Despite the crisp breeze of a wintery evening, some golden albeit weak sunlight dances in the sky. It filters through the maple trees which have long since lost their leaves, falling in shapes and shadows on the footpath of the street. Donghyuck walks toward it, tracing the familiar path from work to home as if guided by the light. He shivers slightly, pulling his coat just a little tighter around his body, the boots on his feet not doing much to keep them warm. A smile still finds its way to his lips, though, because he’s always loved this time of year, the way the city looks like a painting dipped in golden at twilight.
“Are you even listening, Donghyuck?” a scratchy voice sounds through the phone pressed to his ear. In all honesty, he hasn’t been listening for at least the last two blocks, caught up in the beauty of the city that still manages to take his breath away after almost a year of living here. Jaemin doesn’t need to know that, though.
“Of course, Jaem,” he says, almost laughing to himself at how genuine he sounds. Jaemin sighs on the other end, commencing his rambling about whatever his cute work colleague has done today, and the smile on Donghyuck’s lips grows wider. He really loves his friend just as much as he loves this city.
They hang up somewhere between the small park Donghyuck cuts through and the bridge he always passes under, Jaemin disappearing to cook dinner for himself and his flatmate (although not leaving without an additional complaint about having to cook). Donghyuck takes the long way home today, as he often does, wanting to prolong his time under the setting sun a little longer. He’s humming a tune under his breath as he turns a corner and sees something that instantly attracts his attention.
There’s a crowd, pairs upon pairs of bodies in suits and gowns lining up outside what appears to be a large private gallery. Interest piqued, Donghyuck crosses the road toward the commotion. There’s a hum of excitement, of laughter and chatter as the visitors are allowed inside, group by group, by a security guard. Out of pure curiosity, and perhaps an excuse to stay out just a little longer, Donghyuck finds himself joining the queue.
He waits for a minute or so, inching closer and closer toward the door. Each time it opens and the next excitedly waiting group enters, the warm air of the inside seeps out, momentarily caressing his cold skin. When it’s finally Donghyuck’s turn to enter, he sighs in relief as warmth floods his bones, warming him up like a snowflake thawing in the sunlight.
The gallery is spacious, a large white room with walls covered in paintings and corners occupied by statues. People bustle to and fro, a small crowd forming in front of each and every one. Donghyuck lingers by the doorway, trying to work out where to go first, when he hears a voice. “Excuse me?”
It’s unfamiliar and tentative, and he turns to find a waitstaff with wide eyes, clad in a waistcoat and holding a tray of champagne glasses. “Would you like a drink, sir?”
It’s a formal offer, and Donghyuck is not one to turn down a free glass of wine, so he politely accepts. It’s part of the magic of the city, the element of New York that has always intrigued him. The way that purpose exists in every body that walks past, the class and novelty of something as simple as a spontaneous glass of wine sipped on in an art gallery one evening. To Donghyuck, that is something special. This city really isn’t just a place for him, but a feeling.
He brings the cold glass to his lips and takes a sip of the fizzy liquid, clearly expensive and way better quality than the stuff he and his friends usually drink. It’s tangy and fruity and sweet like the promise of summer. With that in mind, Donghyuck walks toward the first painting on the left, deciding to move through the gallery clockwise so that he can’t possibly miss a painting.
It strikes Donghyuck rather quickly that he will be here a long while. The first painting on its own is captivating, every line and shade of colour on the canvas commanding attention, begging to be seen. It’s a vertical frame, capturing the figure of a woman, all feminine curves and arches. There’s a golden bandlet around her arm and a silk robe wrapped around her body, cascading down her back to expose her spine. Donghyuck can’t see her face, although he searches for it, because the painting cuts off at the beginnings of her neck, leaving her anonymous.
He traces the flow of fabric down the canvas only to find that it cuts off at the small of her back too. The painting is merely a cross-section of a woman, one whom he may never know, and yet the way the light falls on her skin makes him want to.
With significant force, Donghyuck tears his eyes away, moving to the next painting and then the next. He doesn’t want to leave it so soon, though. He wants to stand in front of the painting of the woman and stare at it all evening until the night blooms and the gallery closes, but if the first painting alone is like this, what might the others be like? Might they be just as captivating?
The answer to that question is a resounding yes, Donghyuck discovers. He passes canvas upon canvas of women, of fields and skies and lost cities, capturing moments in time effortlessly and without shame. The way the artist uses light has him enthralled, as if he’s staring into a photograph and can feel the sun on his own skin. As if he’s there, inside the painting, too.
Donghyuck is just nearing the final painting when he notices it; a crowd, larger than the others, surrounding the final painting. There must be fifty or so bodies surrounding it, or as Donghyuck soon realises, surrounding someone.
