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The Long Way Home

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A Spectacular Return to Form, Part One

Mark could count on one hand the number of times he’d witnessed Johnny actually get mad—the real kind, not the faux anger he carried whenever they play-fought or disagreed over something paltry, like who Naruto deserved to marry (not Hinata, but that was a discussion for another time). Johnny held anger loosely, oil on water; he had no affinity for it. 

Back in their suburban Chicago neighbourhood, he barely twitched when some white fool stole his skateboard and spray-painted it with the hammer and sickle: “If you’re gonna be racist, at least do it right, you know? This is just sad.” And even when MCR broke up for real-real, or that Saturday afternoon that Mark, chased by a droopy basset hound, trampled Mama Seo’s favorite hydrangeas as he ran yelling for his life all the way into Johnny’s front porch and kept mum as Johnny took the blame for it, bearing the brunt of all her verbal fire—there was no trace of fury on his face. Not even a hint of it. 

And of course there wasn’t. This was Johnny, after all, the pride of Asian immigrant mothers everywhere, even if he wasn’t theirs; one look and you knew he came out the womb grinning, then raised to be textbook-perfect and un-rowdy as they came. The art of forgiving—or was it forgetfulness? He’d practically perfected it at fourteen.

But that summer shifted something, like a petri dish where all chaotic things were born. The only reason Mark still remembered was because Johnny himself refused to forget. Did that really happen? Mark had asked, because it was ridiculous; and always, Johnny would unravel the entire narrative down to its most tattered string: You were ten. You still had those black square rimmed glasses, with the double lenses remember? I think it happened on a Friday. Our neighbors were blasting the Bee Gees. You never cried.

Mark didn’t cry, but Johnny did—silent, furious tears—but those were details, details, Johnny would always say, shrugging it off. Mark himself remembered that afternoon only in pieces; on the way home, he'd been counting mailboxes. One, two, three. On their block, Johnny owned the tenth. He was on the sixth when Andrew, the same petty white kid who seemed perpetually appalled by Johnny’s continued existence, reached into the bottom of his pet lizard’s aquarium, grabbed a rounded white stone, ran up to his window—and flung it at an oblivious Mark Lee’s head.

When asked, Andrew would explain, I wanted to make sure they weren’t robots; his mother too, would profess his innocence: that he didn’t mean it, didn’t see the poor Korean kid standing there like a blight outside their house, and what was he doing out there anyway, in spaces he didn’t belong? Mark couldn’t answer. Living in that moment, there was no room for anything else; not fear, or outrage, or even the rustle of his own breath as his body pushed all thoughts out. By the time Mark returned to himself, he was staring at his own dark on the asphalt, after the pavement opened his knees and palms when he caught his fall. Three feet away was the stone, the size of his thumb. He picked it up. The world tilted dangerously. Mark trip-walked down the street, and resumed counting—seven, eight—

Ten: There was Johnny, practicing flips around the cul-de-sac on his tagged skateboard, and by the time he finally noticed Mark standing there the wound on his head had drenched the side of his face, staining the collar of his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, and something foreign crept into Johnny’s face; the smile there grew cold then died. Wordlessly, he pulled off the flannel tied around his waist, pressed it into Mark’s forehead to staunch the bleeding, then sat him on the sidewalk, gently framing the globes of his scraped up knees.

Hyung, you alright? Mark peered up at him. Johnny’s hands were shaking.

This part, Mark remembered, at least: Johnny plucking the stone from Mark’s clamped up fist. Johnny turning slowly down the other end of the street. Slow, measured steps. Their destination assured. His discarded skateboard, like an afterthought by Mark’s feet. An eternity later, when Johnny was far enough Mark had to squint, he rang the doorbell once on the gate, then twice, then thrice—until Andrew poked his head out his window, saw Johnny standing outside, and immediately went back into hiding.

Then Johnny began climbing the gate. 

When he reached the top, he jumped on the other side feet first and disappeared into the garden—or a black hole, for all Mark knew, really. What happened next he could only imagine, but Mark would bet on it being pretty horrifying, from the way Andrew screamed for his mother after.

Later, when questioned, Johnny would explain calmly: I was just returning what he dropped. Kind, model student Johnny, who never raised his voice, who hunched his shoulders in public when he started growing faster than all his peers. That summer saw the kind of patience the Seos and the Lees harbored boiling over, until they packed a decade of things into boxes, spat on the pavement on their last day, and drove to the airport, never looking back—and even weeks back in the motherland, several oceans away, Johnny was still fuming, jaw clenched and stony like a silent god.

He’d only thawed when Mark came around. In those days, when Seoul still felt like an ill-fitting hand-me-down sweater, he let Mark tuck his head against his neck, his own fingers finding the ugly, healing welt on Mark’s forehead. We’re not the bad guys, Johnny begged him to remember. No matter what they say. We’re—you’re not the bad guy.

He was still doing it years later: familiar fingers sweeping Mark’s bangs back. Tracing the raised skin there, a question on its own: Hurts?

It’s been years, hyung. Still, Mark would feel them each time; the weight of all that history, groaning between them like old bones. Look what I’d do for you. Look what I’d hoard; enough fury to last a lifetime. Mark thought that had been the end of it, Johnny’s ancient, quiet anger. Until now:

“I know you’re awake,” came the voice. 

The sound of it skipped a stone into the first layer of sleep; before that Mark had been floating in a fitful dream, and now he’d jolted, fully alert. He winced at the sharp sourness in his mouth as he opened his eyes. Yuta’s place had always been a source of comfort, but the sight of his posters all over the ceiling made his stomach churn. The itchy cover under his cheek, the smell of wet piping everywhereMark felt out of place.

Somewhere beside him, Johnny laughed under his breath. “Fuck, Mark."

Mark turned and pushed himself upright. Each movement sent a new stab through his brain. He swept the room quickly with bleary eyes, croaked, “Where’s Yuta?”

“Outside. Resting.” Johnny’s right hand flexed on the chair he was sitting. “I think he deserves it. You know, after watching over you all night in the hospital.”

A pause of blissful nothing—and then the flood: A pair of cold, strange hands. Yuta’s panicked cursing. A light shined into his eyes. His own skin, floundering in the flytrap.

It frightened him to death, but Mark took a good look at Johnny, and his hands turned clammy instantly. It was dark under Johnny’s eyes, like he’d been standing in the cold for days. He was still wearing the same ensemble from last night’s party. His birthday party.

“Fuck,” Mark said, the word wrenched from him. His gaze dropped to where an IV drip snaked past the sheets and disappeared in the inside of his elbow, wrapped in gauze. 

“Yeah,” Johnny said. “Fuck.”

“Hyung,” Mark tried.

“You disappeared. I looked all over for you, Mark. Then I found your phone lying on the fucking street. No wonder you weren't answering any of my calls. Drove around the block for hours, but nobody had seen you, nobody—“

“Yuta found me,” he mumbled. 

“Figured that out, eventually, thank you very much.” Johnny’s full fury was just beyond the surface now, rippling through everything like a warning. His mouth shunted into a bitter line. “What’s happening, Mark? Jaehyun said he saw you drinking like a madman. You never drink to this point. You never drink, period.”

“It was a party,” Mark said, suddenly irritated. “Of course I drank, what’s the issue?”

“Are you... being serious?”

“What? I’m sorry, I drank too much, hyung, it’s whatever.” He shook his bangs out, clumpy with oil. “It’s like you’ve never been to a college party. This is nothing.”

Johnny looked at him with wide eyes. “Are you hearing yourself right now?”

Johnny’s mood was contagious; with each second the image of what brought him here in the first place returned to him at knifepoint: Johnny and Donghyuck’s tangled hands, neon haloed around them. Mark spat, “Dude, seriously, you’re treating me like a kid. Can’t a guy have fun every now and then? You definitely seemed to be.” Some lucid part of him knew that was an unfair, but he was running out of options; he didn’t want to look at Johnny anymore. A compromise, then: “Okay, look… I’m sorry, alright?”

Johnny was nodding. Something turned sour in the air. “Just like that, huh?”

“Look, I’m sorry for inconveniencing you—“

“Incon—“ Finally, Johnny’s face broke open. “You have—no idea don’t you? Why are you being like this?”

“I don't know, like what?”

“Like an asshole. Drinking yourself stupid, then passing out in the middle of the road, and just—just disappearing. What’s happening? Why—why didn’t you call me?”

“Didn’t wanna ruin your amazing birthday,” Mark mumbled—the last ingredient before the air changed unalterably.

“What kind of amazing birthday do you think it was,” Johnny boomed, “to spend the night in the fucking emergency room thinking my best friend possibly got fucking roofied.”

Outside, he heard the floorboards groan; Yuta, maybe, retreating to a safer corner. The remnants of Johnny’s voice clung to the air like tinnitus, rattling the questions in Mark’s head until all the pieces slotted into place: the bone-deep weariness on his back. The fog in his brain. That stranger’s awful margarita that seemed to clot his own breath, made him mistake his feet for hands.

“They told me if you'd passed out anywhere else—I'm not even gonna say it,” Johnny said. “And if Yuta didn’t find you in time? What then? Explain to me, how this is ‘whatever.’ Fuck.” He looked away, running a hand savagely into his hair. “Mark, this is— impossible. I hate when you get like this.”

Mark swallowed. His fists white-knuckled into the sheets. “Then leave.” 

“What?”

“If I’m so impossible, why don’t you go run back to Donghyuck?” Mark said, choosing instead to drag his hands through the wreck; he met Johnny’s glare, and his own mouth ran away from him. “Don’t you have much more important things to do? I don’t know, like fucking him or something?”

Johnny blinked. Outside, the floorboards groaned again. Mark’s own breathing was loud in his ears. Slowly, Johnny touched his jaw, then ran a palm over his face. The fury was gone, now replaced by distant weariness. When Johnny straightened out of his seat, it was a stranger standing in Yuta's room.

“You know, Mark, if you wanted me out of your life so badly, you could've just said so,” Johnny told him slowly. “Don’t worry, I won’t meddle again. You have the apartment all to yourself for now. It’s yours—thrash it, do whatever big boys do, that seems to be a big theme here. But don’t ever—don’t talk about Donghyuck like that. He’s your friend, too.”

And then he was gone. The door shut behind him. The chair was empty, but now the air was full and heavy, bristling like a damnation. 

Slowly, Mark went back to bed. He turned his face into the pillow, counted to ten, and then buried a scream there.

 

A Spectacular Return to Form, Part Two

Mad Dog looked far less impressive from the outside, especially past 11 PM when the sidewalk was dusted with cigarette butts, and beer cans littered the surface of its red monoblock tables. Yuta found him off to the side, kicking crumpled cans into the fence. Even here, the muffled notes of the bass shook the small stones outside, like a constant pulse. Mark aimed at the open trash bin, striking from his heel—when Yuta materialized to intercept the can with his knee, a leftover reflex from a childhood spent in football summer classes.

“Nice pass,” Yuta whistled. Mark grinned, but there was nothing real in it; he hooked his fingers in the fence’s metal net and sighed.

Yuta’s arms slid around him, like an embrace. When Mark didn’t push him off, he slowly pulled away.

Mark said, “Hyung, I’m—” 

“Thinking. Yeah, I can see that,” Yuta replied, leaning back against the fence and crossing his arms. There were tiny braids in his red mane, courtesy of Taeil and Jungwoo; Yuta wanted to keep it in the name of friendship, even Mark’s aborted half-attempt near his right ear. Yuta said, “Could hear you thinking all the way inside. Care to share it to the class?”

Mark bit his lip—afraid that saying it out loud would grant them permission, and if he crawled back home to his apartment tonight Johnny wouldn’t be there again. It had been days. Johnny should’ve been back by now; he forgot to pack his toothbrush. Then again, he must’ve kept a spare in Donghyuck’s apartment anyway.

Mark pulled at his hair. The trapped, congealing feeling from that night was back; if he shut his eyes his limbs were caught again, flailing in some imagined snare.

“I think I may have fucked up,” Mark said. “Like—real bad.”

Yuta regarded his own shoe. “Yeah, I’d say getting hospitalized on the night of your best friend’s supposed birthday party counts.” Mark flinched, and Yuta caught it, eyes flashing. “Oh—? Still raw?”

“Hyung,” Mark warned. Inside, a singer wailed a wail to wake the dead. The note raised the hair on his forearms. “I said I was sorry.”

“You vomited all over my dashboard.”

“I know! I’m sorry!”

“Do you even know what you’re really sorry for?” Yuta said, his lips pursed. “Do you? I promise I’ll be your guy if you wanna get really trashed. I’ll even hold your hair up while you make a mess on the toilet bowl if you want—but not like that. Okay? Not like that. Don’t do that to me again, Mark Lee.”

Mark’s lip trembled. “I won't.”

"Don't go running off accepting drinks from strangers, or supposed friends of Johnny—and yes, even if the drink looks pretty—"

“I won't, I promise.”

And you owe me dinner. Dinner first, and then I'll get mad at you properly,” Yuta demanded, but unfurled his arms and tapped his chest. Hesitantly, Mark stepped into his embrace and breathed in Yuta’s forgiveness. 

“Okay.”

“Woo got coupons to this really fancy hamburg steak place. It’s their soft opening this week and apparently their steak tastes so fucking good, your brain turns to mush instantly. Something about the sauce. I swear there’s something else in it.”

“Sure, hyung.”

“You’re not finished! I want dessert too, after.” There was a pause. “I meant literal dessert, by the way. Though—“

“Hyung,” Mark mumbled miserably into Yuta’s shoulder. His hand wound its way up Yuta’s elbow and squeezed, desperate for grounding. “He hates me.” 

Slowly, Yuta peeled them apart. He regarded Mark evenly.

“Stupid.” Yuta flicked his ear, then pulled it just enough so that Mark’s head tilted. “And what if he does? He can’t hate you forever. Just hit him with those puppy eyes, he won’t be able to resist—“

Mark grabbed Yuta’s wrist. “I’m serious.”

Yuta relented, a sigh rushing out his nose. “So am I. And I’m telling you—let him! He can’t hate you forever.”

“Yeah he can.” Mark remembered Chicago, his opened knees. The curse of Johnny’s silent, unbridled anger, following them all the way to Seoul like Peter Pan’s stubborn shadow. “You don’t know Johnny. He’s like an elephant. He never forgets. And I’m so—I’m seriously so fucking stupid. Why did I do that? He’ll never forget this.”

Mark felt himself spiralling again. He gripped his own wrist, feeling it tremor.

“Then apologize,” Yuta said flatly.

“I—can’t.”

Yuta sounded incredulous. “Why not?”

“Because,” Mark tried. Suddenly the bar’s doors opened, and out staggered a poor man who dashed for the closest bush, where he began retching enthusiastically; the sound made Mark flinch. “Because! I might as well tell him that I—that I—“

“And would that be too bad?”

Mark spluttered. “W-would that be too bad? What do you mean would that be too bad ? Might as well shoot my own foot, say, ‘hey hyung, I know you have a boyfriend and all, and this will probably destroy our friendship and nothing will ever be the same again, but by the way, I’ve loved you since I was, like, ten’—and I can’t. Yuta, I can’t.”

Yuta levelled him with an unimpressed stare. “Wanna know what I think? I think you’re being dramatic and stupid and—“

“Seriously, you don’t get it,” Mark said. “This isn’t a—a—game, hyung. There’s no do-over after that. To me, Johnny's—“ He swallowed it down, because even now the words were too formidable; this colossal home-grown hurt. “It’s not a game. This is how it was always meant to be, anyway, like—! I just need to get things back to how they were, you know. To last week, before—well, everything!—we’ll be okay.”

Yuta’s face twisted into a scowl. His shoe traced a line into the gravel. “Yeaaaah, no.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“Maybe for them. But what about you?” Mark shifted away from Yuta’s accusing eyes. “What about you, Mark? Will you be okay, really?”

