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And I'll Shiver Like I Used To

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𝐍𝐨𝐰 𝐖𝐞'𝐫𝐞 𝐎𝐧𝐥𝐲 𝐅𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐀𝐩𝐚𝐫𝐭



The menu weighs about the same as any other restaurant menu. It's the same length and width as the paper card menu from the burger place he frequents- sans grease stains and brightly colored Comic Sans font- and it weighs the same in his hands. The only noticeable difference is the neat and minimalistic cursive typeface listing out a variety of meal options and the thick cream stock card it's printed on. Mark barely wants to touch it, let alone hold it in his hands, but he's doing it for Ten. That's what he tells himself repeatedly throughout the course of the lunch.

 

He doesn't know what a turgot is, and fights hard against the impulse to whip his cell phone out and Google what's offered up as a prospective dish. He's already out of place enough as it is. He can't handle the pitying eyes of patrons at adjacent tables, clicking their tongues and insulting him through the language of sycophantic laughter. Instead, he resolves to trust Ten and Donghyuck, who know far more about these things than he does or ever will. Jungwoo must notice the tension ridging his shoulders together because he places a soft touch to his back between his shoulder blades. It doesn't help.

 

"What do you think?" Ten sets his own menu down on the white table cloth, a pleased smile etched on his face. "Pretty top-notch right?"

 

"Maybe even too top-notch for you," Donghyuck, ever the direct one, points out with a frown. He looks just as confused as Mark, thumbing through the menu but resolves to place it on the empty Chinaware in front of him as well. "Half of these things we can't even pronounce. Do you even know what hakarl is before you’re rushing to serve it to everybody?"

 

Ten pushes his shoulders back and sits up straighter before unfolding the cloth napkin-another difference between this place and Mark's favorite burger place- and layering it atop his linen pants. "Of course," he says with a pointed look. His eyes move about in a full circle as if he’s wracking his brain for an answer, and eventually, he reaches for the goblet of sparkling water. "It's some type of vegetable right?"

 

"It's rotten shark meat," Jungwoo deadpans, eyes never leaving his menu.

 

Ten blanches, spitting a mouthful of liquid back into the glass and sputters out a cough that alerts the attention of passing waiters and diners. The waiter that seated them earlier, Sicheng Mark thinks it was, hesitantly stops by on his way to the kitchen and hands Ten a smaller, less effervescent glass of water. Despite his outward display of attention, his expression is impassive and almost robotic as if this is just a part of the routine for him. There's no way a fancy place like this pays him enough to bib and burp the rich elite.

 

“That’s going off the menu,” Ten manages after Sicheng leaves and his throat is less scratchy. “Nothing rotten or greasy or fruity. This wedding has to be perfect down to the last detail.”

 

“Of course,” Donghyuck rolls his head around until his neck audibly cracks. “We wouldn’t want a little seafood poisoning to get in between you and Kun’s money.”

 

Mark’s throat grows dry as Ten raises his eyes to meet Donghyuck’s brown ones. Even Jungwoo’s aura turns tentative and wary at the breach of a new topic, though he doesn’t readily make it known. He’s still glued to the menu of options and Mark wishes that he had his own form of distraction. Picking up the menu again would be too awkward and noticeable.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ten narrows his eyes at Donghyuck.

 

Donghyuck doesn’t feed from the hint of a threat in Ten’s voice and resolves to organize the wine glasses around his empty plate. “Easy,” he says casually. “I’m on your side.”

 

“Sure doesn’t feel like it.”

 

“How could you even tell?” Donghyuck looks at Ten finally. “You’ve been so into all of these arrangements that you’ve been completely self-absorbed. More so than usual.”

 

In the corner of Mark’s eye, he sees Jungwoo place the menu down and flags someone— a waiter—  to bring the first course of salad. “Guys, let’s not forget why we’re here,” he forces a smile to the elderly couple in a tailored suit and a string of pearls giving them a disparaging scowl.

 

Of course ,” Donghyuck agrees, reclining to rest his back against the back of the chair. “Ten’s nuptials to a wealthy heir to a profitable company. After only three months of dating. How could we forget?”

 

The waiter comes, but not fast enough to distract Ten from words falling from Donghyuck’s sharp tongue. Mark feels bad for the guy. The waiter attempts to tong clumps of fresh greens onto Ten’s plate but nearly loses balance every time Ten moves his chair or flails his arms in protest. It’s a struggle and he’s moving more and more quickly as he serves each person. After he finally layers Mark’s plate, he promises to check in with them later and makes a beeline for his post. Mark wants to run away too. He doesn’t belong in this situation any more than the waiter.

 

“Are you implying that I’m only marrying Kun for his money?” Ten falters with a hand on his chest. “I can’t believe you’re actually accusing me of that.”

 

The table shifts—silverware and glasses clinking— and Donghyuck clutches his leg, throwing a glare Jungwoo’s way. Jungwoo’s eyes widen, silently instructing Donghyuck. Mark knows the look. Apologize. Take it back and de-escalate. Now.

 

Donghyuck rolls his eyes and sighs. “Look, I’m not accusing you of anything,” he offers, both hands on the table. “I just, I think you might be rushing into things...and not necessarily for the right reasons.”

 

Ten seems to swallow the pill down with stride and settles into a more relaxed position. “What do you mean?” he says slowly, allowing his fingers to dance around the rim of his glass. “Kun and I have a connection.”

 

“A connection ,” Donghyuck snorts out a laugh and Mark knows he’s blatantly avoiding Jungwoo’s silent warning. “Sure. He has business connections and you have connections to his bank accounts. There’s a lot of connecting going on there.”

 

“Hyuck,” Mark tries, but Ten raises a hand, nixing the words at the tip of his tongue.

 

“So what you’re saying is you think I’m a gold digger,” Ten arches his perfectly manicured brow. “That’s what it sounds like you’re saying Donghyuck.”

 

Donghyuck is silent for a moment, hands placed in his lap, tugging and folding at the cloth napkin resting there. He dares a look at Jungwoo, and sighs— the closest Mark has ever seen him come to an admission of wrong-doing.

 

“Forget it,” Donghyuck mutters, sticking a fork in his salad and shoving the greens into his mouth. “It’s not my place and not my problem.”

 

“He’s right,” Jungwoo says, still giving Donghyuck the pointed look. “It’s not his place. So, Ten, you can continue-”

 

Ten places his fork on the empty saucer near his plate and folds his hands into his lap, back pressing against the chair. “No, no,” he tilts his head with a bitter smile. “Donghyuck’s already put the idea in the air, so let’s address it.”

 

Mark swallows thickly, fingers tapping the table repeatedly, and knee joining in with an incessant bouncing. It’s much like his childhood back home— right when things began to deteriorate between his parents. Wholesome family dinners had become a war zone at some point of barbed insults and fiery looks with Mark lingering in between— tiptoeing around field mines of conversation, desperate to avoid setting either one of his parents off. He felt unlike any other kid in his seventh-grade class going through the same thing. Mark actually longed for the day his parents would separate and put an end to their misery. Mark thanked God for their divorce.

 

Unlike that situation, Mark isn’t as hopeful for separation. Donghyuck’s been his friend since high school, Ten since college and the thought of having to choose between either one is enough to break him out into a cold, anxiety-induced sweat. He just wants to leave— he just wants to take his bougie, upper-class free meal and leave .

 

But of course, he gets roped into the conversation even when he shrinks as far down into his seat and avoids eye contact as much as possible while Donghyuck and Ten bicker back and forth across the table. He feels it when Ten’s eyes land on him with all of the determination in the world swirling around in them and he just wants to hide, perhaps fade into the pristine white of the Chenille tablecloth.

 

“Fine,” Mark hears Ten say. “Mark—”

 

Donghyuck snorts, as he rolls his eyes. “You’re asking him? Like Mark’s got his whole life figured out?”

 

“Ouch,” Mark frowns. “Why am I being brought into this?”

 

“Because you’re my best man and your opinion matters to me the most,” Ten says, giving a side-eye glance to Donghyuck. “Definitely way more than others. So I want you to tell me the honest truth: do you think I’m making a mistake?”

 

The table looks at Mark and the weight of the gazes makes it feel like the whole room is waiting. In his mind, busboys have stopped collecting dishes, waiters have stopped taking orders and diners have stopped eating and conversing— all waiting and watching for Mark Lee to give the anticipated speech of to break an argument that shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Not when he, Jungwoo, and Hyuck agreed. 

 

“Yes,” Donghyuck sighs out with a roll of his eyes. “Let’s ask the man who hasn’t been in a relationship for a solid year his opinion.”

 

Mark winces and this time Ten’s the one launching a kick towards Donghyuck beneath the table, pulling a childlike whine from his throat.

 

“He knows I don’t mean anything by it,” Donghyuck glares at Ten before casting a glance towards Mark that’s softer and apologetic. “I didn’t mean it that way, you know that right?”

 

Mark does, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

 

“Great,” Donghyuck sulks. “Now I’m the bad guy to everybody at the table. I’m tired of this. Let’s just move on. We’ll talk about something else.”

 

Donghyuck starts into his salad and Jungwoo lets out a stressed sigh of exasperation but Ten looks at Mark from across the table for so long, Mark feels it and lifts his eyes away from his plate to meet Ten’s.

 

“Actually,” Ten says slowly, still watching Mark. “Speaking of that, I thought you guys should know... Johnny’s back in town.” Jungwoo and Donghyuck pause in the same amount of astonishment that hits Mark like a pile of bricks. Ten sits still, eyes penetrating into Mark’s soul, showing the intent of his words—a silent question as to whether or not Mark’s okay. “And I invited him to the wedding.”

 

“He’s back, like, for the weekend?” Donghyuck asks treading lightly around the subject rather than bulldozing through it.

 

Ten shakes his head. “No, like for good. He’s moving back with...some guy. I saw it on his Facebook page.”

 

The weight of the universe hits Mark’s shoulders as he digs into his salad and shovels a generous helping into his mouth, staring at the tines of his fork until he hits the bottom of the plate and is forced to look up. Donghyuck’s staring. Ten’s staring. Jungwoo’s staring.

 

“What?” Mark swallows. More staring. “Guys, I’m fine,” he laughs out, shoveling more food in his mouth. “Really.”

 

“You don’t look fine,” Donghyuck comments. “You look like you’re having a nervous breakdown.”

 

“Yeah you are a little sweaty, Mark.” Jungwoo adds.

 

“I’m sweaty , because you guys are watching me eat,” Mark bites out, pushing his empty plate forward. Jungwoo picks up his plate and offers it towards Mark as a sort of consolation and Mark takes it from his hands, diving into a second serving of greens.

 

“Are you sure you’re fine?” Donghyuck asks again. “Because when you and Johnny broke up you definitely did not take it well. We couldn’t even be in the same room with him without you freaking out and this,” Donghyuck gestures towards Mark pouring more dressing on his salad. “Looks a lot like tha-”

 

“I said, I’m fine .” Mark snaps.

 

No one at the table dares to speak another word about it. Donghyuck shrugs and shakes his head, Jungwoo desperately tries to flag down the waiter again for more food, and Ten stares— still watching Mark with worried eyes that Mark chooses to ignore because no matter what: he’s fine. It’s fine.

 

Yep.

 

Fine.

 

Fine.

 

Fine.





𝐖𝐞 𝐀𝐥𝐥 𝐄𝐚𝐭 𝐋𝐢𝐞𝐬 𝐖𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐎𝐮𝐫 𝐇𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐭𝐬 𝐚𝐫𝐞 𝐇𝐮𝐧𝐠𝐫𝐲



It’s definitely not fine. Not in the slightest. Not even a little bit. Because what Mark refuses to admit to his friends, is that he knows far too much about his ex’s current life. More than any sane person would. It’s hard to admit it to his friends, but even harder to admit it to himself, because deep down Mark’s not fine.

 

He’s pitiful, pathetic, and a little borderline stalkerish by textbook standards.

 

He tries not to spend so much time on social media for all the known reasons— it’s unhealthy and addictive and a huge time waster to productivity. There’s no real reason that he needs to keep up with the lives of others by means of thirty-second videos and heavily filtered photos that seem to perfectly filter out real life. But Mark needs something to pass the time during lunch breaks at work and that lull between the moment his head hits his pillow and the moment he’s overcome with sleep.

 

That’s how he first finds out. Days before Ten's luncheon.

 

It starts with a general search on Facebook. Mark stumbles across the name of an old high school classmate and pulls the name up in the search bar, taking in all of the photos and posts made by the guy deemed an all-around class clown back then. He’s done surprisingly well for himself and it’s really a wonder how the underachiever of all his freshman year classes, has managed to become an owner of a successful food truck in Lower Manhattan, whereas Mark can barely grasp ahold of steady income, post-Bachelor’s degree. He exits out of the guy's profile before the self-defeating thoughts can really set in and send him down a spiral.

 

The blank white screen and empty search bar arouses another thought, though. One that rises in a deep voice to the forefront of his mind, tiptoeing into consideration as Mark sinks his teeth into his lips. There’s no reason he should do it, and he definitely shouldn’t care about someone he hasn’t spoken to in over a year, but his fingers move across the keyboard of his phone before his mind can really register how bad of an idea it truly is.

 

J-O-H-N-N-Y    S-U-H

 

There’s not much different from the profile from the days Mark used to frequent it without shame, tagging Johnny in an embarrassing amount of funny videos and cute memes. Johnny’s hair is colored differently, a deep jet black from the chocolate strands Mark’s used to and maybe he’s gotten taller? Buffer? Mark tries not to dwell on either, thumb pushing past the profile picture to the latest post viewable by non-friends.

 

That was his status now: a non-friend.

 

Some of the more recent posts are shared posts that others have tagged him in with Johnny reacting to them with a veritable of emojis as the situation warrants and Mark lets go of the breath held captive in his lungs. What did he expect? Life goes on after a break up. Johnny was living life— business as usual— while Mark was maneuvering through his Facebook page, careful not to like anything to give away his presence. Clearly they were in two different places in life.

 

There’s hardly a trace of Mark anywhere on Johnny’s profile and it makes him feel nauseous and uneasy. The more he scrolls, the more everything feels like a weird fever-induced dream. It feels like Johnny’s always been a person so close within arms’ reach, but Mark’s never been allowed to touch. It feels like the years he and Johnny shared together throughout college were an illusion, a figment of Mark’s imagination without solid proof of any of it ever happening. The only evidence Mark sees that proves he’s not absolutely crazy, is a photo uploaded just days ago: Johnny squatting on the ground, smiling up at the camera, with a small brown Maltipoo in his arms, its tongue hanging out. Mark may not exist in Johnny’s Facebook profile anymore, but the dog they adopted together definitely did.

 

Mark stares at the photo of Nala for way too long, having not seen her since the last time he saw Johnny a year ago. He can almost hear her small yaps, the scratching of her paws across Johnny and his roommate’s shared apartment every time Mark unlocked the door, barreling into him with wet licks and kisses. He wonders if she's exed him out of her life too.

 

The consequences of Mark’s heedless actions come sooner than he anticipates when he scrolls even further to the picture directly below Johnny and his— their — dog. Karma is fast acting and attacks Mark with light blond hair and round eyes with pupils so big  that the guy almost looks like a puppy himself. His smile is small, but cute, in an innocent kind of way, and he looks at the camera with a delicate gaze that reflects as much. Nala is in his arms, just as comfortable as she had been in Johnny’s.

 

Mark doesn’t know the guy. He’s definitely not related to Johnny (he’s met every member of the Suh family at extended family reunions and holiday visits) and if he’s a friend, he’s not one that Mark knows. For the entire duration of college, Mark’s only really known Johnny to hang out with Jaehyun outside of their shared friends, so it’s not like there were many others for Mark to meet. But this is a different Johnny, Mark realizes. This isn’t NYU, coffee every morning, weekend trips to  Coney Island Johnny. This was Chicago Johnny— adult Johnny, with new dreams, new ambitions, a new life, and new friends— none of which include Mark.

 

The realization hits hard and aches in his chest and his thumb moves to the small ‘x’ button to back out of the page, clear his search history, and forget the thought of Johnny Suh entirely, but a highlighted link lingers above the blonde guy’s photo reading ‘Instagram’ and— well, Mark’s a sucker for pain.

 

He clicks it.

 

Johnny’s humble Instagram page of few followers and even fewer posts is nonexistent compared to the well organized public page on the screen before him. The bio is cleaned up and concise, simply reading ‘Johnny Suh’ and below it ‘Graphic Designer’. It looks professional and grown-up, Mark thinks. Much different from the little effort put into it before.

 

There’s an aesthetic to Johnny’s page, a coffee-colored theme of muted browns and cream sceneries, food photos, and selfies, and the blond guy’s photo fits right into it like the last needed puzzle piece. It’s the latest photo on Johnny’s page, posted a couple days prior, but it isn't the only one of blond guy, and Mark isn’t sure how to feel.

 

He taps the photo— the one he’s followed from Facebook— and reads the caption.

 

 

735 likes

johnnysuh Look at these two cuties

See all comments

 

Mark backs out of the photo as quick as he came. The photo next to it is of Johnny and the same guy, standing outside near a bridge, wrapped in windbreakers, both sipping iced coffees. Time stamped five days ago. The next one is of the blond guy in what looks to be a grocery store, holding up a wrapped cake in the palm of his hands, eyes glossy with excitement and smile, wide. Timestamped one week ago. Mark goes back as far as he can until the very first photo of Johnny and the guy resurfaces.

 

Johnny’s arms are lax around the guy’s shoulders and waist, head resting on his head as they both pose for some unseen cameraman in the shadow of the night, beneath bright stars.

 

Time-stamped three weeks ago.

 

Before Mark knows it, the sunlight streaming through his bedroom window has died into the shadows of night, the bright blue of his phone screen becoming more and more evident and lighting his face beneath it's alerting glow. Mark's spiraled. He's fallen into a rabbit hole and the grave he's dug all at the same time— so deep that within two hours, he knows the blond guy's name (Lee Taeyong), career (self-proclaimed starving artist), and age (27, just like Johnny).

 

He also comes to the realization that Johnny and Taeyong have been a couple for all of three weeks.

 

Three fucking weeks.

 

Mark can't fathom how anyone could be so close in three weeks. Three weeks is too fast for couple photos and sporadic day trips around Chicago— it's way too fast to meet Johnny's mom, a feat that took Mark a year and a half of dating to work himself up to. Three weeks is hardly enough time to even know what a person is truly like and yet Johnny and Taeyong are attached at the hip by grace of every photo spanning the last couple of rows of Johnny's account. It seems completely premature and too fast in Mark's eyes. What do people even do in the first three weeks of a relationship?

 

Mark sucks in a sharp breath.

 

Sex.

 

They have lots of sex.

 

Memories flood in a rush to Mark's mind of teeth gnawing flesh, tongues sucking bruises and sweat clinging sticky to skin. He and Johnny hadn't wasted time when they first started dating, fucking everywhere— anywhere —  they could manage to not get caught. The number of times Donghyuck walked into his and Mark's shared apartment in college to Johnny thrusting hard and insistent, pushing Mark lower over the arm of their sofa are immeasurable. Mark barely left Johnny's side for weeks after they started dating, clinging to him like a shadow— a second skin. Much like how Taeyong stuck to Johnny's side in every photo on his Instagram feed.

 

Mark quickly uninstalls the app thereafter.

 

He took the information for what it was; a ridiculous, but hard truth of reality. Johnny had moved on. He carried the thought in the back of his mind for days without telling his friends just how low he'd gotten that night of investigation (he came exceedingly close to finding out Taeyong's social security number but he refused to pay a monthly fee of $9.99).

 

But Ten's news of Johnny moving back into town is something else entirely. Mark can handle Johnny in a new relationship at a distance. Kind of. Well, not really, but it's easier to pretend when he doesn't live in the same state as Johnny anymore.

 

But Johnny moving back to New York with Taeyong is far too much to tolerate. There's the chance that Mark will have to see it up close and personal. There's a high, realistic chance that he'd run into the happy couple leaving the bank or on the subway or out of the grocery store.

 

And that , Mark can not handle.

 

Because deep down, Mark's worse than fine. He's worse than okay. 

 

But he'll keep pretending until the words ring true.

 

I'm fine.

 


𝐖𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐓𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞'𝐬 𝐒𝐦𝐨𝐤𝐞...

 

"I can't believe we're all gonna just pretend like this isn't some huge mistake,"  Donghyuck says over the line a couple of days post-disastrous luncheon. "We're really gonna pretend like Ten isn't making the worst decision of his life?"

 

Mark frowns at the cracked egg in his skillet, pushing the liquidy glob of uncooked egg whites around with a spatula. Was his stove even working? 

 

"Hyuck," he says, right before Donghyuck can launch fully into his rant. "It's not our place."

 

"And that's another thing," Donghyuck says through frustrated munches, probably of the sugary cereal he still clings to. Surprisingly, once Mark turned 23, his own palette betrayed him, forgoing days of Froot Loops and Pop Tarts for an actual adult breakfast. "I'm tired of everyone telling me what's not my place. Ten is my friend— he's all of our friend— and it's exactly our place to stop him from getting married when he's still fucking in love with-"

 

Mark yelps when the eggs in the frying pan pops, flinching at the tinge of splattered non-stick spray and cooking oil he used to coat the pan, hot and burning on his wrist. He should really invest in non-stick pans.

 

Donghyuck pauses for a beat. "Are you trying to cook right now? I don't wanna be on the phone when you die, Mark. Or when the fire department shows up. Whichever is first."

 

"Oh, but you're such a considerate friend," Mark jabs, inspecting the small splotch of reddened skin away from the stove. "It's too early for all of this. You're messing up my creative process. You know I write in the mornings and you're calling me about Ten's relationship."

 

"Not like we have our own relationships to talk about. We have to live vicariously through someone."

 

Mark stops the slow brush of his thumb across the small burn. "I'm already doing enough of that these days."

 

There's a shuffle across the line and Mark's sure Donghyuck is spread across his mattress now, bowl precariously perched near the edge, threatening to spill onto his already stained carpets. "I told you it's not a good idea to keep tabs on your ex."

 

Mark exhales. He caved days after the luncheon and confessed his Instagram investigation to Donghyuck only. The latter didn't stand as deep in his judgment like he does with Ten's decision, but he was just as concerned, if not more, given the history book chapter that was Mark and Johnny.

 

"You don't need to keep tabs on what Johnny's doing to do better. Just do better,"  Donghyuck says simply.

 

"Yeah, I'm doing better alright," Mark scoffs,traveling the short distance from his kitchenette to the window in his living room. He lifts it open, and steps out on the fire escape, early morning breeze rustling through his black strands soothingly. "I'm living off of two shitty self-published books on Amazon, barely making progress with my third," he mumbled into the receiver, leaning against the rickety railing. "Yeah, plenty of success going on around here."

 

"Listen to yourself," Donghyuck clicks his tongue with the lilt of a frustrated whine. "You're so mean to yourself, Mark. Your writing is good. Good enough to where though you may not be able to live lavishly, they're still paying for themselves and everything else you need. God, I don't know why you're so self-deprecating "

 

Mark raises a brow. "Just the other day at lunch you referred to my life as a shit show."

 

"No, your relationship is a shit show. But that doesn't mean you're any less successful."

 

Mark ducks his head down, fighting the corners of a smile tugging across his mouth. "I can't stand you sometimes, you know that?"

 

He hears Donghyuck's smile in his voice. "You love me. I don't know why you're still hung up on Johnny when we both know I'm the better option."

 

Mark watches the people rushing down the sidewalks to get to their destinations. "You do know Johnny is still your friend right?"

 

Donghyuck snorts across the line. "Oh now I'm allowed to be friends with him? A year ago if I even tried to have lunch with the guy you would've taken my head off."

 

Mark rolls his eyes but tries to suppress the guilt building up inside of him. He hadn't taken the break up too well in all honesty. In an even clearer place of honesty, Mark definitely made some selfish and brutal decisions following the breakup that wasn't fair to Johnny or any of their friends. The few months post break up and post Johnny's big move back to Chicago, Mark made the choices clear: either you were team Johnny or team Mark. No straddling the fence. No exceptions. Ten, Jungwoo, and Donghyuck didn't fare too well to the ultimatum, but at the end of the day, Johnny was moving and Mark would still be in New York, making their choice obvious. And deep down Mark knew that.

 

Johnny wasn't upset, much to Mark's dismay, or if he was, he didn't show it. From what Donghyuck had told Mark, Johnny only nodded in understanding and wished all of them the best with a promise of no hard feelings. That was Johnny though— considerate of everyone's feelings but Mark's.

 

"I was hurt back then," Mark replies lamely. "Cut me some slack. I was 22, just out of college, and I'd just lost my boyfriend of four years."