Amongst all the heads, he spots a head of dark hair, swept off a pale forehead and cascading backward like the waves of an ocean. To his disappointment, that’s all he can see of the man – who he assumes is the artist – because there are too many bodies in the way. The person faces the crowd, no doubt saying words Donghyuck can’t hear, but he finds himself wanting to. Wanting to hear anything that someone like this – someone who can command light and colour so effortlessly – has to say.
Over the top of the crowd an announcement is made, alerting the audience that the artist will now give a speech. The crowd, and Donghyuck with it, flock toward a semistage in the corner of the gallery. As he walks, Donghyuck can see the same head of dark hair leading the crowd, but there are still too many bodies in the way and he can’t quite get close enough to get a better look.
The crowd stops moving as the first few reach the front of the stage and Donghyuck finds that he’s a lot closer to the back of the audience than he’d like to be. Luckily the platform is elevated, so as the artist ascends the staircase up toward it, dressed in a black suit to match his dark hair, Donghyuck can finally see him, and–
“Thank you everyone for coming this evening,” the man – no, the boy – says, his voice clear and confident and carrying through the microphone. The crowd falls silent to listen, as if hanging off every word he says. Or maybe that’s just Donghyuck. “It means a lot to me that so many people have come to my first exhibition.”
There’s an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, and Donghyuck looks around to find a wide smile on every single face. They’re all staring at the boy on the stage, the same way that Donghyuck is, and it hits him that he hasn’t changed one bit.
His hair still reminds Donghyuck of the darkest nights, the ones where you can see the stars bright as day. His eyes still sparkle like constellations and his lips are still pink like tulips. There’s that same earring that Donghyuck remembers so well dangling from his left ear, and Donghyuck traces its fall until he’s outlining the curve of the boy’s neck, his shoulder down to his waist, those places that Donghyuck knows better than he knows himself.
At some point Donghyuck stops listening, the words meaning nothing to him now, as he’s transported back to years ago, to a simpler time that he’d tried so hard to forget. And yet here he is, standing in the middle of a gallery on the Upper East Side, eyes locking with the one person he never thought he would see here. The one person he thought he would never see ever again.
Mark Lee meets his eyes .
Whichever words the other boy had been about to say die in his throat as his eyes widen in recognition. Their eyes meet, and Donghyuck’s heart sinks in his chest to find that looking into them leaves him just as breathless as it did years ago, almost as if nothing has changed. Mark stares back, and there’s an awkward pause, the audience clearly growing more confused. Some heads even start to move between Mark and Donghyuck, catching on that the artist is distracted by something. Or someone.
Donghyuck turns away.
He weaves through the bodies that stand behind him, heart hammering in his chest, suddenly feeling very very eager to go home. What had been a lovely evening spent in a gallery admiring gorgeous art had quickly been inverted on itself, twisting into some sick joke that the universe must have thought would be funny. Donghyuck doesn’t agree.
As he moves away, he hears Mark pick up his speech, although his words sound more rushed now, more urgent. It’s as if he’s trying to get to the end of it as soon as possible so that he can do something. What that may be, Donghyuck – or part of him, at least – doesn’t want to know. There’s a resounding applause and a tentative thank you from Mark, and the sound of laughter and chatter fill the large hall once more.
Donghyuck is halfway to the glass doors – the only things between him and escaping this bad trip, so that he can walk home and just forget – when someone calls his name.
“Donghyuck!” and it’s Mark’s voice. Donghyuck shouldn’t be surprised, really, at how familiar the voice sounds. At the way the other boy says his name, the way it makes him freeze on the spot. It’s as if his heart and mind and body want to listen, want to know what the other boy might have to say, even if he doesn’t want to know. And yet, he can’t bring himself to move. He wants to push away, to keep moving despite the sound that pulls so effortlessly on his heartstrings. Tears start to well in his eyes as he watches pedestrians on the street pass by the gallery, so close and yet so incredibly far. “Donghyuck, wait.”
Hearing his name on the other boy’s tongue again is the final straw, and Donghyuck finds himself turning on the spot.
When he stops, he’s only inches away from the boy he loved many years ago. Only several breaths away from the soul with which he always thought he would sway, a dance through time with no foreseeable end. That had turned out not to be true, and yet here they are, face to face again in a new city.
Their height difference is more apparent than Donghyuck remembers, and he has to lift his head slightly to meet the other boy’s eyes. He almost wishes that he hadn’t done so, because he finds incredible constellations of emotion swirling there, just beyond the dark pitch of his irises, so carelessly unconcealed. Perhaps Mark wants Donghyuck to see it, to know that he still feels it too, although what that is he isn’t sure.
He’s pulled from his thoughts rather abruptly when the other boy speaks again. Donghyuck watches his lips move as he does – those lips that taste like cherries and apple and summertime.
“Can we talk?”
