side, and Mark thought he was really getting a hang of this whole sex thing until Yuta looked back at him and cooed—Mark didn’t want Yuta to find him cute, Mark wanted him to thrash and lose his mind like Mark was slowly losing his, so he’d fucked harder, letting him really have it, and maybe he’d been doing a shitty job because Yuta flipped them over and rode him himself, hands pinning Mark’s wrists to the sheets, teeth scraping Mark’s ear, and that was nice too, more than nice. Mark was spinning out of orbit, he was free-falling, chasing the sharp crest of his orgasm while Yuta’s weight grounded him to earth—“Oh please, hyung, oh god—“ and for the first time, Mark wasn’t thinking about Johnny. Not his face, or the shape of his grin, or his phantom-kiss—just Yuta’s heartbeat on his tongue and the keen awareness of his own body, suspended in water, exactly where he was supposed to be.
Mark Lee Is A Big Boy
“Yoooo,” was all Mark could say, awed, when Johnny showed him the concept deck for his next shoot. For Underdog's anniversary issue, Johnny was returning to his roots. Despite the lo-fi aesthetic that made him famous, Mark's best friend was a nerd at heart. This issue was all about dynamic, high-octane photography, with a dash of high fashion. Real Heroes. Mark liked the sound of that. And with Kang Seulgi in the mix, it was the biggest shoot Johnny’s ever had to plan for.
Mark was real proud of him; his chest hurt.
He took Johnny’s iPad with him and sat on his bed, swiping through the deck and making small affirmative noises here and there. Silent, Johnny hovered by the doorframe. “Yo,” Mark repeated. “This is it.”
“Yeah, dude! Oh my jesus.”
“You’re cool with it, right?” Johnny said.
“I told you, dude, it’s amazing!” Mark said, and then Johnny was shaking his head.
“I mean,” he laughed, then looked away. “I was talking about Donghyuck. Me and Donghyuck.”
“Oh,” Mark said. The smile dropped from his face. “Yeah, man. ‘Course.”
Mark frowned. Johnny’s eyes were on him now, like some kind of potent voodoo magic. He swallowed. “Of course, dude. I’m—more than okay with it. You guys are—“ and then his throat closed up on its own accord, because he wasn’t going to cry, not here. He managed a weak laugh. “What’s this all about suddenly?”
“Nothing. I just thought. I don’t know. I didn’t like keeping secrets from you, so—I was gonna tell you properly. I swear. But it all just happened so fast.“ Johnny scratched his neck, where it had begun to pink; Mark’s fingers twitched. “We’re not going out in public yet. I mean, Donghyuck doesn’t really care if people find out, you know. It’s more like we don’t think our… relationship needs a public announcement, you know?”
“But you—you’re—“ there it was again, the kind of laugh Johnny made when he was feeling small. “I wanted to tell you properly. You deserve that much. Guess it was too late for that, but um—“
Mark shook his head. “No, I mean—yeah. But, I get it. I’m happy for you,” he said, and he was proud at the evenness of his voice. At the genuineness of it; even now, Johnny's happiness was infectious. Mark grinned at him, a double-edged shape. “You really like him, huh?”
“More than I should,” Johnny confessed. “You probably already know, but Lee Donghyuck’s not as nice as Lee Haechan. He’s an absolute menace. Really bad for my health.”
“Nah. Nah, I doubt it.”
“I’m glad.” Johnny scrubbed the back of his neck. “That you’re cool with it.”
“Yep,” Mark finished lamely. “Cool.” Cool, cool, cool, cool. Everything was cool. Mark was a big boy, he could hold it together, right? His best friend was in love, over-the-moon with it, his career a fast-growing cloud shadowing Mark’s pitiful patch of green, and Johnny deserved all of it. Even now, Johnny was a satellite gliding down a different orbit. “Anyway!” Mark said. “Aren’t you going to bed? It’s cool you’re not single anymore and all, but I don’t want to hear more about it. You guys terrorize me enough.”
Johnny moseyed into the side of his bed with a wicked grin. “We do it on purpose, you know?”
“Seriously.” Mark stood up instantly, blocking Johnny’s path to his desk, where his notebook was half-open. If only Johnny pushed past and chanced a look, he’d see it—the dark, messy contents of Mark’s heart and all its machinations. “You’ve got a big gig tomorrow morning. Dude, what are you doing!”