“I'll learn to,” Mark said eventually. Thought: Johnny was always meant for bigger, shinier things, and that was okay. “If you knew him like I did, you’d know—it’s just right. You know? He’s happy. Seriously. And there’s nothing he has right now that he didn’t work hard for either. A lot of people said—they said Johnny wouldn’t make it, when he started his whole photography thing. Even his dad, you know? Maybe me too, just a little bit. But look at him now. Just proving everyone wrong.” Mark laughed softly, craning his head up to see the sickle-moon grinning back at him. “Just look at him—getting booked each day, getting real gigs, dating Lee fucking Haechan. Me? I’m still here, still stuck playing small-town gigs with—“

“With who?”

Mark came crashing back down. Yuta was tilting his head, almost catlike as he watched him.

“Who, Markie?” Yuta repeated.

“Yuta—“ His tongue shrank in his throat. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Some fuck-around cover band nobody cares about, right? That what you meant to say? Still stuck with me?” Yuta clucked his tongue. He pressed his hand to his chest. “Damn, Mark. I’m really sorry about that. What a real fucking bummer.”

Mark stepped forward; the chest felt paper-thin. “Yuta, you know that wasn’t—you weren’t—“

“—supposed to know? Nah, I get it. Really, I do.” Yuta stretched out a crick in his neck. “I know all your secrets, Mark Lee.”

“Jesus, dude, will you listen —“

“Just so we’re even—wanna know my secret?” Yuta grinned at him. The shape was a severe gash. “You’re my best friend.” He paused, like if he was behind his own drum set right now he would’ve gifted Mark with a little BA DUM TSS, resounding with a crowd's scripted laughter. “Isn’t that fucking funny?” 

Yuta was still grinning.

“Fuck.” Mark’s fists curled, twitching against his sides. His eyes watered as Yuta turned his back. “Hyung, wait—

There was a loud crunch as Yuta stepped on another stray beer can. Without warning, he kicked it hard into the fence. He was only three steps away, but when he turned around to wave he was already miles out of reach.

“Get home safe, yeah?” Yuta called out, all fake cheer. “Gotta head back for my small-town gig, you know.” Then he walked back inside the club, hands in his pockets, and vanished to an encore of crashing cymbals. The sound was swallowed as soon as the door shut.

You’re not the bad guy, phantom-Johnny was saying in his ear, and Mark thought back fiercely, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you're wrong—

 

Jjigae Soup For The Soul

Mark could feel himself becoming thoroughly unlikeable by the minute. Sometimes he caught himself in mirrors and the way he looked was all wrong: too mean, too jerk-y, unlikeable. He'd replay the way he greeted servers and winced, but it was too late anywaythey'd probably already sniffed the unlikeable-ness in his cologne and simply forced themselves to be polite for the pay-check. No wonder Johnny and Yuta left. It was just a matter of time.

Anyway, he just had to hang on for one more month. Or: four weeks and two days in half, to be exact, until summer ended and Mark could finally dive headfirst into the sinkhole that was the academia and find an excuse to skip his gigs, hopefully get run over by a driver on campus and die a peaceful unplanned death soon, all expenses paid. But the days moved with tepid slowness, caught on brambles. Johnny kept working, only dropping by the apartment to pack more clothes before he was gone; he left before Mark woke. Dust gathered on his bed and desk.

Yuta himself avoided Mark like a repulsed magnet; after their gigs at the Cherry Bomb, he shouldered out the resto-bar before Mark could get a word in, while everyone else followed suit behind him like a Train of Shame; Jaehyun nodded, while Taeil only smiled, muttering a soft, Take care of yourself, Mark. And Jungwoo—

“Sorry,” Jungwoo said thickly, gripping the strap of his guitar case as he dodged Mark’s gaze. 

Mark watched them leave each time, something in his chest cracking neatly in two. So that had been the end of Mad Dog; the hidden bridge to Yuta’s world had disappeared, leaving Mark grasping at the air, trapped in the mundane world of the living.

Easily, his gigs whittled down until he was the last person around. Things were much simpler six drinks into the night, with the world dehydrated into alcohol poisoning. Mark dropped his elbows into his stall’s table and sighed. Someone slid a bowl of something steaming across him. The smell hit him first—hearty chicken broth straight from a memory.

The moment he saw the bowl’s contents, Mark straightened and coughed around the knot in his throat. “Auntie—“

“It’s on the house, don’t you worry, sweetheart," Mama Seo said, smiling down at him benignly; she was in her green apron, the striped one with the stain on the corner from when Johnny splashed paint on it at thirteen in their very first house. She only came to visit the kitchen twice a month, and always she was a breath of something sweet, like the gardens of his childhood home. Suddenly Mark was ten years-old again. “You looked like you could use a nice, hot meal. I added extra leeks and potatoes, so eat up, okay?”

It was the same soup she’d made for them as kids, whenever Johnny got a rhinitis attack, or when Mark holed himself up in Johnny’s room with the world’s worst mood. “Th-thank you,” was all he could manage. “Really, auntie. Wow. Seriously, thank you. You shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Enough of that. Warm up, okay? I hope everything’s alright with you,” she said. And Johnny, was the hidden piece of the puzzle. She scratched his chin and Mark tried his damnedest not to shut down immediately. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t going to say anything, but you didn’t seem to be yourself lately. You know Johnny’s always on your side, right? Even if he doesn’t know it himself.”

“I—” Mark bit his lip; he prayed Johnny didn’t tell her about the party, even if he deserved her wrath and more. “I hope so too, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m gonna go back and help with clean up. When you’re done, just leave it out here, okay?”

“No, let me—”

“None of that! Just give me a clean bowl, alright?” She wagged a finger under his nose. “No leftovers.”

Mark hunched over his soup and nodded, smile faint. “Yes, ma'am.”

Mama Seo looked at him carefully one last time. When she had her fill, she ruffled his hair, tapped his cheek, and then disappeared into the kitchen.

As the doors shut, Mark took a careful sip and felt it warm him all the way down. He hoped like hell she wouldn’t go out anytime soon, else she’d see him crying in his homemade jjigae stew, and that would be the absolute point of no return, the real rock bottom, all capitals, FIN. He hoped liked hell

 

 

Sunday, Hongik University Street / 6 PM

The grass this side of Hongdae was always greener, and not even in a metaphorical sense—it was this curious shade of hyper-green, as if tended to with some kind of pungent industrial-grade fertilizer to keep it a pristine emerald. Cautiously, Mark walked into the field next to other buskers, finding a suitable spot to plant his guitar case. It had drizzled earlier, turning the air sweet as it mixed with the scent of baked goods, and the sky up ahead softened into muted watercolors. Lovers looped their arms around each other as they passed, sailing down the street on their own cloud. It was a nice, picturesque place to start, if Mark were to say so himself. Even if it betrayed the way his hands shook.

This was it. This was Mark, fixing it. 

At least—fixing the parts he hoped weren’t yet too unsalvageable, after he’d tripped and smashed the whole thing into smithereens. If there was a thing, in the first place. If anything, the best part about it all—hitting rock bottom, that is—was having a pretty solid foundation to begin.

He popped the lid of his case and carefully took his baby out. Slung the strap over his shoulder. Tuned it; who knew how pretty she could look in the sun?

It was taking a while for passers-by to gather, and his palms were far too sweaty for music. You’re already dead, remember, came the echo of Yuta’s voice, but inexplicably Mark felt hyper-alive right now: his pulse rabbited, his leg jogged up and down, sweat soaking through his collar, and of course, his brain doing what brains did best: working overtime to tell him, in explicit detail, all the spectacular ways he could fuck this up, and still, Mark—

Sang—

 

Tuesday, Hongik University Street / 9 PM

Like always, emerging out the other side—the world kept spinning. Lovers continued to float down the street. Bakers baked. The grass didn’t wither into black when Mark opened his mouth.

He was still intact. But something in his skin felt looser.

What the heck, Mark thought. No one was listening, anyway. At least, no one that really mattered. In his second week into Whatever This Was, he put his clammy fingers to the first chord, his mind’s eye already on page 42 of his journal where he’d scribbled lovelorn passages in secret throughout the year—and began to sing.

When he’d finished, four people he now recognized as regulars along this street began to clap. There was the gardener, two university students, and the owner of the bakeshop right across his spot. For a moment he stood there dumbly, before registering that the reception for him; his cheeks went hot.

“Thanks,” he croaked, shaking his left hand which had begun to cramp. One student whistled. “Oh, wow.” He scratched his head and bowed. “Uh, thanks. Thanks so much.” 

“Super cool! Was that by Dean, oppa?” she called out. Beside her, her friend shot him a finger heart as she documented the whole thing on Instagram.

“Oh! No, actually, I wrote that,” Mark said.

“Sure, you did,” she snickered. “Your voice is so good? You’re new here, right? I’ll tell my friends there’s a cool new singer around.”

“Oh, what! Thank you!” His voice cracked, so he bent himself in half to hide his mortification. Then, he straightened, coughed, said, “But seriously, though—I wrote it.”

 

 

And They Were Roommates!

Mark didn’t get his name—just that he was a fellow busker that asked him out for drinks, had a nice lean dancer’s body, muscle in all the right places, and built in a way that when their chests brushed Mark could shut his eyes and it was almost like he was with Johnny—not that he had any experience with the real thing, ahem—but he’d transposed the man into all his happy dreams enough times that self-delusion came naturally. So when not-Johnny’s tongue slid into his mouth, Mark’s whole body sang: at last.

Didn’t prepare him for the heft, though; the guy with Johnny’s arms backed him against his apartment door the moment Mark jangled the key into the lock, mauled his neck for a solid minute before big insistent hands shoved his knees down on the carpet in a way that got him wondering if he had any vaseline left in store—and see, Mark liked being manhandled as much as the next guy, but when a dick was shoved into his open mouth without so much as a warning, a moan slipped out of him, half-delirious, half-confused, 100% choking. “Wait, haha,” Mark said, pulling away. “Wait—“

“Too fast? Sorry, I thought you liked it rough,” the guy said, holding his big monster cock back like it would attack Mark without warning. Jesus; Mark did say that, didn’t he? Stupid horny lizard brain. He liked sex rough and irreverent and a little bit mean, but if the guy had asked for specifics, Mark wouldn’t know what to say; he had no prior experience with anyone other than Yuta, and now, as the guy—Dongsun, finally he remembered—stuck his sour thumb inside Mark’s mouth, he was starting to realize how good and kind and perfect Yuta had held him. Dongsun pushed him down between the shoulder blades, marvelling at his fucking microscopic waist, baby, holy shit, and stuck a finger up his ass, wiggled it around for a bit, spat into his hole and then he was inside, and Mark’s mouth parted in a silent O at the sudden, near-painful stretch. He pressed his grimace into the pillow, fingers scrabbling against the sheet until he found his voice again. Reaching back to cover himself almost protectively, he began, “Ah—haha—whoa, let’s—changed my mind, sorry—“

“What?”

Mark turned on his back and curled his legs into his chest. “Sorry,” he repeated, averting his eyes. “Can I just—suck you off, or whatever?”

Dongsun shot him a puzzled look as Mark moved to his knees. “Can I come on your face, at least?”

“Not my face,” Mark said, spitting into his palm, then grimaced; this was disgusting, but Yuta always bought the lube—watermelon flavor, his favorite—so now he had to make do. “Just—anywhere, just not my face. Haha. Sorry.”

It was easy to shut his thoughts off after that; his brain was on automatic, swapping between Johnny-Yuta-Johnny-Yuta-Donghyuck (the last came as a surprise). Still, it was a relief to know that Dongsun was decent at the very least, honoring Mark’s request and coming across Mark’s stomach after that soulless handjob with a, I’m comin’ babe, in hot streaks. Then he surged up, pushed Mark into his back and bracketed his hips with his knees so he could loom over him, his beer-breath damp on Mark’s throat. “So good, baby,” he panted, fingers spreading the come over Mark’s chest like he was finger-painting, until Mark stilled his hand, pushed a stilted laugh out his throat: “Whoa, there, okay —“

Dongsun frowned. “Damn, whatever,“ he said, almost childlike. Mark had done nastier stuff with Yuta, but there wasn’t enough money in the world right now to get him hard again. Dongsun tutted down at him. “Was it that bad?”

“No!” Mark grabbed the hand that had begun to palm him. “No, haha. I’m just—tired. Is all. That was nice. Seriously. I mean, really great.”

Dongsun shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He unmounted himself, slid off the bed and pulled up his jeans, then disappeared into the kitchen to fetch a glass of water. Dongsun didn't share Yuta's enthusiasm of the whole fucking along to Mark’s curated indie garage Spotify playlist, so now Mark laid in the vacuum of his bed, basking in his disappointment, like watching the credits of an awful sequel he'd waited years to catch. He’d imagined many glorious things about hooking up—none of which happened today. He traced circles into the ceiling until the cum on his chest began to dry, and he gagged, grabbing a T-shirt to wipe it off.

Two minutes later, Dongsun came back, shut the door behind him, and announced, “There’s an angry man in the kitchen.”

Mark looked up from where he’d been shimmying his ankle down his pant leg. “Huh?”

Dongsun looked spooked. “This isn’t like—revenge sex, is it?” he asked. “Look, I don’t want any trouble. You said you weren’t seeing anybody so—“

“I’m not,” Mark interrupted, then the cold wash of realization trickled down his back. He looked back at what was decidedly not his bed—those clean, beige linen sheets that were 100% Johnny’s, 100% smelled like his soap and his expensive Burberry cologne, a gift from Donghyuck—and froze. 

“Why do you look like that.” Dongsun paled. “I don’t want to get beat up.”

“Whaaat, no, dude,” Mark laughed, even as his heart hammered. It seemed like a spectacular decision an hour ago, to get fucked by not-Johnny on real-Johnny’s bed. Now, he would’ve jumped the plank himself. Stupid, stupid lizard brain. Mark pulled a shirt on and managed a brittle smile, pushing past him to greet his guest. “You’ll live, man. You just met my roommate.”

 

 

Siri Play the Jaws Theme Song

Mark stepped out of the bedroom braced for the worst, but the real thing always managed to surprise him. 

“Hey,” Johnny said. Instantly, the whole room was submerged in ice.

He was sitting on the couch, both hands on his lap. He wore a navy cap and a black turtleneck that broadened his shoulders, made the right angles on his jaw stick out almost obscenely. 

“Johnny,” Mark managed; the memory of their last conversation made him cast his stare in the safe spot between Johnny’s eyes, where he had a fighting chance of not breaking down right then and there. There was a half-empty cup of tea on the table too—Mark was sure neither he nor Dongsun made it, and immediately he began calculating the breadth of time required to make it, trying to solve just how long Johnny had sat there, waiting for them to finish. Mark didn’t remember locking the bedroom door. Johnny’s bedroom door. Fuck. “Hyung, wh—you’re here. Hey. It’s late—“

“Who’s your friend?” 

“Just… some guy,” Mark finished lamely. He touched his neck. “Uh, when did you get back?’

Johnny ignored him. “He have a name?”

“He’s a busker. And his name’s Dongsun,” Mark expounded. “I met him today. I mean, I’ve seen him around for a while—like on the same street where I perform—yeah, I’m trying out this whole busking thing now, haha, um—but yeah. He's—he’s cool.”

“Right,” Johnny said; his eyes had zeroed in on Mark’s neck, which Mark was positive was now purple from Dongsun’s earlier enthusiasm. “And, um…” here Johnny chuckled, the sound soft and disbelieving. “Why—why were you in my room?”

“I—” Mark opened his mouth, then closed it. “Whoa, was that your room—haha, yo. I didn’t—”

“Ey,” Dongsun interrupted, with pitch perfect timing. He re-appeared in this plane of existence by hanging off Mark’s shoulders and peering curiously under Johnny’s cap; if he took one step out of Mark’s shadow, Mark was sure he wouldn’t be as brazen—right now Johnny’s gaze was a magnifying glass, burning holes into everything that came into its path. “Nice to meet you, not-Mark’s-boyfriend. I gotta say, you had me spooked for a hot minute. Sorry—were we too loud?”