Donghyuck sighs. Where his chest is pressed against Mark’s, he can feel the other boy’s heartbeat. Slow and steady, as if it’s already accepted what must be done. Donghyuck’s, on the other hand, is erratic in his chest, frightened, skipping every beat or so.
He doesn’t want to let go but an announcement signifies boarding will commence soon and he knows Mark has to leave. Slowly he detaches himself from Mark’s embrace, breathing in the scent of his cologne, of apples and cinnamon one more time, trying to commit the sweet smell to memory.
“Donghyuck,” Mark says, and his voice betrays him this time. It’s deep and rough and quivering in a way that makes tears well in Donghyuck’s eyes. “We’ll be okay.”
They both know it’ll be a long while before either of them will be remotely close to okay, if ever, but Donghyuck accepts his words.
“Goodbye, Mark,” Donghyuck tries to say but it ends up closer to a whisper. Their eyes meet and Mark’s are sparkling like they always do, even in the harsh white lighting of the airport. There’s so much more he wants to say, so much more that he thought he would be able to, but time has run out and he’s left floundering, so afraid of the unknown, of what lies behind the corner when Mark walks away and through the departure gate.
“I’m always going to love you, Donghyuck,” the other boy says, and his voice sounds stronger this time, more certain. As if, despite what the future may hold for them, these are the only words that he can say with any certainty. Donghyuck’s sinking heart still manages to flutter at the thought.
“I’m always going to love you, too.”
And with that promise, Mark is turning away, his suitcase wheeling behind him as the distance between them grows and grows. He pauses in front of the departures entrance for a moment, sending Donghyuck a small smile that is enough to finally break Donghyuck’s heart in two. Then Mark disappears, and just like that Donghyuck is turning and leaving the airport, feeling as though he’s leaving much more than just that behind. Perhaps a piece of himself, too.
Silence falls at the end of Mark’s question, his words hanging uncomfortably in the air between them. One glance downward and Donghyuck notices Mark’s hand is extended, as if he wants to reach out, to reconnect, but there’s hesitance in his stance. It’s as if he doesn’t know how Donghyuck will respond, and to be frank, neither does Donghyuck. Every inch of him burns to know which words Mark wants to say, the things he wants to tell him. But just as much as he wants that, he also wants to leave and forget that this ever happened. To leave Mark and their history in the past again, where he thought it would always remain.
Mark’s eyes are searching his, and there’s such raw desperation there that Donghyuck finds his heart melting at the sight. The part of him that still flutters at the thought of the other boy is the part that decides to hear him out. Without saying anything, Donghyuck nods, granting silent permission.
Despite that fact, Mark remains silent for a few moments, as if thinking of what to say. It strikes Donghyuck that he has no idea either. How do you even start a conversation like this? Hi, how have you been, I haven’t seen you in years?
“You’re in New York?” Mark seems to settle on saying. It catches Donghyuck off guard but it’s not a bad attempt.
“Yeah,” Donghyuck responds, and hears how his own voice sounds rough, unused. He realises that it’s the first thing that he’s said to the other boy. Mark’s eyes widen slightly before returning to normal. “I moved here almost a year ago for work.”
“Oh, of course,” Mark is quick to respond, as if afraid that if he waits too long to respond, Donghyuck will slip away. Judging by the aching sensation in his heart, though, that is very unlikely to happen. Despite himself, his feet seem to be planted on the spot. “It was always your dream to move here.”
Those words alone feel like a blow to the chest, and Donghyuck is left unsettled, overwhelmed at the idea that Mark remembers. He remembers the little things about him, like his dream to move to New York City. (Although, if he’s honest with himself, it’s not like he’s forgotten anything about the other boy either).
“What about you?” Donghyuck asks, both out of curiosity and interest in changing the subject. Mark visibly relaxes a little, no doubt because Donghyuck has engaged in conversation.
“I moved here two years ago, after finishing university,” – a beat of silence as the memories flood back – “and this is my first exhibition. I’ve been working toward it since graduating.”
“Congratulations,” Donghyuck finds himself saying, and it’s not condescending or sarcastic in the slightest. It’s a genuine admission of admiration which slips from his lips and surprises them both. Mark’s eyes widen once more – he had always been such an open book – and Donghyuck feels himself blush, knowing it has nothing to do with the champagne.
Mark is the first to laugh, a small giggle, a sweet sound that defuses some of the tension between them. It’s a contagious sound, and soon Donghyuck finds himself laughing too, a smile coming to his lips naturally. It all feels rather strange, he realises, but there’s also something so familiar about it that he finds himself falling into. He basks in the sweetness for a second, allowing himself to forget and just enjoy this moment.
“Did you know this was my exhibition? Is that why you came?” Mark asks, and Donghyuck is relieved to find that when they stop laughing the earlier tension doesn’t come back. Donghyuck smiles, more at the sheer likelihood of this entire situation than anything else.