Johnny had dived in the middle of Mark’s bed. The pillows bounced. “Going to bed?”
“You have your own!”
“But your bed smells sooo nice.” Johnny’s hand smoothed down the wrinkled sheet. “Love that boy musk.”
Mark flushed. “Never say boy musk again.” Then he planted his knee into the mattress, grabbed a pillow and started suffocating Johnny’s hundred-watt grin. They tussled for a bit: Johnny taking advantage of his unfair superhuman strength and stealing Mark’s pillow, pulling him down to suffocate him—Mark pretended to still, so Johnny pulled up the pillow quickly, until Mark started resuscitated himself and started the whole cycle again, until their limbs gave out and they were gasping and laughing, punch-drunk.
“When did you get so big and strong, huh?”
“Hyung, I’m serious,” Mark said, pushing up on his elbows. His heart was poking out his chest. “You need—“
Johnny was making a puppet face with his hand. “You know Mark, all I hear is this—“ puppet-Mark began obnoxiously talking. “But all I really wanna hear is this—” puppet-Mark clamped its mouth shut, then fainted against the pillows. “Lemme crash here? Like old times?”
Mark grabbed Johnny’s fist. “Jerk,” he said, then released his hold before Johnny could poke fun at their hand size difference again. “Do what you want.”
As he was getting up, Johnny pulled him down by the wrist.
“I’m just gonna get—“ Mark tried to explain, but Johnny kept saying PSPSPSPS until Mark grew fed up and dug into the covers himself, resting his head on the pillow.
“There,” Mark groaned. “Now go to sleep?”
Johnny flicked the bedside lights on and made himself comfortable. “Much better.”
The minutes passed tortuously slow. Mark reached around blindly for his phone. Time check: 1 AM. Johnny’s breathing was shallow and far too quiet.
Mark called him out, “You’re not sleeping.”
Without opening his eyes, Johnny mumbled, “Sleep is for the weak. I’m here to win.”
Mark rolled his eyes. He knew Johnny like the inside of his own brain. The way his brow furrowed, the way he bit his lip and tossed as he slept—the Johnny-fueled organ in his cerebral system ping-ping-pinged in warning. He grabbed the blanket that had pooled on Johnny’s waist and pulled it over his shoulder.
“Hey,” Mark whispered. “You’re okay. It’s gonna be great, dude. You worked hard for this. Everything’s gonna be perfect.”
“Perfect is overrated. Something will happen. Murphy’s law, my dude.”
“Did I ask? Look, smart-ass—“ even in the dark, Mark could make out the wry quirk of Johnny’s lips, “if you try to sleep now, I’ll make pancakes in the morning.”
A beat passed. “With chocolate chips?”
Mark pinched his shoulder. “Of course. Got you big boy,” Mark said, and Johnny’s adam’s apple dipped. “Sleep now?”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Johnny said, but shut his eyes anyway.
Something heavy sat between them. Hold it together, Mark Lee.
“Mark,” Johnny mumbled, after the minutes sailed past. “Markie.”
“What?” Mark snapped. At this rate, he was going to regurgitate his own heart. He opened his eyes, only to find that Johnny’s mouth had gone slack. He listened for it: the tell-tale signs of Johnny dreaming. For real now, Johnny was dead to the world.
See? Mark told himself. He was a big boy, he could hold it together. And so what if he woke up at around 3 am from the trapped heat of their bodies and found their limbs tangled like vines—Johnny’s face in his chest, his heavy arm slung around his waist like a fallen tree—he was proud for not losing it then and there. Mark was a big boy he could hold it together, hold it together, hold it together.
Do You See Me?
Now that Yuta was aware of the true depths of Mark’s standing in life (read: sheltered, closeted, boring to boot), he was adamant Mark spend his Saturdays with the band, crashing bars in Mapo district, eating good street food in Itaewon, and funnelling even further down Gangnam’s endless rabbit hole. There were too many places to see. Seoul scintillated in a way Mark thought was only possible in a tourist flyer. Like this, he was ten times more a tourist than Yuta, and deep down, Mark knew Yuta wished someone did the same thing for him when he’d first arrived in Korea. Mark vowed to pay it forward one day.
He was getting a hang of it, too. On a good day, Seoul was a concrete labyrinth. Seeing the tracks Yuta made for himself in this harsh playground was making Mark fall just a little bit in love.