 

"I'm 22 now and even I'm not that selfish."  Donghyuck says.

 

"Oh really now?" Mark laughs. "You? Unselfish? Well, this is news to me."

 

"All the more reason why we should just be together," Donghyuck hums. "I'm the perfect Yin to your Yang. Plus we've already fucked like a million times."

 

Mark picks at the dead skin of his chapped lips, brows raising as a huge moving truck stops in front of the building. "Hyuck, I love you but that's not gonna happen. Life's been shit as it is and I don't know what I'd do if I lost you too."

 

The line goes quiet for a moment before Donghyuck replies with a, "Suit yourself," and a shrug that Mark can imagine. It's a running gag between them, one that neither of them are actually serious about, but sometimes Mark fears he's slipping. He fears that each day he pushes and pushes and pushes until one day, they're all completely out of the picture— Ten, Jungwoo, and Donghyuck. Fuck, he can't lose his best friend. Not under any circumstances. 

 

If soul mates are a thing, and Mark has reasonable doubt to believe with certainty that they aren't , Donghyuck would be his. A platonic love that rivals none, that feeds his heart in a way no other type of love can. 

 

Losing Johnny was devastating, but losing Donghyuck too might kill him.

 

"We're still fucking though right? I've had my dick appointment RSVP'd for about two weeks now."

 

Mark sputters out a laugh, eyes crinkling near the corners. "I might be dead inside, but my dick's still fully functional."

 

"Thank God for that." Donghyuck mimics Mark's own laugh. "My next door neighbors' bedroom wall is up against mine and I'm almost positive if they fuck any harder, their headboard is gonna come crashing through the dry wall."

 

"No," Mark slowly rises straight, eyes transfixed on the street.

 

"Yes, I swear to God. I'm not exaggerating in the least. Apparently, by the sound of the screaming, one of them is named Jaem-"

 

"No, no, no!" Mark's eyes grow wide with horror. And just like right out of a horror movie, was his worst nightmare— clad in worn Converse sneakers, a backwards cap, and the red hoodie Mark picked out for his birthday.

 

His nightmare holds cardboard boxes and places them on the curb's edge, before going to unload the rest of the truck.

 

"Fuck," Mark ducks down and groans when he realizes air and open railings aren't effective things to hide behind. "Johnny's here."

 

"Wait what? Where?"

 

"Here! Here!" Mark rushes out in a harsh but low whisper. "He must be moving back into his old apartment. Fuck, why does the world hate me so much!"

 

"Mark-"

 

"It's like God opened up the sky and said 'I hate you Mark Lee' here you go."

 

"Mark-"

 

"Or like my life is a horrible M. Night Shymalan movie and he just said 'plot twist, bitch.'"

 

"MARK!" Donghyuck yells and Mark flinches away from the phone, pulling it back to his ears once he's sure it's safe. "You have to calm down. You knew you were bound to run into him again. He's gonna be at Ten's wedding. This way you can get all of the awkwardness out of the way . "

 

Mark heaves out a breath and nods shakily. Maybe that's what this is— a test. A chance to right his wrongs and take accountability for things, a chance to be a more mature Mark in the face of new and improved Johnny Suh. Mark 2.0— beta version, of course.

 

His thoughts are interrupted by soft yapping and he leans forward in his crouched position towards the railings to take in Nala, running around near the curb of the street, frantically moving towards the building door and then back to Johnny's side tail wagging. Mark sinks his teeth into his bottom lip and watches as the pup moves about eagerly. He wonders if she remembers— if she's excited because the building reminds her of Mark, and good times.

 

But those thoughts come crashing hard like strong waves, taking Mark's breath away when a vision of blond hair enters his field of vision, white shirt and ripped jeans, but still as ethereal in real life as he is in pictures.

 

What's worse than a nightmare? Purgatory? Death?

 

Mark's sure his actual life beats them all.

 

"Yeah I don't think that's gonna happen," he mutters, eyes watching as Taeyong picks up Nala and carries her to safety. "He brought him with him— the hot guy from Instagram."

 

"Really?" Hyuck slows. "Is he really that good looking?"

 

Mark breathes out a small sigh. "If he comes to Ten's wedding, Ten'll be jealous."

 

The words that fall from Donghyuck's mouth are muted beneath a high piercing alarm— beeping so loud and obnoxious that Johnny cranes his head upwards, eyes searching for the sound. Mark pushes away from the railing and back towards his window, desperate to escape without being seen. As he pressed against the brick wall, he smells the thick suffocating scent of smoke and the burning ash of spilled food stuck to the drip pan beneath his stove burners.

 

"Fuck, my eggs!" He yells, climbing back through the window, tossing his phone on the counter, and making a beeline for the stove. The room is heavy with a dense smog and he has to squint his eyes to stop them from stinging and tearing up as he turns off the stove and takes the skillet in his hands.

 

His next move is to toss the pan in the sink, perhaps the trash compactor in the hall since it's ruined beyond return, but his feet hesitate as his apartment door flies open and the thin haze from a fire extinguisher levels the area in a white powder.

 

When the chaos settles, Mark's landlord, Taeil is standing beneath the door's threshold, heart nearly pounding out his chest, glasses askew across his face. Mark can only manage a sheepish chuckle and the scratch of his head with his free hand, angling the charred remains of his eggs towards the man.

 

"Breakfast?"

 

Taeil's shoulders drop, fire extinguisher falling out of his hands as he stands straight, puffing out a few calming breaths. "Seriously Mark," he says, fixing his glasses and wiping the powder on his hands onto his sweats. "If you're trying to get yourself killed, you're doing a damn good job at it."

 

No matter how many times Mark apologizes, Taeil adds the use of the apartment's fire extinguisher and the maintenance repairs for replacing Mark's outdated stove to his next month's rent.

 

He silently thanks fate for a distraction worthy enough to push Johnny's homecoming out of his mind, but reminds himself next time to be more specific in his requests.

 




When Johnny left over a year ago, Mark stopped visiting the fifth floor of the building. There wasn't a real reason for him to keep taking the short elevator ride up— especially since it was awkward to hang out with Jaehyun who was still a close friend of Johnny's.

 

But what's even weirder was how compelled Mark felt to revisit the old apartment where so many of his memories remained. It was the place where he and Johnny had so many movie marathons— the older introducing Mark to the Kill Bill duology and in turn, Johnny sat through Mark's favorite movie— The Lion King . Even the sequel and Lion King 1 1/2 , which Mark firmly stands by as great cinematic works. Nala's namesake was appropriately credited.

 

It was the place where they first house broke Nala and trained her to 'shake', 'roll over' and 'fetch'— that is until Taeil threatened to charge Johnny and Jaehyun double the rent for all the scratch marks on the hardwood floors.

 

He struggled through his English degree in that apartment, staying up well past midnight to write, edit, and re-write thesis papers even after Johnny had fallen asleep. Working in his own apartment was like being in the land of distraction and Johnny's ability to finish all of his assignments and projects in an appropriate time frame (the complete antithesis of Mark's procrastination mentality) often pushed Mark the extra step to handling his business like an actual adult.

 

On the surface level, it all felt like superficial things— things not important for Mark to cling to, but try as he might, there was no giving up the sentiment. Like it or not, he had history behind the doors of apartment 57.

 

Every now and then when Mark leaves his apartment to spend time with his friends, run errands, or meet an incompetent food delivery driver that can't seem to read his detailed messages, Mark runs into Jaehyun. Sometimes it's at the mailboxes, and Jaehyun doesn't notice him— too engrossed in some written letter or sale in an ad paper to see Mark's desperate escape. Sometimes it's when Mark's heading out and Jaehyun's heading in, or vice versa. Mark can handle those times because they're brief and fleeting, only a couple of seconds of awkwardness as Jaehyun holds the door for Mark to pass with a brief nod, and they both go on about their business. What Mark can't handle are the few, but still way too many, times that he has to share the elevator with Jaehyun.

 

It's always the longest elevator ride of his life when the doors open and Jaehyun is already standing there on his way out, or when Mark is tired from the day's offering and has to pretend like he doesn't hear Jaehyun calling out behind him as he hurriedly pushes the 'door close' button.

 

Jaehyun always makes it, wedging a foot or a hand between the doors just in the nick of time for the sensors to detect him. He never makes it awkward between them— at least not intentionally, but the silence that stretches on makes Mark feel like he's in the land where time stands still. Whenever the bell dings, and the doors open on the third floor, Mark tries not to make it obvious that he's scrambling off for his dear life, but he still feels bad. Though there's no animosity between them, he and Jaehyun are at a weird status that juggles the topic of loyalty and friendship. Sometimes Mark thinks to say 'have a good night' or a 'see you around' just to be polite. But every time he chances a look back, the doors are closing and Jaehyun's brimmed hats always seem to hide the downcasting of his eyes.

 

Several months following his and Johnny's breakup, Mark can't think of anything worse than the awkward run-ins with his ex's best friend.

 

Until now.

 

It's as typical as a Tuesday evening can be. Mark hoists the paper bag of junk food he picks up from the grocery store in his arms as he pulls the front door to his apartment building's lobby open, wedging his foot in place to stop it from closing back on him. His mother and even Donghyuck have lectured him about how unhealthy and harmful hot dogs and potato chips are to not only his body, but also to his creativity. Unfortunately, his creativity isn't paying him enough to afford organic and unprocessed food. Plus hot dogs are the one thing he can safely make without burning down the entire building.

 

The setting sun casts its final rays through the glass doors and windows, covering the lobby with a brassy orange glow that waxes across the tile and reflects off the elevator doors at the back of the room. Mark sees him before he sees Mark, and there's ample time for Mark to start his previously ditched New Year's resolution of taking the stairs more often, but in the back of his mind is the old-fashioned but still much-needed sense of morals and politeness his mother has instilled in him.

 

If someone needs help, you help them.

 

Mark isn't an asshole. He doesn't let his emotions jade him so much that he's incapable of being a human being. If the guy struggling at the elevator doors, trying to balance twenty or more plastic bags on his arms was Jaehyun, Mark would feel less apprehensive maybe. They have a distant yet still fond enough history where it wouldn't be so out of place. But it wasn’t Jaehyun. There’s no way Jaehyun would ever wear anything deviating from his monochromatic wardrobe.

 

Of course, it just had to be Taeyong.

 

Fuck fate.

 

Mark stands in the middle of the lobby area watching Taeyong frown down at the bags as the elevator door closes again after seconds of no one entering. He's cradling a jug of milk in one arm (the kind that Johnny likes— 2% and low fat), some bags already hanging in the crease of his elbow, and trying to figure out a way to carry the others without making a second trip or causing the bags to rip. It's one of the reasons Mark always opts for paper over plastic. It's the kind of rookie mistake that only an out-of-towner would make. Mark sighs unsteadily. Johnny obviously hadn't prepped his new boyfriend for the change in scenery.

 

After eying the stairs for another two minutes and nibbling on his bottom lip until he tastes the coppery tinge of blood, Mark closes his eyes, head angled towards the ceiling, and mouths a silent 'you owe me' to any messenger of fate watching. He's gonna need all the good karma points he can manage for this one.

 

"Hey, uh," he says as he approaches the elevator, unsure of how to approach the situation. He scratches the back of his head as Taeyong looks up at him from his crouched position, wide eyes shining with hope, and damn it if Mark doesn't actually feel bad for the guy. "Do you need, like, some help or something?"

 

Taeyong closes his eyes and heaves a thankful sigh, rising to his full height and rubbing his damp hands onto his jeans. "Yes," he breathes out with exasperation. "Please. My boyfriend isn't home and neither is his roommate and there's just no way I can carry all of this myself." Taeyong looks back at the elevator, then to the front door of the building before settling his eyes on Mark once again. "I've been told it's not exactly common to leave things unattended here in this city, so I can't exactly trust leaving some of them here to make a second trip. Someone might try to take them." He narrows his eyes at Mark after another second, looking him up and down and twisting his mouth. "Wait, you're not trying to scam me are you?"

 

Mark rolls his eyes. "Look, I'm just trying to get to my apartment. Why would I want to scam you for-" Mark looks down at the bag closest to his foot, "-Oreos and Greek yogurt?"

 

Taeyong lets out an offended noise but his lips are poised into a humorous smile. "You don't know a heavenly combo when you see one," he says.

 

"Do you want the help or not?" Mark bites out a little bit more acerbically than he plans.

 

Taeyong doesn't let on that he notices, demeanor unchanging from amusement as he picks up a few bags and nods at the others for Mark to grab. Mark resists the urge to peek at the bag's contents no matter how much his mind begs him too. There's no reason he needs to know. He's only going to hurt himself. There's nothing inside of a couple of plastic shopping bags that can clue him in as to what exactly attracts Johnny to Taeyong.

 

However, a few seconds in on the elevator ride, Mark can easily deduce his own conclusions. Like it or not, Taeyong is warm and friendly, so much so that he can see why the man was warned about the potential dangers of the city, because Taeyong alone would get chewed up and spit out so quickly. And maybe that's what Johnny likes. Taeyong is so naive that it's cute and Mark gets the appeal, especially since Johnny has a thing for taking care of people. They aren't even past the first floor when Taeyong starts telling Mark about his new job, getting used to New York life versus Chicago (according to Taeyong they're not that different but they're not the same either), and of course about living with his new boyfriend. Mark hides his face behind his own paper bag at that. He grits his teeth at that. 

 

Taeyong is naively and adorably extroverted with Mark, despite only meeting him in the amount of time it takes the sun to set, and Mark understands—  this is what Johnny likes. This is what he's always wanted.

 

Mark's no stranger to the old memories of Johnny's frustrations of Mark not wanting to go out much or hang out with friends. Mark is an introvert by nature and dating someone as extroverted as Johnny got draining, both physically and mentally. Their friends seem to understand well enough if Mark wasn't up for eating out or randomly scheduled trips to karaoke, per Donghyuck's request, but Johnny sometimes never got over it and often whined about how much he hated to be out without Mark at his side. It was a subject of a couple of fights and always resolved in petty compromise—  Mark would make the effort to go out more and Johnny would make the effort to expect less. With Taeyong though, Mark suspects the conversation never has to even come up.

 

Mark snaps back into reality when the elevator passes his floor, realization setting in that he never even pushed button number 3. Taeyong takes a break from his mindless talking to look over at Mark's profile, head tilting with curiosity.

 

"I'm sorry," he says, hoisting the plastic bags further up to his shoulder to relieve the forming welts on his forearm. "I never even asked your name."

 

Mark's eyes widen. He hadn't thought of that coming up in conversation.

 

"I'm," he pauses, eyes immediately going to the first item jutting out of his paper bag. "I'm Oscar." He pushes the packet of hotdogs further into the bag.

 

Taeyong's brows push together and his lips jut out. "Oscar? Like the guy that makes bologna?"

 

And hotdogs , Mark thinks. But it was either that or Orville Redenbacher and there's no way Taeyong wouldn't see through a name as obvious as the one on the red popcorn box.

 

"It's a common name," Mark shrugs, grateful that he has plenty of bags in his hands to distract his fidgeting fingers.

 

Taeyong hums, nodding his head after a moment's contemplation and offers another bright smile. "Well, Oscar, it's nice to meet you. I'm Taeyong by the way."

 

"I know." The words leave Mark's mouth reflexively, too fast for him to reel them back in before Taeyong can hear, and the blond's expression moves towards confusion.

 

"You know?" Taeyong asks, eyes rapidly blinking. "How did you know what my name was?"

 

"I, uh," Mark laughs, ignoring the flush that's surely creeping up past his crew neck. "I think Taeil might've mentioned it to me when he was inspecting my unit the other day. He mentioned some new people moving in and I've never really seen you around the building before." It wasn’t a complete lie. Taeil did have to inspect Mark’s apartment after the burnt eggs fiasco.

 

“Oh,” Taeyong purses his lips together in thought before directing his attention towards the opening doors. “Oh! This is my floor. It’s just a little bit further I promise.” 

 

Mark wants so badly to lead the way— to sidestep Taeyong and take the lead straight to apartment 57, just to prove that he’s marked his territory first and that his feet can lead him to the destination like muscle memory.

 

Instead, he lags behind Taeyong like a wandering child, stumbling past the familiar doors and hallway decorations.

 

When they reach the door, Mark sets the bag of groceries in front of it, deadset to bid the politest goodbye he can muster, head back down to his own place and shovel down the entire bag of potato chips he’s bought as a comfort, but Taeyong’s already unlocking the door with the key and ushering him inside with a short, “the kitchen’s right this way.” It’s a good thing Mark isn’t a scammer, or else Taeyong could’ve been the perfect victim.

 

He's quick to be hesitant about stepping foot into the apartment, afraid that one step across the threshold might catapult him back into a series of emotions and memories too dangerous to think about. Taeyong's taken hold of most of the grocery bags by now, kicking his shoes off at the front door and padding over to the kitchen to load up the refrigerator, and looks back with raised eyebrows when he notices Mark lingering in the hallway.

 

"No need to be nervous," Taeyong chuckles. “I’m the one that should be terrified.” Mark makes a sound of protest but picks up the last few bags, dropping his own off on the table near the door.

 

He takes in the familiar decor as he hesitates at the door even still— worried that Johnny may pop up around the corner, despite Taeyong’s promise of being alone. The apartment hasn’t changed much— same furniture, same dull paint— the main difference being the little indicators of Taeyong’s longstanding presence. There’s an extra hook for keys nailed on the wall and throw blankets tossed across the back of the sofa. The place does look a lot neater than it ever did when Mark frequented it, and he attributes that to Taeyong too, since Jaehyun and Johnny are both bonafide slobs. Everything seems perfectly in place. Almost like Taeyong belonged there. Almost a month of dating and Taeyong had solidified his place within Johnny and Jaehyun’s home, something Mark couldn’t do in four years.

 

The sound of faint jingling pulls Mark out of his thoughts and Taeyong steps out of the kitchen space with a worried look etched on his face. “Oh shoot. I forgot. You’re not afraid of dogs are you?”

 

Before Mark can answer, a small ball of golden brown fluff comes bounding out of Johnny's bedroom, tail wagging and tongue hanging out the corner of her mouth. Taeyong tries to step in front of Nala’s field of view, most likely to distract the pup in the rare case that Mark is afraid of dogs, but Nala is faster, sidestepping Taeyong completely and jumping at Mark’s leg, pawing the fabric of his denim jeans.

 

“Hey girl,” Mark smiles down at the dog affectionately, setting the bags in his hands on the ground once again to scratch the Maltipoo behind her ears. Nala can’t stop jumping and wagging, trying desperately to climb onto Mark’s lap in his squatted position and he lets out a breathless laugh.

 

“Wow,” Taeyong says with a fond smile, leaning against the wall, arms folded. “She usually doesn’t take to strangers very well.”

 

I should be telling you that, Mark thinks but he stands and shrugs, trying his best to ignore the agonizing whimpers coming from Nala. “What can I say I’ve always been good with animals.” It’s a stab to the heart seeing Nala in his peripheral vision following him into the kitchen, right at his heels as Mark sets the groceries on the counter and shoves his hands in his pockets. “Anyway, I should really get going,” he gestures towards the still open front door with his thumb, edging towards it.

 

Taeyong slides a carton of eggs and the gallon of milk into the refrigerator before closing the door and spinning around in his ankle socks. “Well, wait, why don’t you stay for dinner?” he asks. “My boyfriend and his roommate will be back soon and they’re -”

 

“No, really,” Mark interrupts. “I have plans with someone and I really should get going.”Another non-lie. The phone call he plans to have with Donghyuck once he reaches his apartment is unplanned and unprecedented, but definitely much needed.

 

Nala whimpers, trailing Mark until he steps out into the hallway and even Taeyong sports a similar pout as he bids Mark good night and shuts the door behind him. It’s a hard pill to swallow watching Taeyong assimilate so well into the life that Mark built, but as he reaches the elevator he realizes that upon first impression, it seems impossible that Taeyong could be any of the things Mark thought or hoped he would be. He seems kind and considerate, well put together and sociable— only a person without a heart could hold malice or ill will towards a person like Taeyong.

 

Johnny deserves a person like Taeyong, and it makes Mark’s chest ache knowing his own heart isn’t willing to accept that.

 


𝐒𝐨𝐦𝐞𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐎𝐥𝐝, 𝐒𝐨𝐦𝐞𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐁𝐨𝐫𝐫𝐨𝐰𝐞𝐝

 

“I don’t understand why you couldn’t get Hyuck to come with you or Jungwoo,” Mark mutters, frowning from behind the door of the dressing room. “I’m not a fashion person, Ten.”

 

He doesn’t need to see Ten to imagine the less than pleasant frown on his face from the other side of the door. He hears a small thud, probably Ten shifting to lean his back against the door now, followed by a sigh.

 

“It’s not about fashion,” Ten pauses. “Well, okay it’s definitely about fashion, but before that, it’s about my wedding. And you’re the only one that hasn’t been fitted for a tux, Mark. The wedding's in two weeks. You’ll be lucky if they can get all the adjustments done by then. I swear you’re worse than Kun.”

 

Mark frowns at the black blazer hanging on a golden iron hanger near the mirror. The inside is layered with matching black silk, glossy and extravagant, and completely out of Mark’s price range by the amount of digits on the tag. Mark is wary even touching it with fingers that touched greasy fried chicken not even an hour ago.

 

The slacks fit fine, and the button-down undershirt is snug and tucked into place but Mark doesn’t dare move towards the blazer. It doesn’t feel right— It doesn’t feel like him, and he can’t help the thoughts that bounce around his head at the mere idea of pulling on the jacket. It’s way out of his league and more than he could ever manage to pull off. Just like Johnny.

 

His hands stop over the buttons lining vertically across his torso and his eyes draw to his reflection in the mirror. The black shirt and slacks make the forming bags beneath his eyes more apparent, even under piles of the concealer Donghyuck lent him.  His eyes look tired, like he’s been up all night struggling to write even a single word of his next book, when in reality the thoughts of breaking literary ground has been the last thing on his mind the last couple of days. Mark couldn’t even fathom to think about building a world of drama for the sake of plot when his own life was worthy of a hardcover.

 

Instead his nights have been filled with, snuggling deep within his blankets, refreshing Johnny’s Instagram and Facebook pages, and then traveling to Taeyong’s Instagram. Only a true masochist lives this way, looking for physical evidence to justify negative thoughts, but Mark feels like a leech feeding off of every little crumb he comes by until he’s drained and feeling even worse off than before.

 

Days after the run-in on the elevator, Mark comes to the decision that Taeyong isn’t just adorable, he’s downright attractive in every way, shape, fashion, and form. Taeyong owns attractiveness as a birthright and exudes it in everything he does. Mark can’t stop rewatching Instagram posts of the man dancing or looking at random selfies scattered throughout Taeyong’s account. He’s become a man obsessed with comparison and what’s even worse is that the thoughts he tries so desperately to suppress resurface to the forefront of his mind keeping him awake at night and distracted during the day.

 

Taeyong looks good with any hair color.

 

Taeyong has wide, doe-like eyes.

 

Taeyong is poised and refined.

 

Taeyong has a nice body.

 

Taeyong has Johnny. Johnny has Taeyong.

 

Mark sighs and turns his back to the mirror unbuttoning the dress shirt, eyes transfixed on the ground. It takes less than a second for him to catch a glimpse of something in the corner of his eyes and he yelps, taking in Ten hanging over the top of the dressing room door, peering down at him.

 

“What’s taking you so long?” Ten asks, eyebrows high. “Why are you undressing? Does it not fit?”

 

Mark drops his hands to his sides after he calms his racing heart and moves to sit on the cream tufted chaises in the corner of the dressing room. “No, it’s not that. It-it fits perfectly.” Ten tilts his head in confusion and Mark can’t stop biting his tongue, unwilling to let out the question that’s dancing on the tip until the last final minute. “Are you sure you want me, you know, in your wedding?”

 

Ten frowns and adjusts himself to lean further over the door. “What kind of question is that? Of course, I want you in my wedding. You’re my best man.”

 

“But why?” Mark blurts out, hitting his head back against the wall. “I don’t even fit ‘your vision’. I don’t even look the part. I don’t wanna disappoint you.”

 

Ten clicks his tongue, disappearing from over the door and knocks lightly against it, signaling Mark to let him inside. He doesn’t waste any time grabbing Mark by the wrist once he unlocks the door and drags him back towards the chaise lounge, sitting down next to him, face laced with concern.

 

“Where is all of this coming from?” Ten asks. “Since when do you care about looking the part for anything?” He pauses for a moment and shakes his head. “I meant that to say usually you’re not so...self-conscious and now you’re worried about fitting the part?”

 

Mark lolls his head to the side, shoulders slumping. “I know. I just— I know you have this whole black and white theme—”

 

Hollywood Classic ,” Ten interrupts.