“No, actually,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck to hide the fact that he’s blushing. Despite the cold outside, his skin feels warm, almost burning to the touch. “I was just walking past on my way home and saw that there was an exhibition on. I came in but I had no idea it was yours.”
Mark blinks, and then does something that surprises Donghyuck beyond measure. He smiles.
His eyes crinkle into half moons, still sparkling like stars in the night sky, and his nose scrunches slightly, exactly the way Donghyuck remembers it. It’s a beautiful sight, really, and manages to make Donghyuck both remember and forget; remember how beautiful his boyfriend had been, and forget the pain he once felt when he had to let him go. Donghyuck wants to live in that space forever, between those two spheres of reality where he can pretend that everything is alright.
“So it was just a coincidence?” Mark questions, still smiling. In fact, it’s growing wider, almost mischievous. It reminds Donghyuck of a sprite or cherub from the books he loved as a child, the way that they would play tricks on mortals. All of this feels rather like an elaborate trick. Donghyuck smiles.
“Just a coincidence.”
“It’s funny how the universe works,” Mark ponders, still smiling but his tone is more pensive this time. “We last saw each other in Seoul years ago, and now we’re meeting again in New York.”
Donghyuck sighs, releasing a breath he had been holding since he first met eyes with the other boy across the gallery. “Perhaps it was fate,” he finds himself murmuring before he can stop himself. It’s not like he hadn’t been thinking exactly that, but that doesn’t make it any less scary to admit out loud. He’d always been a believer in fate, in chance and in the idea that two souls were meant to be together. And yet, when he and Mark had said goodbye years ago, most of his belief in those sentiments had withered.
And yet, now he finds himself standing in front of Mark again, years later, wondering if perhaps fate is real, after all. If their souls are meant to be together, and that they just got a little lost along the way. It’s a scary thought, but the deepest most vulnerable part of Donghyuck wants to entertain it.
“Do you want to go for a drink?” Mark asks after a few moments of silence, which were surprisingly comfortable despite everything. In that moment, with nothing but raw fondness and longing dancing in Mark’s eyes, Donghyuck decides that yes, he wants to entertain that thought, no matter how scary. ( After all , his heart whispers, you have always been a believer that life was about love, and everything else is an illusion ).
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Donghyuck mumbles, colour rising to his cheeks. Mark smiles a smile brighter than even the summer sun could muster.
“Perfect, I’ll just grab my coat and let’s go,” Mark says, already looking toward the cloakroom on the other side of the gallery.
“Don’t you need to stay?” Donghyuck asks, looking around to find that the entire gallery is still full of visitors, of excited onlookers and reporters ready to praise the artist’s work.
“Donghyuck,” Mark says, no longer looking around but straight into Donghyuck’s eyes, perhaps even into his soul. “The universe has given me a chance. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Much to Donghyuck’s relief, the bar is warm, but that might just be the warm glow of content that has been slowly growing in his chest since they arrived. The walk to the bar had been mostly silent, perhaps even a little awkward, but Donghyuck had expected that. What he hadn’t expected was to feel so calm, so relaxed as the minutes ticked on and conversation between the two of them grew more comfortable. More natural, and rather like old times.
The bar is dimly lit, a warm golden hue from the glass lights around the space, reminding Donghyuck more of a speakeasy than a modern bar. There’s a lone sax player on the stage, spouting a tune that sounds both hopeful and lost, and Donghyuck wonders if one can be both. Laughter and chatter fills the space, every seat taken and humming with life.
Mark tells him about university in Canada, about how he had moved to this city after one of his professors put him in contact with an art dealer, and a well known one at that. Both the professor and the dealer saw genuine talent in Mark, and fostered him to the point of today, where he now has his own exhibition. Pride swells in Donghyuck’s chest as he listens to Mark talk, humble as ever and dancing delicately around the discussion of his achievements. Donghyuck almost wants to laugh because Mark has never been one to advertise his talent, despite being so good. That’s something that strikes Donghyuck – how much Mark has grown as an artist in the time they’ve spent on opposite sides of the world.
He had always been gifted, but the works Donghyuck had seen this evening in the gallery were something else. He feels content, knowing that Mark followed his dreams, that it amounted to something great. The unspoken subtext to those words is that moving away was worth it. The rift it caused in both of their hearts was worth it. (And perhaps it was worth it, too, because they’re here together now. If they were always destined to meet again, did they ever really leave each other?).