Johnny smiled thinly; Mark wanted to wither and die. “Nah, you’re good.”

“Whoa, wait a second,” Dongsun said. “You’re famous, aren’t you?” He tapped Mark’s shoulder. “Tell me he’s famous.”

This time, the edges of Johnny's signature sunny smile barely lifted. “Nah bud, you got the wrong guy.” He began to stand, looming at his full height. “I’m just the guy who lives here.”

Dongsun wagged his finger. “I don’t buy it. I’d know a pretty face like that!” He winked. “You can tell me, I can keep a secret.”

“I think,” Johnny said, “you should go.”

“Whoa, yeah alright—this crazy toxic energy I’m sensing is off the charts—lemme um, lemme just get my stuff.” He grinned, unaware of the ice cracking under his feet. As he unpeeled himself from Mark’s back and left him standing in the kitchen alone with Johnny, Mark wished there were windows to climb out of. 

“Uh,” Mark said, scratching his ear, then laughed to fill the silence. Johnny didn’t budge.

Dongsun returned, now fully clothed. He slung his backpack on one shoulder, then, before crossing the trench between the kitchen and the door, pinched Mark’s ass and said, “Text me?”

“Uh, maybe not, dude," Mark said, to which Dongsun merely shrugged, and then he was gone.

The door clicked shut behind him with a finality. 

As Johnny turned to face him, the glacier beneath them shifted. If there was anything Mark hated the most about moving to Korea, it was this: Johnny played the hyung card very rarely, but the times he did always ended ugly. A distance fitted itself between them, by virtue of tradition. Johnny liked to leverage his standing like it was a God-given order—and Mark, stubborn as he was, refused to bend.

Now it was back, like it had always been there. “Look,” Johnny began, pulling off his cap to run his hands through his hair. “I don’t even care that you—that you’re—“ Mark swallowed; of course Johnny wouldn’t, but still Mark felt the all-consuming bite of relief— “but do you even know that guy?”

“His name's Dongsun. And I met him busking today, I told you.”

“Right, busking.” Johnny nodded; the smile fit his mouth all wrong. “He do it full-time? Or is he a student like you? Or did you bother to ask him anything at all before you—“ Johnny paused. A breathy laugh escaped him as he looked away for the first time.

“Before I?” Mark said. “You can say it.”

“Before you had sex with him, Mark,” Johnny said eventually, and when he turned to face Mark again his face had smoothed over. “In my bedroom, no less.”

Mark pinched his nose and blew out a ragged, distressed breath. “I didn’t realize we—Jesus, look, I’m really sorry about that. Seriously, I didn’t mean—”

“Can you answer my question?” Johnny said.

“I told you—I met him out busking—”

“Cool, okay. Anything you got besides what I can find on his Twitter bio?”

“Jesus, I—he said he was clean okay?” Mark gritted out, feeling like he was thirteen all over again, Johnny’s high school friends shooing him away, saying, sorry kid, the adults are talking. Mark put his hands up. “Wait—why am I even explaining this to you?”

Again, Johnny ignored him. “Did you see his results?”

“I—no—“

“So you fucked a total stranger, in our apartment, on my bed—“

“Yeah, hyung, and I fucked him in the car ride before this, and I can fuck him tomorrow too—I’ll fuck whoever I want!” Mark snapped, ears growing hot.

Slowly, Johnny’s face broke into a raw, ugly grin, all teeth. “Wow,” Johnny said. He slow-clapped as he made his way around the couch; the sound echoed against the kitchen tiles around them. “Mark Lee. Look at you. All grown up.”

“Fuck you,” Mark whispered. He gripped the edge of his own shirt to ground him against the way his own pulse seethed. “Really.”

“Language.” Johnny wagged his finger. “Is this your new philosophy now? Get trashed and fuck strangers.”

“I really don’t want to be having this conversation with you right now.“

“Maybe you should’ve thought about that before you brought your little friend here?”

“Oh, like you ask me before you bring anyone home? Remember Aly? Or Eunhee? Even Hyuck,” Mark spat. Something foolish inside him opened up, allowing him to side-step the fear crowding his throat. “All those times I got kicked out of my own place, because you forgot. Or each time you brought Hyuck home, and I already knew I was gonna have to crash at Yuta-hyung’s place. Did I ever hold that against you?” Mark breached the distance between them. Immediately the air grew taut. “I know you’re thinking you’re so high and mighty and successful now, and you’re my hyung on top of that—but I need you to stop lording that over me. We were never about that anyway. And I’m not—I’m not a fucking kid anymore.”

As he said the words, Mark could pinpoint the moment the fight left Johnny. A new distance yawned between them, stirring to life.

Johnny nodded, like he’d discovered something. “Yeah,” he said eventually; his Adam’s apple bobbed. He looked at Mark, eyes wide and dark. “I guess not.”

When he looked away, Mark felt the ringing loss of it; he watched Johnny touch his jaw, then pull off his cap to rake through his hair again.

“This won’t happen again,” Mark added; the apology was crawling out of him. “I swear. I’ll pay more—“ but Johnny was shaking his head. 

“I’m leaving for Jeju for a shoot. I won’t be home for a few days,” Johnny said quietly. “Anyway, uh. I just came here to pack a few things.”

As Johnny brushed past him, his back hunched, Mark’s eyes trailed after him pleadingly. “I hate this,” Mark blurted. “Hyung—“

But Johnny had already disappeared into the room. The minutes blurred by. When Johnny finally emerged, with a heaping sports bag slung across his back, he stopped by the couch, eyes on the floor until he couldn’t ignore Mark’s existence anymore. Mark wished Johnny would reach for him now, thumb the scar on his head, remind him of the dregs of good he had left. Tell me I'm good, Mark wanted to say. Tell me anything.

Finally, Johnny turned to face him. Opened his mouth.

Then, he turned and left without another word. The door shut, and everything fell underwater.

 

 

This Way to The Sugar, Part One

Maybe he’d looked down on this whole busking thing after all. The learning curve felt like less pulling teeth with each day, and without a spotlight out here, everything else was allowed to pull into focus. As Mark made music in his own humble patch of green, he could watch the rest of the world rumble and hum along, and crowds, transient as they were, sometimes dropped by to mouth the lyrics, jam along to Mark’s guitar, or sway in place. Easy to pretend he wasn’t alone. That he was less unlikeable than yesterday.

On his third week of discreetly sandwiching his originals in between top 50 covers, he’d gotten one uncle who’d asked him for his Instagram, a group of cool music majors bearing instruments who’d asked if he had an EP they could check out—“Not yet, haha, but soon! Hopefully!”—and then a wide-eyed teenager who’d asked if they could take a picture together (what). There was even Yeri and Joy, a young couple he’d befriended who begged him to perform something for them each time they passed—”Anything, really, Mark, we don’t care!”—so Mark did: serenading them with something soft and lilting, and that was nice. Warmed his chest like the helium insides of street lights that buffed the harsh edges of Seoul’s nightlife. This was a modicum of fame Mark had no clue what to do about, so he ignored it. Being hypothetically dead was nice, but being seen—even nicer. Or more terrifying. The Venn diagram was a little complicated. 

As he put away his tip box and clicked his guitar case closed, his phone buzzed. His stomach clenched as he read it.

✉️1 new message - just now

You free tonight?? 

Donghyuck.

He pocketed this phone. Resolute, he walked down the street, determined to have a peaceful night. Peace, and sanity. He stopped by a bakery and bought some breakfast muffins for tomorrow. And then he turned on his heel, took the long way back to pick up some soju too, just in case tonight would be one of those long, uneventful nights that nobody would have to know about, because Mark was good at minimizing the damage he brought upon himself. By the time his hands were full of bags, half an hour had passed, and his phone had buzzed thrice. 

Sighing, he gathered everything in his right hand and dug his phone out.

 

✉️1 new message - 25 minutes ago

You, me, dinner!! My treat!!

 

✉️1 new message - 11 minutes ago

Hyung srsly stop ignoring me

 

✉️1 new message - 1 minute ago

like i can literally see you dawg

 

Mark froze, full-stop. His head swivelled around until he caught sight of him across the street—Lee Haechan in a black tank, black face mask and bucket hat, black Wrangler jeans—a perfect disguise otherwise, had Mark not known him and his penchant for high top Converses, which were delightfully pink, the exact shade of all Mark’s fretful dreams.

Glued to his spot, Mark watched Donghyuck jog across the street, pointing a finger at him like a knife.

“I knew it! I knew you were ignoring my texts!”

Mark could imagine the pout underneath the mask. “Dude, didn’t mean to! I was working all day.” He paused. “Wait, how did you know I was here?”

“So many questions,” Donghyuck groaned, even if Mark asked only one (1). He grabbed Mark's wrist companionably, and as always, his hand was warm. “Let’s get back to the main issue at hand, shall we? I literally saw you ignore my text. That hurt, hyung. That really hurt. To make up for it, I demand you have dinner with me.”

Mark tugged his hand back. “Uh—“

“Come on, what were your options?” Donghyuck peered into one of Mark’s plastic bags despite Mark’s indignant little Oi! and made a mournful sound in his throat. “Muffins and soju? Oh, hyung.”

“I wasn’t gonna have them together—“

“You don’t have to explain. I accept you and your questionable choices.“

“Seriously. And what's that supposed mean?”

"You know exactly what it means."

"Shut up, Hyuck."

“I don’t know why I keep letting you talk to me like that,” Donghyuck complained, but his eyes glittered. “That’s no way to talk to a celebrity,” he sing-songed in a whisper, and before Mark could prep a counterargument Donghyuck was already pulling him down the street, towards a cluster of restaurants in the distance. Donghyuck continued, “You’re lucky I like you, so I’ll let you off the hook. Look, I’ll even treat you to dinner. See? You’re so lucky you bumped into me tonight. You can even pick the restaurant.”

Mark’s mouth went slack; he was only human after all. Weak-willed, with no adequate human contact in days. And hungry.

He looked up at the restaurant signs, horrified to find he couldn’t recognize any of them. The last time he’d dined in something as elite was during Johnny’s birthday party, and just the thought of it was enough to dull the edge of his hunger.

“Actually,” Mark announced, “I already ate,” just in time to hear his own stomach betray him. There was a pause, and then Donghyuck’s face was breaking into a heart-shaped grin, full of great intentions, all of them sizeably bad. He wiggled his arm into Mark’s elbow, took half of Mark’s bags in his own hand, then pressed himself to his side, which meant detaching was not an option. 

“I mean, I won’t contest that.” Donghyuck was decent enough to pull on a straight face. “But we could always go for dessert?”

Mark sighed; fine. If anyone asked, he walked into this sticky, delicious Venus fly trap of his own choice. “Alright, Alright, already! You win.”



 

This Way to the Sugar, Part Two

Mark wrung his hands under the table as Donghyuck recounted their order to the waiter: a hamburg steak, the Soup of the Day, and about five different types of pork cuts Mark didn’t think one was allowed to have all at once. In the end, Mark drew the line at Michelin-starred restaurants, refusing to exploit Donghyuck’s status, even if the vile part of his brain demanded Do it! His purse can handle it!

After ten minutes of heated back and forth, he’d ended up in a cozy Samgyupsal place with tinted windows, a kitschy mantelpiece, and one hungry Lee Haechan in disguise for company. 

“Uh,” Mark began, “how’s work?”

Donghyuck waved a hand vaguely. “To be honest, I’m not sure if this is beginner’s stuff or if I’m just fucking up for an extended period of time. I’m still getting used to acting for a stage instead of a camera, but I can’t complain, you know? I asked for this opportunity, so... I’m gonna see it through. You’re watching, right?”

“Yeah,” Mark said vigorously, even if Johnny had the tickets; Donghyuck treated each project like it was his universe. “‘Course, Hyuck.”

Donghyuck regarded him thoughtfully, a smile brimming at the corner of his mouth. “So busking, huh.”

“Yeah, well—haha. Wait, how’d you—”

Between them, Donghyuck’s phone lit up with a call. Mark watched as Donghyuck excused himself, picked it up, and launched into a disgruntled conversation with someone on the other end of the line. “Yes, hyung—yeah I got it. I said I got it! Look, I’m busy with Johnny right now, so—“

Mark’s choked a little on his water.

“—haha, you know it. Have dinner, okay? Okaaaay. See you in two hours!”

Donghyuck hummed as he tucked his phone back, unperturbed. Mark cleared his throat, said, “Did you just—“

“Lie to my manager-hyung? Yes—do I feel sorry about it? Depends,” Donghyuck mused. “Look, he’s a boomer, so he’s a bit of nagger. But I just have to mention Johnny once, and he gets it, right away. It’s like, code for leave me the fuck alone.” Donghyuck brandished a peace sign. “Works every time.”

“…Right,” Mark said eventually, refusing to unravel the implications of it. “Wait. You still haven’t told me how you knew where I was.”

Donghyuck exhaled. “You’re not letting this go, are you?” he said, then fished his phone back out, scrolled for a few seconds, then bared his screen to Mark. 

Mark’s face moved with recognition. After a beat, he blurted, “Yo, why do you have a picture of my guitar?”

Donghyuck’s deadpan was glorious.

“What? Wait, is that—” 

There he was, in the portrait—him performing in Hongik University street this afternoon. His eyes were shut, his mouth parted as he sang. Even the pigeon that kept stealing his bills was caught in the picture. He grabbed Donghyuck’s phone, scrolled down to see more. Mark last week. Two weeks ago, when the sky was acid-pink. Familiar faces, too. Dongsun, Joy, Yeri.

Donghyuck stole his phone back seconds before Mark could breach the comments section. “Read the title, dummy. You’re on Buskers of Hongdae. My manager follows the page. He says the street is, like, a hotspot for undiscovered talent or something. Then he saw you." Donghyuck shrugged, going for nonchalant, but his eyes gleamed. He nudged Mark’s foot under the table. “You’re not too shabby, Mark Lee.”

Jesus. “You saw?”

“Of course! I’m a fan—“ and suddenly Mark was reaching for his water and downing it very fast. “Whoa. Hyung, you—” Donghyuck laughed. “That does make you nervous?”

Mark set his glass down with a dull thud. “A little bit,” he confessed. Around them the chatter continued, oblivious to the way Mark’s fight-or-flight instinct flared. 

“Hyung, you’re great. I mean, why else would people keep anonymously sharing your videos, right?”

“I don’t know. I hope so?” Mark said. “Jesus. It's different when it’s online though. This is so weird.”

Their waiter arrived with their steak. Donghyuck wielded a knife and immediately began to work on the slab. “I’ve seen you perform before. What’s the difference now? I mean, I’m pretty sure you know that once you go out there—it’s pretty much anyone’s game. You’re practically asking to be photographed. Which kind of sucks, but that’s just how it is, you know?”

Mark nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

Donghyuck deposited a juicy slice on Mark’s plate and frowned. “You’re really good, though! I already knew that, but—I’m glad you’re showing off more. Yay to trying to new things!”

Mark scoffed around a bite. “Stop.”

“I swear to god! Listen—my friend Renjun? He runs this digital magazine—kind of like Underdog, but not as Seoul-centric, you know—he’s doing a feature about upcoming musicians. I’m sure he’d love to have you—“

“Wait. Wait, Hyuck, stop,” Mark said, laughing. Slowly, he set his fork down and scratched the corner of his mouth. “Look, I know you want to work your magic on me, and I know you did it for Johnny before—and I’m glad you did, by the way!—but your pity is the last thing I want, right now, sorry. So, thanks. But no thanks.”

Donghyuck’s brow crumpled. “You think I’m… pitying you?”

Mark laughed again, tense. This was uncharted territory. “I mean—yeah? Treating me out to dinner. Offering me a gig. Being nice to me after—well, after I ruined your birthday surprise for Johnny—“

“Whoa, what do you mean my birthday surprise—“ Donghyuck bristled visibly. “Last I heard, that was ours. We were a team.” The silverware clanged as Donghyuck set it down on his plate. “And in case you forgot, you got super fucked up that night, hyung, if anything it’s not pity, it’s—“

“Forget it, it’s okay.” Mark waved it off. “Really, I’m not stupid.”