 

Whatever ,” Mark continues. “My point is, you have this concept in your mind and I just don’t think I fit it.” He leans back against the wall, sinking down a few inches and plays with the buckle of his belt. “Johnny’s back in town. Why don’t you ask him instead?”

 

“I don’t want Johnny as my best man, Mark,” Ten rests his hand on his shoulder. “And you look absolutely fine.”

 

Mark snorts and doesn’t acknowledge the attempt of comfort in the slightest. “You say that until you see me walking down the aisle alone like a loser in a $1500 tuxedo that I’ll have to keep the tags on to return it the next day.”

 

Ten interlocks his fingers together and leans forward into his lap to get a better glimpse of Mark’s sulking face. “Is this about the tux? Because I told you Kun doesn’t mind paying for it.”

 

“It’s not the tux,” Mark drags out, eyes fixed on the gap beneath the door.

 

Ten takes another brief moment of silence, eyes dragging across the intricate patterns on the wallpaper before looking back Mark again with slow eyes. “Then, is it about Johnny’s new boyfriend? The one you’ve been Insta-stalking for weeks.”

 

Mark rights himself, eyes blown wide. “How in the hell do you know about that?”

 

“Hyuck told me.”

 

Mark lets out a miserable groan and leans forward to bury his head in his hands. Of fucking course.

 

“It doesn’t make sense,” Mark starts with his words partially muffled into the palms of his hands. “But I can’t stop thinking about how different the two of us are. And it just doesn’t connect at all. Nothing makes sense. How can he and Johnny have in one month what it took four years for us to have?” He lifts his head from his hands to look at Ten’s concentrated expression. “I know I shouldn’t care but I can’t stop thinking about it, and them, and just— ”

 

“How much you wish it were you instead?” Ten finishes. 

 

Mark swallows and focuses on the telling lines of Ten’s expression. He looks for something— judgment, upset, disappointment— but finds nothing. Instead, Ten, leans back against the wall himself and eyes never leaving Mark’s face.

 

“It’s okay to admit it,” Ten says. “Just because you broke up a year ago doesn’t mean you love him any less or that you don’t miss him anymore.” His eyes drift away from Mark’s for a fleeting moment. “I...understand Mark. I really do.”

 

"Is it okay to admit I've thought about bleaching my hair blond five times this week?" Mark sulks. "I don't even look good with blond hair."

 

"You don't need to dye your hair blond." Ten says. "What difference would that make other than ruining your scalp?"

 

Mark shrugs and trains his eyes in the too-bright chandelier hovering above them, dangling crystal pieces dancing by the light of the bulbs.

 

"I don't know," he finally breathes out. "I just keep trying to figure out what went wrong. What I could do differently, you know?"

 

Ten's breath comes out shaky as he rests a hand on Mark's thigh, and even when Mark dares to glance over at his friend, Ten's eyes refuse to move away from the gold band around his finger.

 

"You could kill yourself, you know?" Ten says pinching the ring between his finger and twisting it around until it loosens. "Trying to figure out why you weren't good enough or why something so good didn't work out but it's pointless." His fingers slide the ring firmly back into place and his hands drop into his lap. "Things happen for a reason and what's meant for you will always come back." Ten lifts his head up and smiles. It's genuine and sad, unstable at the corners of his mouth but it's a valiant effort that doesn't go unnoticed.

 

Mark sees what Donghyuck sees for the first time. It’s evidently carved into Ten’s soul and painted across his face in shades of heartache and longing and it’s damn near impossible to ignore. Ten’s own anguish can cover the store’s decor of whites and ivories with a palette of his own raw emotions, ones vivid and plain as day. His eyes alone allowed insight into a gallery where the work of art was his heart, beating and bleeding across a blank canvas for Mark to see. Mark's mouth goes dry and as he hesitates to mimic what everyone thinks but only Donghyuck says, Ten is off the lounge, clasping his hands together, smile transforming to one far more disingenuous.

 

"Come on, no more sulking," Ten says, reaching for Mark's arm and pulling him off the couch. "I'm buying the tux for you and you're gonna look dashing and handsome in it like you always do." Mark opens his mouth to protest but Ten raises a hand, effectively silencing him. "It's not up for discussion."

 

"Fine," Mark sighs, moving to unbuckle the belt. "As long as I can get out of this thing."

 

"I mean it though Mark," Ten says, taking a step towards the door before pivoting to look back at Mark half-poised to undress. "You look good okay? Don't doubt that. It's Johnny's loss."

 

The door clicks softly as Ten walks out and Mark is caught in the middle of disrobing and coming undone. It’s not fair to Ten, who’s already stressed out enough about the wedding to part his time to console Mark’s petty issues. Ten went out of his way to pick Mark up in one of Kun’s expensive town cars, drove them all the way back to Soho— high end stores and designer boutiques galore, and even offered Mark a lunch where he could actually pronounce the entrees. And how does Mark repay him? By having a near nervous breakdown in the middle of a bridal shop dressing room.

 

Mark inhales and delicately grabs the blazer off the hanger, shrugging it on and pulling it down on his frame. His fingers push the lacquered buttons through each slot until the jacket is fitted and snug. He pushes away the fleeting thoughts of impostor syndrome that overwhelm him and grabs the door handle, ignoring his reflection in the wall length mirror as he steps back out into the store’s parlour.

 

Ten’s stretched on one of the many taupe sofas, flipping through one of the bridal magazines haphazardly strewn across the glass end tables, only chancing a look up after Mark clears his throat and extends his arms outward to show off the ensemble.

 

“Oh my god,” Ten beams from ear to ear, tossing the magazine beside him and scooting to the edge of his seat. “The things Alexander McQueen can make happen with a black jacquard jacket!”

 

“I feel...absolutely ridiculous,” Mark says despite the small smile that’s bubbling at the corners of his mouth. “I can’t believe you’re getting me in a suit.”

 

“Neither can I,” Ten pulls out his cellphone, and angles it towards Mark. “Do a 360. Donghyuck isn’t gonna believe me when I tell him how good you look.”

 

Mark whines and stomps his foot like a child pre-tantrum but relents nevertheless. It’s Ten’s  time, he reminds himself, and he’s allowed to be as extra and unreasonable as he wants (within reason, of course). He relents to turning around slowing, trying his best not to flush and complain at Ten’s occasional wolf whistles and coos, but as he refaces Ten, his eyes are less focused on the camera, the cluster of personnel watching with warm smiles or the other shoppers  buzzing from display to display. His eyes are magnets, honing in on the one thing he fears the most, making his way past dolled up mannequins and high rise columns.

 

“Ten?”

 

Ten whips his head around to the sound of his name being called from across the store, and it’s the last thing Mark sees as he ducks back into the dressing room, sliding the lock latch firmly in place and bracing himself against the farthest wall. He bites his lips and closes his eyes to calm his ragged breathing. Why was he so terrified?

 

There’s nothing to fear, and more than enough time has passed to step over the lingering feelings of animosity post breakup but the thought of seeing Johnny after weeks of wordlessly following his and Taeyong’s every move on social media is too surreal for him to handle. It’s like a ‘I’ve been obsessing over you’ tattoo was branded onto Mark’s forehead on display for all to see. There’s no way he can face him. Not now. Not in a fucking bridal store.

 

Please tell me he didn’t see me.

 

Mark hones in on the faint conversation between Ten and Johnny and even dares to move a hair closer to the door to hear the exchange more clearly. He had enough faith in Ten to feel assured that he wouldn’t rat him out, especially after the conversation they’ve had, but his palms are still sweaty and Mark doesn't think twice about wiping them off on the thousand dollar tuxedo.

 

“Johnny,” Ten says slowly and Mark imagines him just as he left him— looking over the back of the sofa. “What...what are you doing here?”

 

There’s a brief bout of silence, long enough for Johnny to get even closer to Ten before he answers, “I’m just picking up my suit for your wedding. I should’ve expected you would’ve gotten your wedding tux at a moneypot place like this.” Mark can hear the smirk in Johnny’s tone. It makes his stomach turn.

 

“Yeah, you know me,” Ten lets out a breathless laugh on the edge of nervousness. “Only the best.”

 

Another pregnant pause comes up in the conversation and for a moment, Mark chances the thought that perhaps Johnny has left, bidding a silent goodbye, but then Johnny clears his throat, voice a tad bit closer than before.

 

“Are you here alone?”

 

Mark swallows and holds his breath.

 

“Yeah,” he hears Ten say without hesitancy. “Why?”

 

The store’s generic music fills the empty space in the conversation now, switching over to a more noticeable upbeat song and Mark hears Johnny say, “No reason. I just thought— I thought I saw—”

 

Please. Please. Please.

 

“It’s nothing,” Johnny resolves at the last minute and Mark’s shoulders slump in relief.

 


Surprisingly, Mark leaves the wedding store unscathed. His body calms down the moment he hears the tiny bell at the front door jingle, signaling Johnny's departure and the soft rapping of Ten's knuckles against the dressing door. The sweat on his forehead has cooled and seeped back through the gaping pores of his skin, and when he slides the latch, and pushes the door open, he's already redressed in his street clothes, cap backwards and sneakers looking crude and out of place on the marble flooring. Ten gets little to no words out edgewise as Mark pushes out apologies and promises of making it up to him. Mark knows he understands though. Ten purses his lips and sighs and Mark doesn't turn around again as he heads out the building's door— a long enough wait time post Johnny's departure.

 

Out on the street, the air is fresher. It's ironic really. The city is full of air pollution from exhaust and wind carried cigarette smoke but that doesn't stop Mark from taking a deep breath and inhaling the grit— the raunch of the city into his lungs and breathing out with careful, counted breaths. He counts to ten slowly— focuses on what he sees and hears, and then counts to ten again. Before he knows it, the world slows to the beat of his heart and he's back. He can think. He can function.

 

Maybe it's the hoity-toity environment of the designer wedding shop or the nerve wracking experience of being nearly caught by his ex that had Mark on edge and undone, but even being outside in the Soho district— so out of his budget that he looks ridiculous even standing in front of one of its storefronts— Mark can't shake the small bubbling in the pit of his stomach, threatening to throw him into an upheaval again. It's a weird mixture of nausea and butterflies making for an indescribable sensation that is by no means pleasant. It has him bending over slightly, arm coming around his torso to brace for the bitter and acidic taste of vomit past his lips, but instead a sharp inhale sucks in a gasp of air and his body retaliates, fighting the abruptness with a quicker and even more forceful exhale. He pushes his hands down to his knees, desperate to catch his breath through his hyperventilating— desperate to find the fresh air again.

 

He isn't ready to admit it, but he knows it. He feels it. Ten sees it. Hyuck knows it. It's obvious.

 

He misses Johnny. He wants Johnny. He's still in love with Johnny.

 

He dry heaves, body wrenching from the anticipatory taste of sour vomit that's still lingering in the back of his throat. It doesn't come, but Mark still tastes it like it's embedded on his taste buds.

 

Coming to terms with the things he wants to avoid isn't best suited inside a wedding shop, or in front of one, but here he is, coming undone again and shaking violently beneath the heavy thoughts of reality. He's not as over things as he hoped and like it or not, closure is necessary and unavoidable. There's only so many more times he can avoid Johnny when they live in the same building.

 

Mark gasps out.

 

He focuses on three things he sees: taxis, obnoxious in color and sound, designer stores lining the block with thin glass doors and low lighting beneath the signs, and people— tons of people everywhere.

 

Then three things he smells: someone's strong perfume, thick cigarette smoke that makes him wheeze a little more fervently, and bread— a warm and inviting scent wafting from the bakery at the end of the block.

 

His breathing slows. He closes his eyes.

 

Three things you hear, he says to himself, slowly breathing through his nostrils. Music, soft like a lullaby, growing louder as one of the store doors open and dwindling into a faint afterthought once the doors shut back into place. He hears the monotonous ticking of the crosswalk's metronome timer, counting down the seconds until a standstill.

 

He exhales. He hears—

 

"Mark?"

 

Mark slowly turns his head towards the new sound, a voice familiar and yet so distant in memory that something about it holds a tone of unfamiliarity. His eyes widen and his body turns towards the person crossing the crosswalk, white-blonde hair shining beneath the sun's warm glow.

 

"Lucas?" Mark's voice cracks. He dares a look towards the wedding shop before swallowing and meeting the man's warm smile as he stops before him.

 

Lucas looks Mark up and down, pushing the bridge of his round glasses up his nose. His smile dazzles like it did the last time Mark saw him. Charming and Colgate white— the undeniable trademark of Lucas Wong and one that Mark hadn't realized he missed.

 

"Damn," Lucas says, shoulders dropping in the midst of nostalgia. "It's been a while man. I- how have you been? How has everyone been?"

 

Mark ignores the hidden loaded question. "I'm...surviving," he settles with an easy and less forced smile of his own. "Same old same old with me."

 

Lucas nods like he understands, probably because at one point he had been one that Mark had been able to confide to. Before things changed. "Nice to know some things never change." Mark is always the same. Stagnant.

 

Mark shakes off his roaming thoughts and focuses on the man before him, giving him a once over of his own. "I can't say the same," he lets out a small laugh, gesturing towards Lucas's renewed fashion sense and newfound fetish for brand name shirts and designer sneakers. "You look like a different man. I hardly recognized you."

 

Lucas turns his head away bashfully, chuckling and scratching the back of his head and shifting beneath Mark's gaze. "Yeah, my agent's making some changes," he tugs a strand of the bleached hair in front of his face and looks down at his shoes. "I can barely pronounce Balenciaga or any of the other brands they throw me in half the time. You know I never really cared about that stuff."

 

The Lucas Mark remembers— circa a year ago— is far from the one he sees now. Lucas the original bought clothes because they were comfortable and convenient. He paid very little attention to brands or style or patterns. Lucas was more focused on the inside than the outside and as much as Hyuck, Ten, and occasionally Jungwoo teased him about it, it was the thing that brought Mark and Lucas close as friends. Lucas was genuine and Mark liked that. He misses that.

 

"I'm actually here for a couple of casting calls," Lucas shoves his hands in the pockets of his joggers and rocks back on his heels. "A couple of magazines are scouting at some of the higher-end stores but—" he forgoes the rest of the sentence with a shrug. "I didn't really wanna go but, I guess fate had another plan because I wouldn't have run into you." Lucas's rocks slow and he tilts his head. "What are you doing here anyway? This place is a bit..."

 

"You can say it," Mark sighs out, lips quirking as he looks around at the surrounding stores. "It's out of my tax bracket."

 

"Well, I was gonna say it was a bit opposite of your tastes but you said it, not me."

 

Mark laughs out, shoves Lucas's chest with mild effort and huffs  when the taller doesn't budge. "At least moderate fame hasn't stopped you from being the same asshole."

 

"Once again," Lucas grins from ear to ear. "You said it, not me."

 

The jingle of the shop door alerts both of their attention to the storefront behind Mark and they both watch as a young woman and who Mark presumes is her mother, walk out of the store with talks of floral arrangements and centerpieces on their tongues. Mark and Lucas's shared laughter dies down to quiet and Mark refuses to acknowledge how Lucas's eyes drag across the shop's title with a slow lingering gaze, dropping down to the mannequins in the store's window display, donned in tailor-made tuxedos and fitted gowns of ivories, whites, and blushes. Mark focuses on anything else: the pigeon cooing near them, the wave of bodies moving around them— anything other than the flash of realization that settles in the dying warmth of Lucas's brown eyes.

 

"Oh," Lucas murmurs so low that Mark barely catches it. Lucas still stares at the store like it's a mirage— he blinks repeatedly, almost exaggeratedly like the shop would disappear if he willed it to.  He trains his attention back on Mark as a young couple enters the store moments later and smiles. It's a fake one. There's no concealing it.

 

"So," Lucas breathes out. "He's really going through with it, huh?"

 

"Yeah," Mark's voice betrays him in nervous tremors. "He is."

 

He isn't sure what response Lucas is searching for, but he knows it isn't it. Maybe Lucas wanted Mark to tell him how Donghyuck fights— even till this day, a few weeks before the wedding— for Ten to call it off. Maybe he wants to know about all the secret conversations he and Jungwoo has had about whether or not they should be completely transparent and confront Ten. Maybe he wants a reason to object at the last minute— a glimmer of hope from Mark, one that gives him justification to act on.

 

But Mark doesn't give him any more or any less. And Lucas doesn't push the issue beyond that.

 

"Is-" Lucas brings his hand up to circle his neck as he swallows. "Is he still in there?"

 

Mark nods.

 

Lucas looks at the store again, lips parting to speak but eventually seal themselves closed in a tight thin line.

 

"Well, tell him I said congratulations."

 

Mark panics when Lucas moves to keep walking down the sidewalk, hands already halfway towards his ears to place his AirPods in, and Mark reaches out, grabbing Lucas by the bicep and dragging him back.

 

"Wait," Mark says biting his lip. Lucas raises a brow, face expressionless and Mark isn't sure what exactly to say but hears his voice utter a weak, "I don't have a plus one. You can, like, come...if-"

 

Lucas shakes his head with a smile, laughing like Mark's told the joke of the century. He hangs his head back as he continues to laugh, bringing it down a second later to adjust his frames that have shifted on his face.

 

"It's a nice offer, Mark," he says. "But, there's a reason I didn't get an invitation. If Ten wanted me there, he would've invited me himself. I'm not gonna plus one myself into the happiest day of his life. I think I at least owe him that."

 

But what if the relationship isn't right, Mark thinks to himself. What if the person he's with is all wrong for him? What if he's waiting for a sign? What if he wants you to plus one your way into the wedding?

 

"I-" Mark stumbles over his words, frowning as he gathers his thoughts and meets Lucas's curious gaze. "Lucas I don't think Ten wants— I mean, I think he—"

 

The words die in his throat as Lucas places a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. It's the kind of touch that's less comforting and more final and resolute. Mark hates it when the touch lingers and then disappears as Lucas brings his hand back down to his side.

 

"Take care okay Mark?" he smiles.

 

Mark digs in his back pocket and pulls out the crumpled square of matte cardstock with gold metallic cursive script printed across it. "Just take it," Mark says, pushing the invitation in Lucas's hand. "In case you can make it. I'd really like you there, at least as my plus one."

 

Lucas looks at the card in the palm of his hand, fingers caressing the edges as if it might shatter beneath the weight of his touch and pockets it. He doesn't add anything or ask any more questions— he doesn't even protest like Mark expects him too. Instead, Lucas looks Mark over once more and pushes out a breath.

 

"Be nice to yourself, Mark."

 

Mark watches Lucas go until he's a mixture of paint in the mosaic of people surrounding him. Even after Lucas is gone past the next crosswalk and out of Mark's field of view, Mark is still cemented to the ground, unable to break the concentration of his gaze.

 

He and Lucas were always so alike.








𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐃𝐨𝐦𝐢𝐧𝐨 𝐄𝐟𝐟𝐞𝐜𝐭: 𝐅𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐨𝐧𝐞, 𝐓𝐡𝐞𝐲 𝐟𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐚𝐧𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫



Mark drives into Donghyuck with a relentless force that pushes him over the arm of the couch, nails desperately finding purchase in the worn upholstery. He ignores the fluctuating volume of Donghyuck's moans—usually off-put by the prospect of his neighbors hearing him fuck Donghyuck open in every angle possible, but tonight he's invested—pushing harder and harder until the tip of his cock grazes Donghyuck's prostate.

 

"Shit!" Donghyuck angles his head back, one of his knees slipping off the shifting couch cushion. Mark reaches down to pull Donghyuck's body back into position, never letting up as he angles his hips to push his cockhead directly into the bundle of nerves that kisses Mark's slit upon impact. "Wait, wait!" Donghyuck moans out, pushing up against Mark's hand driving him down against the sofa's arm.

 

Mark moves his hand immediately, drawing out of his stupor and blinking down at him as Donghyuck pushes the long strands of his wavy hair out of his face and angles a pointed look of frustration. 

 

"What? Did I hurt you?" Mark panics, dragging his hand down Donghyuck's back, spreading the sheen of sweat across flushed skin.

 

Breathless, Donghyuck rolls his eyes and pushes out a puff of air. "You're such a boy scout," Donghyuck arches his back, hips pushing back to nestle his ass against Mark's pelvis. "No you didn't hurt me, but are you trying to fuck me or kill me? Slow down. I didn't come over here for ten minutes of pleasure."

 

Mark rests his hands at Donghyuck's hips and laughs, murmuring out a soft 'sorry' before pushing in slowly again and leaning forward against Donghyuck's skin. "I got carried away." He rests his chin on Donghyuck's shoulder, carding his arms around his stomach and edges deeper into Donghyuck's tight heat. He hums when Donghyuck's moan drifts from melodic to shaky and turns his head to watch Donghyuck's profile. "Like that?" he mumbles in Donghyuck's ear.

 

"Yeah," Donghyuck breathes out in a whisper, head hanging, hips pushing back. "Like that."

 

Mark drags his lips across the outline of Donghyuck's jaw as he continues on with the painstakingly slow pace, tongue swiping over every mole and freckle that it comes across. It barely registers when he rests a finger on Donghyuck's chin, tilting his face towards his own and melds their lips together in a sticky, slow kiss. Mark nips at Donghyuck’s lips until they’re pretty and raw, swallowing down the warm sigh that escapes Donghyuck’s mouth as he delivers a sudden, unexpected thrust forward, his cock pressing against Donghyuck’s prostate again.

 

“Mark!”Donghyuck yells out, half wanton and half annoyed. He elbows Mark back until the latter is laughing on his back, flat against the sofa, watching as Donghyuck turns around and moves to straddle his waist.

 

“What?!” Mark laughs. “What did I do?”

 

Donghyuck slaps his hand down on Mark’s bare chest and smiles as Mark’s unrestrained yelp echoes louder than the creaky pipes rusting from Mark’s bathroom. “You know exactly what you did,” Donghyuck steadies himself, reaching behind him to grab hold of Mark’s hard cock. He angles it towards his rim, teasing the head against his opening before sinking down slowly and gasps as the head catches on the rim, pushing forward in a swift motion. 

 

“Well excuse me for thinking we were both trying to come,” Mark teases, watching Donghyuck work himself on his cock.

 

Donghyuck doesn’t respond with his normal brand of barbed wit and it let's Mark know, like always, that he’s close—too focused on chasing his orgasm to come up with cheap comebacks. Mark props his head up on one of the couch pillows tossed askew on the floor and watches every muscle twitch in Donghyuck’s face as he sinks lower on his cock, rising just high enough for the head to meet resistance at the rim again, and slamming down so hard that the sound of skin slapping grows negligible.

 

When Donghyuck’s close—really, really close— he always resorts to the same position. He buries his entire face into the crook of Mark’s neck, suckling until Mark’s skin bruises purple and damp. Sometimes he cards his fingers in Mark’s hair and tugs tight and sometimes Mark beats him to the punch and pulls him tight and taut into his embrace, refusing to let go. But Mark likes it best like this— when Donghyuck cups his face, gently drags the pad of his thumb across his cheek in comforting circles and presses quiet praises into his skin. Mark’s not the one to vie for attention but there’s validation in Donghyuck’s touch and substance in his words, two things that Mark’s body craves.

 

“Fuck Mark,” Donghyuck breathes out as Mark thrusts up into him, pace growing erratic. “Fuck Mark, Iloveyou, Iloveyou, Iloveyou!”

 

A riptide of waves rolls through Mark’s body as he comes hard inside of Donghyuck, painting his insides until pearls bead down the sensitive skin of Donghyuck’s inner thighs, gluing their skin together. Donghyuck’s orgasm follows seconds later, landing square on Mark’s stomach and Donghyuck cares very little about leaning forward into the mess, collapsed with exhaustion.

 

“Fuck you,” Donghyuck whines. “That was only six minutes.”

 

Mark doesn’t reply, fingers still twitching against the wet strands of Donghyuck’s hair, grazing against his scalp until they trail down to the back of his neck. He focuses on the ceiling fan above them, twirling around in slow circles until the blades send him into a trance and his vision blurs. His chest tightens.

 

He feels the pressure lift out his chest and Donghyuck’s sitting up, staring at him with a look akin to concern. “Mark,” Donghyuck says slowly, hands sliding down the expanse of his bare chest to cover his heart. “Why are you crying?”

 

Mark blinks and it’s only then that his vision brows hazy again through painful stings and the tears he didn’t know were there spill over, salty and thin on his cheeks. He touches the trail of tears and stairs at the dampness on his fingers like it’s foreign— something he’s not accustomed to, because he’s not accustomed to it. He never cries. At least not out loud. Not in front of people.

 

“I-” the words cut off as he lifts up to rest back on his forearms, unable to form a coherent response when Donghyuck looks so worried, brows wrinkled and knitted together. “I didn’t mean to.”