Mark smiles the entire time when it’s Donghyuck’s turn to talk, to fill him in on the lost years too. Donghyuck tells him about how after attending many auditions, he finally signed with a major modelling agency based in New York. He delights in the way Mark’s smile only grows wider, the other boy clearly revelling in the comfort that Donghyuck made his dreams come true, too. The other boy practically squeals when Donghyuck drops arguably the most significant detail, that he had been ‘the new boy’ in his very first season of fashion week. There’s something dancing in Mark’s eyes as Donghyuck talks, a light that tells him nothing has changed, not really. Mark still looks at him the way he did years ago, and that makes Donghyuck both excited and terrified in an inexplicable way.
The night is growing darker and darker outside, until it’s the start of a new day and Donghyuck realises he has to go home. He has a job at midday tomorrow and can’t be late, so he and Mark wrap things up and leave the bar. (Mark insists on paying and it leaves Donghyuck flustered, as if they’re on a first date all over again).
They walk the streets of the city together, not hand in hand but much closer than they had been on the way to the bar. Donghyuck can feel Mark’s warmth where their shoulders brush, can feel the tips of his fingers hanging by his side. Their breaths intermingle in the crisp air, visible like clouds of stardust in the sky that appear and disappear just as fast.
They don’t talk the first few blocks, but it isn’t awkward this time, and Donghyuck finds himself thinking that this is nice. That this feels right, in a way he had never imagined being possible. (That’s just the way that the universe works, he supposes). They round the corner of the next block when Donghyuck realises he has no idea where Mark lives.
“Mark,” Donghyuck says, and despite time the name rolls off his tongue with ease, testimony to the intimacy they once shared, the way that they once bared their souls to each other long ago. “Where are we going?”
As soon as the words leave his mouth, Mark slows in his steps, a bit of nervous laughter escaping his lips. “Oh, I,” he starts, stops, and then tries again, “I have no idea. I was just walking.”
Donghyuck stops completely at that, turning to look at Mark and the ridiculous smile that is now on his face. It’s so silly that Donghyuck finds himself smiling like an idiot too. For such an intelligent person, Mark can be so thick sometimes. That’s another thing that hasn’t changed, after all.
“Oh my god, Mark,” Donghyuck tries, rolling his eyes and exasperated, but they both know he’s joking. “Lucky for you, we’re walking the right way to my apartment.”
“Oh?” Mark quips back, cocking his head to the side innocently and Donghyuck knows he’s fallen for some trap, though which one he isn’t sure. “And why is that lucky for me?”
Ah , there it is.
“You know what I meant,” Donghyuck says with another roll of his eyes, unable to hide the smile nor the blush on his face so he keeps walking instead. Mark hurries to catch up with him, and Donghyuck knows that he’s watching, because he can feel the other boy’s eyes on his face.
“It’s okay, I don’t live far from here either,” Mark says when he finally stops looking at Donghyuck. “I can walk you home.”
Those words leave Donghyuck more speechless than he’d like to admit, and the butterflies in his stomach that have been dormant for years start to flutter again. Suddenly it feels rather like springtime inside his chest, hummingbirds and blooming flowers despite the wintery evening. Donghyuck doesn’t know what to do about any of it so he continues in silence. Mark doesn’t seem to mind because he doesn’t say anything either, simply walking by Donghyuck’s side and humming under his breath.
They turn a few more corners before Donghyuck’s apartment comes into view. It’s distinctive, an old style terrace building that’s painted white where the rest of the apartment blocks on the street are grey. They cross the road and Donghyuck slows, coming to a stop just before the steps that lead inside the tall building.
“This is me,” he says, turning to face Mark who has stopped too, a little closer than two people who are just friends would do. Mark looks up, his eyes raking over the building and Donghyuck watches him do so. His eyelashes are long and dark, and they still remind Donghyuck of delicate strokes of paint across a canvas. (That’s fitting, he supposes). Mark still looks just as delicate, just as sculpted like a marble statue inside a gallery, not hardened at all by the years abroad or the stress of entering adult life. Donghyuck finds that beautiful.
“You don’t live too far from me,” Mark points out once his eyes settle on Donghyuck’s. Said boy finds himself taking a step back, one step up the staircase so he and Mark are now the same height. They had been just a little too close, close enough for Donghyuck to find it hard to breath. He could feel the overwhelming urge to kiss the other boy silly rising inside him as if he’s just a young boy again. He doesn’t trust himself not to, and so distance seems like the safer option.
Mark smiles, as if he knows what Donghyuck is thinking, and the thought is a little scary. “I’m just a few blocks away from here. It’s a wonder we haven’t seen each other before.”
“I suppose it was meant to be,” Donghyuck says, another sentiment about fate slipping from his lips. Mark looks less surprised this time, more content, as he simply smiles and hums in agreement.