“I think you are, though,” Donghyuck shot back, his eyes growing hard as he fixed his gaze into his plate; a small part of Mark felt grateful Donghyuck was sparing him the full brunt of his annoyance—he’d heard enough stories from Johnny. Donghyuck continued, “I think you’re really being fucking stupid.”

Mark laughed. “Yeah, whatever you say.”

“You know what?” Finally, Donghyuck looked at him. His tongue poked the inside of his cheek. “Let me just come out and say it. You think I don’t see it, don’t you?”

“See what?”

“Johnny-hyung’s party, you avoiding the both of us, just... never being around. The mixtape, god—I could go on—” he listed, but the edge in his voice grew placating by the end of it. “You think I didn’t put it together?”

“Put what together—”

“You,” Donghyuck said, “like my boyfriend.”

Mark’s mouth went dry. His stomach fell into a trench. “No,” he said, adjusting himself on the seat. “What’s—haha—what’s this all about?”

“I know,” Donghyuck said. “That’s why you hate me so much.”

“Wh—I don’t hate you—“

A flash—white and blinding, before the resounding click. Mark flinched, confused, and when he turned around and regained sight, there she was—a girl with the world’s biggest fucking DLSR, two tables over—why they didn't notice that before was a miracle. Her companion, a sour-faced man who was either her boyfriend or her cousin, smiled at them sheepishly as she hunched behind the lens.

“What the fuck?” Mark said, unable to help himself. “Excuse me, uh—hey, at least remove the flash?”

“Sorry!” the man said, hiding his blushing girlfriend away. “My girl got a bit too excited. She’s a big, big fan of Haechan, and—well, haha—actually, could we get—“

“Here you go!” Donghyuck said brightly, all teeth; none of it reached his eyes. He’d scribbled his signature on a napkin and stood up to deliver it, with the kind of fluidity that came with years of practice. “Thanks. But this is a private schedule, I’d be happy if you refrained from taking pictures of me or my companion for the rest of the night.”

Her boyfriend took the napkin and bowed. “Of course, of course.”

“Haechannie, I love you so much!” she cried in a tinny voice, as Donghyuck made his way back. “Enjoy your dinner!”

Donghyuck grinned cloyingly at her as he slid back into his seat. Then he resumed his work on the steak and began cutting it into tiny, unsalvageable pieces. “Anyway. Well?” Donghyuck said. The moment had vanished for Mark, but Donghyuck himself seemed determined to see it through. “Come on, hyung, you can tell me.” He reached for the sauce and drowned his cuts in them. “Am I right, or am I right?”

“What was the Soup of the Day?”

“Changing the subject,” Donghyuck moaned.

“I don’t hate you, okay?” Mark snapped. “Why the stupid questions?”

“Because I like to think we’re friends, but sometimes I’m not so sure,” Donghyuck replied, in his smallest voice. “It’s okay if you did. Just tell me now. Do you hate me? At least once? Ever?”

“Look, let’s not—“

“Because I did,” Donghyuck said, and Mark looked up with wide eyes. “I hated you for about four days and a half. Couldn’t even keep my streak for a week, heh. Not now, though. But I did try. I really did. But Johnny—”

Another flash. White and jarring. Jesus fucking. Christ.

For a few seconds Mark couldn’t see. The world and its clutter muted out, save for the apocalyptic pounding of his own heart. When he came to, he caught Donghyuck tucking his face, tonguing the inside of his cheek—a brief ripple of the real annoyance underneath.

“Are you… kidding me,” Mark said under his breath. Now the rest of the diners had begun to murmur, a jumbled static. From his periphery, Mark could count at least three more camera phones raised to steal each second. Turning around in his chair, he said, “Didn’t he just say cut it out?”

He didn’t mean to yell, but Mark felt outside his own body now. The stalker fan winced, then hid beneath her huge camera like someone with no sense of spatial awareness at all. Her male companion’s friendly facade crumbled; his chair scraped as he stood up and moseyed over to Mark’s table. “I don’t think I like your tone,” he said. “Don’t talk to my girl like that.”

Mark snorted and mirrored the glare, even as Donghyuck’s hand whipped out to grip his wrist; down, his eyes begged. Mark ignored him. “Well, maybe if she understood basic manners, I wouldn’t have to watch my tone.”

Mark,” Donghyuck gritted out. “Sorry,” he said, for the pair—loud enough for the whole establishment to hear. “It’s no problem! What he meant was, if you could kindly refrain from taking pictures—”

“—Actually, what I meant to say,” Mark said, standing up slowly, “was please stop following him. This is a restaurant, we came here to eat, not to have that stupid flashlight shoved into our faces every minute, thanks.” The guy was about as tall as Johnny, but nowhere near as impressive; Mark’s whole body thrummed as he was stared down, like he’d inherited Johnny’s own righteous fury himself; his fists twitched like bottled rockets. “Well? You got your autograph, didn’t you? What else do you want? Can we get back to our dinner? Please?”

The vein in the man’s jaw looked on the edge of popping. Mark wanted to reach out and finish the job himself.

“He’s kind enough not to ask you to leave,” Mark gritted out. “If I were you, I’d be grateful and apologize.”

The man laughed suddenly—the sound loud and unruly; this close Mark could smell the traces of soju in his breath. “Apologize?” Now he turned to Donghyuck, who was visibly losing his mind across the table. “Who do you think you are? Your friend’s being rude to your fan, and you just sit there? The hell?” He turned to Mark and pushed him lightly on both shoulders. “I don’t know what she sees in that faggy—

Mark punched him. Later, when asked, Mark would proclaim he didn’t know what possessed him—that in those three whole seconds, his arm wasn’t his. That he’d watched his fist sail into the air, determining the trajectory of its own destiny faster than he could blink.

There was a meaty crunch. Donghyuck saying, “Ah, shit.”

The man stumbled back. He cradled his nose, stunned into silence. Instantly, their neighboring table exploded into chaos. Flash. Again, the world flayed into stars. Haechan’s stalker fan screamed a scream of no tomorrow—“Babe!”—as Donghyuck stole Mark by the elbow, hastily pulling up his mask and hoodie down, chanting, “Shit, shit, are you out of your fucking mind, Mark Lee—go, go!” and pushed them out blindly into night.

 

 

This Way to the Sugar, Part Three

Donghyuck ran like he did this on the daily, like he spent his free time dodging crazy hordes, pivoting around street lamps and ducking into hidden shortcuts Mark never knew existed, yelling, Parkour, baby; Mark followed him a little clumsily, tripping on his feet like the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, and before he knew it Donghyuck had jumped into the rabbit hole himself by the corner of the street, pushing into its doors like he meant business. Mark had a vague memory of the name before: Noraebang Star ✩, with its tacky neon sign that had a waterfall effect, the last bulb winking out every six seconds. The door chimed, announcing tonight’s intruders. Mark barely had the time to catch his breath and count the peeling SHINee posters on the walls before Donghyuck was marching up the counter and batting his pretty eyes at the lady painting her nails, saying: “One room, please.”

The lady afforded them a brief glance, before returning to the monumental task of coating her pinky. “All the rooms are full, hun. We only have the party room left.”

“Oh! The party room’s perfect,” Donghyuck assured her. “Right, Mark?”

“Uh, sure,” Mark managed; he’d been peering out the tinted glass doors, watching out for the crazy fan and her crazier boyfriend. Turned out they were the least of their troubles; she’d summoned a horde of other nearby stalker fans with their DLSRs swaying from their necks like hunted heads, hungry for revenge. Mark shivered. 

She frowned. “For the two of you? Most people rent the party room for at least ten—“

“Well, we’re not like most people. See, we take this very seriously. We can’t perform otherwise, you know? The magic’s just not gonna happen. We need the, uh, space, so we can really get going—“

“Hyuck,” Mark panicked, “I think they’re on this street too.”

The lady looked alarmed. “Do you have friends coming?”

“No!” the both of them said.

“We were never here,” Mark babbled. “I mean, just if anyone asks. And not like we’re hiding or, or, or anything! So don’t worry, haha. But like, if anyone comes by—“

“What he meant to say,” Donghyuck intervened, somehow wiggling his wallet out in time and slamming his black card down. That got her attention. “Was that we’d love to get the party room, now.” He sweetened his voice, potent enough through the face mask, said, “Please?” 

“Of course,” she said hastily, twisting the cap back on her nail polish. “If you’d just follow me…”

She led them down a narrow hallway lined with pink pulsing neon. The end of it opened into a circular room; in one of those chambers someone was belting out a Blackpink song like they were getting divorced in an hour. The party room in question had a wide U-shaped coach, a flat screen TV in the middle with a 3D character twerking to an invisible song; the assistant pressed a button on the wall and a disco ball revealed itself from a slot on the ceiling, scattering every shade of the rainbow across the walls.

Donghyuck whistled, and before she left called out, “Could we get a bucket of beer please! With ice! Lots of it!”

Mark snorted as he took a seat. “You’re enjoying this aren’t you?”

“Are you kidding me? My manager’s going to have my head,” Donghyuck moaned. He tore off his face-mask and slumped on the couch beside Mark. “I’m literally living my last moments. How’s the hand?”

“What hand—” and then he winced. It hit him all at once: the dull pain that had rung up his arm had sharpened into four precise points on his knuckles. He touched his wrist, which felt tender. “Ow,” he said intelligently. 

“God, you’re stupid,” Donghyuck groaned. He lifted Mark’s fist and cradled it on his lap until the lady brought them their order, giving them the stink-eye until Donghyuck had no choice but to shut the door in her face. Then he grabbed an ice-cold beer by the neck, stole Mark’s handkerchief from his pocket, and wrapped it against his fist.

“Relax, it’ll stop the swelling,” Donghyuck said when Mark hissed. “Stop squirming!”

“It’s numbing my whole hand!”

“Afraid that’s the whole point, princess.” Donghyuck positioned the bottle over the reddening skin expertly, then made a wrangled sound. “Ah fuck. I have a play in less than a month, I can’t make news again. My manager’s going to kill me, reanimate my corpse, and then kill me,” he bemoaned. “I hope you’re happy Mark Lee.”

“They barely got a picture, don’t worry,” Mark murmured.

Donghyuck made a hollow, breathy sound. “It’s whatever, Lee. They already think I’m gay—which is, well, they really hit the nail on the head with that one. I’m more scared about losing my manager than my career, to be honest. He’s really nice.” Donghyuck sniffed. “He brings me bread twists when I have a bad day. And I’m gonna give him so much paperwork. Ugh, your wrist is all swollen and gross.” His face crumpled in disgust. You probably won’t be able to do gigs for a while. God, I’m almost embarrassed for you. Just who taught you how to punch?”

Mark swallowed. After a while, he said, defeated, “Johnny.” 

They both went quiet.

“Of course he did,” Donghyuck muttered. “The guy can't hurt a fly.”

“You’d be surprised. You know,” Mark said, licking his lip, “when we were kids, he, um—haha, he beat someone up. Like, real bad.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Seriously. We had to leave the country.”

Donghyuck’s face lit up. “Holy shit.” 

“Yeah. Should’ve seen the other guy.”

A grin slanted Donghyuck’s mouth. Mark could imagine the image dancing behind his eyelids: perfect, sixteen year-old Johnny Seo, decking someone straight across the face. A Christmas miracle. “Who woulda thunk,” Donghyuck said, almost proud. “Our Johnny.”

The way he said our made Mark’s breath catch. “Yeah,” he said, watching the condensation on the bottle seep into Donghyuck’s lap; it must’ve felt cold, but Donghyuck held Mark’s wrist like he was being paid by the hour. “Yeah,” Mark repeated, then breathed in raggedly, bracing for impact, said, “look, Hyuck, I don’t hate you.”

Donghyuck was reaching for the songbook with one hand. His other kept Mark’s broken fist on his lap. “I know.”

“What?”

“I know,” Donghyuck repeated, looking back into Mark’s wide-eyed gaze; the disco lights made his eyes flash  blue-green-red-pink-purple. “The eyes don’t lie,” he sing-songed, then looked away, grinning weakly. “I wished you did. It’d make me feel better. You know, for how I felt about you before. I don’t feel it now, though. You’re virtually un-unlikeable.” He made a sound as he parted the book on the couch, as if to say, c’est la vie. “Life’s just better when we’re on the same side.”

Mark sought his face. “Are we not?”

Donghyuck stopped flipping. “Not what?”

“On the same side.”

Donghyuck’s eyes didn’t stray from the page. Mark gnawed on his lip. After a minute, Donghyuck said, “You punched a guy for me, so. That counts for something, right?” He frowned down at the song list. “How can you practically gift-wrap your store in SHINee posters but not have a single song out of The Story of Light?”

Mark blurted: “I’m in love with Johnny.”

He said it like the thought made him angry, because it did. It made him furious. That of all the Kryptonite in the world, it had to be this one. Mark braced for it—a learned helplessness on its own, but Donghyuck only laughed a laugh that edged into a sigh. “Yeah,” Donghyuck said, snapping the songbook shut. “Fuck.”

He let his head drop back on the ratty coach, shielding his eyes from the bokeh lights and breathed out.

“I like your boyfriend,” Mark said.

“I kind of heard you the first time.” Donghyuck waved his hand flippantly. “Still fucked.”

Mark wasn’t following. He frowned as Donghyuck replaced the now-lukewarm bottle of beer against Mark’s hand with a fresh one. The old one, he popped open with his teeth and downed half in one go.

Donghyuck wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I think we have twenty minutes left before they ask me to swipe my card again. Quick—what’s the song that goes: ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh—?“

“Uhhh…” Mark was nonplussed, but he’d recognized the hook immediately. “Isn’t that Day6? 1 to 10?”

“Yes! You genius.” Donghyuck reached for the book again and flipped through it rapidly. “Now please tell me they—fuck yeah, type it for me?” Donghyuck pointed, and Mark reached for the control by his feet with his decent hand. “Okay, you got it? It’s 6781 . . .”

Mark fumbled with the keypad but managed to get it in the end. The TV lit up. Donghyuck deposited Mark’s hand safely back into his own lap while he warmed his throat and stood up, stretching. Even the way Donghyuck sang was completely on-brand; off-key and all, a couple generous vocal runs here and there, for color. When he was through, he slumped back down like he’d exorcised something in his chest and grinned. 

“Um,” Mark began as Donghyuck downed the rest of his beer; the TV mascot onscreen announced: 89%! Not bad! “I just said I was in love with your boyfriend. For like, maybe the whole time.” He laughed, high and incredulous. “You—you’re okay with that?”

“Of course not,” Donghyuck shot back. This time his eyes were wide and just a little bit afraid. A breath tangled in Mark’s throat. “I like to think I’m his favorite, but, no matter how you look at it, I’m on the losing end here, Lee. Every single time. I can’t—“ the mic caught some bad resonance and wailed; the both of them winced, until Donghyuck turned it off. Quietly, he continued, “I can’t catch up.”

“To who?“ Mark said. “To me?”

“Earth to Mark Lee.” Donghyuck snapped a finger in his face. “That thing you guys have? Ever noticed it? All that history—“ He paused, like something overcame him. When he spoke again his voice had dropped a whole octave: “I can’t compete with that. Get it? I can’t fucking—compete. With you.”

“I don’t want to—“ Mark stammered. “I’m not—I don’t want to compete with you, Hyuck.”

“Yeah, well too bad—you left, and you made him choose,” Donghyuck said, shooting up to his feet to pace the room. “What I have with Johnny… I can’t fuck this up, Mark. It's the first time I’ve had something this good for a long time. I never get something this good. Frankly, I don’t think I ever will.” He studied a curl of peeling paint on the wall and tried to stick it back with his thumb. “I’ve never dated anyone this long, either. I think this is it, you know?” Slowly, he turned around; his eyes crawled up Mark’s face, wide and regretful. “Johnny’s it.”

Mark nodded. If he looked at Donghyuck any longer, he didn’t know what would happen, so he didn’t.