 

Donghyuck reaches for his shirt strewn across the back of the couch and tugs it on, eyes scanning the floor for his boxers before he climbs off of Mark and pulls them on in a swift motion. He repositions himself on the other end of the couch as if Mark isn’t still naked and as if they hadn’t just been fucking moments ago. Donghyuck absolves all of that to cross his legs beneath him and stare at Mark like he’s gazing through flesh, bone, and cartilage into Mark’s soul. 

 

“Is it because of the ‘i love you’ thing?” Donghyuck asks delicately, like he’s afraid of offsetting something much worse than a stream of uncontrollable tears.

 

Mark rights himself and finds his own boxers wedged between the couch cushions and unballs them, stretching them at the band and steps one foot in at a time, eyes glued to the faded writing across the band.

 

“Maybe, I don’t really know,” he shrugs. He foolishly hopes that Donghyuck will leave it alone and continue to their post-sex ritual: food, booze, movies, and then sleep. It— and Mark knows full and well what it is— isn’t something he wants to make a thing of. It’s not something he wants Donghyuck to worry about because as infinitesimal as it is in Mark’s mind, it’s only a drop in an ocean of things to be worried about. He has deadlines for his book. He’s running out of money in his savings. He still doesn’t have a date to Ten’s wedding. Mark has more important things to worry about.

 

The bad thing about being friends with someone for so long, however, is that they become privy to every little nuance, tone, and gesture that you exude. Donghyuck knows Mark is a shit liar and even shittier at being vulnerable in the face of his friends. Mark is well aware that lying to Donghyuck is futile, having been called out on his bullshit so many times by the younger. But he still tries and crosses his fingers that for once Donghyuck will take the bait and dead the conversation before it can even begin. But then again, he knows Donghyuck just as much as Donghyuck knows him and that simply isn’t one of Donghyuck’s subtleties.

 

“This is just sex,” Donghyuck leans back into the corner of the couch, playing with the hem of his shirt. “But, you know that doesn’t make what I say a lie, right?” His eyes land on Mark’s, half -lidded from sated pleasure but still warm enough to convey emotion and sincerity. “I do love you Mark. You’re my best friend.”

 

Mark groans and buries his head into his hands, elbows digging into his thighs.

 

He feels Donghyuck shift away from his recline to move next to him resting a tentative hand on Mark’s shoulder blades. “Hey, if you don’t want me to say it during sex I won’t but that won’t make it any less true. We can’t help who we love.” He hears Donghyuck pause with a click of his tongue before he continues, “It’s just unfortunate that I love an idiot.”

 

Mark exhales loud and audibly in the palm of his hands. “I ran into Lucas yesterday.”

 

Donghyuck’s hand drops from his back and Mark dares to peek up from his hands, sighing when Donghyuck mirrors what he feels. Conflicted and surprised. Mark leans back to sulk into the couch and locks his fingers together across his stomach.

 

“Outside of the tuxedo shop,” Mark continues, staring out the window as the street licks flicker on bathing his fire escape with a sickly greenish-white glow. “Ten was still inside.”

 

“Oh my God,” Donghyuck says. “Did Ten— did they-”

 

“No,” Mark shakes his head. “Ten was still inside.” He licks his lips, a frown forming. “Lucas, looked good on the outside. Like, really good. You wouldn’t even think that anything had happened. It felt like it was just yesterday that we were all hanging out together.” He drops his gaze away from the window to his hands, upturning them in his lap, clenching and unclenching his fingers. “But, when he realized, you know, that Ten was really going through with it, he just— he just gave up, Hyuck. Like it was the easiest thing to do.”

 

Donghyuck sighs now, moving to mimic Mark’s own sunk in position on the couch. “I doubt it was as easy as you think.”

 

“I know you, Jungwoo, and I agreed to stay out of it,” Mark says, lolling his head over to look at Donghyuck. “And I know that for the most part you’ve been shit at staying neutral,” At this, Donghyuck shrugs. “But, Ten said some things to me during the fitting and I tried to get Lucas to come around. I invited him as my plus one, Hyuck.”

 

“What did he say?” Donghyuck slows.

 

Mark gives a vague gesture. “He just put it in his pocket and told me to be nice to myself. I don’t think he’s coming.”

 

“And that’s what’s been stressing you out?”

 

"No," Mark pushes off the couch and pads into the kitchen. He pulls the refrigerator open scouring the contents for something less likely to upset his stomach and opts for the half-empty carton of orange juice. "I also ran into Johnny. At the store."

 

Donghyuck's eyes widen. "Did you guys talk?"

 

"No," Mark shakes his head. "I freaked out and hid in the dressing room until he and Ten finished and he left." He moves to stand at the island in the middle of the kitchenette, sitting the carton on the countertop and moving his fingers along the chipping paint along the counter's edges. "It's just that, as stupid as it sounds, I realized that I'm still in love with him." He pushes the spout of the carton open and takes a swig, slightly cringing at the sour and tangy taste and seals the carton closed. "After everything then and everything now, I'm still in love with him and just, looking at Ten and Lucas's situation— I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing or not."

 

Donghyuck moves to enter the kitchenette space, taking his place atop the countertop, bare legs swinging back and forth. "In what way?"

 

Mark's fingers dance across the carton's edges and he weighs the thought on his tongue before turning around and leaning against the fridge, arms folded against his chest. "You know that saying? The one about love being patient and kind? The one that talks about how it isn't selfish, envious, or easily angered?" he asks ticking off his fingers. "I don't feel any of that. I'm so angry with Johnny about how things ended, Hyuck. I- sometimes I think about that night over and over and it just, makes me so upset how everything went down that I can't even understand why I would even want to take Johnny back."

 

" And knowing all of this— knowing all the bad times we had towards the end, I'm jealous as fuck when I have to see him happy with somebody else." Mark leans his head back against the refrigerator. "Is that what love is supposed to be? Ten and Lucas love each other. Lucas is willing to sacrifice his own happiness if it means Ten is happy and it's the most unselfish thing I've ever seen. Ten is willing to accept that things are over and that "they'll meet in another lifetime" and it's the most patient thing I've ever seen. That feels like love, Hyuck. So how do I know what I feel is even that? Maybe I'm just selfish and I want Johnny to be just as miserable as I am."

 

The words are flowing out now like an endless stream of thoughts that Mark has trouble controlling and organizing into little buckets. Donghyuck doesn't make a move or gesture to stop Mark from his rant, complete with intent to let him spill his guts, and Mark's thankful for the opportunity to finally free himself from the thoughts that have imprisoned him since the day he dared to open Johnny's Facebook page.

 

"I mean, am I doing the right thing not saying anything," he gestures his hands to the left. "Or am I being incredibly stupid by not saying anything." He gestures to the right. "I just feel so...so-"

 

"Stupid?" Donghyuck tries with a smirk.

 

Mark throws him a glare, pushing off the refrigerator and yanking it back open to return the orange juice carton back to its rightful place. "Thanks for taking this seriously, Hyuck." he bites out.

 

"Mark," Donghyuck says, jumping off the counter and moving next to the fridge. " You are stupid. But so is love. Love is messy sometimes and inexplicable and illogical." Donghyuck bites down on his tongue and twists his mouth. "I won't say you're not in love with Johnny still. You guys have a lot of history. But you also never got closure, so how do you know if you're really over something if things are still so unfinished?"

 

Donghyuck's face lights up and he turns his gaze to Mark's, a wide grin breaking past his lips. Mark's stomach turns almost immediately and he shakes his head fervently, shutting the refrigerator door firmly. "No," he says firmly. "I'm not talking to Johnny. Aside from the fact that I know way too much about his personal life now to face him, it's been weeks and he hasn't even thought to come knocking at my door, Hyuck. Do you know how pathetic I'll look intruding on his happy life with Taeyong to bring up bullshit from a year ago?"

 

He pushes away from the counter and moves to grab two containers of instant ramen from his pantry, looking back at the sound of the refrigerator reopening and Donghyuck pulling out the half-filled bottle of watermelon-flavored vodka that Mark's been meaning to throw out for weeks.

 

"You don't have to actually talk to Johnny to get closure," Donghyuck says, setting the bottle on the countertop and moving to the cabinets to pull out two sizable glasses. "You just have to make your mind believe you are."

 

Mark snorts. "Is this some type of reverse psychology shit," he asks, tearing the paper lid off of the microwaveable bowls and moving over to the sink. "That shit doesn't work, Hyuck."

 

"Stop being such a cynic. What do you have to lose?" Donghyuck pours an equal amount of the clear alcohol into each glass, wrapping his lips around the bottle to savor the last swallow. He blanches, and sits the empty bottle back on the counter, coughing and moving to the sink to spit. "Where the fuck did you get that from?" he asks, turning on the faucet and sticking his tongue into the stream. "It tastes like cough syrup and rubbing gasoline."

 

"Yeah, I should've warned you," Mark moves next to Donghyuck and sticks one of the ramen bowls beneath the stream of water. "I only had $10 and I got it at the gas station around the corner."

 

"Fuck how much alcohol is in this," Donghyuck moves to inspect the bottle again, eyes blown wide. " 95% ? Fuck, this could make your insides spontaneously combust." Donghyuck tosses the empty bottle in the garbage can. "But whatever. It'll get the job done."

 

"What job? I already tell you I don't wanna do this," Mark pops the ramen in the microwave, pressing the buttons and watching the appliance come to life.

 

"You don't even know what it is yet!"

 

"I don't need to, to know it's a bad idea."

 

Donghyuck pushes one of the glasses towards Mark as he comes to lean against the island again and journeys back into the living room to grab both of their cellphones off of the coffee table. "It's not a bad idea," he says, sliding Mark's phone over to him once he's in range. "It worked for me with my last relationship."

 

Mark lifts a brow, unable to contain the sarcastic sound that leaves his throat. "When were you ever in a relationship?"

 

"For your information, asshole," Donghyuck says with emphasis, "when we were in college I had a thing with this guy. But of course, you and Johnny were too busy sucking face and each other's dick to notice." He clicks his tongue as he unlocks his phone. "Being a love-sick fool makes you a bit of a dick Mark Lee, but I'll forgive you because you look so pitiful."

 

"Hyuck," Mark warns.

 

Donghyuck rolled his eyes and holds up his phone in his hand, shaking it back and forth. "Call me."

 

Mark blinks rapidly, mouth stretching into a grimace. "Why?"

 

"Do you want to get over Johnny or not?"

 

Mark isn't sure himself.

 

He sighs though, picking up his phone from the counter and taps the screen until the call pushes through and Donghyuck's own phone lights up, an annoyingly loud jingle echoing throughout the room. He watches Donghyuck look down at the screen, pressing his finger on it and swiping across to reject the call.

 

Mark frowns. "Did you make me do that just to reject me in my face?"

 

"No," Donghyuck rolls his eyes, reaching over to press the speakerphone button on Mark's phone. The automated voicemail message blares from the speaker when Donghyuck pulls away. "Take a sip of this shitty alcohol and pretend like it's Johnny's voicemail." Donghyuck says, tipping his glass up in the air and taking another sip. He blanches again and growls out a rough noise, eyes snapping shut. "Fuck that feels like fire."

 

"Hyuck, this is stupid. I don't wanna-"

 

Donghyuck glares at him. "Mark. What do you have to lose? It's just me and you here."

 

Mark sighs, wrapping his hand around the glass and takes a quick sip, gritting out at the strong bitter flavor reminiscent of the cough syrup his mother used to force on him during his sick days as a child. His throat clenches, threatening to spew the liquid back up but Mark forces it down and brings his phone up to his mouth as Donghyuck points at it when the voicemail message ends with a beep.

 

"Uh," Mark says, flustering under Donghyuck's hard gaze watching his every move. He turns his back to Donghyuck and stares at the wall space beneath the window hovering over his kitchen sink. "Johnny, this is, uh— this is Mark, which you probably already know."

 

He tries his damndest to ignore the miserable groan that leaves Donghyuck's mouth and pulls at the waistband of his boxers out of pure habit, head angled towards the ground. "I just wanted to say that I'm happy for you, you know. That you're happy and you've moved on...after a year. I just wanted us to be on good terms again but maybe that's not for the best, you know? Like, you seem happy and I'm-"

 

Donghyuck clears his throat and Mark cranes his head around to stare at him as he twirls his finger around, signaling Mark to hurry up.

 

"Yeah, well, that's it," Mark sighs finally, just in time for the voicemail to beep again, timing out. He ends the call and sets the phone down, chancing a glance at Donghyuck again. "How was that?"

 

"Pathetic," Donghyuck puffs, shaking his head. "I'm embarrassed for you."

 

"Donghyuck!" Mark whines. "I told you I didn't want to do this stupid shit."

 

"You're not even trying!" Donghyuck replies. "And you're not being honest. ' I just wanted to let you know I'm happy for you,'" Donghyuck blows out a raspberry. "Please. You're a stalker and Johnny's playing house with a guy after a month. There's nothing happily ever after about that."

 

Mark stares at his friend. "Yeah, maybe that's enough of this," he says, pulling Donghyuck's glass away from him, only for Donghyuck to yank it back, a large amount sloshing out over the side.

 

"I'm serious Mark," Donghyuck says. "You've got to be honest— with yourself and Johnny." He gestures towards Mark's own glass. "Now take a big gulp."

 

"Why? I only did one message!"

 

"Because you made me spill some of mine and we gotta be on the same page."

 

Mark sighs and stares down at his cup. There's no faking things in front of Hyuck and maybe that's a good thing. How much longer could he hold his tongue and bite his lip? How much longer could he stand aside without consideration for his own feelings? Johnny and Taeyong could be happy for months. They could get married. Hell, they could break up tomorrow. But even then, Johnny would be fully capable of moving on to the next person all the while Mark still wanders in the 'before' time. He doesn't want to live like that— he can't live like that.

 

He lifts the glass to his lips and swallows down enough vodka to level his amount with Donghyuck’s and grunts, this time the burn lessened and the flavor smoother. He redials Donghyuck's phone and Donghyuck sends it to voicemail without much prompting, still watching from his bent over position against the counter top. Mark's mind rambles and scrambles. He barely hears the woman's automated voice giving the same repeated voicemail message but when he hears the beep, his mind trickles all of its discursive thoughts down to his tongue.

 

"Johnny," he breathes out, alcohol still heavy on his tongue and intermingled in his breath. "I've spent weeks wondering why we didn't work out and, you know what? You...are...an absolute dick." It feels good. Mark laughs out. "Yeah, that's right. You're a dick. I was invested in us which is why it's so stupid that I still have feelings for you after all this time but you— you act like I don't even exist. You moved in with a guy after three weeks of knowing him, which is stupid as fuck." Mark spins around, a tad bit more confident at the site of Donghyuck's amused face. "And you know what. I might be alone now, but I promise you I won't spend another second pining over you and our doomed relationship anymore." He ends the call and tosses his phone down on the counter, gripping the edge with his hands. He looks up at Donghyuck's proud face. "How was that?"

 

"Much more believable," Donghyuck smirks. "How do you feel?"

 

Mark licks his tongue across his teeth and swallows down the saliva pooling in his mouth. "Like I got a lot more to say."

 

"Then grab the ramen," Donghyuck pulls a stool up and sits down. "We got a couple of sips of alcohol left and all night."

 


 

Mark's fucked up. No. He's beyond fucked up. 'Fucked up' is a phrase used to describe someone so out of their mind drunk that they pass out on the nearest person, place, or thing. Donghyuck's fucked up. Mark is fucking wrecked . He's 'ruin my life' drunk and despite Donghyuck's encouragement of taking all the alcohol to the head and freeing his mind hours ago, it's going on eleven and Donghyuck can barely keep his eyes open, much less let out a coherent statement.

 

"Mark," Donghyuck whines as Mark ends the call for the nth time. "I'm—I'm glad, you're, you know-" Donghyuck gestures vaguely and weakly from his strewn out position on Mark's sofa. "But, I'm drunk and I'm tired. Can we call it a night already? Please," he slurs the last bit.

 

Mark still cradles his phone in his hand as he stumbles around the living room, almost tripping over Donghyuck's sneakers by the door and settles down on the armchair adjacent to the sofa. He stretches one leg over the arm and lolls his head back, frowning at the phone with a pout.

 

"But I still have—so, so, so much to fucking say," he hiccups, squinting as the screen lights up, dialing Donghyuck's number again. "I'm not done yet." He stands up shakily again, and treks the short distance across the living room floor, pausing and face contorting once he reaches the other side. Why did he get up again?

 

"Well, I'm done," Donghyuck groans, turning his gaze away from Mark to bury his face in the couch cushions. "Watching you...walk like that is making me sick." he groans, arms prone at his sides. "We should've never drunk that brandy we found in your cabinet." he muffles into the cushions.

 

"Sorry, this user's voicemail box is full." Mark stops his pacing, frowning at the phone.

 

"See," Donghyuck lifts his head, words garbled in his throat. "Even my voicemail can't take it anymore."

 

Mark turns an angry glare towards Donghyuck as Donghyuck rolls over on his back, hand pressing down on his stomach and letting out a miserable groan. "Hey, you were the one— the one, that told me to do this stupid, stupid idea in the first place. And now, you're tapping out? I still have more to say!"

 

"So write a book!" Donghyuck slams his arms down in exasperation and rightens himself suddenly. "Because there's no way anybody can possibly handle all that you have to say. Not even my voicemail— and it's designed for that very purpose!" Donghyuck falls to his knees in front of the coffee table and grabs his phone, groaning at the notification displaying 20+ voice messages.

 

"So delete the voicemails," Mark says. Donghyuck whines, tossing his phone onto the sofa.

 

"No, Mark," Donghyuck stands slowly, face paling. "The only thing I'm gonna go do is throw up this cheap-ass ramen and alcohol. And when I get back, both of us are calling it a night."

 

Donghyuck books it out of the living room towards Mark's bathroom, locking the door behind him and Mark blows his lips, going back towards the armchair and slumping down. The alcohol lived up to its namesake, instilling a bloodstream of liquid courage in Mark that's hard to suppress, especially when he's on such a roll. He's managed to get most things off his chest and yet with each sip and each passing hour, it's never enough— Mark coming up with new things to add every time he presses 'end'.

 

He stares at his phone background— an outdated photo of him and Johnny. How long ago had he set it to that? It had to be well over a year ago for sure. He's so used to opening his phone, determined with the purpose of opening an app, checking his messages or, checking the sales of his books that he rarely ever consciously notices the photo taken several falls ago. Before Johnny left both New York and Mark's life.

 

It was taken during an autumn stroll, leaves sticking to the wet concrete of the sidewalk post several days of heavy rainfall and Mark had just uploaded his second book online for sale. They were out celebrating— something Johnny had to fight tooth and nail for Mark to agree to after Mark quickly shut down the idea of having a celebratory party. Mark relented to a walk in the park and a lunch, Johnny's treat. He just wanted to be with Johnny then. That was good enough.

 

Mark's thumb hovers over the screen, staring at the photo. They were so happy. Johnny's wide grin outshining Mark's own tiny smile as Johnny wrapped his arm around Mark's shoulder, pulling him close to his side. Johnny's head rested atop of Mark's, dark beanie hiding the awkward cut of Mark's hair back then, and they both smiled— smiled like they knew things would only look up from then. They smiled like they knew their future was set and carved into stone. Back then, a break up seemed like a myth and forever was just as close as tomorrow. Back then they were happy. Mark could've sworn they were happy— could've sworn he knew how to make Johnny happy.

 

It's an optical illusion— one that when he blinks his eyes through his drunken stupor he can see right past. Maybe Johnny was never happy. Maybe Johnny needed a way out and took the opportunity the moment it presented itself.

 

Mark squints at the picture. Why does this look so familiar?

 

He analyzes Johnny— his face, his smile, his eyes— and finds nothing telling. There's nothing that gives a hint of unhappiness. How could he have seen it coming? It would've been impossible. But what he does notice is the placement of Johnny's head, the curve of his arm around the around Mark's waist—

 

Identical to the photo on Johnny's Instagram. The one with Taeyong.

 

Mark changes his background immediately, eyebrows squished together so hard that his head begins to throb and ache. He deletes the photo from his gallery, the last of its kind but the thought doesn't delete from his mind so quickly. Nothing is exclusive to his and Johnny's relationship anymore. Not even the way Johnny held him. He and Taeyong probably share more in common than he realized but now, it's evident that it's not even a contest. Taeyong one-ups him. In every way possible. Mark has nothing that Taeyong hasn't had and Taeyong has more than Mark ever will. All he has are memories— ones that might as well have been tall tales.

 

He glares at the phone.

 

Yeah, he still had a whole lot left to say.

 

He's thankful the number is still in his contact log— deleting it back then felt premature when he was still sure things could be repaired one month after Johnny left. He switches the phone over to speakerphone and lets the phone ring, droning on and on until the voicemail picks up and he scrunches his nose when Johnny's voice intermingles with that of Jaehyun's. He must've called their house phone. Mark sits upright as the message nears its end. Cell or house phone— he had a lot to fucking say.

 

The voicemail beeps.

 

"You know what Johnny," Mark clears his throat to break through the slur that drags out. "How could you be so selfish? You're so fucking selfish. You left the way you did— and, and you just come back and move back to where we both lived and you don't even— you don't even like, think to check on how I'm doing? You just pretend like I don't even exist and you're just a selfish dick."

 

He hangs up.

 

Mark blinks, moving his head back and forth to savor the aftermath effects of his message.

 

It's bitter.

 

Mark groans out in frustration and redials the number, this time punching in the secret code that Johnny gave him to check the messages remotely. It's a small albeit gratifying victory when the code still works and he deletes the message quickly. He can do better. Much better.

 

"No call, no text huh?" Mark says on his second attempt, pushing out of the armchair and sauntering across the floor. "So that's where we are? All that bullshit about us staying friends really was to make you into the good guy. You didn't mean any of it, did you? You didn't mean anything you ever told me."

 

"Message Deleted."

 

"I don't even care," Mark laughs out on the third attempt, arms spreading wide, shoulders shrugging. "I don't care that you don't care Johnny. I really don't. If you looked up the definition of nonchalant in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of my face and if you look up indifference, you'd see a picture of my ass so you can kiss it, because I-" Mark holds up a finger and teeters until he gains control of his footing. "do not care. Nope, I'm cool. I'm breezy. I don't care in the slightest that it's been almost two weeks since you've moved back and you haven't bothered to check in on me." Mark stops. "You really haven't checked up on me," he slows. "Son of a bitch."

 

"Message Deleted."

 

"Message Deleted."

 

"Message Deleted."

 

"Alright Johnny," Mark sighs, head resting forward against the wall. "I've been at this for ten minutes now. Well, five hours if you count all the practice messages I left in Hyuck's mailbox." He breathes out, feeling the lasting effects of the alcohol coursing through his bloodstream and slowing his heartbeat. "I had so much shit to say to you that, I overdid it. Hyuck's probably passed out over my toilet seat from all the alcohol we've had tonight but he'd be fucking relieved to hear it," Mark pushes off the wall and sways, unsure of where his body wants to take him and opts to stand in the middle of the spinning room.

 

"And now," Mark says with a small lilt and a humored giggle. "Now, I've run out of so many fucking things to say that I know exactly what I wanna say to you." His body moves forward, or maybe it's vertigo sending him kneeling onto the floor, bracing himself against the coffee table as he sits on the rough patchy carpet, legs spread out wide.

 

"You're not allowed to be this selfish," Mark manages finally. "You're not allowed to be the self-seeking one in this...this..thing. Do you realize how many relationships I lost out on because I was stupid in love with you? Because I believed the stupid shit you told me?"

 

"Do you realize how much this shit fucking sucks?" He murmurs. "Seeing you with your new boyfriend all happy and shit? You told me you didn't even like blonds. God, am I so stupid."

 

Mark spreads out on his back, staring at the ceiling. "I can't believe I stayed faithful to someone so fucking ungrateful." He murmurs.

 

The voicemail beeps and Mark closes his eye, thudding his phone on the center of his forehead. Fuck. He really shouldn't have said that.

 

It's petty and a ploy to get beneath Johnny's skin, something Mark was rarely able to do in the heat of an argument between the two of them, but why should Mark be the only one to hurt? Why should he bear the brunt of the hurt and anguish while Johnny has his happily ever after?

 

It still doesn't warrant the acerbic words that left his mouth though, even Mark can admit to that. Good or bad times, there's no way cheating on Johnny would have ever been a thing. The bile in the back of his throat threatens to reflux at the thought and he has to raise up to quell the insistent turning of his stomach. Somehow he had fallen from his peak of enlightened self-actualization and alcohol-induced grandiosity to an even lower place of bottle-of-the-glass despair and regrets.