Tonight’s rendevous with Yuta and Jungwoo was a night club—“Baby’s first gay bar!” and Mark clamped a hand around Yuta’s mouth and threatened, “Shut up, no one can know I’m loser.” The bar in question was straddled by dripping neon lights and smoke tracks. Mark had been to clubs—mostly to third-wheel on Johnny’s dates while they danced and Mark nursed his Coke and rum—but not clubs like these. Everything here was charged differently. Jungwoo tugged him to the dance floor before he could chicken out, and then they were dancing—easy as that. Would you think of that.
“So many guys!” Mark observed, and that sent Jungwoo and Yuta into a frenzy of laughter. Dua Lipa was on the speakers as again, omnipresent as time bent itself. Light spilled, heady. Jungwoo grinded on Mark like a penguin would—cute, but with evil intentions. Mark pushed him off, laughing, until Yuta cupped his ass.
“Yuta,” Mark hissed nervously. Even as Yuta battled a laugh, his gaze remained focused.
“Your hands are on my butt?”
“Would you rather I hold someone else’s butt?”
Mark considered this for a moment, circling each other as the bass turned the last few strands of his ego into mush, and, “No,” he decided, and then they were kissing, because they could. Yuta pressed a grin into his neck, and hot palms on Mark’s waist, as Doja Cat implored everyone to speak their truth. Yuta kissed him, and Mark kept letting him even when Jungwoo moaned, “Unfair!” and Mark almost slipped on his ass from the giddy way the world tilted.
“I need another drink!” he told Yuta, who winked and let him stumble back to the bar.
Downing a glass of water, he was about to order a cocktail when somebody pulled his ear.
Groaning, Mark turned. “Jungwoo-hyung—“
It was Donghyuck who was grinning at him. Mark choked on his own tongue.
“Can you believe it? I was scared of getting paparazzi here, but I bumped into Mark Lee, the one and only—” and even here, wearing a black cap and black leather jeans and a nondescript flowy top that hugged his waist, Donghyuck was still golden. “Never thought I’d find you here!”
“Hyuck,” Mark managed. An awful cloud passed through his chest, leaving him cold and clammy. Suddenly his mouth was lead. “Jesus—I—wow. Hey. I—is Johnny here?”
From the way Donghyuck frowned, that was somehow a stupid question. “Hey yourself. And contrary to popular belief, we’re not together all the time. I have a life too you know? Beyond being his fungal overgrowth.” Donghyuck pointed at the gyrating mass of bodies. “I’m here with some college friends. You know Renjun, right?”
“Yeah,” Mark lied. “Cool.”
“Anyway, what are you doing here?” Donghyuck asked cheekily, his gaze mirthful as it swept Mark up and down. “Johnny told me you were straight.”
Mark gaped at him. Donghyuck was still grinning.
“Well? Earth to Mark Lee. Oi—don’t die on me. Johnny’ll kill me.” As Mark forgot speech, Donghyuck’s smile vanished. “Mark?” And maybe he’d seen the panicked look on his face, because Donghyuck was grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him outside, away from the sex-fog and pheromones and hot disco lights minutes from a migraine, stepping into the hallway where the music fell away, the bass muffled into the carpet.
“I’m good—I’m sorry, I—“
“Breathe,” Donghyuck instructed, eyes wide as saucers. “There you go. You… good?”
“Yeah,” Mark lied.
“No, you’re not.”
“Yeah, I’m not.”
Donghyuck released his wrist, slumping back against the wall across Mark. He peeled his cap off and ran a hand through his dark hair with a frustrated sigh. “Look, Mark Lee,” Donghyuck began slowly. “I get it. Don’t worry, I won’t tell Johnny.” The grin was back, like it never left. “Pinky promise.”
Mark stared at the offered finger. “You think it's stupid.”
“Nah. I get it. I promise, I really do. It sucks, doesn’t it?” Donghyuck didn’t elucidate further.
Eventually, Mark nodded. “Yeah," he said. “Yeah, it does.”
Donghyuck smiled. Mark felt a strange sense of kinship now. Gratefulness, too—that it was Donghyuck who saw him tonight, not anyone else, even if the sight of him triggered his fight-or-flight instinct in ways he was still trying to piece apart.