“Goodnight, Donghyuck,” he says, and Donghyuck watches as if in slow motion as Mark leans closer. To reach Donghyuck up on the step, Mark is on his tiptoes, and he looks rather silly, like a little child, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. Suddenly Donghyuck is overwhelmed by the nostalgic scents that defined his teenage years, of cinnamon, cherries, apple and spice, as Mark brushes against him – he still smells the same – his lips coming to press the ghost of a kiss to Donghyuck’s cheek.
Such a small gesture leaves Donghyuck reeling, his heart racing and his stomach fluttering. Mark pulls away, his eyes taking longer than usual to open again, as if he’s savouring the moment too. When they do open they come to meet Donghyuck’s gaze once more, and he finds himself speechless yet again.
“Goodnight, Mark,” he says, although it comes out quieter than he had hoped. Mark smiles once more, a kind smile, with not a trace of malice. It’s completely genuine and that’s what makes Donghyuck feel so uneasy. (So desperate to let himself fall again).
“I’m glad that I saw you tonight, Donghyuck,” Mark says, and then he’s turning on his heel and walking down the street, further and further away from where Donghyuck still stands on the step, eyes wide and heart facing.
He stays there for a while, standing on the steps of his apartment building feeling rather like the events of the past few hours had been a dream. As if he had really just walked all the way home, gone to sleep and dreamed of attending an exhibition. That he had dreamt that he saw Mark again.
The boy disappearing down the street, around a corner and out of sight says otherwise, though. Once he’s gone, Donghyuck releases a tense breath, his heart pounding in his chest despite having no real reason to. When he finally turns to head inside, he spends the entire journey up the many flights of stairs wondering what this all means. What the universe might be quietly trying to whisper to him, if he can just strain his ears enough to hear it.
Donghyuck has just finished his photoshoot when it arrives. It’s a vibrating of his phone in his bag as he walks toward it to have some water, but it’s enough to make his heart flutter in his chest. Around him is nothing but chaos – staff and crew, photographers and models working like bees in a hive to churn out photograph after photograph – and yet all he can focus on is the slim chance that the text message he’s just received might be from Mark.
It’s been less than a day since they saw each other, and yet for the first time in years, the other boy hasn’t left his mind. Sure, he would have the occasional dream that Mark would somehow dance his way into, or he’d smell something that would remind him of the other boy. Sometimes in old bookstores he’d find copies of Mark’s favourite books, or his favourite songs would come on the radio in a cafe and Donghyuck would do nothing but reminisce.
This is different, though. It’s as if Mark has carved out a space for himself in Donghyuck’s mind, a place that only he occupies and it’s large enough to have him thinking about the other boy at every waking moment. So it’s with tentative fingers that he pulls his phone from it’s pocket and turns on the screen.
Hey, Donghyuck. It’s Mark. I was wondering if you’d like to meet again for coffee?
The words stare back at him, and even as he blinks, they don’t disappear. His heart is beating in his chest again, and despite himself every part of him aches to say yes .
And so, following the wonderings of his heart, he does.
It had hurt him in the past, when Mark had left him alone with nothing but a heart broken in two. The universe has given them another chance, as if trying to say that when Mark left that day years ago, that wasn’t the end of their story. Not really. It wasn’t the final closing line on the last page of a book Donghyuck would never read again. It was just the end of the chapter, and neither of them could tell at the time that their paths would cross again in a future one.
Part of Donghyuck longs to believe that that is true. That he and Mark have found each other again for a reason. And so he finds himself walking out of the studio with a skip in his step, feeling the excited buzz of anticipation pulsing through him. This means something, he tells himself. I’m sure of it.
It’s several days later when they meet – a crisp but sunny morning, so cold that their breaths intermingle in the space across the table. Without even talking about it they had both chosen the outside table, both the kind of people that prefer fresh air, even if it is cold as hell.
Donghyuck pulls his coat a little tighter around himself, sighing pleasantly as he sets his cup of tea back on its saucer. Mark is watching him, his eyes tracking every movement he makes and making no attempt to conceal it. That’s another thing that hasn’t changed. (It’s starting to feel like the other boy hasn’t changed at all).
“Was there something specific that you wanted to talk about, Mark?” Donghyuck finally asks when he can’t sit on the question any longer. They had been making comfortable conversation for the last hour or so, about their work and their dreams for the future, an important conversation to have albeit one that dances around the open secret between them.
A surprised laugh escapes Mark’s lips, but he doesn’t look uncomfortable. If anything, slightly relieved, and Donghyuck wonders if he had been looking for a way to ask that himself. Donghyuck watches as Mark bites his lip, trapping the bottom one between his teeth as he nods.
“Yeah,” he starts, eyes tracing the swirling of coffee where it stirs in his cup. Before he continues, though, he looks up to meet Donghyuck’s gaze. “There was something.”