 

I'll just delete it , he thinks. Just like the others. Another fresh start until he can get his shit together.

 

He punches in Johnny and Jaehyun's code again, maneuvering through the automatic menu of options, until his fingers against the screen, keying in the final numbers to delete the message. He spreads himself back out on the carpet, phone going lax in the palm of his hand and eyes lulling closed.

 

"Outgoing Voicemail Message Has Been Changed. Goodbye."

 

Mark's eyes snap open. Wait, what?

 

"No," Mark breathes, lifting his phone to his face to redial the number again waiting through the long tortuous rings. "No, no, please no." The final ring cuts off halfway and the sound of Johnny and Jaehyun's mixed voices are long gone, replaced by a low drawl and a muffled slur.

 

"Alright, Johnny. I've been at this for ten minutes now-"

 

"No!" Mark lurches forward, staring at the screen. "No, no, no!"

 

He redials the number again, fingers twitching as he waits through the entire ordeal of his message, cringing, eyes squeezed shut as he relives his slurred speech down to the empty threats. He punches in the code like muscle memory by now and follows the menu to delete the outgoing message.

 

"Sorry. This voicemail box has been accessed from a remote location too many times. Please change settings on the home device. Goodbye."

 

Mark stares at his phone until the screen darkens.

 


𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐀𝐰𝐟𝐮𝐥 𝐓𝐫𝐮𝐭𝐡

 

"So," Donghyuck says from his place on the coffee table, desperately trying to sober up post-alcohol-induced vomiting. "In the time it took me to go to the bathroom and come back out here," he pauses to rub his temples. "You did what?"

 

Mark paces back and forth in front of Donghyuck, fingers threaded in his hair. He stops to look at Donghyuck with exasperation. "How many times do I have to repeat myself!" He panics, a more sober version of himself compared to twenty minutes ago.

 

Donghyuck winces, cradling his head. "Please, stop yelling. I'm drunk, not deaf."

 

"Hyuck, I don't think you're fully comprehending what I'm saying," Mark's shoulders fall. "I left a message on Johnny and Jaehyun's machine. I changed their voicemail message. Not only are they going to hear it but everyone they know will hear it too!" Mark yanks his hair and lets out a groan. "Fuck, why couldn't I have spontaneously combusted instead? It would've been way less painful!"

 

"I'm convinced you didn't drink enough alcohol," Donghyuck belches. "Because I'm definitely on fire."

 

"Hyuck."

 

Donghyuck waves Mark off in surrender and sighs. "Why did you even call him in the first place? That wasn't part of the exercise— the exercise that we both agreed was done for the night."

 

"Technically you agreed and then you went to vomit. I never agreed. I told you I still had more to say!"

 

"Fine, fine," Donghyuck closes his eyes. "But why did you say it to his actual voicemail?"

 

"I was shitfaced!" Mark says. "I just— I don't know. Look, we gotta do something."

 

Donghyuck reopens his face, brows squishing together. "What do you want me to do? Turn back time? I'm not even drunk enough to believe I can do that."

 

Mark slows his pacing to a stop when he catches sight of the silver keys dangling on the hook near his door. The keys haven't moved, not since the last time he used them to bring  Johnny the black hoodie he'd borrowed for months— two days before they broke up.

 

"I got it," Mark rushes over to the keys and grabs them off the hook. "We gotta go delete it."

 

Donghyuck looks up at Mark as if he’s grown three heads, or perhaps he’s still trying to process what’s going on through the fog of alcohol and drowsiness. “Did all that alcohol make you insane, Mark? You can’t just go into someone's house, especially your ex’s house. Why do you even still have those?” he nods towards the keys spinning around Mark’s fingers.

 

Mark withdraws his hand, hiding the keys behind his back as if Donghyuck threatened to confiscate them. “I just, never, got the chance to give them back,” he says slowly, looking down at the keys in his hand. “What if Jaehyun gets locked out? Then he’d be grateful to me, you know?”

 

“But you don’t even talk to Jaehyun anymore. What difference does it make?”

 

Mark bites his lip. There’s a couple of legit reasons that he hadn’t given the keys back. He’s lazy— that reason probably superseded them all. He’s forgetful and lazy, too lazy to journey back up to his apartment once he reaches the lobby and remembers moments after seeing Taeil at the front desk. He thinks to bring it up the few times he runs into Jaehyun in the elevator but doesn’t want to bother with the even more awkward journey to his apartment and then back to Jaehyun and Johnny’s. And just as worse would be Jaehyun coming to his apartment, lingering in the doorway as Mark searches for the keys that rarely make it back to the hook in the first place.

 

He’s an emotional hoarder and sometimes, when the nights come too quickly and things aren’t connecting with his writing or times when Mark just feels downright alone, he clings to memories and things— anything that reminds him of the comfort Johnny once brought him. He’s found several of Johnny’s stray t-shirts mixed in with his laundry over the past year and it took him up until recently to finally discard them when they became too stained and worn. Mark would snuggle into the fabric like a support, sleeping with it, pulling it taut against his body like his own special support blanket, going as far as to sleep in it sometimes.

 

When the shirts went, Mark gravitated to the little things: Johnny’s chapstick left on Mark’s dresser, deep red and cherry scented, the stuffed lion Johnny gifted him on one of their earlier dates, Johnny’s keys. His apartment was still very much centered in the past and Jaehyun's eyes would decipher that after seconds of dawdling in Mark’s doorway. So Mark ended up boxing up all of Johnny’s things— keys not included— only to store them in the back of his closet, tucked beneath his thick winter coats, labeled with thick black Sharpie stripes and sealed with heavy duty duct tape.

 

Do Not Open. Do Not Repeat.

 

The keys weren’t really his— none of the things were, but the keys were the only thing Mark could justify to himself for keeping visible and in his field of view. He was going to return the keys. Eventually. One day.

 

“You never know,” Mark settles, closing his fist around the keys. “They’re coming in handy now.” He walks out of the living room to his bedroom, door creaking in agony as he pushes past it and drops on his mattress, opening one of his dresser drawers and pulling out a balled up pair of sweats.

 

Donghyuck comes in slow and dragging seconds later and opts to lean against the doorframe, arms crossed as he watches Mark frantically turn the pants inside out by accident and then right side out in his panicked rushing. “What if they already heard the messages and you’re walking right into the lion’s den?” He asks. “What if they’re home? You’re not thinking this through. You’re acting on impulse, not reason.”

 

Mark shakes his head. “Jaehyun works security,” he mumbles, pulling his feet through the holes at the bottom. “He won’t be back until the sun’s up.”

 

“Jesus Mark. How many people are you stalking?”

 

Mark looks up from his ministrations and throws a hard look Donghyuck’s way. “Can you stop being you for one moment and just try to help?”

 

“I am trying to help,” Donghyuck pushes off the wall and moves further into the room. “I’m being the rational one. Even if neither of them are home, what about Taeyong? What about all the missed calls on the machine?”

 

Mark tosses his head back and grabs his phone, swiping through his apps until he opens Instagram and searches through a sea of names. Donghyuck watches on with one brow raised until Mark turns the screen to face him showing bits and pieces of Taeyong’s story.

 

“He’s out with his friends,” Mark says.

 

“And the missed calls?”

 

“Let me worry about that.”

 

“Mark,” Donghyuck groans out. “What if Johnny’s home?”

 

Mark stands up, sweats fully sheathed and pulls on the hoodie hanging over his headboard. “Well, that’s where you come in.” He places his hands on Donghyuck shoulders and gives a small squeeze that makes Donghyuck look down at his hands and then back at him. “I need you for bait.”

 

Donghyuck pulls back slightly. “Look, I don’t know what you’re thinking-”

 

“I’m thinking,” Mark interrupts. “That I don’t have a lot of time and I need you to help me. I fucked up, okay? It’s a huge shit on my part, one that I have to do a lot of...reflection for, But right now, I need you to stand in my shit with me and help me, Hyuck.” Mark looks at Donghyuck and maybe he looks as desperate as he sounds and feels, because Donghyuck’s face begins to soften, and the wrinkles at his forehead smooths out.

 

Donghyuck closes his eyes and sighs. “Why am I fated to love an idiot?” He pretends not to notice the excited smile that crosses Mark’s face when he reopens his eyes. “What do you want me to do?”

 




“This is a bad idea,” Donghyuck whispers again as they trek down the hallway of the fifth floor. “I want you to remember that I said that when shit hits the fan.”

 

Mark ignores the comment for the third time since they’ve left his apartment, eyes darting around the hallway to make sure they aren’t in the presence of any nosy neighbors or watchful eyes. It isn’t exactly normal to see two guys roaming the floors after midnight, talking in guarded whispers. The floor is empty thankfully, completely still and quiet and it makes the walk up to Johnny and Jaehyun’s apartment all the more daunting. Mark feels his heart attempt to break free from his rib cage with every step forward and his breathing grows ragged as the apartment door comes into sight.

 

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Donghyuck asks.

 

No. “Yes.”

 

They stop a few centimeters from the door and Mark pivots on his heels to look at Donghyuck in time for another whine to rip from his throat. “I don’t even have an alibi,” Donghyuck bounces in frustration. “What am I supposed to say? ‘Oh hey Johnny, I just came out a quarter to 1 in the morning to say hi?’”

 

“Hyuck, don’t overthink this, please,” Mark begs. “I gotta delete that messag-”

 

The two of them freeze at the sound of the locks turning and clicking out its chambers and Mark’s eyes widen, frozen in time and cemented to the ground as he watches the knob turn and the door creaks open. He has little to no time to process Donghyuck’s hands on him, shoving him out of view and into the large potted plant waiting around the corner. The crash is loud enough to echo throughout the hall and Mark has to stifle a loud swear as he topples over the plant, covered in soil and debris.

 

Mark shifts to his knees, crawling towards the end of the hall and barely peers around the corner, just in time to catch a glimpse of the plastered smile Donghyuck manages as Johnny steps out into the hallway, glancing around, eyebrows knitted together.

 

“Hyuck?” Johnny asks as if he expects to see someone else.

 

Donghyuck lifts his hand in greeting, stilted and robotic. Mark wants to ram his own head into the wall. “Heyyy,”Donghyuck draws out as casually as he can muster. “Hey— Johnny. How are ya?”

 

Johnny blinks and folds his arms across his chest, biceps on full display thanks to his sleeveless top. “I’m...fine,” he says slowly. “I just... heard voices— are you out here by yourself?”

 

“Uh,” Donghyuck’s eyes roam towards Mark and Mark ducks back as Johnny tries to follow Donghyuck’s eyesight. “Uh yep!” Donghyuck perks up, regaining Johnny’s attention. “It’s just me. Sometimes I...talk to myself.”

 

“Uh huh,” Johnny follows, nonplussed.

 

“Anyway,” Donghyuck spreads his arms out and then slaps them against his sides. “I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by.”

 

Johnny’s tongue finds solace in his cheek and the corner of his mouth twitches upward as he leans back on the open door. “At one in the morning?”

 

“Yep!” Donghyuck grins without a pause.

 

“And in your pajamas?”

 

Donghyuck’s glance falls down to his oversized shirt and shorts before returning to challenge Johnny’s own stare. “I like to be comfortable. Sue me.”

 

Mark groans. They really should’ve come up with an alibi.

 

He dares to look around the corner again and sighs quietly when he notices Johnny is still solely focused on Donghyuck.

 

“I can’t believe you came back into town and you didn’t think to reach out to me,” Donghyuck says now through a pout.

 

“I-”

 

“Don’t worry,” Donghyuck grabs Johnny by the forearm and tugs him out of the apartment. “You can make it up to me by buying me some breakfast.”

 

Johnny grabs the door frame to resist Donghyuck’s tugging. “Wait a minute,” he laughs. “What breakfast place is open at one a.m.?”

 

“We’ll find one, come on!” Donghyuck insists and Johnny sighs, stepping back in to slide into his shoes and grab his wallet and keys.

 

He turns away from Donghyuck to lock the front door, and pauses once he faces him again, eyes narrowing and head tilting to the side. “Hyuck, are you drunk?”

 

Donghyuck clicks his tongue, pressing his hand into the small of Johnny’s back. “I won’t be after I eat. Let’s go.”

 

Donghyuck guides Johnny down the hall, tossing a quick look over his shoulder in Mark’s do=irection and mouthing out a string of words that Mark has no trouble deciphering.

 

You owe me.

 

Mark waits, only moving to stand when he hears the elevator doors slide close and a few seconds after to make sure no one’s lurking around the bend. He slides against the wall, slowly edging towards Johnny’s front door and moves with swift precision, digging the keys out of his pockets and pushing the apartment key into lock, twisting it open.

 

The apartment opens, welcoming Mark into its quiet warmth and for a moment the strange reality of the situation makes him halt in the doorway. He doesn’t feel as comfortable as he once did and why would he? Aside from the stint with Taeyong a few days back, he hadn’t been in the place forever. Why would breaking and entering make him feel any more welcome?

 

He steps in fully, and clicks the door behind him softly, tiptoeing carefully over shoes and dog toys littered across the floor. He winces as his foot comes down on a rubber bone, the loud squeak resonating against the walls and he holds his breath, frozen in place. There’s no chance that anyone is there now, but it still makes Mark’s chest tighten and his breathing accelerate to a level of pre-hyperventilation.

 

He sees movement out the corner of his eye from the sofa and dares to glance in the direction, letting out a relieved sigh as Nala lifts her head from her stretched out position on the sofa. The glow of the tv bathes her fur in an awkward blue sheen as she cranes her head around, eyes landing on Mark and perking up immediately. She jumps down from the couch and comes trotting towards Mark with an excited yap, dancing around his feet and jumping up desperate for his attention.

 

“Shh!” Mark presses his finger to his lips with a smile, bending down to scoop the dog up in his arms and moving further into the living room around one of the sofas. “I’m not supposed to be here Nala. Don’t give me away.”

 

He cuddles the pup to his side as he makes his way toward the phone plugged in and sitting on the end table near the window. The number of voicemails sits at zero and Mark sighs out in relief. At least his deleted ones never made it to the machine.

 

He squints down at the machine fumbling through the buttons until the phone comes to life, automated message guiding him to the correct options. He tries not to think about what’ll happen when Jaehyun and Johnny realize that their own pre-recorded message has defaulted back to the factory setting somehow. He even ignores the nagging pang in his stomach that tells him there’s no way Johnny was home and had somehow managed to miss all of the incoming calls he’d unleashed on their home phone. None of it matters in the end, because Mark is too cowardly to ever face Johnny again and Johnny is too indifferent to care to approach Mark. Somehow a win-win still feels like a loss to him, but at least he could potentially avoid the embarrassment of looking desperate. He deletes the outgoing message and wipes the missed calls on the caller ID clean.

 

He lets go of a breath and looks down at Nala, tongue hanging out as she cranes her head back up to look at him. “Don’t judge me,” Mark mumbles, chuckling low when Nala's tail swings back and forth at being acknowledged. “I’m a mess. I know.” Nala tilts her head to the side and Mark groans. “Seriously, don’t look at me like that. I feel guilty enough.”

 

He sets the pup back on the sofa and falls to sit next to her, if even for a moment. He trusts that Donghyuck isn’t shitfaced enough to send Mark a warning text or call if they were heading back. He runs his fingers through the soft fuzz between Nala’s ears and she rests her head on his thigh, lying back in her former position on the sofa.

 

“I wondered how things were here without me,” Mark admits more to the room than to Nala. “Sitting here now, it feels like the only thing different and out of place is me.” His eyes trail over the area and up to the obnoxious glow of the television to the movie paused on the screen.

 

The Lion King.

 

Mark doesn’t want to look into it— how Johnny is watching a movie that he would never watch save for in Mark’s presence, but he can’t help it. He edges to the end of the couch and stares at the paused screen, entranced by the freeze framed scene and gets sucked into those memories again. Winter days. Ankle socks on his feet,legs resting in Johnny’s lap, a smile etched on his face as he tells Johnny every upcoming scene before it happens because Mark can’t stand surprises and he can’t keep secrets. Johnny never minded (that he knew of) and only watched on with an amused grin adding in commentary every now and then but mostly watching the light in Mark’s eyes as the plot culminated ,as if Mark hadn’t seen the movie a million times before.

 

He sucks in a breath and looks down to grab his vibrating phone in his pocket, pressing the button to light up the screen.

 

 

From: Hyuck

1: 13 a.m.

RED ALERT! HE’S COMING! GET OUT OF THERE MARK!

 

Mark jumps up, Nala startling to the other end of the sofa, and pockets his phone. “Sorry, girl I gotta leave again,” he gives a parting pet to Nala and tries not to stumble over the coffee table in his desperate attempt to escape. The soles of his sneakers nearly slip on the rug as he rounds the sofa again and he tries to straighten it back out, if not to make the place look inconspicuous, but the door is already unlocking and there’s little that he can do now— nowhere he can go.

 

He’s trapped.

 

He heads for the first place he thinks of— which is probably the worst place to be: the coat closet in the hall. He dodges the string hanging in the center of the closet, and pushes back between the many jackets and coats hanging on the rod. He doesn’t have enough time to close the door completely, just cracked a smidge, so he sees Johnny re-emerge into the apartment, shaking his head and holding the door open, not for Donghyuck like Mark half expects. But for Taeyong.

 

“I don’t know why I even listened to Donghyuck,” Johnny says with a click of his tongue, closing the door and locking it once Taeyong is safely inside, and helps the blond out of his light jacket. “I’m not even hungry and I told him there wouldn’t be anything on this side of town open. But he’s just so damn convincing.” At this Taeyong snorts out a giggle and Johnny gives him an adoring smile. “We gotta hang out with him one day. He reminds me so much of you.”

 

An ache throbs in the back of Mark’s throat as he swallows and pushes further back into the closet— into the darkness.

 

“If you like him I’m sure I will,” Taeyong hums. “And at least some good came out of your little walk. I didn’t have to walk back home alone.”

 

“Did you have fun with Doyoung and Baekhyun?” Mark hears Johnny say as he folds Taeyong’s jacket across his arm.

 

“Up until they ditched me for club hopping,” Taeyong pouts. Johnny’s laugh isn’t forced but relaxed and Mark feels dizzy and lightheaded.

 

It’s sickeningly domestic and sweet, everything Mark doesn’t want to admit and the longer he has to listen to it the sicker he feels, alcohol finally threatening to expel itself from its body. He directs his attention away from Johnny and Taeyong’s conversation to the floor, peering out of the small crack of the door at Nala, curious peeking into the closet, tail still wagging. Fuck.

 

“No, Nala,” Mark whispers, throwing his hands out to shoo away the pup. “No, I’m not playing. Go.”

 

Nala lets out a loud yap that stops Mark’s heart and he casts his gaze up to see both Johnny and Taeyong look in the direction of the closet, eyes trained on Nala as she starts to continuously bark at the door.

 

“What’s wrong with Nala?” Taeyong asks, moving into the living room and sliding on the couch.

 

“I don’t know,” Johnny says moving closer to the closet, jacket in hand. If Mark wasn’t close to hyperventilating before, he’s dangerously close now, the oxygen in the small closet running low as he heaves in a quiet gasp expelling exhales as quickly as he can. He’s already making weak excuses in his mind when Johnny stops in front of the door and booking the easiest, safest way to dart around Johnny and out the door. Johnny is so close to the door now that Mark is sure he must hear Mark’s ragged breathing, but instead of yanking the door open and tugging the dangling string, Johnny kneels to pick up Nala who desperately tries to squirm out of his arms. “She’s been barking all day. She’s probably just stir crazy.”

 

Johnny moves away from the closet door and Mark sinks an inch lower, eyes squeezing shut and sweat cooling on his skin. His phone vibrates in his pocket and Mark carefully pulls it out, turning down the brightness as to not alert anymore unwanted attention in his direction.

 

 

From: Hyuck

1:19 a.m.

I tried to hold him off as long as I could

 

From: Hyuck

1:19 a.m.

But Taeyong showed up

 

 

From: Hyuck

1:20 a.m.

Holy shit he really is better looking in person

 

Mark groans.

 

 

From: Hyuck

1:21 a.m.

Did you make it out?

 

 

From: Mark

1:22 a.m.

No...a little held up. I’ll text you later

 

It’s only a couple of seconds before his phone buzzes again.

 

 

From: Hyuck

1:21 a.m.

Gonna head home then that is if you haven’t died by embarrassment by then

 

 

From: Hyuck

1:21 a.m.

Told you this was a bad idea

 

“What were you watching?”

 

Mark’s head snaps back up to peer at the duo as Johnny plops down a few inches from Taeyong, Nala settling in the dip in his lap. Johnny sends Taeyong an incredulous look, remote paused in hand and lets out an unbelievable gasp.

 

“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen Lion King?” he says gesturing towards the screen. “It’s a Disney classic.”

 

Taeyong shrugs offhandedly, spreading his legs out before tucking them beneath himself. “I didn’t watch a lot of cartoons as a kid,” he nudges Johnny’s shoulder playfully. “My parents thought they rotted the mind.”

 

Johnny scoffs as he rewinds the movie to the opening sequence. “Well you’re in for a treat.”

 

Mark watches for— he’s not sure how long. A couple of seconds? A minute? Five minutes? The time drags on, but he can’t direct his attention away from the life that used to be his. Taeyong laughing at every corny joke in the movie, shifting his legs acros Johnny’s lap when Nala moves to cuddle into his chest, and Johnny— looking fondly between the screen and Taeyong’s face— the same way he used to look at Mark.

 

Mark sinks completely to the floor and hugs his knees, streaks of tears flooding his face unprovoked and unfaltering, wetting his t-shirt and hazing his vision. He digs the palms of his hands into his eyes to push the tears back in but it only makes the pressure in his heart burt even more and a quiet sob pushes its way out.

 

It’s a mess. He’s a mess. Everything is fucked to hell.

 

The more the tears fall, the harder it becomes for Mark to suppress the noises of his sobs and there’s no way he can hide out until the end of the movie— with an entire hour and 45 minutes left. There’s no way he’d be able to watch or even listen to the sounds of Taeyong and Johnny in bliss, a picture perfect vision that belongs on a holiday card. He wipes his stained cheeks on the damp collar of his t-shirt and pushes himself up. He has to get out— not so much to avoid embarrassment now, but to salvage the thin hanging thread his sanity clings to.

 

He slowly stands, taking extra precautions as to not jostle any jackets or hangers, and feels along the closet wall for the metal panel that he knows to be there. He hears the colorfully animated tune of one of the movie’s songs filter through the room and he sinks his teeth into his bottom lip chewing away at the chapped skin from dehydration. His fingers find the plate on the back wall, between Johnny’s parka and Jaehyun’s overcoat, and flips the panel door open, fumbling over the rows of switches. He can’t see the stickered labels through glassy eyes and the dark and he’s so on edge and ready to burst at the seams that he thinks, fuck it , and pushes them all in the opposite direction, submerging the entire apartment in a sudden shadow of darkness.

 

“What the hell,” he hears Johnny say, followed by the squeaking of the sofa and footsteps. “I thought we paid the electric bill.” The switches click audibly and Mark assumes both Johnny and Taeyong are testing every light within walking vicinity before one of them sighs and opts for turning on the flashlight of their phone.

 

“I’ll get some candles,” Taeyong says, voice coming closer and closer to Mark’s cowering position in the closet but ultimately passing it and moving into one of the back rooms. Johnny’s heavy footsteps follow— Mark’s sure of it and the first sign he gets of the duo’s voices beyond the walls of the bedroom, Mark bolts.

 

He stumbles out of the closet, memory serving him to avoid the cord of the lamp or random boxes pushed into the living room for trash day. He doesn’t care about being inconspicuous or tactful or any of the things that he was previously worried about going into Johnny's apartment. He just wants to walk away from this night, from Johnny and Taeyong’s relationship, from everything. He just wants to be free.

 

When he steps out into the light of the hallway, his eyes squint like he’s awake from a daze— a long restless sleep that’s gone unrewarded. The old tears dried in streaks on his face, lines reforming underneath the trail of new ones still set on spilling over even as Mark walks away from the apartment, feet guiding him towards the elevator at the end of the hall. Why does he keep tormenting himself?

 

“Mark?”

 

He stops. Shoulders tense and fingers grow cold.

 

Mark turns, as slowly as he can manage and sure enough Johnny’s stepping out into the hall, head angled towards the hallway’s lighting, but ultimately returning his gaze to Mark near the end of the hall. Mark can see as Johnny closes the doors behind him that the power has been restored and figures they’ve already thought to check the power box. His mind flits to Taeyong briefly but he turns the thoughts off once Johnny’s in his vicinity, stopping only a foot away.