Donghyuck extended his pinky out again, as if to say, well, c’mon. Sighing, Mark linked their fingers together, and Donghyuck’s face broke into a sunny smile. Something gave in his chest, softly.
“I’m just—” Mark paused. “I’ve known him for so long. I don’t know how to be—this yet, in front of him. I told you—it’s stupid.” Mark’s face fell into his palms as he chuckled weakly. “He’s, like, literally dating another dude.”
Other dude nodded emphatically. “I get it. Really. And it’s not my place to tell you what I think, but for what it’s worth… Johnny really cares about you, okay? Probably always will, no matter what you decide to do in the future. Never seen anything like it. S’like brain damage.” Donghyuck made a face, and that startled a laugh out of Mark.
“You don’t have to explain anything to me, Lee,” Donghyuck continued. “Pinky promise, remember? We never saw each other tonight.” And he winked, pretended to zip his mouth and tuck the key into his pocket. He crossed the distance between them and slid his hand into Mark’s. It was warm. “And I have to say, it’s really good I bumped into you, because I was planning a super duper surprise party for Johnny’s birthday. Tell you all about it later. But can we please go back to dancing?”
I Have Birds That Sing
Mad Dog was different as the summer rolled in; free from their institutional leashes, college kids came in hordes, and the season’s tightly-wrought anxiety had let itself go, like a slow leaking tire. Crowds danced as if to make up for lost time. Donghyuck himself hung around Johnny and Mark’s apartment more, now that he had no more obligations—and while Mark enjoyed the company of his two friends, he didn’t appreciate walking into their, uh, excursions. He didn’t appreciate that at all.
Mark let himself wander those days like a stray balloon—he crashed Yuta’s gigs, danced like a reckless thing, made out with Yuta in his car before slipping quietly into his apartment, tiptoeing past Johnny (and Donghyuck) sleeping in the bedroom. On good days, he performed covers. And maybe it was the anxiety of it—going stir-crazy from the heat and the liminality of it all—that he invited Yuta to his own apartment while Johnny and Donghyuck were out on a date.
Yuta had connected his phone to Mark’s speakers so they could listen to the set list tonight. He sat on their sofa, scrolling through his phone. Wordlessly, Mark pulled it out of his hands and slid into his lap, pouting.
“Was this what Dr. Frankenstein felt, when he created his monster,” Yuta wondered out loud, as Mark wrapped his arms around his shoulders and pressed lazy kisses down his jaw. “I’m flattered to take part in your, um, sexual emancipation, but I really think you’re just using me to get inspiration for your next song.”
“Of course not! You know that’s not true.” Mark scowled. He tilted his head. “Well—only 60% true.”
“And the 40%?”
Mark tucked Yuta’s fringe behind his ear, as Yuta squeezed the top of his thighs. “I just really enjoy you, oppa.” Yuta pinched his ear. Mark pressed their chests together. “Ah—haha—can we—?”
“Wow.” Yuta’s voice was gravel-dark against his ear. “I don’t have condoms.”
“We don’t have to—we can do it quickly? Last time you made me come in like, eight minutes,” Mark whined; he was high on it, the building ache of seeing Johnny’s pictures on the walls, Donghyuck’s shirt on the floor. This morning he found torn condoms inside the trash bin. Donghyuck didn't even hide how he was walking all funny. “C’mon, can we?”
Yuta sighed. Mark’s fingers stilled, before hesitantly pulling away.
“Sorry, I should’ve asked first before—hyung, I’m sorry—“ and then Yuta was pulling him back onto his lap.
“Stuuuupid,” Yuta said, in Japanese. “You know what that means right?”
Mark felt like a child suddenly, being manhandled on Yuta’s lap. He mumbled, "It's not like you call me that every day or anything."
“Good.” Yuta placed an open, careful kiss under his ear. “Good. ’Cause I was just thinking about how thin the walls are.” And then he hauled Mark up by the thighs, walking them towards the stereo playing something low and thrumming. With one hand, he turned the dial all the way up.
“Holy shit,” Mark exclaimed, thighs flexing around Yuta’s waist as Yuta pushed him down on the couch—the song was You Shook Me by Led Zeppelin, Taeil was going to be performing a cover of it tonight—and Mark laughed, panicked. “I’m never gonna to be able to look at Taeil in the face. Oh my Jesus.”