Donghyuck breathed out. “When you’re out there, when you do what I do—people stop thinking of you as a person. You stop owning yourself, really, and that’s okay or whatever—well, not okay, but, I’ve made my peace with it, like a forever ago. But sometimes I want to feel like—someone sees. That I’m still here. Lee Donghyuck.” A pause. “That was Johnny for me. And now, I— don’t know how to go back to before. I can’t. But it won’t work—it won’t work without you.”

Mark felt the couch dip. A warm hand slid over his knee. Fingertips touching his; a question.

“Hyuck, I—“

“Do you understand?” Donghyuck said. His other hand ghosted over Mark’s wrecked wrist, about to grip; instead it touched him like a brace. “It won’t work. Please.”

Slowly, Mark nodded again.

“Do you get it, really? I’m kind of begging here.”

Mark shuddered; something inside him was just about to swell. He croaked, “What do you want me to do?”

There was a pause, the question floating between them until a braying laugh came out of Donghyuck. “What do you want to do, Mark Lee?” Donghyuck said, suddenly serious. “Let’s start with that.” He freed Mark’s hand but let his thigh press against Mark’s, warming its side. “Answer your own damn questions. I’m not gonna spell it out for you.”

Mark stuttered out a laugh. He flexed his fingers and winced. “I’ll think about it.” 

“You better!”

They shared a look, the kind just on the edge of something. Mark thought Donghyuck looked like he was about to either break into a laugh or into one big, hideous cry. Without thinking, Mark blurted, “I think we’re both out of our fucking minds.”

Donghyuck’s eyebrows shot up, and then he was laughing. Then he laughed some more. And then he kept at it until it pulled at Mark’s own face, too. The sound of it rang around the party room, drowning the sound of their karaoke neighbors who were summoning the devil himself via trot. It felt miraculous; finally, somebody who’d loved Johnny the same way, after all those years yearning in silence and in hiding, now coming out the woodwork. Call and response.

Mark grinned at him, and Donghyuck kept grinning back; his true mirror. 

“Okay, onto business,” Donghyuck decided, wiping the water from his eyes and shoving the extra mic under Mark’s nose with a wicked glint in his eye, “do this duet with me or I’m really gonna fucking hate you.”

 

 

The Eyes Don't Lie

They ended up capping the night at 19 and a half songs—half because Noraebang Star was closing shop at 12:30 AM and wouldn’t let them finish the damn song, Touch My Body by Sistar. Mark mumbled under his breath, “You’d change your mind if you knew who he was—” and the he in question kicked his shin and jostled his hand, so Mark winced and got the gist. That was when Donghyuck mustered the guts and finally called up his manager, who pulled up the tinted van by a narrow innocuous street and barely said a word when they climbed in (probably because Donghyuck was using Mark as a human shield). The rest of the ride home was spent in a silent stupor.

“You should get that checked out tomorrow,” Donghyuck said beside him. His voice was wrecked.

“Yeah,” Mark replied, stifling a yawn. “Thank—“

“Don’t wear it out,” Donghyuck groaned. Without even a ripple on his face, he paused, said, “So, are you going to tell him?”

Mark looked at him—Donghyuck was a great actor—and kept looking until the absurdity of it all caught up to him. “Jesus.”

Well ?” 

Mark sighed. “Dude, he won’t even talk to me.” He glanced at his fist, at where the swelling used to be, and felt vaguely remorseful how quickly the proof was fading. “I said some pretty awful things to him. Did he—“

“Yeah." Donghyuck looked away. “That was the first time I’ve ever seen him so angry. The first time period.” 

Mark shivered. “We talking about his birthday, or—“

“Do you really wanna know?”

“Actually, yeah, don’t tell me.” The van sailed down the highway in a straight line. Hardly anyone else on the road at this ungodly hour, save for them. Outside the window, a climate change ad on the billboard blared: Time is running out. “I’m seriously such an asshole.”

There was a laugh, and then Donghyuck was turning to him. “Boo-hoo, who isn’t, honestly,” Donghyuck said. “It’s crazy, isn’t? You fuck up, and people still love you.”

Mark swallowed. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying,” Donghyuck said, very slowly, “that this time, I need you to pull your head out of your ass.”

Mark clenched his fist, trying to remind himself how broken skin felt; already he was forgetting. Outside, the ad flashed again, retribution. Funny how all this time, the ice caps were melting, time not elastic as he thought it was, and here Mark was sitting in the backseat with the love of his love’s life. In the back of his mind, Yuta’s voice was calling him out—stuuuupid!—the comedic echo of his BA DUM TSS ringing like an awful punchline. At least this time he was around to catch it. 

“Well,” Donghyuck began as the van slowed to a stop; it was too dark to read any of the street names, but still he said, “Yes, this is where I actually live, don’t leak my address. I trust you, hyung.” He slid open the car door and slipped out into the cool night. Turning around he called out, “Manager-hyung, get him home safe alright?” to which the driver nodded begrudgingly, shaking his head. “He loves me,” Donghyuck assured Mark, and then just like that blew him a kiss and closed the door. Mark watched him take three steps until he swivelled back and knocked on the window, and when Mark pulled it down, Donghyuck stuck his hand into the gap and pointed, “Shit, almost forgot! Grab that thing under the seat.”

Mark fumbled around for a bit until his hands felt paper. He pulled it out: a Manila envelope.

“Remember our first shoot? Underdog? I asked you for Johnny’s SD card and forgot to return it—oops? Anyway, I had the whole thing developed, but some of the stuff there is yours.” Donghyuck was looking at him now, something unreadable on his face. He pocketed his hands and swayed on his heel. “I told you I don’t pity you, I never have. So... you better do me the same favor, alright?”

Mark frowned. “Why don’t you return it yourself?”

“I told you,” Donghyuck said simply. “It’s not mine.”

He grinned, tapped the door twice until the car began to leave the curb. 

Mark opened the envelope—it was hefty, filled to the brim with photographs, all black and white. Mark remembered that day instantly: the fever dream that was Lee Haechan in the studio, Doyoung losing his shit every five minutes, and then himself, of course, watching the diorama play out like he was an extra on set, averting his eyes each time Johnny and Donghyuck laughed together and clicked with unnatural ease, while Mark squeezed himself into the corner, trying to Houdini himself into non-existence. He replayed the day again and again—there was nothing out of the ordinary—but now his hands shook, because in the envelope was photo after photo of him—munching on a french fry, a stolen moment mid-laugh, him scratching his mole, then sitting in the corner, his eyes wide and a little lost. Each one, him at the center.

Hands, neck, eyes, lips. All his.

Slowly, Mark’s fingers touched his own mouth, where the camera had lingered. He’d never been farther from Johnny’s magnifying-glass eyes, but in this moment, in the backseat of Lee Haechan’s tinted van, he felt its focused gaze, turning his own breath heady; all the way home, he burned and burned and burned and burned.

 

I May Have Dreamed You Up, Part One

In all his dreaming, it was this memory his subconscious was fond of the most, picking the scene apart and slotting random rows together like a bad Rubik’s cube player. In some versions, Donghyuck fed his mixtape in the player and out poured the sound of weeping. In others, Johnny stopped the car in the middle of an empty backroad and made love to Mark in a star-clotted field. In the most recent ones, Mark jolted awake in the backseat and Johnny would be missing; by the time he slipped into the driver’s seat it was too late—the car was already in free-fall. And the most insidious of them all: Johnny reaching past the handbrake to pull him in by the nape, gifting him with a kiss to heal all wounds, and there was nothing left to forgive. Like Mark had only learned to love yesterday.

In any case, these were the constants in the equation: Johnny, the car, Mark himself, and the planet-sized hurt perched on his shoulder.

If he really thought about it, Mark wasn’t sure which memory was which. If it really came from one at all. His mind could be innovative in moments of weakness—and Mark had plenty of those—but still the voice was an incessant hum in his head, saying, remember?! And of course, Mark did—Mark remembered everything that had to do with Johnny.

This, at least, Mark sure was real: on Johnny’s last day before leaving for college, Mark’s phone pinged with the message:

 

✉️1 new message - 2 minutes ago

wanna get ice cream

 

✉️1 new message - 1 minute ago

this is not optional btw. you have no choice

 

Bleary-eyed, he pulled on a shirt but kept his pajamas. It was late, even for Johnny’s standards; outside cicadas droned in full chorus. Still, Mark crept down the stairs and out the front door where Johnny’s beat up car was already out waiting by the gate, rumbling softly. The questions surfaced as he climbed inside and saw Johnny’s backpack by his feet, where he’d stuffed the mixtape in earlier; where did you go, Mark wanted to ask, where are your dumb friends, and most importantly, did you listen to it? But something in Johnny’s face had changed, so he’d kept his mouth shut.

They talked mindlessly for minutes, until an hour had passed and Mark realized too late—

“Hyung,” Mark startled, pressing his face against the window to frown at the side mirror. “I think you took a wrong turn? I’m pretty sure the ice cream place was only twenty minutes away.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, dude! Literally just make a left at the next block and—you totally took the long way!”

“Did I,” Johnny said. There, in his cheek, a secret. “Oops.”

Mark’s memory of the rest of the night was riddled in holes. He remembered the drive being quiet. The night unspooled leisurely. Within minutes he’d dozed off, and when awoke he was swaddled in Johnny’s large jacket. 

“Hey,” Mark mumbled as he stirred awake; beside him, one hand on the wheel, Johnny startled. Mark shot him a grin. “Yo, you’re playing the tape. You… like it?”

A soft chuckle. Like a siren song, Frank was crooning at them gently. A hand dragged Mark’s hoodie over his eyes. “Ice cream in another hour. Go to sleep,” Johnny urged, so Mark did. The tail lights on the highway twinkled softly behind his eyelids; they could’ve been stars.

In the morning, Johnny was gone without saying goodbye. His car wasn't in the garage. Mark didn’t remember having any ice cream, so he’d accepted that his mind had been playing tricks on him again. It was stupid—still, the loss of it trailed him for days; he’d see Johnny again that month—and years later, share an apartment to survive their first foray into adulthood—but right then the absence howled after him, like some lost animal that had been following him all his life, begging to be let in. And what else was there to do? He’d wanted Johnny for so, so long.

 

A Sound Is Still A Sound Around No One, Part One

Mark wasn’t a newbie by any stretch, but he was far from Mad Dog’s favorites. So when he called up the place and said he’d be performing as a soloist, the gig manager was a little nonplussed. “Gotta give it to you kid, you’re pretty good. But I can only give you the 8:30 slot. Sorry.”

“No problem,” Mark said, but his heart sank. “He’ll—I mean, 10 PM, same lineup right?”

By he, Mark meant Yuta, and the band by extension, who always played at least second to the last these days, as they deserved. And not just because they were good, but also because they were serially tardy or arrived exactly on the dot after hurrying through several gigs in Seoul for the day. If Mark got the first set, Yuta would never catch it.

He considered the plan in Johnny’s resto-bar, but it just wouldn’t have the same effect. That, and Johnny’s mom would be there tomorrow, which would quickly turn things weird. And Yuta liked a good show, after all. Mark knew all the inner workings of that.

(Which was to say that Yuta liked theatrics, liked things when they were done to the hilt. Which also was to say: he’d recognize a risk if he saw one.)

If he saw it, being the question of the day. “Yup, same lineup,” the gig manager confirmed, and then there was a pause over the line. “What’s up with you, kid? I missed seeing you around the band. The boys said you were busy with uni.”

“Right,” Mark mumbled; classes weren’t starting in a week. “Uni.”

It was possible his misery was palpable through the line, because there was a shuffle of paper, and then the manager coughed and said, “Oh, would you look at that. They’re taking the 9 PM slot tomorrow. Guess I have to tell them to come a bit earlier.”

“Oh! Really—“

 “You're still getting the 8:30 PM slot. Be well, kid.” And then he hung up.

The band’s last stop of the day, Mad Dog was the only place left where Mark could show his ugly mug and Yuta wouldn’t run; Mark was banking on that being true. A dirty trick, but Mark was desperate and unlikeable and running out of things to lose. Pushed to the brink, he knew what to do. He’d learned from the best. 

By 8:30 PM he was on the stage, as was the deal, running through his usual covers because he’d spotted a few regulars in the crowd. It had been a good few days since he last stood under these lights, and it gave him whiplash—the good kind. Everything about performing in Hongdae came right out of a picture book, but this? Neon and smoke and tacky outfits on crowds coalescing into a sweaty, affectionate ball—maybe Mad Dog was the real dream. 

But Yuta wasn’t coming. Three minutes before his set was over, none of the band was in sight. Hunched in the corner was the gig manager, making emergency calls left and right for performers in the area. Mark felt his own resolution thin. He reached for his water bottle and drank slowly, stalling. Fine, he thought. Let’s just get it done.

Someone in the crowd was wearing a crystal earring where the lights kept glancing off; you fuck up, the memory instructed. Do it again.

Mark cleared his throat into the mic. “Yeaaaaah. So. We’re down to my last song, and um, I think this time, I’m gonna do something different. Thanks for being great so far tonight, by the way! Seriously. You’ve probably already noticed, but it’s actually my first time performing on a piano in front of anyone—well, second time, if you count my parents when I was ten for my first Recital.” A few smiles in the crowd. Mark raised his left hand, which was wrapped in gauze. “I, uh—I kind of fucked up my fist so I can’t hold any guitar chords for long. Don’t ask.” This time, the crowd laughed, and it did something to Mark’s chest. Encouraged, he continued, “Anyway! I’m gonna perform an original—” somebody whooped exuberantly, “—oh, wow. Yo, thanks, dude. I mean, I performed it before when I busked on Hongdae. Cool crowd. Nobody really notices your voice cracks. Also, it’s really great place for a quick getaway after you embarrass yourself. They have those nice, roomy, air-conditioned bathrooms with strawberry soap. I can’t run away today, though. I’m kind of boxed in here, literally. So, uh.” Mark smiled a shaky smile into the crowd, running his fingers up the piano uneasily. “Hope you like it—”

Without warning, the door at the back opened, flashing moonlight inside. Mark squinted against the light and his heart seized at the intrusion—there was Jungwoo, Taeil, and Jaehyun, ducking quickly inside with their instruments in tow, panting like they’d just completed a marathon. And then Yuta himself, whose eyes rounded as they found him. 

Everything else fell away instantly. Mark’s throat ran dry.

“Ah—” Mark stepped back, afraid the mic would catch the pounding in his chest. The rest of the band had disappeared into the back room, but Yuta stayed put. His brow furrowed. His mouth opened, then slowly closed, until the line on his forehead smoothed out, and he pressed his lips into a line, not unkind. 

He nodded. 

The breath Mark pulled in fell into knots, but he managed to swallow, wet his lip to continue, “This song’s about, um—time, I guess? And waiting. And showing up as you are, and hoping that—things work out. I wrote it for someone I’ve known since I was, like, a kid, so, I guess you could say—” he shuddered, “—he’s kind of the love of my life? I know, lame. Haha. But lately, I’ve been wondering if it was possible to have more than one? Like, if the heart can handle it you know? Like. Different loves, but,” Mark let the sentence hover; in the back Yuta tucked himself against the wall, where the rest of the band were unpacking their tools—not quite watching, but there was a shadow of something in the turn of his mouth, “But both great. Uh. Yeah. Wow—did that make sense? Anyway—I’ll stop rambling now, because I’m bad at saying thank you. Because that’s what I’ve been trying to say. The whole time. So—here goes—"

Both Mark’s hands jerked the moment he placed them on the keys, like they themselves were shocked to be attached to him, to be in this paper-thin moment where he’d allowed himself to be so thoroughly seen. The silence before the first note was back; always a trench. One last breath. And then he began.

I’ve waited many years—“ The melody climbed out of him, just the way he intended when writing: each piece a stepping stone. “—every print I left upon the track has led me here.”