 

Up close Johnny looks different, or maybe Mark’s seeing him different through his bloodshot eyes. There’s something unfamiliar about the person from him and it’s not the burgeoning half-sleeve tattoo present on his left bicep, a weave of sunflowers painted across his skin. It’s not the new color of his hair or the definition of his features. Mark just looks at Johnny and he sees a stranger, someone that looks familiar— like a regular on the subway or at a restaurant would. He’s not someone Mark knows anymore and Mark struggles to come to terms with the fact.

 

Johnny drags his eyes from the bottom up, taking in every inch of Mark and Mark wants to recoil beneath his thin t-shirt, arms coming to hold himself loosely once Johnny lands on his face with a concerned expression. Mark can only imagine how he looks now: red eyes, flustered face, peeling lips, and discolored streaks on his cheek. He’s his most vulnerable— the side he tried so desperately to hide from Johnny for weeks— forever— and there’s a bit of bitter humor that comes with the idea that in the end, Johnny always gets what he wants and ends up revelling in his fragility.

 

“What-” Johnny starts, licking his lips and sliding his hands into the pockets of his flannel pants. “What are you...doing here?”

 

Mark opens his mouth then shuts it. He drags his eyes towards the light fixtures to stop the next onslaught of tears from falling and eventually, he dares to look Johnny in the eyes with a sigh. “I...couldn’t sleep. So I just...took a walk around the apartment.”

 

“Oh,” Johnny runs his hand through his hair and nods. “I didn’t realize that you still...lived here.”

 

Mark blinks and says nothing. He just stares at Johnny like he’s something to be figured out.

 

Johnny shifts beneath the intense pressure and lets out an awkward laugh, momentarily directing his focus towards one of the generic paintings lining the hall walls. “It’s been a while...I bet it’s kind of disorienting seeing me...all of a sudden, after I, you know, left.”

 

“Mmhmm.” Mark folds his arms, unintended of prolonging the conversation.

 

Johnny catches on to Mark’s standoffish vibe and presses his lips tight together. “I ran into Ten the other day and strangely, Hyuck a while ago, so I’m sure you know that...I’ve moved back.” And after a beat. “I was gonna call you but-”

 

“Look it’s late,” Mark interrupts with a sharp tone, switching his weight to rest back on his other leg. “I’m gonna turn in.”

 

“Mark,” Johnny takes an uneven step forward but stops in his tracks as Mark takes a step back. “Mark, are you really still like this? After all this time?”

 

Mark scoffs and rolls his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, eyes hard. “I’m tired and I’m gonna get some sleep. I’m sure you have better things to get back to anyway.”

 

Johnny’s head flinches back and his eyebrows push together. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Nothing,” Mark shakes his head. “I gotta go.”

 

“Mark!” Johnny grits out as Mark pivots away to reach the elevator. Mark presses the ‘down’ button and chances a look back to see Johnny sheepishly giving apologetic looks to a neighbor nosily popping their head out of their apartment door at the noise, only to train his hard eyes back onto Mark’s person when the neighbor returned within their home. “Mark!” he hisses out.

 

Mark’s been here before— a weird sense of deja vu. He steps onto the lift and desperately presses the ‘door close’ button, wishing that for once the world would give him a break but Johnny’s faster sliding into the elevator at the last minute and pressing his back against the opposite wall as the doors close.

 

He gives Mark a tight look, mashing the third button and waiting for the elevator to take them down before tossing his head back against the polished metal walls.

 

“You’re really something else, Mark,” he laughs out bitterly. “It’s amazing how no matter what you’re exactly the same person. It’s refreshing actually.”

 

Mark bites down on his tongue, fist balling in the pockets of his pants. “And you’re still the same asshole.”

 

Johnny hums and then clicks his tongue, pushing off the wall and holding his arms up in surrender. “Ok, put your guns away. I’m not trying to start with you,” he says. “I thought...maybe we would’ve been past this by now but obviously this conversation is well overdue so let’s just have it.”

 

Mark laughs out. “There’s  nothing to be said. If you had something to say the time would’ve been when he broke up. Not now when you’re-” Fucking somebody else. Mark holds his tongue and inhales. “I don’t want to talk about this now.”

 

The doors to the elevator slides open and Mark marches out without waiting for Johnny or his response. His skin is warm, hot like his newfound temperament and it’s like without much preamble, he’s regressed through the stages of grief, barely kissing the stage of acceptance and catapulting himself back into anger. He spent days lamenting over what he should say or do in the face of Johnny Suh, but now that it’s actually happening, Mark’s a spewing volcano, repressing the biting heat within his core and threatening to explode at any moment’s provocation.

 

He hears Johnny’s sarcastic laugh following him down the hallway and around the first corner, Johnny hot on his trail with no intention of slowing down. “That’s your problem, Mark,” Johnny comments. “You build up this huge, ambitious idea in your head of how things should go and when they don’t work out your way, you shut down. You always want what you want, when you want it.”

 

Mark stops at his front door, key in lock, hand on the knob. He levels Johnny with a frown, pushing his shoulders back and gripping the door knob hard with a tight fist. “Who doesn’t , Johnny?” he says with a strained voice. “That’s not a me thing. So don’t even try to turn it into one.”

 

He pushes into his apartment and tries to close the door before Johnny can step foot under the threshold, but Johnny wedges his arm between the gap and pushes his way inside, closing the door and locking it behind him.

 

“Would you just listen to me? For one second?” Johnny breathes out with exasperation.

 

Mark kicks his shoes off, unconcerned when they fly off in different directions and he moves into his kitchen. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for, just something to keep his mind busy from overthinking and his eyes busy from crying. He gravitates towards the sink, turning the faucet on and giving Johnny his back as he plugs in the stopper and adds a generous amount of dish soap to the filling tub.

 

“I think you said what you needed to before you left,” Mark bites out over the running water.

 

Johnny moves into the kitchen, keeping his distance, the island counter serving as an adequate barrier of separation. “How could I have made myself clear back then, Mark?” he asks, spreading his hands across the countertop. “You barely let me get a word in edgewise. I’m not even sure you tried to understand me or if you even heard what I said.”

 

A ceramic bowl slams into the sink sending suds and water sloshing onto Mark’s shirt. He grips the counter before turning around to lean against it, the shipping wood pressing hard into the arch of his back. “I mean, it’s not like you cared what I thought or felt anyway.”

 

Johnny stares at Mark, eyes unblinking, lips twisting as he digs his nails harder into the wood. His hands eventually relax, flat on the top and he hangs his head between his shoulders, body shaking with vibrations from a hearty laugh. It makes Mark’s jaw clench and though he’s still cemented in place, he wants so badly to push Johnny out of his apartment— him and his smug attitude.

 

Johnny lifts his head up finally to stare at Mark with a grin, eyes wet from laughing so hard, and swipes his tongue across his bottom lip before pushing it inside his cheek. “You know, I actually missed this back in Chicago,” he says shaking his head. “I missed the amazing way you were able to warp your entire reality to fit your narrative. You always were a good fiction writer,”

 

“Oh fuck you,” Mark lolls his head to the side and grimaces. “Fuck. You.”

 

Johnny pushes himself off the counter and nods. “Yeah,” he affirms with a farway smile and a shake of his head. “That’s my boy.”

 

“I’m not your boy,” Mark walks forward to the opposite side of the counter directly across from Johnny.

 

“I didn’t mean it that way and you know it.”

 

“What way?” Mark hums. “Baby? Lover? Boyfriend ? Yeah, I’m sure you didn’t mean it any of those ways either.”

 

A sliver of hurt flashes across Johnny’s face and he relaxes into a stand, eyes softening. “Mark,” he says slowly. “I really don’t want this to be a big ordeal. Give me a break. I’m trying here. I’m trying so fucking hard and you’re not even putting the slightest effort into this conversation.” He moves to circle around the counter, stills staying a good foot away. “We run in the same circles. It’ll be inevitable to avoid me and this conversation forever.”

 

Ten’s wedding was one hurdle in a marathon of obstacles that Mark would have to maneuver just to avoid being in the same vicinity as Johnny or Taeyong. There were birthday parties, events, lunches, dinners— there was no way Mark could avoid them all the time without becoming completely ostracized out of the group himself. Ripping the bandage off now was something he wanted to prolong for as long as he could but Johnny already had his fingers peeling the edges, pulling the cover off his skin and reopening barely healed wounds.

 

“Fine, Johnny,” Mark closes his eyes and sighs, reopening them to give the man his undivided attention. “What is this thing that’s so important? Let's hear it.”

 

Johnny is taken aback, but quickly composes himself, drumming his fingers against the counter. “I’m always in your corner Mark,” he says slowly. “Even when you don’t think I am. Even when it’s hard for you to believe.” He hesitates for a moment , eyes casting towards the ground for a breath and then returning to Mark’s brown ones. “But you were never in mine.”

 

Mark shakes his head slowly, stare incredulous. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”

 

Johnny brings a finger to his lips and shushes. “Let me talk. Just listen.” He moves to turn off the running faucet, hesitating to look at Mark again. “I did so much for you Mark,” he starts, frowning as he watched the bubbles float around the sink of water. “I supported you through college with whatever you wanted to do, I- I supported your writing, I tried my best to keep you happy and even when I didn’t at the very end, I still tried because I cared.”

 

Mark swallows hard.

 

“But, you were never willing to go the same lengths,” Johnny shakes his head looking back at Mark. “I could understand you not always being there for my achievements, or not wanting to go out and do things. I understand that. But what hurt worse, every single fucking time, is watching you continue to close yourself off after four years together. You never truly let me in. You never wanted to be vulnerable. You never let your guard down around me. You— you just wouldn’t let me in your space.”

 

Mark’s tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth as he tries to swallow down Johnny’s words, anxious to block them out, to dispel them as quickly as Johnny throws out accusations. But he’s weak and his body trembles as all the instances that Johnny refers to flash across his mind like a highlight reel of a relationship gone wrong.

 

“I started thinking maybe you wanted space,” Johnny admits. “I never wanted to break up but, when I got that job in Chicago it seemed like the perfect opportunity for my career and for you to maybe figure out what you wanted from me.” He moves to lean against the wall, staring at Mark with hooded eyes. “I didn’t think it would’ve been the end of us.” 

 

The silence stretches on, only the occasional drops of water from the faucet piercing the dead air.

 

“Why did you break up with me, Mark?”

 

Mark’s lips bruise, red and tender, shiny with spit and he tastes the salt that’s streaming back across his cheek. It’s more bitter than briny, touching his tongue as he tries to heal the words against his lips by laving it over the self-inflicted wounds. He doesn’t know how to answer, so he doesn’t.

 

“No answer, huh?” Johnny laughs bitterly. “I didn’t think so. I mean do you even really know?”

 

Mark looks away.

 

“You tried to hurt me, I know,” Johnny continues. “Isolated our friends from me,” he shrugs. “I can’t really blame them because I knew it was the best possible outcome for them. I leave and they stay here with you. I didn’t take it personally because, you know what? I’m not selfish. I’d never make them choose.”

 

“And it took me about a week after I settled in to my place in Chicago,” Johnny muses. “to realize, why exactly it is you ended us.” He looks out the window above the sink, face illuminated by the flickering of the dying street light. “Because you, Mark Lee, are selfish .”

 

“You were too selfish to let me accept new opportunities.”

 

“You were too selfish to put your pride aside and put forth the emotional effort to communicate.”

 

“And absolutely nothing has changed.”

 

Johnny sighs and brushes the fringes off his forehead, looking away. “I just wanted you to know that,” he murmurs, pushing off the wall. “I’m sure you have your thoughts about me and our relationship, but no matter what,” Johnny looks back at Marka last time. “No matter how fucking frustrating and selfish you are, I’ll never leave your corner. I couldn’t if I tried.”

 

Johnny taps his fingers on the counter, lingering for a second but ultimately heading out the door without waiting for even so much as a noise to slip past Mark’s lips. Mark’s body cycles between a debilitating numbness that feels like pins and needles entering into every pore in his body and weakness that kicks him at his shins and threatens to bring him to his knees.

 

For once, his mind is really and truly empty. He feels nothing, says nothing. He has no one to blame— not Johnny, not Taeyong, not his friends— just himself. His mind sits with silent contemplation replaying Johnny’s words over and over in his head until he questions every interaction he’s ever had with his ex, his friends— with anyone. He thinks back on his statements, his words, his actions and reels. Had he truly created a narrative so out of this realm that even he began to believe it? He had been so convinced that his conflicted feelings had been because of Johnny and Johnny’s new relationship, but it had all been his own doing?

 

He confused himself. He let things go prematurely. He let his own stubbornness and greedy emotions cloud the true nature of things. How had he felt so validated? So justified? So sure, that he was the casualty?

 

Mark never felt more sure: the lingering feelings of love for Johnny were true and authentic, lost in a haze of pride and ego. He never stopped loving Johnny. He had just been too selfish to admit, to act on it, or to fix it.

 

He was too selfish to try .

 

He sniffs and wipes his damp hands on the pants of his sweats, intent to grab his phone off of the counter but pauses, withdrawing his hand back to his side. Nothing felt right. Calling Hyuck at near two in the morning would be selfish. Selfish. Selfish. Selfish.

 

The apartment seems to spin around him, shrinking smaller and smaller until he’s confined in a cube, restricted in movement. No matter where he goes— the living room to sit on the couch, the bathroom to splash cold water on his face, the bedroom to attempt to sleep away the demons rearing their head— Mark can’t escape. He’s suffocated and trapped and it makes him gasp out. He has to leave. To escape.

 

So he sits on the floor in front of his front door and pulls on his sneakers, tying the laces tight in double knots and stands to pull an old sweatshirt over his damp tee. He doesn’t take his phone or his wallet, leaving everything but his thoughts behind.

 

He steps out of the lobby, out into the darkness of early morning.

 

And walks.




𝐃𝐨𝐞𝐬 𝐇𝐞 𝐨𝐫 𝐃𝐨𝐞𝐬𝐧'𝐭 𝐇𝐞?

 

Mark ends up in SoHo— a two hour walk from his apartment. He doesn’t plan it. He just lets his feet carry him in a direction naturally and it takes him to SoHo, the land of the affluent and bourgeois. Designer stores look less intimidating in the middle of night when the lights from the inside are low, leaving them just as dark and hazy as the outside. Mark cuts through alleys and passes through crosswalks, just mindlessly wondering and moving when his feet tell him to. There’s no one to rush him or to slow him down. He’s just walking, without a purpose and without a thought and it’s actually nice.

 

He deviates from the shopping district to the more homey side of Soho, the block lined with high-priced Brownstones power washed unlike the scum and bird shit that layers the side of his own building. The townhouses were recently built, maybe within the last couple of years or so, so the area isn’t flushed with trash or loiterers or piling garbage in the alleyways. Before he knows it, he reaches his destination, feet stopping after climbing the steps up to one of the doors and ringing the buzzer, finger turning a deep red as he pushes harder and harder.

 

He doesn’t expect anyone to answer, after all it’s way past three, so it gives him a start when the door swings open just as he’s turned around prepared to venture back down the steps and roam the night again.

 

“Mark?” Ten says, tugging the silk white robe close to his chest.

 

Mark looks back at him over his shoulder and takes in his appearance— disheveled, remnants of dark liner smudged beneath his lash line, hair awry. He must’ve woken him up. Mark swallows. How selfish of him.

 

“I-” he looks around the night like the answer is floating in the air around them. “I...don’t know how I ended up here, or why,” he resolves to mumble, averting his eyes apologetically. “But I didn’t mean to wake you up. I’ll— I should go.”

 

“Wait,” Ten calls out before Mark makes it even halfway down the steps. “Don’t be ridiculous, come in.” He opens his door wider and steps aside with a gesture of invitation. “I was wide awake actually.”

 

Mark hesitates but ultimately moves back up the steps and treads inside, shoulders dropping when Ten puts a comforting hand on his back.

 

“Did you walk all the way here?” Ten asks, closing the door behind them and turning on the lights in the foyer.

 

The chandelier shines so bright that Mark has to wince before regaining control of his vision, kicking his sneakers off on the designated mat by the door and shrugging off his sweatshirt. “Uh yeah,” he exhales, placing the sweatshirt on the coat rack. “I guess I did.”

 

Ten gives a disapproving grunt and reaches towards Mark to adjust his shirt, wrinkled at the shoulders and collars drooping from Mark tugging so much at it. “If you wanted to come visit me you could’ve called,” Ten clicks his tongue. “I would’ve sent a car for you.”

 

Mark’s lips twitch with the ghost of a smile. “Sorry, I didn’t bring my phone with me. I didn’t even know I would come here, I just— wanted to take a walk.”

 

“At three in the morning? On the streets of New York? With no phone?” Ten questions. “Do you have a death wish?” He lands a slap to Mark's shoulder that makes Mark wince. “You writers really have a false sense of security with everything, don’t you?”

 

Mark hums as Ten is already padding out of the foyer, the soles of his house shoes flopping against the hardwood floor, venturing into the kitchen where the stove light is the only thing that illuminates the entire room. Mark lingers in the doorway unsure of what to do or say— he’s been to Ten’s house dozens of times, but not unannounced or without reason. He’s not really sure why his mind led him to Ten, after everything. But it feels nice, he decides. Ten doesn’t know anything and there’s no directed judgment.

 

“Can I get you something?” Ten asks, stopping in front of the stainless steel refrigerator and tugging it open. “Sparkling water? Warm milk? A hot toddy?” Ten smirks at the last option but Mark nearly pales, stomach aggressively protesting.

 

“Please, no alcohol,” he groans. “Just— do you have any tea?”

 

Ten taps his chin and shuts the refrigerator, moving to rifle through the cabinets above the granite countertops. “Maybe,” he says. “Somewhere back here.”

 

Mark slides onto the stool in front of the kitchen island and watches Ten go through cabinet after cabinet until he finally recovers a box of peppermint tea bags and grabs the tea kettle from the cabinet space below the counters. It’s comforting to be in such a safe space with such a safe person, he thinks. Ten’s always been a comfort for him— not in the same way that Jungwoo or Donghyuck are, but in a different way. Ten always felt like the closest thing to a brother Mark could imagine. A protector, a friend, a confidant, a role model— Mark believed Ten to fulfill all the roles in his own way, coming to Mark’s aid even when he isn’t aware that he is. Now that he thinks about it, it isn’t very much of a wonder why he subconsciously sought out Ten’s home through all the chaos.

 

Ten places the kettle full of water on the stove and moves to open the push-out windows above his sink. “Maybe we were thinking about each other,” Ten smiles, rummaging through various drawers before clicking his tongue with joy and pulling out a carton of cigarettes. “They say if two people think about each other at the same time in the middle of the night, they’ll both have insomnia.” Ten drifts back towards the stove and angles the tip of the cigarette onto the burner beneath the heating pot and withdraws it at the sight of glowing embers.

 

Mark scoffs, folding his arms across the counter and resting his chin atop them. The person keeping Mark awake definitely isn’t Ten, if the saying is true. And he’s just as sure that he isn’t Ten’s fixation either.

 

Ten’s back near the open window, gentle breeze setting in and running its fingers through Ten’s black locks as he brings the cigarette to his lips and inhales. “No,” Ten says after releasing a puff of smoke. “I’m not thinking of anyone.” It sounds like a statement with the intent to convince. “I’m too busy organizing things for this wedding to think about anyone.”

 

“What a shame for the groom,” Mark jokes lightly and buries his smile within his arms as Ten shoots him an equally light and amused look. He peaks back up from behind his arms after a couple of minutes watching Ten flick the forming ash into the sink and go in for another puff. “Ten,” Mark draws out. “Can I ask you something?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“You don’t smoke,” Mark says rather than ask an actual question.

 

Ten sputters out a cough, hand grabbing a fistful of his robe as he pushes himself past the fit of coughs before he inhales again then sighs. “I know.” He puts the cigarette to his lips again. “It’s a recent bad habit,” he mumbles around the stick. “Kun hates it. And I’ll stop after the wedding, you know, when things calm down.”

 

And if they don’t, Mark thinks, what then .

 

The tea kettle whistles before either of them knows it and Ten looks over at the stove, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth and blowing the puff of smoke out the corner of his lips. “Everything’s done,” he says, grabbing a porcelain mug from the dishrack atop the counter. “Everything is book and coordinated and arranged.” He pours the hot water into the mug and sticks the tea bag into it, swirling it around with a spoon and tapping the edge of the china as the tea bag steeps. “But I know something’s not right. Something’s missing. And I have to find it.” he inhales another puff. “The wedding’s in less than two weeks. I have to find it.” He brings the mug and sets in front of Mark, pushing the jar of sugar towards him as well.

 

From the close distance, Mark can see the dried streaks of runny eyeliner beneath the rim of his eyes. Streaks only water can leave, not exhaustion. Streaks from salted tears. Mark says nothing. He listens.

 

“I don’t know what it could be,” Ten continues on watching Mark rip off a paper towel and place the tea bag on it, spooning in several lumps of sugar. “I’ve checked the flowers, the food, the music, the venue— everyone’s RSVP’d and all of the tuxes fit.” He flicks the half of a cigarette into the sink, running water on it just in case and gestures for Mark to follow him into the living room when he’s satisfied with the taste of the tea.

 

Ten pushes forward into the room but Mark stops in his tracks, overwhelmed by the amount of things everywhere. The walls usually adorn with color coordinated painting to accentuate his leather sofas are bare and covered stack high with columns and columns of cardboard boxes labeled with various indicators and stickers. The area that the large coffee table once occupied is bare, large rug exposed and lined with various papers and wedding invitations, magazine scrapings, business cards and a tuxedo, sealed in an expensive garment bag. There’s little to no where to sit, even the bench in front of the grand piano is covered with boxes, so Mark squeezes in where he fits in— on a tiny slot of space on the couch between a box of Ten’s winter jackets and a bunch of folded up throws.

 

“What is all of this?” Mark asks, nursing the warm mug to his lips.

 

Ten sits cross-legged on the floor and moves some of the papers around until they become one big, cohesive mess. “Confirmations, invitations, receipts,” he mumbles more to himself than to Mark. “I’ve gone through everything three times and I can’t find what’s out of place.”

 

Mark watches Ten bite at his nails, another bad habit, he assumes and takes a sip of his tea as soon as it’s cool enough to swallow. It’s rare that he sees Ten so unraveled and on edge, usually being the one so self-assured and put together, and it’s almost comforting to know someone so admirable is often on the same sinking ship as himself.

 

Mark sets the mug down by his feet and wipes his hands on his pants before leaning forward to prop his elbows up on his thighs.  “What about you?” he asks finally, when Ten has neatly stacked all of his files into a neat pile. “Have you checked yourself?”

 

Ten slows to a stop and looks at Mark. “What...what do you mean?”

 

“I mean,” Mark rests his chin in his hand. “How are you? Are you okay? I’ve never seen you so frazzled and so...” He hesitates, “So sad.” 

 

Ten reflexively brings a hand underneath his eyes to rub at the smudge aliking his ruined makeup to bags and then smears the charcoal rub onto his pants. He frowns at the ugly stain, driving his palm into it to wipe it off, but the splotch only becomes bigger and bigger before he lets out a frustrated ‘damn it!’ and brings his palms into his eyes. Ten isn’t one to be consoled. He shrugs off pity and sympathetic comfort despite being a main proprietor of it, so Mark stays where he is, watching closely as his friend tries to stop the runny black streaks from falling.

 

“When does it get easier Mark?” Ten’s voice breaks through the sob. “When can I forget it? Forget him . I’m tired of just— thinking about him .”

 

Mark sucks in a breath and looks down at the ground between his legs.

 

“I’m happy,” Ten says, dropping his hands in his lap. “I’m happy— I really am happy, but I can’t let go and that makes me miserable. Not knowing what I could’ve done or if he even cares?” Ten scoffs out a laugh and shakes his head as he angles his head up towards the light of the chandelier. “Why do I even care if he cares? It’s been so, so long.”

 

Mark wavers back and forth between saying what’s at the edge of his tongue and listening with intent. There’s a chance that it can ruin things— ruin the wedding and how selfish would it be of him to ruin a wedding that probably shouldn’t happen in the first place. But is it truly selfish if the end result is well-meaning? He clears his throat and breathes out, attracting Ten’s attention.

 

“If I did know something,” Mark treads lightly. “About Lucas,” — Ten winces— ,” would you want me to tell you?”

 

Ten smears more black across his cheeks with his hand and scoots closer towards Mark’s leg. “You know something?”

 

Mark nods. “I didn’t know if I should tell you, especially so close to the wedding. But, if you wanna know, I’ll tell you.” It’s ready. Right on his tongue. Lucas is still in love with you. Lucas has regrets. I invited him to the wedding.