“What do you mean?” Yuta said, all faux innocence. He was already a wet dream, but something about Yuta and classic rock brought something visceral inside him to the surface; in his face, Mark saw a shadow of Donghyuck’s feral grin. He shook it off, accepting Yuta’s kiss with abandon when it came.
It was Pavlovian now, the way Yuta’s grin quirked, the slanted one that showed his canines and promised gasoline and other dark haunted things; Mark was in the deep end already.
“It’s like your first time,” Yuta commented, and when Mark hid his face in his neck. He tugged him by the hair and frowned, “No—no, it’s good. That you can feel so much. Not everyone responds to sex like this all the time.” Yuta licked the prominent vein in Mark’s neck, a much welcome distraction before Mark could go off tangent about how he’d lost his teenage years to homophobia and falling in love with the best friend he thought was straight.
It was unfair; Yuta fucked like he played music. Which was to say, really not half-bad. Mark could write sonnets about Yuta's tight, pretty mouth.
“What happened here?” Yuta asked as they pulled apart from the kiss. His fingers stilled on Mark’s fringe.
“Hm?” Mark had to shake the fog from his brain. “Oh, that—? Hit my head. When I was 12, I think.”
“It’s cute,” Yuta remarked, tilting his chin to get a closer look. “Shaped like a triangle.”
“That’s what Johnny says.”
Yuta hummed. Rough hands found his hip, rucking his shirt up, feeling each bump and bone. It was like being loved by an overgrown cat.
Yuta found his birth scar. “This?”
“Born with it.”
His fingers travelled lower, tracing the hair below his navel. Yuta pressed his thumb into a blue bruise just under his hipbone. “And this?”
“That’s all you, bastard,” Mark gasped, stilling Yuta’s hand. “Ah—ow! Stop teasing, please.”
“For someone so strong, you bruise too easy, Mark Lee.”
Mark blurted, “I think Donghyuck got a vibrator.”
“Oh?” Yuta looked up. Mark’s eyes were glazed over. “Heard it buzzin. Ah—heard them—heard them using it—“
“Didn’t strike me as a creep, Mark Lee—“
“Not a creep!” Mark said, bucking into Yuta’s touch. “Can’t help it—so fucking loud—“
Without warning, Yuta pressed his whole weight into the open V of Mark's legs.
“I need you to stop talking for a sec,” Yuta said, tapping two fingers against Mark’s bottom lip, seeking permission—those same long, pretty fingers he’d used to open Mark up last night. “No talking. Can you do that?”
In answer, Mark’s lips opened eagerly, accepting them into the heat of his mouth.
Yuta’s mouth fell into a loose grin. “Good. We have to be quick. Can’t have Johnny and Haechannie catching us like this, right?”
Mark shook his head, shuddering to his core. As Yuta pulled his fingers out and trailed his hand into Mark’s boxers, Mark said, “Hold me down, yeah?” and Yuta grinned. Yuta always did him good. As Yuta coaxed him from the inside, the sound it made almost profane in the air, Mark turned his burning face to the side and bit into the pillow—the one Johnny used to prop his elbows up when he watched those awful cooking shows—and let his mind unspool as his drool darkened the cover. And when Yuta’s fingers slowed, Mark gripped his wrist and pushed his hips up harshly, insistently, Yuta muttering, “You’re gonna break my fucking hand,” and “Chihiro, Chihiro, you’re too fucking pretty for your own good, you know?” and over the sinking bass line Mark came, and within seconds he’d rolled out from under Yuta’s body, heart racing, tripping over Donghyuck’s old shirt and Yuta’s phone, apologizing—“Hyung, sorry, let me just get this idea down—"
He shimmied his boxers up. "Just one sec, I'll be right back, I prom—"
And Yuta and his stupefied face shifted from shock to absolute pissed-the-fuck-off, yelling, “Get your little ass back up here, Mark Lee, are you fucking kidding me—“
Throw Me A Bone
The line on Johnny’s forehead seemed to melt as Mark stepped gingerly into their apartment on a Sunday morning. Before that, Mark had hoped its occupants were fast asleep; he just needed to get some clothes. The plan was to drive and go. He’d turned the key softly and tiptoed in, peering around the door—and found Johnny and Donghyuck sitting around the table, head bent together in a quiet discussion.