Someone in the crowd began to sway their arms in the air. In the front, two lovers leaned their heads on each other, fingers tangling on the stage floor. And there was Yuta, in the back. Yuta, Yuta, Yuta. It was funny how quickly Mark’s hands returned to him. “And I know that none of this will matter in the long run,” he sang, catching Jaehyun and Taeil’s triumphant grins, then Jungwoo, who blew him several, forgiving kisses, and a laugh flowered into a chord inside him. “But while I’m in this body, I want somebody to want, and I want— ” He was eighteen again, and then sixteen, and then fourteen, bottled fists composing love songs in vain, and in between that cascading, shifting chaosmajor chord, then minor, then major againthat one, constant, unwavering note: “—you.”

He felt buoyant and foolish—enough that he dared to find Yuta in the crowd again. His fingers skipped up and down the scale, accepting his fate, ready for whatever his eyes found, and when he finally did, he grinned and grinned

And Yuta kept grinning back.

 

A Sound Is Still A Sound Around No One, Part Two

He was more than happy to be relegated to bag watch duty again as the boys hurried to take his place. But as they passed each other by, Mark sent them sheepish smilesstill hesitant to breach the distance he’d builtand Jungwoo slapped his ass as they brushed shoulders, hissing, “Markie, what the fuck! I’m shitting my pants, that was so good!” and Jaehyun nudged his shoulder, his eyes dimpling, while Taeil did a little joyful shimmy in place.

“Hyung—“ Mark said as Yuta passed him by without a glance. The word broke in half; his voice had finally given up on him.

Two whole seconds. And then Yuta turned. 

Mark fumbled for words, then gave up on them, choosing instead to raise two thumbs up. His whole face warmed. There was a pause, and then Yuta winked, pleased, before skipping over to his drum set to warm up his wrists. 

Mark missed moshing in place. After the set—eight songs of classic rock with a pop twist—Mark shot up quickly to greet them. He offered up a beer. Said, “You guys are always so good.”

“Why are you always so surprised,” Taeil tutted, taking the can. “Anyway! Care to tell me what was that all about—”

He pulled Mark in playfully, honing in at the vulnerable spot by his stomach, but Yuta intercepted, grabbing him by the elbow and announcing, “Borrowing this!” as soon as he shoved his drum sticks into the back of his pants.

“Alive!” Jungwoo yelled as Yuta pulled them out of Mad Dog’s doors. “I want him back alive, Yuta! Do not eat him!”

Mark stutter-stepped as they walked, his mind still on the stage, even as Yuta slowed the pace so Mark wasn’t stumbling over his own feet. He threaded them between bars, where gig-goers stood smoking in small clusters, in the pockets of the street where activity faded. Up ahead the road opened into a well-lit street.

Mark couldn’t wait any longer.

“Hyung, I’m sorry,” Mark blurted.

“For what?” came the first thing Yuta said to him the whole night. He turned to Mark. His eyes glimmered. “Be specific.”

“For everything—“ Mark said. “For being a dick. For letting you clean up my mess. You didn't deserve it. For making you think you were an—an experiment, because you’re not. You’re my best friend too—“

“Okay,” Yuta said suddenly. The shadow was gone from his face. “Okay.”

Mark startled; Yuta’s hand slipped from his wrist to grip his hand, the solid weight of it grounding. Mark repeated dumbly, “Okay?”

“Okay,” Yuta echoed. “I’m hungry.”

Mark let himself be led into the gap of light, towards a cluster of restaurants glowing faintly. “I said I’m sorry for being—“

“I heard you,” Yuta groaned. “And I said, okay. It’s cool.”

Mark dug his feet in and peeled his hand back; Yuta’s steps slowed, until he stopped walking altogether and turned around. Their shadows stretched beneath them. “Is it, really?” Mark said fretfully. “Because it’s important that you know. You’re—“

Yuta’s hand flew to cover his mouth, stopping the overflow. This close, Mark could see the way something fell across Yuta's face, something loose and happy. It felt like forgiveness. “I got it already, Chihiro. You can’t quite live without me, can you?”

Mark smiled slowly into Yuta’s palm; he wouldn’t deny that. As Yuta pulled his hand away, Mark cleared his throat, said, “So, uh. The song. What’d you think?”

Yuta’s face stilled, completely shut in thought. After a careful moment, he said, “It’s… you. You’re singing about you.”

It was impossible to hold it together after that. Mark dove in and almost ran Yuta over, looping his arms around Yuta’s shoulders and barnacling his head into his neck. “Thanks,” he murmured, the sound muffled. “I was singing it for you.”

“Careful, Mark Lee,” Yuta said, breathing deep. “Or I’ll fall for you for real-real.” When he pushed them apart, the sight of his grin sent an arrow into Mark's gut. Yuta tugged him close, dropped a kiss on Mark’s forehead, and then his lips, just because. Mark’s eyes fluttered shut.

“Missed you,” Mark murmured.

“Swear to god, keep saying shit like that, and I'll—hey. Hey! Perform that song for the person you wrote it for, yeah?” Yuta quipped, letting Mark hang off his shoulder like a dead-weight pulled from the sea; he'd been underwater for so long. Yuta pulled him upright, said, “But first—dinner, and you're buying!”

 

Everybody Loves An Underdog, Part One

Nothing about Tuesdays were particularly remarkable. Nothing too bad or too good ever came out of them. They were just alright. It just so happened that on this particular Tuesday, the world chose to gift Mark three things he could bring up on future family reunions, when the weather talk drifted into dangerous territory, and Mark could whip out one of these bad boys and immediately be the man of the hour. Which also was to say: this Tuesday was bonkers, involving quite a lot, but notably the following:

  1. Mind-blowing makeup friend sex, courtesy of one (1) Nakamoto Yuta; it was extraordinary. Life-altering. Mark himself came two times, and that was even before they even really tried.
  2. A decent un-burnt Korean breakfast, the real thing—with kelp and bean sprouts and everything—courtesy of Mark himself; the heck, wife me up, Yuta said around a mouthful of rice, like he’d gone depraved. Mark’s answering laugh sent food flying everywhere. 
  3. Mark and Donghyuck’s leaked picture, from the restaurant incident, courtesy of Twitter user @hheyhaechvn.

Like a heavy dose of dejavu, Doyoung rang him up thrice until Mark groaned and poked his head out the sheet where he and Yuta had chosen to hibernate for the rest of the day, croaking, “Hyung—?“

Twitter,” Doyoung hissed, his voice squeezing Mark’s cortisol into his bloodstream at eight in the morning. “Mark Lee, you have some explaining to do!”

Blearily, Mark sat up and obeyed; he opened the link Doyoung sent him and immediately wished he'd turned his phone off.

@hheyhaechvn tweeted:

 

Finally found him! Here’s the guy who hurt my bf while we were out having dinner. we need your help ⚠️ our poor fullsun is hanging out with this abusive wannabe singer named mark lee and we don’t know how he’s treating him in secret 😫 I saw him grab haechannie and drag him into the street.. how much worse can he be when no one’s looking? Please help and RT! #Don’tTouchHaechan

[Attachment.png]

“Oh,” Mark said. “Shit.”

Yeah! Shit! ” Mark winced and put the phone a safe distance away, so his eardrums had a fighting chance. “What the hell, Mark?

“I told you—we ran into some trouble at the restaurant—“

You said you met a stalker fan—I didn’t know you beat him up?

“Yo, what, I didn’t beat anyone up—hey, that’s an overreaction! And he called Hyuck a—“ Mark dragged in a breath, felt the phantom-prick on his knuckles again. Compose yourself. “He was being very demeaning. And his girlfriend was obviously a stalker fan, like seriously—talking pictures, with flash? Inside a restaurant? Come on!” And then, in his most quiet voice, added: “Should’ve hit him again.”

Mark,” Doyoung said, as Yuta pushed his surprised face out from the sheet and shot him a finger-heart, crooning, “So punk-rock, Mark Lee.”

Boys.”

That was Taeyong. “Alright, alright.” Mark pulled at his hair and stared at the ceiling. “What now? What—what do I do?”

Now, he wants our help,” he heard Doyoung say in the background. There was a tussle, until Taeyong was back on the other end of the line, his voice extremely put-upon but still, miraculously, here to give him a chance, “Mark, if you ever want a career in anything—anything at all—you gotta take care of this. Sunflowers are great people, you just happened to piss off an extreme case—“

“Sunflowers?”

Haechan’s fans,” Taeyong’s voice deadpanned. “Well, these guys aren't—

With perfect timing, Mark’s phone lit up. 

📲 Incoming Call: Donghyuck

Wait Taeyong-hyung, lemme put you on hold for a sec. Hyuck’s calling.”

Fine.”

The moment Mark accepted the call, Donghyuck was already fuming: “—a load of bull! Did you see it? Did. You. See! Gotta say, that’s a bold move, like—is that what my fans think of me? Some fragile little flower who gets pushed around by his own friends?”

“Abusers, apparently,” he corrected.

I can’t fucking believe it." Mark could imagine the unhappy twist of his mouth. "It’s too fucking early for this.

“...Morning, Hyuck.”

Look, I’m still at work now, but I just wanted to call and say don’t worry about it much, hyung. I know what really happened. My lawyers are gonna be reaaaally busy in a few daysanyway, I have to go, my manager’s calling! Don’t read the tweets! Bye!

Mark stared at his phone as Donghyuck ended the call. Taeyong’s voice returned: “Everything good?

"Explain good."

"Doyoung, down."

“Yeah, Mark,” Yuta drawled, smoothing his hand up Mark's exposed leg distractedly. “Is anyone going to jail? I do hope so.”

No, and, yes—no." Mark paused. “Wait, I’m confused—“

Focus, please? Listen up, Mark—I need you to stop reading stuff online after this. The itch will be there, but you gotta have to tune it out. You’ll get a lot of traffic in a few hours, and that’s completely normal. Don’t worry. We’ll help you fix this.”

“You have no choice,” Doyoung added.

Mark’s heart began to pound. His mind was already ahead, untangling the implications of it. “No, that’s totally unnecessary—“

Mark, look. You’re my friend, and I don’t like seeing people trash your name. More importantly, you’re a good kid, and what’s the use of my journalism degree if we don't at least tell what really happened? We’ll figure something out, then we’ll forward you the brief. It’ll be just one quick little interview—“

“Hold up, hold up, hold up,” Mark said, nervous laughter bubbling out of him; the words one quick interview thrashed inside him like a bad vodka mix; sensing the change, Yuta sent him a frown, slung his leg over Mark’s lap like a fretful cat. “Hyung, first of alldon’t you guys guest, like, major big deal stars now?”

Sure, but there’s a reason we’re called Underdog, you know?

And there was nothing to say after that.

A sigh barbed the line. “Mark, look. If it makes you feel better, you’re actually doing us a favor. Think about it: it’s good fucking content. We get to feature Lee Haechan, we get traffic, all while we set the record straight and spotlight you and your music into the national conversation. Everybody wins!” Taeyong’s voice rung with conviction. "And I’m not just doing this because you’re my friend, either. We needed more content in the pipeline, anyway. Christ. Johnny’s probably still at it. He's been subtweeting those fans since this morning like an absolute madman."

Mark’s eyes widened. “He… is?”

Yeah, I told him not to get involved, but all his smarts evaporate when it comes to you and Donghyuck. Not very bright.

Doyoung added, "But only because the guy has finesse about it. You, on the other hand—do not even attempt to engage, you hear me?"

Mark’s throat corkscrewed shut; he was thinking of it now: Johnny curled on his phone, folding into his awful slouch so he looked twice as small, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. Mark said, “He’s gonna get dragged in this whole mess.”

That’s what I told him.

“He’s so—stupid.” Mark slumped back into his pillows, until the contents of Yuta’s phone caught his eye. He stole it from right under his nose, ignoring his “Hey!” and there it was, on Johnny’s own Twitter account, immortalized for everyone and their children to see. Mark scrambled through the tweets, an itch spreading through his fingers; Johnny had been responding to each malicious tweet with a meme and some condescending quip that still managed to sound nice. Jesus. Already, some fans were making fun of Johnny’s pictures. Mark said, “No, no, I don’t like this.”

Imagine how tired we are,” Doyoung said, as Taeyong's long-suffering sigh sent static galloping through the call, and he was prompted to continue his sermon, “You know you’re our favorite underdog, right? We’re always rooting for you. But—Mark, baby—you gotta pick this one up, this time.

Mark laid his forearm over his eyes. “Yeah.”

We’ll send you the brief in a bit,” Doyoung said. “Cheer up, okay, Markie?"

Mark stared at his phone’s wallpaper as the line cut.

“So,” Yuta began, “who’s going to jail?”

 

Everybody Loves An Underdog, Part Two

He paced the floor of Yuta’s apartment for about 20 minutes, watched one (1) episode of Chef’s Table, which gave his already fraught mind an excuse to tour the cupboard and muse about the inner workings of a master stockafter which he dove into two sets of ten burpees before he said, fuck it—the self-hatred was really coming in spades todayand he parked his sweaty ass on the couch and opened his Notes app to compose his defeat.

please don’t get in involved

No, too forward. Backspace, backspace, backspace. 

i didn’t break his nose okay

That sounded exactly like what a person who broke someone else’s nose would say. Mark dragged a hand through his face, stifling a groan. He gnawed on his lip and put his fingers back.

i’m sorry. i miss you. i hope you’re doing alright. 

His resolve was already fraying. Without another thought, he copied the message and sent it in one breath.

Then, he buried the phone with his pillow and stared at it like it was a grenade about to blow. An inhuman sound spilled out of him.

Yuta poked his head around the corner of the wall. “You good?”

“I’m gonna die,” Mark explained, not looking up.

“Cool,” Yuta responded, “you do that.” And then he disappeared.

And then his phone pinged. 

There was an eternal, breathless momentbefore Mark dived for it. 

 

✉️1 new message - just now

Johnny

i’m doing okay. hope you can say the same thing for yourself

"Shit," Mark cursed. His fingers flew over the keypad.

it’s uh being handled…… i guess haha

Johnny sure wasted no time to reply.

suure. these kids are crazy. 

Mark ached. He was toeing the line; but he needed to know. He typed back: you dont believe them?

Two minutes sailed by. And then:

of course not. if i see ‘abusive’ and ‘mark lee’ in the same sentence again im gonna [redacted] the hell out of their [redacted]

A laugh was punched out of him. Grinning foolishly, Mark wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans and replied: hahaha noooo they’re kids

The next messages arrived in quick succession:

you’re a kid too

no i guess you’re not 

Mark blinked before he read the last message again.

i miss you too

It was dangerous to hope now, but it bloomed inside him, wild and giddy and insidious. He touched his mouth. Then he put his fingers back to type. 

i know you’re still in jeju but. can we talk when you get back?

The next message arrived three hours and twenty minutes later; Yuta was snoring next to him, and Mark himself was already dozing off when his phone lit up, and then after sleep was impossible, merely a concept someone had invented.

 

✉️1 new message - just now

Johnny

sure, markie

 

These Friends in High Places

The next anniversary issue was themed: An Ode to the Underdog; Mark was going to guest with other up-and-coming artists in Seoulpoets, playwrights, DJs, to dancers.  On the day of the shoot, Doyoung’s first and last message to him was meant to be comforting, but it lodged something real and inescapable inside his lizard brain: Hope you slept well! just come as you are

The commute to the studio was a daze—Mark had taken this elevator ride before, walked down the familiar hallway to the makeup room and could count down to the first issue framed as decor on the wall—but there were things about the studio that leapt out at him now, new and a little bit terrifying, now that he wasn’t here as Johnny’s Roommate, that kid who liked to eat the talents' snacks and leech off of the building’s wifi. 

Before he knew it, he was standing in the meet up point. Vinyl record outside the door, just as Doyoung described. He stalled a bit—made brief, very awkward eye contact with another musician he vaguely recognized—until the door swung open and one of the MUAs spotted him, saying, “Well, what are you doing out there?” and was whisked inside and into one of the leather seats. 