Donghyuck doesn’t say anything, but doesn’t look away either. He simply waits for Mark to speak again, giving all the time and space that the other boy could possibly need. He’s grateful, really, that Mark is the one to talk, because Donghyuck has no idea how he would even begin to phrase his feelings, how he could ever articulate what it felt like to see Mark again across the gallery in a new city. Or what it feels like right now, sitting opposite the boy he once loved with every fibre of his being. What it feels like now, sitting here with the knowledge that he would do it all over again in a heartbeat. That he wants to, if Mark just asks.
Perhaps minutes or only seconds pass before Mark speaks again, Donghyuck isn’t sure. Time doesn’t seem to exist in this space, when they’re together. It moves at the same pace as their heartbeats, as their breaths which intermingle between them like clouds dancing in the sky. Mark clears his throat.
“I don’t know how else to say this, really,” he pauses, his gaze unwavering. Donghyuck hangs off every beat of silence. “But I think we met again for a reason.”
Mark’s eyes stare into his soul, round and warm and filled with entirely unconcealed longing. He’s always been so comfortable being vulnerable, in a way that Donghyuck had once been too. It’s part of why they worked so well together, why love between them had been so easy. (And why it could be – again).
“When I left,” there’s another pause, those three words bringing with them a sinking sensation in Donghyuck’s heart, remembering that day as if it were only yesterday. “Neither of us wanted it to be over. It’s been years since we’ve seen each other, and yet we meet again, by accident in a new city.”
Donghyuck laughs at that, because it really sounds ridiculous to hear out loud. It sounds like the plot of a movie, and a predictable one at that. But maybe the universe is predictable. Maybe, when two souls connect like theirs did, there’s some irrevocable bond. One that transcends the years and the distance between them. As if there’s a thread that connects them, no matter where they are, and it’s managed to pull them back together one more time.
“Do you remember that promise I made you? The day I left?” Mark asks, his voice resonating clear in Donghyuck’s ears, as if it’s a beacon and all Donghyuck can do is follow.
“Of course,” he’s quick to respond, because how could he forget? That promise etched itself on his heart like a tattoo, poetry written on his flesh. It’s as much a part of him as every other part of him is.
“I didn’t break it,” Mark takes his hand across the table. He exhales. “I am always going to love you.”
Mark’s touch is warm, more soothing than the cup of tea in front of him or anything else could ever be. His hands are soft, gentle as they hold Donghyuck’s in such a delicate manner, as if he fears Donghyuck might break. Donghyuck finds himself looking down, his eyes falling to where their hands are intertwined, to where they are meeting again as if out of instinct before either’s mind can get in the way.
“And Donghyuck,” Mark continues after Donghyuck says nothing. His voice sounds more urgent this time, more desperate. “What I wouldn’t give to love you again.”
If Donghyuck had been quiet before, he’s silent now. Mark’s words wash over him in waves, almost too overwhelming to be processed, as if neither his head or heart can believe what’s happening. Never had he thought it possible that he and Mark could be together again. It felt like at a crossroads their paths had diverged in opposite directions. How can two opposites meet again?
And yet, Donghyuck kept his promise too. As much as he’d liked to tell himself otherwise, he was always going to love Mark too. It’s a reality he had learned to live with, one that had danced in the space between him and other lovers, a silent reminder that there was always going to be Mark, somewhere in the world, and Donghyuck was always going to love him.
“Why don’t you?” Donghyuck hears himself asking. He lifts his eyes slowly from their hands to meet Mark’s eyes again. He almost laughs as Mark’s eyebrows furrow in confusion.
“What do you mean?”
“You said you’d give anything to love me again,” Donghyuck’s heart flutters in his chest as he speaks, feeling those intoxicating words on his own tongue. “But there’s nothing stopping you, anymore. We’re both here. So why don’t you?”
“Do you want me to?” Mark’s eyes widen in surprise, a subtle shade of rouge rising to his cheeks. He looks pretty like this, the tip of his nose slightly pink in the cold, his hair windswept off his face. Donghyuck wants to run his hands through it.
“Of course I do, Minhyung,” Donghyuck barely says, the words hesitant and quiet as they leave his lips. “I kept my promise, too.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed about Mark is that he tastes the same. His lips still fit perfectly against Donghyuck’s and he’s still just as delicate as he presses Donghyuck to the back of his apartment door. How they got here, though, Donghyuck isn’t entirely sure.
They had left the cafe after talking some more about what a future between them might look like. Absentmindedly they had wandered the streets, Donghyuck basking in the midmorning sunlight, which for some reason today felt brighter than it had in a while. Somehow they had ended up in their neighbourhood, closer to Mark’s apartment than Donghyuck’s, and he had invited him up for tea.
That turned out to not be what they ended up doing, because as soon as they stepped inside the elevator, Donghyuck’s hand had wandered to Mark’s, and as they turned to face each other, Mark closed the distance between them. And now Donghyuck finds himself on Mark’s bed, the other boy on top of him, their lips moving in sync with each other.