“Well, what do you know—it’s Mark Lee!” Johnny cried, his face turning sunny. In his pajamas, he made grabby hands for Mark.
Mark felt exposed, suddenly; he wished he’d brushed his hair, changed into a fresh shirt. There was a crick in his neck after he blacked out on Yuta’s lumpy couch.
“Oiiii,” Mark greeted.
It was suddenly too quiet in the room. Donghyuck had de-materialized the moment Mark arrived, announcing: “I need to take a really big shit,” and poofing, leaving Johnny and Mark staring at each other across the room. Looked like Donghyuck cooked something yummy again. A third plate was there.
“Donghyuck’s play,” Johnny was saying, as Mark slipped off his shoes and arranged them next to Donghyuck’s pink converses. “You’re coming right?”
“Sure,” Mark said, not paying attention.
Johnny’s gaze followed his back. “You don’t come by anymore,” he heard Johnny say. Mark turned to see him fake pouting. “But that's unfair. Before that—I wanted to say sorry. I keep missing your gigs, man. I promise I don’t mean it."
“Nah, dude.” Mark waved him off. “I’m sorry I can't hang out with you and Hyuck much.” Not a total lie, at least. “Yuta’s been keeping me busy.” Or that.
Johnny hummed, pouring Mark a cup of coffee, then spooning two heaps of creamer into them, just like Mark liked it. “Yuta's cool?” Johnny asked, and Mark paused as he settled into Donghyuck’s empty seat; it was strange, having to explain things to Johnny. That there was a part of him they had not shared. Right away, Mark wanted to fix that.
“Yeah, he’s—“ Mark cut himself off. He couldn’t find the words. How to explain this incredible new terrain Yuta had brought into his life? “Yeah, Yuta’s cool.”
Johnny broke into a grin. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Mark sipped his coffee and mirrored the smile. “If you can’t tell, I’m leeching off his awesomeness as much as I can before he realizes he’s adopted a total loser. I think he’ll get a rude awakening soon enough.”
“Good,” Johnny said. “Tell him you were my loser first.”
“I’ll… take that as a compliment.”
Johnny laughed; suddenly it was difficult to look him directly in the face. As a diversion, Mark sipped his caffeine. Johnny continued, “Hey, I was thinking, since my birthday’s coming up tomorrow, instead of facing another day of pure existential dread, I really wanna go for another long drive. Like, tonight.” He paused, for dramatic effect, to let the sentence breathe. “You know—just you, me, the road—real cowboys. Like old times, you know?”
"What about Donghyuck?"
"He can come if he wants, but it's been a while since it's been just you and me, you know?" Johnny scratched his head. "Too long."
Mark swallowed, gaze falling away. His hand flexed. “That’d be nice.”
“But?” Johnny cocked his head. “I’m hearing a but in there…”
Eventually, he followed the direction of Mark’s eyes and got the gist; his mouth dropped open.
“Did somebody say birthday?” came Donghyuck’s voice—then Donghyuck himself, his tiny party hat peeking out the corner as he entered, two party poppers in each raised fist. His face was pinched as he blew on a pink party horn, which made a tiny, aborted sound. "Birthday ambush?"
“Oh my god,” Johnny said.
Siri Play Chicago by Sufjian Stevens
Follow the river. That was what his pastor said; stop trying too hard. Follow the river, let the tide take you home. Mark lived that to the hilt: he liked winning, bu:t didn't mind losing sometimes. He liked games, but wouldn’t call himself competitive. He was a hard worker, but would never say he’d ever broken his back for anything. But Mark wasn’t very good at being number two, when it came to Johnny: he let Tracy beat him in third grade spelling bee, let his cousin Mina steal a slice of his own birthday cake right from his plate, but being second in Johnny’s eyes was something his thirteen year-old brain couldn’t process. It was—incalculable.
In his sick, love-addled pre-pubescent brain, the start of his life would've gone like this: Mark would give Johnny the mixtape, who’d listen to it, and instantly be awakened, like Aurora from her deathlike sleep, coming to see just what he’d missed out on on all these years—and Johnny would hold Mark’s sweaty hand and maybe they’d kiss, sweetly, their eyes closed. Johnny would tuck Mark in his car and drive away from all of this, watch a thousand sunsets together and maybe do all those nasty, secret things couples got to do in the movies. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Instead, there was this:
“What’s this? For me?” Johnny said, as Mark fed his arm through the passenger car window and all but shoved the CD under Johnny’s nose. In the backseat, Johnny’s new upper echelon friends snickered. They weren’t part of the plan, but it was now or never right? Tomorrow, Johnny would be leaving him for college—and who knows where next after? Johnny never did well with moorings; there was always somewhere better to be.