 

Ten looks so eager and invested for a moment that Mark thinks he might burst if Mark doesn't tell him, but instead, Ten sniffles and unfastens the belt of his robe, using the dark collar of his pajama top to clean his face of the dark tears.

 

“No,”Ten says firmly. “I don’t wanna know.”

 

Mark’s eyes widen and he sits up straight, teeth biting the inside of his cheek. “Are you sure?”

 

Ten nods. “I’m sure.”

 

“But why?” Mark frowns. “I thought you wanted to know.”

 

“I do ,” Ten admits with a shrug, pushing back to rest his back against the bottom half of the couch. “But knowing now wouldn’t change anything. It’d drive me crazy to know what Lucas’ thinks now. It’d put me...in an even worse predicament. And as much as I love Lucas,” Ten breathes out as the words he’s avoided finally touches air, “I love Kun too much to look back.” Ten nods as if consoling himself. “It’s..what’s best for all three of us.”

 

Mark looks down at Ten unbeknownst to him and feels his shoulders fall, tension releasing from his tight muscles. Ten knew how to be the bigger person and make sacrifices. Mark admires that. He wishes he were more like that. Had he been, maybe the past few weeks dealing with the 

Johnny thing wouldn’t have spiraled. Hell, maybe his relationship wouldn’t have spiraled in the first place. Mark didn’t need to know about Johnny’s personal life after the break up but he looked into it, not because he was ready to be an adult and genuinely happy for him, because he selfishly wanted a piece of what Johnny was willing to offer someone else after he’s already had a serving of his own. Mark didn’t make sacrifices, at least not the kind Johnny made, in their relationship and that was his own cross to bear. Ten and he were on the same kind of boat, but only Mark’s is sinking. He doesn’t know how to move on. He doesn’t know how to find happiness when everything he’s ever wanted has slipped away.

 

Ten must since the tension, moving in from the comfortable silence because he angles his head up to look at Mark, brow raised. “There’s a reason you came to see me,” he says with confidence. It’s not a question, more of a demand, and Mark knows there’s no way he can lie about it without Ten seeing through the ruse.

 

“Do you think I’m selfish? Like really?” Mark mumbles. “I’ve always known that I’ve had selfish tendencies, but only in the way that everybody does. Everybody is looking out for their best interest at the end of the day.” Mark rubs the back of his neck. “But am I so selfish to the point of...obnoxious. Do I run people away?”

 

“Whoa, whoa, slow down,” Ten frowns, angling his body around to face Mark. “What happened?”

 

“Johnny,” Mark breathes. “Johnny happened.”

 

Ten’s lips part in a small ‘oh’ and he hums, sniffling away the last remnants of his own lamenting and hugs his knees. “Is that what Johnny told you?”

 

Mark nods.

 

“I can’t invalidate anything Johnny says or feels,” Ten starts. “That’s his perception. That’s what he feels, or felt at the time.  But you are not selfish Mark, not intentionally anyway.”

 

Mark groans. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

 

“No,” Ten says. “It’s the truth and it’s gonna hurt whether you’re prepared for it or not. I don’t think you’re intentionally selfish in the things you do...but you’re not used to so much of this,” Ten gestures around them. “Love, affection, friendship. When I first met you in college, you told me that I was your first friend, that you grew up an only child and never had friends or dated. Johnny was your first and only boyfriend. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that but you’ve spent so many years being a safe haven for yourself that you can’t even fathom letting others do the same for you. And in that right, Mark, you’re selfish. You’re selfish because you think no one will care as much about you as you and that’s just not true. I love you,” Ten nudges his knee. “Hyuck fucking adores you even if he has a weird way of showing it. Even Jungwoo loves you. He’s always so worried about you Mark.”

 

Mark shudders, eyes refusing to leave the ground. He doesn’t want to cry again. He doesn’t want to come undone, but Ten places a soft hand to his chin and turns his head to look at him and Mark can already feel the tears welling again.

 

“If I know something,” Ten mimics Mark’s earlier tone. “Would you want me to tell you?”

 

Mark sucks in a sharp breath and silently wipes the tears that fall.

 

“Johnny loves you too.”

 

Mark opens his mouth to protest but Ten places his index finger across his lips and shushes him. Mark can reference several instances, recent happenings included, that would prove otherwise but Ten doesn’t give him the chance to dwell on any of them.

 

“Just because you fight with someone or argue or break up doesn’t mean you don’t love them,” Ten says. “Life is a funny fucked up thing where you can move on and still be in love or break up and deeply care about someone.” Ten leans back on his hands and stares at the moving boxes around the room. “I’ve had conversations with Johnny in the past that you know nothing about and I don’t know a lot about this guy he’s dating now or what he said to you tonight,” his eyes land on Mark, firm and unwavering. “But that man loves you Mark and nothing’s gonna change that.”

 

I’ll always be in your corner, Mark.

 

Mark snaps out of his thoughts as Ten stands up rolling his shoulders. “But the outcome and progress of things depends on you,” he says.

 

“Ten he’s-”

 

“I believe in soulmates,” Ten says suddenly moving over towards the sleek, black piano and moving the array of boxes off the bench. “Kind of silly to some people but, not to me.” His fingers trace over the ivory keys lightly until he reaches the end, changing direction and dragging them back. “Kun may be the love of my life but Lucas...he goes past lifetimes… he’s the love of my existence...it transcends this life...it’s like we’ve been in this place before but in different lives. That’s a soulmate.”

 

Mark thinks back on all the times the concept seemed so ridiculous and foreign to him. It seemed like a perfect gimmick for Valentine’s day cards and romance movies, not something applicable to real life, because in real life people break up and divorce and meet new people and marry and cycle between those buckets.

 

But thinking of Johnny, Mark wants no one else. He can’t fathom happiness with anyone else. He can bide his time with people. Maybe even get married. But none of it would feel right if it wasn’t to Johnny. That’s who Mark wants— it’s who his soul wants.

 

“Lucas and I both fucked up in this lifetime,” Ten’s voice interrupts Mark’s thoughts as he plays a soft melodic refrain. “So we’ll have to wait until the next one.”

 

The tune fills the room beautifully and Ten plays like it’s second nature to him— like his fingers are extensions of the keys themselves. He scoffs when he misses a key, music halting. “Sometimes I think people think I’m a gold digger because I spend so much money on frivolous things and Kun lavishes me with gifts. But I buy things because it makes me feel things, you know?” He starts back up, a different song in mind this time.

 

“Kun gives me everything I want and it's nice to not have to think about things,” Ten ends the short piece flawlessly. “It’s nice to be able to buy more happiness. Even if it’s hollow.” 

 

He turns on the bench and sighs, slumping a bit. “If you love Johnny, don’t make the same mistakes I made Mark,” he says. “Tell him. Don’t tell him. Just don’t keep living with the regrets of the past.”

 

Ten plays the piano well into the morning.

 

Mark finally sleeps at dawn.





𝐃𝐨 𝐘𝐨𝐮 𝐓𝐚𝐤𝐞 𝐓𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐌𝐚𝐧?



Ten and Kun have the perfect Hollywood Classic on a warm spring day in the Hamptons, a two and a half hour drive away from New York. Mark, not in a position to barter over transportation, accepted the invitation to carpool with Jungwoo and Donghyuck, but gravely reconsidered after an hour of Hyuck’s stop and go style of driving along the freeway, all because Jungwoo gets to carsick to maneuver beyond city limits.

 

The wedding is more and white and gold than Mark could have fathomed— the venue adorned with thousands of dollars worth of white lilies and tulips bound by thick black ribbons that matched the accentuated chairs in rows before the altar. Kun looks handsome, smiling at the end of the aisle,a  bunch of his closest friends and business associates behind him and Mark is glad he let Ten pay for his own fitted tux.

 

Hyuck accompanies him down the aisle, forgoing his original aisle buddy to be by Mark’s side and Mark is relieved that he doesn’t have to journey the walk alone.

 

Ten cries when on his way down the aisle and it’s a happy one, unlike the one from that night. Ten’s makeup doesn’t run and the smile that’s plastered on his face is real and authentic. The ‘I dos’ are authentic. The exchanging of rings and vows are authentic.

 

Kun is happy.



Ten is happy.



And for the first time in what seems like forever, Mark cries happy tears.

 

Lucas never shows up.




𝐏𝐥𝐮𝐬 𝐎𝐧𝐞 𝐈𝐬 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐋𝐨𝐧𝐞𝐥𝐢𝐞𝐬𝐭 𝐍𝐮𝐦𝐛𝐞𝐫

 

Mark forces the politest smile he can muster as the guy decked out in designer Tom Ford tux  extends his hand towards him with a kilowatt smile. It’s hard to be polite when he’s stuffing his face stock full with shrimp cocktail, but somehow he manages, shaking his head and uttering a small ‘sorry’. The guy isn’t offended, a rare one of the night, and retreats to the next table to offer the same terms to a woman sitting idle.

 

Donghyuck stares at him scrutinizing eyes as he returns to his dinner plate and Mark tries to ignore it. His surf and turf is too good to ignore.

 

“You’re impossible,” Donghyuck whines over the loud thumping music, rotating technicolor glow flashing across his skin. “That’s the fifth guy Mark— the fifth guy to ask you to dance tonight and you’ve said no. What was wrong with that guy?” he gestures towards Mr. Tom Ford pulling the woman to the center of the dance floor.

 

“I’m eating, Hyuck,” Mark says through bites of steak. “I’m not gonna give up steak and shrimp for a sweaty twirl around with a stranger for three minutes.” Mark swallows and casts his eyes aside in thought of his normal spread of food options. Ramen. Hot dogs. Cereal, some times with water. “I don’t eat well.” he finishes.

 

Donghyuck leans his head around to get a better view of Mark past the obnoxious vase of lilies in the center of the table. “So what do you think is gonna happen?” he asks. “Is it gonna start mooing again and walk off your plate?”

 

“It might,” Mark rips through another cut of beef. “Or the waiters might take it.”

 

The reception going on around him might as well have been videotaped because it’s all background noise to him. He’s not alert or aware of what's going on around him, mainly because he’s convinced himself to stop paying attention after Ten and Kun cut a cake as tall as Ten himself and shoved slices into each other’s face, both becoming a mess of buttercream and vanilla. Ten is happy and that makes Mark over the moon, but the last thing he wants is to ruin his night and seeing all the happy couples dancing and basking in each other’s company isn’t exactly comforting right now.

 

“You know what I think?” Donghyuck says, leaning back in his chair crossing his arms.

 

“The question is do I care?” Mark reaches for the untouched roll of Donghyuck’s plate.

 

“I think,” Donghyuck continues anyway, watching with a disgusted fascination as Mark breaks the roll in half like he’s shucking a clam and spread an overly generous spread of honey butter across it. “I think you’re stress eating. You do it every time you’re freaked out or worried about something.”

 

“V’ats not true,” Mark speaks through chews of bread. He swallows. “Name one time I did that.”

 

“Aside from now?” Donghyuck snorts. “You went through six bowls of ramen when you drunk dialed Johnny,” he ticks off his fingers. “In college, I once watched you eat an entire half gallon of ice cream while studying for finals. When Ten graduated, you ate like half of the graduation sheet cake after panicking in the bathroom about him leaving. Half a sheet cake, Mark. That cake was for like, 75 people max.”

 

“Okay, okay!” Mark glares after swallowing. “I only asked for one.”

 

“I like to be thorough,” Donghyuck smiled, brown eyes twinkling beneath the sudden shift of the flood lights to dazzling white. “Are you worried about seeing Johnny again?”

 

Mark pushes the asparagus around on his plate with his fork and shrugs. He saw Johnny briefly during the ceremony from his position at the altar. Johnny stood off to the side, snapping pictures with his camera, often switching angles throughout the vows to obtain the perfect Kodak moment. He never attempted to make eye contact with Mark, even when he aimed the lens towards the wedding party. And Mark didn’t try to command his attention.

 

Johnny had brought Taeyong to the wedding, (an even more devastating sight than everyday Taeyong is wedding Taeyong, hair slicked back and black bow tie perfectly tied) and he assumes Ten invited Jaehyun too because Mark spied the older a couple tables away. He wouldn’t go into a breakdown— tonight wasn’t about him, but he damn well could avoid the situation by staying out of everyone’s line of view and eating until he ultimately falls into a food coma in the coat closet.

 

“Not worried,” Mark admits. “Just dreading it.” He drops the fork on the plate, interlocking his fingers across his stomach. “And I don’t know why. It’s not like he’s dying to talk to me after a conversation like that.”

 

Donghyuck tilts his head back and forth and clicks his tongue. “I don’t know if I agree with that. He’s been looking this way since dinner started.”

 

Mark stiffens and stops himself from falling for the bait of looking back. “What?”

 

Donghyuck’s eyes leave Mark’s momentarily to look at something far off in the distance and then trails back to Mark. “Unless he’s the type to actively hate something, which he isn’t, he’s been pretty fixated on you tonight.”

 

Mark breathes in deeply. He thinks back to Ten, playing a soft melody in the early morning, the both of them their weakest— their lowest, when Ten confesses to Mark: Johnny loves you.

 

Mark still doesn’t look back. He doesn’t want to look back.

 

“I don’t wanna think about it,” he says with a shrug. “I’m happy. This is a happy day. Let’s not focus on that shit, you know?” His place is mostly empty save for the vegetables he can’t stand and he grabs the golden rimmed goblet, downing the last of his champagne. “I just wanna have fun.” He looks up at Donghyuck with half-lidded eyes. “You coming by my hotel room tonight?”

 

Donghyuck smiles and sighs, bringing his arm to rest on the back of his chair. “Mmm, that’s gonna be a no for me,” he hums.

 

Mark jerks his head back with a frown. “What? Why?”

 

Donghyuck nods his head towards the dance floor and Mark follows the gaze to a guy sliding across the dance floor, pastel pink hair standing out even beneath the rotating lights as he spins the flower girl around with a charming smile. “I’ll be seeing what that’s about tonight.”

 

Mark tears his gaze away from the guy, heavy stare penetrating Donghyuck’s skin. “You’re ditching me for your plus one.” he deadpans.

 

“Jaemin’s cute,” Donghyuck shrugs. “And we’re in the Hamptons. I’m on vacation. I need something different.” Donghyuck leans forward, resting his arms on the white organza tablecloth. “I’d take both of you if I could but I don’t think I can drink that much Dom Pérignon.”

 

Mark waves off Donghyuck with a frustrated groan. “I can’t believe you.”

 

Jungwoo walks back to the table in a huff, shrugging off his tuxedo blazer and laying it on the back of his chair before lifting his arms and sniffing at his pits.

 

“Um, hello,” Donghyuck blinks. “Pretty sure this isn’t proper wedding decorum.”

 

“And talking about being eiffel towered is?” Mark mutters. Donghyuck shrugs without the slightest amount of concern.

 

“It’s not my fault,” Jungwoo huffs leaning his hands against the back of his chairs. “The fucking waiters are in the bathroom smoking a bunch of weed and the smell won’t leave my jacket no matter how much of that bathroom potpourri I rub on it.”

 

The three of them groan in unison. The secret pact they made independent of Ten’s knowledge was to make sure to do everything in their power to make the night go smoothly. Especially when the possibility of Lucas coming was still up in the air back then. They stayed on top of everything before any type of news got back to Ten and in all honesty it was the most exhausting thing ever. It definitely added more to Mark’s plate, encouraging his “stress” eating. 

 

“Guess it’s my turn,” Mark takes the cloth napkin off his lap and covers his plate prepared to stand, but a pair of hands push him back into his seat and Donghyuck’s rising.

 

“Oh no you don’t,” he says. “The best man is due for his speech.”

 

Mark’s eyes widen. “Now?” He honestly thought he could’ve escaped that specific duty of being the best man.

 

“Now,” Donghyuck says firmly. He takes the opportunity when the song dies, right in the brief silence before the next one revs up to pick up his wine glass and tap the side of it with his fork, attracting the attention of the entire ballroom. The DJ takes the cue and turns down the music, turning off the multicolored lights in favor of a bright white spotlight that shines over their table and constricting Mark’s pupils and making him squint. He sees Ten and  Kun sitting at the head table at the front of the room, ceasing their previous conversation to look in their direction, a gentle smile on Kun’s face and an even fonder one on Ten’s.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Donghyuck announces. “It’s time for the best man to make his dedication to the two grooms. So I’d like to humbly offer you, my friend and Ten’s friend, Mr. Mark Lee.” He gestures towards Mark and the spotlight falls a couple of inches lower as the room fills with respectful claps.

 

Mark grips his bowtie, sweat forming at the tight collar of his shirt and Donghyuck leans down to whisper in his ear, “I’ll handle the potheads. Break a leg.” Donghyuck excuses himself from the table, fading into the darkness near the room’s exit and just as quick as he leaves, Jungwoo is handing a microphone from the DJ station into Mark’s hand. He’s not terrible at public speaking— he’s decent, and he’s a writer so he knows how to make up words as he goes if necessary. It’s not a tactic he likes or needs to rely on, especially when he’s had this speech written on an index card and magneted to his refrigerator since Ten told him he’d be his best man. 

 

In his months of practicing, finally remembering the speech to the point of knowing it forwards and backwards, never did he actually expect that the moment the light hits him and the eyes watch him that he’d forget every single word, let alone how to even talk.

 

The ballroom is quietly watching,a  room full of rich business tycoons, old school friends, and coworkers— spectating, lips parted and leaning on the edge of their seats. All for Mark. Hanging off the edge of his words— or waiting for them to land. Mark swallows and stands out of his chair, hesitantly taking the microphone from Jungwoo’s hand and exhaling as Jungwoo gives him a comforting smile and a thumbs up. Mark steps away from the table, moving to the center of the now empty dance floor, watching his patent leather shoes take one step at a time, spotlight following— the antithesis of his shadow, but with the same purpose: to swallow him whole.

 

He dares a look up, a small peek from the mike firmly gripped in both hands and the sea of unfamiliar faces is instantly nerve wracking.  He makes a small noise that’s captured in the microphone and the acoustics of the room spares him no remorse, echoing it through layers and layers of surround sound.

 

“Mark.”

 

He angles his head towards the long table at the front of the room, eyes landing on Ten, chin propped on both hands, leaning forward in his seat, lips mouthing through his smile.

 

I love you.”

 

Mark nods, catching the message and licks his lips. Think about Ten. Think about how much Ten has been there for you. Think about Ten, your friend. Just think about Ten.

 

Mark pushes his shoulders back, rolling his neck and stares into the crowd, bringing the microphone closer to his mouth. “Uh,” he laughs into it, feeling the tension ease away a smidgen when endearing smiles spread across some waiting faces. 

 

“Hey, everybody,” he says with a tiny wave. “Uh,” he drops his gaze down for a moment, wrinkling his nose before addressing the crowd again. “Thank you for coming to support two wonderful people,” he gestures back towards Ten and Kun. “into their journey towards forever.”

 

Mark cringes and shakes his head. “I just heard myself and I swear that sounded better in my head.” The crowd gives a light laugh and it brings a small smile to his face as he rubs the back of his neck, moving around a bit, spotlight never leaving his person.

 

“I, uh, don’t really know what to say because I had the perfectly planned speech that I forgot...so, um, just bare with me, ok?”

 

He stops, bringing his feet together, closes his eyes, and heaves out a small sigh. Think about Ten.

 

“When I look at everyone here,” he says, slowly reopening his eyes. “I see people I don’t know,” He turns to look back towards his own table as Donghyuck returns, quietly slipping back into his seat and giving him an affirming wink. “I see people I love,” he says shaking his head at Hyuck and turning back to look at Ten. “I also see people that love me.”

 

Ten’s lips are pursed, slowly rocking back and forth, teetering on each of Mark’s words and he has to look away to stop himself from stumbling or from his mind going completely incoherent, but the pair of eyes he catches when he  faces the crowd doesn’t fill him with any more clarity. It has him momentarily dazed and confused as he stops on Johnny, fresh from snapping his picture, slowly bringing his camera down to chest level and staring at Mark with blank and unreadable eyes. They look like they’re searching for something— something hidden in Mark’s soul maybe, or maybe he’s just listening impassively. Either way, Mark tells himself to push forward. Don’t back down. Don’t look away. Don’t break down. You’re okay. You’re okay.

 

“And maybe there are people here that don’t know how they feel about me,” Mark says slowly. Johnny swallows.

 

“But what we all have in common,” Mark continues on— strong and a little more confident, “is how much we care about these two.” He resorts to face Ten and Ten only, that moment forward, focusing on the only thing that matters.

 

“Ten,” Mark’s smile is meek and Ten can’t content the eagerness in his own. “You have been my brother when I didn’t ask for one.” The crowd laughs and he hears it somewhere in the back of his mind, pausing for the noise to float back into a respectful silence before continuing, “We laughed together. Failed sophomore chemistry together. Danced together. Retook and failed chemistry again together.” More laughter.

 

“And more recently,”Mark pauses, licking his lips and swallowing, tongue thick in his dry mouth. “Cried together.” Ten’s eyes lower a bit and a slow nod follows, looking at Mark as he continues. “And I can honestly say, to you Kun,” Mark turns away from his friend to the man bedecked completely in black, hand firmly locked together with Ten’s. “Thank you for taking him off my hands. He’s suffocating me.”

 

The laughter this time is much more of an uproar and Ten pouts, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed as Kun tries to suppress his own laughter, prodding Ten on his side with a teasing finger. Mark can’t resist throwing Ten a teasing smile of his own and clears his throat, flattening his shirt against his stomach as he shifts about anxiously.

 

“Nah,” he mumbles into the microphone, bringing the laughter down. “But you’ve found a good thing in Ten and I know he has happiness in you. I’m living proof that nothing in life is perfect and in your marriage, there won’t be perfection. But there will be love... and I think that comes pretty close.” He picks up a full wine glass from a nearby table and lifts it in the air. “Cheers to the newlyweds.”

 

The glasses clink. The party cheers. And Ten laughs out, a small tear escaping as he holds his own glass up with a tilt. As if he’s toasting not his own nuptials, but Mark— and the bond between them.

 

“I know I’ve said this before,” Donghyuck says as Mark returns to the table, shedding his own blazer and fanning himself, now free of the hot spotlight and intense gazes. “But runway with me. Let’s elope. I want a sweet wedding toast like that too.”

 

Mark raises a brow and scoffs out a laugh. “You just told me ten minutes ago that you were dumping me to go fuck Jaemin.”

 

“I’m a changed man,” Donghyuck reaches over and jokingly squeezes Mark’s hand.

 

“I can’t stand you,” Mark retracts his hand from beneath Donghyuck’s quickly, swatting at him and finding satisfaction in the way Donghyuck lets out a shrewd noise as he flinches. “Even if we did get married I wouldn’t be the one making the speech. It’d probably be Ten or Jungwoo.”

 

Donghyuck’s eyes ghosts over towards Jungwoo who gives him a mischievous brow raise. “Ew.” Jungwoo’s face falls into a pout and he goes back to nursing his champagne. “But seriously Mark, there isn’t a dry eye or cock in the room right now. You are going to get so much dick tonight.”

 

Mark laughs despite his brows knitting together and reaches forwards for Donghyuck’s glass. “Alright, I’m cutting you off.”

 

“Thank God,” Jungwoo continues to pout. “He’s a mean drunk.”

 

Donghyuck rolls his eyes and slides a seat over until he’s in the chair right next to Mark and resting his chin on Mark’s shoulder, indifferent of the bronzer smearing across the white fabric of Mark’s shirt. So much for returning the suit.

 

“If you’re not gonna marry me or let me drink will you at least dance with me?” Hyuck asks.

 

His glazed-over eyes shift to look at something over Mark’s shoulder, lifting his head from Mark’s shoulder completely, giving Mark enough room to crane his own head around.

 

“Sorry,” Ten says, taking hold of Mark by the same shoulder. “He’s mine.”

 

Mark doesn’t get to hear the slurred complaints from Donghyuck as Ten pulls him away without letting even one excuse slip past Mark’s lips— not that he would’ve given one anyway. The song isn’t exactly suited for a slow dance and it’s not an upbeat pop track. It’s a jazzy R&B song, a neo-soul love song that calms the room and has friends, family, and lovers alike vibing to the sultry groove.

 

“Don’t you want to dance with your actual husband,” Mark twists his mouth to hide his smile as Ten holds his hands as they move. “It’d be a shame that you let Kun spend all this money and you’re not even gonna dance with him.”

Ten lifts Mark’s arm in the air and spins under it. “Oh don’t worry. I’m gonna dance for him later.”

 

“Hyung, gross!” Mark whines, tossing his head back in a mini tantrum ignoring Ten’s terrorizing laugh. “You’ve only been married for a couple hours and you’re already even more insufferable to be around.”