Mark’s kisses leave him just as breathless as they used to, a fact that has him gasping for air after too long without it. Donghyuck tries to catch his breath as Mark moves lower, kissing along his jawline, down his neck where he knows his moles decorate his skin, along his collar bones exposed by his shirt. His skin feels sensitive in a way it hasn’t with other lovers, as if he has special neurons that only fire under Mark’s touch. As if Mark is a song that only Donghyuck’s body dances to.
He runs his hands through Mark’s hair, something akin to a whimper escaping his lips as Mark moves lower still, fingers running along the underside of his pants’ waistband. It’s as if no time has passed, as if nothing has changed, because Mark still knows his every arch and curve of his body so well, trailing his lips along Donghyuck’s hip bones and kissing his inner thighs.
Mark remembers. He remembers every sensitive spot on Donghyuck’s body, every move he needs to make to have him moaning breathlessly into the silence. Mark remembers exactly how to make Donghyuck feel good, feel loved, feel safe and seen and understood. That is enough to send Donghyuck over the edge, until he and soon Mark are both crying out in pleasure, muffled sounds where Donghyuck buries his head in Mark’s neck.
And it’s the best he’s felt in a long time – more than just sex – but the reconnection of two halves that have been wandering the earth without each other for a long while. It reminds him of something Plato once said, that love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.
He feels whole now, more complete than he’s felt in a long while as Mark curls around him. The other boy’s stomach is pressed against the small of his back, and they fit together like puzzle pieces so much so that he isn’t entirely sure where he ends and Mark begins.
There are butterflies fluttering his stomach, the way birds take flight in spring and the flowers open their petals for the sun. Sure, it’s close to snowing outside, but that doesn’t make Donghyuck feel any less like he’s blooming, a flower in rebirth despite the season. And judging by the way Mark is drawing circles in his back – his fingers tracing delicately along his sides, just the ghost of a touch – Mark can feel it too.
It’s in the air, in the way Donghyuck is smiling to himself, the way that the sun outside is peaking out from behind the clouds, it’s warm golden light filtering through Mark’s windows and reaching the bedsheets. It dips them both in gold, as if melting him until he’s turning in Mark’s arms to face the other boy. The sun still shines on them as he speaks.
“Mark?” he calls out, wondering for a moment how long they had been like that, peacefully silent. Mark’s eyes flutter open and he hums in question. Perhaps it’s just the angle at which the sun enters his irises but they look amber, both like liquid gold and honey at the same time. They look warm, inviting and fond, tender in a way that Donghyuck had missed dearly. Much more than he had realised.
“What do you want to do?” he asks, hoping that Mark will know what he means, because at this moment he can’t really find the right words. Judging by the way Mark’s eyebrows scrunch though, the other boy didn’t understand, and Donghyuck finds himself laughing. (Mark could be so silly sometimes, too. How could Donghyuck forget that, of all things?).
“I mean,” Donghyuck tries again, “Where do you want this to go? Where do you want us to go?”
Mark blinks once, his eyes widening in realisation before settling to normal again. Donghyuck feels the most delicate touch and a glance downward tells him that Mark has interlaced their fingers between them. “I said earlier that I would give anything to love you again. And I meant it, Donghyuck. So whatever you want us to be...if you will even let me in your life again, I will be the happiest person alive.”
By the time Mark finishes talking, there’s a smile on his face, so hopeful and bright as he searches Donghyuck’s eyes. It’s so pure, so cheerful and infectious that Donghyuck finds himself smiling too, at the idea that maybe there could be something in the future for them again. Butterflies flutter in his stomach once more, and he feels almost like a child, standing on the shores of Jeju and holding hands with a particular boy with dark curly hair and stars for eyes.
“Then, Mark Lee,” Donghyuck responds, trying to sound playful but it comes out closer to laughter as he smiles through his words, “I would like to see where this goes. Let’s take it slow though, yeah?”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Mark responds, speaking calm and slow, as if he doesn’t want to rush this moment. Donghyuck doesn’t want to either, because it just feels right. As if their souls are dancing toward each other again, albeit tentatively, getting to know the parts of the other that have changed and celebrating the ones that have stayed the same.
“I love you, Mark,” Donghyuck says, the words slipping from him before he can stop them. He doesn’t want to, though. Not now, and not ever again. If he’s learnt anything in his rather short life so far, it’s that it’s too short to waste time not loving. The universe has given them another chance, and Donghyuck would be nothing short of silly if he didn’t grasp it and simply run with it. (He’s not alone, though. There’s another boy, with a beautiful soul and an incredible mind, who wants to run with him. Together, into the sun that rises on a new day).
“I love you too, Donghyuck. You know that I always will.”