“A mixtape? Uh, wow. That’s kinda—” Johnny’s friend said, sniggering. “Look, I’m not gonna say it.”
Johnny’s smile was Mark’s favorite, but right now the sight of it hit him like a poison dart. Cold crept into his lungs. Years later, he’d understand—this was just survival, just Johnny trying not to get eaten alive—but as Mark was watched his best friend laugh and tuck the mixtape into his backpack without sparing it another glance, ruffling Mark’s hair and dropping a brief, see you tomorrow, okay? he felt betrayal of the purest and most lethal kind.
Look back, Mark thought, fists clenched as the window rolled down, the car leaving the curb. Coward. Look back. But Johnny just kept laughing at his friend's stupid joke, riding the river towards his future.
Self-Destructing in 3, 2, 1—
It was funny how long Johnny tried to fake nonchalance. They took an Uber to the bar (they were all getting wasted tonight), some fancy shmancy French fusion resto-bar called Aristocrat so blindingly elite only Donghyuck’s connection would’ve allowed them a booking, and by then it was obvious something was up. Still, Johnny remained stony-faced to the end, talking about the weather and listening to Donghyuck debate the global rise of TikTok. It was only when they were walking up the long driveway that led to the entrance and found Sehun and Xiumin outside, freezing in place—that he shut up.
“Uh, wow, what a coincidence,” Sehun tried.
“You were supposed to go in from the baaaack!” Donghyuck moaned.
Johnny was gaping. “No fucking way.”
Still, the plan was in place. Artistocrat was buzzing, like a treasure box filled with everyone and everything Johnny loved: cake and fruit cocktails and Doyoung and Jaehyun and Yeri and Irene. And Donghyuck, of course, who fit his side handsomely.
“You guys drink right?” Donghyuck asked them. He’d pushed open the doors to a private lounge in the third floor balcony, with an open bar and neon-lit pool, bass rippling the surface. Johnny’s mouth fell open—and because he was a gentlemen—promptly closed it himself.
“Course I drink-drink. What do you take me for? Mark?” he said, rolling his eyes. Mark squawked, but let him have this; for all his accolades, Mark knew this was the best birthday party Johnny had ever received. He deserved to have a little fun. For a social creature, this was probably paradise.
The National Geographic subscription Mark got for Johnny felt cheap and almost embarrassing now. He’d need a do-over.
“Donghyuck, I—“ For once, Johnny dropped the theatrics. Other people piled in, chanting for the birthday boy over the speakers, but Johnny kept his eyes on them, something unreadable on his face. “Thanks. Really.”
“I heard you were missing a lot of people, since you’re so booked and busy all the time. I wanted to give you a night where they were all in one place.” Donghyuck tucked his chin on Mark’s shoulder, slinging an arm around his shoulder lazily. “I just knew you were famous way before the Internet! And look, losing people because of work sucks—take it from me. Don't let them go. And thank Mark for helping me with the guest list."
Now Johnny’s fullest smile descended on him, full of tender, honest things Mark didn’t want to deal with yet—so he shrugged off Donghyuck’s arm and bumped Johnny on the shoulder instead.
“What are you waiting for?” Mark said. “Go and enjoy your fucking party, birthday boy.”
He danced, did shots, bumped chests with Sehun like a stupid fraternity boy and showed off his intricate handshake with Donghyuck. Mark had seen the moment Johnny turned around and looked for him, but by then he’d already gone, wandering over to Renjun’s table for some sensible fun. Without warning the air broke with loud cheering, and when Mark looked up, there was Johnny and Donghyuck—making out on top of the billiard table.
Mark cursed; they were probably too far gone already, down on too many cocktails. He scanned the room quickly for the telltale DSLRs or even a phone tracked to steal this moment—then abruptly caught himself. Only Johnny’s friends here. And Johnny's friends were good and cool and happy for him. Johnny’s friends were all busy drinking their brains out too, not ogling the way he kissed his own boyfriend like a fucking creep. Mark couldn’t help it; Johnny’s hand snared Donghyuck’s wrist, while Donghyuck kept them moving—mouths, chests, hips. People cheered. Alcohol spilled, sticky and gold. A body catapulted into the pool.