 

Ten hums, paying little to no mind to the insult and wraps his arms around Mark in a warm embrace. “You can’t even lie, Mark Lee,” he says. “That speech proves how much you love me. Not that I needed validation of that anyway.” And after a beat, “You’re perfect.”

 

Mark relaxes against Ten, hugging him back and falling deep into the comfort of his arms. Ten smells like Hermès 24— an expensive scent of orange blossoms and vanilla. It pulls Mark further and further in as the music reaches the chorus and Ten croons along in a low and far off voice.

 

You walk around so clueless to it all

Like nobody gonna break your heart

It'll be alright, babe, see, me, I got you covered

 

Ten pulls away before the singer gets through his second verse, eyes looking at something from behind Mark before darting back to him, squeezing his shoulders. “Do you remember what I told you?” he asks.

 

“Mm, you say a lot of things,” Mark blinks. “Sometimes I have to filter some of it out.” Ten digs the pads of his fingers into Mark’s shoulders hard, sending the younger writhing beneath his touch. “Ouch! I’m kidding!”

 

“Well, I’m being serious,” Ten says stern. “Do you remember? Think.”

 

Mark looks at Ten’s eyes. They’re unblinking, a warm chocolate brown underlined with thin lines of waterproof liner that Donghyuck applied earlier in the day— unlike the kind that runs freely at the slightest drop of moisture. Not like the one that Mark saw when Ten was unnerved and unraveling weeks ago. The same night that he— 

 

Johnny loves you.

 

“Ten,” Mark starts but Ten shakes his head and takes a step back.

 

“Believe me,” Ten says. He doesn’t advance to finish their dance and it leaves Marking wading in his own confusion until the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end and a shiver rolls down his spine from the presence of something approaching him slowly and tactfully from behind.

 

“Mind if I cut in?”

 

“Of course not,” Ten steps around Mark to get to Johnny, giving the tall man a hug and a peck on the cheek. “Anything for the person that’s documenting my wedding for free.”

 

Johnny frowns. “Free? Wait, Ten we didn’t-”

 

“Love ya! Gotta go!” Ten says backing away from the duo and moving through the maze of tables to receive congratulations and warm hugs from people on Kun’s side of the family, Mark presumes.

 

Johnny shakes his head and turns back to look down at Mark, bringing his hand out a few inches shy of Mark’s personal space, an offer extended. “Well?” he asks. “Are you gonna turn me down too?” Mark’s mouth opens and falls closed because the word ‘too’ implies that Mark had gone through the night rejecting guy after guy, which he had. But it’s not something so noticeable and distracting that other members of the wedding party would notice. It’s not like he or the rejectees made a big spectacle of things, so there’s only one way Johnny could have possibly known.

 

Hyuck was right. Johnny had been watching him the whole time. Perhaps the whole night.

 

Surprising to them both, Mark places his hand in Johnny’s and tries not to make too much of the fact that Johnny rubs his thumb across Mark’s knuckles in gentle strokes before slowly leading him further onto the dance floor just as an actual slow song comes out, a soft piano melody floating around them. Johnny doesn’t hesitate to bring Mark close to him, arm resting at the small of Mark’s back and it makes Mark a bit uncomfortable, only because he can’t see Taeyong and doesn’t know if Taeyong can see him but it’s unnerving to think about what he may think about someone dancing so close to his boyfriend like this. Mark still moves his fingers along with Johnny’s when they try to interlock with his and he breathes in Johnny’s own intoxicating scent—he does everything but lean his head against Johnny’s chest because that would draw him in deep into the abyss and Mark’s not sure if he’d survive.

 

“Somehow,” Johnny mumbles as they move along with the music and other rocking bodies. “This is the only way I could think to have a conversation with you without you running off.”

 

Mark looks away from Johnny’s stare. “I...wouldn’t have thought you had anything to say to me.”

 

“Hmm, you would think that.”

 

Johnny spins Mark under his arm and Mark becomes pliant, molding into Johnny’s arm with every movement, moving where Johnny directs him, dipping when Johnny dips him, pressing his hands against Johnny’s chest when he pulls him closer, closer into him. So close. It’s too close. Mark feels his chest tighten. He can smell Johnny too much and it’s too nostalgic. The feeling of being in his arms is too real and the realization of how hard he’s drifting back to a place that’s taken him days to leave is suffocating, almost strangling him at the throat and forcing out a gasp as he steps back suddenly, Johnny stopping and frowning.

 

“Mark, are you-”

 

“You wanna talk,” Mark mumbles, the stillness of his body out of place around a bunch of spinning couples. “Then let’s talk. Just talk. Not-” he gestures in between them, “-this.”

 

Johnny looks like he’s about to argue but he leans back and nods, gesturing towards Mark. “Okay, we’ll just talk.”

 

“Not here.” Mark shifts. “Somewhere else.” Somewhere where no one can see him escape if he needs to, or at somewhere that’s isolated enough to where he doesn’t have to ruin Ten’s night with his own nervous breakdown.

 

“Alright, lead the way,” Johnny says and he doesn’t waste a second to follow Mark out of the wedding hall, into the mansion’s foyer.

 

He’s so close that Mark can feel him. The sleeves of his suit blazer grazes Mark’s arm and his footsteps easily fall in line and in sync to Mark’s until their steps match in pace, depth, stride and sound. Maybe Johnny’s afraid that Mark will really take off again, the venue estate being a large enough property that Mark can hide for hours without being found, especially outside where it’s dark, but Mark has no intention on running away from anything. It won’t solve his problems and he’s tired of running.

 

He steps outside into the night, holding the front door open for Johnny to step out on the estate’s front steps. He closes the door behind him with a soft click and sits on the bottom step between the entrance’s massive columns, the single light hovering above them serving as a beacon in the impregnable darkness of the property. The only things buzzing with conversation are the crickets and cicadas, chirping and buzzing in an organized orchestra within the grass.

 

Johnny sits down next to Mark, the bottoms of his slacks lifting to reveal his black dress socks and Mark stares at those for a while to maintain his composure.

 

“I guess I should start by saying I’m sorry,” Johnny sighs out after a long wait between the two.

 

Mark darts his eyes up to his, taken aback. “Sorry? Why are you apologizing?”

 

Johnny’s looking out into the abyss and twists his mouth. “I said a lot of things out of anger last time,” he admits. “I felt like I was trying to be this understanding guy all the time— this good guy. But, seeing you again just frustrated me and, I’m not saying I didn’t mean what I said,” he looks at Mark, “but I shouldn’t have at least said them in that way. It wasn’t fair to you.”

 

Mark’s fingers play with the buttons of his shirt and he pops one open, eventually sliding it back in place again. “It’s funny,” he laughs airily. “All you wanted from me was to show you vulnerability and those words managed to make me cry harder than I’ve ever cried in the past week. Maybe I should’ve saved a video to prove to you that I’m not completely emotionally constipated.” he snorts.

 

Johnny drops his head and groans. “Mark, don’t make me feel more guilty than I already do.”

 

“You shouldn’t,” Mark says. “It’s how you feel. You’re not exactly wrong.” Out of the corner of his eye he sees Johnny still watching him, waiting for him to continue without intentions of interrupting so Mark sucks in sharply and rolls his neck. “I didn’t want to communicate what I was feeling and that part was selfish,” he says. “But it’s not because I didn’t want you to get new career opportunities or because I didn’t want you meeting new people or any of those things.” He bites down on his lip for a beat and forces the words stuck in his throat out. “I was scared.”

 

“Of what?” Johnny asks immediately.

 

“Of you,” Mark admits. “You’re this big energy that can’t be stopped, you know. You were meeting people, getting opportunities, getting job offers left and right. It was exciting and I was happy for you. But I couldn’t shake those thoughts telling me that it was only a matter of time before you realized that I wasn’t on the same level as you. I got self-conscious...and insecure and soon, I couldn’t even be in the same room with you without thinking about how…” he stops.

 

“How?” Johnny prods.

 

Mark inhales. “Without thinking how unfair it was for you to be stuck with someone holding you back. When you got the job in Chicago, I just knew you’d meet someone better. Someone that could be what you needed. Someone that could love you up close.” Mark stares down at his hands, studying the lines of his palms like reading them held the answers to his past as much as it did his future. “I could barely love you in the same room, how was I supposed to do it from almost 800 miles away? That’s not what you deserved. So, I just took the coward’s way out.” he mumbles. He folds his fingers into his palm, clenching his hands into fists until his knuckles turn white and the skin beneath the indents of his fingernails turn red. “I wanted to phase out of your life before it happened naturally, I guess.”

 

The silence between them stretches long and normally it would make Mark uneasy and a tad bit insecure. But now, free from the prison that’s locked him away for over a year, he feels at peace, a weight lifted from his shoulder and he wants to revel in the silence because he’s not sure what Johnny’s thinking or what he might say next but it doesn’t matter and he doesn’t want to think about it. He wants to keep feeling light and carefree. He enjoys the silence.

 

It doesn’t last long when Johnny leans back on his hands, head angled to stare at the sky. “You could never phase out Mark,” he shakes his head. “I’m at my friend’s wedding worried about you thirteen months after we’ve broken up. Do you really think you don’t mean anything to me?” He pauses, maybe to let the words sink in for both of them. 

 

“Even people with good intentions can hurt people.” he says. “And we hurt each other a lot, Mark. I didn’t realize how much pressure I put on you, whether it was intentional or not.” Leaning up, he hangs his hands between his legs and searches for something in Mark’s eyes. “I guess I never really fully tried to understand things either.”

 

Mark shrugs. “I kinda needed that pressure though. If it wasn’t you, it could’ve been Hyuck that left or Woo or Ten. I could’ve lost everybody I cared about like that. So, thank you. I needed it.” 

 

Johnny nods his head a small laugh following shortly after that has Mark squinting in confusion, watching as Johnny runs his hands over his face before looking back at him. 

 

“It’s just funny. When I think about you it just doesn’t resonate. I never look at you as a guy I can’t stand— as an ex that I should just walk away from and wipe my hands clean of, you know, give up on. Somehow, you still manage to just fit in my life even when you’re not there. As a best friend and a lover.” Johnny’s watching Mark’s face now looking for any sign or tick that might give something away— something from him to feed off of but Mark hesitates to latch on, one glaringly obvious and bothersome thing lingering in his mind.

 

“That is quite an insult to you boyfriend,” Mark mumbles.

 

Johnny frowns. “Boyfriend?”

 

“You know,” Mark says only for Johnny’s expression to remain blank and unchanging. “Your plus one? Your boyfriend? Taeyong ?”

 

A sort of realization rolls across Johnny’s face that transforms into a large grin too wide for Johnny to possibly contain and he scoots back to sit even straighter. “Wait what? You think Taeyong is my boyfriend?”

 

“Isn’t he?” Mark slows.

 

Johnny laughs so hard that it’s insulting causing Mark to fluster and frown and fold his arms across his chest. “Mark,” Johnny says through a break in the fit. “Taeyong is my friend . He’s Jaehyun’s boyfriend.”

 

Oh. Oh my God.

 

“Oh...my...god,” Mark brings his hand to cover his forehead. “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

 

“Wait,” Johnny rests a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Did you really think-”

 

“Yes,” Mark hisses out, completely at his limit with Johnny’s prodding and teasing. “And don’t say another word or else the ridiculousness of it all will really set in.”

 

He doesn’t have to look to know the grin is still plastered across Johnny’s face and he buries his head in the space between his legs, slightly relaxing as Johnny rests a comforting touch to his head.

 

“I met Taeyong in Chicago,” Johnny says. “We were roommates because unsurprisingly the rent isn’t much cheaper there. Jaehyun came to visit one week and they really hit it off and started a long distance thing for a while so it only made sense he jumped at the chance to move back with me.” Mark can feel Johnny’s hand shake against his scalp from another fit of laughter and he lets out an annoyed grunt, head still buried. 

 

“Wait, how’d you even know about Taeyong?” the tone in Johnny’s voice shifts to a sudden seriousness and Mark hopes he can’t hear his gulp.

 

He lifts his head to look at Johnny in time for the front door to swing open and Taeyong to poke his head outside, suit blazer gone now and bow tie loosened around his neck.

 

“There you are,” Taeyong says directed at Johnny, a sharp hiccup following. “I’ve been blowing up your phone and looking for you everywhere. Jaehyun and I are heading back to the hotel. You coming?”

 

Johnny drags his eyes to Mark for a split second and then back to Taeyong with the shake of his head. “Nah, I’ll make arrangements. You two go ahead.”

 

Taeyong nods, lips pressed together and starts to back his way into the building until his eyes land on Mark, alit with recognition and unfortunately, Mark isn’t drunk enough to turn off the immense embarrassment and shame he feels surging through his body.

 

“Great speech Oscar,” Taeyong smiles and slides back inside, clicking the door shut and leaving the duo alone again.

 

Oscar ?” Johnny’s voice raises an octave, brow raised.

 

Mark buries his head into his hands. “I’ve made a lot of decisions that I’m not proud of.”

 

“If it makes you feel better he’s completely wrecked and by tomorrow, he won’t remember any of your real names.”

 

It doesn’t make Mark feel better.

 

But what does, is Johnny— Johnny lifting his chin up with his fingers to stare back at him, eyes doting and warm, and even though the teasing grin is still there, it still manages to make Mark feel weak in the knees and nervous in the pit of his stomach.

 

“Just so you know,” Johnny hums. “There was never anyone else Mark. Whether you like it or not, you’ll always be my number one,” Johnny drops his hands with a sigh and rolls his eyes. “Even though you wear me out.”

 

The laugh that makes its way out of Mark’s throat shakes him to his very core and it feels good to have that feeling, one that makes him feel like his old self— well his old self with a little bit of his new self. He feels like the old Mark, but he’s older, wiser than he was but not by much obviously, but more importantly open. He’s given so much love and received so much love that his cup is overflowing and it’s a nice feeling. He’s a work in progress. Not perfect, but loved.

 

Mark watches Johnny’s profile in a comfortable silence and has no qualms or regrets when he finds himself spilling out another truth.

 

“I still love you.”

 

Johnny takes a deep breath but doesn’t look at Mark.

 

“Do you love me?” Mark bites his lip.

 

Johnny never moves an inch but the response is almost immediate and unfailing. “You know I do.”

 

Mark reaches for Johnny this time, edging towards him and cupping his face in his hands, and presses his lips against his, soft and tender, Their lips set in motion against each other, skin melting into skin and tongues lingering with the taste of each other as Mark nips and licks into Johnny’s mouth. He kisses Johnny like he’s starved and Johnny feeds him until they can’t stand the building pressure in their lungs telling them to  breathe, breathe, breathe.

 

Mark breaks the kiss first, gasping out to catch his breath and Johnny seems just as winded beside him, swiping his tongue across his bottom lip to taste any trace of Mark he can cling to.

 

“So what now,” Mark dares to ask when he’s suitable to speak.

 

“Now,” Johnny drawls, extendinging a hand towards Mark in the form of a handshake. “We start over. Hi,” he says with the same charming smile that Mark fell for years ago. The same one that makes him weak. “I’m Johnny.”

 

Ordinarily Mark would think it cliche and stupid, the concept of a “tabula rasa” being pointless with as much history as the two of them share, but the chance to free himself from the past and start anew is too tempting for him to pass up. And he’s not giving up so easily.

 

“Mark,” he shakes Johnny’s hand, touch lingering against his.

 

Johnny runs the pad of his thumb across Mark’s knuckles in small little circles and it sends a tiny shiver up his spine.

 

Just like it used to.


























 

Three weeks.

 

It’s been three weeks since Ten’s wedding. Photos are printed and laminated for a family album, thank-you cards are sent out, and Ten sends daily updates via his Snapchat of his honeymoon in the Maldives. Three weeks ago Ten was a different man. Now, Mark likes to think he’s a much happier man— happy in love.

 

It’s also been three weeks since Mark reintroduces himself to Taeyong, you know, when the blond is less drunk and clingy and more cognizant and focused. The name ‘Oscar’ serves as a beloved running gag of Taeyong’s— one that he won’t let go of no matter how much Mark begs, but Taeyong tells him he likes ‘Mark Lee’ much better. And Mark likes “Jaehyun’s boyfriend” much better. He and Taeyong actually have more in common than he anticipated and somehow, Taeyong becomes a permanent fixture in his own apartment, visiting more than Donghyuck. They’re nearly inseparable and Mark can’t ignore the irony. He’s tried .

 

Things are different and yet the same, if it’s even possible— like a ‘find the difference’ snapshot of things before and after Ten’s wedding. There’s not much Mark can highlight, but the important details of his life are circled in red and colored in bold.

 

Particularly, Johnny Suh.

 

Rekindling their relationship in the span of three weeks doesn’t feel different but it’s definitely different and Mark can’t quite put a finger on things— not after only three weeks— but the road ahead is promising. It’s still early, Mark knows, so he expects to be in the same honeymoon phase situation that Ten is in anyway. Three weeks isn’t much time to do anything and it’s definitely not enough time for a relationship to reach its peak state, so Mark doesn’t expect them to get things right immediately. Three weeks is a blink of an eye compared to the four years they’ve shelved. What could possibly happen in the span of three weeks?

 

Sex.

 

Lots and lots of sex.

 

“Shit!” Mark yelps, lurching forward towards the edge of his mattress, fingers desperately searching for purchase in his white sheets. Johnny’s thrusts are hard and fast, each one pushing him closer and closer to the edge. Not metaphorically. He has to dig his fingers in the mattress just to stop himself from sliding off. The mattress creaks audibly— a metronomic rattle from the metal frame followed by an unprecedented thump of the headboard into the hall— and for once, Mark’s glad he hasn’t made friends with any of the neighbors immediately surrounding him. He couldn’t bear to look any of them in the eye going down the elevator if they heard him fall to his knees for Johnny. He’d die if they heard him fall to pieces over Johnny.

 

Johnny’s skin sticks to Mark’s like it’s meant to. Every time his hips connect with Mark’s ass, an audible slap of skin ringing out, Mark pushes out another embarrassing whine from how much he likes the feeling of Johnny’s salted skin. Johnny fucks like he could lose Mark again, digging the pads of his fingers into Mark’s hipbone until the skin is dotted in red and purple and layering wet kisses on the back of Mark’s neck to match.

 

“Mmhmm,” Johnny hums in Mark’s ear as he hunches over closer and wraps his arms around Mark’s torso. Mark wishes he could look back and kiss the smug look he knows is riding free of charge on Johnny’s face, but Johnny’s cock touches his prostate after minutes of mindless teasing and all Mark can do is bury his chagrin into the polyester sheets.

 

Johnny doesn’t dare touch the spot again and Mark knows it’s on purpose. It would be all too easy to end their fun here with Mark creaming his sheets and Johnny filling him to the brim. Mark likes it easy and done. He lives for instant gratification. But Johnny fucks like the most torturous slow burn novel Mark’s ever read, occasionally giving him quick bouts of nonstop pounding before moving back to slow and long strokes.

 

“Marky,” Johnny drops as he lifts his head from kissing Mark’s neck. He tugs on the damp and stringy strands of Mark’s hair, pulling his head away from the mattress— far enough to look back into Johnny’s eyes. Johnny stares down at him, hips pistoning hard enough that Mark’s jaw drops and a silent whine leaves his mouth in gasps. “You’re not looking at me,” Johnny hums, pursing his lips. A sharp snap of his hips makes Mark’s knees buckle from beneath him. “We agreed that you’d keep your eyes on me.”

 

“You-” Mark swallows down a moan when Johnny’s hands leave his hair, both trailing down the sweaty arch of his back to palm the globes of his ass, spreading them wide and sinking in slower. Deeper. It takes Mark a second to recover his bearing and remember what he was going to say in the first place but he manages when Johnny pulls out completely, cockhead pulling past Mark’s puckered rim with a lewd suction and a pop. “You are drunk with power.”

 

Mark takes the pause to roll over on his back and stare at Johnny hovering over him on his knees, pouring a heaping amount of lube on his hard cock with one hand and stroking it with the other. “Not drunk,” Johnny smiles through an offhanded shrug. “Maybe a little tipsy.” 

 

Mark can’t even focus on the words that fall out of Johnny’s mouth when Johnny’s hand around his own cock squelches wet, the tip still wet and slick with pearls of precum. Johnny’s hand moves so fast in a blur that lube and precum splatters on Mark’s inner thighs and he resists the urge to wrap a tight hold around his own dick. He hasn’t been fucked like this in over a year and he’ll be damn if he comes from his own hand and not Johnny’s.

 

“How long are you gonna drag this out?” Mark whines, head falling back and eyes closing miserably.

 

“Long enough,” He hears the lilt of amusement in Johnny’s voice. “I’m having fun. You’re not having fun?”

 

Mark brings his knee into Johnny’s hip bone and the older laughs out painfully, pushing Mark’s legs back open and leaning over him to hover near his lips. “Fine,” he murmurs, pressing a soft kiss to Mark’s bottom lip. “I’ll stop playing around.”

 

Their tongues dance together, sliding across with trails of saliva wetting their lips and teeth knocking against each other. It seems to go on forever before they get a chance to breathe again and the whimper that rings out after they finally separate is the neediest one yet.

 

“I’ve never heard you make that noise before,” Johnny smirks, licking some of Mark’s saliva off of his own bottom lip.

 

Mark frowns. “That wasn’t me.”

 

The whimper rings out again followed by a light scratching noise and the duo cranes their head towards Mark’s shut bedroom door, a tiny shadow anxiously pacing back and forth beneath the undercut.

 

Mark’s head collapses heavy on the mattress. “Why did you bring Nala? I told you we shouldn’t do this with her here.”

 

Johnny hums and leans forward, forearms resting down on the mattress and caging Mark in as he continues to stare at the door. “Jaehyun’s working and Taeyong is out. I couldn’t just leave her.” 

 

“Well we can’t keep going,” Mark sighs.

 

Johnny looks down at Mark and snorts. “Why can’t we?”

 

“Because she’ll hear us and that’s just... weird .”

 

A slow grin grows on Johnny’s face and Mark suddenly realizes how vulnerable he is— trapped between Johnny’s thighs, caged in by his arms, held captive by his intense stare.

 

“She doesn’t have to hear us.”

 

Johnny’s mouth comes crashing down on Mark’s at the same time that he pushes in and unlike the thirty minutes of erotic foreplay and edging before, Johnny’s set his sight on the goal. He grips Mark behind the knees, lifting the lower half of his body up and angling himself inside to hit every nerve on Mark’s inner walls until he finds the soft pliant bulb, driving into it harder and faster than Mark can possibly handle.

 

All of his moans and cries are muffled behind Johnny’s lips and he digs his fingers into the indents near Johnny’s shoulders as he tightens— and releases , strings of thick warm cum flying in ropes between their stomachs. Johnny follows a few thrusts after, painting Mark’s insides and pulling out to layer the last spurting drops on the forming bruises littering Mark’s thighs. Johnny sits back to examine Mark, flustered pink and kissed purple before Nala’s scratching reaches new heights and he’s sliding off the mattress.

 

Mark watches as Johnny forgoes his boxers to pull on his sweats and tosses Mark’s underwear back to him before he can even ask, pressing a kiss to Mark’s temple. Mark hums to hide his smile but he’s sure Johnny doesn’t miss it anyway.

 

A few shuffles over towards the bedroom door and the click of the door opening, makes way for Nala to scamper into the room with an excited yap, jumping on first leap straight into the bed to sniff around Mark and lick his face. Mark, more than decently clothed in his underwear, sits up to bring the dog into his lap and scratches lazily behind her ears.

 

“You know,” Mark says, watching Johnny close the door again before falling onto the mattress with an exaggerated bounce. “We don’t have to stay in. We can go celebrate with Hyuck and Taeyong and everybody later tonight.”

 

Johnny props a pillow beneath his head, arms stretched behind it, and eyes half-lidded. “It’s not about what I want,” Johnny gives a small smile. “It’s your book that’s published, Mr. New York’s bestseller.”

 

Mark rolls his eyes. “They give that title to everything that comes out within the next thirty seconds,” Mark shrugs. “It doesn’t mean anythi-”

 

“Aht aht aht,” Johnny tuts. “Be nice to yourself Mark Lee. You deserve this.”

 

From any angle he looks, Mark’s corner is filled not just from Johnny but from Donghyuck, Jungwoo, Ten— even Taeyong. In three weeks time, Mark finally understood that he is deserving.

 

He deserves self-love, gentle and understanding.

 

He deserves the unconditional, platonic love from his friends.

 

He deserves love— authentic and whole, in its truest and purest form.

 

Mark can’t contain the smile that bubbles over and flops down next to Johnny, sliding into place against his side as Johnny wraps his arms around him. 

 

Yeah, he deserves this.