As she dabbed foundation on his face, Mark pushed a laugh out and said, “Thanks, but I don’t wear—“

“Don’t worry, you’ll forget it’s even there,” she assured him. “Plus, you got a few acne scars here, we gotta cover that up.”

Mark flushed. “I—sorry.”

That seemed to tug a smirk out of her. “For having normal skin?” She smiled, not unkind. “Don't be.” After a pause, her eyes flicked down at him, considering. “So you’re the bad influence huh? Lee Haechan’s little feral friend?”

“Oh, whis that what they call me?” he said. “If anyone’s feral, it’s—” he caught himself. “I mean, daaamn, I guess that’s me.”

“Well, I really hope the rumors aren’t true, Mark Lee.”

“What rumors?”

She tilted his chin up, assessing her work. “That you’re a jerk.”

“Well—“ Mark laughed, a stilted sound. “I’m trying not to be anymore.”

She dusted a little blush on the apples of his cheeks and hummed. “You have nice eyes. I’m gonna put some liner on you to highlight them, is that okay?”

“Uh, sure, you’re the expert.” She grinned at him, amused, just as the door swung open and Doyoung entered, eyes bright.

“Mark!” he exclaimed. “You’re late!”

Mark swivelled, nearly stabbing his eye in the process. “Hyung? You said 5 PM!”

is when it starts! Everyone knows you have to be here two hours earlier,” Doyoung moaned. “We missed the golden hour. What do we do with you?” He pinched Mark’s cheek, then backed off as the MUA gave him an earful about ruining her work. “Fine, we’ll just do yours in the box. Shoot first, then the interview. You got the questions ahead, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, well you’re the last person left. Johnny’ll take care of you today—“

“Johnny?” Something in his chest fell from a tall height. “Johnny's... in Jeju.”

Doyoung looked like he was choosing his words very carefully. “He wanted to be there for your first shoot.”

“Wh—” Mark began, giggling nervously until he couldn’t anymore. He wanted to dunk his face in ice, scratch off all the products on his face, and maybe barricade himself in the studio restroom until the day ended. Instead, he said, “Cool. Cool, okay. When did he get back? What about his project? Did he like, sleep at all?”

“So many questions,” Doyoung groaned, stepping back so the MUA could resume her job. “He’s big, alright, but he’s still Underdog’s resident photographer. You’re in good hands, Mark Lee." He put his hands on Mark's neck, like if he didn't Mark would've floated away and disappeared into the sun, because that was what it felt like. "You’re lucky to have friends in high places.”

 

 

The Studio

After an eternity spent trying to psyche himself up, Mark stepped into the box, feeling his soul evaporate out his own pores from sheer anxiety. There was Johnny, his broad back unmistakable as he adjusted the legs of a fresnel light. All of Mark’s available brain power zeroed in on his silhouette immediately, and maybe Johnny felt it, because then he was turning around to smile at him, polite, a camera around his neck. There was a new tattoo on his elbow that Mark was itching to see. He was sporting a new undercut, too. Everything beneath the costume change was still his Johnny, Mark knew, but also inexplicably not, like the air in Jeju had somehow re-arranged his atoms into someone else, Johnny 2.0. Like Mark had imagined him all along.

“Hey,” Johnny greeted. “How you feeling?”

“Great,” Mark lied; he was spiralling at an accelerated rate unseen by the naked eye. Mark touched his neck. “You—I thought you wouldn’t be back in three days.”

“Me too,” Johnny chuckled, then shrugged, like he was extremely put-upon. “Doyoung’s got me wrapped around his finger. Then again,” he looked around the set, clucked his tongue, “guess Underdog’s just home.” 

“Right,” Mark said. “And you’ll—take my pics?”

“That is the plan, yes.” Johnny grinned, but Mark couldn't see it in his eyes. “You nervous?”

“I’m shitting myself.”

Johnny sent him a close-mouthed smile. Mark simmered silently.

“You’ll get used to it,” Johnny assured him. “It’ll take a while, but when you really get going, it’ll just… flow. Like a river.” The edges of his mouth curled. “I don’t blame you though. This is still crazy. What do you know—you’re famous.”

“For violence,” Mark mumbled. Johnny hid a grin, very badly. 

“Look at you. How’s the fist?”

Mark shook it in the air. “Eh.”

“Who would’ve thought you had it in you, huh?”

“It’s not like I planned on breaking the asshole's nose.”

“And he admits his crime,” Johnny said, then schooled his expression into something more neutral as more staff stepped inside the room. “Alright, so I’m gonna need you to stand over here… yeah, good. Actually, we can start with some sitting poses, it’s easier. Yeah, you can cross your legs. Good. Nothing fancy. Just do what comes naturally. Okay?“ 

Mark’s fingers gripped his knees. He nodded stiffly from the spot Johnny directed him to sit. “Okay.”

As Johnny receded towards the shadows, a rush of panic crept up his throat. This was different from Hongik, or even Mad Dog’s frenetic lights. The studio's white, almost clinical glare stirred in the beginnings of a migraine. Different staff rushed in and out—pulling a loose thread out his sweater, smoothing back his hair, picking out a stray eyelash on his cheek—and Mark wanted to bolt. Mark wished Yuta was here, to hide him away.

“Here you go,” Johnny returned to say, depositing Mark’s guitar on his lap. Mark held onto it like it was lifeline. “The treatment—um, that's like the theme, I guess—for this whole shoot is all about authenticity. Big word, but it all just means relax. Nothing too fancy, or too artificial. I need you to let loose. Casual. You can do casual, right?”

Mark nodded. Johnny looked at him a beat too long, so Mark pushed it out: “Yep.”

“Alright,” Johnny said, unsure. “Let’s start?” 

Again, Mark nodded. Johnny looked through the viewfinder and began. Click, click, click. He circled around him, nudging him here and there. After a few pictures, Johnny shook his head, laughing, and said, “Mark, stop holding your guitar like you’re gonna bash someone’s head in.”

“Oh,” Mark startled, “am I?”

“Yeah—just relax.” Johnny demonstrated, shaking his shoulders loose. “Can we try a few shots without the props? Standing now?”

“Uh, sure.” Mark let a runner take his guitar away and looked after it longingly. Immediately, everything else blurred into the background. He pushed himself up to his feet and just stood there. 

Johnny licked his lips. “Um, can you pose?”

“I am.”

Johnny sighed, then walked up to him. His hold was firm as he touched Mark’s skin. Mark let himself be molded—a hand on his neck, the other on his shoulder. Finally, Johnny tilted his chin up, and Mark’s face followed like a flower to the sun. The fingers lingered on his chin, pinpricks of warmth. And then they were gone.

“There you go. Just like that,” Johnny said softly. He brought the camera upward, sharpening the focus, and immediately Mark was hyper-aware of the lens that tracked his every movement. The photos returned to him, and with it, the festering heat. Johnny was saying, “The eyes can’t lie, you know? They’ll know just what kind of person you are after they see . . .”

Johnny trailed off. He set his camera down as he met Mark's gaze without the barrier; something unsayable crossed his face. 

“What’s wrong?” Mark said, after a while, when he’d realized Johnny had stopped taking pictures altogether. Johnny’s eyes flicked to Mark’s hand, gripped loosely around his elbow; belatedly, he realized both his hands were shaking.

Mark pushed them into his pockets.

“Sorry,” Mark said, laughing hollowly, then glanced at the spot between his feet. “Sorry, I’ll—“

“Can we get a minute?” Johnny called out. When Mark’s face whipped up Johnny had brandished a wide, sheepish grin on as he faced the staff and bowed. “It'll be quick. Just me and the talent?” 

A murmur, and slowly everyone began to file out. The door clicked shut.

When Johnny turned back to him, there wasn’t a single trace of anger on his face. “Are you okay?”

Mark nodded, but he felt light-headed.

“Hey,” Johnny said, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder, and that single touch made Mark want to shudder apart, like Johnny had tugged on a fraying thread and now there was nothing else to keep him together. “Just breathe. Can you breathe for me?”

“I just,” Mark began. “Johnny, I just wanted to—“

“Later,” Johnny pressed. His hand crept up Mark’s neck, thumbing his cheekbone, before briefly passing by the scar on his head to tuck a stray hair behind Mark’s ear—so gently Mark was going to cry. Johnny smiled at him. ”We'll talk later.”

“Promise?” Mark blurted.

“Yeah,” Johnny said, gruff. “Promise.” He breathed a monumental breath then smiled, kind. “Right now, I need you to trust me, okay? It’s just you and me. Just pretend we’re back in our apartment. It’s a Sunday morning . . . ” and Mark let Johnny’s voice carry him through; it was enough.

 

The Interview: A Transcript, Part One

Interviewer: Wow… okay. Well then. See, we got a call from Lee Haechan too, just a few hours ago, telling us exactly what happened. But hearing it from you really does change everything.

Mark: [Laughs] Uh, I do hope so. Hyuck—Haechan, I mean—we’ve been texting each other about it, and I think we’re kind of over it now. We, um, we just kind of like, laugh about the memes that have come out of it. Heh.

Interviewer: Thank you for your honesty. And I’m sure the memes are fantastic, but before we get into that, I just want to say that it must suck to have your first article about you be… well about that, right? So—[claps]—let’s restart this whole thing on a positive note, shall we? How does it feel to be one of the 12 New Artists To Watch? 

Mark: Oh—wow. Um. Haha. Jeeesus. Well, first of all, I kind of feel bad I’ve never realized people were watching my stuff? Like, I don’t really go online much, ever. The videos and stuff, I saw them like—a month ago? Wow. Yuta—I mean, my friend—he says I’m more digitally inept than his uncle, and he’s like, ancient. When I was a kid, my mom only allowed me to sign up for Facebook after I graduated high school, and even then I had to be super duper secretive about it, like, I had use a different name and stuff because they thought Facebook was an instrument of the devil or whatever—[staff laughing in the background]—yeah, please cut this part out—

 

The Interview: A Transcript, Part Two

Interviewer: It seems like time and longing are big, big themes in your work. One of your most watched videos are your covers by Mitski and Frank Ocean—

Mark: Really?

Interviewer: Yeah, I thought you saw the stats? From the songs you choose to cover to the originals you’ve released, those themes are omnipresent. There’s a lot of fear too; your last three originals were all about that, weren’t they?

Mark: That’s probably because I’m afraid, like, half the time I’m awake. Haha.

Interviewer: Sounds fun. And what is Mark Lee afraid of?

Mark: Well—[laughs]—many things, I guess. Of fucking up. Of fucking up other people. Of not being able to present my, um, most polished self? I like to be my best for the people that I care about, but sometimes things don’t go as planned. 

Interviewer: Yikes. What then?

Mark: You just.... [sighs]. You keep living, I guess? You fuck up, and people still love you. I like to believe that’s true, even for someone like me.

Interviewer: So are you then?

Mark: What?

Interviewer: Your most polished self?

Mark: [Pause] I don’t think I’ll ever get there, so... I’m just trying to show up. [Laughs]. I’m hoping it’s enough.

 

 

The Interview: A Transcript, Part Three

Interviewer: So tell us about the song!

Mark: The song?

Interviewer: Yes. The Song. Someone submitted a recording to Buskers of Hongdae, and it has about 700 thousand likes now. I’ve been reading the comments, and I think it’s safe to say people are kind of in love with it—

Mark: Damn…

Interviewer: Someone on Pann said it was a love song to end all love songs.

Mark: …

Interviewer: Your face!

Mark: I didn’t know it was uploaded. [Nervous laughter] Well, shit. 

Interviewer: I think the piano was a good touch. Really diversified your repertoire there. It feels very… homemade and personal.

Mark: You can say it sucks, it’s okay.

Interviewer: Not at all! I think it’s a very special track. Rare to find something like that these days. And you said you wrote it for the love of your life, correct? Just want to confirm what you said in the video.

Mark: ...yeah, I did, huh? Is this being recorded?

Interviewer: Yes it, is. Well? Details please!

Mark: Uh—[Coughs]—well, this song—I think I’ve been writing it for about eight years? I’ve written the chorus two years ago, and then the bridge this year. I sort of like—build things up as I go. Sometimes, I get these days where the words just—slot? This year was the year everything just… fell into place. 

Interviewer: The melody is phenomenal. 

Mark: Thank you! Wow. Thanks. I’ve had the melody line for as long as I can remember, I think. 

Interviewer: The chords you’ve chosen are so jarring together. But together, it’s just right. Sounds nostalgic, even.

Mark: Yeah well—you could say my childhood inspired me.

Interviewer: Oh, how so?

Mark: Uh, well—the song’s about my childhood best friend, so. That may be why. Haha. Is this being recorded? Um—[Laughs]—I think I have to—it’s over, right? I’m just gonna—

Interviewer: Mark—is everything—

 

The Three Of Us

Mark bowed and walked out the frame; by the time he’d made it down the hallwayignoring the concerned faces that blurred into viewand stepped into the elevator, his entire face had gone numb. His own mouth was cotton. He needed to not be here, before this minute trickled into the next.

The elevator chimed; he got out, then crossed the lobby. He didn’t realize how fast he’d been walking until he heard his own name tangled on Johnny’s voice, a few feet away. He started walking faster. He had a five minute head start; he could make it. 

Mark,” Johnny called. 

Mark kept his eyes straight. Johnny had stupidly long legs, an unfair God-given advantage, but Mark was determined. Johnny had probably ran all the way down the stairs to catch up to the elevator. Too bad; Mark was slipping out the building, where the cool night slid across his skin, he just needed to get lost in a crowd—

“Mark, stop or I swear to god, I’m gonna—“ 

“Stop following me!”

“Well, stop running.”

Mark ducked under a sign, feeling hopelessness crowd his throat. Johnny’s voice was much closer now.

“Mark—” There was a pained grunt, without warning, then a thud.

Mark’s head swivelled around; he couldn’t help it—the sound of Johnny in pain pulled at the very core of him. When he saw Johnny doubled over on the ground a few feet away, Mark’s breath stuck in his throat. Then he was running towards him, a bubble of panic rising in his chest.

“Hyung—” Mark gasped. “Hey, hey, hey—”

“My ankle—fuck—

As Mark reached down, attempting to turn him, hands grabbed his wrists and jerked him down to his knees.

“Got ya,” Johnny said into his space, grin the size of the moon. His grip was iron-heavy. “You actually fell for it. Damn, Mark, haven't you seen the dramas?”

Mark blinked. Feebly, he pulled against his hold. “Let go, please.”

“No,” Johnny said happily, gathering his wrists in one hand, because he could. “First, we’re going to talk. Like I promised.”

“Can we talk when I’m not restrained?”

“Then stop trying to run away!”

“I’m not!” Mark cried. He looked up, eyes pleading. “I promise. I won’t run. At least let me do this right… when I’m standing.”

“Yeah, no,” Johnny decided, "You can't fool me, you’re just gonna take off again and

“Look,” Mark said—he'd been trying to quell the dam back for the better part of the year, and now it burst out of him helplessly. “I’m sorry! I wasn’t ever going to tell you—I was gonna keep it together and watch you grow old with somebody else and I would’ve kept it forever and that would’ve been okay. At least, I thought I could bear it. But I’m selfish, and—I’m not ashamed of it. There!” Tears were running down his face, hot and furious. “And it’s okay if you don’t—can we still be friends? I want to be part of your life, hyung, even just a small portion of it—“

“Mark,” Johnny clamped a hand over his mouth. The lamplight above them haloed his hair and turned his face soft. “So you really like me?”

Mark stared at the soft wonder on his face. And then he started laughing. Then he started crying. Blocks of distressed, ugly hysteria. The water fell from his eyes and trickled into Johnny’s palm until Johnny released his face so he could pat his cheeks dry.

“Don’t ask me that,” Mark gasped. “Jesus, don’t you—please don’t ask me that question ever again, orI don’t know. I’m gonna ruin somebody.”

Well?”

“Dude, would I be crying in the middle of thisthis stupid street otherwise?” Mark shot back. The misery mingled with the ache, until he scrubbed his nose and covered his face in his hands. “You heard it. Everyone did.”