Somebody’s head blocked Mark’s view, so he moved around them, heart thundering along to a bass-boosted rendition of Charli XCX’s whole EP. When he caught sight of them again, Donghyuck had pushed Johnny against a pillar, trapping his hands behind him. Mark’s own heart was a remix—spliced, butterflied, and blendered—and now he thought maybe it was a good idea for his brain to keep up.
He chugged the first cocktail he saw.
It was like a game. He camped at the open bar and craned his neck up to find them kissing. If Johnny smiled at Donghuck, Mark would take a sip, and each time they touched, a full shot. He was going mad; Mark couldn’t stop watching them, like if he stared enough they’d turn to see him watching—then what? Or if he shut his eyes it would be like those nights Donghyuck spent the night, the sound of them fucking through the walls—Donghyuck’s soft moans, Johnny probably holding him up against the wall. But they kept on, oblivious to the chaos. Fine, Mark thought. Fine.
He was going to storm off when someone grabbed his arm. “Hey, I’m Johnny’s friend,” slurred the girl, balancing a dripping margarita in her hand; he’d never seen her face in his life. “You’re his assistant, right? I see you—hic—during some of his shoots. You’re his assistant, right?”
“Yeah,” Mark said, without blinking. “Actually—I am his assistant.” And then he swiped her awful slurry from her hand and downed it. She didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she offered him her friend’s drink, for seconds.
“Maybe we could do a collab,” and then she was showing off her nine thousand followers on Instagram, gushing about how Johnny would make her big, like real big. That she was the real thing. “Like, I know everybody says that, but it’s like, for real this time. Whaddya say, baby? Make it happen for me?”
She was squeezing his bicep. “I mean, why not,” Mark half-yelled; control over his volume was the first thing he lost. “Johnny Suh’s oh humble assistant, at your service!”
The girls giggled, then passed around their calling cards; Mark tucked them all his pants like a bad messiah and bowed, feeling like he’d dropped his own skin somewhere. All of a sudden, it was too hot.
He looked up, trying to see Johnny, but the ceiling spun. His arms flew out to steady him, and he clutched at the wall as the lights swayed around him like a wild pendulum. “Markie, come join us!” he heard someone say—Jaehyun?—but he needed to get some air.
“And what can I do for you?” Mark said, bumping into an old man. Until several beats later he realized old man was on a bottle. Mark’s thirst was unspeakable; he reached for the bottle and downed the thing, too, until he choked on the burn and staggered outside, winded.
Prickling-cold air dug its nails into him. He pushed his bangs back, then realized he couldn’t feel his hands. He pulled out his phone, stared at Johnny’s number for one long moment before dialling up the next person.
“Chihiro.” He could hear the smirk die. “Mark? Everything okay?”
“It’s—” Too hot and too cold, all at the same time. “Kinda—spinny—“ by the time he was in free-fall, it was too late to realize he’d exited out the backdoor, where a metal staircase glinted in the dark. Stumbling down the steps shoulder first, he careened towards the bottom rung and barely felt anything. It was a good thing his hands were so clamped up, his phone stayed intact in his grip. And he fell on his butt, too; what the hell, he could make it in the circus at this rate. An unruly laugh left him.
“—ppening? Are you okay? Mark?”
“Ow,” Mark giggled, pushing up to his knees; the sky was really pretty. “Look, the sky’s really pretty, hyung.”
“Where are you?” A door shut somewhere, the crashing cymbals receding. “Are you with Johnny—no, don’t move. I’m getting you.”
“Really cold,” Mark mumbled, and then added, “Johnny’s not here,” so softly Yuta might’ve not heard it. So he began to sing Happy Birthday. Yuta cursed.
“Don’t fucking move, okay?” Yuta said. “Give me—fuck—fifteen minutes. Don’t talk to strangers, don’t enter anyone’s car. And don’t drink anything else. Jesus, Mark.”
Stumbling on his feet, Mark turned around and watched the Aristocrat pulse and flicker—Johnny’s future and everyone he loved inside, haloed like something blessed—and he turned around, headed towards the dark end of the path, ghosts lining the road to nowhere.