Johnny coughed. Slowly, he pulled Mark up, dusting the dirt from his knees, before his hands lingered on his waist. “Good to know from the source.” Then he grabbed Mark’s wrist and led him towards the side of the building, a shadowed wall with an ATM machine and a few bushes. “Since when?” Johnny asked conversationally as they walked.

“I don’t know,” Mark muttered. “The whole time?” Before he knew it he was backed up against the wall; this close, the sweat on Johnny’s brow from when he’d dashed down the whole staircase shone. Mark asked, “I thought I was obvious. Didn’t you have any idea?”

“Course I did,” Johnny said. “Should I even mention the mixtape? I had a feeling. But after that you pretended it never happened. You said you made Jungwoo one too.”

“Jungwoo?” Mark sniffed, confused. “He’s just a friend.”

“Yeah,” Johnny laughed; it was a little unhinged. “Proves my point exactly. Still, I wanted to think mine was different. But, godwe were both kids, Mark. What did I know? I had no fucking clue.”

“Not me,” Mark said. “I knew.” He stared Johnny down. “I was always sure about you.”

Johnny’s pupils grew focused and dark. His gaze darted away, then back again. Said, “You said you started writing the song about me eight years ago. What about now?”

“S’always you,” Mark confessed, defiant and hopeless at the same time. “I won’t apologize. But I saw the photos you took—the ones of me? And I thought, I don’t know—I was thinking, maybe—but if there’s nothing there for me, if I imagined the whole thing after all—” Mark pulled in a shuddering breath. “Do me a favor and pretend nothing happened? I really don’t want to lose our friendship, hyung. I’ll go crazy.”

Johnny's next breath was loud between them. He bit his lip, looked away until he looked back down at him, and even Mark himself shuddered at all he found there. “You think you’re special? You’re not the only one going crazy here.” Johnny said tightly. “I really like you, Mark. I’ve always been looking at you. I just didn't know if I should've—well,” He paused, swallowed. “You know me. If there even was margin of error—I wasn't sure if—" He kept floundering.

"I think," Mark said, taking pity, "I think I know what you mean." He watched Johnny swallow, then mustered up the last of his courage. "But now you know. There's no margin."

Johnny looked at the hand Mark wrapped around his own. "No margin," he repeated.

"No fucking possibility, bro," Mark said, almost incredulous, and Johnny laughed. "So? What about this time?"

"This time," Johnny said. "I think I know what it means.”

Johnny’s palm cradled his jaw; Mark shut his eyes and leaned into it, imagining his skin cracking open.

“I missed you,” Johnny said, the sound gutted, and that was it, click—now the slow spiral. “I’m going to kiss you now, if that’s okay.”

“Shit,” Mark blurted tearfully. Johnny laughed.

Johnny’s tongue darted out his mouth. “Can I—?” 

Mark reached up on his toes, flung both arms around Johnny’s shoulders and stole the moment for himself. Strange; it felt like he’d kissed Johnny before, so he kept trying again and again, until he got it right. Heat then movement then memory. Johnny’s mouth opened over him, firm and hot, until Mark’s eyes flew wide and he pulled back, gasping, “Hyuck,” eyes wide, and, “Hyung, Hyuck—”

“Knows all about it,” Johnny said simply, dazed, then pulled Mark’s face in again to kiss him on the forehead, then his cheek. Mark looked at him, shattered, until Johnny pinched his nose and laughed. “Talk later. I promise. The three of us.”

The three of us. Mark nodded. “Okay.”

Johnny hadn’t stopped grinning at him. “Hurts,” he said.

Mark looked down worriedly. “Your ankle?” 

Johnny shook his head.

“Here.” He pointed at his chest, and when Mark realized, he pushed him so he staggered back, laughing sharply into the night. “You’re so annoying.”

Johnny drew close to him again, using his own shirt to wipe the snot out of Mark’s face. “There you go, darling," Johnny cooed. “I hate seeing you upset. Sorry for making you cry.”

“You can make it up to me?” Mark said. “Come home tonight.”

I May Have Dreamed You Up, Part Two

They took an Uber back to their apartment, after Johnny rang Doyoung up and told him he was gonna have to poof, you know how it is. The conversation petered into Johnny’s travels, and Mark let Johnny clean the foundation off his face, sitting in the corner of his bed with a pillow on his lap. Johnny filled the silence happily, like he hadn’t just kissed Mark and turned the narrative on its head just moments ago; and for a moment they’d settled back into their usual dynamic Mark was helplessly afraid he’d imagined the whole thing. Like he'd pressed a button somewhere and now was back in square one.

“You’re so quiet,” Johnny mused. “What’s going on?”

Mark shook his head; any words he’d say now would break the spell, he was sure of it. It felt like it'd been months since Johnny was last here, breathing the same air. Johnny touched his cheek and Mark couldn’t help it; he preened under Johnny’s attention. 

Johnny swiped the cotton over his eyelid. "Missed a spot," he said gruffly, then looked down to admire his work. Mark's skin felt clean and amazing. He was buzzing with a barely-held euphoria he was too afraid to show. Johnny gathered the discoloured cotton from Mark's hand and stood up to dispose it. Then he returned to push Mark’s glasses into his face.

“We should clean up,” Johnny said, then looked at Mark pointedly. Mark coughed, then nodded. Johnny said, “No? Alright, I’ll go ahead.”

Johnny pushed off the bed and made his way to the bathroom. Mark lingered there. The world Johnny had returned to him was the same, but also hedged with something else. When he looked up, he realized the bathroom door was ajar. The soft patter of water trickled out the gap. A glaring trap; Johnny never left it open.

He was seized then by a heat, and he stood up, heart thrashing like a stunned bird. The first step inside, the air was cloaked in heat. Mark’s glasses fogged over instantly. Under the warm lights, Johnny’s back greeted him. The wide expanse of it was alien and new. 

Mark sniffed, loudly enough for Johnny to hear. Johnny didn’t budge; the water kept sliding down his neck and shoulders, down the dip of his hips. Slowly, Mark pushed off his glasses, then moved the sliding doors aside. The cuff on his jeans were the first to get soaked. The rest of him darkened along the way. Inside, Johnny’s sharp inhale was like a glass shattering. Mark watched the water drain in rivulets around Johnny's bare feet, which slowly turned.

When Mark looked up, Johnny’s was looking right at him.

“Can you—be quiet for a moment?” Mark said. “I want to do something.”

Johnny nodded. Mark stepped closer, reached his arms around Johnny. Johnny’s arms automatically drew around his waist to press their chests together. Cloth to bare skin.

“Is this okay?” Mark whispered. Johnny tucked his neck against Mark's face, and he felt the slow bob of his throat. 

“Yeah,” Johnny said; his voice was a wreck. “These,” he whispered, hand grazing the edge of Mark's shirt, pushing up. “Off.”

Mark stepped back, his hands shaking as he peeled his shirt, then his jeans. He kicked them to the side, forgotten. The heat of Johnny’s palm was branding as it brushed his waist, helping Mark pull his boxers off. Immediately, his whole body was doused in heat, even as the cool spray ricocheted off their bodies. There was nothing to hide behind now. Johnny's eyes traveled down, further, dark and greedy. 

“Let me feel you?” Mark said. 

“‘Course,” Johnny said gravelly.

They reached for each other at the same time, their hands quiet, tangling, desperate. Mark's fingers scrabbled up the holy expanse of Johnny’s back. Johnny nudged up him up against the tiled wall, and the shock of cool tiles on his skin pulled a gasp out of him like a gunshot. Johnny’s hands felt his stomach, the dip of his spine. Hair, skin, breath. This slow, beating pulse. There were things to discuss, years to unpack and measure, and histories to untangle, but for now—

“Tighter,” Mark said.

Johnny’s arm squeezed around his waist, pressing his lips to his temple, that sweet history that singed all his veins. “Anything.”

“Don’t let me go,” Mark said. His voice wavered. In answer, Johnny’s entire body pressed against him, like two palms in prayer.

“Never,” Johnny said, his hold bruising sweetly. “Never, Markie.”

 

The Real Deal

“I love you, Johnny. Like—“ Mark’s throat closed up. He breathed, begged the words to form—they were still unspeakable, even now, but he’d try. Take two: “You’re it. Like, the real deal.“

Without warning Johnny’s big hand was over Mark’s face, muffling the indignant squawk there. When he pulled back, Johnny’s face was pink.

“Nice,” Johnny said, then cleared his throat. He flicked Mark’s nose, even as his own face broke apart with something words would fail to capture. Mark filed the image away and would return to it on many nights. Johnny said, "Me too, Mark. The real deal."

 

All Things Grow

Of course Donghyuck’s play would be a success. It was just in the cards. That even just days after talk of the incident, with Underdog's feature just beginning to work its magic—Donghyuck’s inimitable luck would pull through. Didn't matter that it was an indie play too, with barely any budget, written by an up-and-coming bisexual playwright who liked grand space opera narratives with a pop culture twist. Mark was starry-eyed by the end of it, shooting to his feet during the curtain call along with Yuta and the band, Johnny, and Donghyuck’s manager, of course, who got front seats and was bawling into his napkin. 

Donghyuck himself wasn’t faring any better; after pretending like he hadn't been pouring his own soul and more into the play, now he stood under the spotlight, brokenly sobbing, dwarfed by the other cast members who slung their arms around him and kissed his wet cheeks. The guy who played his love interest, his star-crossed alien lover, let him clamber on his back to catch the sunflowers thrown his way. The rapturous applause went on for what seemed like days.

And then the lights went off. People began to file out the theatre.

“Come, on Mark, let’s pick Hyuck up backstage,” Johnny said as the rest of the gang left. There was an afterparty, and Donghyuck had tickets for two plus-ones. “We need to save the staff from from him, ASAP.”

“Right,” Mark laughed, then squeezed Yuta’s hand back when he felt him pat his hand goodbye. “Are you sure you don’t wanna come?”

“Yeah,” Johnny said, then pretended to whisper. “We’ll smuggle you in.”

Yuta shook his head, grinning; his eyes flickered to where Johnny had clipped Mark around the elbow and a slow, knowing grin crept us his face.

“Nah, I’m beat. You two, on the other hand—behave,” Yuta replied. To Johnny, he said. “You should be thanking me, you know? Markie was no fun before he met me. Literally, you couldn't bring him anywhere. I taught him everything I know."

“Stop conspiring against me,” Mark moaned, “I’m literally right here.” Yuta laughed, and Johnny began to drag him away from the main auditorium. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Yuta nodded, but the smile was a beat too late. Mark knew, instantly; the Yuta-shaped part of his brain blared in warning. Yuta waved, and Mark kept waving back until a surge of people blocked Yuta from view, and then in the next moment, he was gone.

True to form, Donghyuck was hunched over his co-stars when they found him, cry-laughing with relief. When he saw them at the end of the hallway, he brightened immediately, breaking into a jog and flinging himself blindly into Johnny’s arms. Mark’s ears burned as he kissed Johnny full on the mouth—no press allowed backstage, thank Jesus—and after Johnny spun him around enough times and put him down, Donghyuck kissed Mark on the mouth too, for good measure. Mark said, “Um.”

“Well?” Donghyuck said, pulling a stray piece of confetti out his hair. “Give me praise!”

“The booger in your left nostril is sublime, dear,” Johnny cooed.

“Yeah, take your flowers, it's triggering Johnny's rhinitis,” Mark complained, but deposited the bouquet into his arms with both hands, then said, "Well, I guess you could say... that play kind of changed my life?"

Donghyuck fluttered his eyelids at him. “The way I only have you, Markie!”

“You blew us away, but I won't keep saying it or it's gonna get to your head. You ready?” Johnny said. “I’ll get the car and pick you guys up front.”

“Yes, oh my god, I’m so hungry,” Donghyuck said after burying his face into the bouquet. “Markie, our little wallflower, you’re coming right? I promise it's gonna be PG. Winwin-hyung and Kun-hyung are master chefs, I swear, we're all gonna get food coma tonight."

“Yeah,” Mark said. He scratched his neck, said, “Uh, sorry can I just—I forgot something.” 

Johnny made a face. “Again?” 

“Shut up, I’m not going to the toilet,” Mark groaned, but was already walking backwards, the other way they came. “Meet you in the driveway?”

"Hurry, hyung!"

Mark ran. He weaved his way around press, ducking his face away from the cameras, then climbed two floors until he emerged gasping into the parking lot. The sun was only beginning to set. There, across the asphalt, Yuta was slipping halfway into the driver's seat.

“Wait!” Mark called out.

Yuta's head turned. His eyes widened. Mark had caught the downturn of his mouth just minutes ago; now everything about it was animated. The shape slanted into a grin.

“Mark?” Yuta said. “Why are you here? Where’s your boys?”

Mark’s heart thundered. He didn't get to practice, but now with Yuta around, the fog in his brain cleared, just like that.

"Mark?"

"I'm gonna say something!"

Yuta startled. "Jeez. Go ahead."

Mark stepped closer. “I’m not gonna wait—not gonna make the same mistake—but I want to tell you as early as now that I don’t—I don't want things to change. I mean, well—“ Mark babbled. “I’m not very good at figuring out what I want, but you—“ he stared helplessly into the whirlwind of Yuta’s face, said, “—you’re mine, too, you know?”

There were many other things he wanted to say—better sounding things, more reasonable—but Mark could only hope Yuta caught what he meant where it fell between the blanks. His own face warmed. Gradually, something foolish unfolded Yuta's face, until the sweet secret was out, and he said, "Yeah." He was nodding. “Greedy little bastard. What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Mark said, reaching for Yuta’s hands. “I have no fucking clue—can we figure it out together? Shake the can, see how stuff settles."

"Shake the can, huh?"

"Yeah." Mark grinned, and slowly, Yuta grinned back; call and response. His heart was poking out his chest. "So?"

“So?" Yuta parroted, then twisted his ear. "The hell am I gonna say to that?"

"Yes," Mark said, so Yuta did.

A car beeped, and the moment dispersed; Johnny's car had breached the driveway. The window pulled down, and Johnny's arm pumped the air.

Mark turned to Yuta, and without words, he understood. “Okay," Yuta said.

“So the plan changed,” Donghyuck announced as soon as they clambered into the backseat, snacking on a stick of beef jerky Johnny kept for emergencies like this one. “We’re not going to the afterparty. Doyoung-hyung just called me and said a couple of reporters were already there, and I’m getting hives just thinking about it.” Donghyuck shivered, then looked back at them. His eyes glinted with mischief. “Oh, hey Yuta-hyung. I’ve heard plenty about you.”

“And I you,” Yuta grinned.

“So,” Mark said, quite loudly. “Food trip.”

"Yep." Johnny pulled the car into the main road, smiling wide. "I don't know the sushi place you're talking about Hyuck, pull it up on Maps please?"

“Oh, Johnny, I'm about to change your life. No need, I'll be your navigator,” Donghyuck said, propping his feet up as he began to blab about the sheer artistry and love that came into each individual roll. After a few minutes, he said, "Right turn, over there. I said right. Right—hyung!" he cried, then shot a flabbergasted look Johnny's way. "Are you listening?"

"Oh, sorry—got distracted."

"You literally missed the only left turn in miles, hyung," Donghyuck cried, watching the street disappear through the side mirror. "We're gonna have to go the long way."

“Oh no,” Johnny moaned, then shrugged his shoulders, grinning. “Oops,” and so they went, down the road hedged with light; they had a lot of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

| thinking about you - frank ocean |
| francis forever -mitski | 
| edge of desire - john mayer |  
| chicago - sufjian stevens |
| own it - drake |
| tonight, tonight - the smashing pumpkins |
white ferrari - frank ocean |

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so there's probably a rule about putting two songs from the same artist
in the same playlist, but whatever. i’m already breaking all the rules by making
this mixtape, haha but here goes i guess!!!!! you're turning into a cool college kid
already but when you get the time i hope you listen to this & remember
that someone out there thinks you're the absolute bee's knees
& forgives you even if you don't return his calls.
see you in the summer, J

 

yours, always

M